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Steve’s Sleepers: Rattle N Roll and Zandon

Monday, October 18th, 2021

We’re giving you two Kentucky Derby sleepers this week because we had Rattle N Roll ready to go, but it had to be put off for two weeks and the colt wound up running in the Breeders’ Futurity…and romping at 8-1. So this is more of a look at was written before the race and after the race and how we got wind of him. We’re also including a recent maiden winner who checked off all the boxes and looks to be Derby material. ~ Steve Haskin

Steve’s Sleepers: Rattle N Roll and Zandon

By Steve Haskin

 

The house at which we stay in Saratoga is located a stone’s throw from Kenny McPeek’s barn, directly across Fifth Avenue from the entrance to the Oklahoma training track. This year, with McPeek’s barn under quarantine and his horses unable to train until 11 a.m. after all the other horses had completed their training, the only way I was going to see Swiss Skydiver was head out the back gate of the house and wait for her by the track.

It was there that I met McPeek’s assistant Francis Chiumiento.There were several horses scheduled to train before Swiss Skydiver. One of them was a classy-looking chestnut colt named Rattle N Roll, who Francis couldn’t stop raving about.

“I’ve been around enough good horses to know one when I see one and this colt is special” said Francis, who has been hotwalking since he was 10-years old.“In his first race he was green as grass and was flying on the rail. But we could see how smart he was. The quarantine really messed us up, but he’s ready to run now. He just does everything right and has had no issues at all other than being a little green from day one. We felt from the start he could be the real deal. The question is how quickly he’ll mature. Once he understands what the job entails the sky’s the limit. I would be shocked if he’s not a Grade 1 winner.”

When Francis said the quarantine had messed them up, he was referring to the colt being entered for his second start on July 17 and having to be scratched after a horse in Kenny’s barn, trained by Jose Abreu, came down with equine herpesvirus, which prevented all horses in that barn from racing for 21 days and training with the other horses.

So I took several photos of him on the track and waited for him to run again. The first thing I did was go back and watch his debut at six furlongs. He broke last from post 2 in a 12-horse and dropped far back, with only one horse beat down the backstretch. On the far turn he completely lost touch with the field and was some 15 lengths back. At the head of the stretch he was still 13 lengths off the pace. He swung out several paths and then darted back toward rail where he really turned it on. He was still sixth, 7 ½ lengths back at the eighth pole, and looked to have no shot to finish in the money. But he kept pouring it on and was flying at the end to get third, beaten five lengths by Gunite, who would go on to romp in the Hopeful Stakes. Racecaller Travis Stone said as he crossed the wire, “…Rattle N Roll from nowhere to get third.”

With a performance like that he would have been a perfect horse to write about for the “Derby Sleepers” series except for the fact that the idea for the series at that time had never even entered my mind. That wouldn’t come until the final weekend of Saratoga when I saw Commandperformance make his debut and the idea came to me.

The week before, Rattle N Roll finally made it to the gate for his much-anticipated second start. Around the turn he was moving so fast I thought for sure he was a lock to win. But out of nowhere he bolted badly and was pulled up by Jose Ortiz. I, like others, thought he had suffered an injury and just hoped it was nothing serious. As it turned out, McPeek said he was hit in the eye with something, possibly a clod of dirt.

On September 23, he showed up in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Churchill Downs. I couldn’t wait to see what he would do around two turns. He ducked out slightly at the start and got creamed by the horse on his outside who came in on him. He was able to settle in midpack under Brian Hernandez, but was trapped the entire run down the backstretch and around the turn with no place to go, while being caught behind a very slow pace. After straightening into the stretch there was an opening on the inside he quickly shot through and in a flash was gone. Running straight as the proverbial arrow this time and striding out beautifully with great extension, he drew off to a three-length victory without being touched with the whip and then just kept pouring it on with a monster gallop-out,leavingthe others far behind.

His speed figures came back slow, but that didn’t bother me because of the ridiculously slow pace and him having nowhere to run. What I saw in the stretch was all I needed to see to schedule him as my second Derby sleeper. So I contacted several people to get his back story and was all set, but had to put it off two weeks due to other column priorities.

Well, we all know what happened. He was entered in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and sent off at an enticing 8-1. I put a bet on him and then watched as he demolished 12 opponents with one of the most explosive moves on the turn seen all year. Once again he surged past everyone in a flash and drew off to win by 4 ¼ lengths. To demonstrate how strong his race was and how much improvement he had shown, his Thoro-Graph figures jumped from a slow “16” to a mediocre “10 ½” to a sensational “3 ½,” which was faster than Jack Christopher, considered the fastest 2-year-old in the country, ran in the Champagne Stakes.

This horse has shown he can overcome trouble at the start and being trapped in tight quarters, he has an electrifying turn of foot that can put him in contention in a flash, is maneuverable enough to be taken outside, inside or between horses, and can burst clear of horses under a hand ride. And he runs straight and true in the stretch and holds his legs under him perfectly. In short, he is a true professional with no flaws.

As for his pedigree, he will run all day. His sire, Connect, is a son of Curlin out of a Holy Bull mare, who won the Cigar Mile and Pennsylvania Derby. He has a great combination of stamina and speed top and bottom. His second dam is by Jockey Club Gold Cup and Suburban Handicap winner Pleasant Tap, who is by major stamina influence, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony, a son of the Ribot stallion His Majesty. Pleasant Tap’s broodmare sire is another major stamina influence, Belmont winner Stage Door Johnny.

Rattle N Roll’s third dam Dance Review produced two Grade 1 winners and is out of Dumfries, a half-sister to the top-class racehorse and champion sire Lyphard and the Vaguely Noble filly Nobiliary, who has the unique distinction of finishing second in the English Derby and then coming to America where she won the Washington D.C. International against a star-studded field. She is the only filly since 1916 to place in the Derby.

Now that we have told the story of Rattle N Roll the racehorse, let’s go back to the beginning and tell how he got there. The colt was bred in Kentucky by St. Simon Place, who also bred this year’s undefeated Pocahontnas Stakes winner Hidden Connection.

Rattle N Roll had some problems as a foal that wouldn’t respond to antibiotics and it took a while to get him going. That November it was decided to sell him at the Keeneland mixed sale as a weanling and he brought $55,000, then was pinhooked the following year at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $210,000, where he was purchased by Kenny McPeek for the Mackin family’s Lucky Seven Stable, which is named after the five Mackin siblings and their parents.

