Secretariat

Archive for the ‘Askin’ Haskin’ Category

Memories, Big Red, and Two Kids from Brooklyn

Friday, March 12th, 2021

When do memories become memorabilia? Just ask an Italian kid and Jewish kid from the streets of Brooklyn, New York, who entered a strange new world and came face to face with a legend. And then there is that legend’s late owner Penny Chenery, whose vast memorabilia collection has sold through the years and will continue to do so at Lelands through April 2. ~ Steve Haskin

Memories, Big Red, and Two Kids from Brooklyn

By Steve Haskin

 

I can smile at the old days…

Let the memory live again”

                   —     “Memory” from “Cats”

We can all agree that memories are a precious part of our lives that we cling to forever, whether to feel young or to remind us of the special moments we experience. A recollection is stored in the mind; a memory is stored in the heart.

A memory we can hold in our hands is called memorabilia. It can be an artifact that we keep or purchase that transports us back to a moment in time we hold dear or it can be a collectible that makes us feel part of history whether for sentimental or monetary reasons.

This is about a couple of street kids from Brooklyn, New York who stumbled upon Thoroughbred racing, made it their career, and soon after came eyeball to eyeball with the great Secretariat. At that moment each of them in their own way took away a piece of memorabilia from Big Red and a memory that they cherished for the next half a century.

For Ray DeStefano, a son of Italian immigrants, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to collect a memorabilia item that would become a part of racing history.

This wasn’t your typical horseshoe or halter or saddle towel or blanket or any piece of equipment worn by an all-time great horse. This was an actual living piece of an iconic legend who many believe to be the greatest Thoroughbred of all time.

To give you a bit of background on DeStefano and how he got to that right place at the right time, his parents bought a house in Floral Park adjacent to the Belmont Park training track when he was 16. He couldn’t help but take in the smell of the backstretch and the sights and sounds of horses galloping. Soon he was hooked and had to find out more about this strange new world that was practically in his backyard. It was the 1950s and Thoroughbred racing was one of the three most popular sports in America, along with baseball and boxing, and New York was its hub.

So, one morning DeStefano jumped the fence and entered a world he would never leave. He stopped at the first barn he came to, which happened to be the barn of Frank “Pancho” Martin, and, despite his lack of experience, asked him for a summer job. As DeStefano said, “Not only did he give me a job he became known as my racetrack godfather…my mentor.”

DeStefano worked for Martin every summer during high school and later when he came home summers from Cornell University where he majored in Quantitative Genetics because of his fascination with Thoroughbred breeding. During his high school years he got to see legends such as Buckpasser and Dr. Fager on the backstretch. He graduated Cornell in 1973, the same year the great Secretariat would become the nemesis of Martin and his pride and joy Sham.

That summer, DeStefano met trainer Jim Picou in the parking lot of Liz’s Kitchen on the Belmont backstretch. Picou offered him a job as his assistant trainer, but DeStefano had no interest in the training side of racing. As they were talking, Robert Murty of Murty Brothers Horse Transportation just happened to walk by. Picou knew Murty well and introduced him to DeStefano.

“Jimmy mentioned that if I would like to fly with horses I should ask Mr. Murty if he needed anyone,” DeStefano recalled. “Mr. Murty said that he actually was looking for someone to fly a horse out to California that night, and that started a wonderful job with Murty Brothers where I had the chance, as a 23-year-old kid, to fly all over the country and the world and get paid for it.

“Obviously, 1973 was the spring of Secretariat’s Triple Crown and there was such a buzz around the track about this super horse who had just won the Preakness and might become the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown. Murty Brothers Horse Transportation handled Secretariat’s shipping.“

Fast forward to Secretariat’s final race of his career, the Canadian International at Woodbine on Oct. 28, 1973. Already a legend, Big Red was scheduled to fly back to New York the next day for a few weeks before shipping to Claiborne Farm. DeStefano was sent by Murty to meet the plane and help van driver Ron Cirovalo unload Secretariat.

The ONA (Overseas National Airlines) plane pulled up to the Lufthansa cargo area. DeStefano walked up the ramp onto the plane and there was groom Eddie Sweat standing next to Secretariat. As they opened the stall door and prepared to lead Secretariat out, DeStefano went down to the van to wait for the horse. He couldn’t help notice how regal the magnificent chestnut looked as he walked down the ramp led by Sweat, with Cirovalo holding his tail. Once on the van Sweat went back on the plane to get his luggage while DeStefano backed Secretariat into the stall.

“Here I was, the son of immigrants from Italy, a 23 year-old from Brooklyn, alone with the most famous animal in the world and perhaps the greatest horse ever,” DeStefano recalled. “Besides his looks, what I really noticed about him was his overwhelming presence, his attitude, and his intelligence. I had worked with many horses before but he had this inexplicable quality about him.

“As I stood there face to face with greatness, for whatever reason I decided to pull some hair from his mane. That is not yanking hair out, but pulling the mane as grooms do all the time. It’s like peeling an artichoke; you use your thumb and middle fingers and layer it, taking a little bit at a time. I got a handful of hair and put it in my coat pocket. Had I known then what I know now, Secretariat may have arrived at Belmont totally bald. When I got home, I put the hair in an old English Leather Cologne box.”

Over the years, people would get strands of Secretariat’s hair during his days at Claiborne Farm, but this was an actual part of Secretariat the racehorse. This was the hair that just days before had blown through the cold, wet Canadian winds in isolated splendor, concluding the career of one of America’s all-time greatest athletes.

DeStefano showed the hair to his friend Dick Hamilton, who worked at The Jockey Club and was a big fan of Secretariat’s, and then took it home, where it remained in the English Leather box for 33 years.

Hamilton left The Jockey Club in 1975 to start working for the New York Racing Association as a racing official and then was named steward in 1989 before moving to Saratoga and becoming the communications officer for the National Museum of Racing.


“Dick knew of my closeness with Frank Martin and in 2006 he asked me to inquire about borrowing some of his trophies to exhibit in the museum,” DeStefano recalled. “I came up with the idea of loaning the Secretariat hair to the museum and he, knowing the full provenance of the hair, was delighted to accept my offer. All the details were worked out and the hair went on display there, not in the English Leather box, but in a clear hockey puck box, from May 2006 until the end of December 2009.

“I have seen snippets of Secretariat hair sell online auctions for considerable money. That hair was from an older Secretariat at Claiborne who had not been on the racetrack in years. Mine is special in that it is what I call ‘race-worn hair’ from his 3-year-old Triple Crown career. This hair was ‘along for the ride’ and is an actual part of this great horse. It is the only Secretariat race-worn hair that I have ever seen or heard of.”

DeStefano’s home is filled with racetrack collectables, mainly historic race programs, such as the 1967 Woodward dubbed “The Race of the Century,” and old cherished winner’s circle photographs of him and Frank Martin, all representing memories of a bygone era. But nothing will ever top that piece of memorabilia he collected on a horse van and its brief journey into history within the hallowed halls of the National Museum of Racing.

The other kid from Brooklyn is yours truly, whose greatest accomplishment before discovering racing was hitting a “Spaldeen” ball over the rooftops playing stickball. My memorabilia is of the mind, captured forever in photos. I never had any desire to save racing artifacts, such as horseshoes or halters or old programs. Even though I saved photos I took with my trusty Canon F-1 ad FTB cameras, they were never really special unless they were personal and brought back memories of a particular moment in time. And although I photographed many of the all-time great Thoroughbreds, the only ones I took that I considered true memorabilia were the up close and personal shots of Secretariat.

There had to be a story behind the photographs, one that I could show and talk about to future generations who never had the privilege to see Secretariat in person. The photos had to reflect either Big Red’s physical prowess, his personality, or capture an intimate moment frozen in time. They had to make this legend become real to those who had only read about him or seen old washed out videos and black and white photos. That was my memorabilia, as important to me as strands of hair from the great horse’s mane were to DeStefano.

How else could I describe the moment when I stood inches from Secretariat in the Preakness saddling area and photographed the horse standing majestically looking straight ahead. Then when Secretariat heard the clicking of the camera he turned and looked right at me through his familiar blue and white checkered blinkers and into my heart. It was a photo that remained in an album for over four decades before it found a home on Secretariat’s website and was able to be shared with his legion of fans through the volume of prints that were made up and color enhanced into something vibrant and alive.

The same can be said of those beautiful morning shots at Belmont Park, especially the ones of Secretariat going to the track with fellow Hall of Famer Riva Ridge at his side, both of them bathed in sunshine, or the ones of them on the walking ring in single file outside the barn as the morning sun outlined Big Red’s mane and powerful frame. What made these photos even more special was that there was no one else around, making this private moment with Secretariat and Riva Ridge one to cherish.

Then there was the shot from Secretariat’s farewell at Aqueduct when he arched his neck and broke into a show horse trot as if to leave one final indelible image burned in the memory.

And finally there was the playful Big Red at Claiborne Farm, picking up a large piece of branch in his paddock and bringing it over to the fence, with the branch protruding from his mouth like a lollipop, wanting to play tug o’ war. Despite numerous attempts to pull it out of his mouth he once again emerged victorious. One of the first prints that was produced from the original photo, which for years was nothing more than a keepsake tucked away in an album, eventually became the focal point of a spirited bidding war at a Secretariat Birthday Celebration silent auction in Virginia.

And so DeStefano and I cling to our memories of the mighty Secretariat, willing to share them with the public in any way. The strands of Big Red’s hair returned home with DeStefano after several years on display at the museum and are currently up for auction. My photos are in the capable hands of Leonard Lusky of Secretariat.com and for sale there with proceeds supporting the Secretariat Foundation and further preserving the memory of a horse who transcended sports and now lives on in the annals of history…and in the hearts of two kids from Brooklyn.

 

MARCH 27 – Meet Steve Haskin virtually and participate in his informative Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby Rankings Preview as part of the festivities during the 2021 Secretariat Birthday Celebration.

Baffert vs Pletcher: A Tale of the Tape

Monday, January 11th, 2021

With activity on the Derby trail starting to pick up, the one constant is that Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher are going to be loaded once again. But who are these two powerhouse trainers who dominate the road to Louisville every year? Let’s take a close look at them and what makes them so successful. ~ Steve Haskin

Baffert vs Pletcher: A Tale of the Tape

By Steve Haskin

 

As we are about to embark on another Kentucky Derby trail and our 21st Kentucky Derby Rankings, we will once again be discussing the leading contenders in great detail. But before we begin on Jan. 18, let’s focus first on the two trainers who are at the epicenter of the Derby trail every year and always seem to be on a collision course with their mighty equine armies who again are lining up and preparing for battle.

This is horse racing’s version of Robert E. Lee and George Meade at Gettysburg; Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo; George Washington and Sir Henry Clinton at Monmouth. General Bob Baffert as usual has already assembled a formidable force that has decimated its opponents in skirmishes on the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains. General Todd Pletcher has begun his annual assault on the Florida coast, but on a lesser scale, as his main forces are just about ready to overrun their foes at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs as they do most every winter, as well as an occasional foray to New York. 

The Baffert and Pletcher armies are so vast and so formidable, both generals no doubt will again divide them and possibly collide in Louisiana and especially Arkansas. Several, as always, will fall sick or wounded along the way but those who survive the preliminary battles will usually meet for supremacy on the final battlefield at Churchill Downs.

This is beginning to look like the era of the “Derby Dominators” that existed from 1988 to 2002, when in those 14 years, Nick Zito, Wayne Lukas, and Bob Baffert won an incredible nine Kentucky Derbys.

Only Baffert is left as a major force, and his main antagonist now is a graduate from the Lukas Academy who will surely join his old boss and Baffert in the Hall of Fame this year. 

Watching the multitude of Baffert and Pletcher pups frolicking about on the Derby trail each year, one could call it racing’s version of “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” as they seem to be everywhere, just running around and having a grand old time.

But there is a third army forming that could start to change the balance of power. That army is commanded by Brad Cox, who is rapidly climbing the ladder of success and could very well dominate the Louisiana-Arkansas circuit this year. Although we are still a couple of weeks away from the first Derby Rankings, it is very possible that Baffert, Pletcher and Cox will have at least eight of the top 15 horses, which could mark the beginning of another three-trainer “Derby Dominators.” But Cox still is shooting for No. 1, so we will still focus our attention on Baffert and Pletcher, who have eight Derby victories between them, with Baffert in full control with six. But his Derby dynasty has mirrored the dynasty of the New England Patriots, who won three Super Bowls right off the bat, then a long drought, and then three more in the past six years. So keeping everything in the present, it is Baffert 3 and Pletcher 2 since 2010, with Baffert nailing down two Triple Crowns.

What makes this Baffert-Pletcher domination so intriguing and fascinating is that both generals have totally different personalities and totally different philosophies about training and combat strategy.

Baffert takes a more aggressive approach to training, with the emphasis on speed, while Pletcher rarely works his horses fast. This no doubt is reflective of Baffert’s early days in Quarter Horse racing. Like the trainers of the past, Baffert believes in training his horses hard and those that can handle it are the ones who move forward on the Derby trail. By the time the Derby is run, whichever ones make the race are toughened and honed for speed, which now seems to be the main attribute in winning on the first Saturday in May. Five of his six Derby winners were horses who raced on or just off the pace. 

