For Class and Consistency on the Turf, It’s All Wise Dan
(November 4, 2013)
In a year in which five different colts won the five major races (the Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers) in the three-year-old glamour division of horse racing, and in which there was precious little consistency among the older handicap horses competing on the main track, Wise Dan’s races on the turf were the very model of class and consistency. In a year in which bettors were encountering chaos virtually everywhere else, Wise Dan was the gold standard in races run on the grass.
The 2012 Horse of the Year last lost a race on the turf in October of 2011. His second straight triumph in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile, run Saturday at Santa Anita, was his tenth straight win in a string of Grade-1 and 2 turf races which included two wins in the Four Star Dave at Saratoga, two wins in the Woodbine Mile, and two wins in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, with a win in the Firecracker at Churchill Downs, and a couple of Grade-1 wins at Keeneland in the Shadwell Turf Mile and the Maker’s Mark Mile thrown in for good measure! With the exception of the Firecracker, all of these races were run at a distance of one mile on the turf and represent the most competitive races run in North America on that surface and at that distance.
The omens were far from auspicious for Wise Dan this past Saturday at Santa Anita, however. He lost his regular rider, John R. Velazquez, in a horrendous spill in the first Breeders’ Cup race of the day which left J.R. seriously injured. He stumbled badly leaving the gate in The Mile which deprived him of his customary place just off the front runners and left him near the back of the pack in what turned out to be the fastest first half mile in the race’s history. His replacement jockey, Jose Lezcano, who had previously ridden him to victory in the Kentucky races at Churchill and Keeneland, never panicked, however, and patiently worked him back into contention just behind the leaders. Calling on all of his mount’s tactical speed in deep stretch, Lezcano and Wise Dan blew by Za Approval and was pulling away from that rival at the wire.
Wise Dan’s win under such adverse circumstances was a testament to the skill and cool demeanor of jockey Jose Lezcano, the superb conditioning of trainer Charles LoPresti, and the indomitable spirit of the six-year-old gelding himself. The commentators after the race said that Za Approval’s race was good enough to have been a winning one in almost any other year.
So, Wise Dan is a two time Breeders’ Cup Mile champion, a strong contender for the second year in succession for North American Horse of the Year, and certainly entitled to be considered in the company of the great European turf milers, Goldikova and Frankel. As is usually the case in Breeders’ Cup races run on the grass, the Europeans dominated most of the races they contested Saturday, but despite the presence of several distinguished European shippers none could get the best of Maryland-bred Wise Dan.
If all goes well, we will all be privileged to see him race again next year at the ripe old age of seven. His owner and breeder, 84 year old Morton Fink, said after the race that Wise Dan gives him a reason to keep on living. “This horse keeps me going. I’ve said that before and I meant it.”
You, and a whole lot of us, Mr. Fink. Thanks for sharing your great horse with us.
The Old Grey Lady Dons a Flashy Saffron Gown
The Old Grey Lady, better known in media circles as The New York Times, has clothed herself in garments of yellow journalism so brightly hued that even William Randolph Hearst, were he still alive, would be green with envy. Ever since the 2012 season of horse racing’s Triple Crown began, she has been showing a lot of leg in a pathetic attempt to gain attention, but, in the last week of her Belmont coverage, she has succeeded mainly in simply showing her old, rumpled ass.
The Times kicked off its journalist jihad against horse racing earlier this winter with a series of articles about horses breaking down at a quarter-horse track in New Mexico, but waited until the Monday of Kentucky Derby Week to strike closer to home with a front page article above the fold accusing Aqueduct, and its owners and trainers, of doping their thoroughbreds and racing them to their deaths in a greedy quest for the rich purses which corrupting casino gambling has made possible. The National Enquirer on the trail of incriminating evidence to link John Edwards to his mistress and love child could not have been more assiduous, salacious and condemnatory than was the Old Grey Lady on the trail of heartless horsemen who raced their allegedly injured and over-medicated charges to their dooms in search of casino enhanced riches.
It probably came as a shock to New York’s horsemen to realize that the trouble with New York racing was too much money, and that they were regarded by the guardian of public morality as being complicit in the deaths of the animals which they cared for, and who provided their sustenance. But, according to The Times, breakdowns were up at NYRA’s winter emporium, and so greed must be somehow implicated (just like greed on Wall Street). Certainly, it couldn’t be winter racing on traditional dirt tracks. If that were the case, surely The Times would have been lobbying the New York Racing Association to install the much safer Polytrack (or other synthetic surfaces) in use at progressive tracks like Woodbine, Keeneland, Turfway, Arlington, Del Mar, Hollywood, Golden Gate, and Meydan in Dubai. No, it had to be over-medication and greed.
And then, just before the Old Grey Lady’s mind might have taken a practical turn toward safer surfaces for horses and their riders (surely she would have noticed the much lower rate of breakdowns eventually) something happened which would stir the soul of any muckraker. A little known horse from California, I’ll Have Another, won the Kentucky Derby, and as luck would have it several horses under his trainer’s care had broken down over the course of his career and he (the trainer, not the horse) had been cited for several minor drug violations. Why, it dovetailed perfectly with all those articles she had been publishing all winter. Two new characters, J. Paul Reddam and his trainer, Doug O’Neill, emerged and they seemed to fit the old themes of greed and over-medication to a tee. And in a wonderful bit of serendipity, Doug O’Neill’s hearing before California’s horse racing board was scheduled during the week leading up to the Preakness!
The Times filled its sports pages with stories of the doping controversies surrounding the Derby winner’s trainer. He was charged with giving one of his horses a “milkshake,” a performance enhancing cocktail of drugs. It made for great copy all during the two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness. The decision probably wouldn’t be handed down in time to prevent O’Neill from training I’ll Have Another in the Preakness, but surely he’d be barred from the Belmont. Or, would he? The paper speculated conspiratorially that the California authorities might withhold their decision so as not to cast a pall over the Triple Crown. As it happened, the decision was handed down promptly before the Preakness was run. No milkshake had been administered and no illegal actions had been taken to enhance the horse’s performance, but trace amounts of legal, therapeutic medications had been found in its system, thus mandating a forty-five day suspension under California’s strict liability policy for repeat offenders. The suspension would begin no earlier than July 1.
The Times reported the forty-five day suspension and its potential start date, but omitted any reference to the finding that there had been no milkshake or any illegal attempt to enhance the horse’s performance. The Daily Racing Form fully reported the decision, including its exculpatory findings, but Bob Costas on the NBC Preakness coverage grilled Mr. O’Neill aggressively about his medication violations, even referring to the media’s pejorative nickname for him, “Drug O’Neill.”
Thus, although people familiar with racing knew that the infractions with which Mr. O’Neill had been charged were minor and commonplace, the general public was unaware of that and, more significantly, unaware of the California regulators’ exculpatory findings that he had not “cheated” or taken any intentional action to illegally enhance his horse’s performance. The public was under the impression, which The Times did nothing to dispel, that I’ll Have Another’s trainer was an unscrupulous man who routinely cheated and administered illegal, performance enhancing drugs to his horses.
I’ll Have Another was not expected to win the Kentucky Derby, nor even after that decisive victory was he expected to win the Preakness, but win it he did with a dramatic closing move beating front running Bodemeister by a neck at the wire. Now he was heading to New York with a chance to become the first colt in thirty-four years to win the Belmont, and with it the Triple Crown. Thanks in large part to The New York Times’ misleading reporting, many people in the New York metropolitan area were unsure whether I’ll Have Another was the legitimate winner of the Derby and the Preakness, and they certainly didn’t want to see him win the Belmont with a drug aided effort and take down the Triple Crown for the first time in over a third of a century.
In this ambiguous, and totally unjustified, atmosphere, the politically sensitive New York Racing Association allowed itself to be stampeded into a hasty and ill-considered plan to require all twelve runners in the Belmont to be housed in a special detention barn at least 72 hours before the race, infuriating their trainers and disrupting the training routines of their horses. This half-baked scheme was not even announced until eleven days after the Preakness (a mere ten days before the Belmont) and the detention barn wasn’t nearly ready to receive the Belmont entrants even then. When, less than a week before the race, it was finally ready to receive the horses, there was not room for their accompanying ponies, nor was it staffed with competent personnel.
According to a story filed by Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form, a number of the trainers said all the emphasis was on security and “those staffing the barn lack necessary horse sense and the atmosphere is not conducive to horses performing at their optimum.” On Wednesday, a major dispute arose between the security personnel and trainers Doug O’Neill and Michael Matz who wanted to cook their horses’ oats before feeding them (a common means of preventing colic). The guards refused to permit this and O’Neill, who by then was at the end of his rope over disputes about equipment, the move, and obstacles over licensing his personnel, threatened to withdraw the Derby and Preakness winner from the race. Within minutes, he and Matz were allowed to cook the oats and feed their horses and, to quote Jay Privman, “Oatgate was averted.”
Michael Matz, trainer of Belmont winner, Union Rags, and Bob Baffert, trainer of Paynter who led the entire race only to be nipped at the wire, were among the most vocal critics of the chaos and disruption of training schedules occasioned by NYRA’s cowardly decision to give in to the misinformed popular outrage generated by The Times sensational reporting, but their charges, at least, appear not to have been too badly affected by it. Doug O’Neill, the man whose falsely tarnished reputation gave rise to the whole senseless scheme, was largely silent about the arrangements once he was allowed to continue feeding I’ll Have Another his normal diet. Hopefully, this feckless experiment, which only encourages the public misperception that there is wide spread cheating in horse racing, will never be repeated.
While trainer O’Neill was struggling with stupid and over zealous security personnel to continue his colt’s normal diet, The New York Times was dropping their most outrageous and slanderous cluster bomb in its campaign to discredit the reputations of the Derby and Preakness winner’s connections. In keeping with its winter-long theme that all of horse racing’s problems were a product of greed and doping, the Times published a lengthy front page article in its Wednesday morning editions on June 6, 2012 that was devoid of any news about the upcoming Belmont, but focused primarily on the business career of Ill Have Another’s owner, J. Paul Reddam, leavened, however, with a rehash of its misleading reporting about his trainer’s drug violations.
In an article filled with half-truths and pejorative innuendo, Times reporter Richard Sandomir actually referred to Paul Reddam, a former philosophy professor and one of the nicest gentlemen in horse racing, as a loan shark because of his role in founding Ditech, a mortgage company which he sold to G.M.A.C., and later Cash Call, a finance company which makes long-term mortgage loans, but also engages in short-term lending to high risk borrowers at high rates of interest. Mr. Sandomir mined the record to find every regulatory and consumer complaint ever filed against those companies before turning ever so slightly to the supposed subject of his article, the Belmont Stakes and the quest for the illusive Triple Crown.
As his bridge back to horse racing, Mr. Sandomir repeated criticisms of Mr. Reddam made by ninety year old Penny Chenery, Secretariat’s owner and the grande dame of American racing. Although she has been out of racing for nearly four decades and raced exclusively on the East Coast when she was involved in the sport, Mrs. Chenery felt free to pass on the characters of Mr. Reddam and his West Coast trainer (Mr. Reddam uses Mark Henning in the East), Doug O’Neill, opining that the owner’s decision to allow Mr. O’Neill to train I’ll Have Another was “regrettable”:
“I don’t know Mr. Reddam personally, but I think he should be embarrassed that the trainer he has chosen does not have a clean record.”
The arrogance and patrician sense of entitlement and superiority reflected by that statement is simply mind blowing, and Mr. Sandomir would have done Mrs. Chenery a considerable service had he not repeated it and had looked for another way to tarnish Mr. Reddam’s reputation. First, she acknowledges she doesn’t know the target of her remarks. Second, either she doesn’t know that his Derby winning colt was discovered by Mr. O’Neill’s brother and brought to him by his West Coast trainer, or she thinks so little of loyalty that she thinks Mr. Reddam should have abandoned his blue-collar trainer once his colt hit the big time. Third, she is apparently unaware that Mr. Reddam has never had one of his horses called into question on either the West or the East coasts. And fourth, she knows next to nothing about the nature of the California charges against Mr. O’Neill, or about the type of horses he typically trains.
The majority of the horses Mr. O’Neill trains on the Southern California circuit are claiming and low level allowance horses who run often and are prone to minor, nagging injuries. By the nature of his practice, he is required to give them legal medications to speed their recoveries, but California regulations provide that those medicines cannot remain in the horses’ systems when they are racing. Because there is no precise way to determine exactly how long a given drug will remain in a particular animal, he occasionally has run afoul of California’s policy of strict liability for trainers whose runners test positive for trace amounts of certain medications. This is not at all unusual.
These violations are akin to speeding tickets and most busy trainers receive them from time to time. Moreover, and contrary to the impression given NYT readers, Mr. O’Neill is far from being one of the worst offenders, but The Times has created the impression that he has been guilty of something more akin to child molestation. All of this is terribly unfair to Paul Reddam, and to his colt, I’ll Have Another, neither of whom have ever been linked to drug violations of any kind. If you are searching for the poster boy for over-medicated Triple Crown contenders, you need look no further than New York’s own Big Brown.
Finally, Mr. Sandomir’s article repeated for the umpteenth time that Mr. O’Neil had received a forty-five day suspension from the California racing authorities without bothering to mention that they had explicitly absolved him of any intentional wrongdoing.
Simon Bray, formerly one of Bill Mott’s assistants responsible for looking after two time Horse of the Year Cigar, and currently a commentator on the TVG horse racing network, summed up the general media’s disgraceful treatment of trainer Doug O’Neill this way: “This isn’t bordering on character assassination, this is character assassination!”
And the same goes for the treatment owner J. Paul Reddam has received. Mr. Reddam is one of the nicest gentlemen in horse racing. Unlike many other egomaniacal owners, he never considered replacing journeyman jockey, Mario Gutierrez, on I’ll Have Another when it was obvious that the colt was headed for the Kentucky Derby. In fact, it was Mr. Reddam, himself, who called the young rider to his trainer’s attention and suggested he ride his colt in the R. B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. That should have been the feel good story of the Triple Crown season, as the young rider and his unheralded horse won the Lewis, the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in succession, but The New York Times ignored it in order to keep pressing its narrative of horse racing beset by greedy owners and cheating trainers.
It is indicative of just how thoroughly The Times had succeeded in poisoning the minds of its readers against the connections of I’ll Have Another that, on the morning when virtually all of the horse racing world was aghast and devastated that a tendon injury had forced the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion to withdraw from the Belmont and pass on his chance to end the thirty-four year drought without a Triple Crown winner, the great majority of the responders to its “The Rail” online blog were happy that he had scratched and so badly informed that they actually assumed that drugs had somehow been involved in his tendinitis! The following, posted by an Albany, New York reader, whose NYT internet ID appropriately enough is Know Nothing, is typical of the cynical reactions:
LOL! NYRA "changed the rules" to test for "milkshakes" (which neither the Kentucky Derby or Preakness authorities did) after CA handed down a 45-day suspension to Doug O'Neill for suspected cheating/drugging a horse via said milkshake after a suspicious result from testing.
They don't call him Drug O'Neill for nuthin'. He is the worst offender in terms of drugging offenses in stakes racing today. Furthermore, his horses break down twice as much as the average.
NYRA has insisted on such careful scrutiny for good reason: to weed out cheats.
Simply as an aside, the only verified instance of cheating in a graded stakes race in many decades occurred in the 1999 Arkansas Derby when improbable long shot, Valhol, was buzzed to victory with the aid of an electronic device. I was actually at Oaklawn that day, and I wouldn’t have bet Valhol with your money and, as I said at the time, I would have been reluctant to bet on him in the replay. Notwithstanding the paranoia whipped up by The Times, if NYRA ever tries the detention barn fiasco again, they will be the laughing stock of all thoroughbred racing.
The Times internet blog “The Rail” went through quite a metamorphosis on Friday, June 8th after the announcement that I’ll Have Another would be scratched from the Belmont. The first version in the morning, written by Ryan Goldberg, was rather triumphal before definitive information about the cause of the scratch had been announced, as though somehow all the muckraking reporting about Mr. O’Neill’s drug violations had been vindicated. All the old reporting about the California suspension was rehashed (absent, as always, any reference to the exculpatory findings that no intentional wrongdoing had been involved) and the blog post concluded with this self-satisfied, “we told you so” attitude:
O’Neill has insisted he is a clean trainer. He said he welcomed the intense monitoring. But almost inevitably, as soon as word of I’ll Have Another’s injury surfaced online, the wisecracks began, implying there might be an underlying or hidden issue involved.
Fair or not, O’Neill and the horse’s owner are likely to have to combat such suspicions going forward.
“Fair or not!” That’s as close as The Times will ever get to acknowledging, much less apologizing for, the reckless damage they have done to two good men’s reputations. Paul Reddam has never had suspicion of illegal drug use (other than the groundless suspicions stirred up by The Times’ yellow journalism) associated with any of his horses. Even The Times’ blog reported that all twelve entrants in the Belmont had tested clean for prohibited substances. I don’t think he needs to be concerned about any such suspicions going forward – at least not among fair minded people.
After the 1:00 o’clock news conference called by Mr. Reddam to discuss the nature of his colt’s injury, and the gracious statements by the owner, his trainer, and the attending veterinarian discussing the beginning of a tendon tear revealed by the ultra sound (with I’ll Have Another grazing in the background), The New York Times began to realize just how silly and small-minded its snide innuendos of drug use might appear. Much as they might like to make the case for some insidious wrongdoing, tears in tendons don’t result from the administration of drugs (which had been ruled out two days earlier by the New York state Racing and Wagering Board in any case).
After Mr. Reddam, and then Mr. O’Neill, explained with quiet disappointment, dignity and class the nature of their colt’s injury, how he would never be able to race at his previous levels again, and accordingly would be retired, The New York Times began to show a little class itself. “The Rail” was updated at 1:21 p.m. with the addition of their senior turf writer Joe Drape’s by-line to reflect all the information presented at the news conference (though the earlier snide comments about Mr. O’Neill remained), and by late afternoon a completely different version of “The Rail,” written entirely by Mr. Drape, had appeared.
All the disparaging comments about Mr. Reddam and Mr. O’Neill were gone. Finally, the remarkable accomplishments of I’ll Have Another and his owner, trainer and young jockey in going undefeated and winning four straight graded stakes races as a three year-old, and how close the relatively unknown colt and his connections had come to the precipice of greatness, were being discussed. Fellow trainers like Dale Romans were quoted as being distraught about the injury and resulting scratch – “This was going to be a special race, one of the biggest of our time. It’s just devastating.”
Finally, the story was about the colt’s remarkable accomplishments, how much racing and its fans would miss him, and what might have been. Everyone in racing already knew what fine people Paul Reddam and Doug O’Neill were. Perhaps, now, the colt and his connections can get fairer treatment and a little journalistic justice. It is long overdue.
Better late than never.
What, Derby 138 Is Already Here?
I can’t believe it’s Oaks Day. If The New York Times hadn’t run another hatchet job on horse racing above the fold in its Monday morning edition (“Big Purses, Lame Horses, and Death,” April 30, 2012), the Kentucky Derby, itself, might have snuck up on me. If you are bothering to read this piece at all, chances are your opinion on the race is much better informed than mine. I’ve been writing a Derby article in this space since 2002, but this year I’ve been distracted and out of town all winter and spring. When I’ve managed to see and bet Derby prep races, it has usually been on about twenty minutes of preparation, and I never got to see the Louisiana or Arkansas Derbies at all.
So, take these observations with a huge “grain of salt” and accord them all the skepticism they deserve. The story of handicapping the Kentucky Derby for the past several years has been that the old tried and true “rules” no longer seem to apply. One by one, the old shibboleths have fallen away. The voodoo cult of Dosage was finally discredited by the victories of Real Quiet and Charismatic in 1998 and 1999. The post-70s conventional wisdom that the favorite never won the Derby was dispatched by Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. In 2003, Funny Cide became the first gelding to win since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. In 2007, Street Sense overcame the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Champion jinx. And, in 2011, Animal Kingdom not only became the first Derby winner never to have raced on traditional dirt, but he did so off an extraordinarily long layoff, his last race having been the Spiral Stakes in March.
So, will 2012 be the year that the most hoary and time honored of these Derby handicapping “rules” falls? It very well might be. It has been 130 years since a horse who was unraced as a two-year-old won the Kentucky Derby, but this year Bodemeister might be able to get the job done. He had (I am told) the most impressive win of any Derby prep race, winning the Arkansas Derby by an expanding margin of nine and one-half lengths. His trainer, Bob Baffert, certainly knows how to get a colt ready for the Derby, having won with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem, and narrowly missed (by about the width of a credit card) winning with Cavonnier in 1996. Moreover, and most importantly, he is by far the fastest horse in the race as measured by Andrew Beyer’s speed figures.
Last year in this space, I observed that either Andrew Beyer was becoming a much tougher grader or the three-year-olds were running a lot slower as evidenced by his proprietary speed figures published in the Daily Racing Form. As recently as 2003 or 2004, a colt or filly had to have run a Beyer number of between 108 and 112 to be thought to have a decent chance of winning the Kentucky Derby. In 1994, the favorite that year, Holy Bull, came into the Derby with Beyer’s of 115 and 113 earned in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. It is significant that the Daily Racing Form lists the Beyer par for this race at 108. Only Bodemeister has come anywhere close to matching that number.
He earned a Beyer number of 108 for his victory in the Arkansas Derby, and had 101s in his two races before that. In the entire remainder of this year’s field, there are only three colts who have earned even one 100 Beyer figure in any of their races: Creative Cause had a 102 in the San Felipe in which he defeated Bodemeister by three-quarters of a length; Daddy Nose Best had a 100 in beating a weak field in the Sunland Derby; and El Padrino had a 100 figure in an optional claiming race at Gulfstream in which he defeated the future Florida Derby winner, Take Charge Indy, by two lengths. Impressive Beyer numbers in prep races don’t guarantee victory in a race as fraught with racing luck and crowded fields as the Derby, as past favorites Bellamy Road (120) and Holy Bull can attest, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to be the fastest horse, either.
If Bodemeister is the fastest colt in this year’s Derby field, Gemologist is certainly the most consistent. His win in the Wood Memorial by a hard-fought neck over Godolphin’s Alpha (in which they both earned 98 Beyers) was his fifth victory in a row. He is undefeated coming into the race (including a win in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Churchill) and worthy of strong consideration. The Wood Memorial, in fact, appears to have been the most formful of the Derby preps and suggests that in Alpha the Godolphin racing dynasty may finally have a realistic shot at winning their first Kentucky Derby.
Another colt worthy of a long look may be the hard trying Creative Cause who has raced in nothing but Grade-1 and 2 stakes races since breaking his maiden and has never been worse than third in his entire career. As mentioned previously, he beat Bodemeister in the San Felipe at Santa Anita, and he was third at Churchill Downs as a two-year-old in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile behind early Derby favorites Hansen and Union Rags. Since many horses find the footing over Churchill’s “cuppy” surface hard to handle, it is always encouraging to have had a good race over that track.
Speaking of Union Rags, I apparently am one of the few racing fans who have gotten off his bandwagon. Because of a difficult trip, he was generally considered much the best in finishing second to Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and he is ranked second in the consensus of analysts (behind Bodemeister) in handicapping the Derby. It just seems to me, however, that he has not progressed much in his transition from two to three years of age. He earned a 94 Beyer in the Juvenile as a two-year-old and in his two races at Gulfstream this year has put up a 95 in winning the Fountain of Youth and a 93 in finishing third in the Florida Derby, a race whose form this year did not impress me. The experts, however, think he got a lot out of his trip in that race in which he had “the best stride too late,” according to the Form, and have been impressed by his work at Churchill.
I want to think well of Hansen who has gone off as the favorite in all three of his races as a three-year-old, but can’t help feeling (like Union Rags) that he just hasn’t progressed much since his win in the Juvenile at Churchill last year. He’s got a win in the Gotham beating not much and two second place finishes in the Holy Bull and in the Blue Grass Stakes as a three-year-old with Beyers of 96, 95 and 96. He was very game in defeat in the Blue Grass, giving up the lead grudgingly to Dullahan in deep stretch, but I wonder if a mile and a quarter is just too far for him. It certainly will be unless he can learn to relax – he was on the bridle and fighting his exercise rider the whole way around the track during his last jog over the Churchill strip. Maybe he’s still upset over his owners dying his tail UK blue prior to the Blue Grass Stakes.
A colt who does seem “to be on the improve” is Dullahan who won the Blue Grass Stakes over Hansen at Keeneland by one and a half lengths, earning a 98 Beyer in the process. And a word about Keeneland’s Polytrack surface which goes as well for Turfway’s identical artificial surface over which Spiral winner, Went the Day Well, ran: Polytrack is not only the safest racing surface in the world (take note, New York Times) but compared with traditional dirt it is deceptively slow.
This is just an amateur’s observation, but I don’t think Andrew Beyer has ever come fully to terms with Polytrack (or the other artificial surfaces) which he dislikes. From my observations at Keeneland, I think you can add as many as three to four points to Beyer’s published speed figures on races run over Polytrack surfaces. When viewed from that prospective, Street Sense’s win in the 2007 Derby, and Animal Kingdom’s win in the 2011 Derby, following relatively slow Beyer numbers earned in their prep races at Keeneland and at Turfway do not seem quite so surprising. If I’m right, you could mentally adjust Dullahan’s Beyer up to 101, and Hansen’s up to 99, and Went the Day Well’s up to 95.
This is probably more uninformed B.S. than anyone should pay attention to. On this weekend in 1989, 1994, and 2004, I was like a coiled spring worrying about Sunday Silence, Holy Bull and Smarty Jones. Then I knew what all their owners, trainers and jockeys were concerned about and how well their charges had eaten their breakfasts. This year I hardly know who’s running.
For the next to nothing it’s worth, however, this year I was not very impressed by the Gulfstream and Florida Derby form. I liked the form of the races at Santa Anita and the Wood Memorial, and even the Blue Grass Stakes, better. Therefore, if I like Gemologist (and I do), I can’t discount Alpha who was only a nose behind him in the Wood. If I like Creative Cause who beat Bodemeister in the San Felipe (and I do), I’ve got to like I’ll Have Another who beat him by a nose in the Santa Anita Derby – besides I admire his owner, Paul Reddam, one of the real gentlemen in racing. The winner (as opposed to other contestants) of the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland hasn’t won the Derby since Strike the Gold accomplished that feat in 1991 – wouldn’t it be something if Dullahan could pull it off this year? And, towering above them all, from a standpoint of Beyer speed figures and the visual effect of his impressive win in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, is Bodemeister.
But what do I know? It will probably be a Union Rags – Hansen exacta, or perhaps Optimizer will help D. Wayne Lucas make his first return visit to the winner’s circle in the Derby since he saddled Charismatic in 1999. Stranger things have happened. Whatever, we will all probably be surprised by the outcome. Good luck to all the bettors, and especially good racing luck to all the horses and their riders.
These Derby 137 Colts Are Consistent in One Thing – They’re All Slow
If I hadn’t posted an article on the Kentucky Derby in this space every year since 2002, I’d be tempted to take a pass this time. I have never seen a less formful bunch of race horses. With the exception of Dialed In, who won the Florida Derby as he was favored to do, every other Derby prep race left expert handicappers and amateur bettors alike shaking their heads in disbelief. Almost none of these colts could string two (much less three) victories together this year. There was one thread of consistency which ran through all the prep races this winter and spring, though – they were all won with remarkably low Beyer numbers.
I was bitten by the horse racing bug relatively late in life and, as a result, never had to go through the exacting process of comparing times with the track variant to evaluate a race horse’s true “speed” over a particular racing surface. The publication of Andrew Beyer’s proprietary speed numbers in the Daily Racing Form saved me from all those mathematical calculations and doubtless made me a lazier and less proficient handicapper. But this year’s crop of three-year-old colts has got me checking times again because either Andrew Beyer has become an awfully tough grader or these Derby contenders are really slow.
The racing surfaces of several of the tracks which host the major prep races for the Kentucky Derby have changed in the last several years. Gulfstream has been entirely reconfigured. Keeneland has installed Polytrack, a synthetic surface. Santa Anita has gone from dirt to a variety of synthetic surfaces and back to dirt again. But Oaklawn Park, where the Arkansas Derby is run, and Aqueduct, home of the Wood Memorial, remain essentially the same as they were about a decade ago. It might be instructive, therefore, to see how the winners of the 2003 and 2004 Derbies ran on those two tracks in their final races prior to the Kentucky Derby.
In 2003, Funny Cide ran second in the Wood Memorial beaten a half length by Empire Maker who covered the mile and one-eighth distance in 1:48 and 3/5th seconds. Funny Cide was awarded a 110 Beyer for that second place effort. Obviously, Empire Maker had a slightly higher Beyer for winning the race. In his next race Funny Cide turned the tables on Empire Maker winning the Derby with a 109 Beyer. He then won the Preakness running a 114 Beyer.
The next year, Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby, again at a distance of a mile and one-eighth in 1:49 and 2/5th seconds, receiving a 109 Beyer for his effort. In his previous race, the Rebel Stakes, also at Oaklawn, he had won with a 112 Beyer. He won the 2004 Derby and the Preakness with Beyers of 107 and 118, respectively. And what a Derby that was: Lion Heart, Imperialism, The Cliff’’s Edge and Tapit were among those chasing Smarty home.
Fast forward seven or eight years to 2011 and Derby 137: Funny Cide and Smarty Jones (and many of their opponents) would tower over this field. In their day it was thought that a colt would have to have run a Beyer in the 105-110 range even to have a chance of winning the Derby. This year Uncle Mo has the highest Beyer in the field with a 108 earned last year as a two-year-old (at Churchill Downs) in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This year he finished third in the Wood Memorial with a 92 Beyer. Toby’s Corner, winner of this year’s Wood (and a scratch in the Derby due to injury), was awarded a 94 Beyer for his effort. But the truly startling fact is that Bellamy Road, the sire of Toby’s Corner, won the same race in 2005 with a Beyer of 120!
The sad truth is that our three-year-old thoroughbreds are simply not as fast today as they were even six, seven or eight years ago. Archarcharch and his runner-up Nehro finished first and second in the 2011 edition of the Arkansas Derby with Beyers of 98, eleven Beyer points slower than Smarty’s 2004 effort. The highest Beyer number run this year by a member of the 2011 Derby field is 103, earned by Soldat in an allowance race at Gulfstream. There are several members of this year’s Derby field who have never run a Beyer as high as 90 in their racing careers.