After selling him as a weanling, St. Simon Place’s Tommy Wente began having seller’s remorse. “He had all this medicine in him from an early age and he just wasn’t right,” Wente said “He wasn’t ready to sell as a weanling. It was a mistake; I screwed up. We left a bunch of money on the table. But you have just so much money to run the farm and you can’t keep all of them. You just try to raise as much money as you can.”

It was Carrie and Craig Brogden of Machmer Hall who prepared Rattle N Roll for the mixed sale and acted as agent under the name Select Sales.

“He was a lovely colt and I remember distinctly that two minutes after he sold, Tommy looked at me and said, ‘I should have waited and sold him a yearling; that was too cheap,’” Carrie recalled. “And that is never how Tommy feels after selling a horse. He was a correct, strong, tough colt and was really uncomplicated.”

Wente added, “Sometimes fate is like that. He eventually wound up in good hands with Kenny. He tweeted me after he bought him and said he’ll be a stakes winner by fall.”

McPeek has been one of the most astute judges of young horses in the country for a number of years, picking out a great many future stakes winners, including Curlin, for modest prices.

“I can remember exactly what barn he was in, Barn 19 (Paramount Sales), and which path he walked on,” McPeek said. “He had a great presence and walk, huge shoulders and a great hip. He brought a little more than we expected, but obviously was he worth it.”

This summer, Rattle N Roll was sent to Saratoga and it didn’t take long for Francis Chiumiento to recognize his potential.

Following his Breeders’ Futurity victory, Chiumiento reiterated all that like about him. “He’s very smart and does everything right,” he said. “He was just a little green. The first time he ran he really didn’t know what he was doing. But I could tell he was special. He has such a fluid easy stride and does everything so effortlessly. After he bolted we worked with him and the light bulb finally went on.”

And it obviously has stayed on for good after his dramatic improvement when moved into Grade 1 company against some of the top 2-year-old prospects in the country and defeating them decisively. Rattle N Roll came out of his race in good shape and will head to Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and a shot at the 2-year0old championship. From a handicapping standpoint his “3 ½” Thoro-Graph number was not only extremely fast, but a huge leap forward from his previous start. But was it too huge a leap? McPeek said he prides himself in getting young horses to move forward, so we will see what he decides to do.

For the purposes of this column and series it doesn’t matter where he runs as long as he stays on track for the first Saturday in May and can keep improving. McPeek, who ran second in the Kentucky Derby with Tejano Run in 1995, said all he can do is hope there is a Derby with his name on it. He has already smelled the black-eyed susans from afar after picking out Preakness winner Curlin as a bloodstock agent and the carnations up close as trainer of Belmont Stakes winner Sarava and Travers winner Golden Ticket, both gigantic longshots. After the Breeders’ Futurity you can bet Rattle N Roll has given him an early whiff of those elusive roses.

IMPRESSIVE DEBUT BY ZANDON

There are very few traditional family-owned breeding operations left that have been breeding, raising, and racing horses off their farm and breeding to their stallions. One of those farms that is still flourishing is Brereton Jones’ Airdrie Stud, located on historic and picturesque Old Frankfort Pike in Midway, Kentucky.

Airdrie is located on the site of the famed Woodburn Stud, home of the immortal Lexington during his amazing 16-year reign as America’s leading sire in the 19th century, as well as 5 Kentucky Derby winners. But from the turn of the 20th century until 1972 there were no Thoroughbreds residing on the property until Jones took over a large part of the farm and named it Airdrie Stud. Since then 215 stakes winners have been bred and raised at Airdrie, including 24 Grade 1 winners. From 2008 to 2015, Jones, the now 82-year-old former Governor of Kentucky, won three Kentucky Oaks. Two of the winners he bred from his stallion Proud Citizen, who also sired homebred Mark Valeski, who won or placed in five graded stakes for Jones.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of Airdrie Stud and what better way to celebrate than as the breeder of the Kentucky Derby winner.

Jones certainly would be one of the most popular Derby winners in years, especially in Kentucky, and it’s just possible the wheels have already been set in motion.

Those wheels started rolling on October 9 at Belmont Park when the Airdrie homebred Zandon, trained by Chad Brown, broke his maiden in his career debut going six furlongs. In terms of being a Derby horse, those obviously were just baby steps, but there was enough to suggest that this colt could have a bright future.

Sent off at 5-1 in the seven-horse field, Zandon broke a step slow, then moved up between horses, settling in fourth, while stuck down on the inside behind horses. Around the far turn it was obvious he did not like the kickback, as he had his head cocked to the inside. Turning for home, he was still behind horses with nowhere to go. Joel Rosario finally managed to move out for clear sailing nearing the eighth pole and once he did Zandon immediately turned on the afterburners and took off after the 7-5 favorite Matt Doyle. Displaying push-button acceleration and a flawless stride he flew home his final eighth in :11 3/5 to win going away by 1 ½ lengths in 1:10 3/5. And this followed an :11 4/5 eighth when he had to wait for running room.

It was veteran bloodstock agent Mike Ryan who picked out Zandon at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $170,000 for owner Jeff Drown.

“I had looked at him at the farm on August 13 and really liked him,” Ryan said. “He was a big, strong colt and very impressive looking with a great head and eye. He turned in just a hair on his left foot, but he was a quality colt who had a lot of presence and was a good mover. I saw he was in Book 4 at the Keeneland sale and remembered how much I liked him on the farm and went to see him at the sale. It had been five weeks since I last saw him on the farm and young horses can change quickly, But I still loved everything about him and called Jeff and told him how much I liked the colt. He had spent a lot of money already, but we went ahead of got him.

“He’s done very well since. He ate a lot of dirt in his first start and had his head turned sideways. There was no wasted action and he had excellent knee action and was a very efficient mover. I thought he looked magnificent and seems to have a bright future.”