Baffert has also proven that you don’t need a lot of races to be ready for the Derby as evidenced by Justify’s victory in 2018 off only three lifetime starts. He believes that is due to the fact that his horses are battled-tested in the morning, often working fast times going six, seven, and eight furlongs and running hard past the wire. 

Unlike Baffert, who will often work his Derby horses by having them break off several lengths behind a lesser known pacesetter, Pletcher will often work his Derby horses together, having them go head to head from the start and finish on the wire together. When they don’t work together they will often work alongside an older stakes horse. So whereas Baffert likes to see his big horses run off from their workmates in the final sixteenth and leave them far behind past the wire, Pletcher likes to keep his horses together the whole way around. His works usually are only four or five furlongs, and like his old boss Lukas, they never work as fast as the Baffert horses. It’s all about being competitive with good horses alongside and galloping out strong. Pletcher also believes in extensive gate work, which is why his young horses usually break quickly and are almost always in contention early.

On the racing end, Pletcher is far more conservative than Baffert in that he likes to give his horses time between races, often as long as five and six seeks. If one of his horses runs in the Derby and gets beat he will not run him back in two weeks in the Preakness and instead will wait for the Belmont Stakes. His two Derby winners who did run back in the Preakness both ran poorly. Except for last year when the Derby was run on the first Saturday in September and the Preakness a month later, every one of Baffert’s Derby winners came back and won the Preakness.

The way Baffert and Pletcher train and run their horses is reflective of their personalities. Baffert is far more outgoing and gregarious and loves interacting with the media, often cracking jokes, while Pletcher is more laid back and keeps things closer to the vest. His humor is demonstrated away from the microphone and in close circles and is rarely seen by the public. The one attribute they have in common is their uncanny ability to read their horses and determine their strengths and weaknesses and in which races they belong. Pletcher is a master at reading the condition book and often plans his strategy in advance, while Baffert is prone to calling audibles at the last minute and going by gut feeling. So his horses can pop up in a race at the last minute or defect from a race and head elsewhere.

In the beginning, Baffert referred to his good horses as ham sandwiches, meaning they were inexpensive purchases with very average pedigrees. Now that his owners are more upscale that doesn’t apply as much. Pletcher probably has trained more million-dollar purchases than anyone, but he also has proven he can win with horses that are not as royally bred as those he trains for his powerhouse owners.

So the battle lines are drawn again and the skirmishes have begun, with Baffert and Pletcher already having won stakes on the Derby trail, and Pletcher armed and ready to dominate the maiden races in Florida, unleashing a steady stream of first- and second-time starters. Although Baffert’s top Derby hopefuls are more advanced at this point with several horses having already made their mark in graded Derby preps, including Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity winner Spielberg, the exciting undefeated Life is Good, winner of the Sham Stakes, and Sham runner-up Medina Spirit, he no doubt has plenty of ammunition left in his arsenal that we haven’t seen yet. 

The Pletcher machine is just starting to roll, notching a victory in the Jan. 2 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct with Mutasaabeq, and he has two exciting maiden winners to watch in Prime Factor and Amount, who looked awesome in their debuts. He also has the undefeated minor stakes winner Never Surprised and Known Agenda third the Remsen Stakes as well as impressive maiden winner Likeable, who got caught up in a torrid pace in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, as did Baffert’s speedy Classier both of whom are much better than they showed in the race. Pletcher, who also has a solid late closer in Overtook, loaded up this past Saturday, running five horses in three maiden races at Gulfstream.

By the end of January and middle of February we will have a better idea of Baffert’s and Pletcher’s fire power as they start taking over the winner’s circles at racetracks around the country. But this year, with the powerful forces of Brad Cox, which includes 2-year-old champion Essential Quality and three promising colts in Caddo River, Mandaloun, and Prate, waiting for them at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park, they likely will have quite a battle on their hands.

Welcome to the 2021 Derby trail. See you on Jan. 18.

The Greatest “Rabbit” Punches in Racing History

Monday, January 4th, 2021

It is time for one final history lesson before we hit the Derby trail. And this is one topic you don’t normally read about. This one you can say is about horses and trainers having a bad “hare” day. ~ Steve Haskin

The Greatest “Rabbit” Punches in Racing History

By Steve Haskin

One aspect of Thoroughbred racing that has been an integral part of its history, but hardly gets mentioned, is the use of “rabbits,” those fleet-footed sacrificial lambs that are used to either assure a fast pace for their late-running stablemates or are on a kamikaze mission to soften up a particular speed horse and preventing him from stealing a race.

For these unfortunate steeds, several of whom were either champions or record holders in their own right, their names live in infamy, a symbol of unfair tactics and compromising the chances of far more accomplished horses.

But rabbits, named for the mechanical rabbits that greyhounds chase in races, have been in the sport for as long as people can remember. In Europe, they are major part of the game, but are more commonly referred to as pacesetters, as they are entered simply to assure an honest pace for their more illustrious stablemates and not directed at one particular horse. It is a totally different game there and great horses rarely “steal” the major mile and a half and mile and a quarter races, which are run on grass and where the pace is far slower than our dirt races.

In this country, rabbits or pacesetters have been responsible in determining championships, the winners of classic races, and for track and world record-breaking performances. There have also been times, however, when rabbits have backfired, leaving their trainers with egg on their face. 

Let’s turn back the pages and follow Alice down racing’s rabbit hole and see what adventures we find on the other side.

The story most told is of Hedevar who is best known as the rabbit who softened up the brilliant Dr. Fager for his stablemate Damascus in the 1967 Woodward Stakes, dubbed “The Race of the Century.” Also in the field was the defending Horse of the Year Buckpasser, who also had a rabbit in the speedy Great Power. This was nothing new for the late-running Buckpasser, who rarely won a race by more than a length. This would be the 11th time in his career he would be accompanied by a rabbit or pacesetter. But more on Buckpasser and his bunny brigade later. With Horse of the Year at stake, Frank Whiteley, trainer of Damascus, and Eddie Neloy, trainer of Buckpasser, were not about to let the freakishly fast Dr. Fager, who hated having a horse in front of him, have a free ride on an easy lead. Whiteley also did not want to blow the 3-year-old championship to the good doctor after Damascus’ incredible campaign.

As big a race as the ’67 Woodward was, no one at the time realized the true magnitude of the event. You had three Horses of the Year and three Hall of Famers who, between them, would capture an amazing 12 championships, equal or break 11 track records, set two world records, and win carrying 130 pounds or more 12 times. Six of those records have never been broken. When Dr. Fager set a world record for the mile at 4, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/4-mile track record at Aqueduct, he broke Dr. Fager’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/8-mile track record at Arlington Park, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. When Damascus equaled the 1 1/4-mile track record at Saratoga, he equaled Buckpasser’s previous record.

In 81 combined starts, they won 64 races, 54 of them stakes, and finished out of the money only three times – Dr. Fager on a disqualification after finishing first by 6 1/2 lengths in one of the most controversial stewards’ decisions of all time, Damascus after being eased in his final start with a bowed tendon, and Buckpasser in his first career start, in which he finished fourth, beaten 1 1/4 lengths going 5 1/2 furlongs. So, for all intents and purposes they never finished out of the money in 81 starts.

Of course, no one wanted to see the race compromised by the use of not one but two rabbits. As Dr. Fager’s trainer John Nerud said, “I think if I was confident I had the best horse I would not be using up two to beat one.”

But no one apparently reminded Nerud of the 1957 Belmont Stakes when he used a rabbit named Bold Nero to kill off Preakness winner Bold Ruler to set it up for Gallant Man. Bold Ruler broke like a rocket, but was hounded for almost a mile by Bold Nero, as the pair opened a 10-length lead on the field. With Bold Ruler softened, Gallant Man blew by him in the stretch, winning by eight lengths in track record time.

Back to the ’67 Woodward, Dr. Fager drew post 2, with Hedevar and Great Power directly to his inside and outside. Although Great Power was not expected to hang around very long, Hedevar had previously held the world record for a mile and was second to Wheatley Stable’s great champion Bold Lad in the Met Mile. With the Doc’s regular rider Braulio Baeza committed to Buckpasser, Bill Boland was given the mount.

The start was quite a sight, as Ron Turcotte, on Hedevar, pushed hard coming out of the gate, and then gave his mount two right-handed whacks with the whip, while Bob Ussery stung Great Power four times in rapid succession. Turcotte then went to the whip two more times entering the clubhouse turn. All the time, both riders were screaming in an attempt to stir up Dr. Fager even more. Here were two of the fastest horses in the country in an all-out drive under the whip and neither could outrun Dr. Fager, who was under a stranglehold by Boland.

Ussery later said, “Mr. Neloy never said to kill off Dr. Fager. He just said to go to the lead at all costs. That’s what the man wanted and he was paying me to do my job.”

As expected Great Power didn’t last very long and quickly retreated after a quarter of a mile, but the classier Hedevar clung to Dr. Fager and pushed him through torrid fractions of :22 2/5 and :45 1/5. Boland, like all riders, was no match for the sheer strength of Dr. Fager and couldn’t hold him any longer. When he let him go, the Doc blasted away from Hedevar and opened a 1 1/2-length lead after three-quarters in a suicidal 1:09 1/5, with a gap of six lengths between Hedevar and Handsome Boy in third. But the damage was done. Damascus and Buckpasser both put in their runs and closed in for the kill. But it was Damascus, with his extraordinary acceleration and cat-like quickness, who ran off from Buckpasser and flew by Dr. Fager at the quarter pole before drawing off to a resounding 10-length victory, nailing down Horse of the Year.

The following year, Damascus and Dr. Fager hooked up again in the Suburban Handicap, with Damascus carrying 133 pounds and Dr. Fager 132. Once again, Hedevar was entered, but was scratched the morning of the race with a minor injury. When Nerud heard the news at the racing secretary’s office he said to whoever was listening, “Well, the race is over.”

Not only was Dr. Fager the fastest horse in the country, he was impossible to crack if you looked him in the eye and was virtually unbeatable on an uncontested lead. When Dr. Fager cruised to the lead on his own, Damascus was now on a solo mission. His rider Manny Ycaza had no choice but to put the colt into the fray early and test Dr. Fager, who had managed to get away with an opening quarter in :24 and half in :48 2/5, which was trotting horse time for the Doc. Most people had to believe the race was over at that point. Damascus made three moves at Dr. Fager, but they were repelled each time. The Doc finally put Damascus away at the quarter and went on to score by two lengths over Bold Hour, who had been laying back waiting to pick up the pieces, with Damascus, who was a bit short for the race with only one easy allowance score in five months, finishing third. Dr. Fager, despite the slow early fractions and carrying 132 pounds, equaled Gun Bow’s track record of 1:59 3/5 for the mile and a quarter.

The next act came in the Brooklyn Handicap only 16 days later. This time Hedevar was healthy and back on his search-and-destroy mission. Dr. Fager now was carrying 135 pounds with Damascus toting 130. Hedevar, as expected, broke like a bullet, but there was no Dr. Fager eyeballing him. Baeza had a stranglehold on the Doc and let Hedevar scoot off to a clear lead through a half in :45 4/5. But down the backstretch he could no longer hold the headstrong Dr. Fager and had to let him go. The Doc roared by Hedevar and quickly opened a four-length lead in a rapid 1:09 4/5. That is a scorching pace going 1 1/4 miles under 135 pounds. Around the turn, Damascus, who had been far back this time, exploded with his patented rapid-fire acceleration. Like in the Woodward, he charged past Dr. Fager and drew off to win by 2 1/2 lengths. His time of 1:59 1/5 not only broke Dr. Fager’s short-lived track record, it still stands after 52 years.

That ended the heated Damascus-Dr. Fager rivalry. Hedevar actually would show up again against Dr. Fager in the Washington Park Handicap, this time on his own, and was trounced by the Doc. Despite carrying 134 pounds and being eased up the entire length of the stretch, winning by 10 lengths, Dr. Fager still was able to run the mile in a world record 1:32 1/5, a time that has still not been broken on dirt.

Now getting back to Buckpasser, it was his stablemate Impressive who set blazing fractions in the Hopeful and Champagne Stakes setting it up for Buckpasser’s late charge. In Buckpasser’s 3-year-old debut, a seven-furlong exhibition allowance race at Hialeah, Neloy also entered Impressive and another fast colt, Stupendous in the five-horse field. Impressive once again did his job, setting fast fractions, but someone forget to tell him not to keep going. He drew off to a four-length victory over Buckpasser in 1:21 4/5. Buckpasser would go on to win the remainder of his 13 starts at 3, so it was Impressive who prevented him from having an undefeated season. 

However, Impressive did pay Buckpasser back by cutting out scorching fractions of :43 3/5 and an insane six furlongs in 1:06 4/5 in the one-mile Arlington Classic, enabling Buckpasser to break the world record, which Dr. Fager broke two years later. Other than the ’67 Woodward, Buckpasser’s fleet-footed stablemates never really targeted one particular horse. They were in there to kill off anyone who happened to be near the lead and to make sure no one got loose to steal a race on Buckpasser. Impressive would go on to be champion sprinter that year.

