Secretariat

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For Bernardini it was Jim Dandy to the Rescue

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021

Bernardini, who made nine shuttle trips to Australia, died at age 18 last week just as he was emerging as the hottest young broodmare sire in the country, having sired the dams of Maxfield, Catholic Boy, Serengeti Empress, Dunbar Road and a number other top-class runners. As a racehorse, he had to constantly “wow” people to remove himself from the shadow of Barbaro, which he accomplished with a series of spectacular victories, the most important, in my opinion, being the Jim Dandy Stakes, which catapulted him to the threshold of greatness. ~ Steve Haskin

For Berdnardini it was Jim Dandy to the Rescue

By Steve Haskin

One of the most bittersweet comments one can hear in Thoroughbred racing is “Imagine what he could have done at 4.” It is bittersweet because on one hand it is used only when he have seen something extraordinary at 3 and on the other it envisions new amazing feats left only to the imagination. We heard it with Secretariat and we heard it with American Pharoah.

In 2006 we heard it with Bernardini, but with an added twist. Unlike with Big Red and Pharoah, who defeated every top horse they faced and departed on a high note, Benardini left behind the taste of defeat and then not being given the opportunity to rectify it. His departure enabled his lone conqueror Invasor to bask in further glory that eventually led him to the Hall of Fame while Bernardini was left with mainly “what ifs.”

When one looks back at the whirlwind career of this gifted colt they naturally think of his brilliant victories in the grade 1 Preakness (by 5 ¾ lengths), Travers (by 7 ½ lengths), and Jockey Club Gold Cup (by 6 ¾ lengths). But his most impressive and important victory was actually the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes. Although his meteoric rise to stardom, winning the Withers Stakes by 3 ¾ lengths in 1:35 flat and the Preakness in a sharp 1:54 3/5 in only the third and fourth starts of his career, made people aware of this new sensation there was a shadow hanging over it by the name of Barbaro who was fighting for his life at New Bolton Medical Center after suffering at catastrophic injury shortly after the start of the Preakness.

As spectacular as Bernardini’s victory in the Preakness was, the rapidly growing legion of Barbaro fans and racing fans in general were far from convinced that he would have beaten their undefeated hero, who had just stunned the racing world with one of the most brilliant victories in the history of the Kentucky Derby, winning by 6 ½ lengths in a sharp 2:01 1/5.

Barbaro’s fight for life reached global proportions as the entire world waited for updates daily. From a personal standpoint, I was picked up at my home in New Jersey and driven to Manhattan to appear on ESPN’S popular morning show Cold Pizza to discuss Barbaro. While at the Preakness I went on National Public Radio (NPR) to provide perspective to their vast audience, most of whom were not familiar with Barbaro or horse racing, but were caught up in his struggle and his courage.

The longer Barbaro continued to fight gallantly to survive the larger the shadow he cast on Bernardini. Some felt the son of A.P. Indy’s victory at Pimlico was so impressive, visually and statistically, it would have taken a herculean performance by Barbaro to defeat him, but most felt either Barbaro would have repeated his Derby effort and that Bernardini merely took advantage of the situation or they simply were unsure what would have happened. In either case, the Preakness became more about Barbaro’s injury than Bernardini’s victory.

Trainer Tom Albertrani decided to bypass the Belmont Stakes and prepare Bernardini for a summer and fall campaign, targeting the Travers and then the big races against older horses

As for the possibility of dethroning Barbaro as the division leader, Albertrani said, “That definitely is a major goal, and we know it’s not going to be easy. If he wins the Jim Dandy and Travers and beats older horses I would hope he would get some consideration for champion 3-year-old and perhaps Horse of the Year, who knows?

“This horse has shown me that he is as talented as any horse I’ve seen. He stacks right up there with the best horses I’ve been around, like Cigar, Dubai Millennium, and Street Cry, and those kinds of horses. A horse like him doesn’t come around too often. I just think this is a special horse; I’ve been saying that all along.”

And I can attest to that. As Bernardini continued to go from strength to strength, I kept thinking back to a morning at Belmont Park the previous fall. It was Breeders’ Cup week, with the event being held in New York for what would prove to be the last time.

I was at the gap when Tom Albertrani came by on his pony. Tom was one of the most low-keyed and understated people I knew, so when, despite the number of promising stars in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he said to me, “The best 2-year-old in the country isn’t running in the race,” I was stunned. That comment was so out of character for him, and it was followed by a sly smirk on his face, as if he wanted the world to know who the best 2-year-old was, but felt compelled to keep it under wraps.

“You can’t say that and leave it at that. Who is he?” I replied. But Tom refused to budge, “I’m not saying because he hasn’t run yet.” What? Tom Albertrani has a horse who hasn’t run yet and he tells me he’s the best 2-year-old in the country? I kept after him for the next few months. Who was this mystery sensation of his and when will he be revealed? But all he kept telling me was, “You’ll know him when you see him run.”

When I was at Gulfstream Park the following winter with my wife, we stood on the grandstand steps and watched a colt trained by Tom work, and as he went by us he blew me away. What a stride! What action! What a physical presence! I turned to my wife and said, “Wow! that has to be the colt Tom told me about.” His name was Bernardini, owned by Darley Stable, and I knew right then he was special. Needless to say it was no surprise when he broke his maiden on March 4 by nearly eight lengths in 1:35 2/5 and then romped in the Withers Stakes.

Following his maiden victory, Albertrani, despite the presence of rising stars Barbaro, Brother Derek, and Lawyer Ron, said, “I told you back in the fall you haven’t seen the best one and I still mean that. One day you’ll get to write a story on this horse. He just has a presence about him. Everyone who’s ever had him said there’s something special about him. He’s got that look in his eye.”

Even with Bernardini having only three career starts and never having gone two turns I knew Barbaro would have to run another scorcher in the Preakness to beat him. The morning of the race Albertrani said to me, “We’re this close to telling the story,” holding his thumb and forefinger close together. “I feel very confident. I believe he’s going to peak today.”

Of course we’ll never know what would have happened at Pimlico. Despite his impressive victory, Bernardini, two months after the Preakness, was still a horse looking for recognition and overshadowed by Barbaro and his well-publicized battle. With the Jim Dandy Stakes approaching, this would be Bernardini’s chance to finally show the world he was something special and not just a horse who backed into his Preakness victory because of Barbaro’s misfortune. He would have the daunting task of turning the eyes of the racing world away from Barbaro and toward him, focusing now on the sport’s newest superstar. Despite the 10-week layoff, Bernardini did not have the luxury of simply winning the race, whether he was fully cranked for it or not. He needed to do something spectacular with the entire racing world watching.

On July 17, Bernardini struck his first blow by breezing five furlongs in a bullet :58 4/5, coming home his final quarter in :23 2/5 and galloping out six furlongs in 1:12 1/5. He followed that up with a strong maintenance breeze in 1:00 4/5 while in a common gallop.

The Jim Dandy would be far from a walk in the park with the presence of Todd Pletcher’s Peter Pan winner and Belmont Stakes third-place finisher Sunriver, the undefeated Minister’s Bid, the Nick Zito-trained Hemingway’s Key, third in the Preakness, and Cowdin Stakes runner-up Dr. Pleasure, all of whom would be getting eight pounds from Bernardini.

In addition, Bernardini would have to wow the racing world running on a heavy, sticky track that was turned sloppy by an afternoon deluge.

Javier Castelano sent the 1-2 Bernardini to the lead, stalked by Minister’s Bid, who chased him through fractions of :23.89, :47.36, and 1:11.33. Sunriver, who had been battling with Minister’s Bid for second, quickly dropped out of it, and when Edgar Prado began showing Minister’s Bid the whip and gave him a left-handed crack leaving the five-sixteenths pole, it was obvious the race was all but over. Castellano had barely moved on Bernardini. He looked over his left shoulder and then his right at the top of the stretch, while keeping his colt about four paths off the rail. Dr. Pleasure made what appeared to be a threatening move on the far outside, but when Castellano remained motionless on Bernardini and looked over his right shoulder again at the three-sixteenths pole, everyone knew it was just a matter of how many lengths he would win by.

We have seen many top-class horses win eased up in the final sixteenth, but I cannot recall a horse being eased up the entire length of the stretch. After one little flick of his wrist as soon as he turned for home, Castellano’s hands never moved an inch the rest of the way. It was truly a sight to behold.

Despite never coming out of a gallop, Bernardini drew off with every stride and just coasted home the easiest of winners, covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.50 over the bog-like track. Not only was this as dominant a performance as anyone had seen in years, Bernardini’s action and stride were so flawless it was as if his feet barely touched the ground. It was pure poetry watching him glide over the ground.

So effortless was his performance, racecaller Tom Durkin seemed stunned when he bellowed, “Javier Castellano like a statue in the stirrups as they glide past the eighth pole with a five-length lead. An effortless performance by Bernardini. Look at this! He didn’t raise a sweat and it’s 90 degrees.”

The following morning, noted veterinarian Mark Cheney went over to Albertrani and said, “Hey listen, if you need a jock, holler. Even I could have ridden that sonofagun.”

Jimmy Bell, president of Darley USA, added, “He just makes it look so easy, and that stride down the lane was unbelievable. All I can say is we’re very lucky to have a horse like this.”

Even the Equibase chart-caller got caught up in the ease of the victory, with the redundant comment: “galloped under wraps.”

Judging by the cheers that poured out of the grandstand following the colt’s spectacular victory and the accolades that followed, it looked as if even the cynics finally were intent on paying tribute to racing’s newest phenom and removing him forever form the shadow of Barbaro.

What started out as a quest for respect turned into a quest for greatness. Benardini obviously still had a ways to go before entering the realm of the greats, but there were few people at Saratoga Race Course on July 29 who didn’t have that word pass through their mind, even for a brief moment.

The morning after the race, Bernardini seemed happy and content as he devoured a large batch of clover. “He came back in great shape, as if he’d never even run,” Albertrani said. “I think this put a lot of doubts to rest about his Preakness performance. Maybe now he can pick up where Barbaro left off. There’s been a lot of anticipation from the Preakness to the Jim Dandy for him to show everybody just what a talented horse he really is.”

The Jim Dandy was just the beginning as Bernardini continued to demolish every opponent he faced, romping in the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Not only had he won his last four starts by an average margin of 7 ¼ lengths, his Beyer speed figures went from 113 to 114 to 116 to 117. It was rare for a 3-year-old to keep increasing his speed figures at that high a level and doing while coasting home by huge margins. I couldn’t help but think of a line from the classic movie Kentucky when a young trainer sees a magnificent horse in the paddock and says to a groom, “He’s beautiful, who’s he by?” And the groom answers, “By himself, usually.”

I covered all four of those races, from the Preakness to the Gold Cup, and finally the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and saw plenty of him in the morning. Although he didnt have a shred of white on him you could spot Bernardini a hundred yards away. He had a presence about him that was rare. No other horse looked like him; he stood out in a crowd and simply was spectacular to look at; a man among boys. In short, he took your breath away.

Unfortunately, in the Classic, his powerful strides and flawless action were missing over the cuppy Churchill Downs surface. Facing one of the strongest and deepest Classic fields ever assembled that included Grade 1 horses Lava Man, Invasor, Lawyer Ron, Premium Tap, Giacomo, Flower Alley, Sun King, Brother Derek, Perfect Drift, and European stars George Washington and David Junior, who between them had won seven Group 1 stakes, Bernardini still was able to make an electrifying, but premature, move on the far turn after appearing to be struggling to keep up down the backstretch. Even race caller Trevor Denman noticed that “Bernardini is back in fifth and might be asking to pick it up from here.” For the first time it looked as if the colt was not firing.

Then in the blink of an eye, he kicked into another gear and accelerated so quickly, blowing by horses, Denman’s voice rose several octaves, as in disbelief. “Now, Bernardini has kicked it in!” he bellowed. “It looked like he might have been battling (to keep up).” Then his voice reached a crescendo: “Bernardini with a magnificent rush! And Bernardini strikes the front.”

Whether it was the cuppy surface that saw Lava Man and others fade badly, Bernardini began to shorten stride in midstretch, as the Uruguayan Triple Crown winner Invasor came charging up on his outside. Bernardini continued to battle to the wire, but he fell 1 ¼ lengths short of the older Invasor, who would extend his consecutive winning streak of Grade 1 victories (that included the Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap, and Whitney Stakes) to six the following year with wins in the Donn Handicap and Dubai World Cup before an injury ended his career.

It was no disgrace to get beat by a future Hall of Famer and older horse who would win Grade 1 stakes on three continents, but Castellano was blamed for making such a dramatic move so early, and over a track Bernardini appeared not to be handling. The first inclination was to look ahead to 2007 and imagine the amazing feats he was going to accomplish as a 4-year-old. But that was short-lived when it was decided to retire him to boost the new Darley at Jonabell Farm. Sheikh Mohammed had purchased Jonabell Farm in 2001 and then consolidated Gainsborough and Jonabell into one stallion operation in 2005. What could be bigger than to showcase his new farm with a stallion like Bernardini, who had the pedigree to go along with his looks and talent? So that was the end of the brief but spectacular career of one of the most exciting horses seen in years.

We won’t remember Bernardini for his Preakness victory or his big margins or his lofty speed ratings. What we will remember is the impact he made on people from the mere sight of him. Whether he was running, walking, or standing still, he filled the eye with his magnificence.

Perhaps Jimmy Bell spoke for everyone when he said following the Jim Dandy, “It’s a privilege and a thrill to watch him run.”

Photos courtesy of Adam Coglianese, New York Racing Association, Darley America

A Haskell to Remember… In Many Ways

Monday, July 19th, 2021

There are so many elements that made up this year’s Haskell Invitational, including the hot topic of the Monmouth whip rule. You won’t find much about that here. This is about the horses involved, especially one who has gotten overlooked. ~ Steve Haskin

A Haskell to Remember… In Many Ways

By Steve Haskin

Sometimes the spirit and the true essence of the Thoroughbred are manifested in unusual ways. They don’t necessarily have to be displayed in victory or even narrow defeat. In the case of the 2021 Haskell Invitational, many of the elements that stamp the Thoroughbred were played out in the stretch run of Monmouth Park’s premier event.

Those elements, especially one, may have gotten lost amidst the social media backlash from the near-tragic accident that occurred inside the eighth pole and the vilification of Monmouth’s controversial whip rule.

The Haskell was running true to form when the three standouts – Hot Rod Charlie, Mandaloun, and Midnight Bourbon – hooked up turning for home. But then came every racegoer’s nightmare. In a flash, Midnight Bourbon appeared to fall to the ground, his legs giving out as if he had suffered a catastrophic injury. Many of those watching on TV immediately turned away, unable to look. Jockey Paco Lopez lay motionless on the track almost in a fetal position as the ambulance rushed to him. The battle between between Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun seemed almost insignificant as most people cringed in disgust. Racing seemingly had suffered a serious wound on national TV from which it might not recover.

But we all know what happened after that. The first sigh of relief came when Midnight Bourbon was seen running free and in no apparent distress. How did that happen when most people were convinced he had fallen and suffered a possible life-threatening injury? But it happened so quickly and so many people had turned away they didn’t realize that somehow the horse never went down and that he in all likelihood clipped the heels of Hot Rod Charlie.

After that it was all about the condition of Lopez and then the actual finish of the race, in which Hot Rod Charlie narrowly prevailed after a heated stretch duel. With the connections of Hot Rod Charlie still celebrating, the inquiry sign went up and it took only a brief look for the stewards to disqualify Hot Rod Charlie for drifting in right in front of Midnight Bourbon, causing him to clip heels.

Then came the backlash. What if Hot Rod Charlie’s jockey Flavien Prat had been permitted to use his crop even just once left-handed to try to straighten out his mount? The outcry went viral, but of course we will never know what would have happened and each person has his or her own feelings about the rule.

We could go into the rule discussing its flaws and whether or not it contributed to the incident or which jockey if any was at fault. Would Hot Rod Charlie have drifted if trainer Doug O’Neill hadn’t removed his blinkers? Everything has two sides and people will make their case either way. But that is not what this column is about. Midnight Bourbon is fine, Paco Lopez is fine, and we witnessed two courageous horses giving their all, as they have all year.

This column is about the Thoroughbred and what we saw exhibited in the stretch of the Haskell. We already knew that Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun were warriors who never backed away from a fight. And they took their fight all the way to the wire, leaning on each other with both jockeys pushing hard with all their strength and Prat going to several crosses on Hot Rod Charlie.

But we have seen that before. That is what top-class Thoroughbreds are supposed to do in the heat of battle. What we hardly ever see is what Midnight Bourbon did that very well may saved this from being a catastrophe. There is nothing as dangerous as a fallen horse with other horses directly behind running 40 miles an hour and having to somehow avoid the horse on the ground. The reason many believed Midnight Bourbon had fallen is that he pretty much was on the ground. All four legs had crumbled in a heap and he had nothing from which he could push off to get back on his feet. When a horse is running that fast and suddenly clips heels and heads to the ground it has to be a frightening experience, and all he has is his survival instinct, his strength, and a rare athleticism to avoid falling and endangering himself, his rider, and the horses behind him. Midnight Bourbon exhibited all three and somehow was able to pick himself off the ground and get back on his feet. But in doing so, his rider, unlike Jeremy Rose on Afleet Alex in that amazing 2005 Preakness, went flying off the side of his neck landing in front of him.

Once again, the element that makes the Thoroughbred such a remarkable athlete took over. Lopez crouched in the fetal position for protection, found himself under Midnight Bourbon, who had both foreleg legs in front of Lopez and both back legs behind, and those back legs had to go somewhere. Still running at a good speed and no doubt shaken, the colt was able to angle his body slightly to the side and then lift his legs over the fallen jockey. Had he not made the effort to lift his legs they no doubt would have come down hard on Lopez.

Some may feel is was overstating the incident and perhaps anthropomorphizing Midnight Bourbon’s actions in regard to saving his rider from serious injury, as horses will naturally try to avoid objects in their path. But they are not always able to. I am merely looking at the results and the remarkable athleticism it took for the colt to pick himself up off the ground and then avoid hitting Lopez, all in a matter of seconds. And no doubt in a frightened state. As courageous as Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun were, I believe Midnight Bourbon is the unsung hero the 2021 Haskell, and what he did is what we will remember most about the race and certainly what I will remember most about the colt, more than his victories and his narrow defeats in major races.