Zandon received a “6 ½” Thoro-Graph number, which is excellent for a first-time starter and he should only keep improving as the distances get longer. He has Airdrie Stud written all over his pedigree. Jones bred his dam and second dam and stands his sire Upstart and broodmare sire Creative Cause. Upstart’s sire, Flatter, is the sire of Flat Out, two-time winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Suburban Handicap, and won the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at age 7. Upstart’s dam is by Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold. Creative Cause was a Grade 1 winner who placed in the Preakness, Santa Anita Derby, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

What I love most about Zandon’s pedigree is that his dam traces to the great blue hen producer Boudoir II, who produced Your Hostess, the granddam of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince; Your Host, the sire of five-time Horse of the Year Kelso, and Flower Bed, whose daughter Flower Bowl won the Delaware Handicap and produced full-brothers by Ribot, Graustark and His Majesty (both major classic influences ) and Bowl of Flowers, champion 2-year-old and 3-year-old filly and winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks and Spinster Stakes.

“Zandon was a beautiful colt as a yearling,” said Brereton Jones’ son Bret who plays a major role in the operation and bred this year’s top-class sprinter Bell’s the One. “We lost (his second dam) Incarnate Memories this year, but fortunately we kept (Zandon’s dam) Memories Prevail. His third dam Witness Post was a very fast filly but got hurt and never ran. Bill Graves touted my dad on her and he bought her at the Keeneland November mixed sale for only $15,500. We’re so lucky that dad decided to develop the family. Zandon first caught our attention when when he worked in company with a son of Curlin and ran off and left him”

Both horses were clocked out of the gate down the backstretch to the half-mile pole with Zandon in front by three lengths. But once they hit the far turn, Zandon quickly opened up by 10 to 15 lengths while under a strong hold.

Chad Brown said Zandon also earned a fast Ragozin figure and he now will point for the one-mile Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct on November 7. He still has a long way to go, as do most of these sleepers, but with Brereton Jones a definite Derby gods candidate to provide class, tradition, and history to next year’s Derby on his farm’s 50th anniversary, Zandon has a lot going for him already.

Photos courtesy of Steve Haskin and Adam Coglianese

Farm Tour Feature: Sunday, Oct. 17

Monday, October 11th, 2021

This weekend’s Secretariat Festival has something for everyone, including tours to some of the Bluegrass’ most prominent breeding farms, where visitors will be greeted by a Who’s Who of stallions. To whet your appetite I have provided a close-up look at several of the stallions so everyone will get to know them more intimately and learn their background and the story behind their success. We continue our back stories with three of the stallions who will be on display on Day 2 of the Secretariat Festival, where racing fans will be able to visit many of sport’s greatest stars.~ Steve Haskin

Festival Farm Tour Sunday: Curlin, Street Sense, and Medaglia d’Oro

By Steve Haskin

The first decade of the 2000s was highlighted by a number of top-class horses and memorable Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races. Here is the story of three of the decade’s biggest stars and the impact they have left.

CURLIN (HILL ‘N’ DALE AT XALAPA) AND STREET SENSE (DARLEY AT JONABELL)

Turning for home in the 2007 Preakness, racing fans all over the country were already envisioning the end of a 29-year Triple Crown drought. That is where Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, who had dominated the Run for the Roses, blew by Curlin and closed in on Derby runner-up Hard Spun, who he had handled with no problem at Churchill Downs. With the Derby second- and third-place finishers seemingly out of the way there was no stopping Street Sense.

Members of the Street Sense camp standing by the rail were certain of victory. Hotwalker Paul Rutherford, exercise rider Mark Cutler, and groom Jose Herrarte all began pumping their fists in the air and jumping up and down in celebration. For the fans it was time to start booking their flight to New York to witness history being made in the Belmont Stakes. If they couldn’t beat Street Sense in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, how could they beat him going a mile and a half with his stamina-oriented pedigree?

Street Sense had already made history when he became the first 2-year-old champion since Spectacular Bid to win the Derby and the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner ever to take home the roses.

With Street Sense having won the Derby with such authority, being trained by two-time Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger, and having a classic pedigree to run all day, what could possibly stand in his way? He was now a furlong away from being an overwhelming favorite to sweep the Triple Crown.

But suddenly the scene changed. Street Sense was not pulling away as he had done at Churchill Downs. Someone was bearing down on him. Much to the shock of everyone, it was Curlin, who surely looked like a beaten horse when Street Sense came up on his inside and surged past him at the head of the stretch.

Now it was a battle. Curlin, despite having only four career starts, was relentless. Street Sense dug in and kept fighting trying to hold off this unexpected opponent. But at the wire it was Curlin by a head, as the crowd went silent. Not only did Street Sense’s attempt at a Triple Crown sweep go up in the proverbial puff of smoke, the Triple Crown had turned into a mess, especially when a surprised and dejected Nafzger announced after the race that Street Sense would not run in the Belmont Stakes, depriving fans of at least a rubber match between the Derby and Preakness winner.

So, who exactly was this horse who stood in the way of history and totally disrupted what was to be a historic Triple Crown?

Let’s go back to beginning when Kenny McPeek picked out Curlin as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale for $57,000. The son of Smart Strike had an OCD lesion removed from his left ankle as a weanling, and it wasn’t a pretty sight at the sale. Although it turned off most buyers, McPeek felt it would be a non-issue. But his clients, Shirley Cunningham and Bill Gallion, became furious with McPeek for spending$57,000 on a horse with physical issues that no one wanted, especially after they were told he would never make it to the races. McPeek tried to assure them the colt would be fine, but got nowhere and offered to take the colt back and find another client. He felt he was a steal at that price and believed he would have gone for $300,000 if his ankle didn’t look so unappealing. Eventually, Cunningham and Gallion began to have second thoughts and decided to keep him.

McPeek at the time had actually given up training for a while to concentrate on bloodstock work, mainly in the U.S. and South America. Also, his mother was terminally ill. He contacted his owners and convinced them to keep the horses with his longtime assistant Helen Pitts and that he would always be close by.

Pitts was an excellent horsewoman and appeared to be a new major force in training, having immediate success with the help of assistant Hanne Jorgensen, who had exercised and taken care of Sarava for McPeek every day at Belmont Park prior to his shocking victory in the 2002 Belmont Stakes at odds of 70-1. When Pitts went out on her own, Jorgensen, who had become a good friend, went with her.

After spending several years focusing on bloodstock work, McPeek decided he wanted to get back to training and politicked to get Curlin, but Cunningham and Gallion had already promised him to Pitts and didn’t want to renege on their word.

