Secretariat

Racing Needs True Heroes More Than Ever

This column is about the loss of a Thoroughbred and those horses who endure and provide years of enjoyment to so many racing fans. It is also about the emotional aspect of the sport that often goes beyond winning, and about the resilience and competitive spirit of the Thoroughbred. ~ Steve Haskin

Racing Needs True Heroes More Than Ever

By Steve Haskin

Casa Creed  – 2023 Kelso Stakes

 

I was there when Ruffian broke down. I stood on the track when they loaded Barbaro into the horse ambulance and then had to cover the race. I also had to cover the races in which we lost Eight Belles, Prairie Bayou, and George Washington. And there were others. All were some of the most agonizing days of my life. Each time I screamed under my breath, “Enough, I can’t handle this anymore.” When Go For Wand broke down in such a horrific manner in 1990 I wanted desperately to leave, but I had to stay and cover the Breeders’ Cup Turf, a race that suddenly seemed so insignificant. I’ve witnessed the tears and shed more than a few myself. Haven’t all of us who love this sport? But every time racing finds itself drowning in tears it is the Thoroughbred that rescues it.

The bottom line is, this is the sport I fell in love with, because the beauty and the majesty of the Thoroughbred that lured me in back in 1967 still stirs my emotions and thank goodness it has not let me quit during the rare times of gut-wrenching sadness and despair. I still grieve for all horses we lose and those close to them, but like Maple Leaf Mel’s trainer Melanie Giddings, who has suffered so much anguish in her young life on so many levels, said to the Daily Racing Form’s Dave Grening, “Can’t quit now, right?”

On the Oklahoma training track, just a short distance from Giddings’ barn, life went on as usual Sunday morning. It had to. There are rows and rows of barns filled with horses who want nothing more than to go out there and run their heart out. They know little or nothing of the grief humans can suffer. They just know the undying love and dedication their caretakers have for them. 

Giddings expressed her feelings on Facebook several days later: “Her heart was bigger than the grandstand and if I could tell her it was okay to run last and just come back to me I would, but trust me she wouldn’t. The passion she had to run was incredible. I told the world about her every chance I had because she was special and I will never forget what she gave to me. I will continue to find ways to honor her forever and not a day goes by I will forget her. I lost my best friend that day.”

These horses become our heroes and there are few things more precious to me than my own. I wouldn’t trade the memories of Damascus, Dr. Fager, Arts and Letters, and Gallant Bloom, and so many others after them, for anything. They gave me my life. I owe the Thoroughbred everything and will never desert them because I know what magnificence they bring to the world.

But I admit the sport has changed. With racing’s transient nature of having its top horses passing through quickly and then returning to the world of breeding sheds, pastures, and rolling hills before we got a chance to know them, it is important to occasionally take time out and salute the old warriors who race long after the young studs have departed.

We all have horses that have touched our hearts more than others. This is the story of two such horses that stand out to me, to whom racing fans owe a great deal for providing us with so many memorable moments over so many years. The third horse mentioned shows how one can be rewarded with time and patience.

Casa Creed Building a Strong Fan Base

Whether Cody’s Wish wins or loses the rest of the year he still will be one of the favorites to take home his second straight Secretariat Vox Populi Award as the most popular horse as voted on by the American public. But he will, or should, have some serious competition from one of the great old warriors seen in years, Casa Creed, a complete horse who seems to be running his best races at the age of 7.

While Cody’s Wish’s popularity originates from the heartwarming story of his namesake Cody Dorman, Casa Creed, even though owned by one of the most likeable owners in Lee Einsidler, has gained the affection of fans through his continuing exploits on the racetrack.

But Casa Creed’s growing reputation is not based on his number of victories or even his number of in-the-money performances, as he has lost 24 of his 32 races and been out of the money 14 times. Well, the legendary Kelso finished out of the money 10 times. Native Diver, one of the most popular horses in the history of California racing, finished out of the money 25 times. One of the greatest warriors of all time, Exterminator, finished out of the money 16 times. Seabiscuit, certainly one of the most popular horses in racing history, finished out of the money 28 times, though most of those were early in his career. We can say the same about John Henry.

No one holds Kelso’s defeats against him, or Forego, or Whirlaway. It is the victories and the heart and courage and resilience a horse shows over a long period of time that one remembers. And no horse racing today has shown more heart, courage, and resilience over a long period of time than Casa Creed. He always gives 100 percent, as indicated by the fact that 16 of his defeats were by less than three lengths, with nine of those less than two lengths. In his last 16 races his biggest margin of defeat was 4 1/4 lengths and that was at 5 1/2 furlongs, which didn’t suit his come-from-behind style of running.

Racing on the grass and being dependent on pace, he has been versatile enough to win at six furlongs twice, seven furlongs once, 7 1/2 furlongs once, one mile three times, and seven furlongs on dirt once. He also was second, beaten a head going 6 1/2 furlongs, and was beaten 2 1/4 lengths going 1 1/16 miles.