No one can say this hasn’t been an interesting and entertaining crop of 3-year-olds, who have exhibited their courage under fire on numerous occasions. We saw it with Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie in the Robert Lewis Stakes. We saw it with Essential Quality and Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass Stakes. We saw it with Medina Spirit, Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and Essential Quality in the Kentucky Derby. We saw with Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont Stakes. We saw it with Mandaloun and Weyburn in the Pegasus Stakes and earlier in the year with Weyburn and Crowded Trade in the Gotham, as well as Helium’s gutsy comeback in the Tampa Bay Derby. And now we see it with Hot Rod Charlie and Mandaloun in the Haskell.

Is it possible that at some point Mandaloun is going to be the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Haskell without having finished first in either race and not even being affected by the infractions that gave him both victories? How odd was it to see Following Sea on his way to staggering home in fourth, beaten well over 20 lengths, in the Haskell wind up finishing second?

As for this crop, let’s remember that the Kentucky Derby was the fastest running in the past 20 years (excluding last year when it was run in September). The Belmont Stakes was the second fastest running in the past 20 years. The Preakness, won by Rombauer, was the second fastest running (excluding last year when it was run in October) in the past 20 years, So in the past two decades the only two horses to have run faster in Triple Crown races than this year’s three winners are American Pharoah and Curlin.

As for the Haskell, it was the second-fastest running in the past 34 years. Only the great Rachel Alexandra has run faster.

While Essential Quality is atop all the polls as the leading 3-year-old, that could change in the Travers, and there are many who believe Hot Rod Charlie ran the best race in the Belmont, setting Secretariat-like fractions of :22 3/5 and :46 2/5 under pressure the whole way and still only getting beat 1 ¼ lengths by Essential Quality, while finishing 11 ¼ lengths ahead of Rombauer in third. But then again there are many who felt Essential Quality ran the best race in the Derby, having to race very wide every step of the way. It could all prove moot in the Travers when most everyone from the Derby trail will converge on Saratoga’s Midsummer Derby, although Hot Rod Charlie likely will go in the Pacific Classic. And there is the unbeaten Curlin colt First Captain, winner of the Dwyer Stakes, who is headed to the Curlin Stakes and then the Travers. And we still have to wait and see what’s happening with Life is Good, who looked like the clear-cut leader of the division before being sidelined.

So on we go to the Travers to see who emerges as the leading 3-year-old. No matter who is victorious I still will remember Midnight Bourbon and will continue to marvel at what he did in the Haskell and the disaster he may have prevented. On that day, he was a true Thoroughbred.

Photos by Peter Ackerman, courtesy of MSN

Places in the Heart

Monday, July 12th, 2021

This is the first in a series of columns about my favorite stories that I believe would make great movies. They are based on my 25 years of covering the major races for the Thoroughbred Times, Daily Racing Form, and Blood Horse. Rather than focusing on the race recap format I will tell the stories behind the story as if pitching them as a movie script and focusing on the human and equine spirit that made racing movies so popular from the 1930s to 1950s. This first column is about the inspiring story of Kathy Ritvo and Mucho Macho Man. ~ Steve Haskin

Places in the Heart

By Steve Haskin

 

The movie opens in 2008 in a hospital room in Miami, Florida where a young horse trainer named Kathy Ritvo is struggling to stay alive, stricken with a serious heart ailment called cardiomyopathy, a severe deterioration of the heart muscle that has left her virtually bed ridden. She knows if she gives up, her two children, ages 9 and 7, would have to grow up without a mother.

Kathy is hooked up to an IV of dopamine, a heart muscle stimulant that is keeping her alive. Several years earlier, she had gotten pregnant with her third child and was almost five months along when she was diagnosed with her illness and the pregnancy had to be terminated.

As her husband Tim said, “The way she was living was unbearable. Her legs were blown up like tree stumps. She was hooked up to the IV for seven months. But she had this unbelievable will to live to see the kids go to school and grow up and eventually get married. That’s what kept her going”

As Kathy struggles to stay alive, some 250 miles away in Ocala, Florida, a strapping bay colt is born on June 15 at Carole and John Rio’s farm that they leased, unusually late for a Thoroughbred. The 9-year-old Ponche de Leona had been three weeks overdue and the Rios were staying up day and night waiting for her to foal.

It is Father’s Day and the Rios are returning to the farm after attending to Carole’s champion miniature pinchers and receive a call from farm manager Jeff Sekay telling them the mare was foaling.

Oh damn,” says Carole, who didn’t like foaling mares out in the field.

When the Rios arrive they find Sekay and his wife standing over the foal’s seemingly lifeless body and praying. After several minutes and no sign of life, the foal is feared dead. Carole starts rubbing him and then stops and begins praying herself.

As Carole described the scene: “Just then, this sucker jumps up and starts running across the field. He didn’t walk, he ran. From that day on I started calling him Lazarus. I remember saying to my husband, ‘Well, here’s your Father’s Day present.’ And he said, ‘We’ll find out in two years how good of a gift it is.’”

Five months later, on Nov. 13, as the weanling colt, later to be named Mucho Macho Man, romps about in his paddock, Kathy Ritvo, in her own way, also “rises” from the dead following a successful heart transplant, for which she had been waiting for what seemed an interminable amount of time. When she awakes from anesthesia, she takes a deep breath, something she hadn’t been able to do for years.

Kathy’s daily regimen of medication is like drugs gone wild – 12 anti-rejection pills at 7:30 every morning, 15 vitamins at noon, and eight more anti-rejection pills at 7:30 at night.

Six months after leaving the hospital Kathy is back at the racetrack training a few horses. Tim, also a trainer, is stabled in New York while Kathy remains in Florida helping out with the horses stabled there.

Meanwhile, at the Rios farm, Ponche de Leona’s colt is now a yearling and the Rios’ reluctantly decide to consign the mare to the Ocala Breeders’ October mixed sale. Because of a miscommunication regarding her reserve, she sells for only $5,000. But because of legal issues surrounding her new owner, Carole, who was against selling her, is able to buy her back.

The following year, the colt, now named Mucho Macho Man, is spotted by Jim Culver of Dream Team One Racing. Culver had been watching the colt develop and grow and had a feeling he could be special so he makes an offer that is accepted by the Rios.

Turned over to trainer Bill White, Mucho Macho Man is entered for his career debut at Calder Race Course on July 17, 2010, but is scratched when the horse in the stall next to him flips in the gate and nicks him up enough for the track veterinarian to order him scratched. Seven days later he is entered again and finishes a strong second to a well regarded colt named Gourmet Dinner.

At the time, Dean and Patti Reeves of Suwanee, Georgia had recently become involved in owning Thoroughbreds after meeting owner Bob Ades and his wife while on vacation. Dean had attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1976 and was hooked. He would attend every Derby for the next 22 years and now was looking for a horse of his own.

The year before he and Patti had formed Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and were now on the lookout for a 2-year-old who showed promise. Their trainer happened to be Tim Ritvo, who called Dean about a potential horse for sale named Gourmet Dinner, who had just broken his maiden at Calder. Tim suggested that Dean watch the replay of the race to see what he thought of Gourmet Dinner, with the idea of making an offer on the colt.

So Dean watches the race, but has an unexpected reaction. He calls Ritvo and says, “Call me crazy, but I like the second place horse.” That horse was Mucho Macho Man, who had grown into a mammoth of horse standing near 17 hands tall.

Dean then contacts Culver and offers to buy majority interest in the colt. Tim Ritvo has Kathy go to Bill White’s barn to vet the horse for the sale along with Dr. Scott Hay. She likes what she sees, the colt vets clean, and the deal is completed. Kathy then begins galloping the horse and can feel the power beneath her. She sends Mucho Macho Man to Tim in New York where he finishes third at Saratoga and then breaks his maiden by four lengths at Monmouth Park stretching out to two turns.

Following that race, Tim is hired as president and general manager of Gulfstream Park and convinces Dean to let Kathy train the colt. The two would then embark on an amazing journey that would take the Reeves to the Kentucky Derby and finally to America’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, not once but twice.

Kathy’s son Michael would put it best: “The horse had his rebirth and my mom had hers, and look what they’ve done with it.”

Carole Rio added, “Had he started that first time and not been scratched I truly believe he would have won and the Reeves never would have seen him in the maiden race with Gourmet Dinner. It was in the cards for the Reeves to own him and Kathy to train him. It was just meant to be.”

Under Kathy’s handling, Mucho Macho Man continues to improve, finishing second in the Nashua and Remsen Stakes in New York. Following a victory in the Risen Star Stakes and a close third in the Louisiana Derby, it is on to the Kentucky Derby. Just getting here is a fairy tale come true for Kathy, the Reeves, and Mucho Macho Man. The colt runs a big race to finish third behind Animal Kingdom. After attending the Derby as a spectator for over two decades Dean Reeves it now part of its history. Shortly after, the Reeves buy out Dream Team One’s share in the colt to become the sole owner. Considering that he will not even turn 3 years old until four days after the Belmont Stakes, the prospects for his future appear limitless.

But Mucho Macho Man inexplicably loses his form and turns in dismal performances in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. It is discovered he is suffering from a breathing problem and undergoes surgery, which sidelines him for five months. He returns stronger than ever at 4, winning the Gulfstream Park Handicap and Suburban Handicap, but suffers a heartbreaking defeat in the Breeders; Cup Classic, losing by a half-length to Fort Larned.

The Reeves are determined to give him another shot at the Classic and decide to bring him back as a 5-year-old, but a virus and bacterial infection followed by a quarter crack results in another five-month layoff, limiting him to only two losing efforts by August. But he bounces back with a solid third in the Whitney before going to Santa Anita where he runs off with the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes by 4 ¼ lengths under new rider Gary Stevens.

Stevens had been struggling with pain for several years and was involved in a horrific spill at Arlington Park that could easily have cost him his life, but he made an amazing comeback from that near-tragic incident. He continued to live with extreme pain in his knees before finally retiring in 2005. Over the years he briefly trained horses, was racing manager for Prince Ahmed’s The Thoroughbred Corp, was an advisor to IEAH Stables, worked as a TV analyst for several networks, and even acted in movies and television, getting excellent reviews for his roles in the film “Seabiscuit” and the short-lived TV series “Luck,” in which he played veteran washed-up jockey Ronnie Jenkins, who had turned to alcohol following a bad spill.

Following Luck’s cancellation, Stevens, remarkably, after seven years, decided to come out of retirement, as if continuing his role as Ronnie Jenkins, intent on proving to the world he still could ride with the best of them. To most everyone’s amazement, Stevens returned as strong and as fiercely competitive as he had been back in his glory days of the 1990s. He lost none of his strength and timing and his comeback was an immediate success, highlighted by his victory aboard Oxbow in the Preakness Stakes. His fellow jockeys were amazed he could come back off such a long layoff at the age of 50 and compete at the same high level he had seven years earlier.

Another member of the team who deserves a good deal of credit getting Mucho Macho Man here is racing manager Finn Green, whose father Bob Green was the longtime farm manager for the famed Greentree Stud, which stood such notable stallions as Tom Fool, Stage Door Johnny, and Arts and Letters. Green also is an amazing comeback story, in his life more than his career, and it is a miracle to him that he is part of the team and headed to another Breeders’ Cup Classic.

While Mucho Macho Man and Kathy virtually came back from the “dead,” Green came back from hell — the hell of a failed business, a failed marriage, a failed relationship with his daughter, and his and his daughter’s own losing battles with alcohol that had left him teetering on the edge between life and death.

“I had gotten so bad that only God could help me,” he said. “I lost my house, my wife, my business, and then my daughter. I felt like I had failed completely as a father and a human being and I thought about killing myself. Going bankrupt and losing the house and all the material stuff was one thing, but failing as a father was too much to accept. But I still hadn’t been broken down, and I’m the type of guy who wasn’t going to give up until I was ground into dust.”

But in the end it was his faith in God, his strong will, and his new-found relationship with his daughter that eventually led him to Dean and Patti Reeves and Mucho Macho Man.

After getting sober and helping his daughter with her problem and reestablishing their relationship, Finn got back into racing, eventually getting a job with Taylor Made Farm as business developer and had started following the career of Mucho Macho Man after the colt’s second-place finish in the Remsen Stakes. He contacted Dean Reeves and met him at Gulfstream Park. Dean was so impressed by Green’s knowledge of all aspects the industry, he offered him a job, which he accepted in September, 2011. Green had stepped back from the edge of the abyss and had now found happiness in all aspects of his life.

The 2013 Classic is shaping up as a highly competitive with Mucho Macho Man having to face two-time Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude, who also captured that year’s Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic; the previous year’s BC Classic winner Fort Larned, Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, Travers Stakes winner Will Take Charge, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Ron the Greek, Suburban Handicap winner Flat Out, and from Ireland, Juddmonte Stakes winner Declaration of War.

Looking at Mucho Macho Man’s past performances I noticed a startling statistic and mentioned it in my daily Breeders’ Cup report. Since his maiden race, Mucho Macho Man was 0-for-14 when he didn’t have the lead at the eighth pole and seven-for-seven when he did have the lead. His main flaw was his inability to pass horses in the stretch, but when he had the lead no horse had ever passed him in the final furlong.

Breeders’ Cup Saturday finally arrives. The wait for the horses to emerge from the tunnel seems interminable. A woman standing alongside the fence near the gap holds a sign that reads, “Team Mucho Macho Man Has Heart (with the heart represented by a bright red heart). The track bugler walks by and when he sees the sign he goes over to the woman and begins playing the song “Macho Man” by The Village People, which has become synonymous with the horse.

A few minutes later, the horses finally appear. Kathy, just as she had done the year before, stands by the rail near the gap as the Classic field parades to the post. Because of her diminutive size, she has to step on a small stool to get a better look. But she is still too far away to see the entire stretch, so she steps up on a ledge and leans her body over the rail. When Mucho Macho Man’s name is introduced in the post parade, a cheer goes up from the crowd, and even Kathy applauds her horse with gentle claps.

She can see Gary Stevens move Mucho Macho Man into a perfect position down the backstetch behind the favorite Game On Dude, the speedy Moreno, and Fort Larned and then guns the big horse into contention nearing the quarter pole. Game On Dude and Moreno begin to drop back. “Macho” puts away a stubborn Fort Larned, his nemesis from the year before, and now is in front with his ears up. Stevens feels the urge to go to the whip, but refrains, knowing the horse is giving him everything he had and dislikes being whipped.

Kathy begins cheering her horse on as he passes the eighth pole with a clear lead, but here comes another giant of a horse, Travers winner Will Take Charge, bearing down on him from the far outside, with the Irish invader Declaration of War closing ground in between the two.

Mucho Macho Man digs in gamely as the trio hits the wire in a three-horse photo, with Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge inseparable. But Kathy feels confident she won when she sees Stevens give a little celebratory shake of his whip.

I think we got it,” she says, looking for affirmation from anyone. “Gary thought he won; he shook his stick. But I don’t know what that means.”

Others around her, however, aren’t as confident. When they show the replay a gasp goes up from the crowd as they hit wire. Could it be that Will Take Charge had stuck his nose in front? Kathy now begins having feelings of déjà vu. Had Mucho Macho Man suffered another heartbreaking defeat in the Classic? Could fate be so cruel as to lead them here only to end in failure once again?

The stretch run is replayed again, and this time Kathy keeps urging her horse on, as if watching the race live.

Come on, buddy. Come on, buddy,” she pleads in a soft tone.

When they hit the wire, she turns around and asks no one in particular, “Did he get it?”

Kathy then has a feeling of dread as the camera focuses in on Will Take Charge on the infield screen. But a second later, the number “6” goes up and the announcement is made. Mucho Macho Man is the winner of the $4.6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. The fairy tale is complete.

Bedlam breaks loose and tears begin to well up in Kathy’s eyes. “I’m so happy for the horse,” she says. “I hope my mother’s watching.”

Kathy’s mother ironically has been in the hospital for several weeks with heart problems.

As Mucho Macho Man returns, Kathy sprints over to greet the horse. It is hard to believe this is the same person who not too long ago couldn’t take two or three steps without losing her breath and could barely get out of bed.

Tim comes over and the two embrace. “It’s an amazing story,” he says “She fought to live for her kids. She’s worked for this her whole life and she deserves every minute of it. This is all about her. She’s done such a great job with this horse. It’s unbelievable. She’s been through so much. She was dead, I’m telling you; she was dead. That’s how bad she was. This is just a wonderful wonderful thing.”

Tim also acknowledges their two children, Dominique, now 21, and Michael, 19, who had to endure their mother’s debilitating illness when they were 9 and 7.

They lived through the worst of it and were always very supportive.” Tim says, as he becomes more emotional.

Michael is now walking around as if in a daze, but with a perpetual smile on his face.

It’s just so amazing, seeing her in the hospital, almost dead, to this, the pinnacle of racing,” he says. “It was so awful to see her like that, lying on the floor in the hospital, sick, sick, sick all the time. She’s the best. She’s an inspiration. I’m just so happy for her.”

Following the post-race press conference, Stevens looks at me, smiles, and says, “Thank you. When I came to the head of the stretch I was thinking of you. I knew I had to get him to the lead before we hit the eighth pole.” That is a moment I won’t forget.

Adding an historic element to the race, Kathy has become the first female trainer to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Patti is overwhelmed by the victory and Mucho Mach Man’s popularity. “When we went to the Derby we invited fans to come along on the ride,” she recalls. “We were so new in the horse racing business ourselves and we wanted all the fans along with us, so we started a Facebook page for the horse and a Twitter account, and they just started following and coming.”

Dean couldn’t help but pay tribute to Kathy and Finn Green. “Kathy and Finn have worked on this all year to come back and make up that half-length,” he says. “It’s pretty special. We love this horse. There are a lot of people that get a lot of smiles every day thinking about Mucho Macho Man.”