Curlin was sent to Gail Garrison, manager of Cunningham’s Hillcrest Farm near Lexington, and he immediately began working on the colt’s physical problems. Curlin was at the farm for 60 days, where he was turned out in a paddock and allowed to eat grass each day. Garrison could see he was still a “big, playful kid who was full of vinegar.” He just needed time to grow up and settle into that big effortless stride of his.

Finally, he was sent to Pitts, and it didn’t take long for her and Jorgensen to start seeing those visions of greatness. When Jorgensen worked him, she came back and told Pitts, “I’ve never sat on a horse like this before.”

On July 29, 2006, the Southern Legislative Conference convened at Churchill Downs, where the legislators were treated to a night at the races, which included three exhibition races. When Churchill Downs’ senior vice president of racing, Donnie Richardson, asked Pitts to help out and put a couple of her 2-year-olds in the races, she chose Curlin, who wound up finishing third behind the Bernie Flint-trained Speedway, who had already broken his maiden by three lengths, but was still green and needed more experience.

Riding Curlin that night was Hanne Jorgensen’s husband, Mick Jenner. They had been going together for several years when they faced each other as competitors in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Jenner was the regular exercise rider for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem. But it was Jorgensen who got the better of that battle, winning the Belmont with the little-regarded Sarava.

Jenner recalled his ride aboard Curlin that night at Churchill Downs. “Curlin had worked a couple of half-miles, but he was just a big ol’ 2-year-old who had never been asked to do anything at that point,” he said. “Everything he’d done was on the bit. The race was only a quarter of a mile and he was bucking and rearing, and I was hanging on for dear life. So I not only got Curlin beat, I got him well beat.”

As Curlin matured he began to convince Pitts and Jorgensen that he could be something special. They were expecting big things first time out, as, apparently, was everyone else, with Curlin going off as the 2-1 favorite. For a new trainer like Pitts, it’s a very fine line between joy and dread when a young 3-year-old runs off the screen in his debut, as Curlin did, winning by almost 13 lengths in a swift 1:22 1/5 for the seven furlongs. The crashing sound you usually hear afterwards is that of the rich folks breaking open their piggy banks. You know the million-dollar offers are going to start pouring in for that brilliant ready-made Derby horse, and that a sale is most likely going to result in the horse being given to the buyer’s trainer, especially if he’s Pletcher or Asmussen or Mott or Baffert.

So, when Curlin rocked the Derby trail in his debut, Pitts knew there was a good chance she could lose the horse. Ironically, at the time of Curlin’s victory, Steve Asmussen just happened to be stabled in her barn, preparing Leprechaun Racing’s Gunfight for the 6 1/2-furlong Swale Stakes, his only starter at the meet. Asmussen had recently lost his big Derby horse, Tiz Wonderful, owned by Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables, to injury and had no idea how he was going to replace a horse of that caliber, one who was undefeated and had already won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Because Asmussen was stabled in Pitts’ barn, he had gotten to see Curlin close up on a daily basis and was impressed with everything he saw. When Curlin romped in his debut, it set the wheels in motion. Watching the race on simulcast at the Ocala Breeders 2-year-old sale was John Moynihan, who was Jess Jackson’s bloodstock manager. Watching from his home in San Francisco was owner George Bolton. Both had the same reaction – “Wow!” Asmussen after seeing the race, watched the colt cool out and said to himself, “We’ve got to get that horse.”

Bolton contacted someone at the Ragozin Sheets and found out Curlin had run a “5 3/4,” an extraordinary number for a first-time starter. The pieces were beginning to come together.

Moynihan knew that the offers would start to pour in for the colt, so he drove down to Gulfstream to see the horse and then contacted Cunningham and Gallion. As he figured, an offer had already come in, this one from Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, who offered $1.75 million, but, as Irwin put it, his bid was “blown out of the water” by subsequent bids. As it turned out, there were 15 bids on the horse, each with different stipulations.

Cunningham and Gallion wanted to stay in for a minority interest, and the day after the race, Super Bowl Sunday, Moynihan began negotiations, representing Jackson, Bolton, and another interested party, Satish Sanan. By 2 a.m. Monday morning, the deal was completed.

Although Cunningham and Gallion had received larger offers for the whole horse, the Moynihan group’s selling point was allowing them to stay in as minority partner. So they made a huge profit and were able to retain an interest in the horse they didn’t want and nearly gave back.

The only thing left to be done was for Moynihan to look at Curlin on the racetrack to see how he had come out of the race and to make sure he was sound. So, Pitts brought him to the track that morning and when Curlin began bucking and squealing, the deal was finalized for a reported $3.5 million. That would be the last time Pitts would lead him to the track.

Asmussen was delighted, having found his Derby horse. He felt everything was meant to be, because if Tiz Wonderful hadn’t gotten hurt, Jackson would not have been looking for a Derby horse to replace him, and, as he put it, he’d be trying to figure out how to beat Curlin instead of training him.

Pitts and Jorgensen were devastated, especially having to watch their dream horse depart after devoting so much time and effort getting him through some physical issues and becoming so close to him.

“I cried my eyes out when they sold him,” Jorgensen said shortly after the sale. “We babied him for such a long time. He bucked his shins twice and we tried to get him through it and worked hard with him. And then, one big race and he’s gone. We felt he was something special before he even started, we really did. I understand it’s hard to turn down that kind of money, and they did keep a piece of him, so it wasn’t hard for them. But it’s hard for us, because you get so attached to them.”

Curlin, of course, set off on his meteoric rise to stardom, winning the Rebel Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths and the Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 lengths before finishing a well-beaten third in the Kentucky Derby after encountering traffic problems at a key point in the race. It was a terrific effort considering it was only the fourth start of his life, and the last horse to win the Derby with only three starts was Regret in 1915.

After his Preakness victory, Curlin would go on to a Hall of Fame career, winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup twice, Woodward Stakes, and Stephen Foster Handicap.