But fast or slow there will be a winner of the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby, and three more colts will follow him home to complete the various exotic wagers, so let’s take a look at the field:
Like it or not, we have to start with Uncle Mo, who (if he could duplicate his performance last November in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) would win this Derby by many lengths. He won that race at Churchill Downs (always a significant handicapping consideration) with a 108 Beyer. But can he duplicate it? He seems a much less accomplished horse this year. He finished third in the Wood Memorial (behind two horses whom I bet to beat him) but so did Secretariat in his Triple Crown year of 1973. Secretariat was not well that day, and the claim is that Uncle Mo had gastro-intestinal problems. Todd Pletcher says Uncle Mo is doing fine, but he doesn’t sound very convincing. His post position 18 is no bargain, nor is his 9-2 morning line odds. Will we see the Uncle Mo of 2010 or of 2011? I have no clue, and I don’t know how to bet him.
The morning line favorite is Dialed In, whom I bet in the first Kentucky Derby futures pool (along with Soldat, Mucho Macho Man and Santiva, who I selected because he had won at Churchill at age two). I mention this because many of my friends treat all of my future bets as absolute throw-outs for the Derby and haven’t had much cause to regret it over the years. Except for running slow (like everybody else), however, Dialed In hasn’t done much wrong, has Nick Zito and top-jock Julian Leparoux in his corner, and he closed powerfully against a speed favoring track to win the Florida Derby. His post position in the 8 hole is also a good one. If you are willing to accept low odds, I wouldn’t talk you off him. He’s a legitimate contender.
One of the colts who I was most excited about is Archarcharch, the winner of the Arkansas Derby. He is an improving horse, ran a relatively good (for this bunch) 98 Beyer, and was working well at Churchill. Seemingly, he had everything going for him, and then he drew the disastrous 1 hole in the post position draw. He would have been one of the favorites, but that post position is usually the kiss of death. It did Lookin’ at Lucky, the champion three-year-old, in last year. His morning line odds were set at 10-1, and that’s probably too low. He’s a good horse just shot in the tail with bad luck.
If you like Archarcharch, you ought to like the colt who was only a nose behind him in the Arkansas Derby and that is No. 19, Nehro, trained by Steve Asmussen and ridden by Cory Nakatani. He’s 6-1 on the morning line (about where the unlucky Archarcharch would be but for his horrible post) so Churchill’s oddsmaker, Mike Battaglia, seems to like him. Unlike many in this field, he is proven on dirt, finishing a neck back in both the Arkansas and Louisiana Derbies. He’s a definite contender.
I guess I ought to like Midnight Interlude, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, more than I do. He is trained by Bob Baffert who knows how to win this race, he has two bullet works over the Churchill Downs surface, and he earned a 97 Beyer in the Santa Anita Derby catching front running Comma to the Top on the wire. He has a good post position in the 15 hole, and at 10-1 on the morning line, he probably represents good betting value.
I don’t know what happened to Soldat (12-1) in the Florida Derby, but he must not have liked the rail and certainly never made the lead as he had in his two previous races. He looked great wiring the Fountain of Youth (96 Beyer) and in putting up that top 103 Beyer (for this group, this year) in winning an allowance race just before that. His last three races have been at a distance of a mile and one-eighth, and there aren’t many in this bunch who can say that, so he may be able to sustain his speed and hang around at the end. I don’t see him winning this (remember I’ve got him to win in the futures pool), but he might be able to carry his speed far enough to get into the exotics.
Among the other early speed horses who will be on, or pressing, the lead are Shackleford (12-1), Mucho Macho Man (12-1), Pants on Fire (20-1), and Comma to the Top (30-1). Shackleford has two bullet works over the Churchill Downs surface, so maybe his second place finish by a head (93 Beyer) in the Florida Derby at odds of 69-1 was not as much of a fluke as it seemed. Guess who didn’t have him that day. Comma to the Top (beaten just a head in the Santa Anita Derby with a 97 Beyer) has a good post position in the 6 hole and is ridden by Pat Valenzuela, who is a master at riding on the front end while slowing down the pace. At 30-1, his presence in the saddle might make for a very tempting across the board bet. Pants on Fire (94 Beyer) was on or near the lead the whole way round in winning the Louisiana Derby over Nehro and Mucho Macho Man. His jockey, Rosie Napravnik, won the riding title at the Fair Grounds and seemed to be in the exacta almost every race during the Keeneland meet. The girl can definitely ride. Pants on Fire drew well, getting post position 7. Mucho Macho Man (94 Beyer) won the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds and, of course, is a rooting interest of mine since he is a grandson of Holy Bull.
Only a nostril, not a nose, separated winner, Brilliant Speed (93 Beyer) and runner-up, Twinspired (93 Beyer), in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Both colts are 30-1 on the morning line and neither is expected to be a factor in this year’s Derby. That’s because the Blue Grass was run over Keeneland’s Polytrack surface, and since it was installed in the fall of 2006 only 2007 Derby winner, Street Sense, has come out of the Blue Grass to run well in the Derby. Most handicappers will throw them both out, and probably you should too.
They each intrigue me a little, however. Brilliant Speed is by Dynaformer, the sire of Derby winner Barbaro, and like Barbaro has primarily raced on the grass. You toss the progeny of Dynaformer at your peril (as I did in the 2006 Derby) because Dynaformers can run on any surface. Twinspired was the only front runner who was around for the finish in this year’s Blue Grass. He showed a lot of courage that day and will be well prepared by Barbaro trainer, Michael Maker, and ridden by Zenyatta and Holy Bull jockey, Mike Smith. Besides, I owe Twinspired because he saved me from a disastrous day of betting at Keeneland last fall when he broke his maiden at first asking and got me even for the day. At 30-1, I’ll probably take a flutter on both Brilliant Speed and Twinspired across the board.
A couple of other 30-1 long shots, neither of whom has ever raced on dirt, but offer some interest, as curiosities, if not as betting choices, are Animal Kingdom (94 Beyer, PP 16) and Master of Hounds (PP 11). Animal Kingdom, who beat both Decisive Moment and Twinspired over the Polytrack at Turfway Park in the Spiral Stakes, is by Leroidesanimaux (one of my favorite turf horses). He hasn’t raced since March 26th, and if trainer Graham Motion and jockey Robbie Albarado can get him into the winner’s circle off that long layoff, they will have accomplished quite a feat.
Master of Hounds is an English turf horse, who missed by just a nose while racing over the Polytrack at a mile and 3/16ths in the UAE Derby at Meydan. He received a Racing Post Rating of 115 for that effort, and being by Kingmambo and by Sadler’s Wells on the dam side is bred to run all day and certainly can get the distance. Garrett Gomez takes the mount and famed Irish trainer, Aidan O’Brien, has prepared him for a most unusual route to an American Triple Crown race. A win by either Animal Kingdom or Master of Hounds would be extraordinary.
There are three horses in the Derby field which have never run a 90 Beyer in their racing careers: Twice the Appeal (PP 3); Stay Thirsty (PP 4); and Watch Me Go (PP 20). One wonders why they are here. One cannot also help wondering how much better a race the Kentucky Derby would be if the field was restricted to 14 starters. Were that the case, the colt drawing post position 1 would not be automatically eliminated from contention before the race had even begun.
I haven’t a clue as to which three or four horses will comprise the trifecta or superfecta when Derby 137 has been run on May 7, 2011. It is reasonable to assume a fast pace and to use closers like Dialed In, Nehro, Midnight Interlude (and Archarcharch had he not been so unlucky in the post position draw), and to throw in speed horses like Uncle Mo (if he can regain last year’s form), Soldat, Comma to the Top, and Pants on Fire or Shackleford. But, I don’t think I could hit the trifecta or superfecta this year if my life depended on it.
This is the year for win bets at long odds and exacta wheels. Pick your key horse, and good luck to you.
Zenyatta Puts Her Perfect Record on the Line One Last Time
(Breeders’ Cup Day, November 6, 2010)
All the wise old trainers, jockeys, stable hands, and even bettors know it’s true: “If you run them out there often enough, they all get beat.”
Man o’ War was beaten by Upset; Native Dancer was beaten by Dark Star; Secretariat was beaten twice during his championship year, by Angle Light and by Onion; Seattle Slew was beaten by Exceller and others – the list goes on and on. These days if you want your champion to retire undefeated, you’d better not run him more than four or five times – which makes the story of Zenyatta all the more remarkable.
This time last year Zenyatta was essentially in the same position. Her lifetime record was 13-0 and she was about to face a collection of the best horses in the world in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. She won that race in dramatic fashion closing from the back of the pack at the top of the stretch to get up and beat Gio Ponti (one of the world’s best) by a length at the wire. That should have been her crowning achievement – beating the best male horses in training in the worlds’ most prestigious race, going out on top, and retiring with a perfect 14-0 record at the ripe old age of five.
Then, the inexplicable and the unforgivable happened. In what was unquestionably the greatest travesty in the history of the balloting for Horse of the Year, the voters handed Zenyatta her first lifetime defeat. By a wide margin, they chose Rachel Alexandra, a three year old filly who had defeated a decimated class of three-year-old colts in the Preakness (Quality Road, Act of Revenge, The Pamplemousse, et. al., all were sidelined by injury prior to the Triple Crown) as the 2009 Horse of the Year.
Rachel had won all of her races as a three-year-old, and that was all the celebrity obsessed voters needed to know. The fact that Zenyatta had won all of her races as a three-year-old, as a four-year-old, and as a five-year-old (including the Breeders’ Cup Classic) was conveniently ignored. Besides, most of Zenyatta’s races had been won in California, and the predominantly Eastern racing establishment knew what to think about that. The owners of Seabiscuit, Swaps, Affirmed and Sunday Silence, who themselves had experienced that anti-Western bias, could sympathize.
The slight handed their undefeated race mare was more than Zenyatta’s owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, could bear. They had intended to retire Zenyatta after her five-year-old season (most champions are retired to the breeding farms at age three or four) but they decided to race her one more year in the hope of meeting Rachel Alexandra on the track. There was no chance of Rachel Alexandra coming west – Zenyatta would have to ship east if a race was ever to be arranged. At first, Rachel’s owner, Jess Jackson, resisted a meeting. It would have to be a three race series, he insisted, and at distances and on the true dirt surfaces he preferred. His champion, Curlin, had been defeated in the Breeders’ Cup Classic run at Santa Anita on “plastic,” the safer, synthetic surfaces installed in California (and elsewhere at leading tracks around the world such as Keeneland, Arlington, Woodbine and Dubai).
Finally, a meeting between the two female superstars was arranged. Charles Cella rescheduled the Apple Blossom (Gr-1) at his Oaklawn Park to better suit Rachel Alexandra’s training schedule and raised the purse from $500,000 to Five Million Dollars if both Rachel and Zenyatta agreed to race. The race was at Rachel’s preferred distance of a mile and an eighth, and on natural dirt. Both camps committed to the race, which was to be run on April 9, 2010, but a couple of weeks prior to the race Jackson announced his filly would not be coming. Zenyatta shipped east to the Hot Springs, Arkansas track anyway and won the Apple Blossom by four and a quarter lengths. It was the 16th victory of her career.
After her trip across the country, Zenyatta returned to her base at Hollywood Park in California. Her critics, however, implied that if she wanted to be taken seriously as a race horse, she should have stayed in the East and followed Rachel Alexandra around from track to track in the hope of enticing her into a race. In a column written this fall published in the Washington Post and the Daily Racing Form, Andrew Beyer predicted that Zenyatta would be regarded “as a historical curiosity rather than an all-time great racehorse.” Winning more consecutive races (most of them against Grade-1 competition) than Citation, Cigar, and even the 19th Century phenomenon, Hindoo, cut no ice with Mr. Beyer. He even faulted her for failing to defeat the filly who refused to face her:
“If the mare had gone East to confront a below-her-prime Rachel Alexandra this summer, she might won the Zenyatta vs. Rachel Alexandra debate once and for all.”
There was no chance of that match ever taking place. Rachel wouldn’t face Zenyatta at Oaklawn for $5 Million at a time and distance of her choosing. Despite all the brave talk from her connections about meeting Zenyatta at Churchill Downs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, that was just a pipe dream. Her connections knew that Rachel wanted no part of the championship distance of a mile and one-quarter. I was at Saratoga on August 29th when she tried that distance in the Personal Ensign (Gr-1). She was run down and defeated by Persistently, a 21 to 1 shot. That was just one of several losses for Rachel Alexandra this year, but it was her last. She was retired immediately thereafter.
Despite her record, Andrew Beyer knows Rachel Alexandra is a great racehorse. And despite her record, Andrew Beyer knows that Zenyatta is just a “historical curiosity.” After all, she won most of her races on synthetic surfaces in the state where she is based. Quite frankly, such reasoning is the epitome of bias and intellectual dishonesty. Winners of Grade-1 races on artificial surfaces at Dubai, Del Mar, Woodbine, Keeneland, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and elsewhere have, with good cause, been celebrated for their greatness.
Zenyatta won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic against the best horses in the world at Santa Anita. Her win happened to be on an artificial surface. She was the first of her gender ever to win that prestigious race. If they had run it in the parking lot of the Los Angeles Coliseum, her win would have been a monumental accomplishment. For Andrew Beyer to denigrate that win, and her whole distinguished career, is the alpha and omega of narrow provincialism and hypocrisy.
All Zenyatta needs to do to convince Andrew Beyer that she is a good, but not great, racehorse is to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic two years in a row. In the three decades that the race has been run, one horse, Tiznow, has been able to accomplish that stupendous feat. Let’s hope that Zenyatta can duplicate that accomplishment today as a six-year-old mare.
It would only be her 20th consecutive win.
Author’s postscript -- The morning after:
Once again, Zenyatta began her closing move from last place at the top of the stretch. Once again, she made up lengths and lengths of ground against the best horses in training, but this time she fell a head short of getting past one of them, Blame, a horse who has a particular liking for the admittedly quirky dirt surface at Churchill Downs. Blame has won four races from five starts at Churchill. Zenyatta has lost her only race there – and the only race of her long and distinguished career.
Immediately after the race, Jerry Bailey and the other commentators covering the race on ESPN declared that Blame, who has lost three times in a relatively short career, should be Horse of the Year. After all, he won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I’m sure Andrew Beyer agrees. It just didn’t work out that way for Zenyatta last year.
As she heads off to retirement after suffering her only lifetime defeat ( by a head to a Churchill Downs specialist, and over a surface that many of the greatest horses in the world have found difficult to handle), let’s say a fond farewell to the greatest race mare of all time, or, as Andrew Beyer would put it, to a “historical curiosity.”
Lookin at Lucky Wins Preakness and Saves Triple Crown
On May 15, 2010, Lookin at Lucky got a much needed jockey change (to Martin Garcia), a rare good trip, and won the 135th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in impressive fashion. In doing so he gave his distinguished trainer, Bob Baffert, another victory in a Triple Crown race after a hiatus of several years and then, without much fanfare, headed back to Southern California. Racing fans and racing historians owe him many more accolades than he received that Saturday in Baltimore, because he didn’t just win the Preakness – he preserved the majesty of the Triple Crown.
Garrulous old-timers are fond of saying “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” That’s utter nonsense, of course, with respect to most sports, but in the case of horse racing it’s true. For the last ten or twenty years, we have been breeding race horses for speed and in the process have been getting horses with much less stamina. For the past several years, we haven’t even been getting much in the way of speed.
This trend is particularly apparent to anyone who uses Andrew Beyer’s speed numbers in handicapping the Kentucky Derby. As recently as 2003 or 2004, for instance, handicappers used to have their choice of five or six colts who had run Derby prep races in which they had earned Beyer numbers in the 108-112 range. This year, there wasn’t a single colt in the starting gate who had run a Beyer anywhere close to those numbers, and only three of the twenty Derby starters had even posted a 100 Beyer prior to the race. Of the top three finishers in this year’s Derby (Super Saver, Ice Box and Paddy O’Prado), none had.
This year there was only one colt who would have been thought to have been a worthy Derby contender five or six years ago: Eskendereya, who won both the Fountain of Youth (Gr-2) and the Wood Memorial (Gr-1) with Beyers in the 110 range. But, here’s the rub, he was injured a couple of days after the Wood and has been retired. In 2009, almost all the prominent Derby contenders were injured prior to the Derby and failed to make the race. Like the old-timers say, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. And that’s why it was particularly galling this year to have Calvin Borel practically guarantee that his Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, would win the Triple Crown.
It took a very fast pace, the total collapse of the early “speed,” and a perfect ground saving trip for Super Saver to post a career best 104 Beyer and win Derby 136. To hear Mr. Borel talk about his modest mount winning the Triple Crown and joining the august company of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed was nothing short of obscene. Note to Calvin Borel (with apologies to Lloyd Bentsen): I knew Affirmed; Affirmed once even chewed on my forearm; and believe me, Super Saver is no Affirmed.
Without a perfect pace scenario in the Preakness, Super Saver came up empty in the stretch and finished sixth. His trainer and jockey said he was tired and needed more than two weeks between races. Most horses do, and for even the exceptional few who don’t, almost none can handle the grueling schedule of the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont within a five week time span. We don’t breed for stamina anymore. That’s why there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed last accomplished the feat in 1978.
In the intervening thirty-two years there have been several colts who have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to come up short in the Belmont. A mere handful of them might have been worthy company for the triad of greats from the decade of the 1970s. The great Spectacular Bid, of course, would have won in 1979 but for an insane ride by his jockey and the handicap of running on a bad foot which, for most trainers, would have mandated a scratch. Bob Baffert’s Real Quiet won the first two legs in 1998, only to lose by a nose, nipped at the wire by Victory Gallop. And most recently, Smarty Jones lost the only race of his distinguished career by a length in 2004, after running the fastest middle half-mile in Belmont history, dogged by Jerry Bailey who was riding Eddington not to win, but to insure Smarty’s loss. Those three, and perhaps one or two more, might have been worthy Triple Crown winners, but colts of that caliber have been exceedingly rare in recent years, and we have seen none lately.
They don’t breed them like they used to.
Maybe, Next Year
Every year, for the past 135 years, Churchill Downs puts on a race called the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. On Saturday, May 1, 2010, they’ll try it for the 136th time. For the past ten or twelve years, I’ve tried to put on a Derby party that day – I particularly remember 1998, because a friend of mine, who is married to another friend of mine, took home the entire pool because her husband was (and is) Real Quiet.
Perhaps, we should both just skip it this year because, believe me, there are no Real Quiets, or Funny Cides, or Smarty Joneses, or Barbaros, or Street Senses, or even the over medicated Big Brown in this Derby field. Even my most favorite and improbable winner, 50-1 long shot Giacomo (son of my beloved Holy Bull), would have been one of the favorites in this year’s motley crew contesting the 136th running of the Race for the Roses.
The only colt who could have run with those past winners, and who would have had a chance of beating them had he raced in their respective years, scratched out of the race on Sunday because of an injury. So, let us raise our Mint Julep Cups to the only colt worthy of being considered the favorite for the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby, the colt who will not be there, the colt with the unpronounceable name, Eskendereya. He, alone, had approached the 110 Beyer speed number which past Derby winners had to post to have a chance of winning the Run for the Roses. No one left in the race has posted a Beyer number above 101.
Of those left, the two top betting choices for this year’s Kentucky Derby, have drawn the two worst post positions. Lookin at Lucky, the 3-1 favorite, has drawn the one hole which means his jockey, Garrett Gomez, won’t even have to try to get him into traffic trouble as he has in his past two races (see “Lookin at Lucky’s Wild Ride” immediately below this piece) since he will be in trouble from the moment the starting gate springs open. Sidney’s Candy, the second choice at morning line odds of 5-1, has drawn the next worst post position, especially for a speed horse, in gate number 20. So, the two most formidable horses (at least on paper) have the two most unfavorable post positions. After that, well, who the hell knows?
In past years, the Arkansas Derby has provided us with some of the most formidable Triple Crown contenders in Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin, so this year we would be remiss in not considering Line of David and Super Saver who were only a neck apart in that race. D. Wayne Lucas’ colt, Dublin, finished third in that race. In past years, D. Wayne was one of the most successful trainers in the Kentucky Derby, but I don’t give Dublin much of a chance this year. He has a bad habit of finishing third.
Awesome Act, whose sire won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, has the look of a closer who might do well in the Derby. He finished almost ten lengths behind Eskendereya in the Wood Memorial, but he stumbled at the break and that might prove an acceptable excuse, especially against this less than formidable field.
Normally, it is not wise to pick a filly against colts, but last year was the year of the distaff with the superb performances of Zenyatta (who was robbed of Horse of the Year honors) and of Rachel Alexandra (who was shamefully awarded them) so perhaps the mention of the filly, Devil May Care, may not be amiss. She is one of the few entrants in Derby 136 to sport even a 100 Beyer number, her grandsires A.P. Indy and Red Ransom are not exactly chopped liver, and (if there is anything at all to karma and cosmic justice) her jockey and trainer, J.R. Valazquez and Todd Pletcher, would have sent out Eskendereya.
You will have to pardon me for this last mention (I dare not call it a pick), but I am a Holy Bull groupie (Horse of the Year in 1994, in case you have forgotten) and his grandson, Conveyance, has done nothing wrong except weaken in the Sunland Derby and finish second. The boy was undefeated until then, winning the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita and the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn – but, I confess, he does have the look of a miler (not a mile and a quarter-er) but one does have to support the children or grandchildren of one’s friends. And, Holy Bull was definitely one of my equestrian friends. Also, his sire is Indian Charlie, who won the Santa Anita Derby and, I believe, was the favorite in the 1998 Kentucky Derby won by Real Quiet.
So, we have come full circle, I believe, – starting and ending with Real Quiet. I can’t give you any advice with respect to the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby. Just throw a dart at the past performances in the Daily Racing Form. The best horse in the race scratched out this past Sunday.
Lookin at Lucky’s Wild Ride
Derby favorite Eskendereya got a superb ride from John Velazquez on April 3rd in winning the Wood Memorial by so many lengths that the finish looked like he was working out on an empty track. Lookin at Lucky’s ride that day in the Santa Anita Derby? As Borat would say, “not so much.” Jockey Garrett Gomez had him inside and in tight for so much of the mile and eighth trip that it must have seemed to the beleaguered Derby contender that he was in New York City fighting cross-town traffic rather than tuning up for the 136th Kentucky Derby beneath Santa Anita’s beautiful San Gabriel Mountains. It was start and stop, bump and jostle all day for the colt who many thought of as the co-favorite for the Derby.
When he finally managed to get in the clear in mid-stretch, Lookin at Lucky made a desperate run at the leaders but he couldn’t even catch Setsuko for the place, much less the winner Sidney’s Candy, who cruised alone and unharried on the lead the whole way around the Santa Anita oval. Garrett Gomez was so angry about the result that he threw a punch after the race at fellow jockey Victor Espinoza whom he blamed for much of his trouble. In truth, he had no one to blame but himself. He was on the best horse in the race – what in the world was he doing down on the rail trying to save ground?
That was a mistake that legendary Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye never would have made. During his years as one of the best jockeys on the Southern California circuit, there was nobody better than “Eddie D” at riding a from the clouds closer, and when he made his breath taking closing moves (usually from somewhere near the back of the pack) he was out in the middle of the track with nothing but daylight between him and the finish line. Sometimes he got there and sometimes he fell just short, but it was always exciting and his mounts almost never encountered traffic trouble. The Daily Racing Form’s comment after he won the 1992 running of the Santa Anita Derby aboard eventual Horse of the Year A. P. Indy, “wide, driving,” could have served as an apt summary of his whole distinguished career.
“Wide, driving.” That’s a lesson Mr. Gomez could stand to learn or relearn. Instead of throwing punches near the scales or jawing at his compatriots in the jockey room, he ought to get over to Eddie D’s house in Arcadia, California, just a pitch and a putt from Santa Anita, and get schooled on the art of riding closers. Lesson No. 1: When you’re on the best horse in the race, have some faith in his abilities, and don’t get him involved in traffic trouble trying to save a little ground.
If Garrett Gomez was upset after the race, he was no more annoyed than Bob Baffert, Lookin at Lucky’s trainer. According to Jay Privman writing for the April 5, 2010 internet edition of the Daily Racing Form, Mr. Baffert was none too pleased:
“I said before the race I just wanted to get out of the race alive," Baffert said. "We almost didn't. That's why I was so upset at Garrett. That's two times in a row he's almost gone down. It's like going to the World Series and your number-one pitcher throws two fastballs into the stands. We live by these horses. You can't put them in danger.”
There were ten horses in the gate at Santa Anita on April 3rd. There will be twenty in the gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. If Lookin at Lucky is to have any chance of winning the Kentucky Derby, his jockey better figure out a way to keep him out of trouble.
Undefeated Except at the Ballot Box, Zenyatta Prepares to Take Her Perfect Record Back to the Track
Since she began racing in 2007, Zenyatta has entered the starting gate 14 times and has come home a winner 14 times, the last time on November 7, 2009 when she won the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Gr-1) against a full field of the best horses in the world, getting up to defeat Gioponti by a length in her patented “closing from the clouds” style. It was the first time a mare had won the country’s most prestigious race, and one would have thought that, plus a perfect lifetime record, might have been enough to garner Horse of the Year honors, but not in celebrity obsessed America.
Actually, the balloting for 2009 Horse of the Year wasn’t even close. Three year old Rachel Alexandra won by a wide margin, and why not? After all, she had beaten a weak group of injury riddled colts in the Preakness Stakes (Gr-1) at Pimlico on May 16, 2009, holding off the late charge of Kentucky Derby winner, Minethatbird, by a length. And then, ducking the one and one-quarter mile Travers Stakes (the “Mid-Summer Derby”) against her age group at Saratoga, chose to run against a weaker group of older males a week later in the Woodward at a mile and an eighth. She managed to beat Macho Again, a “useful” handicap horse, by a head. Macho Again is a nice enough horse, but no one would even think of mentioning him in the same breath with Gioponti, and he would have beaten Rachel handily in the Woodward had the race been a sixteenth of a mile longer (or, for that matter, five yards longer).
So, why would the voters prefer a three year old filly who has never raced beyond a distance of a mile and three-sixteenths (the Preakness) over a distinguished five year old race mare who had never lost a race, and had just won the Breeders’ Cup Classic defeating some of the best horses in the world at the championship distance of a mile and a quarter?
Three reasons: First, Zenyatta has run most of her races in California, and the racing press has long had a prejudice against Western race horses (just ask Seabiscuit, Swaps, Affirmed and Sunday Silence) – they never win popularity contests over Eastern horses unless they beat them decisively on the track, and sometimes not even then. Second, the American public pays attention to horse racing only during the Triple Crown series of races (the Derby, Preakness and Belmont) for three year olds, though one would think the professional voters of the racing press would acknowledge that the best racing occurs among older handicap horses. And, third, television and the racing press made Rachel Alexandra such a celebrity after her wins in the Kentucky Oaks and the Preakness that she had the status of a rock star – and we Americans love our celebrities. Remember the relative publicity given Princess Di and Mother Teresa when they died within a couple of days of each other? For the record, Mother Teresa would have creamed Princess Di at a mile and a quarter.
But there’s no more justice in horse racing than there is in life. Rachel Alexandra’s owner, Jess Jackson, knows a thing or two about lobbying for votes for Horse of the Year, having won in both 2007 and 2008 with Curlin, despite his champion having lost the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic on the artificial surface at Santa Anita. If there ever was any question, that defeat confirmed Mr. Jackson’s determination that none of his great horses would ever again race on “plastic,” as he dismissively refers to the safer artificial surfaces now being installed at so many of the world’s greatest race tracks. So, he had Rachel sit out the Breeders’ Cup Classic, just as he had her stay in the barn when the Travers Stakes was run at Saratoga at the championship distance of a mile and one-quarter. You can take this to the bank – as long as Mr. Jackson owns Rachel, you’ll never see her race on anything but natural dirt and she’ll never again race at a distance beyond a mile and an eighth.
Illogical as the results of the Horse of the Year balloting were, Zenyatta’s owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, could see them coming. They had planned to retire Zenyatta after her five year old season, capped as it was by her spectacular win against the best male horses in training in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but the prospective slight in the popularity contest for Horse of the Year left a bad taste in their mouths, and before the results were announced they said Zenyatta would race another season in the hope of facing Rachel Alexandra on the track.
Arranging the race would not be easy. They would have to ship East because there was no question of Rachel coming to California with its state mandated artificial surfaces, and it would have to be at a time, distance and track of Jess Jackson’s choosing. At one point, Mr. Jackson indicated his star would not face Zenyatta unless the Mosses agreed to a three race series, but he relented on that demand and, after a series of telephone calls back and forth with the opposing camps, Charles Cella, the owner of Oaklawn Park put up $5 million of his own money to have the equine superstars meet in the Grade-1 Apple Blossom on April 9, 2010. At Mr. Jackson’s request, the race was rescheduled to better suit Rachel Alexandra’s training schedule and will be held this year on the next to the last day of the Oaklawn meet, the Friday before the Arkansas Derby.
The structure of the race would seem to favor Rachel Alexandra. It is on natural dirt, of course, a surface Zenyatta has not raced on since she won the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn in April of 2008, and it is at a distance of a mile and one-sixteenth which will favor Rachel’s front running style. The layout of the racing oval also presents a difficulty for Zenyatta since the run from the final turn to the wire will involve making the turn “into the short stretch” to quote Oaklawn’s legendary track announcer, Terry Wallace, which may not allow enough room for the mare’s powerful closing kick to develop. But both horses and their respective jockey’s, Calvin Borel and Mike Smith, have won on their mounts at Oaklawn, Rachel in the Fantasy Stakes (Gr-2) in 2009 and Zenyatta in the aforementioned Apple Blossom in 2008. If she is to keep her perfect record intact, Zenyatta and Mike Smith will have to unwind their closing move a bit earlier than usual on the turn for home.