Well after the race emotions continue to run high. Dean’s sister, Camilla Ellenburg, is weeping openly as she hugs her brother, and then seeks a spiritual meaning to Mucho Macho Man’s victory.

It’s just amazing,” she says. “The Lord had him wrapped around his arm, that’s all I can tell you. He knew.”

Meanwhile, in Ocala, Carole Rio, who watched the Classic at a local restaurant, still cannot believe the improbable ending to this story.

I had such tunnel vision watching the race I didn’t even know it was a photo,” she says. “I just started celebrating. I was sobbing with tears of joy. It’s an indescribable feeling for small-time breeders like ourselves. I just started thinking of him laying in that field, and everyone believing he was dead. I remember it like it was yesterday. You can’t make this stuff up. I’m just so proud of him.”

The bond between humans and horses has been romanticized for centuries. Who can explain why Mucho Macho Man and Kathy Ritvo were destined to travel the same path in life and why that path led them to glory on racing’s biggest stage. From a physical standpoint, Kathy Ritvo is dwarfed by the towering Mucho Macho Man, but their hearts, which once had seemingly gone silent, now beat as one. And nothing as mundane as a photo finish camera was going to deny this fairy tale its happy ending.

But this fairy tale wasn’t quite over, as Mucho Macho Man would go on to win the coveted Secretariat “Vox Populi” Award as the nation’s most popular horse, which is voted on by the fans.

Following a group photo in the winner’s circle, Michael Ritvo, walks off by himself, and suddenly it hits him: “My mom won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”

Sometimes, a simple revelation can have such profound meaning.

But it was Dean Reeves who summed up this magical day best and put everything in proper perspective.

I’m just so happy for Macho,” he said. “He’s part of racing history now.”

 

Photos courtesy of Breeders’ Cup and available for purchase, contact information@secretariat.com

The Race That Made The Haskell

Monday, July 5th, 2021

With a number of top 3-year-olds who left their mark on the Triple Crown races possibly heading for the July 17 Haskell Invitational, it brings back memories of the greatest Haskell of them all when Alysheba, Bet Twice, and Lost Code put on a show for the ages. It proved to be the coming out party for the Haskell as one of the top races in the country and also for a writer who was just starting to cover races for a fledgling publication. ~ Steve Haskin

The Race That Made the Haskell

By Steve Haskin

 

This year’s Haskell Invitational is shaping up as one of the most contentious in years. The race formerly known as the Monmouth Invitational Handicap has been around since 1968 when a giant of a horse named Balustrade, who had previously run in steeplechase races, took the inaugural running. The race, run two weeks, then eventually three weeks before the Travers Stakes, gave 3-year-olds an excellent alternative to the Jim Dandy Stakes as a prep for the prestigious Midsummer Derby. Yes. I said two, then three weeks, which was plenty of time between races back then. To show how much racing has changed, the Haskell is now run six weeks before the Travers.

The Monmouth Invitational continued to attract top horses looking for a lucrative purse and grade 1 status. In 1981, the name of the race was changed to the Haskell Invitational Handicap to honor Amory Haskell, the great innovative mind who put Monmouth Park back on the map. More on him later.

In 1986, I joined the new Thoroughbred Times as a freelance feature writer and New Jersey correspondent. The magazine (in newspaper form) was founded by Mark Simon, who had been my copy editor at the Thoroughbred Record, where I wrote features for a number of years. Later in 1986, I covered my first race as a reporter, the Haskell won by longshot Wise Times. After that, you could say the race and I sort of grew together.

But to set the stage for the 1987 Haskell, the race that put Monmouth Park in the national spotlight and helped launch my career, we have to go back and take a brief look at the history of Monmouth.

Most people don’t realize how much history has transpired there since the post-Civil War days. Monmouth has been a microcosm of racing in America since 1870, complete with a “Civil War” showdown in 1871 between Longfellow, the pride of the South, and the North’s Harry Bassett. Over a quarter of a million dollars was bet on the race, with much of the money on Longfellow being raised by the mortgaging of plantations by prominent Southerners. Harry Bassett was heavily backed by Northern and Western cash. Over 25,000 jammed the track to witness the South rise again for a brief moment, as Longfellow came home the easy winner.

It is safe to say no track has been as innovative as Monmouth over the years, especially during the reign of Amory Haskell and then Phil Iselin. Today, when people think of the track they call they jewel of the Jersey Shore, what comes to mind are ocean breezes, family picnics, children frolicking in the playground, weekend activities, and sitting under umbrella-shaded tables overlooking the picturesque English-style walking ring.

But few people realize that in 1891, reformist elements waged a war on racing when outlaw tracks such as Guttenberg and other small plants sprung up around the Garden State, forcing Monmouth to transfer its meet to the old Morris and Jerome Parks in New York.

Monmouth was dealt its fatal blow in 1892 when two of its mainstays, George Lorillard and David D. Withers, who were part of the syndicate that purchased the track in 1878, died in succession. Although the track ran successful meets in 1892 and ’93, the reformists, along with the state Legislature and an ambitious district attorney from Monmouth County put the seal on Monmouth’s demise. There would be no racing there for the next 53 years.

It wasn’t until 1944 that Amory Haskell formed a corporation to build a new Monmouth Park. Haskell hired Phil Iselin as chairman of the construction committee, and on June 14, 1946, Monmouth’s great tradition was reborn.

One by one, the innovations mounted. Haskell, an opera buff, built the unique parterre boxes, patterned after the Golden Horseshoe boxes at the Metropolitan Opera House. Each box had its own overhead fan, a dining table in the rear, cushioned chairs up front for viewing the races, and a buzzer on the wall to summon your waitress.

Among its other innovations were a 75-foot-long swimming pool for the jockeys, air conditioning in the pressbox, a ferry service from New York City, a two-way intercom system from the stewards to the patrol judges, the installation of a teletimer, electrical timing of fractions of races, the posting of a shoeboard (informing fans of the types of shoes worn by the horses), and projection of the first color television from a racetrack.

Monmouth also installed the first closed-circuit videotape control TV, was the first racetrack in the world to have hot water running in every barn, the first track to have identification and clocking of horses working out, the first track to have escalators in both the grandstand and clubhouse, and was one of the pioneers of grass racing and steeplechase racing.

Haskell, who was a Master of Hounds, horse breeder, clubman, amateur actor, politician, and businessman, was always concerned about backstretch conditions and fire safety. Each barn was placed 100 feet apart and had toilets, showers, and living quarters. All stalls were fireproofed, each barn had fire boxes, and there were three fire patrol jeeps equipped with short-wave telephones, with a man on patrol between every two barns from dusk to dawn. And right on the backstretch was a fire house.

When Haskell died in 1966, and then Iselin 10 years later, Monmouth Park pretty much lost its soul. Competition was closing in from all sides, from Philadelphia Park, off-track betting in New York and surrounding states, and simulcasting and casino gambling in New Jersey. Monmouth now had a fight on its hands, as Garden State Park owner Robert Brennan attempted to gain control of the track.

In September of 1985, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority took over control of Monmouth in an effort to prevent Brennan or anyone else from monopolizing racing in southern New Jersey. With Monmouth’s 1,500 shareholders receiving payments and owning a total of 776,000 shares of stock, it brought the sale to between $40 and $45 million. Brennan threatened to sue to stop the sale, but shortly thereafter agreed to drop litigation.

The Sports Authority brought in a young energetic and aggressive team led by New Jersey Racing Commission director and counsel Hal Handel, who teamed up with assistant general manager Lou Raffetto, a fixture at Monmouth since the early 1970s. Carol Hodes was brought down from Meadowlands to head the public relations department, Bob Kulina, who was born into racing, brought a new enthusiasm as racing secretary, and Jim Gagliano, who came up through the ranks, took over as special events coordinator, working closely with Handel and Raffetto.

To demonstrate the talent involved and the launch pad Monmouth became, Kulina went on to become president of Monmouth Park; Handel was named executive vice president and chief operating officer for the New York Racing Association; and Gagliano continued his rise by eventually being named president and chief operating officer of The Jockey Club.

Also in 1985, the Haskell attracted Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck, who was upset by the Sonny Hine-trained Skip Trial. Spend a Buck bounced back to win the Iselin Handicap over older horses by a nose in track-record time of 1:46 4/5.

The following year, the Iselin Handicap attracted two of America’s leading horses, future Hall of Famers Lady’s Secret and Precisionist. Both ran each other into submission early in the slop and were upset by Lady’ Secret’s stablemate Roo Art. The Haskell also saw an upset when Wise Times defeated Personal Flag, Danzig Connection, and Broad Brush at odds of 11-1.

Racing at Monmouth Park was alive and well again, with great promise for the future, especially as an alternative to Saratoga.

But those two meets merely were a preview of what was to come in 1987, the year Monmouth Park and the Haskell made their first major impact on American racing, catapulting the track to new heights and establishing it as one of the premier venues in the country.

First, racing’s one-man conglomerate, D. Wayne Lukas, opened a barn at Monmouth Park (run by assistant Kiaran McLaughlin) and raced his defending Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret there on three occasions. In one of those races, an allowance score, she became the leading female earner of all time, bringing even more attention to Monmouth. In his first year, Lukas’ stable earned over $1 million, which more than doubled the previous record. That same year, Angel Cordero Jr. came to Monmouth and rode the winners of both divisions of the Colleen Stakes, becoming only the fourth jockey in history to ride 6,000 winners, joining Johnny Longden, Bill Shoemaker, and Laffit Pincay Jr.

But it was that year’s Haskell Invitational that put Monmouth Park and the Haskell on the map, attracting Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba; the local hero, Belmont Stakes winner and Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Bet Twice; and the rising star Lost Code, winner of seven consecutive races, including four Derbys and the grade I Arlington Classic.

I couldn’t have asked for a better race to cover as the eyes of the racing world were on Monmouth Park. There was an electricity in the air. Would Alysheba or Bet Twice step up and establish himself as a clear-cut leader of the division or would the brilliant Lost Code forge to the front of the class?

And behind each horse was a story. At the upper end of the spectrum was Alysheba, the classically bred colt with a regal air about him who sold for $500,000 as a yearling.Still eligible for a non-winners of 2 after nine career starts, he was reborn following surgery to free an entrapped epiglottis. Alysheba was sheer artistry, his neck arched in regal splendor as he galloped along, his feet barely touching the ground. In the Kentucky Derby, he stumbled shortly after turning for home when Bet Twice drifted out in front of him, nearly unseating jockey Chris McCarron, who was amazed at the son of Alydar’s athleticism. Alysheba, somehow averting disaster, picked himself up and ran down Bet Twice, despite being interfered with a second time. He then came back and again powered past Bet Twice to win the Preakness before finishing an uninspired fourth in the Belmont Stakes when he was forced to race without Lasix, which was prohibited in New York.

Bet Twice, who crushed the Belmont by 14 lengths, had shown such a disdain for training when he first came to trainer Jimmy Croll’s barn that he had to be taken to the track with a buggy whip to get him to train. As he matured he began working five furlongs in :58 without raising a sweat. More of a nondescript-looking colt, the son of Sportin’ Life won his first five career starts, beginning in June of his 2-year-old campaign. He continued to improve, rattling off victories in the Sapling Stakes, Arlington-Washington Futurity, and Laurel Futurity. He also was the hometown hero, stabled in Croll’s longtime barn at Monmouth located just past the stable gate, and owned by one of New Jersey’s most familiar figures, Robert Levy.

Finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum was the Bill Donovan-trained Lost Code, the $7,300 yearling whose meteoric rise brought the financially troubled Donovan family out of debt and into tax brackets they never dreamed of. The horse’s earnings of over $900,000 in 1987 alone was a far cry from the $70,198 earned by all of Donovan’s horses the year before. Lost Code accomplished this after bleeding so profusely after a race at Birmingham earlier in the year that the blood stains were still on the walls of his stall. In addition to winning the Arlington Classic, the son of Codex had rattled off brilliant victories in the Ohio Derby, Illinois Derby, St. Paul Derby, and Alabama Derby.

Lost Code held an amazing amount of flesh for a horse with so much racing under him, and his gallops were always strong and aggressive, with his open mouth and glaring eyes. The Donovans’ son Pat, who also was his father’s assistant and exercise rider, had his hands full trying to contain all that energy. After galloping Lost Code two miles on the Thursday before the Haskell, he said as he came off the track, “I can’t open my hands.”

The race received tremendous billing, as the entire racing world awaited one of the most anticipated three-horse battles since Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser clashed in the 1967 Woodward Stakes.

A week before the race, most of the talk centered around Alysheba when Van Berg announced the colt would race without Lasix. Many believed that racing without Lasix contributed to his lackluster effort in the Belmont Stakes.

“Jack and I knew a month ago he wasn’t going to race with Lasix, but he didn’t want to tell anyone,” said Clarence Scharbauer, who co-owned Alysheba with his wife Dorothy.

Van Berg said, “I just got tired of listening to everybody. The horse gets beat two noses for second in the Belmont and all of a sudden he’s a drug addict.”

Alysheba also had developed a nasty case of fungal dermatitis that exploded all over the colt’s body and neck. By race day it was still visible, but vastly improved.

A crowd of 32,836 packed Monmouth, the largest since 1971, and wagered a record $4.4 million. Only two others showed up – Clever Secret, winner of the Lamplighter Handicap, and a New Jersey-bred sprinter named Born to Shop. The crowd, partial to the house horse, Bet Twice, sent him off as the 6-5 favorite, with Alysheba 3-2, and Lost Code 2-1.

Regardless of the outcome, Monmouth Park had hit the big-time, with the eyes of the racing world fixed on the Jersey Shore.

Lost Code, as expected, went for the early lead, with Born to Shop along the rail, Bet Twice on the outside, and Alysheba caught between horses. Passing the stands, Chris McCarron had to check slightly on Alysheba and it looked as if it was going to be another eventful trip, as was the Belmont.

Going into the first turn, Lost Code held a clear lead, with Alysheba still stuck between horses. Born to Shop then played his only role in the race by bumping Alysheba out into Bet Twice, which precipitated a series of minor bumps with Alysheba caught in the middle.

“Alysheba wasn’t where he likes to be,” said Bet Twice’s rider Craig Perret. “I think Chris was trying to outrun me a little and I didn’t want that to happen. Lost Code came out a bit and took the ground away from Alysheba. I was in a position to control the horses inside of me and I took it to my advantage.”

Lost Code continued to lead down the backstretch and around the far turn. After a solid half in :46 3/5, he turned it up a notch and went the next quarter in :23 flat to cover the six furlongs in a swift 1:09 3/5. Alysheba and Bet Twice closed in nearing the head of the stretch, with Perret still refusing to let Alysheba out. It was decision time for McCarron. Should he wait for an opening along the rail or let Bet Twice go and then swing to the outside, which would cost him ground and momentum.

“I knew pretty much between the five-sixteenths pole and the quarter pole I was going to have to go around,” McCarron said. “When I angled out, he went a lot further than I expected. He’s like a cat. It’s unbelievable how agile he is. He took off so fast, his body went one way and his feet went the other.”

Turning for home, Bet Twice stuck his head in front of Lost Code, who continued to battle back on the inside. Alysheba, who had lost valuable momentum, finally found his best stride and began closing the gap on Bet Twice and Lost Code, while well out toward the middle of the track.

Passing the eighth pole, the mile in a testing 1:34 flat, Bet Twice still clung to a head lead over a tenacious Lost Code, with Alysheba chopping into the lead with every stride. The race was everything everyone had hoped for, as the three horses battled to the wire — Bet Twice hanging on gamely, Lost Code still trying to come back at him, and Alysheba relentless on the far outside.

At the finish, Bet Twice prevailed by a neck over Alysheba, with Lost Code another neck back in third. The final time of 1:47 flat equaled the stakes record and missed Spend A Buck’s track record by a fifth of a second.

All three horses had run their hearts out, which brought a flood of emotions from their connections. Bet Twice’s owner, Bob Levy, had tears in his eyes as he came into the winner’s circle, which was adorned with dozens of Bet Twice buttons worn by the colt’s multitude of shareholders.

“What a great ride by Craig,” Levy said, “I think this crop of 3-year-olds is as deep as any we’ve had in a long time.”

Jimmy Croll couldn’t help but pay tribute to Lost Code. “I really didn’t think he’d last as long as he did,” he said. “To be honest, I thought if we looked him in the eye he would back up, but he didn’t. I’m tickled to death for Bill Donovan.”

Van Berg was proud of Alysheba’s effort and sent out a warning to the press, “If anyone mentions Lasix I’m gonna hit him right in the nose. I’ll tell you one thing, this horse has one damn big heart. He had to go through an awful lot with that rash. I think his final eighth was the most impressive eighth he’s ever run.”

Bill Donovan, who few people had ever heard of prior to Lost Code, could barely contain his emotions. Lost Code had taken him and his family on the ride of their lives at a time when they desperately needed it.

“I’m so proud of my colt,” he said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of. We came and we found out that we fit with the very best. He gave it all he had.”

Back at Croll’s barn, groom Tony Cucinotti rubbed Bet Twice’s shoulders and said, “Look at him, no sweat at all. That’s what you call cooling out good.”

A few moments later. Levy arrived with his wife Cissie, who could not keep her hands off Bet Twice. “I absolutely adore this animal,” she said. “It’s not just because he’s a winner. He’s a real character, a showman. You just get to love him. When they give you something out of their heart you know it.”

At Alysheba’s barn, Clarence Scharbauer said he was amazed at his colt’s constitution and announced he would definitely race as a 4-year-old and possibly even at 5. As we all know, Alysheba went on at 4 to become of the greatest horses of the modern era, and perhaps one of the most underrated horses of all time, considering what he accomplished at 3 and especially at 4.

A few stalls down, the Donovans were still beaming as if they had won. “I’m overwhelmed just to be a part of this,” said Pat Donovan. Soon, a loud whinny could be heard coming from Lost Code’s stall. Groom Gene Sanderson was bringing in the colt’s feed tub, in which Lost Code promptly buried his head.

“Hey, Bill, he really looks tired, doesn’t he?” Donna Donovan called to her husband. “This was such a thrill for us.” Donna told Bill, “We made $55,000 today,” and he replied, “Yeah, a few months ago we didn’t have 55 dollars.”