Street Sense returned from his brief vacation to win the Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes, but was soundly beaten by Curlin over a sloppy track in a showdown for Horse of the Year honors in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park. He was retired to Darley at Jonabell Farm following the Classic joining Hard Spun, giving the farm the one-two finishers of the 2007 Kentucky Derby. Among Street Sense’s most notable stakes winners are Whitney, Malibu, and Pennsylvania Derby winner McKinzie and Maxfield, who is a leading contender for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Curlin was retired to Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm with record earnings of $10.1 million dollars. He joined Secretariat, Forego, Affirmed and Cigar as the only horses to win consecutive Horse of the Year Eclipse Awards. He went on to sire a number of major stakes winners, including several classic and Breeders’ Cup winners, as well as Keen Ice, who upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes. In 2019, his son Vino Rosso emulated his sire by winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Curlin has also become one of the hottest stallions at the sales with a number of his offspring selling in the millions.

Kenny McPeek has trained a number of top-class horses over his career, many of whom he picked out himself. But he will always be known as the person who found and purchased Curlin for a meager $57,000, seeing well beyond his physical problems and having to defend his purchase to his irate owners.

“I was still around Curilin a great deal during the winter of his 2-year-old year in Ocala,” McPeek recalled. “He was a man among boys even then. I’m very proud to have found him and it was great visiting him at the farm several years ago. I have mixed emotions because any normal year I would have trained him, but my mother was terminally ill and the time away and how the events unfolded kept me from handling him. I’m motivated every time I go to an auction to find horses like him. I set the bar very high with him, but I love the challenge of it all.”

McPeek said that if he hadn’t stepped away from training and gone into bloodstock work he probably would not have been able to buy a historic 115-acre farm outside Lexington, Kentucky (renaming it Magdalana Farm) that dates back to the Revolutionary War and was home to such top horses as Kentucky Derby winner Tomy Lee and three-time Horse of the Year Devil Diver.

“Everything happens for a reason,” McPeek said.

He can only hope that one day the farm will produce another Curlin. But for now he will have to be content with picking out one of greatest horses of the century.

MEDAGLIA D’ORO (DARLEY AT JONABELL)

Medaglia d’Oro, like Curlin, is one of the most popular stallions at the sales and has sired numerous grade 1 winners, most notably Rachel Alexandra and Songbird, two of the greatest fillies of the modern era. Both stallions were amazing physical specimens who won or placed in the most prestigious stakes in America.

But that is where the similarities end. Although Curlin sold for dirt cheap as a yearling because of a physical issue, that was nothing compared to Medaglia d’Oro’s humble beginnings.

Despite his reign high atop the equine monarchy, Medaglia d’Oro, a son of El Prado, was not “to the manor born.” He in fact spent his youth on a farm in Montana and later did his early training literally in the middle of the Arizona desert.

Born at Katalpa Farm in Paris, Ky., Medaglia d’Oro was sent to the farm of his owner/breeders, Joyce and Albert Bell, who had a 110-acre spread outside Great Falls, Montana. After being broken, he was about to return to Kentucky for his early training when the Bells’ trainer, Kent Jensen, suggested they send him to a small ranch in Arizona, which was located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, between Cave Creek and Carefree, light years away from the Kentucky bluegrass

Running the ranch was Jensen’s exercise rider at Turf Paradise, Raland (Ral) Ayers, who worked there with his brother Lance. Jensen had helped them get started, lining up a few yearlings for them to break, and he and Ral would divide their time between the ranch and the racetrack. Lance also galloped horses for trainer Jeff Mullins, and broke eventual Santa Anita Derby winner Buddy Gil.

The Bells agreed to send Medaglia d’Oro to the Arizona ranch, shipping the big, strapping yearling down just after Thanksgiving. “The day he arrived, he had dapples on him you wouldn’t believe,” Jensen recalled.

Over the next five months, Medaglia d’Oro grew into a grand-looking racehorse, but it certainly wasn’t the conventional early training one would expect for a future star, who would win the Travers, Whitney, Oaklawn Handicap, Donn Handicap, Strub Stakes, Jim Dandy, and San Felipe Stakes and finish second twice in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, as well as the Belmont Stakes, Dubai World Cup, Wood Memorial, and Pacific Classic.

“It was just a little training track out in the middle of nowhere,” Jensen recalled. “It didn’t even have a rail. When I first saw the place I didn’t like it, but it was close enough to Turf Paradise. Ral would take Medaglia d’Oro out and go riding off through the desert, out there with the cactus.”

“I can’t even remember the name of the place,” Ayers said. “It was just a little cowboy ranch.”

But Ayers and Jensen certainly got more than they bargained for with Medaglia d’Oro. “He stood out right from the beginning,” Ayers recalled. “He had size and was well put together, and was very athletic. People would come to look at the young horses, and they’d always ask, ‘Who’s that one?'”

Jensen and Ayers began to think that maybe they had something special on their hands; certainly something you wouldn’t expect to find running out in the middle of the Arizona desert.

“The first day I had him out on the track for a jog, he bowed his neck and knew exactly what he was supposed to do,” Ayers said. “I had to back him up in order to slow him down. He was never intimidated by other horses. He was just a pro from day one. The first time I galloped him, he went between two horses like he’d been doing it all his life. I’ve never been around a horse with that much class.”

As Medaglia d’Oro’s training picked up, he continued to amaze Ayers and Jensen. “He’d go two miles with rings on, then breeze three furlongs in :35 1/5,” Jensen recalled. “You just didn’t see young horses breeze in :35 1/5 after going two miles. It was nothing to him. He had an unbelievable stride. I trained him like I would a 3-year-old. The first time Ral got on him, he told me, ‘This colt is something.’ I never train a 2-year-old two miles, but from the first day he stepped foot on the track he wanted to train. You live your life to be around a horse like this. He was something special.”

The following April, Medaglia d’Oro was ready to be shipped to the racetrack, and the Bells sent him to trainer Dave Vance. While training at Churchill Downs that fall, he caught the eye of former trainer-turned bloodstock agent Mark Reid, who had just bought a 2-year-old named Labamta Babe for Bobby Frankel and owner Edmund Gann. Reid wasn’t in the market for another young horse at the time, having just bought a potential classic prospect for Frankel.

Medaglia d’Oro made his first start on December 7 at Turfway Park and finished second, breaking from the 12 post. Shortly after the race, Vance packed up shop and headed for Oaklawn Park. In February, Reid showed up looking for a new Derby horse for Frankel after Labamta Babe suffered an injury following an impressive victory in the Santa Catalina Stakes.