One famous rabbit was Angle Light even though he most likely was not an intended rabbit at all for Secretariat in the 1973 Wood Memorial. His owner, Edwin Whitaker, always felt Angle Light could beat Secretariat, and it likely was because of him that Lucien Laurin ran both horses. But with the up and coming star Sham shipping in from California fresh off a victory in the Santa Anita Derby it surely would not hurt having the speedy Angle Light in there in case Sham and trainer Frank Martin had any visions of stealing the Wood. But as we all know, Secretariat was suffering from an abscess in his mouth and never fired. By the time Jorge Velasquez on Sham realized Secretariat was not a danger it was too late to catch the front-running Angle Light. Needless to say there has never been a grimmer looking person in the winner’s circle than Laurin after the Wood. Angle Light had done the job of a rabbit, but there was no one to take advantage of it.

Another successful rabbit punch came in the 2005 Woodward Stakes when trainer Rick Dutrow entered the recent $75,000 claim, Show Boot, a sprinter with good early speed, to run the brilliant Commentator into the ground for Saint Liam in a four-horse field. Commentator had just beaten Saint Liam with a front-running performance in the Whitney and Dutrow was not about to let that happen again. Show Boot did his job well and Saint Liam came along to pick up the pieces.

For every Hedevar, Impressive, Bold Nero, and Show Boot, there are rabbits who have failed miserably at their job, although it often was not of their doing. In the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, trainer Laz Barrera entered Life’s Hope as a rabbit to kill off Seattle Slew for that year’s Triple Crown winner Affirmed, who had just been beaten by Slew in the Marlboro Cup. In that race, once Seattle Slew was allowed to get away with a :47 1/5 half Affirmed had no shot, especially when Slew flew home his final five-eighths in :58 4/5, covering the mile and an eighth in a blazing 1:45 4/5.

Now, stretching out to a mile and a half, Affirmed was going to need help. But no one apparently told him of the strategy. When Life’s Hope charged to the lead from the outside to engage Seattle Slew, there was Affirmed between the two of them battling head and head with not only Slew but his own rabbit. Steve Cauthen tried to pull back on the throttle and get Affirmed out of this mess, but when he did his saddle slipped costing Affirmed any shot of winning. The pace was brutal with a half in :45 1/5 and the three-quarters in 1:09 2/5. Despite that, Slew still battled back when headed by the late-running Exceller and was just nosed at the wire in one of the gamest performances of all time.

Then there was Todd Pletcher entering Eugene Melnyk’s mediocre sprinter Bishop Court Hill as a rabbit for Melnyk’s Travers winner Flower Alley in the 2005 Jockey Club Gold Cup. The move most likely came out of fear of the California invader Lava Man. Bishop Court Hill was another who did his job well, but unfortunately the horse he ran into the ground was Flower Alley, as the two battled eyeball to eyeball for the first three-quarters of a mile before Bishop Court Hill quickly retreated, followed by his stablemate. Lava Man also was victimized by the fast pace and faded badly, which enabled the other California invader Borrego to sweep to the lead from last place and draw off to a 4 1/2-length victory with Flower Alley beaten more than 15 lengths, done in by his own rabbit.

Bishop Court Hill was a son of Holy Bull, who was one horse that shrugged off a rabbit and went on to a gutsy victory in the 1994 Travers Stakes.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas had his Preakness and Belmont winner Tabasco Cat in the Travers, but needed help up front to push Holy Bull, who was suspect at 1 1/4 miles, so he entered a rabbit named Comanche Trail to expose Holy Bull by pressuring him all the way. That he did, forcing Holy Bull to set brutal fractions of :22 4/5, :46 1/5, and 1:10 2/5. No Travers had ever won setting fractions that fast. Even though Tabasco laid a few lengths back, he couldn’t handle that quick a pace and backed out of it, leaving the big closer in the race, Concern, as the only threat to Holy Bull, who looked beaten when Concern came charging up and was right off his flank at the eighth pole. But Holy Bull wouldn’t quit. He dug in and held off Concern to win by a neck with a 17-length gap back to Tabasco Cat in third.

One of the strangest uses of a rabbit came in the 2005 Kentucky Derby when the rabbit and the horse he was supposed to help were trained by two different trainers. The big dilemma all trainers in the Derby had that year was how to beat the brilliant Bellamy Road who had won his two starts by 15 3/4 lengths and 17 1/2 lengths, the latter being the Wood Memorial in which his time of 1:47 flat earned him a monstrous 120 Beyer speed figure. 

Pletcher had a talented colt for Coolmore named Bandini, a six-length winner of the Blue Grass, as well as the aforementioned Flower Alley, winner of the Lane’s End Stakes and a well-beaten second to Afleet Alex in the Arkansas Derby. Patrick Biancone, meanwhile, had a lightning fast colt for Coolmore named Spanish Chestnut who had tired badly in the Lane’s End and Blue Grass, finishing up the track in both races. Biancone said at the time he wanted no part of the Derby, but whether it was through Pletcher’s prodding, as Biancone claimed, or strictly Coolmore’s decision, Spanish Chestnut was entered for the sole purpose of killing off Bellamy Road to help Bandini.

Spanish Chestnut, as expected, shot to the lead and set the fastest pace in Derby history, going :22 1/5, :45 1/5, and 1:09 2/5, eventually finishing 17th. That was enough to kill off Bellamy Road, who faded to seventh, but it also killed off Bandini, who was only 3 1/2 lengths off that torrid pace and wound up finishing 19th. Flower Alley also was cooked by the pace, which set it up for 50-1 shot Giacomo to rally from 18th for the victory.

Another unusual use of a rabbit occurred in the 1985 Jersey Derby at the new Garden State Park when Wayne Lukas used one to help a horse who wasn’t even in the race. Spend A Buck had just demolished his field in the Kentucky Derby, opening a big lead early and romping by 5 1/4 lengths, running the third fastest Derby in history. Instead of coming back in the Preakness, owner Dennis Diaz broke tradition and went for the Jersey Derby’s $1 million purse and $2 million bonus given to any horse who won the Cherry Hill Mile, Garden State Stakes, Kentucky Derby, and 1 1/4-mile Jersey Derby. Spend A Buck had won the first three by a total of 25 1/2 lengths and Diaz went for the big purse rather than pursue the Triple Crown, which caused a great deal of controversy.

Lukas, meanwhile, had won the Preakness with Tank’s Prospect a week before the Jersey Derby, and he figured if Spend A Buck had plans to come back in the Belmont Stakes he wanted to make sure he didn’t have an easy race in the Jersey Derby, so he entered a speedball named Huddle Up with the sole purpose of eyeballing Spend A Buck as long as he could and exhausting him to the point that it would knock him out for the Belmont.

Huddle Up did just that. He pressed Spend A Buck through brutal fractions of :22 4/5 :45 2/5 and 1:09 flat. Spend A Buck looked wobbly legged at the head of the stretch when Creme Fraiche slipped through on the inside to stick his head in front. But Spend A Buck kept battling and managed to eke out a gutsy neck victory in a three-horse photo. As it turned out, Lukas’ strategy worked, as Spend A Buck passed the Belmont, but Tank’s Prospect was eased in the race, pulling up with a career-ending injury, so it was all for nothing.

We don’t see rabbits as much as we used to, but you can bet when the occasion arises and you have a brilliantly fast horse appearing to be the only speed in a major race, some trainer will pull a rabbit out of his hat and toss him in the ring. It’s just the nature of the game.

1967 Woodward Program available for purchase, please inquire at information@secretariat.com

Merry Christmas Horse Racing

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020

Santa Claus has already gotten his COVID-19 vaccine, so he’ll be on his way once again on Christmas Eve. In his bag this year are some special presents for all his friends in horse racing. He made his list and checked it twice and thanks to our special connections at the North Pole, here is that list. ~ Steve Haskin

Merry Christmas Horse Racing

By Steve Haskin

 

  • Bob Baffert  — An office sign that reads: “Gimme the Success Without the Stress.”
  • Spendthrift Farm — A year’s supply of bubble wrap for Into Mischief.
  • Tiz the Law — A finish photo of the 2003 Kentucky Derby signed by Funny Cide, which reads: “These old shoes are still hard to fill; good luck in 2021.”
  • Gamine — A stall sign that reads: “Please Wash Hands Thoroughly Before Entering.”
  • Gary and Mary West — A check from Saudi Arabia.
  • Sol Kumin – Four bookkeepers, three accountants, two public relations agents, and a partridge in a pear tree.
  • Maxfield — A special elixir that removes or prevents warts, sores, fractures, sore feet, fever, mucus, infections, runny noses, and anything else that might prevent him from getting through the year with no setbacks.
  • All U.S. stallions standing in South Korea — A one-way ticket back home.
  • Steve Asmussen — An advanced GPS system to locate and track all his horses.
  • Maximum Security — Win photos of the Kentucky Derby and Saudi Cup with the title of the Gershwins’ big hit, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
  • Swiss Skydiver — Copies of the top 20 current bestsellers to read on the plane all year.
  • NBC — A defective aerial camera (Please Santa, have Prancer and Blitzen stomp on it).
  • All those who passed on buying a micro-share in Authentic – A CD of the Katy Perry song “The One That Got Away.”
  • MyRacehorse.com — A CD of the Deborah Cox song “Where Do We Go From Here?”
  • To the anti-racing groups – An autographed photo of their two favorite “A Christmas Story” characters they can relate to, Scut Farkus and Grover Dill. And a message from everyone in horse racing: “Oh, fuuuudge.”
  • Secretariat — A 50th birthday he never got.
  • Santa Anita stewards – A photo of the finish of the 2018 Santa Anita Derby signed by Justify with the words: “Whew! Thank you.”
  • Enable — A recording of “La Marseillaise” and a DVD of the film “The Last Time I Saw Paris” to keep her from getting bored on the first Sunday in October.
  • Seth Klarman — A glossary of Wall Street terms in case he runs out of “catchy” names for his horses. Still waiting for him to name a horse Alternative Investment Market.
  • Kaneko Makoto Holdings Co. — To the owner of the history making group 1 winner Sodashi, a recording of “White Christmas.”
  • Zenyatta — An anonymous letter explaining why her fans never come to visit her.
  • Chad Brown — A print of the famous painting of General Burgoyne surrendering at the Battle of Saratoga.
  • Monomoy Girl — A stall sign that reads: “Miss you, Dad.”
  • Oaklawn Park — A thank you letter from trainers and owners all over the country for being the first racetrack other than Churchill Downs to be the center of the racing universe on the first Saturday in May.
  • Whitmore — A DVD of the movie “The Magnificent Seven.”
  • Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola — To racing’s newest New York Italian connection a $500 gift certificate to Bamonte’s restaurant in Brooklyn and a bottle of Vino Rosso compliments of the house (Anthony Bonomo of course is invited).
  • Christophe Clement — A DVD of the movie “Splendor in the Grass”
  • Spendthrift Farm, MyRacehorse Stable, Madaket Stables, and Starlight Racing — A welcome letter from the Guinness Book of World Records for averaging $1.7 million per start in 2020. So they earned approximately $50,000 a furlong. And that is an authentic figure.
  • WinStar Farm — An additional stallion barn and free lifetime membership to The China Horse Club.
  • Elliott Walden — A DVD of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
  • Racetracks all over the country — Finally and most important of all, a large sign to be put up at all front entrances at some point next year that reads “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Ho Ho Ho. Merry Christmas!”

 

Invasor – A Life Changing Horse

Monday, December 14th, 2020

I am not a collector of memorabilia and have never purchased a single item…until now. When two of the shoes worn by Invasor in the Suburban Handicap came up for sale on eBay from the extensive collection of the Estate of Julie Albright, I approached my friend and fellow Invasor lover Dianne Boothe and mentioned to her I would be willing to go half with her on the pair of shoes. The bidding kept increasing in the final minutes, but a savvy Dianne got the last bid in right at the buzzer and we had our shoes. To understand why these particular shoes were so important to me, you have to read the column to discover the importance of Invasor in my life and learn of his amazing journey that brought us together in such a profound way. ~ Steve Haskin

Invasor – A Life Changing Horse

By Steve Haskin

There are many ways a horse can make an impact on your life. I can think of Damascus, who paved my way into the new and exciting world of Thoroughbred racing and became my newest sports hero replacing every two-legged athlete I had ever idolized. The path that Damascus paved would not only dramatically change my life, but save it in so many ways. I can think of Graustark, whose brief racing career was before my time, but, along with Damascus, was the favorite horse of the person who introduced me to the Sport of Kings, so both became my favorites. When I applied for a job at the old Morning Telegraph and was rejected because of my inability to type, if I hadn’t asked for a copy of Graustark’s past performances and met the head librarian, who eventually took me in as his assistant, I never would have been hired and would have continued on my path to nowhere.