The Alysheba – Bet Twice rivalry would continue well into 1988, highlighted by another rousing battle at Monmouth in the Philip Iselin Handicap won this time by Alysheba. Van Berg and Croll both were convinced the two colts knew each other. 

 “When we were at Pimlico (in 1988 for the Pimlico Special), Alysheba was stabled on the backside of our barn,” Croll said prior to the Iselin Handicap. “Jack was walking him one morning, and when he saw Bet Twice they both started hollering at each other, and they didn’t do it to any other horse.”

 Van Berg added, “They did it every morning. They just started nickering like the devil. No other horse in the barn did they holler at.”

 Even Alysheba’s groom, John Cherry, was amazed. “I know it sounds kind of weird, but it sure looked like they recognized each other,” he said.

Because of Alysheba and Bet Twice, and Lost Code, the Haskell became a major summer stop for the nation’s best 3-year-olds, as the purse continued to grow, eventually reaching $1 million. The following year, Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold put on a battle for the ages in near 100-degree heat and there was no turning back.

The Haskell continued to gain in popularity, with Bob Baffert winning the Haskell an incredible nine times. Todd Pletcher won it three times, with Steve Asmussen, Shug McGaughey, Dick Mandella, Chad Brown, and Bobby Frankel winning it once each. Asmussen, of course, won it with the great filly Rachel Alexandra, providing Monmouth with one of the greatest moments in the history of the track.

But no matter what happens this year or any year, no one will ever forget the 1987 Haskell. It was a day of camaraderie, emotion, and courage. It was a day when three special horses put on a show to remember. It was a day when the Haskell Invitational came of age, forever etched in racing lore.

 

Photos courtesy of Monmouth Park

Suburban, Brooklyn, Spa Evoke Special Memories

Monday, June 28th, 2021

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” For me it was the summer of 1968 when life began over again. Racing had become an obsession and my world was now encompassed by names like Damascus and Dr. Fager. In Upstate New York, the siren calls emanating from the small town of Saratoga were luring me to a place that existed only in my dreams. This is the story of that magical summer, which proved to be the foundation for the rest of my life. ~ Steve Haskin

Suburban, Brooklyn, Spa Evoke Special Memories

By Steve Haskin

 

The Suburban Handicap, to be run on July 3, is not the race it used to be, but to me the name will always bring back memories of summers past, with the Brooklyn Handicap to follow and the grand finale of the summer, Saratoga. This column is about my earliest memories of all three, so let’s go back to where it all began.

It is late June, 1968 and as exciting a time in racing as I have ever experienced. Racing’s two titans and bitter rivals Damascus and Dr. Fager are finally set to meet in the Suburban Handicap, their first showdown since the previous year’s Woodward Stakes. The Doc’s trainer John Nerud has been waiting some nine months to get his revenge on Damascus after his 10-length demolition of Dr. Fager and Buckpasser.

I had recently finalized my plans for my first trip to Saratoga. I would take the Adirondack Trailways bus to the Spa and stay at Grossman’s Victoria Hotel on South Broadway, within walking distance to the track.

First, though, I would have to get through July. But that should be easy with the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps the likely battlegrounds for Damascus and Dr. Fager, who had been on a collision course for the past two months.

Another top-class colt, In Reality, who had futilely chased Dr. Fager and Damascus throughout 1967, had taken advantage of Damascus’ first ever vacation and Dr. Fager’s serous bout with colic and emerged as the temporary big dog in town, with victories in the John B. Campbell Handicap, Carter Handicap, and Met Mile. With all three heading to the Suburban there were sure to be fireworks at The Big A on the fourth of July.

Dr. Fager’s legion of fans wanted desperately to see their hero take on Damascus without the aid of Hedevar, who had cooked Dr. Fager in the Woodward, forcing him into a suicidal pace. But the word from the Damascus camp was that trainer Frank Whiteley had every intention of again using Hedevar, a former world-record holder for the mile, again to soften up Dr. Fager, who had proven to be unbeatable when left alone on the lead. And Damascus was a confirmed closer, so he would be at a huge disadvantage if The Doc were allowed to set an easy pace. No horse had ever looked him in the eye and been able to pass him.

What made Dr. Fager and Damascus such compelling rivals was that they were nothing alike. Dr. Fager, although a kindly, sensitive horse in his stall who hated being yelled at, was a brute on the racetrack; a wild thing confined in a world of restraint who ran with reckless abandon. With his long mane blowing in the breeze, he was more like an untamed mustang dashing across the plains. And like the leader of the pack, his place was in front and he dared any horse to take the lead away from him. And that even went for In Reality, his childhood buddy at Tartan Farm, who tried to sneak up inside him on the backstretch in the rich New Hampshire Sweepstakes only to have Dr. Fager attempt to savage him.

Damascus, on the other hand, liked to come from well off the pace and needed constant urging to keep his mind on the task at hand. Most of his defeats came when he would refuse to leave his opponents. But when persevered with he would turn on the afterburners and explode, turning in the most devastating move on the far turn I have ever seen, even after 50 years. Unlike Dr. Fager, who ran with his head high, Damascus would get down low and was amazingly quick and agile, pouncing on his foes like a cat its prey. His jockeys just had to keep after him. To give you an idea how explosive his turn of foot was, in the Travers Stakes he was 16 lengths off the lead on the backstretch and won by 22 lengths, equaling the track record.

If In Reality was going to finally have any chance of knocking off the dynamic duo, this would be it, as both Damascus and Dr. Fager had strikes against them going into the race and still would have to give In Reality good chunks of weight. Dr. Fager had to go straight into the Suburban coming off his colic attack, which left him gravely ill and forced him to miss the Met Mile. Damascus, the iron horse who thrived on competition and needed a steady diet of racing to get himself fit, had been given four months off after a debacle in the Strub Stakes run in a quagmire. Ron Turcotte, subbing for the injured Bill Shoemaker, said he begged Whiteley to put mud caulks on Damascus, but he didn’t want to risk hurting the horse. The only other horse who didn’t wear caulks finished last and Damascus wound up losing three shoes in the race and came back with his legs all cut up and bloodied. Yet he still finished second, beaten a half-length. Turcotte said Damascus was the second best horse he ever rode behind Secretariat.

Damascus had only that one easy allowance victory at Delaware Park 17 days before the Suburban and was not as finely tuned as Frank Whiteley would have liked. But the Suburban had always been his target and there was no turning back now. This was a horse who had raced 19 times in an 11-month period, 18 of them stakes, and actually kept getting better throughout his 3-year-old campaign. So, of the three big horses, only In Reality was coming into the race dead-fit and in top form.

To demonstrate how much racing has changed, Damascus was assigned highweight of 133 pounds, with Dr. Fager at 132, and In Reality in with 125. NYRA racing secretary Tommy Trotter said he had never weighted two horses that high in a race.

On the morning of the Suburban I took the Pioneer bus to Aqueduct and made my way into the grandstand to find my usual seat around the eighth pole. That’s usually where the main action was.

Just about the same time, in the racing secretary’s office, a mini-drama was being played out that would have a major impact on the race. Nerud spotted Whiteley going into Tommy Trotter’s office. As Whiteley was walking out, Nerud overheard a jockey’s agent say that Hedevar had just been scratched. When Whiteley looked over at Nerud and didn’t deny it he knew it was true. Nerud promptly stood up and said to whoever was listening, “Well, the race is over.”

As the crowd of more than 54,000 began to settle in, the familiar voice of track announcer Fred Capossela could be heard over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, in the seventh race, number 1A Hedevar has been scratched.” That sent a buzz rippling through the grandstand.

Hedevar, it was reported, had taken a few bad steps following a six-furlong workout, and Whiteley didn’t want to take any chances running him.

Dr. Fager was sent off as the 4-5 favorite, with Damascus 7-5. Damascus was always quick out of the gate, and, as usual, he broke on top from the rail before being taken back by jockey Manny Ycaza. Dr. Fager, under Braulio Baeza, shot to the lead as expected. Baeza gave a peek over his left shoulder to make sure he was clear of Damascus before easing over to the rail.

With no one to get his blood boiling, Dr. Fager rated kindly and cruised to a clear lead going into the clubhouse turn. He quickly opened up by two lengths and was in complete control of the race. In Reality, who was supposed to put pressure on The Doc, had broken on his wrong lead and apparently took a bad step, causing an injury that would lead to his retirement. He raced in fourth during the early going, about four lengths back, before retreating to finish last.

With Dr. Fager loose on a slow, uncontested lead, Damascus was now on a solo mission, and 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.

Ycaza took Damascus off the rail and started pushing hard to get him to close the gap on Dr. Fager. Although taken completely out of his game plan, Damascus was able to use his quickness and rapid-fire acceleration to collar Dr. Fager as they headed down the backstretch. The battle everyone had wanted to see for so long was on. Damascus pulled to within a neck of Dr. Fager, but that was as close as the Doc would let him get.

The pair battled through the third quarter in a torrid :22 3/5, and that’s with over 130 pounds on their back. With his initial attack thwarted, Ycaza backed off slightly and let Damascus regroup. This was not his game, and Ycaza had to make sure he saved something for the end, especially with Damascus not being fully cranked up. Once he and Damascus were able to catch their breath, Ycaza began pushing hard once again, trying to crack Dr. Fager, which, without Hedevar, was a study in futility.

Dr. Fager, with his head held high, seemed to dwarf Damascus, even though the two were about the same height. Damascus was now straight as a string as he mounted his second attack. The Doc knew he was in for a fight, and dug in once again. As hard as Ycaza pushed he couldn’t get by the tenacious Dr. Fager.

Around the far turn, Dr. Fager began inching away, putting a good half-length between him and Damascus. But, amazingly, Damascus wasn’t through. He gave it one final desperate try, pulling back alongside Dr. Fager for the third time, and actually might have gotten his nose in front nearing the quarter pole after a testing quarter in :23 3/5.

Turning for home, a weary Damascus had no more to give. As fresh as he was and having to play Dr. Fager’s game, he began to retreat under the impost following a brutal mile in 1:34 3/5. Dr. Fager, who was built to carry weight, bounded clear, opening up by two lengths at the eighth pole.

The improving Bold Hour, carrying only 116 pounds, had been eyeing the battle several lengths back and moved in for the kill, hoping to pick up the pieces. He collared Damascus, from whom he was getting 17 pounds, and set his sights on Dr. Fager. But Baeza was sitting chilly on the Doc, whose long mane was still blowing wildly in the breeze. Baeza seemed unfazed by Bold Hour’s feeble attempt to close the gap. He merely hand rode Dr. Fager to the wire, maintaining his two-length advantage. Even with the sluggish opening half and carrying 132 pounds, Dr. Fager still was able to equal Gun Bow’s track record of 1:59 3/5.

Despite his gut-wrenching attempts to crack Dr. Fager, Damascus, who wound up third in the Suburban, came back only nine days later in the 1 1/4-mile Amory Haskell Handicap at Monmouth and finished third again behind Bold Hour under 131 pounds after stumbling badly at the start. As difficult as it might seem to believe, these two races actually were just what Damascus needed to get him tight and razor-sharp. He returned only a week later in the Brooklyn Handicap for his rematch with Dr. Fager. When I went to the paddock to look at Damascus, I knew this would be a different story. Not only did he have Hedevar back he bounced around the paddock on his toes with his neck arched and muscles bulging from his shoulders and hindquarters. He was ready to tackle Dr. Fager, who was carrying a staggering 135 pounds to 130 for Damascus.

Hedevar was now healthy again and this time he showed up for his search and destroy mission. Nerud didn’t bat an eye over Dr. Fager picking up three pounds. He understood the concept of handicap racing. He was more concerned about Hedevar than the weight.

Hedevar, as expected, shot to a clear lead, as Baeza took a stranglehold on Dr. Fager. Tommy Lee, aboard Hedevar, broke from the outside, and when he looked over to his left to eye his target, much to his surprise, Dr. Fager was nowhere to be seen, as Baeza kept pulling back on the throttle. Before Lee knew what was happening, he had opened a three-length lead. But Dr. Fager was not a happy camper. His head was up and he was fighting Baeza, and when Dr. Fager fought you it was only a matter of time before you caved.

Ycaza, meanwhile, had Damascus well back in the pack where he liked to be. Hedevar was on a kamikaze mission, with or without Dr. Fager, and he still blazed the opening half in :45 4/5, with Dr. Fager a length and a half back. That’s 2 3/5 seconds, or 13 lengths, faster than Dr Fager had run in the Suburban. And this time he was carrying 135 pounds.

By the time they passed the five-eighths pole, Baeza no longer had any say in the matter and he was forced to let Dr. Fager go. He blew right on by Hedevar and quickly opened a four-length lead. But the Doc was out of control, his three-quarters in a blistering 1:09 2/5, while Damascus was in high gear and cutting into Dr. Fager’s lead with every stride. The cat was back in his comfort zone and ready to strike, as he did in the Woodward and so many other races.

It was obvious this time it was Damascus who had the advantage. With one of his typical explosive moves, he collared Dr. Fager at the quarter pole and began to draw clear, but the Doc wouldn’t give up, despite the pace and staggering weight. Baeza even resorted to the whip, something Dr. Fager detested, and he threw his tail up in defiance. He fought hard through the stretch, but Damascus was always in control, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. His time of 1:59 1/5 broke Dr. Fager’s short-lived track record, and, amazingly, still stands more than a half century later. All Dr. Fager had done was run back-to-back mile and a quarter races in 1:59 3/5 carrying 132 and 135 pounds in a span of 16 days.

And for Damascus, who seemed to be held together with fibers of steel, this was his third major stakes at 1 1/4 miles in 16 days, carrying 130 pounds or more in all of them, culminating with a track record.

Sadly, this would be the final time Dr. Fager and Damascus would face each other. Nerud had other worlds to conquer for Dr. Fager, and the paths he and Damascus took never would cross again.

Before I knew it, July was over and it was now time to get ready for my long-awaited trip to Saratoga. The Victoria Hotel was not quite what I expected. It was an old hotel with Victorian furnishings right out of the 1930s. It was pretty modest and in no way even remotely resembled the Adelphi, the last of the great old hotels, which in turn bore no resemblance to the massive, ostentatious Grand Union and United States Hotels that catered to the opulent and often decadent tastes of America’s tycoons, high rollers, and silver spoon-fed upper crust.

Walking to the track each morning up Lincoln Ave was like driving down Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn with my father as a kid and then seeing the light stanchions of Ebbetts Field in the distance. You felt as if you were approaching hallowed ground. The track had recently begun serving breakfast on the apron porch, where you were greeted by a tuxedo-clad maitre d’. If you didn’t mind that the price of breakfast was outrageous and tips on the races normally were hotter than the food, it was a great experience, with the smell of bacon wafting through the crisp mountain air, the clanging of dishes and silverware, and some of the finest Thoroughbreds in the country galloping and working in front of you. Once in a while you’d see a top trainer having breakfast, and you could listen in on Bill Johnson’s Saturday morning radio show at one of the tables. The atmosphere was intoxicating.

After training I would go across the street to the National Museum of Racing, looking at the same things each day. But I didn’t care, I just loved being there immersed in history. It was like a sanctuary where you could escape to another time. And before leaving I would take the free color postcards at the admission desk of Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser.

A few days after arriving in Saratoga, I managed to find a shopping center that had a camera store, and bought myself one of those little Kodak Brownie Instamatic cameras. I had to capture all these indelible images and the beauty of Saratoga.

My first morning at the track with my new camera I shot just about everything I saw — the grandstand, adorned with flowers, Rokeby Stable trainer Elliott Burch watching the works with his sons, my hotel, and even the McDonalds across the street from the Victoria.

Travers morning, a blanket of humidity hung over Saratoga and a thunderstorm was imminent. On the track, horses were winding down their morning’s activities, while the patrons in the clubhouse apron dining area were finishing breakfast.

As training hours drew to a close, the skies, which had been clear all morning, were now dark and foreboding, and it was obvious that one of those wild Saratoga thunderstorms was moments away. Just then, from high up in the grandstand, I could hear a faint voice over the public address system announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, coming on to the track is Dr. Fager.” It was not the custom to make announcements, but this was the exception.

I could see The Doc emerge from the end of the grandstand. Two weeks earlier I had watched on TV as he romped by eight lengths in the Whitney under 132 pounds. Now here he was right in front of me, like a heavyweight prizefighter stepping into the ring. I had never been this close to him. He looked like no other horse, seemingly taller than his 16.1-hands frame who had a powerful presence about him.

It was the Saturday before the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park, in which the Doc would be gunning for the one-mile world record, and on this morning he would be having his final work before heading to Chicago.

Just as he made his way on to the track the rain started and the railbirds quickly retreated for cover under the grandstand. I, however, was not going to blow an opportunity to take a picture of the mighty Dr. Fager, especially with my brand new Brownie Instamatic. So I remained at the rail.

Dr. Fager walked right past me accompanied by his pony, an Appaloosa named Chalkeye. The exercise rider, Jose Marrero, and the pony rider simultaneously turned and looked at me, as if wondering what kind of idiot would be standing in the rain to take a picture of a horse. But this was no ordinary horse.

Like some majestic shrouded figure, Dr. Fager seemed larger than life to a novice, wide-eyed 21-year-old who was floundering about trading over-the-counter stocks on Wall Street and hating it. As the Doc, sporting his figure-8 bridle, walked past me oblivious to the elements, he had his game face on, focusing straight ahead and arching his neck ever so slightly. He had worked up a mouthful of saliva and his flared nostrils already were bright red. Even through the murk and rain his burnished blood-bay coat had a radiant glow to it. There was no doubt The Doc was in a zone and I managed to take one shot of him before high-tailing it back under cover.

I stood under the grandstand and watched Dr. Fager breeze five furlongs in :59 flat under no pressure whatsoever from Marrero, who had to weigh close to 160 pounds. A week later The Doc broke the world record for the mile, winning eased up by 10 lengths under 134 pounds in one of the most awe-inspiring performances of all time. It would become the most sought after record in racing, and still has not been broken in over half a century.