When Reid ran into Vance at the rail one morning, he told him to keep an eye out for any good-looking 3-year-olds.

“Well, remember that colt you watched train at Churchill last fall?” Vance said. “There’s no horse on the grounds who can beat him. He was second first time out, and I’m gonna run him again pretty soon. Watch him and let me know what you think.”

When he was entered on February 9, Reid called Frankel and told him to watch this colt. With Reid watching from Philadelphia Park, Medaglia d’Oro won by 4 1/4 lengths in 1:10 4/5 for the six furlongs, earning a sensational 101 Beyer Speed Figure. Frankel was unable to get to a TV and missed the race, but Reid told him this was a horse they definitely wanted to pursue. Frankel saw the huge speed figures the colt posted and gave Reid the green light.

The Bells told Jensen about the offer, and he felt the price they were offering was too good to pass up. “If I had known he had run a 101 Beyer in that race, I would have told them not to sell,” Jensen said, “When they told me it was Frankel who had bought him, I said, ‘Well, at least we’ll find out how good he really is.'”

And that they did, as Medaglia d’Oro developed into one of the leading horses in the country, winning grade I stakes at 3, 4, and 5, while earning over $5.7 million.

Medaglia d’Oro became a sought after stallion prospect and following his retirement, he joined the elite band of Sheikh Mohammed’s stallions at Darley Stud and became the leading second-crop sire in North America. But that was only the beginning. His stock has continued to rise every year, especially when his daughter Rachel Alexandra shook up the racing world in 2009 at 3, defeating the boys in the Preakness and Haskell Invitational and then knocking off older horses in the Woodward Stakes.

At age 22, Medaglia d’Oro remains one of the country’s elite stallions. And it all began on a Montana farm nestled between the Rocky and Little Belt Mountains and a small ranch in the middle of the Arizona desert.

Photos courtesy of Skip Dickstein, Darley America, Michele MacDonald and Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm

Farm Tour Feature: Saturday, Oct. 16

Monday, October 11th, 2021

This weekend’s Secretariat Festival has something for everyone, including tours to some of the Bluegrass’ most prominent breeding farms, where visitors will be greeted by a Who’s Who of stallions. To whet your appetite I have provided a close-up look at several of the stallions so everyone will get to know them more intimately and learn their background and the story behind their success. We start with Saturday’s tours that will feature the popular young stallions Catholic Boy and Vino Rosso. ~ Steve Haskin

Festival Farm Tour Saturday: Catholic Boy and Vino Rosso

By Steve Haskin

If you want to see champion racehorses and stallions up close and personal, this year’s Secretariat Festival will make that happen with visits to historic Claiborne Farm and Spendthrift Farm on Saturday, October 16 and Darley at Jonabell and Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa Farm, as well as the always fun visit to Old Friends on Sunday, October 17. Here is the back story of two stallions you will see on Saturday.

CATHOLIC BOY (CLAIBORNE FARM)

Claiborne Farm has been home to many of the greatest racehorses and stallions in the history of the sport. But when it comes to versatility, Claiborne stands alone in changing the face of racing, going back to Round Table, the first horse to excel in top company on both dirt and grass. It was the son of Princequillo who opened the door for top-class dirt horses to try the grass at a time when grass racing in America was still in its infantile stages. Of course, we all know the impact another Claiborne stallion, Secretariat, made when it came to transitioning from dirt to grass.

That tradition continues today at Claiborne with the addition of two of its newest stallions Catholic Boy and War of Will, both of whom have accomplished the rare feat of winning Grade 1 stakes on dirt and grass. Catholic Boy became only the third 3-year-old in history to pull that off in 2018, following California Chrome and Secretariat. War of Will did it in separate years, winning the Preakness in 2019 and the Maker’s Mark Mile in 2020. But  Catholic Boy is the only 3-year-old to win Grade 1 stakes on dirt and grass in back-to-back races. 

I first saw Catholic Boy in the paddock at Aqueduct before the Remsen Stakes and it was love at first sight. I immediately became enamored with him. He had an elegant, chiseled look about him, was very alert and intelligent, and just looked like a classic racehorse. And he ran like it, gliding over the surface, whether it was dirt or grass. He showed that day in the Remsen, his dirt debut, he, like many More Than Readys, could handle any kind of surface.

When Robert LaPenta purchased the ridgling, who is out of the Bernardini mare Song of Bernardette, as a yearling at the Keeneland January Mixed Sale he had no idea what kind of impact he would have on his life and the lives of his family. He also would help take some of the sting out of his failure to purchase another yearling from that same crop later to be named Justify. La Penta had bid $450,000 on the handsome son of Scat Daddy and stopped there. The colt, who was destined for Triple Crown immortality, sold for $500,000. LaPenta called his dropping out a “$70 million mistake.”

It was trainer Jonathan Thomas who found Catholic Boy at the Keeneland January mixed sale and purchased him privately for LaPenta after the colt was bought back for $170,000. Thomas was training for Bridlewood Farm (where Catholic Boy was raised) at the time and stabled his horses at the farm.

“I’m a sucker for an elegant-looking horse who has that old fashioned refined classic look,” Thomas said. “He had a long beautiful neck and clean lines and I was just drawn to him aesthetically. Little did I know he would take us all on the ride of a lifetime.”

Because Thomas had found the horse and saw something special in him, LaPenta felt he deserved to train the horse. Thomas had ridden briefly in steeplechase races, but suffered a broken back and paralysis, and it took him a whole year before he could walk normally.

“It was a critical injury,” LaPenta said, “and the doctors told him he may never walk again.”

“Following the purchase of Catholic Boy, LaPenta’s staff, including racing manager John Panagot, rated the colt a “C+” or a “B,” but Thomas assured LaPenta, “There’s something different about this horse.” Although he was just starting out, Thomas was no stranger to good horses, having worked for Christophe Clement, Dale Romans, J.J. Pletcher, and Todd Pletcher, as well as King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.

LaPenta named Catholic Boy after his alma mater Iona College, a private Catholic- affiliated institution in New Rochelle, New York, whose maroon colors LaPenta took for his silks. Also, from Song of Bernardette LaPenta made the connection to St. Bernardette, who he called “the saint of hopeless causes.” And finally, under his graduation photo, it read, “More than ready for success.” When the colt began racing, all the priests and nuns and bothers at Iona followed him and watched all his races.