In 1969, there was Arts and Letters and Gallant Bloom who helped me get through a bleak year of unemployment and no hope for the future. They both provided me with an escape from the harsh realities of being a lost 22 year old with no skills. Later that year I was hired as a copy boy at the Morning Telegraph as a stepping stone to becoming assistant librarian.

So, as you can see it was Damascus, Graustark, Arts and Letters, and Gallant Bloom who in their own way joined forces to change my life and open the portal to another world and all the miracles I would encounter there, such as my beautiful wife of 40 years, my amazing daughter, my precious grandson, and a career that reached far beyond my wildest imagination. None of it would have happened without horse racing.

I am not putting Invasor in this elite company, but that doesn’t mean he did not have an impact on my life, as well as the lives of my wife and daughter. I first was introduced to Invasor when I covered his victory in the Suburban Handicap for The Blood-Horse. All I knew was that he was the undefeated Uruguayan Triple Crown winner who had been purchased by Shadwell and brought to America, where he captured the Pimlico Special in his U.S. debut. After the Suburban, I became captivated by Invasor’s story. As he moved closer to the Breeders’ Cup Classic after winning the Whitney, I began researching him extensively, making several connections in Uruguay, mainly his former co-owner Pablo Hernandez, racing historian Luis Costa Baleta, and one of the country’s leading owner-breeders, Ariel Gianola, all of whom I e-mailed with on a regular basis.

By the time the Breeders’ Cup rolled around, I knew everything about the horse and had become very close to my new Uruguayan friends. I do admit, however, I had to look at a map of South America to find out the location of Uruguay, which was no more than a tiny appendage hanging off the southern tip of Brazil, across the Rio de la Plata from Argentina.

Pablo Hernandez and a group of Uruguayans journeyed to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup, and when Invasor upset the heavy favorite Bernardini in the Classic it was pure bedlam in the winner’s circle, and when Pablo, disheveled and delirious with excitement, saw me he hugged me like I was the long lost brother he hadn’t seen in years. He had me pose with the group, along with media members from Argentina where Invasor was bred, for a photo as they waved the Uruguayan flag, continuously shouting “Een-vah-SOR!”

“This is unbelievable,” Pablo shouted above the din. “This is the greatest experience of my life, and always will be. Invasor is still in the hearts of everyone in Uruguay. We are a small, modest country, and we need an idol. We have no idol in football and no idol in politics. Invasor is the idol of Uruguay. He is the ‘Horse of the Rio de la Plata.”

Also cheering wildly for Invasor were thousands of racing fans who had flocked to Maronas Racetrack in Uruguay, where Invasor made the first five starts of his career, and to San Isidro Race Course in Argentina to watch the Classic via simulcast.

“You can’t imagine how excited the fans were about Invasor’s victory,” Luis Costa Baleta, also a horse owner from a long-standing Uruguayan racing family, said after watching the race in Uruguay. “I shouted as if it were my own horse winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Since Invasor has gone to the United States, every time he’s run, all the simulcast halls have been crowded with people who came to see him and bet on him. They shout and cheer for him as if Uruguay was playing in the finals of the World Cup. No one can imagine what it’s like. He’s become a national hero.”

I remained in contact with my new friends from Uruguay for the remainder of Invasor’s career, which included victories in the Donn Handicap and Dubai World Cup before an injury forced his retirement with six consecutive Grade 1 victories and a Horse of the Year title to his credit.

Later in 2007, I was contacted by Luis Costa Baleta, affectionately known as Panchito, inviting me and my family to come to Uruguay as guest of The Uruguayan Jockey Club. We would spend 12 days there, culminating with the country’s biggest race, the Gran Premio Jose Pedro Ramirez. I was no longer the adventuresome lad of my youth who had traveled to England, Ireland, France, and Dubai, and had no desire to partake in such a long journey, but my wife and daughter were so excited by it I had no choice but to capitulate and embark on the journey.

We now fast forward to the night of the Ramirez. The strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blared over the public address system, as jockey Carlos Mendez, aboard the Ramírez winner Rock Ascot, stood up in the saddle, flung his arms up in victory, and tossed rose petals from the victory blanket in the air. The massive crowd at Maroñas Racetrack let out a mighty roar to salute the victors.

With the music still resounding throughout the track, the winning connections—owner, breeder, trainer, and jockey and their friends and families—were driven in antique automobiles to the makeshift winner’s podium on the track in front of the grandstand. Alongside the podium was a mounted military band in decorative uniforms and cascos (headgear) playing drums, bugles, tubas, and other instruments.

With the fans still applauding and taking pictures, the winners were presented their trophies. Standing along the rail, my wife and daughter and I were engulfed by the cheers, the music, and the on-track festivities. It was at this point that my daughter said, “All that’s missing are fireworks.”

Sure enough, seconds later, an explosion of fireworks from behind the podium lit up the darkening blue sky that had already become illuminated by the lights of the racetrack. It was a moment that was both spectacular and surreal—a fitting conclusion to a magical day that saw skydivers rain down on the racetrack carrying banners and flags. The spectacle of Ramírez day was all too real. The surrealism was due in part to the fact that we were in Uruguay, the country whose location I had to look up on a map.

Our trip included visits to the Riviera-like resort of Punta del Este, where the rich and famous congregate each summer; the amazing Casapueblo, where nature and art meet to form a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and images nestled along Uruguay’s tranquil coastline; and the historic, charming town of Colonia, where you can see spectacular sunsets and the lights from Buenos Aires across the Rio del la Plata that separates Uruguay and Argentina. Our home base, the capital city of Montevideo, has miles and miles of beaches that come alive each day with people jogging, walking, riding bicycles, and strolling with their dogs along the palm tree-lined Rambla. Joan and Mandy looked forward to walking to the beach every morning while I sat on the Rambla people watching. With Uruguay being populated by so many people of European descent you could very well feel as if you are in Miami Beach rather than South America.

During our stay, I was treated like a rock star. I gave a seminar at Maronas Racetrack that was later shown on the evening news, was interviewed by ESPN South America, presented the trophy for one of undercard stakes, was given tours of the top breeding farms, where they rolled out the red carpet for us, preparing amazing feasts, and stayed at the finest five-star hotels. Every want and need was taken care of. We also visited the small stable where Invasor resided, which was located right in the middle of the neighborhood surrounding Maronas. Panchito, who seemed to know everyone in the racing community, served as our guide.

It was at some point during the trip that it hit me. Everything I was experiencing was due to one horse. It was through my articles on Invasor and the contacts I had made in Uruguay that all of this was made possible.

It was a joy to witness the passion for the horse and the sport 6,000 miles away in a small country most Americans know little or nothing about. When racing ceased for 10 years in Uruguay because of economic reasons, and there was no pari-mutuel wagering or purse money, the owners still raced their horses just for the sport of it. Although located in a poor neighborhood, Maronas, with its white cement walls, is looked upon as a shrine by the local residents, who would never desecrate it in any way. Inside those white walls is one of the most well-kept, picturesque, and modern racetracks you’ll see anywhere, complete with a high-tech simulcasting facility and even supervised play areas for younger and older children. As you walk through the ornate main entrance and into the beautiful lobby, there in front of you is a bust of Invasor.

To truly appreciate this story, however, you have to know something about Invasor and his remarkable journey that eventually brought us together.

Pablo Hernandez, who owned the son of Candy Stripes–Quendom, by Interprete, in partnership with brothers Juan Luis and Luis Alberto Vio Bado, recalled how his magical journey with Invasor began one morning outside of Buenos Aires.

“We had flown to Argentina and were scheduled to take a small plane to La Biznaga Farm, where we were going to look at horses,” he said. “But the plane had engine failure and the trip was canceled. Our friend, Miguel Ezcurra, from Bullrich Auctioneers, took us by car to visit some smaller farms near Buenos Aires. After having seen some 80 colts and fillies at several farms, we went to Haras Clausan in Areco, a province of Buenos Aires, and that’s where we met Invasor. Immediately, it was as if we had been hit with Cupid’s arrow. We just fell in love with him.”

Sandro Mizeroqui, owner of Haras Clausan, which has since been renamed Haras Santa Ines, was asking $25,000 for the horse. Hernandez and the Vio Bados offered $18,000, and both parties eventually settled for $20,000. “We purchased him and exported him to Maronas Racetrack in Uruguay,” Pablo said. “Our lucky strike had begun.”

Invasor took Hernandez and the Vio Bado brothers on a ride they will never forget. In his five races in Uruguay, Invasor, trained by Anibal San Martin, won at five different distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 9/16 miles. His average margin of victory was five lengths. His jockey, the veteran Gustavo Duarte, who is one of the leading riders in Uruguay, called Invasor the best horse he’d ever ridden.

Invasor’s accomplishments were all the more remarkable considering his winning streak was interrupted by a fractured right hind sesamoid that required surgery.

In December 2005, after sweeping the Uruguayan Triple Crown in brilliant fashion, Hernandez was contacted by Shadwell, wanting to buy Invasor and fly him to Dubai, targeting the UAE Derby (UAE-II). Shadwell’s offer was for $1.5 million, which is a great deal of money in Uruguay, considering Invasor’s total earnings there were $114,070. It was Henandez’s hope to run him in the upcoming Gran Premio Jose Pedro Ramirez, for 3-year-olds and up, but Shadwell’s offer was too lucrative to turn down.

“I have faced many challenges and dilemmas in my life,” Hernandez said. “But surely, the uncertainty of whether or not to sell Invasor gave me many sleepless nights. To be one of the co-owners of a Triple Crown winner is something that rarely happens to a Thoroughbred owner, especially in Uruguay. After so many decades of not having a Triple Crown winner, to suddenly realize that your horse has become a national hero to the enthusiastic Uruguayan racing fans is very shocking.”

“There is no time to think when somebody offers you this kind of deal,” Hernandez said. “I was so undecided what to do, but Sheikh Hamdan was waiting for my answer. I called my friend, Miguel Ezcurra, and all he said to me was, ‘You know what you have to do.’

Ultimately the deal was finalized and Hernandez came to the realization that Invasor’s future racing conquests would take place in the Shadwell colors.

“I have thousands of images of Invasor in my memory–some that make me weep and others that bring me much happiness. But the bitter memory is the day I had to say farewell to him after traveling with him on the van to the airport. It was a silent farewell, because inside our souls, none of us wanted Invasor leaving our lives. Every time he ran at Maronas, the fans filled the racetrack to watch him run and to try to touch him and take pictures with him. They even tried to get strands of his hair as a souvenir.”

Sad farewells were nothing new to Hernandez. On one occasion, however, it was he who was leaving and the bitter memories belonged to his grandmother.

“The day Invasor departed reminded me of that day years ago when I, like many Uruguayans, emigrated to Europe,” Hernandez recalled. “I had graduated from dentistry school and went to Spain for a post-graduate in dental surgery. I remember how my grandmother cried silently the day I left. I can understand how she felt, because I felt the same way the day I had to say goodbye to Invasor. It was like saying goodbye to a son you were never going to see again. Although the plane left very early in the morning, a lot of people showed up at the airport to say their goodbyes to Invasor.

“The reason why we sold him was not only about the money. Here in Uruguay there isn’t much possibility to develop a great champion, and I wanted to give him the big opportunity to prove that he was a great horse. We would never have been able to go with him to the United States to run; it is too expensive for us. So, I was backed into a corner. I had no other choice.”

So, Invasor was gone, arriving at trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn at Palm Meadows training center in Florida. There to greet him was McLaughlin’s brother (and assistant) Neal and his wife Trish.

Trish, who also is an assistant trainer, recalled that day when a van pulled up to their barn and out walked a light-framed colt, covered in a thick winter coat. All they thought of when they laid eyes on this Uruguayan import was, what kind of allowance conditions can they find for him. He surely did not look like a stakes horse. But Sheikh Hamdan and his racing manager Rick Nichols wanted to throw him right into the deep water in the Pimlico Special, and that was the beginning of what was to become an extraordinary string of Grade 1 victories.

“After he arrived, we gave him UlcerGard and GastroGard. He got the best of everything–hay at $30 a bale and the best care in the world,” Trish McLaughlin said.

Some 10 months later, there was Invasor reunited in victory with his former owner and atop the racing world on two continents. That would become three continents five months later in Dubai.

Early in 2007, I never went to Belmont Park without first stopping in to visit Invasor along with Dianne, who always came with bags of mints. It was during those visits that I discovered what a remarkable horse this was.

As soon as Dianne entered the barn, he knew what was coming. Invasor liked attention and liked being petted, but he also would bite. Somehow, and I may be guilty of anthropomorphism and a touch of romanticism, but he figured out how to avoid one in order to get the other.

As we approached his stall, all Dianne had to do was point to his hay rack. Invasor would reach over and grab a large chunk of hay. After stuffing as much as he could in his mouth, he would freeze in that position, with his mouth still wide open and locked onto the hay rack. He then would turn his eye toward us. As long as you’d pet him he’d remain in that odd position without moving. Once you stopped stroking him, he’d wait a few seconds and either let go of the hay or rip out a hunk and drop it on the floor, indicating he had no desire to eat the hay and was using it almost as a pacifier while being petted.