He has taken Einsidler and partner JEH Stable and trainer Bill Mott to New York, Florida, California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and as far off as Dubai and Saudi Arabia twice, where he finished second, beaten a neck, in the 2022 Saudi Arabia Turf Sprint and returned in 2023 to finish second, beaten a head. He also was beaten only 2 1/4 lengths in the Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai. This horse has earned almost $2.2 million on guts alone.

“He has meant so much to our life,” Einsidler said. “He’s taken us around the world. When Kenny McPeek bought him for us for $105,000 as a yearling he said he’s the type who should be ready by early Saratoga, and we’ve had so much fun with him. Here he is 7 years old and his last race (a victory in the one-mile Kelso Stakes) was as good as any he’s run in his life. Before the race he had his neck bowed and was dancing on his toes like it was time for business.

“After the Kelso (in which he defeated Todd Pletcher’s top-class Annapolis) I asked Bill if we should pass the Fourstardave and have a fresh horse for the Woodbine Mile. He said, ‘I want to show you something.’ He took me over to look at the horse and said, “He doesn’t even look like he ran. We can run him in the Fourstardave and the Woodbine Mile.’ “

That isn’t something you see often in a 7-year-old horse who has been running hard all over the world. In 2022, after getting beat a neck in Saudi Arabia and 2 1/4 lengths in Dubai, he returned home and won the grade 1 Jaipur Stakes, blazing six furlongs in 1:07 2/5, and came right back to win the grade 1 Fourstardave at Saratoga, going a mile in 1:34 1/5. Despite having won at a mile it was decided to run him in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint going 5 1/2 furlongs. Although he was good enough to win going six furlongs, shortening him up to 5 1/2 furlongs was asking just a little too much of him, having to come from far back in such a big field. Even though he was more than nine lengths back at the top of stretch he still was beaten only 4 1/4 lengths by some of the best grass sprinters in the world.

At a time when most top horses are retired early, here is Bill Mott winning major stakes this year with the 5-year-olds Cody’s Wish and Elite Power, the 6-year-old War Like Goddess, the 7-year-old Casa Creed, and the 9-year-old Channel Maker. If this doesn’t inspire owners to keep their horses racing nothing will. All you have to do is look at how much fun the owners of these horses are having and you are reminded why most owners buy horses in the first place.

And so Casa Creed, who it must be reminded again is not a gelding, keeps rolling along and loving being a racehorse. And for popularity purposes it must be remembered that he first sold as a yearling at the OBS January mixed sale for only $15,000 to someone named Amalio Ruiz-Lozano, who then pinhooked him for a good profit. So when it comes time to vote for the Vox Populi Award I hope people keep this old warrior in mind. He is everything the sport of racing stands for, and he does it just by being himself.

The Channel That Just Keeps on Playing

What we said about Casa Creed can also be said of another warrior, Channel Maker, who at the age of 9 still has that big race in him, and while he has slowed down and those big races are few and far between, when he turns in a performance like the one we saw in the recent grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes at Saratoga it has to stir the emotions, just as it did watching his stablemate Casa Creed win the Kelso.

Both still have that spark and love being a racehorse. But with the big races coming up and the impending European invasion, this actually might be the right time to let the old boy go out in style and have that big grade 2 win sitting atop his past performances. Even with his four grade 1 victories, in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic twice, Man o’War Stakes, and Sword Dancer Stakes, his Eclipse Award as champion Male Turf Horse at age 7, and earning almost $3.9 million, he would always be remembered for winning a grade 2 stakes at Saratoga at age 9 and going out a winner.

But whatever they decide to do it has been a joy to watch him run for so many years and still be a horse to reckon with when things go his way.

“Isn’t it amazing, I don’t know how he does it,” said Dean Reeves, who with his wife Patti bought Channel Maker at the OBS April 2-year-old sale for $185,000 and own the horse in partnership with Gary Barber, Wachtel Stable, and R.A. Hill Stable. “It must be something in them from a mental standpoint to still love what they’re doing at this age. Maybe this will convince owners that many horses don’t even peak until they’re 5 or 6. I know he’s changed my outlook and I’ll keep running these horses longer from now on.”

Reeves should know about longevity. He also owns the New York-bred City Man, who has won or placed in 16 stakes, in state-bred and open company. The son of the Reeves’ foundation horse Mucho Macho Man is still going strong at age 6, coming off a stakes victory at Belmont, blazing 1 1/16 miles in 1:39 2/5. He also set a new course record at Aqueduct last year, going 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 4/5.

As for Channel Maker, he also has won or placed in 16 graded stakes in the United States and Canada, including a third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at age 7, two grade 1 placings at Del Mar and Santa Anita, and a second in the Turf Cup in Saudi Arabia. You just don’t see resumes like that at such a high level over so long a period of time.