CatholicBoy showed his ability and versatility right from the start. In addition to winning the Remsen Stakes by almost five lengths, he was beaten only 1 ½ lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, despite encountering traffic problems. After the wire he was some 10 lengths in front on the gallop-out. Following the Remsen it was on to the Derby trail, where he was beaten a half-length in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in stakes-record time, having to travel 30 feet farther than the winner, while coming off a 10-week layoff.

When he worked prior to the Florida Derby, he bled slightly, which LaPenta called, a “one” on a scale of “one to five.” But when he uncharacteristically failed to fire for the first time in his career, finishing an uninspired fourth, it was discovered he had bled a “four,” knocking him off the Derby trail.

But LaPenta at the time was having far more serious problems than missing the Derby. He became deathly ill, with his temperature soaring to a scary 106 degrees and his heart rate rising to 180 a minute. At first, doctors weren’t sure what he had until it finally was diagnosed as Legionnaire’s disease. As LaPenta said, “When they finally diagnosed it and were able to treat it I was a sixteenth from the finish line,”

When he was able to return to the racetrack, there was Catholic Boy to welcome him with two of the gutsiest victories seen in a long time in the Pennine Ridge Stakes and Grade 1 Belmont Derby, both on the grass. Ironically, in both races, Catholic Boy, like LaPenta, battled back from certain defeat at the sixteenth pole.

After the $1 million Belmont Derby, LaPenta, who had sold minority interest in Catholic Boy to Madaket Stables, Siena Farm, and Twin Creeks Racing, while retaining 60 percent of the ridgling, was unable to hold back his emotions.

“He is such a special horse,” said LaPenta, who became choked up, fighting back tears. “He has brought the entire family together and has brought us new life. Family is a big part of why I’m in this game. Everyone had tears in their eyes afterward. We had 20 family members and friends there, and they were jumping up and down and crying. It was one of those rare experiences that you hardly ever get to participate in, and it will be a special memory for many many years to come. What he did in his last two starts was unfathomable, and the Belmont Derby was a culmination of all the emotions we’ve experienced the past couple of years and months. He’s an incredible champion; a blue collar horse whose heart exemplifies what life is all about.

“It takes a lot of money, fortitude, and patience to own horses. I try to get younger people involved. When I tell them it’s about family, some find it difficult to understand it, but it does bring people together. If I was at the track by myself, even winning the Kentucky Derby, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Thanks to Catholic Boy, it was easier for LaPenta to make the memory of losing out on Justify fade into the past as he was able to focus on the present and future with his own special horse. Yes, he still has the marked-up catalogue page on Justify with all their comments on him, and the thought of what might have been still crept into his psyche once in a while.

But LaPenta had so much to be grateful for. First and foremost he had his life and he had his family and friends with whom he could share his good fortune and good times. And he had Catholic Boy, the horse who had come to exemplify the courage of the Thoroughbred and provide LaPenta with the most important element in racing — the promise of the future.

That future reached its pinnacle on August 25 when Catholic Boy returned to the dirt and ran off with the Travers Stakes, winning by four widening lengths in the solid time of 2:01 4/5.Having grown up in Yonkers, just north of New York City, La Penta had been going to Saratoga since he was 18, and winning the Travers had always been his dream. “They should make a movie about this,” an elated LaPenta said after the race.

Behind Catholic Boy in the Travers were Mendelssohn, winner of the UAE Derby and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf; 2-year-old champion Good Magic, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Haskell Invitational, and Blue Grass Stakes, and runner-up to Justify in the Kentucky Derby; Gronkowski, second to Justify in the Belmont Stakes and second, beaten a nose, in the Dubai World Cup; and Bravazo, second, beaten a half-length by Justify, in the Preakness, second in the Haskell, and third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Although he had a rare off day in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he returned at 4 after a six-month layoff and won the Grade 2 Dixie Stakes on grass at Pimlico. Following a second in the Suburban Handicap in 1:59 4/5, giving six pounds to the winner, and then an even fourth back on the grass in the Knickerbocker Handicap, beaten three lengths after a very wide trip, it was decided to retire him sound to Claiborne Farm.

Catholic Boy was the quintessential pro who possessed the looks and the mind, as well as the courage and explosiveness, to be a special horse. His piston-like strides generated a great deal of power, which enabled him to possess that high cruising speed than could place him anywhere on any surface and at any distance.

We don’t have horses like this come around very often, so we should embrace Catholic Boy, as we should any gifted horse who brings a distinctive flair to the sport.

Even with a name like Catholic Boy and the miracles he performed for Bob LaPenta, he could not walk on water, but he sure could run on everything else.

VINO ROSSO (SPENDTHRIFT FARM)

The crop of 2015 was far from being just about Justify, Catholic Boy, and Good Magic. It is said patience is a virtue, or in other words, all good things come to those who wait. And for those who had the patience to wait for Vino Rosso to join that elite list of Grade 1 winners, they finally were rewarded 18 months after Justify’s Triple Crown sweep and 16 months after Catholic Boy completed his rare Belmont Derby—Travers Stakes sweep.

As someone who had the audacity to rank Vino Rosso No. 1 over Justify in “Derby Dozen” the entire month of April leading up to the Kentucky Derby, I could only hope it was a matter of time before the colt fulfilled the promise of being a classic horse and leaped out of the shadow of the 2018 Triple Crown winner.

That shadow had not yet begun to form when both colts were frolicking about in the fields at breeder John Gunther and his daughter Tanya’s Glennwood Farm in Versailles, Kentucky. They were both the same color, both had excellent parentage, and both were headed to the Keeneland September yearling sale. The colt later to be named Vino Rosso sold for $410,00, but the other, later to be named Justify, topped him, going for $500,000. That was the beginning of the shadow Justify would cast over Vino Rosso, even though the latter was the more classically bred of the two. His immediate relatives included sire Curlin, grandsire Street Cry, and great-grandsire Touch Gold.

As grand a colt as Justify was it was Vino Rosso with whom Tanya Gunther fell in love when they were babies. And that is why she wept openly when she had to bid him farewell at the yearling sale.