For years I carried that photo of Dr. Fager in my wallet. Although taken in haste under adverse conditions with a little Instamatic, it remains to this day my favorite photo. I still look at it and think back to when everything was new – my camera, my first trip to Saratoga, and my newly found obsession with horse racing.

This was the first of many memorable trips to Saratoga, where 11 years later I would propose to my beautiful wife and where our daughter would celebrate her first birthday and where my one-year-old grandson, like his mom at the same age, would sit on his first horse . And, amazingly, where my name would one day be inscribed on the walls of the museum.

Saratoga was also where I got my first look at an up-and-coming 2-year-old named Secretariat, who came roaring by me as I was having breakfast on the apron with a friend. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to him if I hadn’t heard him first. He sounded like a locomotive coming down the stretch and I only surmised it was him from his blue and white checkered blinkers and his massive stride.

And so it is time once again for my two harbingers of summer – the Suburban Handicap and Saratoga. The Suburban, although relegated to Grade 2 status, still evokes images of those memorable Handicap Triple Crown days. And as for Saratoga, well, it is still Saratoga where time stands still. The Victoria Hotel is long gone and the museum has expanded to three times its original size, but those same paintings and trophies and other artifacts still serve as a portal to racing’s past.

Saratoga has seen substantial growth over the years, but I know once I arrive there next month I will once again become that 21-year-old, walking down Lincoln Avenue and into the wondrous new world I had recently discovered. And if after 53 years I ever take Saratoga for granted and those early days begin to fade from my mind I always have a photograph of Dr. Fager to jog my memory.

 

Photography courtesy of New York Racing Association, Braulio Baeza, and Steve Haskin

Riva Ridge Maiden Win was ‘Key” to Lasting Rivalry

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021

Wednesday, June 23 marks the 50th anniversary of Riva Ridge’s maiden victory, which turned out to be the beginning of a Hall of Fame career as well of one of racing’s great rivalries. ~ Steve Haskin

Riva Ridge Maiden Win was ‘Key’ to Lasting Rivalry

By Steve Haskin

 

June 23, 1971 was just another Wednesday at Belmont Park. There certainly was nothing to indicate that 50 years later I would be writing a column on the anniversary of this day. There were no stakes being run and no horses of any major significance were on the card. And writing a column, or anything for that matter, would have never entered my mind considering I was not a writer. I had recently been promoted from assistant librarian to head librarian at the Morning Telegraph after the previous head librarian left to join the advertising department.

My two days off were Wednesday and Sunday. There was no Sunday racing back then, so Wednesday was the only day for me to go to the track. Because of my work schedule I wasn’t able to be among the record crowd at Belmont Park three weeks earlier to witness Canonero II’s attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948.

Before I offer an explanation why this particular Wednesday was so important and why it warranted a 50-year anniversary column I have to go back to my introduction to racing in 1967 when a friend of a friend told me about an up-and-coming young horse that he was following named Damascus and also turned me on to his favorite all-time horse Graustark, who with his sire Ribot were standing at stud at Darby Dan Farm. It was that person who exposed me to this new exciting world and I Immediately became obsessed with racing. Knowing nothing about it, I naturally latched on to both his horses. They became my new sports heroes and literally changed my life, which is a story I have told before.

I dug up everything I could find on Graustark’s racing career and fervently followed his and Ribot’s offspring and even traveled to Darby Dan twice in 1969, the first time taking a bus from New York, to visit both stallions, as well as Damascus at Claiborne Farm. But most of all I wanted to see Graustark’s yearling full-brother, later to be named His Majesty. Yes, I was 22 years old, but when it came to horses I was a starstruck 12-year-old who had been exposed to a wondrous new world.

In the winter of 1968 I had started a scrapbook on Ribot’s promising son Arts and Letters, my new favorite horse who was owned by Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable, and as a result I also became a big fan of Rokeby’s great grass champion Fort Marcy.

With that background firmly established we can return to June 23, 1971. What made that day special at the time was the career debut of a son of Graustark, who was owned by Rokeby Stable and was also a half-brother to Fort Marcy. His name was Key to the Mint and he had all the elements to become my next favorite horse and racing’s new young star.

It was obvious the word was out on Key to the Mint, who was made the 4-5 favorite, but I couldn’t understand why another colt in the field named Riva Ridge was only 2-1, having finished seventh, beaten 15 lengths, in his career debut two weeks earlier. He had been bumped in his first race and was getting blinkers on, so I could only surmise by his low odds that his stable and the savvy New York bettors were still high on him and that his first race was a throwout.

But I have to admit I paid little attention to Riva Ridge because of his dismal debut. Key to the Mint, however, was all class with near flawless conformation to go along with his royal pedigree, and this surely looked like it would be his coming out party. I made my way along the fence behind the saddling stalls to get a good photo of Graustark’s son, knowing there was a good chance he would be a major player in the 2-year-old division and a long-range prospect for the classics. He certainly looked the part with his rich bay coat, and much to my delight he provided a slight arch of the neck to add a regal touch to my one and only photo.

Little was I aware, however, of the importance of this race to Riva Ridge’s owner Meadow Stable. While Rokeby Stable was thriving with back-to-back Horses of the Year in Arts and Letters and Fort Marcy and a budding superstar in Europe named Mill Reef, Meadow Stable was on the decline and no longer the dominant force they were in the 1950s and early ‘60s with champions Hill Prince, First Landing, and Cicada. Owner and founder Christopher Chenery was ill and had been in the hospital since 1968 and becoming senile. Several family members wanted to sell the farm and horses, which were no longer profitable, but Chenery’s daughter, Penny Tweedy, a housewife with four children in Colorado, fought to keep the operation going for her father’s sake in the hope of seeing him live out his dream of winning the Kentucky Derby. She slowly attempted to build up the stable, first firing trainer Casey Hayes and then hiring Roger Laurin, who had the job a short while before taking over as trainer for the powerful Phipps family. Roger recommended his father, Lucien, who was in the process of retiring after a successful career training for Claiborne Farm and winning the Belmont Stakes with Reginald Webster’s Amberoid in 1966.

The Meadow’s best horse in 1969 and ’70, Hydrologist, had won the Excelsior, Discovery, and Stymie Handicaps, and placed in a number of major stakes in his 50 career starts, but Penny needed a much bigger splash than that to keep her family at bay and the Meadow operation going. She needed an exciting and brilliant young colt who could command the headlines and hopefully take her ailing 84-year-old father to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle, at least in spirit, before he died. Only then could she make a case to keep the farm and racing stable going.

Riva Ridge, a half-brother to Hydrologist, by First Landing, looked to be their best chance despite his disappointing debut. Although this was only a maiden race, it would help determine whether Meadow Stable had a potential star, as they hoped, or another bust. A big improvement off his first start was expected, but was the colt talented enough to defeat this highly regarded Rokeby Stable colt that was being bet down to odds-on favorite? This would be Penny’s glimpse into the future. Would her efforts be in vain? Was she about to see the empire her father built and devoted his life to crumble or would some miracle horse come along and help save the farm just like in the movies?

A 2-year-old maiden sprint was not going to answer those questions, but it sure would be a good start and at least provide some much needed optimism. But first Riva Ridge had to improve many lengths off his debut and defeat one of the most highly touted 2-year-olds of the year.

Riva Ridge, breaking from post 2, got the jump on Key to the Mint, who came out of post 5 in the eight-horse field. The Meadow colt held on to a narrow half-length lead through an opening quarter in :22 3/5. But nearing the head of the stretch Key to the Mint stuck his head in front. Penny soon would find out what her colt was made of and whether or not he was the horse they were hoping for. Down the stretch, Riva Ridge, under jockey Chuck Baltazar, began to draw clear, opening a two-length lead at the eighth pole. He continued to pour it on, winning by 5 ½ lengths, with the Key to the Mint finishing 3 ½ lengths ahead of the third horse.

It took just a minute and five seconds for Penny Tweedy and Meadow Stud to see a ray of hope for the future. Penny now knew she had a colt who was fast, classy, and talented enough to crush one of the leading prospects in the country. All he had to do now was show he could carry his speed longer distances and prove he was classic material. But that was still a long way off. Right now he was just a very fast 2-year-old with good early speed.

No one could have predicted at the time that this little 5 ½-furlong maiden race would prove to be the launching pad to two championships and two classic victories for Riva Ridge, including the Kentucky Derby, a championship for Key to the Mint, and a stirring three-year rivalry between the two colts who would face each other 10 times. Ironically, this would be the only time they would finish first and second.

Christopher Chenery would pass away on January 3, 1973. He lived long enough to realize his dream of winning the Kentucky Derby, but would never know that his newly turned 3-year-old Secretariat would go on to set new standards of greatness and become one of the most iconic athletes in the history of American sports, and that his daughter would become the First Lady of the Turf and one of its most beloved figures.

As for Key to the Mint, he would bounce back from his defeat two weeks later at Aqueduct, breaking his maiden by two lengths in the exact same time of 1:05. The future surely looked bright for both colts. Two days after Key to the Mint’s victory, Riva Ridge showed up in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance race. Looking back now, people might not understand running a promising young colt in three straight 5 ½-furlong races. Did Laurin feel he was more of a sprinter than a classic horse? But in those days good 2-year-olds ran early and often worked their way up through the sprints and then point for the 6 ½-furlong Hopeful and Futurity Stakes in August and September.

All I knew was this time I was going to get a better look at the colt who vanquished Key to the Mint with such authority. So off I went to Aqueduct. I took my usual spot on the clubhouse side of the paddock, right near the entrance where I could get a good close-up look at the horses as they entered from the track. When Riva Ridge walked into the paddock it was as if my camera lifted itself up, placed him in the viewfinder, and snapped the shutter on its own. I was too busy being captivated by this colt, who had such an appealing look about him. He was unlike any horse I had ever seen. As he entered the paddock he looked directly at me, his lop ears jutting out like airplane wings. He had these soft kind eyes that made an instant connection and I knew right then that he and Key to the Mint would share equal space in my heart.

But there was no way I could have known that this lanky, amiable-looking 2-year-old with the funny ears would one day become the savior of the once powerful Meadow Stud, at least until Secretariat stormed on the scene and into racing lore.

Riva would make it two in a row in the allowance race, carving out rapid fractions of :21 4/5 and :45 1/5 before drawing off to a four-length victory over the quick-footed Wheatley Stable colt Big Bluffer in 1:04 1/5.

Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint would hook up again, but not before both had lost some of their luster. Any thoughts of Riva being Meadow Stable’s next big classic horse all but evaporated when he was forced to steady in the Great American Stakes and faded to eighth as the 6-5 favorite, while Key to the Mint could only finish third, also as the 6-5 favorite, in a 5 ½-furlong allowance race. But both colts bounced back impressively with Riva Ridge winning the six-furlong Flash Stakes at Saratoga under new rider Ron Turcotte in a swift 1:09 4/5 and Key to the Mint scoring a hard-earned victory in a six-furlong allowance, ironically also ridden by Ron Turcotte.

The two colts met for the third time in Belmont’s historic Futurity Stakes. When Riva Ridge won the Futurity by 1 ½ lengths with Key to the Mint tiring to finish fifth under regular rider John Rotz it looked like both careers were heading in different directions. But the Rokeby Stable colt did have one last chance to turn the tables on Riva Ridge in the rich Garden State Stakes. By then, Riva was a bona fide star having romped by seven lengths in the Champagne Stakes and 11 lengths in the Pimlico-Laurel Futurity. Key to the Mint was beaten a nose in the Cowdin Stakes before finishing first in a prep for the Garden State, but was disqualified. He came right back to win a seven-furlong allowance race at Aqueduct by two lengths over up-and-comer No Le Hace.

1971 Garden State Stakes Program Interior

The Garden State Stakes was one of the most anticipated races of the year, not because of any possible rivalry between Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint, but an intriguing confrontation between Riva and Ogden Phipps’ wonder filly Numbered Account, pitting male vs. female for 2-year-old supremacy. It also matched father and son against each other, with Roger Laurin having left Meadow Stable earlier that year. The younger Laurin was well aware of Riva Ridge. But as good as Riva looked, he knew Numbered Account was one of the best 2-year-old fillies seen in many years, winning eight of her nine starts, including romps in the Spinaway, Matron, Frizette, Selima, and Gardenia Stakes by an average margin of over five lengths. Now, after a long campaign, she was coming back only one week after the Gardenia.

Garden State Park played the race up big, taking out ads and giving patrons a choice of buttons as they entered the track, one saying “I Like the King in the Garden State” and the other “I Like the Queen in the Garden State. But there was always the presence of Key to the Mint lurking in the background. Riva Ridge was made the even-money favorite, with Numbered Account 2-1 and Key to the Mint 5-1. As it turned out, the race was not as competitive as people had hoped, as Riva Ridge drew off to a 2 ½-length victory over longshot Freetex, with Key to the Mint third and a weary Numbered Account finishing fourth.

So Penny Tweedy had the Derby horse she was looking for and The Meadow’s future finally was starting to look brighter. Although Riva Ridge had beaten Key to the Mint in all three of their meetings, their rivalry was only beginning.

Key to the Mint ended his 2-year-old campaign with a game victory in the Remsen Stakes and many felt with his classic pedigree he would only keep getting better as the distances stretched out. Unfortunately, a back injury prevented him from being ready for the Kentucky Derby, but he returned to win the Derby Trial by 2 ½ lengths and the Preakness Prep by the same margin, setting up another confrontation with Riva Ridge in the Preakness Stakes. Riva had romped in the Blue Grass Stakes and then gave Christopher Chenery his Kentucky Derby victory, winning the Run for the Roses wire-to-wire by 3 ¼ lengths over No Le Hace. But more important, he had brought The Meadow back from the brink, finally silencing those who felt it was not worth tying to save.

But the Preakness turned out to be a disaster for both colts, as they floundered in the mud, with Key to the Mint finishing third and Riva Ridge fourth behind longshot Bee Bee Bee. It did, however, mark the first time Key to the Mint finished ahead of Riva Ridge.

Things returned to normal when Riva Ridge decimated his opponents by seven lengths in the Belmont Stakes, with Key to the Mint fading to fourth. The Meadow colt was clearly the leading 3-year-old in the country and arguably the best horse in the country at any age. Many believed if not for the sloppy track at Pimlico, which proved to be Riva’s Achilles heel, he would have been the first Triple Crown winner in 24 years.

Penny Tweedy had stood firm despite all the forces against her and she could now look ahead to re-establishing The Meadow as a leading force in the racing and breeding industry. “Riva’s success was crucial,” she said in 1998. “If he hadn’t turned into such a good horse, the family members and Dad’s financial team probably would have decided to sell all the horses and invest in the stock market. He made me look good enough to keep the stable alive.”

Following the Triple Crown both colts went their separate ways. Lucien Laurin and Penny decided to ship Riva Ridge to Hollywood Park just three weeks after the Belmont for the mile and a quarter Hollywood Derby, where he would have to carry 129 pounds and give away substantial weight to several hard-knocking California horses. Riva, under constant pressure the whole way, had to fight off several challenges in the stretch to eke out a neck victory in 1:59 3/5, giving 15 pounds to runner-up Bicker. The race took its toll and Riva never seemed quite the same the rest of the year. Even Penny admitted years later, “That race cooked him.”

Key to the Mint, however, finally became the horse everyone at Rokeby thought he’d be, defeating older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap and Whitney Stakes and then defeating the tough little Tentam in the Travers Stakes, missing the track record by a fifth of a second.

Riva Ridge could only finish fourth in the Monmouth Invitational Handicap, but Penny and Laurin did not like the way the colt looked or acted and requested post-race blood and urine tests, which revealed the presence of a tranquilizer. The FBI and the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau were notified, but all that came of this controversy was the knowledge that someone had gotten to the colt and the race was a total throwout.

Riva was then entered against the previous year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Canonero in the 1 1/8-mile Stymie Handicap, giving the older horse 13 actual pounds and 18 pounds on the scale. The two Derby winners battled head and head for over a half-mile before Canonero, equipped with blinkers, drew off to win by five lengths, setting a new American record.

Even with Riva Ridge having dominated the Triple Crown and winning a major stakes in California, Key to the Mint’s string of impressive victories in prestigious stakes, two against top-class older horses, put him in the running for the 3-year-old championship, which would be decided in the mile and a half Woodward Stakes, run on a sloppy track, for which Riva Ridge had shown a disdain on several occasions. But by then Riva was a battle-weary horse, having competed at seven tracks from coast to coast, and was no match for Key to the Mint, who won by 1 ¼ lengths, with Riva Ridge fourth.

Riva did have one last chance to face Key to the Mint and regain his place as the leading 3-year-old in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, but he had no business being in that race. Although he had won the Belmont on an easy lead most of the way, he clearly was not a two-mile horse. After hard campaigns both he and Key to the Mint fell victim to the top older horse Autobiography, who Key to the Mint had defeated in the Woodward. The Rokeby colt did manage to finish a well-beaten second with Riva Ridge third, enabling him to snatch the 3-year-old title away from the colt who had once dominated him. 

The following year belonged to Secretariat, and Riva Ridge had to race in his stablemate’s shadow all year. As far as his rivalry with Key to the Mint, they would face each other three more times. Key to the Mint was coming off an impressive victory in the Excelsior Handicap in near track-record time and Riva Ridge had easily won a six-furlong allowance sharpener when the two met for the eight time in The Met Mile. When the track came up sloppy, Riva Ridge, as expected, showed little finishing seventh, while Key to the Mint ran a strong second to Tentam.

Riva Ridge bounced back to win the Massachusetts Handicap equaling the track record, while Key to the Mint scored an impressive allowance victory going 1 1/8 miles. That set up their penultimate meeting in the 1 3/16-mile Brooklyn Handicap. Key to the Mint for some reason was very rank early and wound up dueling for the lead through testing fractions of :46 2/5 and 1:09 2/5, with Riva Ridge rating beautifully in third. He collared Key to the Mint after a scorching mile in 1:33 3/5 and put Tentam away after a brief battle. But then Darby Dan’s mighty mite, True Knight, who always came from the clouds with a big stretch run, again rallied from far back and closed in on Riva Ridge, who was giving him 10 pounds. Riva dug in and just held off the furious charge of True Knight to win by head, and his time of 1:52 2/5 shattered the track record and established a new American record.