It seems presumptuous to attempt to interpret a horse’s thought process, so I’ll just conclude by saying this was the most bizarre, almost human-like, behavior I’ve seen from a horse. But we’re all guilty of humanizing animals to a degree.

I never could have imagined how far the bond I formed with Invasor would take me, beginning with the Suburban Handicap. Because of this remarkable animal, I met many people in a faraway land that I now consider close friends. I discovered a new culture, new food, and a new, vibrant world of Thoroughbred racing that rekindled the feelings I had for the sport back in the late 1960s, when all seemed so pure and innocent. But most of all I discovered myself.

I still think of Invasor, and especially Uruguay and sharing such a wondrous experience with my family. And when I do I cannot remove that one thought from my head: it was all because of a horse. Perhaps those are words everyone in the industry should remember.

And now I own one of Invasor’s shoes, with the dirt still on it from that day at Belmont when it all began. Yes, it was my first and only piece of memorabilia, but my collection is complete. I now have a piece of Invasor to go along with the memories.

 

Images courtesy of Breeders’ Cup, Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin, Brian Zipse

Kentucky Derby Back to Playing Music in May

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020

With the Kentucky Derby likely back to the first Saturday in May, it is time to take a look at the (very) early contenders on the Future Wager’s Pool 1, as well as several more emerging from Churchill’s “Stars of Tomorrow” card. ~ Steve Haskin

Kentucky Derby Back to Playing Music in May

By Steve Haskin

 

It is still too early to know for sure what songs we will be singing next year about the Kentucky Derby besides “My Old Kentucky Home.”

As of now it looks as if the Derby will be back running “In the Merry Merry Month of May” and that we no longer will “See You in September.” The Belmont Stakes will again be run when “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” but will return to its place as the final leg of the Triple Crown. And finally, thank goodness we won’t have to wait for the Preakness to be run during “Autumn Leaves.”

Churchill Downs, having acted hastily in vacating its traditional spot on the first Saturday in May and pushing the race to September, thus bastardizing the entire Triple Crown, has vowed not to repeat that, so as of now it looks as if we will again be running the Derby when the roses are in bloom. That means that the Preakness and Belmont will not have to again acquiesce to the actions of Churchill Downs and will also return to their proper place on the calendar.

But we still have to trudge through December, January, February, March, and April. If it seems as if the Derby is a long way off, there is one more song reference we have to keep remembering, and that is the beautiful and profound words of Amanda McBroom, who wrote: “Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed, that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.”

That seed has already been planted, and this past week’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 1 allowed us to get our Derby fever up a couple of degrees and enable us to get a very early start on throwing our money down the proverbial toilet. And we had additional seeds planted all over Churchill Downs with Saturday’s all-2-year-old “Stars of Tomorrow” card, which included the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and three maiden races and two allowance races for males.

The first Future Wager gave racing fans a chance to catch early lightning in a bottle and ferret out that elusive Derby winner, assuming he is not among the multitude of young horses who have yet to see the inside of a starting gate. If you had taken a wild shot last year in Pool 1 you could have gotten Authentic at 50-1 ($103.60 payout) compared to 8-1 on Derby Day. You could have had loads of fun along the way getting Tiz the Law at 11-1 when he was 3-5 on race day. And think of the hefty exacta price you could have gotten on those two back in November of 2019. Of course, 18 of the remaining 20 horses on that first list did not make the Derby, so were you one of those who had the backbone (or were crazy enough) to put up your money before you even came down from your Thanksgiving turkey high?

At least this time you won’t have to wait nine months hoping your horse keeps his form and doesn’t have any physical setbacks. So, for all those who had to wait that long to find out if a front-running son of speed-oriented sire Into Mischief with only one sprint victory in November at Del Mar and trained by Bob Baffert was going to lead you to the promised land, kudos to you. You can bet that ain’t gonna happen again. Oh, wait, the favorite in this year’s Pool 1 is a front-running son of Into Mischief with only one sprint victory in November at Del Mar and trained by Bob Baffert. Never mind.

This horse is named Life is Good, a very appropriate name if you are Baffert, WinStar Farm, and Spendthrift Farm, who stands this phenomenon of a sire, whose stakes winners are sprouting like weeds. All three are living the good life these days.

Life is Good looked sensational in his career debut, drawing off under no urging to win by 9 1/2 lengths. Thanks in good part to Authentic, he closed at a ridiculous 5-1 in Pool 1, which are shorter odds than the undefeated two-time Grade 1 winner Essential Quality (7-1), who clinched the 2-year-old championship with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Speaking of Into Mischief, the one positive aspect of being compared to Authentic is that the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner was a big rangy colt with long gazelle-like strides and looked more like a stayer than a sprinter-miler type. Well, we saw another Into Mischief at Churchill Downs on Saturday who has the same traits and is just a big gorgeous colt who looks more like an older horse. His name is Mandaloun, a Juddmonte Farm undefeated homebred who scored an impressive victory in a seven-furlong allowance race, covering the distance in 1:23, coming home his final eighth in a sharp :12 flat. He was very professional and looks like he wants more distance. He has plenty of stamina in his female family, being out of an Empire Maker mare and having three daughters of the top stamina/class sire His Majesty in his pedigree. And he has several physical traits of His Majesty, who was destined for big things, but was injury plagued throughout his career. Remember the name Mandaloun.

We’ll get back to Saturday’s 2-year-old races at Churchill, Del Mar, and Aqueduct. But first let’s finish up with the Future Wager. We know that last year’s Pool 1 produced a 50-1 steal and the Derby’s first two finishers, but that was then. Now we have to see if there are any potential steals in this year’s Pool 1. I have gone over the Thoro-Graph speed figures on numerous occasions this year, so rather than bore you with numbers and a refresher course on their meaning I will just use the figures myself to point out several horses who are much faster than their odds would indicate, are on a steady progression, and have the pedigree to go a mile and a quarter.

What is most evident about Pool 1 is the lack of respect for the accomplished California 2-year-olds. While they bet the unproven Life is Good down to favoritism off only one start they completely ignored the Del Mar Futurity winner Dr. Schivel at 72-1, American Pharoah winner Get Her Number at 64-1, and the Bob Hope winner Red Flag at 35-1. Red Flag was particularly impressive romping by 7 1/4 lengths for John Shirreffs, while pressing the pace for the first time in his career. He blew the field away on the turn and drew off with every stride, despite not changing leads. Red Flag’s third dam, Mackie, is a graded stakes winner and a half-sister to Kentucky Derby, Travers, and Champagne winner Sea Hero, as well as multiple Grade 1 winner Hero’s Honor, and Diana winner Wild Applause. Their dam, Glowing Tribute, was a multiple Grade 2-winning daughter of Graustark. Glowing Tribute’s dam Admiring is a half-sister to the brilliant fillies Priceless Gem and Affectionately. The family, which is the basis of the Hirsch Jacobs empire, continues with names like Searching, War Admiral, and La Troienne. Red Flag’s pedigree top and bottom has no less than nine classic winners, so I am looking at this colt as a potential steal at 35-1.

But to really demonstrate the lack of respect for the California horses, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Essential Quality was sent off as the second choice in Pool 1 at 7-1. However, runner-up Hot Rod Charlie, who he defeated in the closing strides by three-quarters of a length, closed at 34-1. Yes, the Doug O’Neill-trained son of Oxbow was 94-1 in the Juvenile, but that was his second race with blinkers on, and in his previous start, he outgamed the John Shirreffs-trained Parnelli to win by a neck going head and head the entire race, with Parnelli finishing 16 1/4 lengths ahead of the third horse. And this past weekend Parnelli broke his maiden by nearly six lengths at Del Mar stretching out to a mile and was one of the stars of the weekend.

In the Juvenile, Hot Rod Charlie changed tactics racing in seventh, eight lengths off the pace after going four-wide on the first turn. He made a huge early move passing the half-mile pole and was right alongside the leaders turning for home, still four-wide. He put the big favorite Jackie’s Warrior away and gained a narrow lead, but his move may have been just a bit early and he couldn’t hold off Essential Quality. His Thoro-Graph figure jumped from an “8 1/2” to a “3 3/4.” Hot Rod Charlie is a half-brother to last year’s champion sprinter and Met Mile winner Mitole, but he does have enough stamina to suggest he should be able to get classic distances, especially with his running style. His sire is a Preakness winner, and Oxbow is by BC Classic winner Awesome Again, out of a full-sister to two-time BC Classic winner Tiznow. At 34-1 he looks extremely appealing.

Another California horse getting no respect at all is Rombauer, who was second, beaten three-quarters of a length, in the American Pharoah after a poor start and then rallied from 10th, 13 lengths back, to finish a respectable fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after breaking from the post 13. Despite all that, he closed at 88-1 in the Future Wager.

My other potential steal is the 96-1 Pickin’ Time, a son of Travers winner Stay Thirsty, who was impressive winning the Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct by 2 1/4 lengths, earning a strong “4 1/2″ Thoro-Graph number. He has a good blend of speed and stamina, with more than enough stamina to stretch out to classic distances. As with Rombauer, that is a monstrous price for an accomplished graded stakes horse.

Finally, if I had to pick out one exciting horse who looked like a potential star at a decent price it would be the 27-1 shot Caddo River, a son of Hard Spun who has a ton of early speed, but can carry it a long way, as he showed when breaking his maiden by 9 1/4 lengths going a mile at Churchill Downs. This horse rattles off :44 and change opening half-miles under pressure and doesn’t stop, as he demonstrated when narrowly beaten by Godolphin’s Speaker’s Corner, who took a lot of late money in the Future Wager to get bet down from 47-1 to 29-1 on the final day. We’ll just have to see if Caddo River can keep stretching out, but he’ll have to harness some of that early speed.

Now, getting back to Saturday’s races, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes we saw the continued emergence of Keepmeinmind as a legitimate early Derby contender. Although Essential Quality was the star of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, what really caught my eye was the powerful move on the turn by Keepmeinmind, a maiden who was wearing blinkers for the first time. He was able to sustain his run to finish a fast-closing third and then proved that performance was no fluke when he again exploded from last, circled the field six-wide, and powered home with a final sixteenth in about :06 1/5 to run down a stubborn Smiley Sobotka to win by a half length. I thought after that race he would take a lot of late money in the Future Wager, but still closed at an enticing 19-1. What I love about this horse is his ability to accelerate on the turn, make up a lot of ground quickly, and then sustain his run a long way.

Smiley Sobotka, trained by Dale Romans, has been improving with each start and is bred to run all day with stamina all through his pedigree. He was under pressure the whole way, put the speed away and opened a clear lead in the stretch only to get caught in the final strides by Keepmeinmind.

Of the maiden and allowance races, the performance that stood out in addition to Mandaloun was the aforementioned maiden romp by Parnelli going a mile at Del Mar. By Quality Road, his dam is by Bernardini and his second dam is by Not For Love, the broodmare sire of California Chrome. Considering what Hot Rod Charlie has gone on to do after beating him by a neck, there is little doubt that this colt, with his steady improvement, his pedigree, and trained by John Shirreffs, is a serious horse to watch.

Getting back to Churchill Downs, you had to be impressed with Leblon’s performance in a mile and an eighth maiden race, in which he made a long sustained run, circled seven-wide, and outclosed the promising Shadwell colt Saqeel to win by a neck. Also keep an eye on third-place finisher Scarlet Fusion, who was equipped with blinkers after two disappointing efforts. He fought for the lead the whole way and hung tough in the stretch, fighting back in the closing yards to be beaten a length. Keep an eye on all three of these colts.

If you’re looking for a buried treasure on the Churchill card, watch out next time for Boldish, one of only two first-time starters in a mile and a sixteenth maiden race. The son of Dialed In, sent off at 62-1, was bumped at the start, dropped back to 10th, and then launched a powerful run circling seven-wide at the top of the stretch. He continued to close strongly, finishing fourth despite racing a bit greenly in the stretch, running with his head cocked to the outside. For all you Secretariat fans, this colt has Big Red in his pedigree four times and he has the much coveted Rasmussen Factor (RF), being inbred top and bottom to Weekend Surprise through A.P. Indy and Weekend in Seattle. His trainer, Joe Sharp, sent out another promising colt in Twilight Blue, who ran a strong second to Mandaloun.

In the other seven-furlong maiden race, Runhappy had a good winner in Runway Magic, who pulled away from 3-2 favorite Outasite to win by 3 3/4 lengths. And finally, in a mile and a sixteenth allowance race, the even-money favorite Scarred, who closed at 49-1 in the Future Wager, was run down late by the steadily improving Hidden Stash, a well-bred son of Constitution, trained by Vickie Oliver. He won despite not changing leads, so he will have to work on that, but he no doubt is immensely talented.