Both horses will have their first race of the season this Saturday, March 13, 2010, Rachel in a special race which was created for her at The Fairgrounds in New Orleans and Zenyatta in the Santa Margarita (Gr-1) at Santa Anita. Then, it will be on to the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, a race which this year will overshadow not only the Arkansas Derby, but also the Kentucky Derby, in interest and purse money.
Curmudgeon’s Postscript: As if to put a further exclamation point on the travesty which the balloting for 2009 Horse of the Year was, Rachel Alexandra was defeated by Zenyatta’s stablemate, Zardanna, in the “made for Rachel” stakes race at The Fair Grounds on March 13th while Zenyatta won the Grade-1 Santa Margarita that same day at Santa Anita with consummate ease.
After her defeat, Rachel was a no-show at the Apple Blossom (GR-1) at Oaklawn, with the effect that its purse reverted to its traditional $500,000 amount, but Zenyatta kept her appointment there as scheduled and won with a powerful closing move to run her lifetime record to 16-0, most of her wins being in Grade-1 races. Rachel tried again on Oaks Day, April 30, 2010, at Churchill Downs, scene of her most impressive triumph, and was defeated in the Grade-2 La Troienne Stakes by Distinctive Belle. The respective records for 2010: The six year-old Zenyatta, 2-0; the four year-old Rachel Alexandra, 0-2.
And Then There Were Two (What’s Left of Derby 135)
Back on March 14th, before the running of the Louisiana Derby at the Fairgrounds, I placed four equal bets on four colts, who I regarded as the best three-year-olds in the country, in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. They were Quality Road, The Pamplemousse, Friesan Fire, and I Want Revenge. Since that time they are undefeated, having collectively won every race they entered, and yet I’ll be lucky to have two of them in the starting gate for Derby 135 on Saturday. I’ve seen a lot of favorites fall by the wayside in the Kentucky Derby and in the Future Wager, but usually it’s because of poor racing rather than injuries.
The Pamplemousse, who would have gone off as the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, scratched on the day of that race with a tendon injury and will be out of action for six months to a year. After winning the Florida Derby in impressive fashion, Quality Road has suffered not one, but two, quarter cracks and will not be seen until the Preakness, if then. And those are just two of the “big horses” -- we have lost. Just in the last two or three days, Quality Road, Win Willie, Square Eddie and Take the Points have joined earlier scratches Old Fashioned and The Pamplemousse as defections from the Derby. So, who is left?
Well, I Want Revenge, who will break from Post 13, has been installed as the 3-1 morning line favorite after overcoming every conceivable kind of trouble and winning the Wood Memorial under talented teenage jockey, Joe Talamo. At least he made it to the post position draw. So did Friesan Fire, who hasn’t raced since the Louisiana Derby but went through every stakes race for three-year-olds at the Fairgrounds like a hot knife through butter, and who will break from Post 6 at morning line odds of 5-1. Dunkirk, who has yet to win a stakes race and had an excellent view of Quality Road’s rump as he won the Florida Derby, has nevertheless been installed as the second choice (with Pioneer of the Nile) at 4-1. The Todd Pletcher trainee will break from Post 15. As just noted, Bob Baffert’s Pioneer of the Nile, who won the Santa Anita Derby and a couple of other graded stakes at Santa Anita, is also 4-1, and will have the services of leading jock, Garrett Gomez, and will break from Post 16. Those are the top four survivors on Derby Island – at least they are 72 hours prior to post time.
So, how does your Curmudgeon feel about the top four colts in this years’ Derby? As to I Want Revenge (3-1, PP 13), what’s not to like other than his short price? He was left at the gate in the Wood Memorial, encountered every kind of traffic problem, and still managed to gut it out between horses to get up for the win. If there was ever a “prep race” for the bad trips frequently encountered in the Kentucky Derby, this year’s Wood was certainly it. He earned a 103 Beyer number during that horror show on April 4th, but his 113 in the Gotham on March 7th was probably a truer measure of his ability.
I liked Friesan Fire (5-1, PP 6) before he ran in the Louisiana Derby on March 14th, and his seven and a half length win (104 Beyer) in the slop over Papa Clem (who went on to win the Arkansas Derby) did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. Old timers would tell you that the seven intervening weeks without a race makes him an absolute throw-out in the Derby, but one by one the old shibboleths of horse training have been giving way, and the layoff was not because of injury but by design. Larry Jones, who trained Hard Spun to a second place finish in the 2007 Derby, is pleased by the way he has been coming along, and he worked a “bullet” (fastest time at the distance on that day) five furlongs at Churchill Downs in 57.4 seconds on April 27th so he obviously like the surface. I liked him in mid-March and I still like him in May. He is, after all, a son of A.P. Indy and you don’t get much better breeding than that.
I’ll admit to being a bit bitter that it’s Dunkirk (4-1, PP 15), the second place finisher in the Florida Derby, rather than the injured winner, Quality Road, who is now getting all the attention. Dunkirk was the “wise-guy” horse then on March 28th (when I bet against him) and he’s still the wise-guy horse now in the Derby at morning line odds of 4-1. But, he did earn a 108 Beyer in finishing second in that race, and there aren’t many survivors in this depleted Derby field who can boast of such a speed number now. Maybe it finally is Todd Pletcher’s time to win the Kentucky Derby. I certainly wouldn’t bet against him now.
A horse that I am willing to take a position against, however, is Pioneer of the Nile (4-1, PP 16). Despite his three graded stakes wins in the R.B. Lewis, the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby, I am decidedly under-whelmed. All of those races were on artificial surfaces (he has never raced on dirt) and his Beyers at 95, 90, and 96 were nothing to write home about. A word of warning, however, -- artificial surfaces typically produce lower Beyer speed numbers than dirt, and the last time I was so down on horses coming out of the Santa Anita Derby was Giacomo’s year in 2005 when he won and the California horses finished first, fourth, fifth and sixth in the Derby! It’s also usually a mistake to bet against Bob Baffert or Garret Gomez in any horse race, but I’m going to. I won’t resort to the old race track expression and say “I wouldn’t bet Pioneer of the Nile with your money,” but I sure won’t bet him with mine.
Once you are past the putative “big four,” it’s “pay your money and take your choice” with the rest of this year’s Derby field. The winner of the Arkansas Derby has been a major factor in recent years with Smarty Jones in 2004 and Afleet Alex in 2005, but Papa Clem (20-1, PP 7) was all out in this year’s edition to beat Old Fashioned who was racing with what turned out to be a career ending injury. Friesan Fire beat him handily in the Louisiana Derby, but he has been keeping very good company (racing against Pioneer of the Nile and I Want Revenge) and his 102 Beyer in the Arkansas Derby is one of the better speed numbers in this depleted field.
Blue Grass winner General Quarters (20-1, PP 12) is the feel good story in this year’s Kentucky Derby and it’s impossible not to root for him. He is owner and trainer Tom McCarthy’s only horse, and more poignantly his last horse. Once he is finished, so is Mr. McCarthy’s long career in horse racing. Winning the Blue Grass Stakes has been a sort of curse in recent years since the last winner who went on to win the Derby was Strike the Gold in 1991. Lots of participants in Keeneland’s marquee race for three-year-olds have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby (more than any other prep race, in fact) and Street Sense who finished second in 2007 won the Derby, but the perceived problem with Kentucky’s preeminent prep race has only grown since Keeneland switched its surface to Polytrack from dirt. Street Sense was a much better horse on dirt than on artificial surfaces (his high finishes at Keeneland were despite, rather than because of, the Polytrack) but the jury is still out on whether the same is true for General Quarters. He turned in an impressive performance (102 Beyer) in the Sam F. Davis on dirt at Tampa Bay Downs, but had a lackluster race in the Tampa Bay Derby. His closing move to win the Blue Grass was most impressive, however, and hot jock Julian Leparoux sticks with him so I’ll have to include him in my Derby bet this year based on sentiment, if nothing else.
West Side Bernie (30-1, PP 1) has the disadvantage of breaking from the one hole, but that 101 Beyer he earned in the Wood Memorial when finishing second only one and one-half lengths behind I Want Revenge keeps calling him to my attention. Stewart Elliott who rode Derby winner Smarty Jones in 2004 has the call, and it’s not impossible that he might hit the board at very long odds.
That’s about it this year with reference to colts who have cracked the century mark on the Beyer scale. It used to be that one would look for a Beyer of at least 105-110 in a serious Derby contender. This year only I want Revenge, Dunkirk and Friesan Fire come anywhere close to meeting that standard. Quality Road met it a couple of times, but sadly he will be staying in the barn. Everyone else in the field (except for the aforementioned Pappa Clem, General Quarters and West Side Bernie) has struggled to get into the high 90s. So, what else stands out and suggests that one of the other horses might be something special? Remember, Giacomo had never run a 100 Beyer before winning the Derby in 2005, nor had Birdstone before denying Smarty Jones a well deserved Triple Crown in the 2004 Belmont.
The most impressive closing move I saw in the prep races this year (even more impressive than the moves Friesan Fire routinely treated us to at the Fairgrounds) was Advice’s (30-1, PP 4) last to first trip in the Lexington at Keeneland. It was simply breathtaking, and I am amazed that he was only awarded a 94 Beyer for it. It didn’t hurt, of course, that Garrett Gomez who has stamped himself the best jockey in the country was aboard for the trip, but he departs to ride Pioneer of the Nile for Bob Baffert. Still, Advice had a nice four furlong work at Churchill Downs on April 27th, and that closing move was something to behold and gives one something to think about in a race which often goes to closers.
Almost every year Godolphin Racing, which dominates the international racing circuits in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, tries to win the Kentucky Derby without running in any American prep races and every year they fail. This year they are back with two runners, Desert Party (15-1, PP 19) and Regal Ransom (30-1, PP 10) who finished second and first respectively in the UAE Derby on March 28th. When the Daily Racing Form published Timeform speed numbers I was able to equate them to our American Beyers, but I confess to having no idea what their Racing Post ratings of 111 and 112 mean. I do know, however, that both horses worked five furlongs at Churchill on April 25th and were impressive, finishing first and second out of thirty horses who tried that distance, so they obviously are having no problem with the surface. I think it is telling, however, that Godolphin’s number one jockey, Frankie Dettori, didn’t come over to ride either colt. It’s probably wait ‘till next year.
Finally, no Derby article is complete without mentioning the connections who have pulled off some incredible feats in prior years. Mike Smith, who rode Giacomo to his improbable 50-1 victory in 2005, is on Chocolate Candy (20-1, PP 11) this year. Of course, Giacomo was a special project for Smith that year since he was the regular rider on that one’s sire, the beloved Holy Bull. And in 2002, I learned again (the hard way) that you can never completely write D. Wayne Lucas off, no matter how sorry his horse appears to be. Proud Citizen had finished dead last that year in the slowest Santa Anita Derby run since 1963, but he finished second in the Kentucky Derby costing me a trifecta that would have paid several thousand dollars. D. Wayne trains 50 to 1 shot Flying Private (50-1, PP 20) this year. Are the racing gods trying to suggest to me that I shouldn’t be writing off multiple Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert and Pioneer of the Nile? Probably so, but some people are just too stupid to learn.
Good luck in Derby 135!
Good Luck to Curlin in Tomorrow’s Breeders’ Cup Classic
While we have been distracted this racing year with Big Brown and other Triple Crown contenders, the best horse in North America, and quite possibly the world, Curlin, has quietly gone about doing what he does best – defeating the best horses in training in the toughest and most distinguished races in the country, everyone of them a Grade-1.
Just a little over a year ago, Curlin won Belmont’s prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup for the first time. A year ago this weekend he followed that victory up by winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park. On March 29, 2008, he won the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. He returned from his trip halfway around the world to win the Stephen Foster (the best race for older horses at Churchill Downs) in June. A month later, he tried the turf for the first time in the Man O’ War at Belmont finishing second to Red Rocks, one of the best turfers in the world. In August, he won the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, and followed that up a month later by winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup for a second time at Belmont.
Tomorrow he tries a synthetic surface for the first time in the 2008 edition of the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. Win, lose or draw, that race (almost certainly his last) will conclude the most brilliant season any race horse has run in well over a decade. For two years this gritty campaigner has danced every dance, and taken on all comers. If there is such a thing as cosmic justice, he and his fabulous jockey, Robbie Albarado, will go out as the winners they have always been.
Improving on Near Perfection at Keeneland
My trip this fall to Keeneland proved to be something of a social bust. My buddy who goes to The Fairgrounds (and sometimes Keeneland) with me couldn’t make it because of a black tie dinner at home, nor could my daughter and son-in-law (who were busy watching Georgia get humiliated by Tennessee at Athens) or my son and daughter-in-law who had real-world conflicts of their own, or even my usually reliable spouse, so I put my old 1990 Ford SHO in gear and headed up I-65 to the Bluegrass Parkway alone. I missed their company, but as far as the joys of Keeneland and the surrounding horse country in Lexington and environs went, I have never had a more delightful time.
I chose to drive up for the opening weekend of the fall meet, as I usually do, in order to see the excellent stakes races which Keeneland front-loads into their Fall Preview Weekend so that the spacing will be perfect for the Breeders’ Cup races four weeks later. I left early Friday morning, October 6th so I would arrive in time to see the Grade-3 Sycamore run on the turf, hardly a Breeders’ Cup prep race, but I wanted to see whether my old friend Rochester could still win that race one more time at age ten (if you scroll down through this article to the next, you can see a picture of him on his way to the winner’s circle last year) but he couldn’t. It looks like age has finally caught up with the old boy -- he finished eighth. Nevertheless, it was great seeing him being saddled before the race and getting a chance to wish his superb trainer, Jonathan Sheppard, good luck and to thank him for bringing his old hard knocker back to try and win the Sycamore one more time. Rochester, amazingly, had won that stakes race three times previously. It is trainers like Jonathan Sheppard, and old geldings like Rochester, who make horse racing the great and sentimental sport it is.
But my determination to drive six and one-half hours up to Keeneland by myself was not motivated just by my desire to see a favorite old horse race one more time, but also by my curiosity to see something brand new -- the artificial Polytrack surface which replaced Keeneland’s front-speed favoring dirt track. Needless to say, I approached that new development with considerable misgivings. I confess to being something of a hide-bound traditionalist, and I wasn’t at all sure I was ready to give up a decade and more of easy handicapping by picking horses who had inside posts and great front-speed. It didn’t take long to establish that the old practice of handicapping Keeneland’s “dirt” races according to the rule of “the golden rail” was a thing of the past.
The next race after the Sycamore was the feature for the day, the 55th running of the Darley Alcibiades (Gr-2) for two year-old fillies, run over the new Polytrack surface for a purse of $400,000, the first stakes race to be run over Keeneland’s artificial surface. It was a wide open race with a field of fourteen of the best young fillies in the country including Untouched Talent and She’s Included, the second and third place finishers in the Del Mar Debutant (Gr-1) and Appealing Zophie and Cotton Blossom, the first two finishers in the Spinaway (Gr-1) at Saratoga. I boxed them and for good measure threw in Her Majesty, a Giant’s Causeway filly who had just broken her maiden over Turfway’s version of the Polytrack surface. My horses were running first, second and third coming down the stretch when “out of the nowhere into the here” came Bel Air Beauty who closed from far back, down the middle of the track, at 47 to 1 and blew by Cotton Blossom and Her Majesty, and just got up to beat Untouched Talent by three-quarters of a length. That just didn’t use to happen at inside speed biased Keeneland!
Throughout the weekend in maiden races, allowances, and graded stakes, the new Polytrack surface continued to play fair for runners of all styles, with just as many closers winning as front runners. Clearly, the artificial surface had eliminated the old inside speed bias, but even more important the horses, the jockeys and the trainers all seemed to enjoy racing over the more cushioned and forgiving and safer track. I haven’t checked with the Keeneland racing office or followed each day’s subsequent results for the entire fall meet, but I am not aware of a single breakdown which occurred over the new Polytrack surface. Throughout the weekend, the Lexington Herald-Leader conducted numerous interviews with trainers and jockeys and not one of them had anything but praise for the new surface.
Obviously, Keeneland’s management took quite a gamble in moving away from its traditional dirt track to the new artificial surface when Churchill Downs and the Florida, Maryland and New York tracks were all staying with dirt. The California tracks are now all in the process of converting to artificial surfaces with Hollywood Park’s fall meet now being the first to run over the new “Cushion Track,” so far with good results. The acid test for the new surface, however, would be determined by how its runners fared when they moved from the artificial surface back to the traditional dirt. It is not just my natural procrastination that caused me to be a month late in posting this article (though certainly there is an element of that) -- I wanted to see how the runners over the Keeneland Polytrack surface did in the Breeders’ Cup over the Churchill Downs dirt.
I am happy to report that the Keeneland runners (and Keeneland’s new Polytrack) passed the test with flying colors. Although the times posted over the softer and more tiring Polytrack at Keeneland on Saturday, October 7th, in the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (GR-1) were slower than the times of races run both before and after on dirt, the top three finishers in the Lane’s End that afternoon were Great Hunter, Circular Quay, and Street Sense, and on Saturday, November 4th, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on the Churchill Downs dirt the top three finishers were Street Sense, Circular Quay and Great Hunter! It’s hard to get any more affirmation for Keeneland’s Polytrack surface than that. In addition, Asi Siempre and Happy Ticket, the winner and sixth place finisher, respectively, in Keeneland’s Juddmonte Spinster (Gr-1) run on the Polytrack finished second and third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff giving a very good account of themselves in that championship race for fillies and mares won by Round Pond.
Sadly, and perhaps more significantly for the future of artificial surfaces such as Polytrack, Fleet Indian had to be pulled up injured on the Churchill Downs dirt in the Distaff, and Pine Island broke down completely and had to be destroyed immediately following the race. We all remember Barbaro’s distressing breakdown in the Preakness this spring, and I cannot help wondering whether he would still be racing had that race been run over a more forgiving, less stressful, artificial surface.
No changes, of course, were made by Keeneland’s management to its wonderful, sand-based turf course (which is almost identical to the Churchill Downs’ turf), and Miesque’s Approval, who was the morning line favorite in the Shadwell Turf Mile (GR-1) run on the Keeneland grass on October 7th, but had to settle for fourth behind winner Aussie Rules, turned the tables on that one and all others on Breeders’ Cup day winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile by a convincing margin. All told, the Keeneland runners gave a very good account of themselves on racing’s championship day at Churchill Downs on November 4th.
The improvements made by management to an already delightful racing experience at Keeneland were by no means confined to the racing surface and track maintenance. White patio tables and chairs had been placed throughout the facility giving patrons many more places to sit and watch the races in comfort, and it took me a few minutes walking outside by the track to realize that I had no trouble at all reading the tote board.
Keeneland, which used to eschew even a track announcer on the theory that anyone knowledgeable enough to be at Keeneland didn’t need one, has installed as fan friendly a tote board and electronic viewing area as I have ever seen at a race track. It is not intrusive (as I said, it was a minute or two before I even noticed that the old, mechanical tote had been replaced) but all the odds are easily visible from anywhere in the stands, and once the race is being run the new screens not only give outside bettors the usual large screen video of the race, but on other screens animated, computer generated images continually adjust to represent the place of every horse in its exact position in the race. Thus, unlike the situation at most tracks, if you have bet a closer who is far back on the back stretch you do not need binoculars to see precisely where he is in relation to all the other horses in the race, and the tote board reflects the precise running order of the horses at all times during the race, not just at designated points of call. I had never been able to follow an entire race so comprehensively and easily. This new electronic tote and its viewing screens really enhance the excitement and enjoyment of the races.
I’ve always thought that Keeneland is the best place in the country to go to the races, not only because of the beauty of the place, and the superb horses and jockeys drawn from all over to compete for the generous purses, but also because it is situated in the midst of the Bluegrass country and the center of America’s breeding farms. But everything came together this fall to make my weekend at Keeneland even more enjoyable than usual. The weather was crisp, cool and sunny; the races were exciting and the payoffs large (in the fifth race on Sunday, the superfecta paid almost $400,000, and no, I didn’t have it); the University of Kentucky had a home football game taking up all the Lexington hotel rooms so I had to stay in Georgetown in the neighboring county, and so found my way back and forth to Keeneland’s back gate over one lane roads past tobacco farms and beautiful breeding establishments like the Vinery, Hill ‘N’ Dale, and Buckram Oak Farm; and finally, precisely because I had no traveling companions, I had time to visit Holy Bull at Darley at Jonabell and spend some delightful time talking horse racing with Phillip Hampton at the stallion barn.
All told, even without traveling companions, my trip to Keeneland this fall was another in a long string of delightful experiences. With respect to the racing itself, Keeneland’s management has managed to improve on what I always thought was a near perfect experience, and their courage in introducing the new Polytrack surface may go a long way toward eliminating one of the few chinks in the Keeneland Association’s armor. Although its premier Derby prep race, the Blue Grass Stakes, has produced more Kentucky Derby winners than any other prep, no winner of the Blue Grass has won the Derby since Strike the Gold pulled off the All-Kentucky double in 1991 -- probably because the Keeneland dirt had such a pronounced front-speed bias, whereas Churchill Downs’ racing surface has traditionally favored closers. Now, judging from the top three Lane’s End Breeders Futurity (Gr-1) finishers’ performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile run this year over Churchill’s dirt, that situation seems about to change!
I can’t wait until it’s time for Keeneland’s spring meet and Blue Grass Day.
|Rochester (Gary Stevens up) after winning Sycamore Breeders' Cup for the third time at Keeneland, October 7, 2005
Betting More Wisely But Enjoying It Less
Normally at this time of year I would be depositing a couple hundred dollars into my BrisBet internet horse racing account in preparation for the Kentucky Derby, but this year no matter how badly I do in handicapping Derby 132 (and I fear I will do very badly, indeed) a certain amount of money will be flowing back into my checking account, which is something akin to water flowing uphill. Beginning last summer, during the Saratoga and Del Mar meets, in a sort of man-bites-dog scenario, money (albeit in small amounts) began flowing from my internet betting account into my checking account rather than vice versa. But notwithstanding how unusual that flow of funds has been, it has not been a particularly exciting process.
That is not to say that I have lost my love for horse racing -- far from it -- but I no longer have the same passionate rooting interests. Most of my old equine friends have retired and are no longer racing, and I have even begun to have more tolerance for those trainers, such as D. Wayne Lucas and Bobby Frankel, whom I traditionally have rooted against. It’s kind of hard to pull against D. Wayne while he is down (less hard, admittedly, with respect to brash Bobby while he is up), even though one of his charges, Leroidesanimaux, who finished second last year in the Breeders’ Cup Turf and now sadly has been retired, was one of my favorites.
Since Giacomo’s improbable victory in last year’s Derby, and Afleet Alex’s avoidance of Scrappy T’s attempt at a take-down in the Preakness, my most exciting moment in horse racing in the past year has been backing nine-year-old Rochester when he won the Sycamore Breeders’ Cup Stakes (G-3) for the third time at a mile and one-half on the turf on the opening day of Keeneland’s fall meet. None of the commentators on TVG’s horse racing network (and very few of the bettors that day) gave the old hard knocker much chance despite his wonderful record on the Keeneland grass, and when he closed from last place to blow past the leaders near the wire, it almost brought tears to my eyes. Rochester, now ten, and another old turf horse, Honor in War (together with the sons and daughters of Holy Bull and the grandchildren of Sunday Silence), are my only remaining passionate rooting interests nowadays in horse racing.
The retirements of so many great jockeys during the past several seasons -- Hall of Famers such as Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay, Pat Day, Gary Stevens and Jerry Bailey have all had their effects in dampening down my normal enthusiasm and left in its place a sort of poignant nostalgia. So, while my Derby analysis this year may well be as flawed as usual, it will not be burdened with the customary emotional fervor and prejudices.
At the outset, I will reveal the horses on whom I bet in the first Churchill Downs futures Derby pool this year in case you may want to immediately eliminate them from your consideration. They are: Brother Derek, whom I have regarded all season long as the best three-year-old in the country; Lawyer Ron, who since he got off the artificial Polytrack surface at Turfway is undefeated on the Oaklawn dirt and is following the same Derby prep path as did Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex; John Shirreff’s A. P. Arrow, who has the look of a closer; Bob and John, who was overshadowed by Brother Derek in California, but who looked very impressive in New York winning the Wood Memorial in the slop; and, of course, Flashy Bull, Holy Bull’s son, whom I bet for the same sentimental reasons as I did Giacomo last year (sentiment, I might add, which saved an otherwise horribly handicapped Kentucky Derby).
Notable by his absence is the colt Barbaro, the winner of the Florida Derby, who is not only undefeated, but has been training magnificently at Churchill Downs, whom I dismissed early as a turf horse, but whom knowledgeable trainers, jockeys, commentators, and Churchill Downs odds-maker, Mike Battaglia, all think has a wonderful chance of winning this years’ Derby. Another horse prominently mentioned by the cognoscenti whom I failed to include is Point Determined, the grandson of Derby winner Thunder Gulch and son of Preakness and Belmont winner Point Given. So, you may want to go to school on those two glaring omissions.
As those of you who have followed my ruminations on the Horse Racing page of this web site know all too well, I am something of a Keeneland groupie and go up to that beautiful track in Lexington, Kentucky whenever I can. I was particularly eager to attend the Blue Grass Stakes this year, despite the race coming up a bit weak when compared to previous years, because 2006 was probably the last year that it will be run on dirt, as opposed to the attic insulation which passes for Polytrack. Keeneland’s dirt track has always had a pronounced front speed bias (inside speed bias, in fact) and I wanted to see Kentucky’s preeminent Derby prep race run one last time on dirt. I am here to tell you that Keeneland’s dirt surface lived up to its biased reputation and then some.
I watched the Blue Grass Stakes from the balcony looking down on the starting gate on the fourth floor of the Keeneland stands, and I am still not sure I believe what I saw. Bob Baffert’s Sinister Minister, a confirmed front runner, had drawn the widest post position, but was gunned out of the gate and crossed over to reach Keeneland’s “golden rail” and never looked back! He took a large lead on the back stretch, and all the jockeys riding the other horses kept waiting for the suicidal pace to take a toll on him and never tried to challenge him for the lead. But instead of coming back to the pack, Sinister Minister just kept increasing his lead. By the time he was mid-way through the turn for home in the mile and an eighth race, I exclaimed “They’re not going to catch him, he’s just gone!” When he hit the stretch he kept getting stronger, pulling away even more to post a winning margin of 12-3/4s lengths -- and a 116 Beyer number, the second highest in a Derby prep race since Andy Beyer’s proprietary speed numbers became available to the public through the Daily Racing Form.
Now for the caveats: As I discussed in “The Curse of the Blue Grass Stakes,” the first article posted on the Horse Racing page in 2002, it is no accident that no winner of the Blue Grass Stakes has won the Kentucky Derby since Strike the Gold pulled off the all-Kentucky double in 1991, precisely because of the diametrically different biases of the two surfaces at Keeneland and Churchill Downs -- Keeneland favors front runners (as Sinister Minister so dramatically demonstrated on April 15th) while Churchill traditionally has favored closers. Also, as Andy Beyer has pointed out in his book Beyer on Speed (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), the raw speed number is not as important as the manner in which it was earned. No other horse attempted to go with Sinister Minister in the Blue Grass Stakes, and so he had an easy, relaxing race while “loose on the lead.” That will definitely not be the case in Derby 132 -- most of the highly regarded horses in this year’s Derby are themselves “speed” horses (the problem is finding a well regarded closer) and he should have some company on or near the lead this time. Churchill odds-maker, Mike Battaglia, has put him at 12-1 on the morning line.
Most distrurbing, perhaps, is that Sinister Minister has never run a race even remotely as impressive as his Blue Grass Stakes -- was it a once in a lifetime abberation? Oh, and the highest ever Beyer in a Derby prep race? That would be Bellamy Road’s 120 Beyer in the Wood Memorial in 2005, and, as you probably recall, you needed a pretty powerful set of binoculars even to spy him up the track at the finish of last year’s Derby. Still …, that 116 Beyer is a full seven points higher than the next highest figure earned by his Derby opponents (Sweetnorthernsaint’s 109 in the Illinois Derby).
Now to return to consideration of the colts who the experts actually think have a chance of winning this years’ Kentucky Derby, the 3-1 morning line favorite, Brother Derek, certainly deserves strong consideration despite his very wide post position in the 18 hole. The California contingent looks strong this year (as opposed to last year when it looked weak to me, and four of the top six finishers in the Derby had run in the Santa Anita Derby -- not one of my greatest handicapping triumphs) and Brother Derek certainly appears to be the best of a good group.
The winner of four straight graded stakes races in Southern California, he earned a 108 Beyer in the San Rafael on January 14th and repeated that number in winning the Santa Anita Derby in impressive fashion over Point Determined and A. P. Arrow on April 8th. Until last year when Giacomo won the Derby without ever earning a Beyer number over 100, I used to think that it took a Beyer number in the 110 range to win the Kentucky Derby. I’m a slow learner -- I still think so, and Brother Derek certainly qualifies with his twin 108s in those two races. The drawback is that he has been facing relatively small fields in California, and, as a speed horse, he may be hung wide breaking from his 18 post position and may fall victim to a bad trip.
The rest of the California colts are not exactly chopped liver either, though they don’t seemed to have impressed Churchill odds-maker Mike Battaglia, judging from the morning line odds he has assigned to them. Former jockey, Gary Stevens, and his fellow TVG commentator, former trainer Frank Lyons, said Point Determined (12-1) looked very good on the Churchill track Thursday morning, May 4th, and Bob Baffert has said that his other horse (besides speedball Sinister Minister at 12-1), Bob and John (12-1), the gritty winner of the Wood Memorial, where he shipped to avoid Brother Derek, can rate nicely behind the speed from his number 7 post. Last year’s winning trainer, John Shirreffs, says his colt A.P. Warrior (15-1) has never been better, and he is not given to hyperbole. Moreover, he is not a front runner and should get a lot of speed up front against which to close.
What’s wrong with this picture? Bob Baffert, one of the most successful triple crown trainers in recent years has the winner of the Wood Memorial (Bob and John), the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes (Sinister Minister) and the second place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby (Point Determined) and all three are 12-1! And on top of that, John Shirreffs, trainer of last year’s Derby winner, Giacomo, has an improving closer in a field full of front runners (A.P. Arrow) and his horse is 15-1 with the Jolly Jap (Corey Nakatani) up. Don’t throw me in the Briarpatch!