The following morning I visited Riva at the barn to see how he had come out of the race, and so typical of Riva, I found him outside fraternizing with a kitten who had perched himself atop the fence post (shameless promotion: click to view and obtain photo), as the two seemed quite taken with each other. He was still the same kind-hearted soul I had seen that day at Aqueduct.

Coming off such a hard race, Riva Ridge skipped the Suburban Handicap, run only 17 days later. Key to the Mint did show up after his disappointing fourth-place Brooklyn finish and took complete charge from the start, then held off True Knight to win by almost two lengths.

The final meeting between Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint came in the inaugural Marlboro Cup, but the rivalry ended ignominiously when Riva Ridge finished a strong second to Secretariat in world-record time and Key to the Mint never ran a lick. He inexplicably had gone off form, and after another poor performance in the United Nations Handicap on grass he was retired to Gainesway Farm. Riva, however, maintained his good form winning the Stuyvesant Handicap in record time under 130 pounds. He, for some odd reason, was entered in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and was annihilated by Prove Out who simply ran him off his feet. It was not the way his career was supposed to end. Penny admitted years later that being new to the sport, she, as well as Laurin, made a lot of mistakes with Riva.

So the rivalry was over. Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint had faced each other 10 times, with Riva finishing ahead of his rival in six of them:

1971 – Riva Ridge 3 (3 victories), Key to the Mint 0  – Riva Ridge named Champion 2-year-old

1972 – Key to the Mint 3 (1 victory), Riva Ridge 1 (1 victory) – Key to the Mint named Champion 3-year-old

1973 – Riva Ridge 2 (1 victory), Key to Mint 1  – Riva Ridge named Champion Older Horse

There has been no greater rivalry than the one between Affirmed and Alydar later in the decade. But few people think of Riva Ridge and Key to the Mint, who danced every dance for three years. They raced a combined 59 times, winning 31 races and competing in 44 stakes, while earning three championships. Yes it was a glorious time in racing that saw many of the greatest horses of all time compete. The Cinderella story of Canonero II and his Triple Crown quest was the opening act of the ‘70s, but in many ways racing’s Golden Decade began in a maiden race on a Wednesday afternoon at Belmont Park.

 

Photos courtesy of Daily Racing Form, Steve Haskin, Secretariat.com, Hollywood Park, and New York Racing Association

Triple Crown 2021 Proves its Quality

Monday, June 14th, 2021

With the Belmont Stakes still relatively fresh in people’s minds, here are my thoughts on the race, the Triple Crown, and especially Essential Quality. ~ Steve Haskin

Triple Crown 2021 Proves its Quality

By Steve Haskin

There are two questions regarding the 2021 Triple Crown: how will it be remembered and how do we hope it will be remembered? The first question cannot be answered in full until the Medina Spirit/Bob Baffert mess is resolved. We are all aware that Medina Spirit’s betamethasone positive, whether it is determined it was administered by injection or ointment, has left a stain on the Run for the Roses that precipitated a two-year ban for Baffert by Churchill Downs stewards. So the man who has become the face of the Kentucky Derby with seven victories and is almost as recognizable as the twin spires as of now will not be seen at the Downs until 2024, some three months after his 71st birthday.

We saw some compelling human interest stories, from Gail Rice and Christine Whitman and their sale and purchase of the $1,000 colt with the obscure pedigree who won the Derby to small-time owners and breeders John and Diane Fradkin, who wound up with a Preakness winner from an unraced mare whose dam they purchased as a yearling for $10,500 and who never finished in the money in four claiming races. It is a family that goes back several generations of New Jersey breeding.

The repercussions from the Kentucky Derby positive blood test sadly will be felt for awhile, as we wade through a morass of litigation before we find out if Medina Spirit will be stripped of his Derby victory, which would tarnish the race even further considering most people believe the colt earned the victory on his own.

Now let’s take the optimistic path of what we hope will be remembered. Looking down the road after the chaos has subsided, I believe, or hope, what we will remember most is Essential Quality boosting the reputation of this year’s crop of 3-year-olds and the quality of the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes in such exciting and impressive fashion.This group of sophomores, considered by many as subpar or mediocre at best, especially after the injury to Life is Good, took on a whole new look following the exceptional performance by Essential Quality, as well as Hot Rod Charlie, and the lofty speed figures they earned. The Belmont also gave us a sense of continuity, as the two horses who battled to the wire were the same two horses who battled to the wire in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile seven months earlier. And both horses won prestigious Derby preps (Blue Grass Stakes and Louisiana Derby) in between.

If Medina Spirit is disqualified and runner-up Mandaloun is declared the winner, at least the Juddmonte colt, who went into the Kentucky Derby off a dismal effort in the Louisiana Derby, proved his performance at Churchill Downs was the real Mandaloun by overcoming a terrible trip in this past Sunday’s Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park, winning in gutsy fashion.

With Essential Quality, the Belmont was not just an impressive performance by a very talented colt; this was the champion 2-year-old, who had lost only one race in his career. And many believe he was the best horse in that race. Not only did Essential Quality get mugged at the start of the Kentucky Derby, costing him valuable early position, he was hung out four-wide on both turns, which forced him to run 68 feet farther than the victorious Medina Spirit.

It’s not as if Essential Quality ran much better in the Belmont than Hot Rod Charlie, who many felt actually ran a better race fighting on the lead with Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World through torrid early fractions and continuing to battle the length of the stretch, while finishing 11 lengths ahead of Preakness winner Rombauer in third. What made this race so memorable for Essential Quality was the fact that he showed once again, even going a mile and a half, that he is machine-like in his ability to adjust his running style according to the pace. It is extremely rare to see a horse display such adaptability race after race, as if he knows exactly where he should be. Of course, credit has to go to jockey Luis Saez, but very few horses will allow themselves to be so pliable in the hands of its rider.

Let’s look at his career starts. In his debut going six furlongs, the opening quarter was run in a scorching :21 2/5 and he took back 7 ½ lengths before drawing off to a four-length victory. In his two-turn debut, the grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, they crawled the opening half in :48 4/5 and three-quarters in 1:13 2/5 and he adjusted by pressing the pace from the start before again drawing off to a comfortable score. In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile they flew the opening fractions in :45 1/5 and 1:10 2/5 and he dropped nine lengths off the pace before running down Hot Rod Charlie. We’ll skip the Southwest Stakes because there was no way to judge the pace on such a sloppy track. But even then he stayed within two to three lengths of the leaders before drawing away to win by 4 ¼ lengths. In the Blue Grass Stakes, the pace was slow with a half in :48 1/5 and three-quarters in 1:12, and he again adjusted by pressing the front-running Highly Motivated every step of the way before wearing him down in the final yards. Then in the Belmont Stakes, they went the opening quarter in an outrageous :22 3/5 (a full second faster than Secretariat) and half in :46 2/5 (only a fifth slower than Secretariat), and he dropped seven lengths off the pace before running down a gutsy Hot Rod Charlie to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

This is what I meant by machine-like. It’s as if he is programmed to put himself in the exact spot that would give him the best chance to win. Only in the Kentucky Derby did that program get knocked out of whack by outside forces that prevented him from being where he wanted to be.

I went back and tried to find a horse who I can compare Essential Quality to when it comes to versatility, adaptability, consistency, and professionalism. The first horse that came to mind was Spectacular Bid. But it’s not fair to compare any horse, especially this early in his career, to one of the truly all-time greats. In addition, The Bid could press a very fast pace and just keep going, running his opponents into the ground. But other than that there are similarities when it comes to always being in the right spot to win. We’re certainly not going to compare him to Secretariat, to whom pace had little meaning and who could do things no one had ever seen before. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were both versatile, but not to this extent and occasionally put themselves in a position to get beat.

Before I went any further I came to the realization that it was futile and meaningless to try to find a horse with whom to compare him. He just goes out and does his thing every race in all manner of ways, whether at six furlongs or 1 ½ miles or on a fast or sloppy track, and it’s time we start enjoying him for what he is and what he is capable of doing.

Niall Brennan, who gave him his early training before sending him to Brad Cox, could see all his attributes early on. “He was always very good for a Tapit, whose offspring can be quite hot or even common,” he said. “But he always showed class and had a lot of ability. He would play around a bit sometimes, but just feeling good. He was intelligent and alert and picked up on things quickly when we started breezing. We always breeze in pairs and he was naturally competitive and improved every week. He did things so easily we felt he would keep improving when we sent him to Brad.”

So, 13 months after leaving Brennan we are still seeing that class and ability and certainly that competitiveness. And he is still improving every week. Once again we can only compare him to a well-made machine that keeps working at high efficiency, can be used in many different ways, and never needs servicing.

As for my own dealings with him on the Derby Rankings, after having ranked him No. 1 the first two weeks I became enamored first with Greatest Honour and then Rock Your World, and always had Known Agenda right up there. That was in good part to their strong stamina pedigrees top and bottom (when am I going to learn?). The main reason I kept Essential Quality at No. 2 and No. 3 were my concerns about him excelling at classic distances, certainly not because of Tapit, but because his dam, third dam, and broodmare sire were sprinters. His second dam did produce a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, but she was by the stamina-oriented Tiznow, and the other five stakes in which she won or placed were all sprints. I thought I was right with my concerns when, even with his bad trip, Essential Quality failed to catch Medina Spirit, Mandaloun, and Hot Rod Charlie despite having the entire Churchill Downs stretch to do so. But then Tapit, the sire king of the Belmont Stakes, came pouring out in the final leg of the Triple Crown, as he had done on three other occasions, and made the speed in his female family seem insignificant, as he ran the best race of his life, earning impressive speed figures.

Just like that, he and Hot Rod Charlie made this crop of 3-year-olds look a lot faster with their respective 109 and 108 Beyer numbers and Essential Quality’s negative-1 ½ Thoro-Graph number, his third negative number of the year, along with a “zero. In short, he never regresses.

So the 2021 Triple Crown is in the books. Some of the pages may be seared along the edges and will continue to smolder for a while, but there is still enough strong content to leave one with the promise of an exciting July and August when the Haskell, Jim Dandy and Travers will bring the Triple Crown participants together again, and possibly introduce a second wave of brilliant newcomers, such as Flightline, Stage Raider, and Following Sea. Who is not looking forward to another battle between Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie, who in their three confrontations have been separated by a total in 2 ¼ lengths?

There usually is one race and one performance that a horse will use as the bridge from star to superstar. Essential Quality is nearing that bridge, if he hasn’t already crossed it. And if there is one thing Thoroughbred racing needs right now it is a superstar to bring some positive energy back to the sport.

Photos courtesy of New York Racing Association and Alex Evers

The Tapit No one Knows

Monday, June 7th, 2021

Handicapping the Belmont Stakes has become a piece of cake. Just pick a son of Tapit, as we witnessed yet again with the victory by Essential Quality. Regarded by many as the most dominant sire America has seen in a number of years, Tapit has become one of the great success stories in the history of the bluegrass. But that is not the only story. His brief career as a racehorse is not known by many, but needs to be told to complete the saga of this very special horse. ~ Steve Haskin

The Tapit No One Knows

By Steve Haskin

As you walk into the Belmont Park clubhouse entrance, directly to your left is “Woody’s Corner,” a collection of trophies and other memorabilia celebrating trainer Woody Stephens’ remarkable feat of winning five consecutive runnings of the Belmont Stakes.

It’s just about time to start an equine version with “Tapit’s Corner,” celebrating the Gainesway Farm stallion’s accomplishment of siring four Belmont Stakes winners in seven years. We are excluding the 2020 edition because that race bore no resemblance to the Test of the Champion, being run as the first leg of the Triple Crown at a one-turn mile and an eighth due to the pandemic that dramatically altered the schedule of racing’s most prestigious triad.

If not for Triple Crown winner American Pharoah defeating Frosted in 2015, Tapit’s son Tapwrit, winner of the 2017 Belmont, would have been the stallion’s fourth consecutive Belmont Stakes winner, an achievement that would have put him right up there with Stephens. As it is, Tapit has earned his place in Belmont lore with his remarkable feat, which continued this year with the impressive victory of 2-year-old champion Essential Quality. In addition, not only did Tapit’s son Creator win the 2016 Belmont, another of his sons, Lani, finished a fast-closing third, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths. So, from 2014 to 2017, Tapit’s sons had three wins, a second, and a third in the third leg of the Triple Crown.

Although Tapit’s first Belmont winner Tonalist was regarded as one of the best horses in the country, adding two victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup as well as the Cigar Mile, Essential Quality at this point in his career arguably is the most talented and accomplished of his sons, with a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Blue Grass Stakes victory and a near unbeaten record. He also became the first BC Juvenile winner to capture the Belmont Stakes.

Essential Quality’s pedigree is an interesting one, with 14 sires in his first five generations contributing to his inbreeding. In addition to being inbred to Fappiano and In Reality, he is inbred four times to Mr. Prospector and three times to Northern Dancer. But what stands out the most is being inbred to Secretariat through all three of his daughters who have dominated American breeding – Weekend Surprise (dam of A.P. Indy), Terlingua (dam of Storm Cat), and Secrettame (dam of Gone West).

To demonstrate just how influential Tapit is in a horse’s pedigree and how much stamina he infuses in their blood, Conrad Bandoroff, son of Denali Stud owner Craig Bandoroff, who consigned Tapwrit to the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale, where he sold for a whopping $1.2 million, was skeptical how far Tapwrit wanted to go because of his immediate female family – his dam, grandsire, and great-grandsire were all sprinters or milers who produced sprinters or milers.

“I was surprised honestly,” he said several years ago. “I thought that, in the Derby, the distance seemed to get to him a bit. Those concerns were there with his dam Appealing Zophie running her best races over seven furlongs to a mile, but I think that’s what makes Tapit such an unbelievable stallion, that he can inject stamina.”

So, when we think of Tapit we think of his outstanding career as a stallion and as a sire of Belmont Stakes winners. But what most people don’t think about is Tapit the racehorse. Perhaps that is because his racing career was brief and ended with poor finishes in the Kentucky Derby and then the Pennsylvania Derby four months later. But there was a great deal more to his career and his adventures with his enigmatic and colorful trainer Michael Dickinson.

Michael Hernon, former director of sales at Gainesway Farm, recalled, “I remember watching him win the Laurel Futurity and going straight to the books to look up his pedigree. That really impressed me.  Then you see names like Relaunch and Foggy Note and Mahmoud. Once a horse shows that kind of brilliance and acceleration you know he has it. He had that smooth as silk acceleration, and he’s also got the pedigree and the physical attributes, and he’s got a great libido. His fertility rate is very high.”

At Tapeta Farm where he was trained by Dickinson for owner Ron Winchell, Tapit had a reputation as being unpredictable and always getting into mischief. One day, Dickinson’s partner in life, Joan Wakefield, heard a racket in Tapit’s stall and went running over to see what was happening. The colt had grabbed the rubber mat in his mouth and was flinging it wildly against the wall of his stall.

“He’s just a flamboyant little horse, who’s always full of life,” said exercise rider Jon “John Boy Ferriday at the time.

And Tapit’s offspring certainly seem full of life as well, regardless of the distance at which they are competing. The aforementioned Frosted, not only was second in the Belmont to American Pharoah, he demonstrated that brilliance Tapit is capable of passing on by winning the following year’s Met Mile by an astounding 14 lengths in a stakes record 1:32 3/5.

As for Tapit’s courage and fortitude as a racehorse, he literally brought Dickinson to tears following his remarkable victory in the Wood Memorial, a race Dickinson was convinced he was going to lose even before he shipped him up to Aqueduct. The colt had missed a lot of time and training due to a shin problem and then getting sick, and also developing a foot abscess, and Dickinson agonized about running him in the Wood in an attempt to make the Kentucky Derby, especially considering the Wood would be only his fourth career start, and no horse had won the Kentucky Derby off as few as four career starts since Exterminator in 1918.

To set the stage for the Wood, you have to go back to Tapit’s brief, but brilliant 2-year-old campaign. After breaking his maiden at Delaware Park by 7 3⁄4 lengths, he then put on a sensational display of class, speed, and courage by winning the Laurel Futurity by 4 3⁄4 lengths with a breathtaking burst of speed, despite a nightmarish trip in which he was bumped early and forced to steady for a good portion of the race.

Five months later he was trying to earn his way into the Kentucky Derby field in a most unconventional manner. But as it turned out, Tapit proved to be as unconventional as his trainer, who has made a habit of accomplishing the seemingly impossible.

Following an inexplicable sixth-place finish in the Florida Derby in his 3-year-old debut, Tapit returned home to Tapeta, located in North East, Maryland, where an ultrasound revealed he had a very significant lung infection. Another ultrasound was taken two weeks later and one lung was 100% and the other was 80%. Dickinson gave him a light five-furlong breeze and said he could blow a house down afterward. It was apparent he was far from being 100 percent fit. Dickinson was going to wheel him back and work him a mile, but told owner Ron Winchell and manager David Fiske, “I’ve got to give him as long as I dare to get him healthy and give the lungs a chance to heal. It takes 28 days for the lung to get a new lining.”

Dickinson gave Tapit several extra days and worked him a mile in 1:47 over the uphill course at Tapeta. On the Wednesday before the Wood, another ultrasound found one lung to be 100% and the other 99.9%. Although the colt finally was healthy, he still had only the one serious work and was about two weeks from being 100 percent fit. But Dickinson had no choice but to send a partially fit Tapit into the Wood, in which he’d face the brilliant Florida Derby runner-up, Value Plus, as well as the top-class Master David and Eddington, who, like Tapit, were in desperate need of graded stakes earnings to assure a place in the Kentucky Derby field. If he didn’t run in the Wood he would have no chance of getting in the Derby. It was decided to try and hope he could at least pick up a piece of the purse.

“We’re just going to be at the back of the pack and pass beaten ones at the end,” Dickinson said after analyzing the race and plotting strategy. “We’re never going to be in the race, we’re just going to come late. “He won’t win; he’s not fit enough. I’ll be over the moon if he can finish third.”