It is so refreshing to see horses like Casa Creed and Channel Maker and feel as if we know them, unlike all the horses that are retired at an early age and with so few starts. These old warriors add so much fun to the sport and remind us old timers of the horses we grew up with. And it is these horses we hold dear to our heart. Kudos to the owners of Casa Creed and Channel Maker and to Bill Mott, who remains an old school trainer who thinks long term and is not obsessed with getting a horse to the Kentucky Derby. If it happens it happens, but only if the horse takes him there. He knows what they are capable of when fully mature at 4 and 5 and in some cases, as you have just seen, older than that.

Racing’s stars today burn brightly for only a short time, so when stars like Casa Creed and Channel Maker come along it is reassuring to know we can gaze upon them and enjoy their brilliance for many years. Isn’t that the essence of what this sport is about?

Speaking of 9-year-olds, we also have to acknowledge another old warrior, Red Knight, who was able to emulate the great John Henry by winning a grade 1 stakes at age 9 this year, taking the prestigious Man o’ War Stakes. The past two years he has won a grade 1, grade 2, and grade 3 stakes in three different states under three different jockeys. So let’s put aside all those quick fix horses who come and go in a flash and salute those tough, resilient old boys who come out punching round after round and do it year after year. They are all true Thoroughbreds.

The Rebirth of High Oak

While on the subject of emotional performances, let’s return to Lee Einsidler and Bill Mott, who are having quite a Saratoga meet so far. How about the story of their 4-year-old colt High Oak? This was a horse meant for great things, but was deprived of fame and glory by an incident that should never have happened, but cost him dearly.

The son of Gormley, who Einsidler picked up for a mere $70,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale, was a precocious 2-year-old who won first out at Belmont in late June of 2021. Mott thought so highly of the colt he threw him right into the grade 2 Saratoga Special, where he crushed the promising Gunite by 4 1/4 lengths at odds of 10-1.

Sent off at 5-2 in the grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, he banged his leg very hard on the side of the gate at the break. He was in good position early, but tired to finish a well-beaten fourth behind Gunite, the horse he had just easily defeated. After the race, jockey Junior Alvarado told Mott and Einsidler there was something wrong with the horse. It was discovered he had the beginnings of a small fracture and was put away for six months.

The plan was to come back in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes, but High Oak came down with a fever and Mott had no choice but to run him in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes. He was making what looked like a winning move nearing the head of the stretch when another horse came in on him forcing him to clip heels and fall heavily to the ground. Fortunately, he was OK physically, but the incident caused emotional scars that would mar his career. It would take him a year to get back to the races, returning in a seven-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream this past March. Although he was bet down to 3-1 he showed no desire to run and was beaten almost 39 lengths. Mott sent him up to Aqueduct and ran him right back 3 1/2 weeks later in another seven-furlong allowance race. Once again, High Oak never ran a lick and was beaten 36 lengths. It seemed apparent that the spill and the trauma had taken the spirit out of him.

Mott then tried the grass, running him the seven-furlong Elusive Quality Stakes hoping that would put some life back in him, and although he did improve he still was beaten almost 11 lengths at odds of 22-1. Mott refused to give up on him and dropped him back to a six-furlong allowance race. Sent off at 33-1, he basically ran around the track and was beaten a little over 10 lengths. It was feared he no longer wanted to be a racehorse and those promising days early in his career when he looked like a sure-fire star were far behind him.

But after the race Alvarado came back and said simply, “Much better.” Mott felt as long as the horse looked good and trained well he wouldn’t give up on him, and High Oak, according to Einsidler, “was in great flesh and looked awesome.”

So Mott brought him up to Saratoga and ran him this past Saturday in a six-furlong allowance race with Katie Davis aboard. Sent off at 19-1, he dropped back to last and still trailed the field at the top of the stretch, some 10 lengths back. It looked like another dud performance that could have finally ended his career as a racehorse. But then something happened. After turning for home he began to show some life for the first time all year. He started picking off horses along the rail, but was still far back at the eighth pole. He kept coming, getting stronger and stronger, and at the finish was second, beaten 1 1/4 lengths. He was closing so fast he surged far ahead of the winner on the gallop-out.

Track announcer Frank Mirahmadi called, “A hard-charging High Oak flew into second.

A thrilled and emotional Lee Einsidler said, “That was the resurrection of Christ for God’s sake. I never felt so good losing.”

No one knows what the future holds for High Oak, but it showed what patience and determination can do and never losing faith in your horse. It also showed that God-given talent isn’t something that burns out. It often just requires time to rekindle the flame. We wish High Oak all the best the rest of the year.

And may we always remember Maple Leaf Mel and all the joy she brought to her trainer and owner Bill Parcells, one of the sport’s great ambassadors. Melanie Giddings will never replace her beloved Mel, but you can bet she will always be looking for another horse to take her on such a magical journey, as brief as it was. For now, memories are all she has, but like with all trainers the future will always look bright.

Photos courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese and Steve Haskin

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to Secretariat.com since 2020.

 


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