Now on to the colts who do seem to command Mike Battaglia’s respect. I’ve liked Lawyer Ron (4-1) since the beginning of his three-year-old season. His owner James Hines died before his horse could climb to the verge of greatness by winning the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn -- in a poignant turn of events he is now controlled by his namesake, Lawyer Ron Bamberger, the executor of Mr. Hines’ estate, and trained by Oaklawn legend Robert Holthus. He is the winner of six straight races (including the same races which Smarty Jones used as his path to greatness) but the problem, at least as it appears to me, is that he just doesn’t seem to be as fast as Smarty was. Smarty earned a 106 Beyer in the Rebel Stakes and a 108 Beyer in the 2004 Arkansas Derby. Compare those figures with the 94 and 98 Beyer numbers which Lawyer Ron earned in those races this year. His only three-figured Beyer was the 106 he put up in winning the Risen Star Stakes at Louisiana Downs on January 14th. His margins of victory in all of those races were comfortable, however, so perhaps jockey John McKee was just trying not to use him up. Lawyer Ron has also worked well at Churchill , earning a “bullet” best work at 5 furlongs out of 49 horses on April 29th, demonstrating that he handles the surface well. The fall off in Beyers is, nevertheless, a little worrisome.
Now for the turf horse whom I neglected in the first Churchill Derby futures pool, but whom everyone else in horse racing seems to like a lot, Barbaro (4-1). On the top, his breeding is pure turf with Dynaformer as his sire and Roberto as his grandsire, which should give him plenty of stamina to get the mile and one-quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby, and on the bottom his damsire is Carson City which should give him plenty of dirt speed. His only triple figure Beyer on dirt is a 103, but he picked a pretty good race in which to earn it -- the Florida Derby run at Gulfstream Park on April 1st. There is good news and bad news in that last sentence: he won a Grade-1 race with a 103 Beyer, but that was his last race and he ran it over five weeks ago. The last time a horse won the Kentucky Derby off a five week layoff was half a century ago in 1956 when Needles pulled off that feat. His trainer, Michael Matz, is unfazed by the long layoff and Derby history, however. His horse has won every race he has ever run, some off even longer layoffs. Moreover, he has worked extremely well over the Churchill surface posting a workout at four furlongs on April 29th in 46 seconds, breezing, which was the best work at the distance that day of 69.
Another colt who is getting, and deserves, a good deal of respect is Sweetnorthernsaint (10-1) whose Beyers in his races this year have been 102,104,104, and culminated with a 109 earned while winning the Grade-2 Illinois Derby on April 8th at a mile and one-eighth. He pressed the pace in that race before running off to a nine and one-quarter length victory under jockey Kent Desormeaux. His Beyers have been steadily improving, and his last race figure of 109 is one point higher than the twin 108s earned by Brother Derek, and is second on the Beyer scale in two turn races only to Sinister Minister. He seems to fit with other Derby winners both with respect to speed numbers, his prep race (War Emblem won the Illinois Derby in 2002) and his connections (Desormeaux has won the Derby twice with Real Quiet and Fusaichi Pegasus).
The horses discussed above appear to be the ones most commentators are concentrating their attention on in this 132nd running of the Kentucky Derby. In a field of twenty horses, with all the vagaries of bad trips and racing luck, there are bound to be a few surprises. How many people last year picked an exacta of Giacomo (50-1) and Closing Argument (72-1)? Not many, but suprisingly I do know a perspicacious few. So, if Barbaro is supposed to be such a strong contender, why overlook Sharp Humor (20-1), the half-brother of Derby winner Funny Cide, who was beaten only a half length by Barbaro in the Florida Derby. One thing is for sure, front runner Sharp Humor will be gunning from the gate and won’t give Sinister Minister the easy lead he enjoyed in the Blue Grass Stakes.
The more I write about this race, both this its 132nd running, and the Kentucky Derby year after year, the less, I realize, I know about it. It would be hard to handicap last year’s Derby 131 any more poorly than I did, and yet I cashed some pretty good tickets simply because I couldn’t let Holy Bull’s son, Giacomo, go off in the only bad race his father ever ran without betting him. I’ll probably put a few bucks on Flashy Bull (50-1) again this year for the same reason. Enjoy America’s greatest race, and good luck!
Housebuster Dies in Virginia
Housebuster, the champion North American sprinter for 1990 and 1991, died Sunday, May 15, 2005, at age eighteen after a sudden, unknown illness, according to an article by Glenye Cain published in the May 19th internet edition of the Daily Racing Form. He had been purchased from Japanese breeders and returned to America in 2001 by The Stallion Company which initially stood him at Blue Ridge Farm in Upperville, Virginia. At the time of his sudden, fatal illness, he was standing at stud for the 2005 breeding season at O’Sullivan Farms in Charles Town, West Virginia. He became ill on Sunday and was rushed to an emergency veterinary clinic in Virginia where he died. The cause of his death is still unknown.
During 1990 and 1991, Housebuster, trained by Warren A. (“Jimmy”) Croll, Jr., won thirteen stakes races including Grade-1 races such as the Jerome Handicap in 1990 and the Vosburgh Stakes and the Carter Handicap in 1991 en route to winning his two Eclipse awards as the top North American sprinter. He also finished second (by a neck to Criminal Type and a length and a half in front of champion Easy Goer) in Belmont’s prestigious Metropolitan Handicap (the “Met Mile”) in 1990. From twenty-two lifetime starts, Housebuster compiled a record of fifteen wins, placed in three more races, and finished third once. He was ridden in all but four of his races by Craig Perret in a career which included victories or placings in eleven graded stakes and lifetime earnings of $1,229,696.
As Ms. Cain observed, the only accomplishment missing from his otherwise extraordinary resume was a win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. In the 1991 running of that race at Churchill Downs, he stumbled leaving the gate injuring his foot, was hit by another jockey’s whip, and in general endured an absolutely horrible trip, finishing ninth. He came back lame from that race and was retired immediately thereafter.
I saw Housebuster only once, in the fall of 1995 at Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, where he originally stood at stud. I had come to pay my respects to Holy Bull who had been retired that year after his injury in the Donn Handicap. Holy Bull was sulking that day (not in his usual ebullient mood which characterized him while racing) but the horse in the adjoining stall pushed his nose between the brass bars of his door to be patted. I was surprised to discover that the gentle, friendly horse in the stall next to “The Bull” was the champion sprinter, Housebuster. On my next visit to Jonabell, I was saddened to learn that he was no longer in residence there. He had been sent to Australia for the southern hemisphere breeding season, and thereafter he was sold to the Japanese where he stood at Hokkaido’s East Stud from 1999 until his return to America in 2001.
I used to bet on his sons and daughters when I came upon them at the races, but as would naturally be the case, they are rarer and rarer in America these days. His foals sired in 1995 would be nine years old now and beyond racing age, while those foaled after his return in 2001 would barely have reached racing age. As would be expected, his most famous progeny raced in Asia, in Hong Kong and Japan, such as Electronic Unicorn and Midnight Bet, Asian champions whose names are not very familiar to American race fans, and in Europe such as Group-1 English winner Bahamian Pirate. Morluc and Buster’s Daydream may be somewhat more familiar to American racing fans, as may be Governor’s Pride, Camella and Bruanna, but the sad fact is that after his crops of 2003, 2004, 2005, and those sired this year, we will see his sons and daughters no more.
Housebuster will be buried at Avonlea, Donna Hayes’ farm in White Post, Virginia, beside Lost Code. Commenting on his sudden and fatal illness she said, “All I know is that he’s not here anymore, and it breaks my heart. It was very, very quick.” There is not much more to be said -- a great and dear horse gone much too soon.
Sentiment and Redemption in Louisville
First of all, if anyone out there paid the least bit of attention to my Derby preview article, “I’ve got the horse right here,” I want to offer my heartfelt apologies. Quite obviously, I didn’t have the horse right here, or anywhere. I don’t believe I have ever been as completely wrong about a horse race in my life as I was about Derby 131. I was wrong about my handicapping theory that the winner should have earned a Beyer speed number in the 110 range in one of his prep races (winner Giacomo and second place finisher, Closing Argument, had never posted a 100 Beyer, much less anything approaching 110) and I was dead wrong about the Santa Anita Derby being the weakest of the Derby prep races -- runners from that race made up one-half of the superfecta (which paid more than the GDP of some third world countries) and four (count them) of the top six finishers!
And just to prove that there is no more justice in horse racing than there is in our judicial system, I made more money this year when I was totally wrong about everything than I did last year in Derby 130 when I was right about everything and nailed the trifecta. The reason: I had placed a wager on Giacomo, the son of my favorite race horse Holy Bull, in the first Kentucky Derby future bet pool early in the year before he started doing so poorly, and as one of my last bets on Derby Day, purely out of sentiment, I bet him across the board -- you have to support the children of your friends.
As my daughter reminded me after the race, when I saw him go by in the post parade my only comment was “there you go, you poor bastard -- you haven’t got a chance.” When I saw him blow by Afleet Alex (the only horse in my trifecta wager who even hit the board) en route to the second highest mutuel payoff in Kentucky Derby history, I had never felt so happy about being so wrong. Who says there is no place for sentiment in horse racing?
To understand my euphoria, you need a little historical context. Eleven years earlier, Jimmy Croll was beginning to have an appreciation for the wit and wisdom of Andrew Beyer, quoted by William Murray in his whimsical and insightful book on horse racing, The Wrong Horse (Simon & Schuster, 1992, at page 177) to the effect that “I wouldn’t invite anyone I love to Louisville.” Mr. Croll’s horse, Holy Bull, the popular favorite coming into the Derby off of two smashing victories in the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland certainly would have endorsed those sentiments. He trained poorly the entire time he was at Churchill Downs, and on Derby Day he uncharacteristically hung his head in the post parade as he and all the rest of the field were pelted by rain.
When the gates opened in the 1994 Kentucky Derby, Holy Bull in post position four was pinched back as Valiant Nature broke outward from the three hole while Ulysses broke inward from post five. Before he passed the stands the first time, he had been bumped and had clipped heels with another horse, and his race was essentially over. It was the only bad race he ever ran -- he finished 12th. The “Demolition Derby,” as Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch called it, was won by a longshot “mudder” named Go For Gin, trained by Nick Zito.
Thereafter, Holy Bull won every other race he entered, and was elected Horse of the Year for 1994, before suffering a career-ending injury in the 1995 running of the Donn Handicap and being retired to stud. Although he sired the two-year-old Juvenile Champion, Macho Uno, and the fantastic filly and mare turf sprinter, Confessional, his career at stud never came close to matching the brilliance, and gritty determination, which he displayed on the race track. A couple of years ago, his already reasonable stud fee of $25,000 was cut to $15,000 in the hope of attracting more quality mares. Whenever I encountered his sons and daughters at the race track I usually bet on them, but with the exception of Confessional, who reeled off graded stakes win after graded stakes win sprinting at 5-1/2 furlongs on the grass, his offspring seemed to lack his courageous spirit and will to win.
I was overjoyed, therefore, when I learned in the fall of 2004 that Jerry and Ann Moss were campaigning a gray two-year-old colt sired by Holy Bull. The Mosses usually have only very good horses, and I was particularly excited to learn that he was being ridden exclusively by Mike Smith who had been Holy Bull’s jockey. Mike Smith not only is one of the most articulate jockeys riding today, but has a real sense of history and love for the sport, and I felt his intimate knowledge of the tendencies of the sire could go a long way in helping to develop the young colt, Giacomo. When he broke his maiden at Santa Anita on October 22, 2004, winning in his second race by ten lengths, and in December in the Grade-1 Hollywood Futurity was beaten only 1 length by Juvenile Champion, Declan’s Moon, finishing a nose ahead of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, Wilko, I thought “The Bull” might have sired a really exceptional colt.
When Giacomo began to race at three he kept very good company, finishing third in the Sham Stakes only 1-1/4 lengths behind the winner, Going Wild, and finishing second to Consolidator in the Grade-2 San Felipe at Santa Anita, but it was a little disturbing that though he was hitting the board in all his races he wasn’t winning them. On April 9, 2005, although he closed well in the middle of the track in the Santa Anita Derby, he wound up finishing only fourth, and it looked as though he wasn’t progressing very much from his encouraging promise as a two-year-old. His Beyer numbers appeared to have stalled out in the mid-90’s -- 94 in the Hollywood Futurity; 98 in the Sham; 93 in the San Felipe; and 95 in the Santa Anita Derby. To the casual racing fan, and even to handicapping experts, Giacomo’s progression hardly seemed encouraging. Churchill Downs’ oddsmaker Mike Battaglia made him a 50-1 longshot on the Derby’s morning line.
Mike Smith and Giacomo’s shy and retiring trainer, John Shirreffs, however, seemed to exude a sense of quiet confidence. Two days before the Derby, Mike Smith showed viewers of the TVG horse racing network the video-tape of the Santa Anita Derby and pointed out how well Giacomo had closed in that race and how strongly he had galloped out past the finish line. In the whirlwind of media coverage surrounding the favorites, no one was beating a path to John Shirreffs’ barn asking for comments (it is widely known that he is not comfortable doing interviews and even refuses to join his owners for a photo in the winner’s circle after races), but it was reported that he thought Giacomo’s training had been going very well during the month leading up to the Derby. He even promised Jerry and Ann Moss that he would appear with them in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs if their colt won the race. Ken Rudolph, a commentator at TVG, kept insisting that Giacomo had a great chance in the Derby, but he was the only person publicly saying so, and so Giacomo’s steady improvement, if any there was, stayed pretty much below the radar screen in the media’s coverage.
There was a ton of early speed in this year’s Derby with well over half the field either contesting the early pace or pressing it. The first half mile went in near record time of 45 and 1/5th seconds.. Thus, the cavalry charge of front runners set the race up perfectly for a dead closer like Afleet Alex, or the lesser known Giacomo. The only mention of Giacomo in the call of the race until the final strides was early when he was running seventeenth. Mike Smith gave him a superbly confident ride, racing about four or five paths off the rail most of the way, steering between horses in close quarters, and only swinging him outside toward the middle of the track in mid-stretch. Once clear, he uncorked an amazing run blowing by at least half the field in the last eighth of a mile.
After the shock of the upset and the staggeringly large prices ($102.60 to win; $9,184.80 for the exacta with 72-1 shot Closing Argument; $133,134.80 for the trifecta completed by Afleet Alex; and $1,728,507 for the $2.00 superfecta anchored by Don’t Get Mad), Mike Smith’s post race comments put the race in personal and historical perspective: “I’ve been telling this colt since the first time I got on him, before he ever ran, that he was going to redeem his father’s name in the Kentucky Derby.”
So, Giacomo delivered redemption, in the Derby, for the only bad race his great sire, Holy Bull, ever ran. The Bull had been favored in the 1994 Kentucky Derby won by Nick Zito’s longshot, Go For Gin. In 2005, his son Giacomo was the 50-1 shot who won the Derby in which Nick Zito’s Bellamy Road was favored. What goes around, comes around -- the circle is complete. Although father and son are both gray, and bear some striking facial resemblance, their running styles are entirely different. Holy Bull was a confirmed front runner with an exciting “catch me if you can” attitude (and except for the 1994 Derby, where he missed the break, no one ever could except during The Fountain of Youth and the Donn in which he was pulled up due to injuries -- he was never passed in the stretch) while his son, Giacomo, runs steadily from the back of the pack in the early stages of races and closes with a bold move down the stretch toward the wire.
Mike Smith and Holy Bull redeemed by Mike Smith and Giacomo. So perhaps there is some justice in horse racing after all, if only of the cosmic variety. Holy Bull’s 50-1 shot wins Derby 131, while George Steinbrenner’s favorite finishes seventh, and the ever brash Bobby Frankel’s High Limit finishes last. That’s horse heaven sure enough. And although John Shirreffs was out of the media spotlight and back in California the next day, he did keep his promise to appear with the Mosses in the winner’s circle. Speaking of Giacomo’s victory, he said “It almost brought tears to my eyes.”
“I’ve Got the Horse Right Here…”
Here it is five days before the horses will be loading into the gate this Saturday for the 131st running of the Kentucky Derby, and I’ve not written a word about this year’s crop of three-year-olds who will be competing in America’s premier horse race. I can’t explain why, but for some reason a sense of malaise has tempered my anticipation of this season’s Triple Crown series and has left me with no strong prejudices and no passionate rooting interests. This is not normally the case. Usually at this time of year, at least concerning affairs equine, I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve -- pulling hard for the Sunday Silence, for the Holy Bull, for the Free House, for the Smarty Jones of this or that particular year and equally opposed to such highly touted favorites as the Easy Goer or the Empire Maker raced by the kingpins of the sport such as Ogden Phipps or Juddmonte Farms.
The call to the post for this year’s Derby started sadly in the spring of 2002 when so many broodmares in Kentucky and elsewhere started losing their foals due to the mysterious illness (later identified as Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome) which claimed the lives of almost 1,700 foals in central Kentucky alone. The numbers of three-year-olds was substantially reduced by that unfortunate occurrence and, when the racing or the training started, the horses racing fans had been focusing on throughout the winter quickly started falling by the wayside and off the Derby trail. Declan’s Moon and Rockport Harbor were plagued by injuries, as was the spectacular filly, Sweetcatomine, who was retired under circumstances which did not reflect credit on her connections, after a poor, illness-related showing in the Santa Anita Derby. Other colts such as Wilko, Consolidator, Going Wild, Giacomo, and Sun King simply failed to run races consistent with their early promise.
And yet, despite the disease, injuries and illnesses which have plagued this class of three-year-olds since even before their births, there have been some remarkable accomplishments. Bellamy Road’s effort in the Wood Memorial, leading every step of the way and winning by more than seventeen lengths while tying Aqueduct’s stakes record and posting an unheard-of 120 Beyer in a Derby prep race, was nothing short of spectacular. Afleet Alex’s eight length win in the Arkansas Derby, posting a 108 Beyer, was a most encouraging rebound after a lung infection caused him to stop badly in the Rebel Stakes run earlier in the Oaklawn meet. So, why, at this critical point in the equine year, I’m still thinking of Smarty Jones’ near miss in last year’s Triple Crown and humming a tune from Guys and Dolls and more to the point, from the horse racing comedy, Let It Ride, -- “I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere…” -- I really can’t say.
Perhaps it’s because this year there are no “overdogs” for me to root against -- no New York Times article proclaiming Easy Goer the “Horse of the Decade” before he ever ran his first Triple Crown Race; no Mike Watchmaker proclaiming the regally bred Empire Maker, a product of Prince Khalid Abdullah’s formidable band of Juddmonte broodmares and trained by the brash Bobby Frankel, as the certain three-year-old champion (blue-collar Funny Cide put the kibosh on that!); no smug Eastern reporter asking Jack Van Berg if he really thought his western horse, Alysheba, had a chance in the Derby (and that legendary trainer incredulously replying “I wouldn’t be running him if I didn’t” -- he did have a chance; check the name of the 1987 winner on the Kentucky Derby Julep cup).
This year’s Derby is almost like a professional wrestling match with no villains -- there are just no “heavies” to root against. If the Blue Grass Stakes was any indication, Frankel doesn’t have much (Louisiana Derby winner, High Limit, finished six lengths back of the winner of Keeneland’s marquee prep race, Bandini, posting a mediocre 93 Beyer); Bob Baffert is stuck with 50-1 shot, Sort It Out, who was second to Coin Silver in the Lexington Stakes, Keeneland’s second-flight Derby prep; and I can’t even bring myself to root against D. Wayne Lucas anymore -- his Consolidator finished fifth in the Blue Grass, and his Going Wild finished fifth in the Lexington Stakes after being beaten so badly two weeks earlier by Bellamy Road in the Wood Memorial that he probably couldn’t see that horse cross the finish line! My enthusiasm this year isn’t boosted by the fact that I have both Consolidator and Going Wild in the first Kentucky Derby Futures Bet pool.
Perhaps my general lack of enthusiasm is attributable to the absence of any close, exciting finishes in the Derby prep races this year. Bellamy Road’s 17-1/2 length romp in the Wood was certainly a tour de force, but it didn’t leave the railbirds anticipating a rematch the way the stirring duels between Buddha and Medaglia d’ Oro did in 2002, or between Empire Maker and Funny Cide did the next year in 2003. Similarly, Bandini’s six length triumph over High Limit in the Blue Grass Stakes, while visually impressive, was no match for the exciting (and for me, expensive) finish as The Cliff’s Edge overtook front running Lion Heart last year. Afleet Alex’s impressive eight length triumph over Flower Alley in this year’s Arkansas Derby was a welcome return to form for the highly regarded colt, but it hardly created a surge of anticipation for a rematch between those top two finishers in the 131st Kentucky Derby. Similarly, Greeley’s Galaxy crushed his foes in the Illinois Derby by 9-1/2 lengths in an impressive (106 Beyer), but unexciting, win. The best finish in a decent Derby prep (this year’s Santa Anita derby doesn’t qualify) was the slowest race -- Nick Zito’s High Fly (102 Beyer) beat his stablemate, Noble Causeway (100 Beyer), by a length and a half to win the Florida Derby.
Exciting or not, the Derby prep races are the only way to assess the prospects of the Kentucky Derby contenders in this or any other year. I won’t bore you again with my basic approach to handicapping the feature at Churchill Downs on the “First Saturday in May,” (you can scroll down on the Horse Racing page to look back on my three previous Kentucky Derby articles) but basically I have completely abandoned the voodoo cult of “dosage,” a study of pedigree and stamina derived from certain sires designated as chefs d’ race reduced to a numerical formula (the lower number the better), which decreed that no colt with a dosage of 5.00 or higher could hope to win the Derby as early in his three-year-old season as the first Saturday in May.
It was amazingly successful as a predictor of Derby success for a number of years, and, after having disregarded it to my extreme economic detriment for several years in a row, I finally succumbed to the pull of its seductive black magic in 1998 and cut Real Quiet (whom I liked on every other basis) who had a dosage number above 5.00. When he won the Derby in 1998 over his dosage-qualified stablemate Indian Charlie, and Charismatic, with a dosage rating of 5-plus, won the 1999 classic, I said goodbye to that particular form of handicapping witchcraft and have never looked back. You can obtain the dosage indices of the various Derby horses in the write-ups on the entrants in the Daily Racing Form published on Derby Day, but I don’t even want to know what they are.
One numerical factor that I have found to be amazingly helpful in handicapping the Kentucky Derby is a Beyer speed number in the neighborhood of 110. Obviously, it should be earned in a route race at a distance of a mile and a sixteenth or a mile and an eighth, but each year colts who have run a competitve prep race and earned a big Beyer number get overlooked in the betting for one reason or another. Even Andrew Beyer, the Harvard educated developer of the proprietary speed figures (found in the past performances published in the Daily Racing Form), has over the past several years overlooked some horses which his “figs” identified as very logical Derby bets.
As cases in point, consider these recent Derby winners who were overlooked in the betting by sophisticated handicapping experts despite high Beyer numbers earned in their prep races: War Emblem (won the Illinois Derby with a Beyer of 112) sent off at odds over 20-1 in the 2002 Derby; Funny Cide (second in the Wood Memorial with a Beyer of 110) sent off in the 2003 Derby at 12-1, after having been 19-1 for most of the day; and Smarty Jones (won the Arkansas Derby with a Beyer of 108) who was bet down to reasonably low odds by the public in the 2004 Derby despite being overlooked by every handicapper in the Daily Racing Form except senior columnist Jay Hovedy (and who came second in Smarty’s year? Lion Heart who had earned a 110 Beyer finishing second in the Blue Grass Stakes.) I’m too lazy to go back and get my notes from earlier Kentucky Derbies, but these last three years are not isolated examples -- I know that Charasmatic, who won the 1999 Derby at odds of around 30-1, earned a Beyer in the 110 range when he won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland two weeks before that year’s Derby to acquire enough graded stakes earnings to gain admission to the Derby field.
So, which colts, in this depleted crop of Derby contenders foaled in 2002, have earned Beyer numbers in the neighborhood of 110 or higher? There aren’t very many, even if we define the term “neighborhood” pretty loosely. Under normal criteria, there are only two: Bellamy Road, who posted the highest Beyer number ever earned in a prep race since Beyer numbers have been available to the general public, in posting a 120 Beyer in winning the Wood Memorial on April 9th by an extraordinary 17-1/2 lengths. It is hard not to make comparisons to Secretariat with a speed figure like that. Andrew Beyer, who is not easily impressed even by his own “figs” (he poo-pooed War Emblems’s 112 in the 2002 Illinois Derby and was unimpressed by Funny Cide’s 110 in the 2003 running of the Wood) has simply raved about Bellamy Road and his race in the Wood Memorial. Although, as will be discussed below, there are some reasons for caution, Bellamy Road is a “must use” in Derby 131.
The only other colt who, in a normal year, would meet my criteria of a Beyer in the neighborhood of 110 is Arkansas Derby winner, Afleet Alex, who earned a 108 Beyer in his last prep race run April 16th at Oaklawn. That number, incidentally, is precisely the same figure earned in that race a year earlier by Smarty Jones. He rated beautifully off the speed in that race, and when asked for his run simply exploded to run away from a pretty good field by eight lengths. There is a lot to like about Afleet Alex. He raced very impressively as a two-year-old at Saratoga, and his only poor race at three was in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn when he had a lung infection. Not only has he earned a sufficently high Beyer number to qualify as a Derby winner, but his conditioning as both a two-year-old and a three-year-old is a huge plus, particularly this year where adequate conditioning is awfully scarce. Afleet Alex (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is probably the only horse in my Kentucky Derby Future Bet pool, to have a chance of winning) is another “must use” for this year’s Derby.
Is a 106 Beyer in the 110 neighborhood? This year, I would say that it definitely should be. That was the speed figure earned by Greeley’s Galaxy in winning the Illinois Derby by 9-1/2 lengths in very impressive fashion. Incidentally, you can review all of these prep races on the web sites of the Daily Racing Form (www.drf.com) or BrisBet (www.brisbet.com). Unfortunately, you may not get a chance to see Greeley’s Galaxy in the NBC telecast of the Kentucky Derby, or make a bet on him, because he was not originally nominated to the Triple Crown races, and in this year of equine mediocrity there are enough ego-maniacs willing to run their unimpressive horses in the Derby that he may not be able to be supplemented into the field of twenty starters. If he gets in, he is worth using.
After Greely’s Galaxy, the Beyer criteria begins to get pretty dicey. High Limit ran a 105 Beyer in the Louisiana Derby against a pretty weak field on March 12th, but he threw in a real stinker in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 16th earning a Beyer of only 93 while finishing second, six lengths behind Bandini who was much the best in that race. Frankly, I’ve got my doubts about using Bandini who looked visually impressive in winning that race. I would be pretty reluctant to use High Limit, despite his excellent connections (Frankel and Dominguez) and remember, even more impressive connections (Frankel and Bailey) didn’t do much for Master David last year.
Slow Beyers in a prep race are a pretty good inidicator of a sub-par performance in the Derby. There are exceptions -- Sea Hero’s fourth place finish in the Blue Grass followed by his victory in the 1993 Derby; Proud Citizen’s second place finish in the 2002 Derby, after finishing last in the slowest Santa Anita Derby since 1963 and then winning the Lexington Stakes with only a 95 Beyer -- but they are definitely exceptions, rather than the rule.
Another pair of horses who have run fairly respectable Beyers earlier in the year, but who bombed in their final prep race are Consolidator (105 Beyer winner in the Grade-2 San Felipe at Santa Anita; 81 Beyer and fifth in the Blue Grass, 13 lengths back) and Sun King (104 Beyer in an allowance race but a very poor 88 Beyer in his fourth place finish in that same Blue Grass Stakes). A word of caution, however -- those two under-achievers are the favorite colts of two of the most successful trainers in recent Kentucky Derby history, D. Wayne Lucas and Nick Zito. It will be a long time before I forget Lucas’ Proud Citizen busting my trifecta box in the 2002 Derby (the $1.00 tri paid over $9,000) by finishing second when I had the first, third and fourth place finishers. Zito, who trained Strike the Gold and Go For Gin to Derby wins in 1991 and 1994, and who might well have gotten the roses with The Cliff’s Edge last year had his charge not lost his shoes on both front feet, has five Derby horses this year, including the extraordinary Bellamy Road, but his love and stable pet is Sun King. You have been warned.
One colt who looked very good in winning his prep race, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and whom I will use despite his not qualifying under my 110 Beyer criteria, is Bandini, impressive six length winner of what was generally regarded as the toughest Derby prep race this year, but who earned only a 103 Beyer in the process. I learned last year in Tapit’s Wood Memorial that in a choice between a visually impressive race and a sub-par Beyer number it is usually better to go with the higher Beyer, but, notwithstanding that no winner of the Blue Grass has won the Kentucky Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991, I think his race was too good, his trainer Todd Pletcher is too hot, and his jockey, J. R. Velasquez, is too indisputably the best jockey riding in America today, to leave out.
This spring, the usual front speed bias of the track made the subject of the first article ever published on the Horse Racing page of this web site, “Curse of the Blue Grass Stakes” (since taken down) appears to have been overcome by the track superintendant. Keeneland, the most delightful venue in America to watch a horse race, played fairer this spring and I think it is more in keeping with the track conditions which the horses will encounter at Churchill Downs. If I’m wrong, as I suspected I would be with respect to Harlan’s Holiday, the Blue Grass winner and Derby favorite in 2002, “so, sue me.” Accordingly, I will use Bandini -- too much love of Keeneland to learn history’s lessons. I doubt, however, that the Blue Grass Stakes, which has produced more winners of the Kentucky Derby than any other prep race (although none since Strike the Gold in ’91, Sea Hero in ’93 and Thunder Gulch in ’95) will do so in 2005.
Another race which in recent years has produced a plethora of Derby winners and contenders is the Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita’s marquee Derby prep race. The legendary Swaps was the first to use it as a springboard to Kentucky Derby fame, but in the fairly recent past it has produced such Derby winners and contenders as Affirmed, Gato del Sol, Ferdinand and Snow Chief, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Winning Colors, Cavonnier, Silver Charm and Free House, and Real Quiet and Indian Charlie, among others. This year, however, the Southern California form has fallen off considerably. Colts which have looked very good while racing there, such as Consolidator in winning the San Filipe, or Going Wild in winning the Sham Stakes, have gotten trounced upon leaving Southern California to race in Kentucky or New York.