What Dickinson feared going into the Wood was that Tapit, being such a generous and competitive horse, would try too hard and give more than what was expected of him.

“He never knew he was sick,” Dickinson said. “Even when he’s not well he’s always perky. Nothing gets him down.”

Dickinson, as usual, vanned Tapit up to Aqueduct the morning of the race, arriving at around 9 a.m. Value Plus was made the 5-2 favorite, with Eddington at 3-1, Master David 7-2, and Tapit getting played, illness or no illness, at 5-1.

At the start of the Wood, Tapit got shuffled back to last, as Lane’s End Stakes winner Sinister G broke like a shot from the 9 post and engaged Value Plus to his inside. The pair were joined by longshot Cuba on the first term, but managed to get away with an opening quarter in :23 3/5 with Eddington and Master David running side by side. Ramon Dominguez steered Tapit to the outside down the backstretch and let him gradually pick up horses. The pace remained even, with a half in :47 and three-quarters in 1:11 2/5.

Value Plus was still battling with Sinister G nearing the head of the stretch when Eddington and Swingforthefences charged up on the outside, with Alex Solis, on Master David, finding an inviting opening along the rail. By now, Tapit was in full gear without Dominguez even having to ask him. He swung him to the far outside, as the favorites charged down the stretch. Sinister G cracked under the pressure, then Value Plus followed, leaving the four horses in need of earnings to battle it out for the all-important top two spots. Swingforthefences couldn’t sustain his move, and then it was down to three. Dickinson had been expecting a third-place finish at best and then would hope there would be enough withdrawals to allow Tapit to sneak into the Derby field.

In the stretch, Master David slipped through to take a narrow lead over Eddington. Just when it looked like Master David had the race won, Tapit, his head cocked toward the grandstand, came charging up on the outside like a dead-fit horse and spurted in the final yards to win by a half-length, covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 3/5.

Ferriday headed back to the barn area with Tapit, and was amazed what the colt had accomplished. “He’s a brilliant horse to have pulled this off,” he said. To demonstrate how tough a horse Tapit was, he coughed the entire way from the winner’s circle to the test barn.

Dickinson stood off in a corner of the Aqueduct winner’s circle and tried his best to explain how Tapit managed to win the Wood. But even he couldn’t do it. He was too emotional knowing what the colt had gone through. This was more than just another logic-defying conquest by the unorthodox trainer. Although some perceive Dickinson to be a graduate of the Hogwarts School, performing Harry Potter-like feats of magic, he knew there was nothing wizardly about this latest feat.

This was simply a trainer in awe of a horse. Tapit had overcome one setback after another that winter and spring, and somehow was still in the Kentucky Derby picture, despite missing 19 days of training with shin problems, and coming out of his sixth-place finish in the Florida Derby with a serious lung infection and a foot abscess.

Now, here he was trying to explain how Tapit could come from dead-last over a speed-biased track, circle the field five wide, and mow down every one of his 10 opponents to win by a half-length. And this with only one race all year, and a poor performance at that, and only one serious work since the Florida Derby.

“I was dreading the race, because I knew he wasn’t fit,” Dickinson said. “He’s a very generous horse, and he has such a big heart.”

By now, the words were becoming difficult to get out. Tears were welling up, and his voice began to quaver noticeably. “I felt I was putting him into battle unprepared,” he continued. “And if anything had happened I would have blamed myself. But the horse carried me through. I’m indebted to him and we love him dearly.”

What made it even more emotional for him was knowing he would be heading to the Kentucky Derby with a horse owned by the Winchell family, who had supported him for years.

Dickinson previously had trained grade I winner Fleet Renee for longtime owner Verne Winchell. At the 2002 Keeneland September yearling sale, Winchell, his son Ron, and Fiske purchased the son of Pulpit-Tap Your Heels, by Unbridled, for $625,000, which was about $100,000 more than Winchell usually would spend for a young horse. He had been recommended by Dr. David Lambert after Lambert performed a heart scan on the colt. Winchell asked Dickinson what he thought of the horse, and when the trainer said he really liked him, Winchell promised him the horse. After being broken in Texas by Keith Asmussen, Tapit was sent to Tapeta Farm in May of 2003.

But Tapit would be the last horse Verne Winchell would purchase. Two months after the sale, Winchell died of a heart attack at age 87.

“He was a star, an absolute star,” Dickinson said. “He was a true gentleman and he loved his horses.”

Ron Winchell added, “Obviously, being the last horse we ever bought together carries some sort of emotional impact.”

For Dickinson, the worrying was far from over following the Wood. “Now, the question is, will he bounce?” he said. “I want to see him scoped, and see how he’s doing tonight and tomorrow. We’ll weigh him tonight and every day. The secret of how quickly a horse gets over a race is how quickly they return to their normal weight.”

All looked well, and it was time to ship to Kentucky to face the unbeaten sensation Smarty Jones.

One of the everlasting images of that year’s Derby was Tapit’s arrival at Churchill Downs. It was a sight no one had ever seen before and won’t see again.

As everyone is well aware, there is nothing conventional about Dickinson, who has always marched to the beat of his own drum.

When Dickinson shipped Tapit to Churchill Downs on the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby, the trainer brought a little bit of his farm with him.

Dickinson packed the colt’s daily treats of Guinness beer and three eggs, along with a long swath of sod and grass from Tapeta Farm for his daily grazing sessions to make the transition from Tapeta to Churchill a little easier for him. It was an odd sight watching Dickinson roll out his carpet of home-grown grass over the grass outside the receiving barn.

“I want to make my horse as comfortable as possible,” Dickinson said. “He gets his one beer and three eggs every day at the farm mixed with his grain. He likes the grass the best. It’s part of his natural diet.”

Dickinson added that he prefers training at his farm as opposed to at a racetrack. “It’s tough training at the track and it’s very hard for one guy to rise above the rest. If I were at the track I would probably starve,” he said. “At the farm I am free to improvise. I can breeze my horses at 3 p.m. if I so choose. I don’t, but I could.”

He also brought with him several other conveniences, such as a heat lamp and a camera, which he promptly installed in Tapit’s stall.

Pulling off remarkable training feats at Tapeta was nothing out of the ordinary for Dickinson, who was known as “The Mad Genius.” Certainly everyone remembered Da Hoss. After winning the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Mile, Da Hoss was sidelined for nearly two years with a bowed tendon and other maladies. Dickinson nursed him back to health to win the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile after just one minor prep race at Colonial Downs.

So Tapit went into the Derby off only four career starts, and in one of them, the Florida Derby, he was sick and ran poorly.

“My health always reflects my horses’ health,” Dickinson said. “He was sick so I was sick. We’re both feeling a lot better now.”

In the Derby, whether Tapit bounced or simply couldn’t get hold of the deep sloppy track, he wound up ninth without ever threatening.

Put away and targeted for the Haskell Invitational, he was forced to miss the race due to throat surgery. When he returned in the Pennsylvania Derby and finished ninth again it was decided to retire him to Gainesway Farm for a $15,000 stud fee, which would prove to be one of the great bargains in breeding history considering that his fee eventually would skyrocket to $300,000.

With only six lifetime starts, we’ll never know how good Tapit could have been on the track. But we sure know how good he’s been in the breeding shed. His offspring certainly are giving us a hint of what we might have witnessed had he been healthy and able to continue his racing career.

Regardless of what he accomplishes in future years as a stallion, what I will remember most about Tapit is spending a glorious, relaxing morning at Gainesway Farm the day before the 2014 Kentucky Derby and being captivated by the stallion’s elegant beauty, his near white coat and refined Arabian-like head set against a backdrop of green and bright blue sky. I will also remember that afternoon at Aqueduct when Tapit brought his trainer to tears by winning a race he had no business winning. And, of course, there was his grand and unique entrance at Churchill Downs, where he received a red, or should I say green, carpet welcome.

Now here we are in 2021 with Tapit having celebrated his 20th birthday on February 27. Another Belmont Stakes has come and gone and the legend continues.

Photos courtesy of Gainesway Farm, New York Racing Association, Gulfstream Park, and Steve Haskin

Let it be Known, Rock is Ready to Roll

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2021

This crop of 3-year-olds has been called inferior and slow, and many are saying the Belmont is a poor field. But when you get right down to it, how many Belmonts can you remember that have had the 2-year-old champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, the Preakness winner, the Blue Grass winner, the Santa Anita Derby winner, the Florida Derby winner, and the Wood Memorial winner? On the other hand, only one of the eight starters is coming off a victory and five of the eight were out of the money in their last start. For now let’s just try to pick a winner and save the reviews for later. ~ Steve Haskin

Let it be Known, Rock is Ready to Roll

By Steve Haskin

 

Confused you with that headline, didn’t I? Yes, there are two winners cleverly woven into one head, but for good reason, which will be explained shortly.

With my early big value choice for the Belmont Stakes, Rebel’s Romance, now sidelined with a foot infection, I actually considered two headlines for this column but couldn’t decide which one to use. One would have easily lured the reader into this tangled web of befuddlement : “Belmont Winner Finally is Known.” Did you catch the prediction that the 6-1 Known Agenda, who had occupied our Derby Rankings Top 10 for most of the year, will win the Belmont?

But another potentially prophetic headline would be “World Domination.” Not only does this headline also predict the winner, in this case Rock Your World who was ranked No. 1 for several weeks, it also suggests we’re going to witness one of those Risen Star, Point Given, and Bet Twice double-digit-length Belmont romps.
So which headline is more appropriate? That is what we’re here to decide.

Let’s start with Rock Your World, who had nothing more than a leisurely sightseeing tour of Churchill Downs back on the first Saturday in May. If you believe his horrendous start and ensuing lack of interest in the proceedings was reason enough to throw out the race, and if you believe his size, speed, and huge stride is made for those big sweeping Belmont turns, then, yes, it is possible that he could take the lead, run his opponents off their feet, and just keep going. There certainly isn’t anything in his pedigree to prevent him from doing so.

That is one scenario if you don’t mind the 9-2 morning line odds on a horse that finished at the back of the pack in the Kentucky Derby. I have maintained for a long time that this colt could be special. He looked far from special at Churchill Downs, and he is still inexperienced and an unknown quantity, but he is trying hard to put the Derby debacle behind him, as evidenced by his five-furlong work in a spectacular :58 2/5, far and away the fastest work of the day. And he did it alone with no company. So would it be a surprise to see him not only bounce back to his Santa Anita Derby form, but surpass it and win by a pole? Not at all. Then again, would it be a surprise to see him throw in another disappointing performance? Yes, but it wouldn’t be a complete shock considering how little we know about him and how bad his Derby was. Having been a huge supporter of his before he even set foot on dirt and having him ranked No. 1 for so long I have to think positive and can certainly envision him winning the Belmont in a runaway.

Now we come to our other headline about the Belmont winner being “known.” Anyone who has followed the Derby Rankings is aware that Known Agenda was ranked No. 8 in Week 1 when he was just a maiden winner, moved up to No. 1 in Week 11, and ended up No. 2 behind Rock Your World. Being I am in such a forgiving mood, how can I not forgive his ninth-place finish in the Derby breaking from Post 1 and being trapped down on the rail the whole way, which is where he does not like to be. He has had a tendency to turn the switch off in his races when he loses his competitive spirit, and that is usually brought on by a seemingly claustrophobic insecurity of being stuck down on the rail. Even in the Florida Derby, Irad Ortiz had to encourage him three times on the far turn to keep him interested until he was able to ease out into the clear at the head of the stretch. Once he did he drew off to an impressive victory.

What I liked the most about his time off between the Derby and the Belmont was his work last week when Todd Pletcher had him on the inside of the top-class Dr. Post, as if to teach him to be focused and competitive down on the rail. He did just fine down there and was striding out beautifully in the stretch working with a horse who will likely be one of the favorites in the Met Mile.

It might be a moot point, because he drew Post 6 in the eight-horse field. Rock Your World, breaking just outside him, will show speed, and stablemate Overtook in Post 8, will drop far back. So that should leave Known Agenda with a clear outside run to the first turn and you can bet Ortiz will keep him out there, making sure he doesn’t get caught too wide on that big turn. Once he is able to get into that comfortable grinding style of running and keep up a steady pace within striking range, he will be able to use his best weapon, which is his stamina. No one in this field is going to outstay him.

So there you have my two winning scenarios and my exacta box…and my two headlines. Win bets in an eight-horse field in New York are difficult to commit to because the odds have a tendency to be too low for ones liking. Known Agenda is the only one I can think of right now that might be worth a straight win bet, and you’re still not going to get great odds.

Now, what about the logical horses, Essential Quality, Rombauer, and Hot Rod Charlie? How do you leave any of them out? They are all classy and consistent, and have had their moments to shine in big races.

But if you’re looking for a reason to bet against them at their short odds, we’ll give it a shot.

No one is debating the fact that Essential Quality is a worthy favorite and always runs his race. And he has the versatility and tactical speed you want to see in the Belmont Stakes. And, yes, he lost an awful lot of ground on both turns in his fourth-place Derby finish, which enabled him to equal his career-high Thoro-Graph number of negative-1/2. That was two full points faster than the victorious Medina Spirit and one point faster than third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie. The question with him is how he will handle the mile and a half, especially with his paddling action that may or may not have any effect on his performance. So far it hasn’t. Despite his wide trip, he still was almost on even terms with Medina Spirit, Mandaloun, and Hot Rod Charlie turning for home and couldn’t catch any of them. If he had managed to finish second or even third I believe it would have boosted one’s confidence more for the Belmont, considering he was an undefeated champion. But he just couldn’t improve his position despite having the length of the stretch to do so. That at least gives one food for thought if you’re trying to beat him.

Now we come to Rombauer, who was much the best in the Preakness and just blew right by Midnight Bourbon and Medina Spirit in the final furlong. Even a slight improvement should make him extremely difficult to beat, or even just maintaining his Preakness form. But again, if you are looking for a reason to bet against him other than the fact that his pedigree does not exactly shout a mile and a half, he is on a Thoro-Graph pattern that suggests he could “bounce” coming back in three weeks. Again, that is not to say he will, but consider that he ran back-to-back numbers of “7 ½” before jumping to a “4” in the Blue Grass Stakes. Given six weeks off after that race he made an even bigger leap in the Preakness, running a “zero.” Now he is coming back in only three weeks following a career-high number and stretching out to a mile and a half. Again, it is possible he is simply improving at the right time and he is that good, but if you are looking for a reason to try to beat him and you believe in the bounce theory then you can feel comfortable looking elsewhere.

Finally, we come to Hot Rod Charlie, whose best race was when he was able to control the pace up front in the Louisiana Derby. In his other races he was run down by Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and failed to catch Medina Spirit in both the Robert B. Lewis and Kentucky Derby, again, having the entire length of the stretch to do so in both races. He showed no improvement on his Thoro-Graph numbers from the Breeders’ Cup to the Louisiana Derby, but did improve in the Kentucky Derby off a six-week layoff. He is another whose pedigree is in question going a mile and a half, so can he improve again stretching out that far, especially if he doesn’t get the lead and again has to catch a horse in the stretch?

So, as talented as the three likely favorites are, there are reasons to play against them if you want to look for more value.

To be honest, there really is little to choose from if you’re looking for a straight win bet that will pay a decent price. Known Agenda as the fifth choice is the logical bet and after that you’e taking a chance with Todd Pletcher’s second and third string entries Bourbonic and Overtook, who both will have to hope for a fast pace and that everyone else comes back to them. The Japanese horse France Go de Ina is a total guess and did nothing to boost one’s confidence in the Preakness other than be in the hunt for the first half of the race before retreating. He could certainly improve in the Belmont, but how much?

So I am not going to devote a lot of time and money trying to figure out who to bet. Known Agenda will be my only win bet in an attempt to get a decent payoff, if of course he doesn’t get bet down too low. But if Rock Your World is 5-1 or higher he would have to be considered for a win bet as well.

I will also box Known Agenda and Rock Your World in the exactas. If I want to stretch out my bets I will be box Known Agenda with “all” and key Rock Your World on top with “all” and hope a price horse sneaks in for second.

Nothing interesting or creative here, but this field is not conducive to creativity or large investments.

So take your pick – “Belmont Winner Finally is Known” or “World Domination.” I’ll take either one. But for monetary purposes I have my own agenda…I think.

 

 

Belmont Buddies and the Crowns They Denied (Part 1 & Part 2)

Monday, May 31st, 2021

This is the story of two horses, who both denied what would have been historic Triple Crown sweeps and were champions themselves. Not only did they share that common bond on the racetrack, they would form a lifelong friendship as stallions, with each sharing the title of oldest living Belmont Stakes winner. ~ Steve Haskin

Belmont Buddies and the Crowns They Denied

By Steve Haskin

 

Johnny Be Good  

It was a turbulent period in America, as the country attempted to bond together amid one crisis after another and a rash of senseless killings. Horse racing reflected the times when the Kentucky Derby winner  failed a post-race drug test that prompted one New York newspaper to splash the headline “Derby Winner Drugged.” This could easily have described 2021, but in reality it was 1968, and it was followed by another volatile year in ‘69. But despite the uneasiness in America and the controversy in Kentucky, Thoroughbred racing flourished during those two years thanks to a collection of equine superstars that dominated the headlines seemingly every week.

Never before had racing seen so many exciting stars, from Dr. Fager, Damascus, Dark Mirage, Stage Door Johnny, In Reality, and Gamely in ’68 to Arts and Letters, Majestic Prince, Fort Marcy, Gallant Bloom, Shuvee, and Ta Wee in ’69. Among that group were 10 Hall of Famers.

Let’s begin in 1968, a year of student protests, assassinations, psychedelic drugs, and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Americans turned to sports to seek out their heroes, and Thoroughbred racing provided many of them. That is why the last place they expected to see more negative news was the Kentucky Derby.

That year’s Run for the Roses seemed innocent enough with a well-deserved victory by the late-closing Dancer’s Image, winner of the Wood Memorial and Governor’s Cup at Bowie. Unlike today, Dancer’s Image went into the Derby having already run 22 times, winning his first two stakes at Fort Erie and Greenwood in Canada. The son of Native Dancer was riding a three-race winning streak since trainer Lou Cavalaris removed his blinkers following a disappointing sixth-place finish in the Francis Scott Key Stakes and a third-place finish in the Prince George’s Stakes, both at Bowie.