If this column raised your Derby fever a degree or two, be prepared for it to skyrocket in six or seven weeks when the Derby Rankings, formerly known as Derby Dozen, begins. Who will be the first to get the coveted No. 1 ranking? See you then and tell your friends. ~ SH

 

Afleet Alex’s Really Big Shoe

Monday, November 23rd, 2020

Pardon the Ed Sullivan reference in the headline, but this column is about the compelling story of Afleet Alex and the show he put on in the Preakness, and about one of the shoes he wore in that amazing performance that is currently up for auction~ Steve Haskin

Afleet Alex’s Really Big Shoe

By Steve Haskin

There are many poignant moments in Thoroughbred racing, but some linger longer than others, as if you can still see them in the mind’s eye. In 2005, the morning after the Preakness Stakes, jockey Jeremy Rose sat on a bench just outside the grassy area adjacent to the stakes barn. Several yards away, Afleet Alex was grazing, seemingly relaxed and content without a care in the world following the second jewel in the 2005 Triple Crown, in which he turned in one of the most remarkable athletic performances ever witnessed.

Alex’s groom then brought him closer to the fence where Rose was sitting, talking to some people. The colt leaned forward slightly and laid his head on the rider’s shoulder, perhaps looking for a handout. Rose, his eyes still focused straight ahead, reached up and gently stroked the side of Alex’s head and then fed him a mint. My first thought was that gratitude comes in many forms, as does the bond between humans and horses. The day before, both horse and rider had stared into the abyss and had somehow pulled each other out.

I can remember Rose’s prophetic words the days before The Preakness: “This horse will run over broken glass if I ask him to.”

I couldn’t help but relive the “incident” and write about it once again, and tell the complete story of Afleet Alex, after seeing one of the items that is currently being auctioned off at Lelands by the estate of the late memorabilia collector Julie Albright. That item is a shoe worn by Afleet Alex in the Preakness. To me that is no ordinary shoe. I can only think of it as one of the shoes whose imprint can still be seen in its own way embedded deep in the sandy loam of Pimlico Racetrack. Yes, it is a romanticized way of looking at it, but in my often romantic way of viewing Thoroughbred racing I see a shoe that helped lift Afleet Alex up off the ground and into racing lore.

Most of us know the story and have vivid recollections of that unforgettable moment that even today seems frozen in time.

Afleet Alex, racing far back in 10th, had made a huge move on the turn to quickly close in on the leaders and was about to collar the front-running Withers Stakes winner Scrappy T. at the head of the stretch when jockey Ramon Dominguez went to a roundhouse left-handed whip on Scrappy T., causing the colt to veer sharply to his right directly into the path of Afleet Alex.

It was as if everyone could see it coming and held their breath, anticipating the catastrophe that would ensue if Afleet Alex fell with 12 horses barreling down on him at 30 miles an hour and only a split second to avoid him.

But let’s freeze this image for now and go back to the beginning of this amazing story to see how it all unfolded.

Afleet Alex’s dam, Maggy Hawk, a daughter of Hawkster, was unable to produce milk and therefore could not provide her foal with colostrum, the antibody-rich fluid that helps prevent disease outside the womb. Because a foal has only a 10% chance of surviving without colostrum, a nurse mare had to be found for the son of Northern Afleet. During the 12 days it took to obtain one, the colt’s breeder John Silvertand’s then 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, fed the foal milk every day out of a Coors Lite bottle. A photo of Lauren feeding Alex eventually made its way onto the colt’s website and into other publications.

Silvertand eventually lost the horse in a coin toss to John Devers following a foal-sharing agreement. Devers then sold the colt privately to Joseph Allen for $150,000. When young Alex was being broken and ready to be put in training, the same advisers who told Allen to buy him told him to get rid of him. By now, he was considered to be an ugly duckling with little promise and not much pedigree. So, Allen consigned him to the Fasig-Tipton Timonium sale as a 2-year-old.

Enter Chuck Zacney, who soon would become a major part of the story. Zacney had met trainer Tim Ritchey through his brother and one of his best friends. Zacney had followed Ritchey’s career and his background as an equestrian rider who nearly made the U.S. Olympic team and often bet on Ritchey’s horses. He called him and asked if he would buy a horse for him and the new partnership he was forming (called Cash is King Stable), whose members were from the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley area.

Ritchey had a full stable at the time and wasn’t taking on any new clients, but he liked Zacney and hit it off with him, so he agreed to look for a horse for him. That was in April 2004. One month later, Ritchey attended the Timonium sale with the intention of buying two horses. Ritchey picked out seven or eight colts he liked, one of whom was a son of Northern Afleet out of Maggy Hawk, consigned as agent by Robert Scanlon.

Ritchey found the colt to be extremely athletic, intelligent, and laid-back. He loved the way he walked and moved. There were other horses outside at the same time and they were leaping in the air and rearing and striking, and this colt just stood there as calm as can be. That really impressed Ritchey, so he had the vet look at his X-rays and do all the vet work, and the colt passed with flying colors.

Ritchey was willing to go up to $125,000, but there was only one other person, five seats away, bidding against him. The bidding crawled in $5,000 increments until Ritchey got him for $75,000, half of what he had originally sold for. Cash is King Stable had its first horse.

Afleet Alex turned into one of the top 2-year-olds in the country, winning the Sanford Stakes by 5 ¼ lengths and scoring an eventful victory in the Hopeful Stakes after ducking out badly in the stretch, but still somehow rallying to get up in the final strides, winning by a half-length. That was followed by close second-place finishes in the Champagne and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

He began his 3-year-old campaign by displaying his speed and versatility, winning the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes at Oaklawn in a swift 1:09 2/5. A severe lung infection suffered in a sixth-place finish in Rebel Stakes appeared to compromise his chances of making the Arkansas Derby, but he bounced back to romp in Oaklawn’s premier event by eight lengths, making him one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.

Many blamed Rose for his third-place finish at Churchill Downs, beaten one length by 50-1 longshot Giacomo, by pushing him too hard in the stretch of the of the Arkansas Derby when he clearly had the race won. But what no one knew was that Alex had come out of the Kentucky Derby with another lung infection, this one minor. It was never disclosed because Ritchey and Zacney did not want to use that same excuse again. The infection cleared quickly and Alex bounced back and was 100% healthy for the Preakness, just as he was for the Arkansas Derby.

That brings us back to the incident that turned Afleet Alex into a hero. You could sense something ominous was about to happen as Scrappy T. ducked out in front of Alex. It was as if you were watching a car blow its right front tire at the Indy 500 and spinning perilously out of control in front of oncoming traffic.

I was near the winner’s circle watching on the big screen, videotaping the race for immediate use afterward in writing my recap for the Blood-Horse. All you could hear playing it back was me yelling, “Holy S—t!” when the frightening occurred.

Afleet Alex clipped the heels of Scrappy T. and stumbled so badly while going at full speed he went down to his knees with his head actually hitting the track, kicking up dirt. Rose saw the ground coming up quickly and prepared for the worst. He pulled back on the reins while reaching for a hunk of the colt’s mane and held on for dear life. Somehow, Alex was able to miraculously pick himself up off the ground, gather himself, and change leads as if nothing had happened. He then calmly drew off with fluid strides to score a resounding 4 3/4-length victory, as a stunned crowd watched in disbelief.

It all happened so quickly, yet the horrific image of Afleet Alex nearly falling will forever be seen in my mind in slow motion, as it was often shown that night and the following day on local and national news and sports telecasts around the country to increase its impact. If depicted in a movie or a documentary for effect, the incident would be preceded with only the loud rhythmic cadence of a beating heart as a warning of the near-carnage that was about to ensue. It was only the incredible athleticism of Afleet Alex that prevented one of the worst tragedies in racing history. Watching it now, even 15 years later, brings a feeling a dread and uneasiness.

But this was not the only event that defined Afleet Alex’s career. There are so many human interest stories associated with the colt, the main one being his connection to Alex’s Lemonade Stand. Alex’s majority owner Chuck Zacney, who had named Afleet Alex after his son, heard about Alex Scott, a young girl diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of childhood cancer. Alex had decided to open a lemonade stand in her front yard in order to raise money for cancer research. Word spread around the globe and in no time donations reached more than $2 million.

When Zacney learned of the lemonade stand fund-raising efforts, he naturally thought of Afleet Alex, his son Alex, and two of the other partners’ children, named Alex and Alexandra. He pledged $5,000 to the fund, and decided to donate a portion of Afleet Alex’s winnings. In August of 2004 when Afleet Alex was a 2-year-old, Alex Scott lost her battle with cancer at age 8, but her lemonade stand lived on. It collected $11,000 at the Kentucky Derby and $17,000 at the Preakness. All of Afleet Alex’s merchandising material was emblazoned with a lemon, signifying its support of the fund, and a portion of the proceeds continued to be donated to Alex’s Lemonade Stand.

Following the Preakness, Rose couldn’t help but think there may have been outside forces that helped him and Afleet Alex avoid disaster, “I think my heart stopped,” he said. “I have no idea how I stayed on. The only reason I did was either Alex somehow just sprung back up or little Alex Scott kept me on. I was basically hanging on in fear.”

Another who felt that divine forces were at work was Zacney’s wife, Carol. For her, it didn’t sink in until she was able to watch the replay while heading back to the stakes barn. Even with the happy ending, she dreaded what was to come. When she saw Alex almost go down on the TV monitor, she clasped her hands in front of her mouth in shock. “Oh, my God; my baby!” she shouted, as tears quickly welled up with the realization of what might have happened to the horse she considered her pet and the jockey who calls her “mom.”

“My big fear is that something is going to happen, and I always have nightmares about it,” she said. “My mom died 20 years ago, and she was a very superstitious Irish lady, and now she’s leaving that legacy behind. I always ask her to ride with Alex and Jeremy. And after seeing what almost happened, I have to believe she was there with him today, because that was a miracle.”

I will never forget the scene following the Preakness. With all the connections of Afleet Alex being interviewed in an infield tent behind the winner’s circle, a rainbow appeared as if to give the moment an ethereal effect. One of those outside the tent to witness it was breeder John Silvertand.

More than two years earlier, Silvertand was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a couple of months to live. As Afleet Alex’s career progressed, Silvertand decided to discontinue chemotherapy and leave it “in God’s hands,” as he put it, in order to fully enjoy the Preakness experience.

As the colt’s fame grew, so did the story of Lauren feeding the foal colostrum in a beer bottle. Before the Kentucky Derby, Silvertand and his wife, Carolyn, were contacted by Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn and First Lady Dema Guinn, who said they were starting a cancer fund campaign and wanted to use the Silvertands’ photo of Lauren to help bolster it.

Silvertand stood, outside the tent away from all the excitement, looked at the rainbow and savored the moment. “I’ve got the shakes,” he said. “The way he picked himself up and came back on was just fabulous.”

Silvertand had traveled to Baltimore the day before the Preakness by himself from his home in Lake Worth, Florida. Although he had been feeling ill and was seriously thinking about staying home, he decided he had to be there for the race. This is what he had stayed alive to witness.

His CEA (cancer screening) counts had been going down, but they had started to go back up again. So he was about to go for a series of tests the week after the Preakness to see if the cancer had returned.

“But whatever happens,” he said,“ I didn’t expect to be here this long, so it’s all been wonderful for me. I try to plan things around Alex to keep me going. Right now, I’m planning on being at the Belmont, then the Travers in beautiful Saratoga, and the Breeders’ Cup. I can see it all in my mind. I don’t notice my pain because of all the excitement that’s going on. Maybe when everything quiets down tonight I won’t feel as good as everyone else, but I’m still going to feel pretty good.

“This has been so much more than just a horse story. You have Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which has been benefiting from all the publicity, and has gotten a great many people interested in horse racing. There are so many wonderful things in this world we will never get to see, and I’m just so glad to be here.”

Sadly, Silvertand, like little Alex Scott, would lose his battle with cancer on Jan. 7, 2007 at age 62.

Even with a jaw-dropping Preakness victory under his belt, Afleet Alex still had to prove himself one more time in the Belmont Stakes. Once again, he showed he was far from your typical equine star, especially continuing with his unique regimen of training twice a day; once early, usually about 5:30, for a jog and then returning to the track around 8:30 for a stiff gallop. One sweltering morning the week of the Belmont, temperatures reached into the 90s by 8:30, and the humidity was so bad people’s clothes clung to their body like wetsuits.

Afleet Alex, as was his custom, had already been out for his customary jog around the Belmont oval, and was now back for his usual second tour of the track, this time for a strong open gallop. Rival trainers could only shake their heads at Ritchey’s unorthodox two-a-day training method.

To bring him out twice to train on such a hot, humid morning made no sense to them. And Alex was not exactly a robust horse who would take your breath away. Even after maturing into a top-class colt, there were some who still saw that ugly duckling.

When I covered the 2005 Kentucky Derby, the first morning at Churchill Downs I was with Wayne Lukas outside his barn. When a nondescript-looking horse walked by wearing a Derby saddlecloth with the name Afleet Alex on it, Lukas commented, “That little muskrat is Afleet Alex?” He couldn’t believe that was the same horse who had just romped by eight lengths in the Arkansas Derby.

One of the trainers who at first had second-guessed Alex and Ritchey’s methods was Bobby Frankel. As Frankel watched the morning activity from the trainer’s stand by the gap, Afleet Alex stepped onto the track, accompanied by Ritchey on the pony. As usual, it was Alex’s second visit to the track that morning, and he proceeded to turn in his typical strong mile and a half open gallop.