Accordingly, I will not be using Santa Anita winner Buzzard’s Bay (winner by one-half length over General John B while posting a 98 Beyer) or any of the rest of the horses in that race such as Breeders Cup Juvenile champion, Wilko, Holy Bull’s son, Giacomo (well maybe, just because of The Bull), or Don’t get Mad. To use an old race track expression, “I wouldn’t bet them with your money.”
Until this year, the Florida Derby was run at Gulf Stream Park in March, and like the Louisiana Derby, was more of a prep race for a prep race than a true Kentucky derby prep itself. This year it was moved back in the racing calendar by Gulfstream’s management, and, with a purse of one million dollars, tried to become a Derby prep on its own. The race was run on April 2nd this year and was won by Nick Zito’s High Fly (Beyer 102) over his fellow Zito trainee, Noble Causeway (Beyer 100, and the son of the gallant Giant’s Causeway) who finished one and a half lengths back. Nick Zito is a wonderful trainer, and this year is loaded for bear in the Derby, but I would be very surprised if either of those runners wound up in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs on May 7th.
There will be a lot of other horses entered in this year’s Derby, such as Coin Silver, Flower Alley, Greater Good, Going Wild, Andromeda’s Hero, Closing Argument, Sort It Out, and Spanish Chestnut, but I don’t see any of them making much of an impact. It’s a shame that one or more of them don’t scratch so that a more deserving colt, such as Greeley’s Galaxy, could draw into the field.
So, we arrive back, full circle, where we began with Nick Zito’s Bellamy Road and his extraordinary 17-1/2 length victory in his record setting effort in the Wood Memorial. If he runs back to the 120 Beyer earned in that race, I don’t see how anyone can beat him. The question is: will he? That was only his second race this year, and no horse has won the Kentucky Derby off of only two races since Sonny’s Halo accomplished that feat in 1983. He was essentially loose on the lead in the Wood, and, as Andy Beyer would tell you, that’s an easy way to put up a very good Beyer number. Moreover, he didn’t beat a very difficult field in the that race, but even so it’s hard to get around that 120 Beyer. He could regress or “bounce” off that race a full 10 Beyer points and still have an excellent chance to win this year’s Derby. So he will be, and deserves to be, the Kentucky Derby favorite.
The other colt who appears to be a standout this year is Afleet Alex, winner of the Arkansas Derby with a Beyer of 108. He has had three tough races this year at Oaklawn, and raced very creditably last year as a two-year-old, and so has the foundation and seasoning generally thought to be a prerequisite for a Derby champion. If he continues to progress just a little from his impressive final prep race at Oaklawn, he would be a very logical winner.
It remains to be seen whether Greeley’s Galaxy (106 Beyer), the impressive winner of the Illinois Derby, can make it into the race. He has more than enough graded stakes earnings at $300,000, but he will have to be supplemented and must wait for another horse to drop out. If he makes the race he could well be a factor, and possibly its winner.
Finally, despite his sub-par Beyer of 103 and the recent history of the race, Blue Grass winner Bandini just looks too good to leave out. He beat what is generally conceded to be the best prep race field assembled, and did so impressively. His connections, trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey J. R. Velazquez, are simply too good to ignore.
I will be surprised if one of those four horses fails to win Derby 131. If another horse springs the upset, it could well be D. Wayne Lucas’ Consolidator or Nick Zito’s Sun King.
Good luck. It will all be much clearer on Sunday morning. “I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, and if the weather’s clear -- ‘Can do, ’ the man says the horse ‘Can do’.”
Smarty, We Hardly Knew You
Ten years ago, at exactly this point in the horse racing year, I was highly nervous. My favorite race horse, Holy Bull, had won every race he had run since his disappointing showing in the Kentucky Derby, but after that disappointment his owner and trainer, Jimmy Croll, had chosen not to run him in the Preakness or the Belmont, and at the end of his three-year-old season had chosen not to enter him in the 1994 running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Thus, in the four highest profile races run in America, he had a poor performance in the Derby and was a no-show in the other three. How would the Eclipse voters react to those absences?
As it happened, there was no cause for concern (no pun intended) because Holy Bull had run against, and decisively beaten, older horses in his spectacular wins in the “Met Mile” and in the Woodward Stakes, and had easily disposed of the winners of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont (Go For Gin and Tabasco Cat) in the Travers Stakes and in the Woodward later in the year. When Concern, whom The Bull had comfortably defeated in the Haskell and held off by a decreasing neck in the exciting finish of the Travers, went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, there really wasn’t much room for debate about who was the best horse in America in 1994. The Eclipse voters elected Holy Bull as the Horse of the Year by a wide margin.
This year, the fans of Smarty Jones (who surely will be voted the three-year-old champion) have much less cause for optimism when it comes to the selection of Horse of the Year for 2004. And that is ironic, because he came within one length of becoming our first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, and but for a bad ride in the Belmont (and I am not referring to his jockey, Stewart Elliott) he would have won the Belmont and retired (albeit, prematurely) undefeated.
Smarty Jones did not just win the first eight races of his career -- as Dick Jeradi pointed out in his Daily Racing Form column “What Smarty did cannot be erased,” he won those races by a whopping combined margin of 47-1/2 lengths, at eight different distances over five different tracks! A strong argument can be made, I think, that Smarty was the best three-year-old at a “classic distance” (generally thought to be a mile and a quarter, on dirt, in America) since Spectacular Bid. He really should not be thought of in the same category as recent winners of the Derby and Preakness who failed to win the Belmont such as Charismatic, War Emblem, or Funny Cide. As Mr. Jeradi pointed out, he came into the Belmont undefeated, and even in defeat in the Belmont he clearly was the best horse in the race:
“Smarty Jones came within one length of being only the second horse in history to win the Triple Crown while unbeaten. And everybody knows Smarty was the best horse in the Belmont. Only circumstance got him beat….
“Smarty Jones made three different moves to win the Derby. His victory in the Preakness had veteran jockeys like Gary Stevens invoking the name of Secretariat. Even the 118 Beyer did not do that race justice.”
Well, that’s enough discussion about Smarty’s stellar eight race win-streak coming into the Belmont -- American sports are all about “what have you done for me lately,” and you’re only as good as your last game or last race. And that, truly, is the great irony about Smarty Jones’ situation when it comes to the balloting for 2004 Horse of the Year, because his one defeat, in the Belmont, may have been the greatest race he ever ran.
Dick Jerardi is clearly correct in his observation that “everybody knows that Smarty was the best horse in the Belmont,” and “only circumstance got him beat.” So, what were the circumstances that got Smarty beat and cost America its first Triple Crown winner in over a quarter of a century, and probably will cost him the honor of being Horse of the Year?
It was an excruciatingly fast pace scenario, and the inexplicable decision by Jerry Bailey to make a premature move on his mount, Eddington, which cost him any chance of a good placing in the race but also torpedoed Smarty in his quest for the Triple Crown. This is a subject best postponed until another day, but Jerry Bailey (who is rightly regarded as one of the best jockeys of his era) has been a sort of “kamikaze on horseback” this year -- he blew the first turn in the New Orleans Handicap destroying any chance in the race for half the field, but survived an inquiry; turning for home in the Oaklawn Handicap he slammed into trainer Darrel Vienna’s horse so hard that he knocked him over two lanes, again surviving the inquiry (but not Mr. Vienna’s lawsuit for the purse money); and finally, in my opinion at least, his premature move on Eddington changed the result of the Belmont.
Steve Davidowitz wrote a superb and perceptive article on the pace scenario in this year’s Belmont, “Pace makes the race -- Birdstone ran by Smarty Jones in deep stretch Belmont Day, largely because of fast internal splits,” published in the June 13, 2004 edition of the DRF Simulcast Weekly, which pointed out that while Smarty got away with reasonably comfortable fractions for the first half-mile of the Belmont, he was forced to run the next four furlongs (the middle half-mile of the race’s mile and a half distance) “in a blistering 46.79, the fastest half-mile clocking to the mile marker in Belmont history.”
Mr. Davidowitz noted that this 46.79 internal split was a full second faster than Secretariat’s internal half-mile fraction in his record setting 1973 Belmont, when he hit the mile mark in record time of 1:34.20. Actually, Smarty’s time for the first mile split was 1:35.44, the third fastest in Belmont Stakes history. Mr. Davidowitz’s following observation about the speed of (and the grueling toll imposed by) those extraordinary internal fractions brings into focus the phenomenal effort that Smarty Jones put forth in this year’s Belmont:
“No horse other than Secretariat ever ran that fast to the mile marker in this grueling 1 and 1/2-mile race and survived to cross the finish line first.”
That Smarty Jones came within a length of doing so speaks volumes about his talent, and his heart, at a distance which was probably beyond his genetic capabilities and pedigree. His sire, Elusive Quality, is generally thought to get runners who are at their best at a distance of a mile. Smarty received some influences of stamina on his dam’s side, however -- the great race mare, La Troienne, is in his mother’s pedigree and he certainly performed gallantly over the Belmont’s now anachronistic distance of a mile and a half on the dirt. Today, horses are no longer bred to race a mile and a half on the dirt -- on the grass, yes, but on dirt, with the single exception of the Belmont Stakes, all the major races are at the new “classic” distance of a mile and a quarter. That is true of the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup, the Santa Anita Handicap, and so many more great races. Even Belmont Park’s own Jockey Club Gold Cup is now run at a mile and a quarter.
It should be noted that Smarty Jones was two lengths in the lead after a mile and a quarter in this year’s Belmont. He would have won at any distance up until a mile and 7/16ths. That last sixteenth of a mile, his pedigree, but most significantly the grueling pace scenario, finally got him.
Smarty’s competitors planned to come at him early in the 2004 Belmont Stakes and deny him an easy lead. Certainly, that was the strategy of Purge and Rock Hard Ten. Also, in a change of running style, the connections of Eddington put him in blinkers and put him in the race earlier. Steve Davidowitz quoted Jerry Bailey as saying he intended to place Eddington “right alongside Smarty Jones” and “pressure him” rather than “let him off the hook early.” Smarty handled the early pressure of Purge and Rock Hard Ten easily, and even that of the new-styled Eddington. But when Bailey made his premature “kamikaze” move just before the horses had run a mile, he finished his own horse but the extra pressure that ploy put on Smarty Jones compromised him too.
Smarty easily won the race of the front runners. Purge finished last and Rock Hard Ten and Eddington finished eleven lengths behind him just as they had in the Preakness. At the longer mile and a half distance of the Belmont, however, the task of putting them away took its toll on him and he came home very slowly, getting the last quarter of a mile in 27.18 seconds. That was significantly faster than Rock Hard Ten or Eddington, but not fast enough to hold off Birdstone who, coming into the race fresh off of five weeks rest, was able to run the entire race evenly behind the speed duel up front and ran by the tiring Smarty Jones in the final strides.
Purge, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington compromised Smarty, but they torched their own chances in the process. Mr. Davidowitz summed up their tactics succinctly:
“What kind of horse would Rock Hard Ten or Eddington had to have been to apply pressure to Smarty Jones and go on to win the Belmont? Didn’t their dirty work destroy their respective chances to make a stronger final impression?”
Then he had a few words for Smarty’s disappointed fans and placed the whole race in its proper perspective:
“Because Smarty Jones lost this Belmont to a fresh and fit Birdstone after the Nick Zito-trainee raced evenly through much of the last three quarters of a mile, many of Smarty Jones’ disappointed supporters may grossly underrate the quality of his Belmont Stakes performance.
“As cited above, a closer look at what he was forced to do and how well he did it for so long in this race serves as proof that Smarty Jones was not an illusion created by the hype machine. In fact, he validated the lofty 118 Beyer Figure he earned in the Preakness by running such a strong 1-1/4 miles in this Belmont. Should Smarty come back to the races in the fall as planned, I would not be surprised to see him more mature, faster, stronger and ready to run a race or two that will have professional observers comparing him once again with the great ghosts of racing’s past.”
Alas, however, Smarty did not come back in the fall. A couple of very minor, routine injuries of the sort one always expects from a strenuous campaign of racing was all that it took to give his owner the excuse to cut short his marvelous career and send him off, prematurely, to the breeding barn. With a stud price set in the range of $100,000 per live foal, the monetary temptation was just too strong. It would have been nice, though, to have seen him complete his three-year-old season, and even to have seen him race as a four-year-old. There is no telling how great a race horse at the classic distance of a mile and a quarter he could have become. Now, we will never know.
Already, he is beginning to be forgotten in handicapping circles. Unlike Holy Bull, who also passed up the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he did not have a full schedule of races in the mid-summer and fall, and the public and the racing press could not look forward to his return to the races as a four-year-old, as they did with great anticipation in the case of Holy Bull. We are a people with short memories, and the “what have you done for me lately” crowd has already moved on.
Andrew Beyer, the racing columnist for the Washington Post and for the Daily Racing Form is now beating the drum for Ghostzapper, a four-year-old who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in very fast time at Lone Star Park (all the times were fast this year at Lone Star) to be Horse of the Year. Ghostzapper is not well known to the general public because he was raced very sparingly, due to injuries, as a three-year-old and had only four races this year. Those races were very impressive, however, at four different distances from a sprint to a mile and a quarter at Lone Star in the Classic. He earned a 128 Beyer in winning the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park and a 120 Beyer in winning the seven furlong Tom Fool at Belmont. He had never raced at 1-1/4 miles until this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Odds are that he will win Horse of the Year honors since, thanks to Jerry Bailey, Smarty Jones did not win the Triple Crown.
When asked about the Smarty Jones -- Ghostzapper contest for Horse of the Year, Ghostzapper’s self-promoting trainer, Bobby Frankel, reacted characteristically: “This is a no-brainer. He is the Horse of the Year. This [Ghostzapper] is the best horse in the country by far.”
You see, already we’ve almost forgotten about Smarty Jones’ eight straight victories coming into the Belmont. We aren’t as impressed now by that 118 Beyer earned (as a three-year-old for heaven’s sake!) in winning the Preakness by the largest margin in history. We have already forgotten how close he came to winning the Triple Crown and about his courageous effort in the Belmont in his only life-time loss. We have moved on.
Smarty, we hardly knew you.
Why the “Wise-Guy” Horse Won’t Win the Preakness
Ok, I’m finally annoyed enough to write this column. Two weeks ago we were hearing that if only Rock Hard Ten had bothered to race enough as a two-year old (he didn’t bother to race at all during his freshman year), or if he had bothered to race in more than one graded stakes race in his three-year-old season (he ran in one maiden special weight race and one allowance race prior to running greenly in the Santa Anita Derby and getting DQ’d for bumping in the stretch) and as a consequence not having enough graded-stakes earnings to make the Kentucky Derby field, he would have been a cinch to win the Derby!
The true believers were willing to overlook the fact that he had never raced as a two-year old (a disqualifying factor); that he had never run anything remotely approaching a 110 Beyer speed number (a disqualifying factor); and finally that there were three horses entered in the field for the 130th Kentucky Derby who had done all of these things (Smarty Jones, Lion Heart and The Cliff’s Edge) and looked like very logical winners. Of the three, Smarty Jones who had never lost a race won again, Lion Heart who had never finished out of the exacta in six lifetime starts finished second, and The Cliffs’s Edge who lost both shoes on his front legs nevertheless managed to finish fifth.
Oh, the injustice of it all! But finally, Rock Hard Ten is about to get his chance and will demonstrate for all of us the folly of the graded-stakes earnings requirement for admission into the Derby field by winning the Preakness and the Belmont. Had it not been for that lapse of judgment by the racing elite, Affirmed would no longer be the last Triple Crown winner.
In the days leading up to the Derby, those of us reading the Daily Racing Form were bombarded with a succession of columns explaining that none of the tried and true handicapping rules applied this year. There was no need to race in April despite the fact that no horse who hadn’t had won the Derby since 1956; no need to race as a two-year-old -- “old hat!”; no need to have had three or four prep races -- at least Tapit’s violation of that handicapping rule was dictated by injuries rather than choice, but even with his immense talent and with his fantastic trainer, Michael Dickinson, the best finish he could manage was ninth. Actually, despite the repetitive assurances that you could throw out all of the rules for the running of the 130th Kentucky Derby, almost all of the handicapping guidelines did apply and it was the most formful Derby in years -- the two best and most consistent three-year-olds of the season comprised the Smarty Jones- Lion Heart exacta and certainly Imperialism and Limehouse (who was 2-for-2 at Churchill Downs) were not shockers finishing third and fourth. Hell, even I had the trifecta!
But guess who didn’t? Well, for starters, how about the top featured handicappers for the Daily Racing Form? Among Brad Free, Byron King, Steve Klein, Dave Liftin, Mike Welsch, and Mike Watchmaker, not one of them even had Smarty Jones in his top four picks for the Derby. Smarty Jones qualified as a potential Derby winner under most traditional guidelines (and, as a common sense guideline, he had won six times out of six starts) but not one of these “wise guys” thought he would hit the board. Of the nineteen writers who ventured their Derby selections for the Daily Racing Form, only senior columnist, Jay Hovdey, picked Smarty to win, and only four others had him in their top four contenders -- talk about being contrarians!
Well, the Preakness Stakes is here and it’s time to throw out another time-honored handicapping rule -- the rule that to have a decent chance to win the Preakness you’ve got to have raced in the Derby. It’s not as tough a rule to overcome as the “no race in April” disqualifier --it’s been forty-eight years since Needles broke that one -- but it’s going to be a tough slog, I would suggest, nevertheless. Right off hand, I can’t think of any horse who has done it in recent years other than that spoiler, Red Bullet, owned by the “spoiler of all spoilers”, Frank Stronach. In the year 2000, Stronach chose to sit out the Derby to give his horse Red Bullet extra time to rain on Fusaichi Pegasus’ parade and got some meteorological help as well when Pimlico was awash with rain and the track came up a very sticky, muddy surface which did not suit the Derby winner at all.
This year, Brad Free, who has been beating the drum for Rock Hard Ten is not praying for rain. As a matter of fact, he says he will pass the race if the Pimlico surface comes up wet. That might not be a bad idea since Rock Hard Ten has never raced on anything but the “rock hard” and fast Santa Anita surface (and he hasn’t done that since April 3rd), whereas the two horses who I think figure to win the race, Smarty Jones and Lion Heart, have each raced over four different tracks and encountered a variety of track conditions -- certainly, neither should be bothered by a wet track, or a fast one.
All of this is easy for me to say because I have no intention of betting the Preakness. When I referred to Frank Stronach as the “spoiler of all spoilers”, I wasn’t just referring to his tendency to skip the Kentucky Derby with his legitimate Derby horses in the hope of spoiling someone else’s Triple Crown (Touch Gold and Red Bullet come immediately to mind) but also his “I’ll take my marbles and go home” attitude toward horse racing in general. This winter he denied his racing signal to the TVG horseracing network and to all internet betting sites other than his own ExpressBet service. Therefore, unless one was willing to sign up with ExpressBet or lived in a town with a horse track, he or she couldn’t see or bet on the races from Santa Anita or Gulfstream Park. I am happy to report that some weeks into both of those meets his handle was down about 15% from normal, so his obstinacy hit him in the pocketbook and he had to cut purses at both tracks. It’s nice, every once in a while, to see someone get what’s coming to him.
Mr. Stronach’s Magna Entertainment Corporation also owns Pimilco Racecourse, and by damn he’s done it again! America’s stay-at-home race fans will not be able to bet on the Preakness Stakes. I am one of the fortunate few who do have a track in my area, but I am not going to put myself out to pay money into such a robber-baron’s mutual pools. Maryland has one of the highest “take-out” ratios in all of racing, and certainly Mr. Stronach has done little to warrant any special consideration from racing fans. They watch horse racing, without gambling, for the sheer joy of seeing thoroughbreds run in the Arab world, and I think I can do it for one race at least. As the Teri Garr character asked in the Jockey Club at Hialeah in the movie Let It Ride, “Why can’t you just watch them run around the track?” The response was “She’s new!”, but maybe she was on to something. Anyway, I don’t think the race will pay much, because I expect Smarty Jones or Lion Heart to win. Thus far, they have never been out of the exacta in any of their thirteen races.
But you never can tell -- there’s always the “wise-guy” horse. Come on Smarty, you can prove them all wrong again!
Anticipating a Wide-Open Derby
If it’s true that it’s not the steak, it’s the sizzle; that it’s not the sex, it’s the anticipation, then it would be hard to top the three weeks of horse racing which culminated on the penultimate day of the three-year old season, April 10th when the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Arkansas Derby were run. The 130th running of the Kentucky Derby will have a hard act to follow in matching the drama and excitement of that remarkable three week period. It was a period marked by great rivalries renewed, stirring come-backs, and (in a year characterized by inconsistency) the consistent accomplishments of a blue-collar miracle worker.
It all got started half a world away in the United Arab Emirates when Medaglia D’Oro and Pleasantly Perfect hooked up again in the Dubai World Cup and turned the world’s richest horse race into a match race. Just as he did in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita last November, Dick Mandella’s Pleasantly Perfect again proved the pundits wrong and took the measure of Bobby Frankel’s Medaglia D’Oro, finally convincing even Mike Watchmaker that he is the best older horse in training. Funny Cide finally managed to get his four-year old act together and won the Excelsior Breeders’ Cup Handicap upon his return to New York, and in the most remarkable come-back of all, Azeri reemerged from an injury enforced retirement to earn the best Beyer figure of her spectacular career, winning the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn for the third consecutive year and giving her new trainer, D. Wayne Lucas, something to take comfort from in an otherwise dismal season.
Finally, before turning to the three-year olds and the prep races for the Derby, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the most delightful and recurring cases of poetic justice and Creole home-cooking, the renewal in New Orleans of what used to be called the Explosive Bid Handicap (now renamed The Mervin Munez Memorial Handicap), always the richest ($500,000 purse) and best turf race of the winter season. This year, as always, preeminent turf trainers such as Bill Mott, Bobby Frankel, and Christophe Clement shipped their stars in from Florida and California for the race, and this year, as is so often the case, the horses wintering at The Fair Grounds gave them a humbling lesson of what it’s like to run over that legendary track’s sandy turf course. All week long before the race, the word was out that Juddmonte Farm’s Burning Sun, trained by Bobby Frankel, couldn’t lose, but at the wire he had a good view of the rumps of local turfers, Mystery Giver, Herculated, and Skate Away, who finished one-two-three (all at odds of 15-1 or higher) in front of him as he anchored a superfecta paying in excess of $14,000. Just a little more of the lagniappe and serendipity traditionally served up in the Crescent City!
Well, I guess I’ve avoided the subject as long as I can -- what do we make of this year’s three-year-old class as they head for Churchill Downs and the 130th edition of the Kentucky Derby? Usually, at this time of year, I post an article with my Derby analysis, but I’m begging off this year because (thanks to Magna Entertainment’s extraordinary decision to deny their Santa Anita and Gulfstream signals to the TVG Network and the internet horse racing sites) I have seen very few of the major races run in Florida and California. My perspective, therefore, is pretty much limited to what I’ve seen in Mid-American tracks such as The Fair Grounds, Oaklawn and Keeneland. I did get to see the Florida Derby while I was in New Orleans visiting The Fair Grounds and the Santa Anita Derby thanks to the good offices of ESPN, but I have to admit that I was not nearly as impressed by those races as I usually am. Frank Stronach followed up his blackout of America’s stay-at-home bettors by failing to water the Gulfstream track prior to the Florida Derby turning its racing surface into a sandy beach. Based on the races run by its participants both before and after that slow and curious renewal of Gulfstream’s marquee race, it would appear to be a total throw out.
Read the Footnotes, who had posted a stellar Beyer number of 113 in his stirring duel with Second of June in the Fountain of Youth, ran a dull fourth with a Beyer of 86. The winner, Friends Lake, posted a Beyer of only 92, and Tapit who would go on to win the Wood Memorial, and The Cliff’s Edge who would win the Blue Grass Stakes, on April 10th both finished up the track with lackluster speed figures. Read the Footnotes and Friends Lake will each try to win the Derby by training up to the First Saturday in May without an intervening race since March, something that hasn’t been accomplished in 48 years.
Similarly, the Santa Anita Derby came up a bit light compared with previous years and produced a surprizing result. Lion Heart, who looked as though he would be the lone speed, opted to run in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland instead, making it appear that the race would be primarily contested between Wimbledon, the impressive winner of the Louisiana Derby, Imperialism who had nipped Lion Heart at the wire in the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita, and impressive newcomer Rock Hard Ten. Instead, it was turf horse, Castledale, who had been very dull in his previous race trying dirt for the first time, who blew by everyone in the stretch and won the West Coast’s premier Derby prep race, earning a Beyer number of 103 in the process.
Wimbledon, Imperialism and Rock Hard Ten may have been compromised by some bumping in the stretch, and so it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from the race in which Rock Hard Ten (103 Beyer) was beaten only a head (and DQ’d) and Imperialism (100 Beyer) finished third, two lengths back, before being moved up to second by the stewards. Wimbledon (87 Beyer) who was badly compromised by the interference finished fifth, a performance totally at variance with his winning Beyer of 101 in the Louisiana Derby at The Fair Grounds.
One fact that does jump out at a handicapper, however, is that none of the participants in the Santa Anita Derby has even come close to running a 110 Beyer speed figure, something that in past years has been thought a prerequisite to winning the Derby. Although Castledale has a great deal of stamina in his pedigree and is bred to run all day, Imperialism has run some nice races, and Wimbledon has worked well at Churchill and looked great closing down the long stretch at The Fair Grounds, one wonders whether any of them is simply fast enough to win the Derby. Thanks to his disqualification in the Santa Anita Derby, Rock Hard Ten may have insufficient graded stakes earnings even to make the Derby field.
So, if one is brave enough to dismiss the participants of the Derby prep race which in recent years has produced the winners of a couple of Derbies, which races and horses should he or she focus on? Well, for a start, let’s see who has been able to run races at, or near, the 110 Beyer mark. Back in February, Read the Footnotes won the Fountain of Youth with a 113 figure, but he is bucking almost half a century of history by coming into the Derby without a race since March 13th. The same disqualifier, but without the impressive Beyer number, also applies to Birdstone and Friends Lake.
The Cliff’s Edge, who underwhelmed in a stakes race at Tampa and was one of those caught trying to slip and slide over the beach in the Florida Derby, ran a completely surprizing 111 Beyer in upsetting the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and looked good in doing so, closing from last to first over a Keeneland strip generally thought to favor front-runners. Although the Keeneland surface did play fairer than usual to closers that day (several runners won coming from behind), that factor is still in his favor as is the very significant fact that he won two races at Churchill Downs as a two-year-old. Not all horses can handle the surface at Churchill, and it is obvious that he can. Cutting against him is the fact that he is coming into the Derby off a win in the Blue Grass Stakes -- not since 1991 has a winner of the Blue Grass also won the Derby (primarily, I believe, because of the very different biases of the two host tracks) but the horse who last pulled it off, Strike the Gold, was also trained by Nick Zito. It remains to be seen whether The Cliff's Edge can string two good races together in his three-year-old season.
Honesty compels me to reveal that in making a case for The Cliff’s Edge, I am more than a little prejudiced. Not only do I have him at 28-1 in the first Kentucky Derby futures pool, but he owes me one since I was at Keeneland on Blue Grass Day (there is no more wonderful place to watch a horse race in America) and by winning he not only cost me the trifecta, but also two Big 3-Pick 3 tickets -- I had Tapit in the Wood and Smarty Jones in the Arkansas Derby. But more than all that, it simply would be wonderful to see the winner of Kentucky’s premier prep race finally win the Kentucky Derby again, and to see Kentucky’s adopted son, New Yorker Nick Zito, who so loves Kentucky, back in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.
Another horse coming out of the Blue Grass Stakes who would appear worthy of consideration is Lion Heart. Unlike most of the three-year-olds this year, he has managed to string several good races (if not wins) together and was beaten only half a length by The Cliff’s Edge while earning a 110 Beyer. Several commentators expected him to win that race (I certainly did) and still think he could have won it had his jockey not elected to stay wide while racing on the lead. They don’t call it the “Golden Rail” at Keeneland for nothing, and that was a surprizing tactical decision. Had he saved more ground, he might not have been overtaken in the final strides. Having said that, however, in moving from Keeneland to Churchill Downs he is going from a track which traditionally plays to his front-running style to one which usually favors closers. He will have a lot to overcome in the Derby.
If Nick Zito made a come-back kid out of The Cliff’s Edge by winning the Blue Grass Stakes, equine magician Michael Dickinson literally pulled Tapit from the edge of the abyss in winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York. That son of Pulpit out of an Unbriddled mare was my original Derby interest last year when he won the Laurel Futurity with an unusually brave and impressive effort last November. Due to several minor, but nagging, injuries, however, he missed a lot of training and a couple of races in the beginning of his three-year-old year, and he had not had a race by early March when the Florida Derby rolled around. Though Dickinson advised against it, his owner insisted on running him in the Florida Derby, and thrown to the wolves against much more seasoned horses he finished sixth and came out of the race with mucous in his lungs.
It is a testament to Dickinson’s legendary training abilities that he was even able to get Tapit in shape to make the race, but when he closed from last to first winning the Wood Memorial blowing by both Eddington and Master David a couple of strides from the wire, he surprized even his own trainer. Those of us who appreciate none of the difficulties, but have grown accustomed to Michael Dickinson’s miracles, however, were not surprized at all. As between the Wood Memorial and the Blue Grass Stakes, the Wood was by far the most visually impressive. Both races were won by closers, Tapit and The Cliff’s Edge, employing the running style which is usually most successful at Churchill Downs, but surprizingly when the Beyer speed figures were calculated after the races Tapit’s dramatic surge had earned him only a 98 Beyer number while The Cliff’s Edge was awarded a 111 Beyer for his effort in gradually reeling Lion Heart in. It remains to be seen whether the naked eye or the calculator will prove the best judge of the two respective races.
