Happy Anniversary Alphabet Soup

An Old Friend is celebrating two holidays this year. It was 25 years ago that Alphabet Soup, who resides at Old Friends and turned 30 this year, upset the mighty Cigar in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, ruining the champ’s farewell party. With the death last year of A.P. Indy, Alphabet Soup is now the oldest living Classic winner. ~ Steve Haskin

Happy Anniversary (and Birthday) Alphabet Soup

By Steve Haskin

The sun was just beginning to set behind Woodbine Racetrack’s clubhouse turn. As the great Cigar headed off the track for the last time, shafts of light beamed down on him from an amber sky. What a fitting final glimpse of one of the greatest horses of his era. This was the way fans were meant to see him; walking off into the sunset in victory following a second straight triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

And it looked for sure as if it would end just that way. At the eighth pole, here came Cigar charging up to the leaders. It was going to happen. At the sixteenth pole, he still wasn’t quite there, as the crowd urged him on. Just inside him, the pocket-sized 5-year-old Alphabet Soup, at 19-1, had another ending to the Cigar story in mind. Not only did he have the reigning Horse of the Year breathing down his neck and refusing to let him by, there was the brilliant Preakness winner Louis Quatorze battling back on his inside, with a 101-1 shot named Mt. Sassafras still in the picture along the rail. Nearing the wire, the cheers for Cigar began to subside when it became clear he was not going to get by the tenacious California invader. At the wire it was Alphabet Soup by a nose over Louis Quatorze, with Cigar a head back in third, only a half-length ahead of Mt. Sassafras.

A hush fell over the crowd, knowing Cigar had come so close to the perfect finale only to fall inches short. They had seen it in his previous start when he failed to get his head in front of Skip Away in The Jockey Club Gold Cup. The heart was still there, but the legs that had propelled him to 16 consecutive victories just had too much wear and tear after traveling 25,000 miles racing all over the country and an exhausting trip to Dubai where he had to dig in and fight back to defeat fellow American Soul of the Matter, despite battling ankle problems.

All the talk was of Cigar’s defeat and having come so close to the storybook ending most everyone had hoped for, but what was overlooked was the courage and grit displayed by Alphabet Soup, turning back challenges on his outside and inside from a future Hall of Famer and a classic winner who had equaled the stakes record in the Preakness and had finished right behind Cigar and Skip Away in The Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The reason why most people were unfamiliar with Alphabet Soup was that in 22 career starts leading up to the Classic the son of Cozzene had only traveled east one time, finishing third in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, and had never won a Grade 1 stakes. But he did have three Grade 2 victories and two Grade 3 victories to his credit and in the past two years had finished in the money in 11 of his 12 starts. So California racing fans certainly were aware of his toughness and consistency.

This was a horse no one wanted as a youngster. The Pennsylvania-bred was bought back twice at the sales, for $28,000 as a yearling and $29,000 as a 2-year-old, and eventually became just a throw-in as part of a package deal.

Trainer Dave Hofmans first laid eyes on him at a training center in Kentucky and it was not exactly love at first sight.

“He was just a dumpy, tiny little guy,” he said. “But I saw something in him I really liked, mainly his conformation. We had another horse picked out (for owner Georgia Ridder), a Wild Again filly for $70,000. They had just bought this colt back for the second time and just wanted to get rid of him, so they threw him in the deal for another $30,000.”

Four years later Alphabet Soup stepped off the van at Woodbine, along with stablemate Dramatic Gold, to prepare to do battle with the great Cigar. As soon as he arrived, his groom Juan Reynoso could tell he was ready to run a huge race, and told anyone who would listen that it was him and not his more fancied stablemate who was the stronger of the two.

Hofmans also grew more confident following the horse’s arrival, but his reasoning was not something you could find through handicapping or the way he was behaving or training or any other conventional method of foreseeing a big performance. As unusual as it may sound, he could tell by the black circles around Alphabet Soup’s eyes and the black on his knees.

“When he’s really fit and ready to run, you can see it,” he said. “As he gets fitter, his knees get really black and his eyes get that black ring around them.”

The next ones to see those black rings close up were Cigar and Louis Quatorze.