“Boy, he looks good,” Frankel said, as Afleet Alex motored by at a powerful clip. Frankel was becoming more of a fan of Afleet Alex by the day, amazed at what the colt had been able to accomplish with such a rigorous twice-a-day training regimen. But Ritchey, a former event rider, was a big believer in building up a horse’s stamina.

Frankel, extremely impressed with the gallop he had just seen, was heading back down the stairs of the trainer’s stand when he turned around and noticed a horse flying past us. He couldn’t believe it. It was Afleet Alex coming around a second time…unheard of over Belmont Park’s mile and a half oval. He was having a three-mile open gallop, and in stifling heat, and was actually stronger the second time around.

Frankel could only shake his head in disbelief. When Alex and Ritchey came off the track, Alex’s veins were protruding outside his body and looked like a relief road map of connecting lines. Ritchey, his shirt soaked with sweat, looked down and said with a smirk on his face, “Do you think he’s fit?”

But deep down, even Ritchey didn’t know what to make of this gallop and questioned in private whether he had done too much with the colt, pushing him so far in such intense heat and humidity.

Frankel, on the other hand, was now totally convinced this horse was something special.

“You know what?” he said. “I was thinking, he just may be that good. Maybe he is a Seattle Slew or an Affirmed or one of those kinds. Looking how fast he’s run on his Sheet numbers, the fact that he’s still around and doing what he’s doing is pretty amazing.”

Afleet Alex would romp again in the Belmont Stakes, crushing his field by seven lengths. He was now on the verge of superstardom, heading to the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, as Silvertand had hoped.

But superstardom is often elusive, as I learned firsthand one afternoon in late July on opening day at Saratoga. I drove to the New Jersey Equine Clinic to pick up my daughter Mandy, who was pre-vet at Rutgers University at the time and working summers at the clinic as a surgical technician, which was a fancy way of saying she cleaned the blood off the walls following surgery.

As I pulled up to the front door, I was surprised to see Tim Ritchey get out of his car. What was he doing here on opening day at Saratoga? He was just as surprised to see me and told me he didn’t have time to talk, but would be out in a few minutes. Mandy came out, but I never did see Tim. When I asked Mandy if she knew why Tim Ritchey was there, she said, “You know I can’t say anything about that.” I jokingly replied, “I understand that and you don’t have to tell me anything…unless of course it has to do with Afleet Alex.”

Well, it did, as I found out when I got home and received a phone call telling me that Alex had suffered a hairline condylar fracture of the left cannon bone and would not run in the Haskell Invitational. Because of the secrecy surrounding the injury, the identification marker on the colt’s stall read simply “Big Al.” Mandy had kept the secret well.

Following the surgery I spoke to surgeon Patty Hogan, who was amazed at the strength and density of Afleet Alex’s bone and what a throwback he was to the tough, sound horses of the past. Unfortunately, such an injury can happen to even the soundest of horses.

“When I drilled into his bone, it was unusually hard,” she said. “I asked our head surgery technician, ‘Is this a new drill bit or a dull one?’ “When I’m drilling the bone, I usually have to take the bit out twice to let it cool off. But in Alex’s case I had to take it out five times. That’s how hard his bone is.”

Perhaps it was those strong bones that helped lift him off the ground at Pimlico when it looked for sure as if he were headed for disaster, stumbling so badly while running at full speed coming out of a turn.

Afleet Alex never did make it back to the races and was retired later that year. John Silvertand never saw his dream fulfilled in the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, but at least he saw Alex go out a winner.

Now, 15 years later, it has taken a single horseshoe from the Preakness for all the memories to come flooding back. Memories of a special Triple Crown; memories of a special group of people and their stories, which helped write one of the great chapters in racing history; and most of all, memories of a special horse, the likes of which I know I will never see again.

Click Here to View Lelands Auction Racing Items 

Vox Populi Award Reaching New Heights

Saturday, November 14th, 2020

With the votes already pouring in, this is your opportunity to cast your vote for the Secretariat Vox Populi Award. But be prepared, this year’s finalists may be the strongest and deeper ever. ~ Steve Haskin

Vox Populi Award Reaching New Heights

By Steve Haskin

 

Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “Popular! In America, what else matters?”

It’s as if Penny Chenery read that quote when she decided to inaugurate the Secretariat Vox Populi Award in 2010, which reflects the “Voice of the People.” It was Chenery’s intention to “recognize the racehorse whose popularity and racing excellence best resounded with the public and gained recognition for the sport during the past year.”

So, as Joyce Carol Oates said in not so many words, you can have your Eclipse Awards and whatever other awards there are for productivity, but if you can be the most popular; if you can capture the hearts of the people, what else matters?

That is why a California-bred named California Chrome, who rose from humble beginnings to become a two-time Horse of the Year and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, will be remembered as much for his avid fan base that stretched from coast to coast, and even to England and Dubai.

That is why a horse named Paynter, who battled back from an illness that nearly killed him to compete at the highest level, was able to develop a loyal legion of fans who were touched by the courage he displayed.

That is why a $6,250 claim named Rapid Redux, who went on to win a record 22 consecutive races, was able to reach out to fans all over the country, despite racing at small tracks such as Mountaineer, Charles Town. Timonium, Thistledown, and Penn National.

That is why a tough, resilient horse named Ben’s Cat, who competed on a small stage, but still managed to win 26 stakes, including one stakes (the Mister Diz) six times, was able to become a hero in the Mid-Atlantic States.

That is why a foal, later named Mucho Macho Man, who was believed to have been born dead only to suddenly leap up off the ground and dash across the field, was able to keep running until he had captured America’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

That is why a national hero in Australia named Winx, who won 33 races in a row, was able to capture the imagination of racing fans 10,000 miles away, many of whom stayed up until 1 a.m. to watch her race.

That is why the winners of the Vox Populi Award, like those mentioned above, will be remembered as much, if not more, than many of our champions.

Now, in 2020, we have an opportunity to add another horse worthy enough to join the list of previous Vox Populi Award winners, which also includes two of the greatest horses of the past decade, Zenyatta and American Pharoah, who were able to build two of the largest fan bases in the history of the sport.

This is a deep and contentious group, any one of whom would be worthy of the award, which is a stunning hand patinated solid bronze image of Secretariat. With voting, previously done through Secretariat.com, now extended to the popular America’s Best Racing website, as it was in 2019, this year’s voting with its strong contenders promises to have a record turnout.

Listed in alphabetical order, the finalists are:

AUTHENTIC – His inclusion as a finalist is not based solely on his victories in the Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Haskell Invitational, which earned him a $1 million bonus for winning those three races, it is the joy and excitement he brought to 5,314 racing fans who were able to purchase a micro share in the colt through MyRacehorse.com for only $206, enabling them to rejoice in his victories and share in his stud value, and to say that they owned part of a Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. This no doubt will popularize this new concept of horse ownership and get more people involved in the sport who will now strive to duplicate the thrills experienced by the numerous common-folk owners of Authentic. Never before have racing fans been able to share in a racehorse of this caliber and on this large a scale. MyRacehorse and the thousands of future shareholders that come on board can thank Authentic for opening the door to such a magical experience.

MONOMOY GIRL – Here is a filly who could have easily been retired at the top of her game, going out a Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner and champion and a much sought after broodmare. Many horses would surely have been retired, but for her to return after being sidelined for 18 months, first with a serious case of colic, in which she lost a great deal of weight, and then a nagging hamstring injury, is a rarity in this sport and demonstrates the sportsmanship of her owners and the determination and resilience of the filly. And then to come back at age 5, go undefeated and win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff again to increase her lifetime earnings to over $4.4 million, and just a few days later sell for $9.5 million and amazingly kept in training for a 6-year-old campaign is a feel-good story that makes Monomoy Girl a poster child for what Thoroughbred racing stands for and why it is embraced with such affection and fervor by the public.

SWISS SKYDIVER – Don’t let Swiss Skydiver’s bad stumble at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and her subsequent sixth-place finish alter your opinion of her even in the slightest, especially after seeing how badly she grabbed herself and the unsightly wound with which she ran that required antibiotics and forced her to sidelines for the remainder of the year. It is what she accomplished before that race and her reputation as a throwback to a different era that made her one of the most popular horses in recent years. Purchased for a bargain price of $35,000, Swiss Skydiver in 2020 won stakes in Florida, Arkansas, California, New York, and Maryland and finished second in Louisiana and Kentucky. In her first nine starts of the year she competed at nine different racetracks from coast to coast, north to south, and defeated Kentucky Derby winner and eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Authentic in the Preakness Stakes in one of the gutsiest performances in years. To demonstrate her toughness and resilience, she competed in stakes races in January, February, March, May, June, July, August, September, October, and November, during which she faced 22 male horses and finished ahead of 21 of them.

TIZ THE LAW – If you believe Yogi Berra’s often used phrase, “It was déjà vu all over again,” then you surely will be amazed at how history in many ways repeated itself for Sackatoga Stable, which began nearly 20 years ago with a group of high school friends from tiny Sackets Harbor, New York chipping in to buy a racehorse, which led to an incredible journey with the popular Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide. Now, 17 years later, Sackatoga Stable, made up mostly of new faces, has returned with another New York-bred named Tiz the Law, who, under the care of Funny Cide’s trainer, 82-year-old Barclay Tagg, developed a large fan base of his own with his victories in the Grade 1 Champagne, Florida Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Travers. The Kentucky Derby, however, eluded him, coming in September this year instead of May when he had towered over his fellow 3-year-olds. He still managed to finish second at Churchill Downs to Authentic, who had caught up to him by then. But until that point, it was Tiz the Law who ruled the 3-year-old division and brought the magic of Funny Cide and Sackatoga Stable back to public consciousness, singlehandedly keeping this year’s sophomores in the national headlines.

WHITMORE – If you want an equine version of perseverance, look no further than the 7-year-old warrior Whitmore, who captured this year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a resounding 3 1/4 lengths in his fourth attempt, having finished third in 2019 and second in 2018. Looking back on his career, during the seven-month layoff between his 19th-place finish in the 2016 Kentucky Derby and his next start, a victory in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race at Aqueduct, Whitmore was transformed into a top-class sprinter. Four years later he has amassed earnings of $4.2 million while racing at 10 different tracks from New York to California, finished first or second in 22 stakes, and at an age when most horses are long retired he finally has his Breeders’ Cup victory, which brought a wave of emotion from racing fans and countless tears from his co-owner Robert La Penta. In his 30 starts since that initial sprint race at Aqueduct, Whitmore has finished on the board in 25 of them, while racing against the fastest horses in the country. It was La Penta who summed him up best after this year’s Breeders’ Cup when said, “What a legend; what a horse.”

Good luck making your selection from this group.

I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020

With the Breeders’ Cup over and the prospect of seeing a Monomoy Girl – Swiss Skydiver rivalry next year, it is time to take a look at the changing face of racing and the continuing popularity of females, whom we have come to know much more intimately than the males. ~ Steve Haskin

I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar

By Steve Haskin

 

Henny Youngman, the king of the one-liners, once said, “Do you know what it means to come home at night to a woman who’ll give you a little love, a little affection, a little tenderness? It means you’re in the wrong house.”

Well, over the past decade in the sport they once called the Sport of Kings, the so-called kings have been in the wrong house because they ain’t gettin’ any love from the gals. The female of the species no longer are pushovers, just sitting around the house while their male counterparts get almost all the glory and accolades. Now, because Thoroughbred owners have preferred to whisk their colts off to stud at age 3 for instant financial gains, it has been the females who have risen in popularity and in fact have taken over the hearts of the racing fans.

As the title song, sung by Helen Reddy, continues, “In numbers too big to ignore.”

Yes, the numbers are increasing and you can clearly see that rise in female popularity. Over the past decade, males have come and gone so quickly it is difficult to embrace them. Like Glinda, the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, they appear briefly, perform their magic and sing the song, “Try to Touch as Star,” and then disappear as quickly as they came. During the past 10 years, the only two male horses who have truly captured the heart are American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, and California Chrome, who was an anomaly by racing at the highest level until the age of 6. Two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, a miler on grass, also had a following, racing until the age of 6, but not on the scale of American Pharoah and California Chrome.

Sure we have had some other exciting colts over the past decade, but Triple Crown winner Justify was gone shortly after with only six career starts, Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Authentic was shipped off to stud after only eight career starts, and Arrogate’s lofty reputation was based solely on a spectacular five-race winning streak before he lost his form.

But, here in America, as well as abroad, it has been the fillies who have provided longevity and stability, and have often proven successful against the boys, while racing from ages 4 to 7.

The list in North America since 2009 is a Who’s Who of major stars, starting with Hall of Famers Zenyatta, who raced to the age of 6, and Rachel Alexandra, who raced through the age of 4, and continuing with the likes of Starship Jubilee (age 7), Beholder (age 6), Groupie Doll (age 6), Lady Eli, Tepin, Royal Delta, Havre de Grace and Midnight Bisou (age 5), Monomoy Girl (who is scheduled to race next year at age 6), Songbird and Blind Luck (age 4), and Swiss Skydiver (who is scheduled to race next year at age 4 after competing at nine different racetracks around the country in 2020 and outdueling Authentic in the Preakness).