In a year in which most prominent three-year-olds were unable to string two good races (much less two wins) together, it is remarkable that a colt who has won every race he has ever run stayed for so long off of the racing cognoscenti’s radar screens and off their lists of Derby contenders. Smarty Jones, the obscure Pennsylvania-bred who began his racing career at Philadelphia Park and who spent his winter and spring at Oaklawn in Arkansas simply couldn’t get any respect. Judged to be distance-limited because of his sire, Elusive Quality, all this blue-collar horse and his non-blueblooded connections (owner Someday Farm; trainer John Servis; and jockey Stewart Elliott) did was win -- and they didn’t do it in slow times either. Smarty Jones earned a 105 Beyer number as a two-year-old in a small stakes race at Philadelphia Park!
At age three, Smarty Jones won the Count Fleet at Aqueduct by five lengths before shipping off to Oaklawn where he won the Southwest Stakes and the Rebel Stakes, the latter by three and a quarter lengths while earning a 106 Beyer. Coming into the Rebel he had won four straight races (his only four races, actually) and yet you still couldn’t find him on a list of Derby contenders or make a bet on him in the first two Kentucky Derby futures pools. Even after his convincing win in the Rebel Stakes, he still couldn’t command much respect. Daily Racing Form columnist, Mike Watchmaker, couldn’t wait to denigrate him while writing his column handicapping the national Big-3 Pick 3 bet on the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Arkansas Derby. Making a virtue out of stubborness, he wrote in the April 10, 2004 issue of the Form : “Smarty Jones has managed to go 5 for 5 so far without me, and I’m not going to jump on him now, not when he has to break from post 11 at low odds.”
Well, he broke like a rocket from his bad post position in the “eleven hole”, got a good tracking position right off the hip of Watchmaker’s pick, Borrego, and passed him like he was standing still turning for home earning a 108 Beyer, the winner’s share of a million dollar purse, and the chance to collect a special five million dollar bonus offered by Oaklawn for any horse who could win the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. When he finally got enough notice to be included in the third Kentucky Derby futures pool, he finished as the favorite. He is also now at the top of Mike Matchmaker’s list of Derby contenders. We will see whether his sire’s miler’s pedigree limits his abilities in the last eighth of a mile on May 1st at Churchill Downs, but there is some stamina in his pedigree on his dam’s side, and wouldn’t it be a fairy tale ending if he wound up getting the Roses on Derby Day?
As stated at the outset, this year’s Kentucky Derby is even more unpredictable than usual and it is always the most difficult race of the year to handicap. Except for Smarty Jones, and Lion Heart, none of the three-year-old colts have shown very much consistency in their various prep races. It would not surprize me if anyone of ten or so horses won the 130th running of the Derby. Good horses like Pollard’s Vision, who earned a 107 Beyer while winning the Illinois Derby, or Imperialism, or Master David, or Castledale, or Eddington, have receivd only scant, if any, mention in this article. As mentioned, due to Frank Stronach’s blackout, I have not seen many of the Florida and California horses race this year, so the colts who I will mention at the end of this article are preferences rather than picks -- they are the horses I would like to see win.
If I could will a triple dead-heat, the three horses with their noses on the line in the photo would be Tapit, The Cliff’s Edge and Smarty Jones. They are all excellent race horses and their connections make for wonderful stories. It would be hard, as well, not to take real pleasure in seeing someone like former trainer and TVG commentator, Frank Lyons, win with his turf horse Castledale -- it could happen. And it would be nice to see Marylou Whitney’s Birdstone in the winner’s circle after all her family has done for racing, or to see Read the Footnotes return to his early season brillance and defy forty-eight years of history and win off such a long layoff. Obviously, horses like Wimbledon, trained by Bob Baffert, and Master David, trained by Bobby Frankel, are strong contenders, though of the two only Wimbledon claims any place in my affections.
One thing is for sure -- it will be a hell of a race. Come on Tapit, come on Cliff, come on Smarty Jones!
The Season to Say Goodbye
This is the time in the racing year when we say goodbye to old friends -- usually equine, but occasionally human as well. Sadly, Bill Shoemaker, whom many regard as the greatest jockey of all time, died this fall, and it is safe to say we will never look upon his like again. The combination of consummate riding ability, fierce competitiveness, and kindness, humor and humility are rare characteristics to find conjoined in any man.
Usually, however, late fall is when we say goodbye to the race horses whom we have rooted for, and bet on, and will never have the pleasure of seeing race again. This year we saw the retirements of Mineshaft and Azeri, the best older handicap horses of their respective genders in the current year, and it seems impossible that it has been two years since we last saw Tiznow run and become the first horse ever to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in successive years. The old geldings, the hard-knockers who have claimed a place in our affections over the years, are the hardest to see go. I remember being at Keeneland in the first weekend of their fall meet in October of 2002, and seeing Bet on Sunshine win his last stakes race in the Phoenix Breeders’ Cup, and the next day whispering under my breath “just bring him back safe” as John’s Call brushed by me on his way from the paddock to the turf course for his last race.
This year we have to say goodbye to one of the giants of the racing world. His tall frame now stooped, and his energetic reporting now slowed, by Parkinson’s Disease which has plagued him for years, Joe Hirsch, the eloquent and elegant columnist who has covered the racing world for the Daily Racing Form and a sister publication since 1954, wrote his last column, “Best game in the world”, on December 4, 2003. It appears in the December 5th internet edition of the Daily Racing Form.
I have been familiar with the writings of Joe Hirsch only since my addiction to horse racing began in 1987, but I believe that this observation will be confirmed by those who have had the pleasure of knowing him much longer -- he is a true gentleman in a world in which that quality, especially in the field of sports reporting, has become more and more scarce. In the sixteen years that I have been reading his perceptive and erudite articles and columns, I do not recall a single instance in which he made an unkind or sarcastic comment about anyone, man or beast.
To say that his knowledge about horse racing is encyclopedic is an understatement. He came from a racing background, and, in his half century of covering the sport as a journalist, he managed to weave his knowledge of the history, the personalities, the breeding, and the handicapping aspects of the sport into an incredibly rich and fascinating tapestry.
I associate so many of his columns with memories of races I have watched and places I have been. I remember being in a condominium on the lake in Hot Springs, Arkansas at 3:00 a.m. on the morning of the 1997 Arkansas Derby, and reading his column (in the bathroom, so as not to disturb my sleeping roommate) on Pulpit who was to run that same day in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. I still have the yellowed pages of the February 15, 1995 edition of the Daily Racing Form in which his column appeared reporting on the breakdown of the 1994 Horse of the Year, Holy Bull, in the Donn Handicap on the previous Saturday. His column on that occasion entitled “Croll, as usual, put his horse first” was vintage Joe Hirsch and is illustrative of why his writing is so respected, and he is so revered:
“A classy man in triumph and tragedy, Croll always put his horse first. No amount of money, no honor, no misguided comment could make him run The Bull last fall when it was time to freshen. With half a century of experience behind him, he knew what should be done and saw to it. He was gracious during Holy Bull’s long string of victories following the disappointing Kentucky Derby, and he answered every question for hours Sunday morning, emphasizing the positive aspects of what must have been a heartbreaking situation.”
The richness and quality of Joe Hirsch’s writings have been matched by the character and events of his life. In what surely must have been a real life instance of the play “The Odd Couple”, he shared an apartment with Joe Namath when the quarterback came to New York to play for the New York Jets. The older, genteel turf writer and the brash, young football player got along famously together, with the sportswriter going to the Jets games when circumstances permitted and often driving his young roommate home after the games. Writing an article about their time together earlier this week in the Daily Racing Form, Joe Namath said he taught Joe Hirsch everything about women, and his older roommate taught him everything about life.
Joe Hirsch always has made a point of being helpful to the young writers who were just beginning to cover horse racing. As Jim Bolus wrote in a chapter about him in his wonderful book “Remembering the Derby”, Pelican Publishing Company, 1994, he tended to assume the role of the official greeter to new writers on the racing beat, and he was forever asking them, “Can I do anything for you?” The habit was hard to break, and even with veteran writers he would often say “Hello, how are you feeling?” and follow it up with his patented “Is there anything I can do for you?”
In the chapter entitled “Joe Hirsch: Gentleman of the Turf”, at page 237, Bolus retells a story that Jack Mann, a veteran turf writer in 1963 with the Herald Tribune, told on himself. He and Joe Hirsch were standing around in the winner’s circle on a Wednesday afternoon at Aqueduct waiting to interview the winning trainer, and just out of boredom Mann asked “Joe, can I do anything for you?” The taller Hirsch leaned over very confidentially to Mann and replied in a low voice “Yeah, wear a tie in the winner’s circle, for Christ’s sake!”
Wit, wisdom, and a lifetime of knowledge about, and enthusiasm for, horse racing still burn bright in Joe Hirsch, but at age 75 and burdened by Parkinson’s he is no longer strong enough to share it with us. His last column, though short, is brimming with memories of extraordinary races run, and the courageous horses who ran them. As he noted in his farewell column:
“I feel I’m the luckiest feller in the world. I fell in love with racing 50 years ago and have had the glorious opportunity of making it my life’s work.
“Now, at 75, I’m retiring. I no longer have the physical strength necessary to do a proper job. But my strong feeling for racing remains, and I will continue to enjoy it from the sidelines.”
As is most fitting, Churchill Downs has named its pressbox in Joe Hirsch’s honor. Unfortunately, he will no longer be reporting from it, and because of that all of racing is the poorer, but every racing enthusiast has been enriched by his lifetime’s work. Happy retirement, Joe, you have done more than enough for us -- and thanks for the memories!
Seabiscuit, the Movie, Breaks from the Starting Gate
It is July 25, 2003, and the moment the racing world (and much of the film world) has been awaiting for months is finally at hand. Based on the best selling, magical book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, Inc., 2001) the movie apparently does an outstanding job of bringing to the screen Ms. Hillenbrand’s stirring history of a broken down claimer, and his owner, trainer and jockey, a collection of improbable longshots, who against all odds somehow managed to rise to the top of the racing world, and in the process brought hope and cheer to a nation desperately seeking underdog heroes in an era of economic depression.
I have not yet seen the film (and will not do so until a dinner party planned by my daughter so enthusiastic fans of the book can see the movie together), but by all accounts it is the best movie ever made about horse racing and a magnificent “period piece” which gives viewers a real feel for life in America during the Great Depression. I have read a number of reviews, which run the gamut from the absolutely glowing tribute given the movie by Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune to the nit-picking assessment of A. O. Scott in The New York Times, but all the critics agree that the racing scenes have been marvelously recreated and that the acting performances, costumes and cinematography do an exceptional job of capturing both the personalities of the main characters and the aura of Depression-era America.
Since you are reading this on the Horse Racing page of Curmudgeon’s Corner, rather than in a movie magazine or the arts section of your local paper, I’ll assume that you are more interested in the horse racing aspects of “Seabiscuit” rather than a movie review, which I am unqualified to deliver in any event. Accordingly, I am pleased to report that the director, Gary Ross, has been an avid fan of horse racing since his boyhood days (he is a part owner of recent Derby hopeful Atswhatimtalkinbout) and did everything possible to insure that the racing scenes were as authentic as modern movie technology and historical research could make them. He hired the recently retired Hall of Fame jockey, Chris McCarron, to serve as the racing consultant, and Chris poured over the articles, charts and past performances of old editions of the Daily Racing Form to insure that the placements of the horses were correct at every stage of the races depicted. Chris also played War Admiral’s jockey, Charley Kurtsinger, in the famous match race with Seabiscuit at Pimlico. He is reported to have delivered his one line, “Hello, George” (to George Woolf, played brilliantly by fellow Hall of Famer, Gary Stevens, in the paddock before the race) flawlessly.
The West Coast racing scenes were filmed at Santa Anita where Seabiscuit did much of his running, but because of subsequent renovations to Pimlico where the match race with War Admiral was held, the filming of the November 1, 1938 running of the Pimlico Special was shot at Keeneland (with its more authentic looking grandstands) immediately after the close of Keeneland’s 2002 fall meet. A total of seventeen retired race horses (eight Seabiscuits and nine War Admirals, some of whom had to be dyed black) were used to recreate the famous match race, and a trainer was hired to keep them all in shape during the filming. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that, after the shooting was completed, the trainer whimsically stated that “I’m going to take my eight Seabiscuits and nine War Admirals over to Churchill Downs and kick some ass!”
One last point of interest to racing fans: Gary Stevens apparently did an absolutely masterful job of acting in portraying “The Ice Man”, George Woolf, the flamboyant and charismatic jockey who took over the mount on Seabiscuit during the period when his regular rider, Red Pollard, was injured. Several critics said Gary almost “stole the show”. That must have been quite a feat, because the critics have said that Jeff Bridges playing Charles Howard, Elizabeth Banks playing Marcela Howard, Chris Cooper playing trainer and old horse whisperer Tom Smith, and Tobey Maguire playing the feisty but haunted Red Pollard, all turned in masterful performances.
But that brings me to the point of this article: Do yourself a favor and read Laura Hillenbrand’s magical and enchanting book before you see the movie! No movie, no matter how well made, can fully capture all of the nuances of an exceptional book, and this is particularly true when nonfiction is involved (e.g., remember the movie version of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”?). Inevitably, there have to be compressions and omissions in adapting a book to the screen (for instance, I do not believe that the heartbreaking 1938 Santa Anita Handicap when Seabiscuit lost by inches to Stagehand while carrying 30 more pounds over a distance of a mile and a quarter -- probably one of the greatest losing efforts in the history of thoroughbred racing -- was included in the movie); and I do not see how anyone but a great Shakespearian actor could do justice to the complex character of Red Pollard, that intelligent, feisty, generous, but unlucky and tormented, soul who traveled all over the country with no home and often with no companions other than his pocket Shakespeare, the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Old Waldo” as he called him) and the Ruybiat of Omar Khayyam. Pollard’s battles with alcoholism, for instance, apparently are not even mentioned in the movie.
So, if you haven’t already done so, go out and buy the book (the paperback versions even have Seabiscuit’s lifetime past performances) and read it before you see the movie. It is so exciting and well written that you can finish it in a weekend. I have had people who have never been to a horse race in their lives tell me it was so gripping that they couldn’t put it down. And then go see the movie -- from everything I’ve read, it is an extraordinary film.
Milestones and Memories
Now that the excitement and, for me at least, the disappointment of the Triple Crown races are over for another year, it is high time that we paused and reflected on some of the truly significant events which transpired while our attention was focused on that glamorous and glitzy three race series. Since this is a column about horse racing, it is only fitting that we honor the equine hero first, particularly since death, as opposed to retirement, is so final and we are not apt to look upon his like again.
I refer to the passing of Spectacular Bid, our last link to what was certainly racing’s greatest decade, who died of a heart attack on June 9, 2003, at Dr. Jonathan Davis’s Milfer Farm in up-state New York. The American racing public, and indeed all of the racing world, was spoiled by a succession of great champions in the 1970s -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, the great gelding, Forego, the champion filly, Ruffian, and the outstanding “also rans”, Alydar and Sham (Sham still is the holder of the second fastest time ever run in the Kentucky Derby, behind Secretariat’s record of one minute and 59 and 2/5ths seconds) -- but a fairly respectable argument can by made that Spectacular Bid, the last of the glorious horses who graced the decade of the 1970s, may have been the greatest of them all.
Unlike the icon, Secretariat, who was beaten three times in his championship year of 1973 (by Angle Light and Sham in the Wood Memorial; by Onion in the Whitney; and by Prove Out in the Woodward), Spectacular Bid never ran a bad race in his life. Seattle Slew’s unbeaten record going into his triumphant Triple Crown speaks for itself, and personally you will never get me to admit that there was ever a race horse with more courage and a greater heart than Affirmed (he did defeat Spectacular Bid by 3/4ths of a length in their only meeting in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on October 6, 1979, but Affirmed was the controlling speed in that race, and he was a four-year-old while the “Bid” was only three).
It is one of the great injustices of popular history that Spectacular Bid is associated in the public’s mind, not with Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, but is remembered as the first of nine horses since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978 who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but failed to win the Belmont Stakes. He came into the Belmont that year on June 9, 1979, with a twelve race win streak, compiled as both a two- and three-year-old (I won’t bore you with all of the graded stakes races included in that string, but they included the Champagne, the Fountain of Youth, the Florida Derby, the Flamingo Stakes, the Blue Grass, the Kentucky Derby and, of course, the Preakness), but on the morning of the Belmont he was found to have a safety-pin stuck deep into his hoof. Unlike Neil Drysdale, who years later would scratch A. P. Indy on the morning of the Kentucky Derby when he bruised his foot by stepping on a stone, his trainer, Bud Delp, elected to run him anyway.
He probably would have won the Belmont despite his injury, but his jockey (in what is generally conceded to be one of the worst rides ever given a horse in a major race) elected to duel with an 85-1 longshot through torrid early fractions and he tired in the latter stages of the mile and one-half race and finished third to Coastal and Golden Act. Except for the aforementioned loss to Affirmed later in the year in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (and there is certainly no shame in losing to Affirmed by three-quarters of a length under any circumstances), he never lost another race! He won ten of twelve races as a three-year-old, and won each of his nine races at age four. He was elected “Horse of the Year” for 1980, and finished his glorious racing career on September 20, 1980, when he won the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park in a “walkover” because no other horse was even entered to face him.
Upon learning of Spectacular Bid’s death, his trainer Bud Delp was quoted as saying: “He lived to be 27, and he had a good life. I’m always going to think of him the way I remember him. That’s as I saw him for three years on the race track. I’m not going to think of him being dead and buried and gone.
“I always said he was the greatest horse to look through a bridle. I said it before the Florida Derby, and I think he pretty much proved it….On Bid’s best day and everybody else’s best day, Bid would’ve gotten my money.”
I won’t quarrel with that assessment.
If Spectacular Bid’s death on the Monday following the Belmont Stakes bracketed one end of this year’s Triple Crown series, the retirement of Laffit Pincay, Jr., the winningest jockey in the history of racing, on April 29, 2003, less than a week before the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby, bracketed the other. Laffit Pincay won the first race of his career aboard Huelen at Presidente Remon in Panama on May 19, 1964. He won the 9,530th of his career atop Seattle Shamus at Santa Anita on March 1, 2003, at the ripe old age (for a jockey) of 56.
Later that day, riding Trampus Too in a turf race “down the hill” on Santa Anita’s hillside course, his mount clipped heels and fell when another horse skidded into him at the point where the hillside course crosses the dirt of the main track turning into the stretch. One of the peculiarities of riding “down the hill” at Santa Anita is that the horses tend to skid outward from the rail when they hit the small band of dirt which they must cross on the main track. On March 1st in the fifth race at Santa Anita, one of the horses inside of Pincay was being ridden by a foreign jockey, Tony Farina, who was not very familiar with the hillside course, and he permitted his mount to drift outward by two or three lanes into Trampus Too who was closing fast in the middle of the course. The two horses clipped heels, and Trampus Too fell, pitching Pincay ahead of him over his neck and head onto the dirt section of the course below. The horse rolled over the fallen jockey, breaking Laffit Pincay’s neck.
Laffit Pincay is one of the strongest and best conditioned jockeys ever to race, and he actually walked away from the horrible looking spill. He took off his mounts for a couple of days thinking that he was merely “body sore” and stiff, but intended to be riding again in a few days. When the stiffness failed to go away, he consulted an orthopaedic specialist and it was discovered that he had suffered three fractures to his second cervical vertebrae and a compression fracture to the second thoracic vertebrae in the middle of his spine. His doctors advised him that he should never ride again since another fall could result in permanent paralysis.
He pondered his decision for almost two months, but on April 29, 2003, decided to take his doctor’s advice and announced his retirement from riding. He released a statement through Hollywood Park saying:
“It’s definitely a sad day for me. The doctor recommended I never ride again. It’s a very sad day for me and Jeanine, but we always prepared ourselves for the worst. I’m very grateful to a lot of people who helped me throughout my career and I thank the fans for all their cards and well wishes and my friends for all their support.”
Thus ended what many people think was the greatest riding career in the history of the sport. Other jockeys have amassed more money in career earnings, and still others have ridden more famous horses, but day in and day out, on the Southern California circuit (which I would contend is the most competitive racing in the nation) over a career that spanned almost 39 years he rode thoroughbreds traveling at speeds of 35 miles per hour holding on only by the tips of his boots in their stirrups and the pressure of his knees, and in doing so compiled 9,530 victories -- more than Eddie Arcaro, more than Bill Shoemaker, more than any jockey who ever climbed on a horse.
How does one pick and choose among the highlights of such an extraordinary career? One must mention, I suppose, his Kentucky Derby win on Swale in 1984; his three successive wins in the Belmont for trainer Woody Stephens; his win in the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Classic on the longshot Skywalker, and the other five victories in the Breeders’ Cup which were to follow; the day at Santa Anita on March 14, 1987, when he won a record seven races on a single card; his ride on Irish Nip at Hollywood Park on December 10, 1999, when he won his 8,834th race breaking Bill Shoemaker’s record for total victories; and winning the riding title at the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita in the fall of 2000 in a young man’s sport at the unheard of age of 53.
I doubt that Laffit himself would have chosen any of these events as the highlight of his remarkable career. He may have chosen, or may yet choose, his ride on Affirmed, who he said was the greatest horse he ever rode, in the October 6, 1979 running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in the duel with Spectacular Bid which was to determine the title of 1979 Horse of the Year.
I will remember him, however, not for his rides on the greatest horses, but for the wonders he could perform on the ordinary claiming and allowance horses he rode every day on the Southern California circuit. There never was a jockey who could get more out of a horse at a distance of a “flat mile”. No matter how bad a horse might look in “The Form”, he deserved a second, and perhaps a third, look if Pincay was riding him for the first time at that distance. And heaven help a bettor who overlooked a horse ridden by Pincay and trained by his favorite trainer, Bill Spawr! Spawr almost never put Laffit on one of his horses unless he really thought the animal had a great chance in a race, and when that happened you could throw “The Form” out the window, no matter what the past performances might show.
I still have fond memories of a Friday night card at Hollywood Park when I left a formal party late at night to go to my local track and watch the simulcast of the last part of the night’s racing. Needless to say, I was the only one in attendance wearing a tuxedo, but what made it a memorable evening was that Pincay was riding a horse trained by Bill Spawr. Up to that point in the Hollywood meet, Pincay had ridden for Spawr seven times and had won six of those races. That night he was on a 14-1 shot who looked just terrible on paper. I wheeled him on a quinella with several other horses and he won the race, bringing another longshot with him who finished second. The $2.00 quinella paid well over $400.00! Oh, how I will miss the Pincay/Spawr handicapping angle.
In December of 1999, when Pincay was closing in on Bill Shoemaker’s record for total victories, Jay Hovdey wrote a wonderful column for the December 4, 1999 edition of the Daily Racing Form entitled “Neck and neck into the gloaming” recounting the rivalry between Shoemaker and Pincay and some of the great races they had against each other. Although neither jockey had been aboard Affirmed or Spectacular Bid during their respective campaigns for the Triple Crown, they each picked up the mount later in those horses’ careers -- Pincay on Affirmed and Shoemaker on Spectacular Bid. Since, by coincidence, this piece has been about both Spectacular Bid and Laffit Pincay, I will let the lyrical prose of Jay Hovdey tie them both together:
“Pincay says the best horse he ever rode was Affirmed. Shoemaker sifts through Swaps, Round Table, Ack Ack, and Forego and comes down to Spectacular Bid. Their choices make the events of Oct. 6, 1979, that much more significant.
“There was more at stake than just the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park that fall afternoon. The winner -- Affirmed or Spectacular Bid -- would be Horse of the Year. Pincay sent Affirmed to the lead around the first turn and dared Shoemaker to attack. He did, repeatedly, from the final turn to the finish, but Spectacular Bid could never dent Affirmed’s imperious resolve. At the end of 1 1/2 miles, the red beat the gray by three-quarters of a length.
“ ‘Affirmed cannot be beaten,’ Pincay said afterwards. ‘I don’t know why they keep trying.’
“He could have been talking about himself.”
The chestnut colored, four-year-old Affirmed simply would not let the gray, three-year-old Spectacular Bid pass him, and so won the title of Horse of the Year for the second consecutive year. The next year, 1980, “Bid” won all nine of his races as a four-year-old and claimed the title for himself. It would be hard to imagine a greater race than the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup -- two of the greatest jockeys, and two of the greatest horses, of all time battling each other for a mile and a half and finishing less than a length apart. Such is the stuff that legends, and memories, are made of.
There’s No Joy in Mudville
I have to warn you at the outset of this article that my mood is about as sunny as the New York weather, and that if I can just get the taste of mud out of my mouth I am sure there will be a lingering flavor of sour grapes. About the only thing I enjoyed Saturday in the 135th running of the Belmont Stakes was that the New York crowd of 101,864 wore their hearts on their rain-soaked sleeves and applauded Funny Cide as he unsaddled after his third place finish, and booed and jeered the spoiler, Empire Maker, in the winner’s circle. They must have left their sense of decorum at home, and I have to admit that I’m not sorry they did.
As one Daily Racing Form columnist noted before the race, pulling for Empire Maker is a little like rooting for the spoiled, rich kid to take all the regular kid’s marbles, but honesty compels me to acknowledge that while Funny Cide is a very good race horse he doesn’t belong in the same company as Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. It takes an extraordinary race horse to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in a five week period, and Funny Cide wasn’t quite up to that grueling task. I am not prepared to concede, however, as the “what have you done for me lately” crowd will claim, that Empire Maker’s win in the Belmont proves that he is a better race horse than Funny Cide. All it proves is that with five weeks’ rest and with the services of the best jockey in the world, Empire Maker can beat Funny Cide at a mile and a half on an off track. It is safe to say he will never have that opportunity again.
Personally, I haven’t been as disappointed in the result of a major race since Easy Goer beat Sunday Silence in the 1989 Belmont to deny that “regular kid” the Triple Crown. There was no question, however, that Easy Goer was the better horse that day because his connections had had the courage to race him in all three legs of the Triple Crown and he didn’t win with the extra advantage of five weeks’ rest.
This year, Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted who defeated the Derby and Preakness winner by five and four and one-quarter lengths, respectively, sat out the Preakness. Scrimshaw, the only other horse besides Funny Cide to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown, finished last in the Belmont, thirty lengths back. It’s not easy even to run in all three of the Triple Crown races, much less to win to win all three. That’s why there were twenty-five years between Citation’s Triple Crown in 1948 and Secretariat’s in 1973, and now there will be even more between Affirmed’s in 1978 and the next three-year-old who will somehow manage to accomplish that extraordinary feat. The Triple Crown truly is the most difficult challenge in all of sports.
Turning to my observations about this year’s Belmont Stakes, Funny Cide did not seem to be his usual bouncy, ebullient self as he was led over to the track before the race, and for whatever reason he didn’t seem to be handling the sloppy surface well despite the fact that he was on his home track. His jockey, Jose Santos, observed afterwards that “The track affected him. When we went around the first turn he was switching leads, he wasn’t handling the track, and I knew we were in trouble.” Also, more importantly, Santos was never able to get Funny Cide to relax, such a critical factor in a race as long as a mile and one-half. He fought and pulled against his jockey for the first mile, exhausting himself and leaving little energy in reserve for the stretch run. Perhaps, in retrospect, it might have been better for Santos simply to have given him his head and let him run, but it is doubtful that without relaxing and settling in on the lead he could have won in either event. It just wasn’t to be Funny Cide’s day.
Jerry Bailey gave Empire Maker a great ride, settling in comfortably just a length off of Funny Cide’s hip for the first mile. He commented after the race that “I knew I had him (Funny Cide) from the top of the backside. He was pulling on Jose, and my horse was very relaxed. If they pull on you all the way, they have nothing left coming home.”
So, Empire Maker has won the Belmont; his trainer, Bobby Frankel, has at last won a Triple Crown race; the high hopes and expectations which Prince Khalid Abdullah and Juddmonte Farms have had for their homebred since his birth have been at least partially vindicated; and once again American racing has been denied a Triple Crown winner.
We need not feel too bad, however, for Funny Cide and his connections. He and they join such illustrious company as Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, and War Emblem, who won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978, but were unable to complete the sweep by winning the Belmont, “the test of the Champion” . Funny Cide’s name will appear on the Julep Cup which sets forth the names of all of the Kentucky Derby winners, and he will long be remembered as the first New York-bred to win the Derby and the first gelding to do so since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. Furthermore, if he lives up to his promise, he may be fondly remembered as one of the great geldings who have dominated the ranks of older handicap horses such as Kelso, Forego, John Henry and Best Pal.
And what of the Belmont “spoilers”? How many of us can recall the names of those winners of the Belmont Stakes who denied the Derby and Preakness winners their Triple Crowns? Who defeated Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, or more recently Real Quiet? I thought I knew, but to be sure I had to look their names up. They were Coastal, Summing and Victory Gallop.
Dance With the One Who Brought You
The week just past was quite a week for Funny Cide and his connections. It started on Saturday afternoon, May 10th, when the Miami Herald, which had promised it wouldn’t, went public with its story about a photograph which seemed to show that Funny Cide's jockey, Jose Santos, had something in his hand (read “buzzer” or “battery”) besides his whip when he won the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby, and ended on Saturday afternoon, May 17th, at Pimlico when that same jockey flashed the “V” sign (for Victory, not Peace) when his mount won the 128th running of the Preakness Stakes by nine and three-quarters lengths, the largest margin of victory since Survivor won the initial running of that race by ten lengths in 1873.
Without pausing to quibble that the race in 1873 was run at the distance of a mile and one-half, and that photographic equipment was not available to measure Survivor’s margin of victory in quarter-lengths, I think we can all agree that Funny Cide’s win in the Preakness was the most lop-sided since the race began to be run at its present distance of a mile and three-sixteenths in 1925.