As the mostly disappointed crowd filed out of Woodbine, Alphabet Soup was back in his stall with his head buried in his hay rack. Around the corner of Barn 14, Cigar stood facing the back of his stall having his legs wrapped. Owners Allen and Madeleine Paulson stopped by to see their hero before leaving to have dinner. Trainer Bill Mott, however, remained, staring almost hypnotically into Cigar’s stall, but not focusing his attention on the horse as much as he was transfixed on the past two years and on all the adventures the horse had taken him and all the unforgettable moments he provided.

When he spoke, his voice could not hide the emotions that were welling up inside him. “There is nothing I can say about Cigar that can tell you how I feel about him and the whole experience,” he said in a quiet monotone voice, “There’s no reason that getting beat a short head would make me feel any differently about him. I would be pretty damn greedy if I did. When we decided to run him again this year at age 6, I knew that trying to have a repeat year (when he was undefeated in 10 starts) was going to be a tough task come Breeders’ Cup time. Even though he got beat he stayed exceptionally well through the whole year. He just lost that little step, that little turn of foot, and that’s been the difference. If he didn’t have to go five-wide he probably wins. Before, he could have come around them and won. Today he just couldn’t overcome it.”

Just then, Georgia Ridder, the 82-year-old owner of Alphabet Soup, walked in the barn and came over to Mott. Before she could say anything, Mott congratulated her on her victory.
Looking at the broader picture, Mrs. Ridder replied, “Congratulations on the greatest horse of many years. It was just our luck today.”

“Well, you had a great day and I’m happy for you,” Mott told her. “I hope you have many, many more.”

Mrs. Ridder then walked around the corner of the barn to see her horse. She took one look at him attacking his hay rack and said, “What a boy! I am so proud of him and his trainer and rider (Chris McCarron). I was hopeful before the race, but when he drew post 12 my spirits dropped. I still can’t believe he did it. I think I’ll wake up from a dream tomorrow morning and find out he was really an also-ran.”

Before leaving, Mrs. Ridder gave one last look at the diminutive Alphabet Soup, who showed no effects from his hard race, and said, “Goodbye, big gray boy.”

For that brief moment, the horse no longer was diminutive, just as David must have seemed much bigger after slaying Goliath. Alphabet Soup had slain his giant, and in the eyes of his owner now was a giant himself.

Alphabet Soup made one more start the following year, finishing a close second to the top-class Gentlemen in the San Antonio Handicap before being retired to Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs Farm near Lexington, Kentucky with earnings of just under $3 million. He would go on to sire 48 stakes winners.

He was retired from breeding at the age of 24 and was sent to Michael Blowen at Old Friends Equine Retirement Farm. A couple of years later he developed several melanomas that grew to the size of softballs, and the Stronachs sent Blowen $10,000 to have them treated.

“He began losing weight and interest in everything and it looked as if his days were numbered,” Blowen said.

But if there was one thing the horse had proven, it was that he was a fighter. He was sent to Park Equine Hospital in Paris, Kentucky, under the care of veterinarians John C. Park, Rhodes Bell, and Bryan Waldridge, who were developing a cancer treatment that allows the immune system to target the melanoma.

“We’re hoping the immune system will stay after that cancer,” Waldridge, who began seeing significant reduction in the tumors near his tail, told “We’re hoping for a progressive shrinkage. I would think it would be months in the future until we know where we’re going to get to, but it’s gone down enough that I wouldn’t be shocked to see this totally go away.”

Blowen said Alphabet Soup received one treatment a week for four straight weeks and then one treatment a month for four straight months.”

As Waldridge had hoped, the tumors did go away, “He’s better now than he was six years ago, Blowen said. “He’s my role model. I look at him every day and realize how fortunate I am to spend this time with him. He’s a happy horse and has a pal, a donkey named Gorgeous George, who goes everywhere with him and is very protective of him. The two are inseparable.”

In May of 2020 Smithsonian magazine did a feature on Old Friends and used Alphabet Soup as their cover boy. “I believe he is the only Thoroughbred to grace the cover of Smithsonian magazine,” Blowen said.

And so, at the age of 30, Alphabet Soup is enjoying the good life with his little buddy. If the two could talk to each other, you can bet Alphie, as he is known, would be telling George what it was like to be little in a world often dominated by bigger and stronger adversaries and how in his greatest battle, he conquered the biggest “giant” of them all a quarter of a century ago.

Photos courtesy of Breeders’ Cup and Old Friends

Please check back on Thursday for Steve’s Breeders’ Cup Longshot Picks…


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