Dancer’s Image’s huge stretch run in the Wood Memorial, in which he ran down two top-class horses, Iron Ruler and Verbatim, established him as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby, along with the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes winner Forward Pass, the latest star from Calumet Farm. In both those victories, Forward Pass, who previously romped in the seven-furlong Hibiscus Stakes and narrowly won the Everglades Stakes, won wire-to-wire, and his time of 1:47 4/5 in the Blue Grass missed Round Table’s track and stakes record by only two-fifths of a second.

So, when Dancer’s Image, second choice at 7-2, rallied from dead last in the 14-horse Derby field, storming up the rail to beat 2-1 favorite Forward Pass by 1 1/2 lengths despite jockey Bobby Ussery dropping his whip turning for home, it established the two favorites as the clear-cut leaders of the division.

But that was far from the end of the story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby. As owner Peter Fuller was celebrating the victory that evening, a short distance away in a trailer laboratory near Churchill Downs, urine specimen 3956-U, belonging to Dancer’s Image, revealed a positive test. The culprit was an old nemesis of racing, phenylbutazone, a pain killer distributed under the name Butazolidan and better known as “Bute,” which was banned in Kentucky.

To this day, no one knows how this happened or even if Dancer’s Image’s test really came up positive. Stories have surfaced since about sinister activities and manipulation. A month before the Derby, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated two days prior to Dancer’s Image winning the Governor’s Cup. Following the race, Fuller announced that he was donating the $60,000 winner’s purse to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.

In Kentucky, Fuller’s goodwill gesture was not taken by many in the spirit it was given. According to the New York Times, Fuller received death threats, and Dancer’s Image was “derided with a racial epithet around Louisville, and one of Fuller’s stables was set on fire.”

Dancer’s Image was disqualified and Forward Pass became the official winner of the Kentucky Derby. Fuller fought the ruling for years at a cost of $250,000 in legal fees, but in the end he had no other recourse but to give up the battle. It didn’t help his cause that Mrs. Gene Markey, owner of Calumet Farm, was putting pressure on the Kentucky Racing Commission to uphold the decision. So, the Dancer’s Image disqualification will forever remain tainted in controversy and mystery.

Ironically, one year after the Dancer’s Image case was closed following a five-year court battle, and at great cost to Fuller, the Kentucky Racing Commission legalized phenylbutazone.

Four days after the 1968 Derby, a race was run at Aqueduct that seemed to have no bearing whatsoever on the Triple Crown, as a striking golden chestnut 3-year-old colt with a white blaze owned by Greentree Stable named Stage Door Johnny broke his maiden in his fourth attempt, romping by six lengths in a sharp 1:35 1/5 for the mile. But it was accomplished under a feathery 114 pounds, eight pounds less than he carried in his three previous starts.

Stage Door Johnny’s trainer, John Gaver, was in the hospital at the time for a foot operation. When his son and assistant, John Gaver Jr., called him and told him about the race, the elder Gaver said without hesitation, “There’s our Belmont horse.”

With the stench of the Derby disqualification still permeating throughout the sport, it was soon time for the Preakness and one of the oddest rematches in the history of the Triple Crown, as Dancer’s Image was back to face Forward Pass.

Forward Pass was made the even-money favorite, with Dancer’s Image 6-5 and no one else in single-digit odds. This time, there was no doubt about the winner, as Forward Pass stalked the battling leaders, Martin’s Jig and Arkansas Derby winner Nodouble, then blew past them and drew off to a six-length victory. Dancer’s Image encountered heavy traffic while rallying in the upper stretch and had to make his own path, bulling his way through Nodouble and Martin’s Jig, soundly bumping the latter. He finished well to be third, just missing second by a head, but amazingly was disqualified again and placed eighth. For Fuller, the Triple Crown, which began in joyous celebration, had turned into a nightmare.

With Forward Pass now the official winner of the Derby and Preakness, everyone began seeing asterisks flashing before their eyes. Was this the way the 20-year-old Triple Crown drought was going to end? Were we going to add Forward Pass’s name to the elite list of Triple Crown winners alongside Citation, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, War Admiral and the other greats of the Turf?

Forward Pass no doubt was a very good horse, never having finished worse than fourth in 19 career starts. But he certainly did not seem to belong with the others in the Triple Crown pantheon, especially having been beaten in the Kentucky Derby. In fact, he barely held on for second, finishing a diminishing neck in front of a 32-1 shot named Francie’s Hat, who would have been the Derby winner in another jump or two.

Unfortunately, there did not appear to be a horse capable of stopping this ignominious chapter of the Triple Crown from being written, especially with Dancer’s Image coming up lame. His right ankle that had given him problems before flared up again prior to the Belmont, resulting in his retirement. He never did receive the credit he most likely deserved for winning the Kentucky Derby. He eventually was sent to stand at stud in Japan, where he died in 1992 at age 27; a dubious footnote in Triple Crown history.

Five days after the Preakness, at the newly opened Belmont Park, which had been shut down from 1962 to ’68 while undergoing renovation, they ran a mile and an eighth allowance race called the Peter Pan purse, which was meant to serve as a possible Belmont Stakes prep for late-developing 3-year-olds. Once again, here was Stage Door Johnny showing up shortly after a controversial Triple Crown race. Sent off as the 2-1 second choice, he caught everyone’s attention this time with his scintillating four-length victory over King Ranch’s hard-knocking and well-bred Draft Card.

With Dancer’s Image out of the picture, it became obvious that only two horses had a shot of stopping Forward Pass’ attempt to infiltrate the illustrious roster of Triple Crown winners – Stage Door Johnny and Withers Stakes winner Call Me Prince, who was coupled with Draft Card, both trained by the great Max Hirsch. Forward Pass was made the even-money favorite, with the Max Hirsch entry 9-5 and Stage Door Johnny 4-1. No one else in the nine-horse field was lower than 21-1.

John Gaver Jr. recalled, “My father was thinking of the Belmont Stakes for Stage Door Johnny after his 2-year-old year, even though he was still a maiden. He had a tremendous amount of ability, although he was very green. When he broke his maiden at 3, he did it the way a good horse should. We felt Forward Pass was the only horse to beat in the Belmont and he had gone through the rigors of the Triple Crown. We had worked hard with Stage Door Johnny over the winter, and he had filled out and developed. After the Peter Pan we were confident.”

Milo Valenzuela, as expected, sent Forward Pass right to the lead. Heliodoro Gustines on Stage Door Johnny was forced to steady early, dropping back to seventh, but he quickly got his colt in the clear and moved him up gradually. Forward Pass, meanwhile, was having his own way on the lead, setting fractions of :48 2/5 and 1:12 2/5. At the half-mile pole, the mile run in 1:37, Forward Pass, tracked all the way by Call Me Prince, maintained a 1 1/2-length lead, as Stage Door Johnny moved into third, a little over three lengths behind Forward Pass.

At the quarter pole, Forward Pass still led by 1 1/2 lengths with Stage Door Johnny now moving into second and the only threat to Forward Pass. This was it; the Triple Crown on the line, just a quarter of a mile away. Could the lightly raced Stage Door Johnny, who had never competed in a stakes race, run down a brilliant and classy Forward Pass and prevent the asterisk of all asterisks from tainting the Triple Crown?

At the eighth pole, Forward Pass clung to a head lead, and it was obvious Stage Door Johnny was the stronger of the two and had the favorite measured. But Forward Pass was not going to go down without a fight. He battled hard that final eighth of a mile, but Stage door Johnny was relentless, winning by 1 1/2 lengths. Although Forward Pass’ final quarter in :25 flat would have won most Belmonts, Stage Door Johnny overpowered him in the final furlong, coming home in a tick under : 24 3/5 to complete the mile and a half in 2:27 1/5, three-fifths of a second off Gallant Man’s track record.

For Greentree, this was their fourth Belmont Stakes victory following Twenty Grand, Shut Out, and Capot. For Stage Door Johnny, the Belmont was only the beginning. By the time he had rattled off subsequent victories in the Saranac Handicap in 1:35 2/5 and the mile and a quarter Dwyer Handicap in 2:01 3/5 under a burdensome 129 pounds, he was being considered a legitimate threat to Dr. Fager and Damascus for Horse of the Year honors. The two future Hall of Famers were coming off a pair of epic battles in the 10-furlong Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps, in which they carried 130 pounds or higher in each race. Dr. Fager defeated his arch rival in the Suburban, equaling the track record in 1:59 3/5. Damascus then turned the tables in the Brooklyn, breaking Dr. Fager’s short-lived track record by two-fifths of a second. His record time of 1:59 1/5 still stands after more than half a century.

Racing fans were now anticipating another epic showdown at the end of the year, much like the 1967 Woodward between Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser. But while training for the Travers Stakes over Greentree’s private track at Saratoga, Stage Door Johnny bowed a tendon and was retired to stud.

No one knows how great Stage Door Johnny could have been and how he would have fared against the mighty Dr. Fager and Damascus. But one thing is for certain, with those two legendary 4-year-olds dominating the sport; the mighty mite Dark Mirage becoming the first filly to sweep the Filly Triple Crown; the opening of the new Belmont Park; and of course the controversial Triple Crown, the year 1968 would go down as one of the most memorable in racing history.

Dethroning the Prince

Then came 1969 and the new year brought a flood of events that would again dominate the headlines, including man walking on the moon, Woodstock, the Manson murders, Chappaquiddick, the continued escalation of the Vietnam war, the New York Mets winning the World Series, and Broadway Joe guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory.

Racing continued to grab its own headlines. For the first time in history the sport had an undefeated horse, the handsome golden chestnut Majestic Prince, attempting to sweep the Triple Crown, something that hadn’t been accomplished in 21 years. Here was a true glamour horse who epitomized the beauty, nobility, and courage of the Thoroughbred. The New York newspapers couldn’t get enough of The Prince. All the while, the foreboding presence of Arts and Letters, the smallish liver chestnut son of Ribot who was a close second in the Derby and Preakness, was lurking in the background.

Racing fans, like those today, wondered if any horse would ever sweep the Triple Crown following the failures of Derby and Preakness winners Carry Back (’61), Northern Dancer (’64), Kauai King (’66), and Forward Pass(’68). In 1963, Chateaugay won the Derby and Belmont, but a one-mile work gone awry likely cost him the Triple Crown. In 1967, Damascus won the Preakness and Belmont, but was uncharacteristically rank in the Derby, which caused his trainer Frank Whiteley to have his own suspicions, especially sensing the colt was not acting like his usual professional self walking to the track.

But despite their repeated disappointments optimists held on to the belief that this time it was going to be different. Majestic Prince looked to be a horse for the ages. But his trainer Johnny Longden felt the colt wasn’t 100% and was beginning to feel the effects of the rigors of the Triple Crown following two hard-fought battles with Arts and Letters. Shortly after the Preakness, Longden shocked everyone by announcing that Majestic Prince might not run in the Belmont. The news filled the entire back page of the New York tabloids. Owner Frank McMahon McMahon backed his trainer, but the pressure to run became too intense and several days before the race he announced The Prince would run, especially after a Sports Illustrated article suggested he was ducking Arts and Letters. Longden was incensed that McMahon had overruled him and the two could be heard in a shouting match at the barn. But the universal thinking was, no Derby and Preakness winner skips the Belmont unless he has a serious injury. That’s like making it to gates of the pantheon and deciding you’ve gone far enough.

When Majestic Prince had shipped to Belmont Park, photographers followed him everywhere. The media couldn’t get enough of this undefeated Hollywood star. A full page photo of the colt walking off the van appeared on the back page of the New York Daily News. Articles on him appeared every day in the New York papers.

A week before the Belmont, the mood began to change after Arts and Letters defeated older horses, including champion Nodouble, in the Metropolitan Handicap, drawing away to a 2 1/2-length victory in a blazing 1:34 for the mile over a dead track under Jean Cruguet, substituting for Braulio Baeza, who had the call on Ogden Phipps’ Vitriolic. Arts and Letters had come from 10th in an 11-horse field, closing his final quarter in a spectacular :23 1/5. You don’t see horses explode like that in the Met Mile against top older horses having just run two grueling races in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Many began to suspect that it was Arts and Letters who would be the one who relished the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont.

Arts and Letters’ trainer, Elliott Burch, had used the Met Mile as a steppingstone to a Belmont victory twice before, with Sword Dancer and Quadrangle, both of whom also had been beaten in the Derby and Preakness.

Burch was amazed at the 15.1 hands Arts and Letters’ resiliency and his ability to bounce back off tough races, especially having run in four major stakes in 36 days. Now he was coming back in a week going a mile and a half.

Only five days after his Met Mile victory and two days before the Belmont, Arts and Letters worked a blistering half-mile in an unheard of :57 3/5, galloping out six furlongs in 1:11. I repeat, two days before the mile and a half Belmont. Burch had no misgivings about the tough schedule, insisting Arts and Letters had an uncanny ability to “train himself” and relax when his work was done. “He was a remarkable horse from day one; the best I ever trained,” Burch said.

So Arts and Letters had romped by 15 lengths in near track-record time in the Blue Grass Stakes nine days before the Kentucky Derby and crushed older horses in the Met Mile after the Preakness. No one would deny that Majestic Prince had to be a very special horse to have beaten the Rokeby Stable colt in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, even if it was only by a neck and a half-length after stretch-long battles.

But now it was the Rokeby Stable colt who began to command the headlines. Support for Arts and Letters had grown since the Met Mile, and predictions of The Prince’s downfall were rampant. With Longden still not having declared the colt a definite starter, a headline in the New York Post read: “Majestic Prince Scared Off by Arts and Letters?”

Security tightened around Majestic Prince’s barn and tension began to build. It was an odd sight seeing assistant trainer Mike Bao, wearing his customary love beads, threaten physical ejection to a Daily Racing Form columnist, to whom Longden had taken exception. Then there was Majestic Prince’s jockey Bill Hartack, who treated reporters as if they had leprosy. The night before the Belmont, Hartack appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and aired his gripes and dislike of the media, much to the delight of Cavett and his audience.

Meanwhile, Arts and Letters was his usual placid self, showing no ill effects of his grueling 3-year-old campaign, which saw him run nine times already, eight of them in major stakes. When a news wire photographer walked in the barn and sheepishly asked Burch if he could take a couple of head shots of the colt in his stall, Burch replied, “Sure, go ahead, but you may have to wake him up to do it.”

On June 7, a record Belmont Stakes crowd of 66,115 turned out to see if this time history would be made. But the Belmont turned out to be an oddly run race. The early pace was so slow the late-running Dike, winner of the Gotham and Wood Memorial and a fast-closing third in the Derby, went for the lead going into the clubhouse turn, much to the shock of the crowd. Baeza and Arts and Letters were right on his heels, but Hartack elected to keep Majestic Prince three to four lengths back through an agonizingly slow three-quarters in 1:16 1/5. When Baeza gunned Arts and Letters to the front nearing the half-mile pole, the race was all but over. The colt drew off to win by 5 1/2 lengths, closing his final quarter in :24 2/5, with Majestic Prince finishing second, never to race again.

“He had a check ligament going into the Belmont that was just not right,” Longden said years later. “It wasn’t real bad, but the horse wasn’t 100%. I was looking forward to racing him as a 4-year-old and I thought it was tough asking him to go a mile and a half when he was not 100%.”

Arts and Letters went on to become America’s newest equine hero, romping in the Jim Dandy by 10 lengths and the Travers Stakes by 6 ½ lengths in a track record-equaling 2:01 3/5, then defeating Nodouble in the Woodward Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup, the latter by 14 lengths, to nail down Horse of the Year honors. The following year he was rounding back in form coming off a victory in the Grey Lag Handicap under 128 pounds when he, like Stage Door Johnny, suffered a bowed tendon during the running of the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park and also was retired to Greentree Stud, where the two Belmont winners became instant buddies.

Bonding in the Bluegrass

The two stallions would remain close friends for the next 26 years until Stage Door Johnny’s death in 1996 at age 31. In their younger days, they would race each other along the fence every day, putting on the brakes just before reaching the gate, kicking up a cloud of dirt. They would quickly look over at each other as if to see who won, then walk back up the hill and come charging back down. They were so close, one would become visibly upset when the other was led to the breeding shed.

When they became too old to race each other they would stand under the same shade tree that separated their paddocks and just keep each other company.

When Gainesway Farm took over the Greentree property in 1989, part of the agreement was that both stallions remain together in adjoining paddocks. When Stage Door Johnny died, he turned over his title as the oldest living Belmont winner to Arts and Letters, who held it until his death two years later at age 32.

Arts and Letters’ two top offspring were Codex, winner of the Preakness, Santa Anita Derby, and Hollywood Derby, and Winter’s Tale, winner of the Marlboro Cup, Brooklyn Handicap, and Suburban Handicap twice.

Stage Door Johnny would go on to become one of the top stamina influences in the United States, his name appearing in the pedigrees of a number of top-class horses. His daughter Never Knock produced Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin.

John Hay Whitney’s famed Greentree Stud is long gone, as is the memory of Stage Door Johnny and Arts and Letters and their historic victories in the Belmont Stakes. By depriving Forward Pass of the Triple Crown and preventing an eyesore asterisk next to his name, Stage Door Johnny prolonged the drought that was appropriately ended by the legendary Secretariat five years later. By defeating Majestic Prince in the Belmont, Arts and Letters denied the colt the distinction of becoming the first undefeated Triple Crown winner, a feat that would be accomplished eight years later by Seattle Slew.

Many racing fans today might not be familiar with Stage Door Johnny and Arts and Letters and the volatile times in which they raced. But back then, they, along with the other great horses of the late ‘60s, brought fans much-needed moments of comfort and elation and a sense of optimism as we headed into the ‘70s and Thoroughbred racing’s Golden Age.

This year’s Belmont Stakes looks to be an excellent betting race with most of the horses having a legitimate chance to win. Be sure to watch for our upcoming handicapping/analysis column on Thursday morning. ~ SH