By all accounts, Funny Cide is one of the most laid-back and unflappable thoroughbreds since Seabiscuit, but the week preceding his impressive victory in the Preakness had to be extraordinarily hard on his homo sapiens connections. Perhaps the Miami Herald can be excused for publishing the one photograph out of a series of about a hundred which cast any doubt whatever on whether Jose Santos held a prohibited device in his hand during the running of the Kentucky Derby, but there is no excuse for a newspaper in a city with as large a Spanish speaking population as Miami bungling a telephone interview as badly as they did with Jose Santos after the controversy came to light. The reporter from the Herald asked Mr. Santos, who is from Chile and speaks English with a heavy Spanish accent, whether he had anything in his hand. The jockey, who did not thoroughly understand the question, replied that he had worn a “Q-ray”, a copper bracelet thought to be helpful in dealing with the pain of “arthritis”. The reporter from the Herald thought he heard Mr. Santos say that he held a “cue-ring” which he said was used to call “out-riders”, but on investigating the explanation learned that nobody at the race track had ever heard of a “cue-ring” and that out-riders were called, if at all, by a simple shout. The Hearld had all the evidence it needed, and implied that Santos and longshot, Funny Cide, had won the Kentucky Derby with the help of an illegal device.
Nor did the Kentucky stewards cover themselves with glory during the controversy. To their credit, when called by the Miami Herald on the Thursday after the Derby, they asked the paper (and the Herald agreed) not to print anything about the matter until they had had a chance to investigate. By Saturday afternoon, however, the Miami Herald felt they could wait no longer with their “scoop” and published their story without further consulting the stewards. In the firestorm which followed, one of the stewards was quoted as saying that the photograph was “very suspicious” and the chief steward, who officially had “no comment” while lending credence to the story through his grim-faced announcement of the investigation, was quoted by one newspaper as having said “Jose Santos can say anything he wants…the picture is worth a million words.”
After Jose Santos’ spotless reputation was dragged through the mud for a long weekend, and he was taunted by the merciless denizens of the New York racing world while riding at Belmont, the Kentucky stewards announced on Monday, May 12th, what anyone familiar with the riding career of Jose Santos, or merely what anyone familiar with human nature, had known all along -- that the photograph depicted an optical illusion and Jose Santos had nothing other than his whip in his hand. The supposed foreign object in his hand was revealed to be (when the photograph was magnified 250 times) nothing more than the green color of trailing jockey Jerry Bailey’s silks, and a bit of his goggles, on the second place finisher, Empire Maker, captured by a telescopic lens shot through Mr. Santos’ partially opened fist.
It is a real shame, and no credit upon racing, that a baseless controversy could be whipped up, and America’s premier horse race called into question, by a single photograph and some careless reporters who couldn’t be bothered to check their story beyond the misunderstood words of “Q-ray” and “Cue-ring” and “arthritis” and “out-riders”, and by the stewards who couldn’t hold their comments long enough to give one of America’s leading jockey’s the benefit of the doubt.
If he could read, even the laid-back Funny Cide might have wondered what in the world his jockey was doing at a hearing in Louisville, Kentucky, and his owners and trainer were doing at a ceremony at the state capital in Albany, New York on the Monday before he was to be racing in Baltimore, Maryland in the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown. Well, his jockey was fighting for his career and the Kentucky Derby purse in Louisville, while he (Funny Cide) and his connections were being honored in Albany as the first New York-bred ever to win the Derby. “Oh, well,” Funny Cide would have said, “whatever.”
Well, whatever emotional traumas and strains the events of the previous week may have inflicted on Funny Cide’s owners at Sackatoga Stables, or on his jockey Jose Santos and his family, or on his trainer Barclay Tagg or the latter’s longtime girl-friend and assistant trainer, Robin Smullen, the New York gelding seemed to take it all in stride. Arriving at Pimlico by van from New York in a driving rainstorm on the afternoon before the race, he used his tactical speed to compensate for his unfavorable post position in the “nine hole” in the starting gate and quickly gained a good position tracking just behind the front running Peace Rules. When he drew even with that rival turning for home, all it took was a couple of taps from Jose Santos' whip (batteries not included) for Funny Cide to draw away from the field and leave them approximately ten lengths behind in his wake. Having sojourned in Baltimore just a little more than 24 hours while winning the Preakness, he was back in his stall at Belmont Park in New York by 1:15 a.m. that night. When Robin Smullen checked on him early the next morning, he had already cleaned out and polished his feed tub.
So with victories already to his credit in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the question now arises whether this unheralded, blue collar gelding has a chance to win the Belmont and become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. As almost everyone knows, eight horses, most of whom were much more highly regarded than Funny Cide, have tried and failed to win that last, elusive leg of the Triple Crown in the twenty-five years since that feat was last accomplished. Unlike Funny Cide, however, most of those horses had never raced, much less won, at Belmont Park. Belmont is Funny Cide’s home track, and he has three wins from three starts there. Although history is obviously against him, I think he has a good chance to win the Belmont Stakes.
Coming into the Triple Crown series of races, Funny Cide had received little notice from the betting public and even less respect from the racing press. Despite the fact that his 110 Beyer speed number (generally thought to be the minimum necessary to win the Derby) in the Wood Memorial put him in a group of only three horses with a realistic chance of winning America’s premier race, it was Empire Maker with his 111 Beyer in the Wood and Ten Most Wanted with his 110 Beyer in the Illinois Derby who were getting all of the hype from racing writers and professional handicappers. Andy Beyer, the originator of the famous speed figures, conceded that Empire Maker was obviously the horse to beat, but said he was betting on Ten Most Wanted because of his betting “value” -- his odds were estimated to be somewhere between 8 or 6 to 1 by post time -- but he made no mention of Funny Cide who had earned his 110 Beyer in a much tougher race and was 19 to 1 for much of Derby Day before being bet down to around 12 to 1 just before the race.
When the gates opened in Derby 129 at Churchill Downs on May 3rd, Funny Cide used his tactical speed to secure a good, ground saving trip on the rail running either third or fourth behind Brancusi and Peace Rules who were setting a torrid pace up front. When Jose Santos asked him for his run going into the far turn, he began gaining on the front runners and had drawn even with them by the time he turned for home coming into Churchill Downs’ long stretch. By that time, Brancusi was finished and Funny Cide out-dueled the tiring Peace Rules down the stretch and had plenty in reserve to hold off the challenge of Empire Maker and the late charging Atswhatimtalknbout. He defeated favored Empire Maker by one and three-quarters lengths, with Peace Rules and Atswhatimtalknbout a head and a head further back to finish third and fourth respectively.
By the time Preakness Day had rolled around at Pimlico on May 17th, the public had taken the gutsy New York gelding to their hearts, along with his beleagured but vindicated jockey, his conservative and taciturn trainer, and the six high school buddies from Sackets Harbor, New York who had gotten together to form Sackatoga Stable and improbably found themselves the owners of a Kentucky Derby winner. The public made their sentimental favorite the betting favorite as well, sending Funny Cide off at odds of 9 to 5 at post time.
Many of the professionals were far from convinced about Funny Cide, however. Even though many of their Derby picks were passing the Preakness to wait for the Belmont, a majority of the writers in the Daily Racing Form and the handicappers appearing on ESPN’s excellent Preakness coverage the morning of the race thought Funny Cide had benefited from too perfect a pace senario in the Derby and that Peace Rules would turn the tables on him at Pimlico where Funny Cide would have a difficult outside trip from the 9th post position with all of the speed in the race drawn inside of him. Of the four handicappers assembled by ESPN, only Jay Privman thought Funny Cide would win the race. Andy Beyer, Randy Morse and Hank Goldberg all thought Peace Rules would win. Their logic, based on “trip handicapping” is illustrated in Andrew Beyer’s column published in the Washington Post and in the Daily Racing Form’s edition of Saturday, May 17, 2003:
“After Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby by nearly two lengths, he was showered with the acclaim that almost all Derby winners receive. But serious fans and bettors were not convinced that he had been the best horse in the race.
“Horseplayers who call themselves trip handicappers know that winners are often determined by the way a race develops: by the early pace, by traffic troubles, by the fact that some horses are forced to run wide on the turns while others save ground. Funny Cide benefited from an easy trip, while the second- third- and fourth-place finishers encountered various difficulties. If they had all appeared at Pimlico for a rematch Saturday, the Preakness would have been wide open and the odds would have been against the Derby winner.”
Since many of the Derby entrants had chosen to pass the race, however, Mr. Beyer concluded that the Preakness came down to a two horse race, and he gave the edge to Peace Rules based on his conclusion that Funny Cide would get a tough trip from his outside post. He noted that in two turn races during the curent Pimlico meet horses breaking from post positions 8 and wider had won only one of fifty races. What I feel he and so many other handicappers failed to recognize, however, is that a horse with excellent tactical speed like Funny Cide can make his own breaks by running fast in the early part of a race to secure a good position, and Funny Cide did just that in out-gunning New York Hero who broke from the “8 hole” so that he could cross over and sit just outside of Number 7, Peace Rules. Beyer’s own speed figures show that Funny Cide is just a faster horse than Peace Rules (he has earned a 110, a 108, and now a 114 in his last three races whereas Peace Rules tends to top out at about 105) and when a horse with that advantage manages to secure a good trip by utilizing his tactical speed, the race is just about over -- as it was on Preakness Day when Jose Santos called on Funny Cide to run at the top of the stretch and he jumped away from the field to win by almost ten lengths.
Funny Cide’s impressive win in the Preakness has convinced Andy Beyer that he is a really good race horse and the “real deal”. Fortunately, however, many of the professional handicappers remain unconvinced (higher odds for me, perhaps, on Belmont Day). Mike Watchmaker published a column in the Daily Racing Form on May 19th entitled “Or maybe his win wasn’t as good as it looked” making the point that though Funny Cide’s win in the Preakness was visually impressive, it didn’t really prove anything. Mr. Matchmaker contends that he had only Peace Rules to beat and once he put him away there was no one else in the race to give Funny Cide any competition. Then, in an interesting mathematical exercise, he proceeded to call Funny Cide’s 114 Beyer earned in the Preakness into question.
Working backward from the 95 Beyer number earned by the second place finisher, the non-stakes winning Midway Road, in his last race before the Preakness at Keeneland on April 24, 2003, he calculated that the 9-3/4ths lengths win by Funny Cide only amounts to a “real" Beyer number of 109, two less than Empire Maker earned in the Wood Memorial, but still four points better than that favorite earned in the Kentucky Derby.
Don’t throw me in the Briar-patch! That’s really laboring to make a point. First, Andrew Beyer is based in Maryland, is thoroughly familiar with the Pimlico racing surface, and I will absolutely trust the accuracy of his 114 figure for Funny Cide. Second, although Midway Road may not be a stakes-winner, he won that race at Keeneland, a $58,115 allowance race for non-winners of two lifetime other than maiden or claiming (anyone knows such races at Keeneland with its rich purse structure are just as competitive as many small stakes races at other tracks) and Midway Road won that race by 11-3/4 lengths! Obviously, Robbie Albarado wasn’t exactly whipping him down the stretch trying to increase his Beyer number to 100. Midway Road is a good horse, and that’s why I put him under Funny Cide in my exacta and trifecta bets in the Preakness, and boy am I glad I did!
So, poor old Funny Cide still can’t get much respect. That’s alright with me -- I still intend to key him on top in the Belmont. I know it will be a much tougher race than the Preakness, with Empire Maker, Atawhatimtalknbout, Ten Most Wanted (the “wiseguy” horse from the Derby who finished ninth) and several others ready to test him, and I know he will be trying to accomplish what Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charasmatic and many other excellent horses could not. In several of those cases, however, the Belmont “spoiler” was a horse based in New York (eg. Bet Twice, Easy Goer, Lemon Drop Kid). This year, the winner of the Derby and the Preakness will be returning to his own home track at Belmont Park. Besides, I’m a fan and I want him to win.
There is a saying in my neck of the woods that you ought to dance with the one who brought you. Well, Funny Cide “brought me” a nice across the board winning ticket in the Derby, along with a moderate Funny Cide-Empire Maker exacta, and two very nice exacta and trifecta tickets in the Preakness. So, I’m rooting for, and will be betting on, Funny Cide. I can’t wait for the next dance!
| Sunday Silence's Death Casts Poignant Shadow Over Racing's Holiday Season
In mid-summer, American racing takes on a holiday air as its venues shift from urban sites such as Churchill Downs in Louisville, Belmont Park in New York City, and Hollywood Park in Los Angeles to vacation spots such as “the Spa” at Saratoga Springs, New York, Del Mar on the Pacific Ocean just north of San Diego, California, and Monmouth Racecourse on the Jersey Shore. Even in its lone major urban setting, the incomparably beautiful Arlington International Racecourse outside of Chicago (site of this year’s Breeders’ Cup championships on October 26th) large weekend crowds for marquee races such as the Beverly D and the Arlington Million create a festive, holiday atmosphere.
A sad and poignant shadow was cast across this otherwise care-free and sunny time, from half a world away, earlier this week when news came that Sunday Silence had died on August 19, 2002, at the age of 16, on the island of Hokkaido in Japan. The Kentucky Derby winner and 1989 Horse of the Year, who was Japan’s most revered stallion and sire, died from heart disease brought on by founder at the Yoshida family’s Shadai Stallion Station. On a personal level, Sunday Silence was my first passionate betting and rooting interest in horse racing, and in the larger scheme of things he was a fabulous “rags to riches” story, played a major role in the continuing American racing saga of East vs. West, and for his breeder and original owner, Arthur B. Hancock, III, provided yet another proof that living well is the best revenge.
Sunday Silence began his life in America, as he ended it, as the race horse nobody wanted. A son of the moderately successful sire, Halo, he was bred by his owner, Arthur B. Hancock, III, in the Bluegrass country outside of Lexington, Kentucky at Stone Farm, just eight miles away from historic Claiborne Farm (run by Arthur’s younger brother, Seth) where his rival and partner in history, the regally bred Easy Goer, was foaled. For his part, Arthur Hancock could not have foreseen that he would spend the better part of his professional life at Stone Farm rather than Claiborne which had been owned by his family for generations. As the elder son of the legendary “Bull” Hancock, Arthur naturally assumed that he would succeed his father as the manager of Claiborne after the latter’s death. Ogden Phipps, the executor of the elder Hancock’s estate, head of New York’s Jockey Club, founder of the New York Racing Association, and scion of one of the eastern racing establishment’s most famous families, however, had other ideas.
Ogden Phipps, whose mother incidentally bred Seabiscuit, thought the younger Arthur Hancock was entirely too frivolous to be entrusted with the management of so formidable a breeding establishment as Claiborne Farm. Arthur, who had a weakness for the ladies and composed bluegrass music and played the banjo, was passed over and booted out of his family business by Phipps in favor of his duller, more steady, younger brother Seth Hancock. It is one of the delightful ironies of history that since Arthur was passed over, he has bred three Kentucky Derby winners (Gato del Sol, Sunday Silence and Fusaichi Pegasus) while legendary Claiborne Farm has produced only one (Swale), establishing perhaps that banjo playing does not absolutely disqualify a person as a horse breeder.
At any rate, Arthur Hancock’s Sunday Silence (named in a contest by school children) and Easy Goer, owned by Ogden Phipps, sired by the famous Alydar and foaled at Claiborne Farm, started their lives just eight miles apart in 1986, but were separated by a much greater chasm in terms of their breeding, ownership and expectations. Easy Goer not only was owned by one of the most influential men in thoroughbred racing, but had the equine breeding to match being sired by Alydar out of a Buckpasser mare. Sunday Silence, on the other hand, could find no takers at the sales and was bought back by Hancock and his other part-owner, trainer Charles Whittingham, for the “reserve not achieved” price of $17,000. On his way back from the unsuccessful sale, his horse trailer overturned and Sunday Silence spent several weeks in a veterinary clinic in Oklahoma. Charlie Whittingham further limited his exposure to the unfortunate animal by selling off part of his share to a third owner.
Once the two Kentucky-breds started their racing careers as two year olds, the distance between them, both in geography and the racing philosophies of their respective trainers, separated them still further. Easy Goer was given a full schedule of races as a two-year-old, all except one in New York, by Phipps’ trainer, Shug McGaughey, while Charlie Whittingham, in keeping with his conservative philosophy of not over-racing young horses, gave his charge only three races, all in Southern California. At the end of the year, Easy Goer, victorious in all of his races except his first in New York and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (run, ominously, at Churchill Downs) was voted the Two Year Old Champion.
Coming into the Kentucky Derby of 1989, Easy Goer had raced three times as a three year old, all in New York, and had won all three by convincing margins as the overwhelming favorite. Sunday Silence had also raced and won three prep races at Santa Anita in Southern California, also by comfortable margins, but had been the betting favorite in only one of them. The eastern racing establishment, and the eastern racing press, had seen enough. The horse racing writer for The New York Times proclaimed Easy Goer the “Horse of the Decade” without even waiting for the Triple Crown races to be run.
Easy Goer was sent off in the Derby as the favorite at odds of 4 to 5, while Sunday Silence was also well bet at odds slightly in excess of 3 to 1. At the end of the day when the dust had settled (or more accurately, when the mud had splattered) the eastern racing establishment was shocked to find that Sunday Silence had beaten their champion by two and a half lengths. Jockey, Pat Valenzuela, had gotten Sunday Silence to the lead half way through the race (despite having been steadied at the start) and had coasted home while Easy Goer just managed to hold second by a head over Awe Inspiring. Easy Goer just didn’t like the muddy track, the eastern press explained. He was still much the better horse and would prove it in the Preakness.
Two weeks later at Pimlico, Easy Goer was established as an even stronger favorite at 3 to 5 to win the Preakness, while Sunday Silence was sent off at odds of just over 2 to 1. Again, despite being bumped and steadied, “Pat Val” got Sunday Silence to the front half way through the race and in a thrilling stretch drive (the 1989 Preakness really was the “Race of the Decade”) managed to hold Easy Goer off to win by a nose. This time the racing press blamed the immensely talented Pat Day for Easy Goer’s defeat, but grudgingly conceded that Sunday Silence might be “almost as good” as Easy Goer.
The Belmont Stakes was run in New York on Easy Goer’s home track, and he easily defeated Sunday Silence by eight lengths to deny Arthur Hancock’s modestly bred horse the Triple Crown. The eastern racing establishment was ecstatic, and reassured that they were correct in their original judgment that Easy Goer was the best horse in the country. Easy Goer continued to race in New York winning the Whitney Handicap and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, and the Woodward Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont (all Grade-1 races) leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic which was to be run at Gulfstream Park in Florida on November 4, 1989.
Meanwhile, all was not going terribly well in Sunday Silence’s camp. Whittingham later conceded that he rushed his horse too soon to get him ready for the Grade-2 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 23rd and he was beaten by three-quarters of a length as the 1 to 5 favorite by Prized, and although Sunday Silence won the immodestly named Grade-1 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs on September 24th by six lengths, that race was not judged to be nearly as stern a test as any of the races which Easy Goer had won in New York at either Saratoga or Belmont. Accordingly, as the time for the Breeders’ Cup Classic approached in early November, Easy Goer and Sunday Silence had lapsed back into their old familiar roles of champion and pretender in the minds of the racing public and press.
The build-up of excitement and tension as the 1989 Breeders’ Cup day approached has been marvelously recreated by William Murray, the Harvard educated writer for the New Yorker and the Daily Racing Form, in Chapter 17 of his whimsical and perceptive book on horse racing entitled “The Wrong Horse, an Odyssey Through the American Racing Scene” originally published by Simon & Schuster in 1992 and in paperback by Little, Brown & Company. Sadly, that book is now out of print (although 21 second hand copies are available on Barnes & Noble’s web site, and I would recommend that any racing fan grab a copy while they are still available) so I will take the liberty of quoting at length from his account in Chapter 17 entitled “A Hell of a Show Bet”:
Mr. Murray opens his chapter by recounting a conversation he had with a fellow member of the racing press in the stable area of Gulfstream Park a day or two before the race. He refers to that person as “Mark” a racing writer for “an important eastern daily” who “had a reputation as a fearless plunger, especially if he felt certain the animal he favored couldn’t lose.” Although the author was too kind to say so, “Mark” almost certainly refers to Andrew Beyer, the racing editor of the Washington Post and the originator of the Beyer Speed figures which now appear in the past performances published in the Daily Racing Form, who deservedly has the reputation of being a “fearless plunger”, and then some, at the race track.
Murray asked his colleague whom he liked in “this East-West rivalry regarding Easy Goer and Sunday Silence” and said he was “picking Sunday Silence to win, mainly because you guys in the East tend to underrate this horse”. “Mark” thought over Murray’s statement for a few seconds before grinning and replying “Yeah, he’s a good horse. He might run third.”
Everyone I talked to sooner or later wanted to know my opinion on the Classic and made his own views felt. And without exception, no one not from California thought Sunday Silence had a chance. Whittingham rather testily pointed out in an interview that his horse held a two to one edge in the series and was coming up to the race in great form, but his opinion was mostly dismissed as that of a man with a small ax to grind. Some of the eastern trainers were comparing Easy Goer with Secretariat, while others pointed out that he couldn’t be considered that good because, after all, he had only beaten mediocrities like Sunday Silence. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” a young sportswriter from Los Angeles informed me. “It’s the greatest brainwash in sports history.”
Murray pointed out that on the day of the race “the omens were not auspicious”. On the “undercard,” if any Breeders’ Cup races with minimum purses of $1,000,000 could be referred to as part of an undercard, the eastern horses won race after race. A Phipps colt trained by McGaughey named Dancing Spree won the Sprint, and another of that trainer’s charges, Rhythm, won the Juvenile, while Go for Wand easily won the Juvenile Fillies. The one West Coast horse to give a good account of himself was Prized, who had beaten Sunday Silence in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, who though making his first lifetime start on the grass had managed to win the Turf.
In a move that was uncharacteristic of Charlie Whittingham, he had replaced Patrick Valenzuela on Sunday Silence in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Chris McCarron (although “Pat Val” had ridden him in his last several races and would ride him again in his next two and final races). Although he would later concede that he had sent out a “short” horse for the Swaps, Whittingham still blamed “Pat Val” for the Swaps loss at that time. With that explanation as a clarification, I will now quote extensively and at length from William Murray’s excellent and exciting account of the final meeting between Easy Goer and Sunday Silence:
By the time Easy Goer, Sunday Silence and the other six contenders in the Classic were led into the walking ring for what one local observer had dubbed “the race of the decade,” an excited mob had gathered in the temporary stands erected around the paddock, and the tension was as palpable as the steamy tropical air of the late-fall Florida afternoon.
Easy Goer looked the part of a great champion. He was a big, powerful-looking chestnut colt who seemed always to be ready to explode but remained calm, “well within himself,” as I noted in my pad. Sunday Silence, on the other hand, was a nervous, feisty animal, nearly black, with a white blaze on his face; he was on his toes, like a dancer in the wings waiting to make an entrance. In his stall, he tended to be sullen and would snap at anyone who came too close, but on the track he was an athlete, all business and concentration, who seemed to understand exactly what was expected of him. His coat gleamed with health and I thought he looked formidable, but a Kentucky horseman I know said to me, as we watched him being led around the ring by his groom, “He still doesn’t look like much, more like a giraffe from the back than a horse.”
I watched the race from the terrace upstairs outside the press box. The bettors, obviously influenced by the attitude of the local writers and handicappers, established Easy Goer as the one-to-two favorite, with Sunday Silence at two to one and all the other entries at long odds. I couldn’t ignore the price and made my biggest bet since Kelso -- two hundred to win, on the nose. I didn’t tell Mark, who had predicted in his column that day that Easy Goer would bury Sunday Silence.
In the starting gate, the two favorites sandwiched the field, with Easy Goer on the rail and Sunday Silence in the outside stall. At the start, which was greeted by a roar of excitement from the more than fifty-one thousand people present, a fast five-year-old named Slew City Slew, trained by Lukas, bolted to the lead, opening up two and a half lengths in the first quarter mile and then three at the half, with Blushing John, a four-year-old ridden by Angel Cordero, one of the cagiest riders in the game, in second as they swept past the stands and around the clubhouse turn.
Sunday Silence broke alertly and settled into third, while Easy Goer seemed a bit sluggish at the start, swerving slightly in as he found his stride. He was sixth at the half, six lengths back, but Pat Day then asked him to move and he immediately swept up alongside Sunday Silence as the field reached the six-furlong mark, with Slew City Slew and Blushing John still running one-two.
At that point in the race it looked as if Easy Goer could win whenever he chose to extend himself, so easily had he made up the ground separating him from his main rival. But on the turn for home, Chris McCarron clucked to his mount and asked him to move. With the agility of a ballet dancer, Sunday Silence seemed to leap away from Easy Goer, opening up two and a half lengths and closing to within a head of Blushing John. The latter had blown by the tiring Slew City Slew and was driving for home along the rail, with Cordero flat along his neck, pumping and slashing.
McCarron drove Sunday Silence past Blushing John, then glanced under his arm to see if Easy Goer was coming. He was indeed, making a tremendous run, with Day whipping hard, but McCarron knew about seventy yards from the wire that he had the race won. Without having to use his whip once, he brought Sunday Silence in first by the margin of a neck over Easy Goer, with the courageous Blushing John a length further back. Sunday Silence could have won by more, and it was a splendid performance, even though it didn’t impress everybody. “Day blew it again,” an East Coast reporter standing next to me said in disgust as the race ended. Some illusions die hard, especially at the racetrack. I couldn’t resist coming up behind Mark, who looked as if somebody had tapped him on the forehead with a small padded hammer. “Hell of a show bet,” I said.
After the race, Charlie Whittingham pointedly reminded everyone that his horse had now won three of the four meetings between the two rivals, including “this Triple Crown thing.” He quickly corrected the slip by explaining that “I was trying to get to three million dollars and it got mixed up in my chewing tobacco.” Charlie was seventy-six years old, a tall, slightly stooped, lean man with a round, completely bald head and the canny look of an amiable card shark. For most of his career he had been a closed-mouthed loner and not always easy to approach, but television seemed to have turned him, at least publicly, into a cracker-barrel comedian. He said he told McCarron, one of the smartest jockeys in the business and a superb judge of pace, to hang on when he reached the turn because the horse might run out from under him. He smiled, then added, “We have tough horses in California.”
Even the ingrained prejudice of the predominantly eastern racing press, and of the eastern racing establishment, could not deny Sunday Silence his rightful honor as Horse of the Year for 1989 after his impressive victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He went on to race two more times as a four-year-old back in California at Hollywood Park with “Pat Val” piloting him to a win in the Grade-1 Californian on June 3, 1990, and to a loss by a head to the formidable Criminal Type in the Grade-1 Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap. Easy Goer raced three more times as a four-year-old at Belmont Park, winning his last race, the Grade-1 Suburban Handicap, on July 4, 1990, but curiously also losing, as had his rival, to Criminal Type (and to one of my personal favorites and “patting buddies”, Housebuster, whom I used to see at Jonabell Farm before he was shipped off to Australia and Japan) finishing third in the Grade-1 Metropolitan Handicap run May 28, 1990.
So, Sunday Silence had his Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year, and Arthur Hancock had the satisfaction of besting the horse owned by Ogden Phipps, the man who had thrown him out of his family’s business, Claiborne Farm. But as so often happens, the racing establishment had the last laugh. When Sunday Silence was retired to stud, very few breeders would send their mares to him. For whatever reason (perhaps they could never forgive him for beating Easy Goer just as they could never forgive Affirmed, another California colt, for winning the Triple Crown at the expense of Easy Goer’s sire, Alydar) Arthur Hancock could never fill Sunday Silence’s breeding book with enough quality mares.
Eventually, he resigned himself to the inevitable, and sold his stallion for $10,000,000 to the Japanese where Sunday Silence became the most successful sire in that nation’s history. His sons and daughters have distinguished themselves in international racing, though predominantly on the grass, the preferred surface overseas and one which Sunday Silence himself never tried. The modestly bred horse, who could never command much respect in America despite his exploits on the track, became the most beloved horse in Japan. Ironically, in the years since Sunday Silence became such a national favorite in Japan, horses who trace their lineage to Halo, his moderately successful sire, have been in great demand in that country.
The Japanese and I will miss Sunday Silence very much.
Remembering The Drouller: On Saturday, May 14, 1994, I had come to my local race track to bet the simulcast of the Pimlico Special, the most interesting race of the day in the off weekend between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. As I climbed the outside steps leading to the area on the second level of the track where I spent many a Saturday afternoon, I glanced at my program and noticed that Icy Resolution, an excellent horse, was running in the first race at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles. When I reached my destination, I asked one of my fellow bettors whether Icy Resolution had won the race and was told that it hadn’t gone off yet – that they were still loading in the gate. I glanced up at the monitor, saw that the six horse, Icy Resolution, was the even money favorite, and ran to the nearest window and got a 6/All exacta just before the horses broke from the gate.
Returning to my normal spot to watch the race, it looked like I had bet rashly, but well. Icy Resolution looked to have the race well in hand, had led turning for home, and had what appeared to be a comfortable lead in mid-stretch, when the seven horse came flying down the middle of the track, closing furiously, and got up to beat Icy Resolution by a nose at the wire. “Damn that seven horse,” I had cried as the photo sign flashed on the tote board and it became all too clear that Icy Resolution had not been the cinch that the bettors at Hollywood Park and I had assumed.
When the winning horse was led into the winner’s circle, with a smiling Martin Pedroza on his back, I was stunned as the name of The Drouller was flashed across the screen. “I can’t believe I got beat by The Drouller,” I exclaimed to a fellow punter. “I didn’t even know he was in the race. I love that horse! I always bet on The Drouller.”
The Drouller was the kind of horse that’s easy for any horse player to love. A hard trying, “blue collar” horse without great talent, he always gave you a good effort. Almost never the favorite, he would win three or four times out of about fifteen starts, and place or show in three or four more, usually at fairly good odds. A five year old “Cal-bred” gelding by the French sire Drouilly, he ran in the moderate claiming races and low level allowance races that form the less glamorous under cards of the Santa Anita, Hollywood and Del Mar meets on the Southern California circuit.
After work on Thursday, June 2nd, I went out to the track to see the last part of the day’s racing from Hollywood Park. I managed to cash some rather obvious exacta tickets in the fifth and sixth races, and was delighted to find that The Drouller was entered in the seventh, a $25,000 claiming race at a mile and a sixteenth. The favorites, Prince of Honey and Lunatico, had drawn the fifth and ninth post positions, and The Drouller (at odds of 7 to 1) had drawn the relatively more favorable “two hole”. At those odds, any quinella in which he finished first or second would pay well, and I happily wheeled him with five other horses and prepared to enjoy the race.