Of these 14 fillies and mares, 10 raced against the boys, defeating them in the Preakness twice, Woodward twice, Woodbine Mile twice, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pacific Classic, Haskell Invitational, Breeders’ Cup Mile, and Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot, with Groupie Doll beaten a nose in the Cigar Mile and Midnight Bisou finishing a close second to Maximum Security in the $20 million Saudi Cup. Three of the fillies (Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and Havre de Grace) were named Horse of the Year. A mention must also be made of Rags to Riches, who beat Hall of Famer and two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in the 2007 Belmont Stakes before an injury ended her career. Even a New Mexico-bred filly named Peppers Pride, racing exclusively in New Mexico, established a large fan base when she captured all 19 of her career starts.

In my 50-plus years in racing I have never heard such deafening noise as the roar that rocked the grandstands of Santa Anita and Saratoga following the victories of Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward. And that includes the resounding cheers following the Belmont Stakes victories of American Pharoah and Secretariat. Both were ear-piercing in their own right and shook the grandstand in much the same manner, but not for such a sustained period of time as the aftermath of Zenyatta’s and Rachel’s races, in which the cheers kept building to a thunderous crescendo.

As a member of the Hall of the Fame Nominating Committee, I can honestly say that if the criteria to get on the ballot remains as it’s been, specifically having a sufficient number of career starts, and if the voters continue to use longevity and accomplishments and popularity as their barometer, then it is safe to say there will be more fillies inducted than colts over the next several years.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Enable, Treve, Goldikova, and Magical raced against males a total of 54 times, winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe four times, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes three times, Breeders’ Cup Mile three times, Irish Champion Stakes twice, Tattersalls Gold Cup twice, Eclipse Stakes, Champion Stakes, Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, Prix du Moulin, Prix Jacques le Marois, Prix de la Foret, and Queen Anne Stakes.

And, of course, in Australia you had two of the most remarkable fillies of all time in Winx, winner of 33 consecutive races and a four-time winner of the prestigious Cox Plate, and Black Caviar, undefeated winner of 25 races and a Group 1 winner at Royal Ascot. These two fillies alone won an amazing 21 championships, including seven Horse of the Year titles. Winx bridged the huge gap between racing in Australia and North America by winning the ever-growing Vox Populi Award, founded in the U.S. by Penny Chenery, which goes to the most popular horse who did the most for racing.

It is understandable why fillies as a whole have endeared themselves to the public over the past decade more than the colts have. The public gets to know them and can embrace them and depend on them much more than they can the colts who come and go so quickly they are but a brief memory as racehorses.

Through most of the 20th century, males were far more popular than females because they stayed in training until the ages of 4, 5, and 6, while you had the great geldings like Roseben, Exterminator, Kelso, Forego, and John Henry remain in training until the ages of 7, 8, and 9. Because of that, they overshadowed fillies from the early to mid 20th century like Pan Zareta, Princess Doreen, Gallorette, and Bewitch who raced anywhere from 75 to well over 100 times and made a living racing against the boys. Bewitch was the exception having raced “only” 55 times and “only” 24 times against males.

Because Spendthrift Farm, who wasted no time in retiring their Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Authentic after only eight career starts, was bold enough to run Beholder in the $1 million Pacific Classic, in which she blew away the boys with one of the most explosive moves seen in years, and had her pegged to take on American Pharoah and the other classy males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic before a fever derailed their plans, it is assumed they are going to race the recently acquired Monomoy Girl against males next year. That, along with her inspiring comeback this year after an 18-month layoff, having already secured her place in history, will make Monomoy Girl one of the most popular females in years.

Was this an act of pure sportsmanship, as opposed to their early retirement of Authentic, or these days is it simply more financially beneficial to keep a female in training with the possibility of earning millions of dollars in rich races like the Breeders’ Cup, Pacific Classic, Dubai World Cup, Pegasus World Cup, and Saudi Cup? That is a question only Spendthrift owner, 87-year-old B. Wayne Hughes, can answer. It could very well be the former or a combination of both. Hughes has always come across as a sportsman. Either way, it is the filly who will develop a huge following and one day find her place in the Hall of Fame.

So welcome to horse racing in the 21st century, the era of the females. Or as a twist on the title of the cult film of the 1960s, Where the Girls Are.

The most popular sign during the reign of Rachel Alexandra was “Runs Like a Girl.” The key words there are “Girl” and “Run.” Thoroughbreds are born to run. They love to run. It just so happens that most of them who do the running now are girls.

 

 

 

 

The Horse That Won’t Leave Me Alone

Sunday, November 8th, 2020

Here are my thoughts, afterthoughts, and somewhat whimsical thoughts of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, which, as usual, had plenty of storylines, both good and bad. ~ Steve Haskin

The Horse That Won’t Leave Me Alone

By Steve Haskin

 

After the Kentucky Derby I wrote a column on how I, or dare I say my wife, blew an opportunity to own a micro share in Authentic through one of the colt’s co-owners MyRacehorse.com. But micro or not, sometimes a strand a horse’s tail is worth more than a strand of golden pearls.

But that’s OK, there are no regrets, especially since I have said all year that Authentic didn’t fit the profile of a Derby winner. Then he got beat by a filly in the Preakness and all seemed normal once again. He wouldn’t have the audacity to rebound from that and beat the best older horses in the country as well as Tiz the Law once again under far better conditions for the runaway Travers winner.

But I noticed something in the Preakness. Authentic’s Thoro-Graph figure was a sensational negative-3 ¼, which was a great deal faster than the winner. That figure also made him the fastest horse going into the Breeders’ Cup Classic, faster even than his illustrious older stablemates Improbable and Maximum Security.

We witnessed in the Derby and Preakness just how far Authentic had progressed mentally from his races in the spring. That progression manifested itself in his gutsy performances. Whether he won or lost he had become a fighter, a mentally tough pro who no longer believed in waving a white flag as he did in the Santa Anita Derby when he let Honor A.P. sweep by him without a fight.

So that gave him credibility in the Classic, but would they let him dash out to a clear lead and control the pace as he did in the Derby and the way he wants to run? Certainly Maximum Security wouldn’t allow it, nor would Global Campaign. And you knew for certain that Derby runner-up Tiz the Law would be tracking him like a bloodhound chasing a drag. He was not going to let the scent fade this time. And how about Higher Power bringing his California speed east well before the Breeders’ Cup and turning in five spectacular works at Keeneland?

But then something happened. Keeneland, or whoever was in charge of such things, decided, as some racetracks tend to do on big days, that track records equate to quality, and on Breeders’ Cup day the track had somehow turned into a paved highway. There were no fans in attendance, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t break track records all day. And break them they did. Six-furlong record…gone. Seven-furlong record…gone. One-mile record…gone.

And now came the big finale. When I covered the Classic for the Blood-Horse I usually had to write 3,000 to 3,500 words. In this space I can accomplish that with far fewer words. Authentic goes to the lead. The others decide to become merely spectators and are content to just watch his Big Ass Fanny get smaller and smaller. Just like on the old Keeneland conveyor belt, Authentic bounds away in isolated splendor as if in a morning workout. The result: the mile and a quarter record…gone. Speedway closed. Breeders’ Cup over. Horse of the Year decided. Story written. And to rub salt in the wound, he had the audacity to tack on a million-dollar bonus by winning the Haskell, Derby, and Classic.

It didn’t take long for my Facebook page to explode with comments about the track like: “Infuriating,” “a total farce,” “ridiculous,” “shame on them,” and to sum it up, someone resorted to Woody Allen’s classic line from the movie Bananas: “It was a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.” One veteran horsewoman wrote: “On Friday morning, standing on the apron, my first thought was ‘Well, I hope they put the cushion back on. It sounded like thunder out there.’”

This is not a knock on Authentic by any means. He has proven himself to be the fastest of the fast with a warrior’s attitude and the ability to outrun his speed-oriented pedigree.

Not owning a snippet of his flying mane is well behind me. I can appreciate the horse for what he is and what he has meant to the thousands of people who did cough up the $206 to be part of this magical adventure.

But now that the Classic is over I can finally rid myself of the spectre of this horse. My wife couldn’t care less because she isn’t the one who feels compelled to write about him. Well, actually neither do I if I don’t want to. We all know that the ownership, headed by Spendthrift Farm, is not going to resist the siren’s call of the breeding shed and all those big bucks the shareholders will be able to start raking in.

In fact, to show what a sport I am and how much I feel the racing fans deserve another year of Authentic to see what further growth there is, and to possibly allow him the chance to get inducted into the Hall of Fame, I dare, no doubledare, no doubledogdare, Spendthrift Farm and partners to keep him in training next year even at the expense of me having to endure his presence hanging over my head for another year. Either way I win. But I am thinking of the sport we know as horse RACING. The sport needs Authentic to race next year. So does Authentic’s legacy.

So I have thrown down the challenge. Let’s stop retiring our stars when they are still basically teenagers. Now, you may ask yourself, does he really want this horse to hang around another year and torment him or is he really serious about keeping him in training for the good of the sport?

Just remember, I grew up in this sport watching Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid remain in training at 4 and solidify their greatness. I know the joy and excitement of seeing a horse reach his full potential, just as the younger generation has seen the potential of Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify and other 3-year-olds go unfulfilled.

If Authentic leaves us after eight lifetime starts, racing will have chipped away another piece of its already eroding structure. As for me, I will miss seeing what he can accomplish next year with even more maturity and I will feel badly for all the deprived fans. But at least I won’t have to write about him anymore.

Oh, by the way, if anyone wants to sell their share at a profit, I can go up to $207.

The Rest of the Story

Robert La Penta wisely decided to stay home and watch the Breeders’ Cup on TV rather than cheer on his Sprint runner Whitmore and Mile runner Uni in person. As much as he wanted to be there, especially to say farewell to his beloved 7-year-old Whitmore, who was making his fourth attempt at the Sprint, he decided not to take any risks.

“I was seriously considering going,” La Penta said. “It’s not the same there with Covid, and I am high risk, being only 80 to 90 percent back from Legionnaires disease (that nearly killed him several years ago).”

By watching on TV, La Penta was able to see something that lifted his confidence level. As Whitmore was being loaded, he lashed back in full force with his hind legs and didn’t miss the assistant starter by that much.

“When I saw him kicking, I thought, ‘I’m good.’” La Penta said.

After Whitmore drew off to win the Sprint, capping off an amazing career and chalking one up for the oldtimers, La Penta could not hold back the tears. “I’ve been crying since he won,” he said. “What a legend. What a hero.”

And that is what racing needs more than anything – heroes.

Before the Breeders’ Cup, Jill Baffert, wife of trainer Bob Baffert, admitted the trying times the family have been going through, especially with the two positive drug tests from Gamine this year, both attributed to contamination.

“We’re just trying to stay down and avoid all incoming missiles,” she said. “Thank God for the horses… they are the bright spot in hard times.  We’ll get through it. I’m praying so hard for Gamine to win. That sweet little thing has so much going on around her. She’s such a love, so beautiful and kind. It crushes my soul; all of it.”

So, as if to show just what a sensational filly she is and to silence the doubters, she went out and crushed the fastest filly sprinters in the country to remain undefeated around one turn. Beautiful and kind, she has proven once again she is a freakishly fast filly who can run the proverbial hole in the wind.

And, of course, a salute to the great Monomoy Girl and all those who were willing and able to bring her back after 18 months, having already won a championship and an Breeders’ Cup race. It was so wonderful to see such a sporting gesture get rewarded. Now she can retire as one of the truly great ones.

What a shame that the amazing campaigns of Swiss Skydiver and Starlight Jubilee had to end so ignominiously, with the indefatigable Swiss Skydiver stumbling badly at the start of the Distaff and dropping back to the rear the field where she had no chance. She did put in a strong run along the rail, but could not sustain it, especially on such a speed-favoring track. And then you had the 7-year-old Canadian-based former claimer turned Horse of the Year Starship Jubilee, who was coming a Grade 1 victory over the boys in the Woodbine Mile, stumbling so badly at the start she threw her rider. A sad ending for both fillies.

And finally a shout out to the remarkable Irish-trained filly Magical, who once again finished second in the BC Turf. The 5-year-old mare concluded her career with 16 consecutive races against the boys, 14 of them Grade 1, and finishing in the money in 15 of them. She will be missed.

Make of the 2020 Breeders’ Cup what you want. It came at a tumultuous and trying time in America and, except for the racetrack, brought two days of excitement and sanity to racing fans.

OK, I’ll go up to $208 for that Authentic share.

11/9/20 Postscript:

Authentic retired — what took them so long?

There are two sounds I am hearing today:

“Ka-ching” — the sound of a cash register 

“Bang” — the sound of another door slamming in the face of racing, and the sound of the door of the Hall of Fame slamming in the face of another horse whisked off to stud at 3.

Photo by Eclipse Wire courtesy of Breeders’ Cup