From the very start it was apparent that this was not to be The Drouller’s day. He broke awkwardly from the gate, and running far behind the leaders tried to save ground along the rail. Moving up along the backstretch, he began to pass tiring horses, including Lunatico, who announcer Trevor Denman said “wasn’t interested in running today”, and continued to gain on the leaders hugging the rail into the turn for home. He made one last closing surge in mid-stretch, but flattened out and was many lengths back when the winner crossed the finish line. The Drouller never did. As the camera panned on the horses crossing the line, the two horse never appeared. Searching back along the stretch it focused on The Drouller, with Pedroza still in the saddle, standing completely still about sixty yards from the finish line trying to put weight on his front leg.
As the winner was led into the winner’s circle, the horse ambulance could be seen in the background heading down the stretch toward the spot where The Drouller was standing. I learned the next day that he had been put down (“humanely destroyed” is the euphemism). Ironically, The Drouller had been claimed for $25,000 in his last race. The horse who was always “interested in running today”, whose heart was so much greater than his abilities, had broken his leg trying to close in a race in which he was never really in contention.
| When the “Mid-Summer Derby” Was for Horse of the Year -- Holy Bull’s Travers Stakes
The weekend of Saturday, August 24th and Sunday, August 25th, featured two of the marquee races of the Saratoga and the Del Mar meets with the running, respectively, of the Travers Stakes and the Pacific Classic. These two races should have a huge bearing on the selection of the Three-Year-Old champion, and quite possibly the Horse of the Year for 2002. The Whitney Handicap is Saratoga’s premiere race for older horses, while the venerable Travers Stakes, which has been run at “the Spa” since the time of the Civil War, is a true “derby” restricted to three-year-olds. Del Mar’s Pacific Classic is a race open both to the three year old “sophomores” and older handicap horses. Both are run at the “classic” mile and a quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Medaglia d’Oro won the 133rd running of the Travers with a gritty and courageous performance over a sloppy track, despite having been slammed at the gate and sustaining a quarter crack injury to his hoof which was still bleeding profusely in the winner’s circle. Repent, who himself was returning to the races after a 140 day layoff from an ankle injury suffered in the Illinois Derby, put in a huge run down the stretch to miss by just half a length, finishing second.
The Pacific Classic, run the next day under perfect conditions at Del Mar, was assumed to be the race which would launch Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Haskell winner, War Emblem, on his way to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and a shot at the title of Horse of the Year. Sent off as the 6 to 5 favorite in his first race against older horses, War Emblem again experienced the same problems at the gate which had plagued him in his ill-fated Belmont. He was loaded into the gate and backed off, reloaded into the gate and again backed off, and when he reentered the gate a third time the starter opened the gates to start the race even before his back gate had been shut, and he dwelt in the gate for a instant before coming out and missed the break. He was hustled into contention and even led in mid-stretch, but the effort in catching up had taken too much out of him and he faded badly in the final sixteenth of a mile, finishing sixth.
Instead of War Emblem, it was another three year old, Came Home, whom the Pacific Classic with its full field of 14 horses again propelled into the racing world’s consciousness. Amazingly, Came Home, winner of five of his last six races, and the winner of eight of ten lifetime, was sent off as part of an entry at odds of 10.5 to 1! While I had correctly dismissed his chances in the Kentucky Derby because of his “miler’s” pedigree, and his life and death struggle to win this year’s Santa Anita Derby in the slowest time since 1963, it was obvious to me, even then, that he was probably the most talented member of his age group and a horse of tremendous quality. How he could be overlooked by the betting public, even at a distance of a mile and a quarter, in August, after two stellar graded stakes wins since the Derby, remains a mystery to me!
But overlooked he was, and when he burst out of the pack in mid-stretch to draw off and win by three-quarters of a length over Momentum my only regret was that a horse with longer odds had not managed to come second. In any event, this is a long-winded way of reminding everyone that a very talented horse, even with a miler’s pedigree, can stretch his speed over a distance of a mile and a quarter by the time the calendar rolls around to August -- despite the fact that he might not be able to do so as early in his three year old year as the “first Saturday in May”. It is also a long-winded way of introducing my subject, and turning back the clock eight years to the Travers Stakes of 1994, when another magnificent miler, Holy Bull, out-ran his pedigree to win the “Mid-Summer Derby” over a distance of a mile and a quarter and all but clinch his eventual title of Horse of the Year for 1994.
From this distance of time, it is hard to appreciate (without revisiting old editions of the Daily Racing Form, as I did the other day) what a popular phenomenon Holy Bull had become in 1994. It had been several years since any race horse had so captured the imagination of the general public, and it is easy to understand why this was the case. Holy Bull, and his connections, had all the elements of a great underdog who had made good.
First, he was by a fairly obscure Florida sire named Great Above, out of a dam whose name (Sharon Brown) reminded one more of a suburban housewife than a race horse. Second, he was owned not by some captain of industry or Middle-Eastern potentate, but by his trainer, a delightful, older and self-effacing gentleman named Warren A. (Jimmy) Croll, Jr. who had inherited the horse under the will of his former client, Rachel Carpenter, an heiress to the A&P fortune. Third, he was a handsome “bugger”, a big steel-gray colt who won his races on the front end with a “catch-me-if-you-can” attitude. Finally, he was a “ham” who loved people and the camera, and Mr. and Mrs. Croll were very generous in letting members of the general public visit him in the stable areas of the various race tracks at which he competed. As if this horse needed any more sentimental appeal, he won his first race at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, New Jersey, on August 14, 1993, the day his original owner, Rachel Carpenter, died. Jimmy Croll learned that he owned Holy Bull, and the rest of Mrs. Carpenter’s horses, a day or two later in a call from her lawyer.
I first became aware of Holy Bull’s existence on September 18, 1993, while watching a simulcast of the Grade-1 Futurity, a race for Two-Year-Olds, run over a sloppy track at Belmont Park in New York. I remember looking over the past performances in the Daily Racing Form that day and thinking “this horse looks every bit as good” as the favorite, the much-hyped “now” horse, Dehere, and going to bet the “#2 horse”, as I thought of him then. The #2 horse lead wire to wire in the slop to beat Dehere by half a length, and I remember thinking “I’ve got to remember that horse’s name.” His name was Holy Bull, who became the greatest equine love of my life, and I’ll never forget it. I was hooked.
Although I had no way to know it at the time, Holy Bull’s odds that day in New York at 3.10 to 1 were the longest I would ever get on him. I made it a point to watch all of his races that I could, and to bet on him (in the exotics, so he would pay something) from that point forward, and though the payoffs were never generous, I was rarely disappointed.
During the course of his all-too-short racing career, Holy Bull entered the starting gate 16 times and won 13 times. It is a remarkable fact that he never lost a race he had a chance to win (something that cannot be said of much more famous, and admittedly greater, race horses such as Man o' War, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed). He was never headed in the stretch -- never once!
Of the races he lost, he was pulled up twice due to physical infirmities -- in the Fountain of Youth on February 19, 1994 at Gulfstream Park when he flipped his palate, and in the Donn Handicap, also at Gulfstream, as a four-year-old on February 11, 1995, when he strained the “XYZ ligaments” in his left front ankle in the injury which ended his career while trying to pull away from Cigar. He was eliminated at the gate in the “Demolition Derby”, as Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch called the Kentucky Derby of 1994, when Valiant Nature broke outward from the “three hole” while Ulysses (who had taken almost five minutes to load while the horses inside of him sank deeper and deeper into the mud -- one horse nearly sat down in the gate) broke inward from post position 5 leaving Holy Bull in the 4 slot with nowhere to go. By the time he clipped heels on the first turn, his race was effectively over. The Kentucky Derby that year, won by Go for Gin over a sloppy track, was so roughly run that almost half the field was eliminated before the first turn.
Holy Bull was so intensely competitive that after each defeat he came back to run a career-best race. After he was pulled up in the Fountain of Youth in February of his three-year old season, he came back in his next race, the Florida Derby, to win by five and three-quarter lengths and post a career best 115 Beyer speed number, and he followed that race up with a comfortable win in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. After the debacle in the Kentucky Derby, he ran in Metropolitan Handicap (the “Met Mile”) at Belmont on May 30, 1994, against older horses and blew the field away winning by five and a half lengths, and becoming only the fourth three-year-old to win that race since 1970, while earning a Beyer speed figure of 122, an unheard of figure for a horse of his age so early in the year. He would never run a Beyer speed number less than 115 for the remainder of his illustrious career.
It is a fact of life, well understood in 1994 as it is now, that although the racing community knows that the best racing is conducted in the handicap division among older horses, the most glamorous part of racing (with the possible exception of the Breeders’ Cup races), particularly for the general public, is the competition among the three-year-olds in the Triple Crown races. In the only Triple Crown race in which he competed, Holy Bull had finished a dull and dismal twelfth. In 1994, the most prominent “Triple Crown” trainers were D. Wayne Lucas and Nick Zito, just as today they are D. Wayne Lucas and Bob Baffert. Zito’s Go for Gin had won the 1994 Derby, and Lucas’ Tabasco Cat had won that year’s Preakness Stakes and the Belmont, races in which Jimmy Croll had declined even to run his horse. He later explained that had Holy Bull won the Kentucky Derby, as the public expected him to do, he would have had no choice but to continue with his horse along the Triple Crown trail, but with the loss in the first leg of the series, he was free to give his charge a little more time between races and skip the Preakness and point toward the Met Mile, a much more important race from a breeding standpoint, and run against older horses.
After the Met Mile, Croll ran Holy Bull in the Dwyer at Belmont Park and in the Grade-1 Haskell Invitational at his home track of Monmouth Park in New Jersey, winning both races handily and posting Beyer speed numbers of 119 and 115, respectively. Despite all of Holy Bull’s success, however, the three-year-old championship was still very much up for grabs, and the two most prominent trainers of three-year-olds, D. Wayne Lucas and Nick Zito, who between them had won all three of the Triple Crown races in 1994, were damned if they were going to let this interloper Croll and his modestly bred “freak”, Holy Bull, crash their party.
The last big race of the season which was exclusively for three-year-olds was the venerable Travers Stakes, the “Mid-Summer Derby”, run at the “classic” distance of a mile and a quarter (a distance supposedly beyond Holy Bull’s genetic capabilities) at Saratoga. Lucas knew that Croll would have to run Holy Bull in the Travers, and he proposed to give his speed horse all he could handle at that distance and then some. Accordingly, Lucas entered his Tabasco Cat and his stable mate, sprinter Commanche Trail, in the Travers as a coupled entry. He would use Commanche Trail as his rabbit on the front end to soften up Holy Bull, and Tabasco Cat would pick up the pieces and finish “The Bull” off at the end. Another trainer with the same idea was Maryland based Bud Delp, who entered his “from the clouds” closer, Concern, whom Holy Bull had defeated in the Haskell, in the race. The Travers was shaping up to be a tag-team match with Commanche Trail taking on “The Bull” in the first part of the race, and Tabasco Cat and Concern coming at him late.
Despite all of the obstacles of pedigree and pace facing Holy Bull in the Travers, the betting public made their sentimental favorite the betting favorite as well at the ridiculously low odds of 4 to 5, with Lucas’ two horse entry next in the betting at odds of 2 to 1. Despite the low odds, and the difficulties of pace and distance, I wheeled Holy Bull on top of all the other horses in an exacta, explaining to a fellow bettor that though it wouldn’t pay anything “I’m not going to desert the boy in his moment of need”. Fearing the worst, I left the track to go home and watch the race alone on television. It was the most exciting race I never saw (at least in its entirety).
Then, as now, the television networks tended to treat horse races (at least horse races other than the Breeders’ Cup or the Triple Crown) as “red-headed step-children” in terms of their coverage. I believe ABC Sports had the coverage of The Travers as part of their Wide World of Sports program on that Saturday afternoon, August 20, 1994. When the coverage of the race was supposed to start, I watched in exasperation as they continued to televise some men’s gymnastic meet. I got more and more agitated as post time approached and the television continued to show muscular men jumping about in leotards. Finally, I yelled at my television “Son-of-a-bitch, they’re not going to show it!”, and ran out of the house to my car and started driving back to the track at breakneck speed.
I arrived at the track’s parking lot after about six furlongs of the race had been run, and I could hear from the race call, resounding out over the parking lot on the outside speakers, that Holy Bull had just put away Commanche Trail and was then in the lead. I sprinted past the gate and into the main floor of the track just in time to look up at the monitors and see Holy Bull leading the race coming out of the turn for home. Then I saw Concern putting on a huge closing rally and gaining on the tiring Holy Bull with every stride, as Saratoga announcer Tom Durkin punned “There is cause for Concern”. Nobody else in that section of the track heard his final call of the deep stretch run to the wire, because I started screaming “Hold on Bull! Hold on Bull! Hold on Bull!” at the top of my lungs. When Holy Bull crossed under the wire a neck in front of Concern to win the race, everyone in that area of the track gave me, not Holy Bull, a raucous round of applause. “Congratulations,” one patron said patting my back “you called him in!”
Tabasco Cat finished third, seventeen lengths back.
Still, in spite of overcoming the obstacles of pedigree, distance and a tremendously difficult pace scenario in the Travers, not everybody was willing to concede the three-year-old Eclipse award to the horse who had won seven out of his nine races so far that year. Nick Zito, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin was quoted as having said “You can’t be a champion if you don’t win championships.” When a reporter told Jimmy Croll about Zito’s remark, the only comment he had was “Just tell him to have his horse ready for the Woodward”.
The Woodward Stakes, a Grade-1 race for three-year-olds and up was run at Belmont Park on September 17, 1994. In addition to Holy Bull, Nick Zito’s 1994 Kentucky Derby winner was on hand to try and take on the best older handicap horses in training on the East Coast. Again sent off as the favorite, Holy Bull won the race defeating Devil His Due by five lengths and former Belmont Stakes winner, Colonial Affair, by six and a half. Go for Gin finished ten lengths back. Holy Bull earned a 116 Beyer number for his effort along with, almost certainly, the Eclipse award emblematic of the Three Year Old Champion. In his last two races of 1994, he had beaten the winner of the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes by 17 lengths in the Travers, and the winner of the Kentucky Derby by 10 lengths in the Woodward.
Various people urged Jimmy Croll to give Holy Bull one more race in 1994, “for the good of the sport”, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Although he came in for a lot of criticism for refusing to do so, he never even considered it. As he told me that fall when Holy Bull was with him at Keeneland (on sabbatical, not to race) “people need to realize these are animals, not machines”. In 1994, Holy Bull had raced ten times and had won eight of those races, defeating not only horses of his own age, but some of the best older horses in training. After the two races that he had lost (the Fountain of Youth, where he had been pulled up after flipping his palate, and in the “Demolition Derby” where he lost all chance at the gate) he had come back and defeated the winners of those races (Dehere in the Florida Derby, and Go for Gin in the Woodward) later in the year. Croll thought, correctly, that his horse had nothing left to prove, but more importantly he thought that he had earned, and needed, a rest. There would be plenty of time for the Breeders’ Cup in 1995, when he intended to race Holy Bull as a four-year-old, or so he thought.
Jimmy Croll’s vision of what was “good for the sport” extended far beyond one highly promoted Breeders’ Cup race. Although he was not a wealthy man, he had turned down offers approaching ten million dollars to sell Holy Bull for stud duty as a sire. He intended to take the risk of racing him one more year because he was the most popular race horse with the general public in years, and the sport of racing needed to build on that level of fan support. His horse would take a well earned rest, and be back in training in 1995.
As it happened, Holy Bull’s titles as Champion Three Year Old, and as Horse of the Year for 1994, were never in doubt. Concern, whom he had defeated both in the Haskell Invitational and in the Travers Stakes, won the 1994 running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Holy Bull was voted the winner of both awards by substantial margins.
After a layoff of more than four months, Holy Bull returned to the races at Gulfstream Park, in Florida, on January 22, 1995, in the Olympic Handicap. Croll warned the racing public that he would not be fully cranked and ready after such a long layoff, and that he wouldn’t want him to be. He said he would fully understand if his horse lost the race, but probably his fans would not. As it happened, there was no need for such a warning. Holy Bull covered the seven furlong distance in 1:22, winning the race and earning a 116 Beyer number, the same figure he had earned in the Woodward Stakes more than four months earlier!
Holy Bull’s next race would be his last. His fans sent him off as the 3 to 10 favorite in the Grade-1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on February 11, 1995. Despite having to break from the far outside as the #10 horse, he quickly crossed over to gain the lead by the time he had reached the clubhouse turn, but as he entered the backstretch, carrying 12 more pounds of weight than his nearest rival, Jerry Bailey on Cigar loomed up beside him. In responding to his opponent’s challenge, Holy Bull took a bad step and Bailey heard a loud “pop” as the favorite’s ligaments in his left front ankle strained and gave way, and he heard Mike Smith, Holy Bull’s jockey in his last 15 races, shout “Oh, no!” and start trying to ease his mount in a straight line, gradually bringing him to a stop on the far outside of the backstretch around the 5/8ths pole. Croll, who credited Smith’s skillful handling of the situation with saving his horse’s life, was quoted by Joe Hirsch in his “At the Post” column in the February 15, 1995 edition of the Daily Racing Form as having said the next morning at his barn that :
“My heart was in my mouth. I knew something was wrong when I saw Mike take hold of him and I ran down to the track as fast as I could. Someone gave me a lift in a jeep to the five-eights pole, and when we turned the corner I looked and saw he was standing on all fours with no leg dangling.
“When I saw him standing, everything else was secondary. He was all right and I could deal with the rest of it.”
According to an account reported by correspondent Mike Welsh in the same edition of the Daily Racing Form at page 4, Mike Smith could not meet with the press until he had a chance to compose himself some thirty minutes after the race. He quoted Holy Bull’s jockey as saying:
“This is devastating; I cannot put it into words. I feel like the life has come out of me. He warmed up great, playing and having a great time. He was well in hand through the lane the first time and felt fine. He pinned his ears [when Cigar came to him], and then about two strides later he went. I tried to pull him up as quickly as I could, but I also wanted to keep him straight as I could. When they go side to side it can be worse.”
Joe Hirsch, in his same column quoted earlier, summed up Jimmy Croll with his headline “Croll, as usual, puts his horse first” and pointed out that while Holy Bull might have been able to return to the races, he could never do so at his previous level and that would not have been acceptable to his owner and trainer. His description of Croll on the morning after his horse broke down fully illustrates why the American public took both the trainer and his horse into their hearts:
“A classy man in triumph and tragedy, Croll always put his horse first. No amount of money, no honor, no misguided comment could make him run The Bull last fall when it was time to freshen. With half a century of experience behind him, he knew what should be done and saw to it. He was gracious during Holy Bull’s long string of victories following the disappointing Kentucky Derby, and he answered every question for hours Sunday morning, emphasizing the positive aspects of what must have been a heart-breaking situation.”
The general public was distraught on Saturday evening, February 11th, after Holy Bull’s breakdown in the Donn Handicap, especially when it was not immediately known whether he would survive his injury. News of his misfortune was carried on the national news telecasts, not just on sports programs; but as it became clearer that his injury was not going to be life threatening his fans were still saddened, but relieved.
The distress of the Racing Industry was based on economic concerns, however, and took much longer to get over. The public’s love affair with Holy Bull had brought large crowds back to the nation’s race tracks for the first time in several years. A headline in the next week’s Daily Racing Form warned “Holy Bull’s departure leaves void in industry from top to bottom” and an adjoining article on the same page discussed the disappointment of Santa Anita officials where The Bull had been scheduled to make his next appearance in that track’s marquee race, the million dollar “Big Cap”, for older handicap horses. Bob Hess, a California trainer who would have been one of Croll’s opponents in the Santa Anita Handicap, was quoted by Steve Andersen, the Form’s Southern California correspondent, as saying “It’s unfortunate for Jimmy Croll….I wanted to see (Holy Bull) run, and I wanted to see 80,000 watch him. Quietly, I was a great fan of the horse.”
Holy Bull was able to complete only one race in his four year old season. Since horses tend to improve as they mature -- they are usually better at four than they were at three; better at five than at four -- there is no telling how great Holy Bull could have become had he been able to complete the ambitious schedule Croll had mapped out for him. Suffice it to say, however, that his campaign as a three year old was illustrious enough to warrant his election to racing's Hall of Fame, where he joined his trainer in that honored company who had been elected several years earlier. In the induction ceremonies held at Saratoga Springs, New York on August 6, 2001, Jimmy Croll, who had also campaigned Mr. Prospector, Bet Twice and Housebuster, was so overcome with emotion that he could hardly deliver his acceptance speech on behalf of his horse. Back in Lexington, Kentucky, the folks at Jonabell Farm, where Holy Bull stood at stud, were also brimming with pride.
No one realized it on Saturday evening, February 11, 1995, but the torch in American racing had been passed at the five-eights pole that day from four year old Holy Bull to the five year old Cigar as the next “Big Horse” of American racing. Cigar’s win in the Donn Handicap that day was his fourth in a row, and he would run his win streak to sixteen, tying Citation’s record at a special race arranged by Arlington Park outside Chicago, before coming a cropper, as so many great race horses have done, in the Pacific Classic run on August 10, 1996, at Del Mar on the Pacific Ocean just north of San Diego.
Cigar was so successful on the race track that he was voted Horse of the Year both in 1995 and 1996. He was never able, however, to assume the same place in the hearts of the general public as had his predecessor, Holy Bull, and the managers of America’s racing establishments are still waiting for another horse to come along and rekindle the average fan’s love affair with racing in the same way that “The Bull” did. He was a remarkable horse, and his “connections” were remarkable people. The industry may have to wait quite a while longer.
A Breeders’ Cup Without Eddie D.
This is the time of year when shadows lengthen and fall across lawns, fields and turf courses (and, yes, baseball diamonds) warmed by the late October sun and pull at one’s heartstrings like a long, last look back at a departing lover. This sense of fleeting enjoyment, and impending loss, of a season soon to be gone makes this part of autumn the rich and poignant time that it is, and in the realm of sports this is particularly true in the winding down, and culmination, of baseball and horse racing in the World Series and the Breeders’ Cup, now officiously labeled “The World Thoroughbred Championships”. With the World Series tied between the San Francisco Giants and the Anaheim Angels at two games all, and the Breeders’ Cup races only two days away, this magical time truly is the Indian Summer of the cerebral sports.
Each October I make a semi-annual pilgrimage to beautiful Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. I justify this delightful trip by telling my easily deluded self that I am going to Keeneland to get a first-hand look at some of the major prep races for the Breeders’ Cup, but in reality my trip is just a quasi-religious experience. In recent years, the Keeneland management has taken to “front-loading” their excellent series of stakes races into the first weekend of their fall meet so as to provide ideal spacing before the forthcoming Breeders’ Cup races, and so I make my pilgrimage in that first weekend of October, sacrificing a look at the fall colors for a chance to see the runnings of the Walmac Alcibiades Stakes, the WinStar Galaxy Stakes, the Phoenix Breeders’ Cup Stakes, the Lane’s End Futurity, the Shadwell Mile, and the Overbrook Spinster Stakes.
It isn’t my purpose here to pass along any bad handicapping advice disguised as a scouting report, but if Landseer, who looked very good in defeating Touch of the Blues and Beat Hollow in the Shadwell Mile really can’t hold a candle to his stable mate, Rock of Gibraltar, then trainer Aidan O’Brien certainly does look to be loaded for bear with “the Rock” in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Similarly, Take Charge Lady may, or may not, be the best filly in the country, but she certainly established that she is one of the best ever to run at Keeneland by winning the Spinster in dominating fashion to complete her sweep of every major stakes race for fillies run at Keeneland over the past two years --certainly one shouldn’t dismiss her chances in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Xtra Heat, of course, ran her usual great race in winning the Phoenix. Finally, should the rains come and turn Arlington’s main track sloppy and its turf course soft or yielding this Saturday (October 26th), don’t completely write off Arthur Hancock’s Owsley, winner of the Winstar Galaxy, or the Carl Nafzger trained Westerly Breeze, winner of the Alcibiades, as impossible long shots in their respective Breeders’ Cup races in the Fillies and Mares’ Turf and the Juvenile Fillies. Both posted courageous wins on Friday, October 4th in horrible rainy weather left over from Hurricane Lilli at Keeneland.
My real reason, however, for posting this article is to pass on, and to comment upon, a brief item published on the last page of the sports’ section of the Lexington Herald-Leader on Sunday, October 6, 2002, entitled “Back on the horse -- or not” concerning Hall of Fame jockey, Eddie Delahoussaye. “Eddie D”, as he is affectionately known to patrons of race tracks across the country, experienced a particularly bad fall in a race at Del Mar in Southern California on August 30, 2002. His horse that day, a live long shot whom I bet on only because Eddie was riding it, took a bad step and fell on the firm Del Mar turf course. The horse had to be destroyed and Eddie spent several days in the hospital. The 51 year old jockey was quoted in the Lexington paper as having said, “I’ve had a lot of spills, but I’ve never hit the ground that hard before in my life. If things don’t come back into place, then I’ll decide whether I’m going to continue riding or not.”
The Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita has come, and is almost gone, and Eddie Delahoussaye has not ridden another horse. His Kentucky Derby mount, Perfect Drift, whom Eddie rode in that race as a personal favor to his friend, trainer Murray Johnson, is entered in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but is to be ridden by Robbie Albarado, and it is beginning to look as though the Hall of Fame jockey has reached a very sensible decision that, at age 51, it is time for his distinguished riding career to come to an end. He has a wife and “special needs” child to take care of (several years ago the New York Times did a wonderful and heart-warming feature article on his home life in Arcadia, California near Santa Anita) and it is probably long since passed the time when prudence would dictate pursuing a less dangerous occupation.
So, at this poignant time of year, it looks like it may be time not only to get ready to say goodbye to baseball and to championship horse racing for another season, but to say goodbye to Eddie Delahoussaye as a jockey as well, and to savor and reflect upon his riding career. And what a glorious career it has been! I think it is safe to say that since I became addicted to horse racing in 1987, there has never been a jockey who could get more out of a closer than Eddie D. He won back-to-back Kentucky Derbies in 1982 and 1983 with Gato del Sol and Sunny’s Halo, but the horse I will always associate him with was the great A. P. Indy, Horse of the Year in 1992, who was scratched from that year’s Derby on the morning of the race by his conscientious trainer, Neil Drysdale, after bruising his hoof by stepping on a stone. That late scratch probably cost Eddie D a Triple Crown winner, but his mount did return to the races in time for Delahoussaye to guide him to a win in the Belmont Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
If ever the running style of a horse and the riding style of a jockey were perfectly suited to one another, it was the collaboration of A. P. Indy and Eddie Delahoussaye. I can still see them in my mind’s eye calmly (the horse and rider; this frantic bettor was much more anxious) trailing the front running speedball, Treekster, in the San Raphael Stakes at Santa Anita in February of 1992, and A. P. Indy finally lowering his head to stare straight down at the ground and blowing by Treekster to win by one and three-quarter lengths. The Daily Racing Form’s comment in their next race, a victory in the Santa Anita Derby by the same margin, could serve as an apt summary of Eddie D’s riding style for his entire career: “Wide, driving”.
The “Eddie Delahoussaye style of race riding” was not for bettors with weak hearts, because his horses were usually far back (often out of sight on the simulcast television monitors) in the early parts of their races, but they would close like rockets out in the middle of the tracks at the end. Sometimes they would get up to win at the wire, and sometimes they would run out of ground and just miss, but it was always exciting. I remember the lament of the jockey (I think it was Mike Smith on Azillion) on the second place finisher in this year’s Spiral Stakes at Turfway won by a neck by Eddie on Perfect Drift: “You think you’ve got it won, and here comes Delahoussaye with his patented ‘Eddie D ride’ to break your heart”.
There was always a lot of heartbreak and exhilaration in betting for or against Eddie Delahoussaye, particularly because of his late running style. Over the last 15 years, I’ve done a lot of both and there is nothing more frustrating than having an exotic wager just blown to bits at the wire by a hard charging horse ridden by Eddie D who looked just terrible on paper, but there is nothing more fun than backing one of his long shots which seems hopelessly beaten in mid-stretch only to have him "sling-shot" past the entire field and win.
As fate would have it, I got to experience the old “Eddie D rush” in what I believe was his last stakes win, at Del Mar this summer in the San Diego Handicap. I was betting against Bob Baffert’s Congaree whom I regarded as a false favorite. I left him out of my exacta box comprised of four other likely horses (or so I thought) but I did not include an old favorite of mine, Grey Memo, who appeared to be badly off form and had never run well at Del Mar.
As the race was nearing its close, it appeared that I was a little too stubborn in cutting the favorite because he was running determinedly in second place behind one of the horses in my box and seemed sure to place, beating me. “Won’t somebody please save me from that damned Congaree?” I cried as the leaders neared deep stretch, when “out of the nowhere, into the here” came some horse closing furiously down the middle of the track who blew by both of the leaders and won the race. He hadn’t been anywhere near the lead at any point in the race, and I didn’t catch his number when he shot by. “Who was that horse?” I asked a fellow bettor and was told that the winner was the #4 horse -- a horse that I had not included in my exacta box. I checked my Daily Racing Form and discovered he was the badly off form Grey Memo, ridden for the first time in his life by Eddie Delahoussaye! He was sent off at some of the longest odds on the board and the exacta paid several hundred dollars.
I didn’t have Eddie D’s horse when I needed him in the San Diego Handicap, but I did bet Eddie in what probably was his last race, at Del Mar, on August 30, 2002. Although his horse, Seeingisbelieving, was not well bet on the tote board, he had the look of a closer and I bet him to win and place, thinking that Eddie might be able to boot him home. Although the horse took a bad step, ending his life and perhaps Eddie Delahoussaye’s riding career, I am glad I did.
Note: For all the news on horse racing in general, and the Breeders' Cup and the Triple Crown in particular, you can't do any better on the web than checking the websites of the Daily Racing Form, the Handicapper's Edge column of Brisnet.com, and Churchill Downs. The web address of all three, together with links to their respective sites are provided below:
Daily Racing Form, www.drf2000.com
Churchill Downs, www.churchilldowns.com