“I burst into tears when the hammer went down at Keeneland, shocking a few people, including myself since I thought I would hold it together a little better than that or at least wait until I got back to our consignment,” Tanya said. “I remember one guy who witnessed my small outburst exclaiming, ‘What’s wrong?’ with a worried look. Maybe he thought the colt had stepped on my toe or something. But actually I had become so attached to the horse and was so proud of him that he sold well, but also sad to see him go. He was such a nice horse to be around; always relaxed as if nothing ever seemed to bother him.

“He liked to sleep a lot, a memory that stuck in my mind because my dad has always said he likes a horse that’s a good sleeper. He was easy to work with all the way through sales prep, in contrast to some colts who can become perhaps a bit too full of themselves as they become more fit and act like your arm might be their next savory meal. Then at the sale, he took it all in stride from the word go and was consistently good and well-behaved. 

“After he sold and I went back to the consignment to say my goodbyes to him. Jim Martin (racing manger for Mike Repole, who purchased him with Vinnie Viola’s St. Elias Stable) came down to see him, and that is when I discovered that Repole and St Elias were partners on him. I remember thinking well that’s some consolation, he will be in good hands, probably going to Todd (Pletcher), and he’ll get a great shot at making it as a racehorse. I thought, ‘Dreams start early, do I dare to hope?’

Well, Tanya’s dream did start early, but it turned out to be about Justify, who became only the second undefeated Triple Crown winner in history. Whatever dreams she had about Vino Rosso had to wait.

Although Vino Rosso was able to make a name for himself on the Kentucky Derby trail by winning the Wood Memorial, he spent most of the Triple Crown futilely chasing his childhood buddy.

“I visited Vino in Todd’s barn at Churchill Downs before the Derby and it was really nice to see him again,” Tanya said. “He was still the kind, easy-going colt that I had grown attached to at our farm. He had grown into an impressive-looking young athlete, though it looked like there was a lot of developing still to do.”

Even after Justify was yanked off the racetrack and retired following the Belmont Stakes, Vino Rosso still was not able to crack the big time, falling short in the Jim Dandy and Travers stakes.

With our top horses being retired so early, it was refreshing to see Vino Rosso return at 4 to try to make a name for himself. He did manage to win the listed Stymie Stakes before traveling cross country and knocking off the leading older horse in California, Gift Box, in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita, giving him an all-important victory over the track where the Breeders’ Cup was to be held.

In his final prep, The Jockey Club Gold Cup, he went to the lead early and then dug in gamely to hold off Travers winner Code of Honor, but was disqualified for interference during the stretch run. For a brief moment he finally had one of racing’s brightest spotlights all to himself only to have it taken away.

But the biggest spotlight was still out there another cross-country trip away, and with it would likely come an Eclipse Award as champion older male. You could almost envision Tanya’s tears starting to well up just from the thought of it. Imagine breeding a Triple Crown winner and a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner from the same crop. Tanya’s dream three years earlier had manifested itself in the form of justify, not Vino Rosso. But amazingly there was still one more chance for another dream to come true.

“I would be ecstatic to see Vino succeed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year, especially after the DQ in the Jockey Club Gold Cup,” Tanya said before the race “I felt Vino showed such class and determination in the stretch duel and that he fought hard to earn the victory, so it was extremely disappointing to see him get his nose in front at the wire only to have victory technically taken away. Both horses ran their hearts out and I felt that any bumps down the stretch were just part of a great stretch battle where neither horse was impeded, so it seems a shame to have Vino’s credentials permanently reduced in the record books.” 

Mike Repole was much more matter of fact. The day before the race he stated simply in a text message, “Let’s win the Classic!!!!. Vino is is a fine wine that has aged over time.”

Not only did this Vino reach his peak on November 2, 2019, nearly two years to the day after his carer debut , he trounced the best horses in training, winning by 4 ¼lengths, nailing down the Eclipse Award as Champion Older Male. The spotlight finally was all his.

Going back to the beginning of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984, no horse had ever shipped cross-country twice in one year to win Grade 1 stakes in California. That is until this year when Vino Rosso accomplished the feat by shipping from New York to win the Gold Cup, outdueling the Santa Anita Handicap winner Gift Box, and then shipping back to Santa Anita to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in dominant fashion defeating California’s two best horses in McKinzie, winner of the Whitney at Saratoga; and Higher Power, runaway winner of the Pacific Classic. Finishing up the track was the horse who was placed first ahead of him in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Code of Honor. Of the 10 horses defeated by Vino Rosso in the Classic, nine were Grade 1 winners.

To put that feat in proper context, the only other Eastern-based horse to win two grade 1 stakes in California was Hall of Famer Skip Away, but he did it in different years. To ship to California twice in one year to win Grade 1 stakes is nothing short of remarkable, which is why it had never been done before.

For the Gunthers it was time once again for rejoicing. Two horses they bred, Vino Rosso and Justify, had combined to sweep racing’s Grand Slam – the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Vino Rosso was retired to Spendthrift Farm, where his great-great grandsire Raise A Native once stood, becoming one of the most influential stallions in the history of the Bluegrass.

For Tanya Gunther, there were no more tears to be shed…at least until Vino Rosso’s babies hit the track.

Photos courtesy of Claiborne Farm and Spendthrift Farm

Woodward “Post” Script

Tuesday, October 5th, 2021

Because we have begun a new series trying to find early Kentucky Derby sleepers, why not try to find Breeders’ Cup sleepers who will be huge odds at Del Mar on November 5th and 6th. We’ll start with a horse I’m not even sure will run. But let’s make a case for him anyway. ~ Steve Haskin

Woodward “Post” Script

By Steve Haskin

Once upon a time, not very long ago, two months to be exact, the Breeders’ Cup Classic looked as if it was going to be another unchallenged scamper to the lead for Knicks Go and a field of helpless opponents futilely chasing him. After all, who would want to try to match strides with this front-running powerhouse and sacrifice their own chances? When a horse runs fast and does it as effortlessly as Knicks Go does, you are fighting a losing battle trying to look him in the eye early.

Knicks Go’s illustrious stablemate, the do-it-all Essential Quality possesses excellent tactical speed and can be placed anywhere on the track, but trainer Brad Cox has no desire to see the two of them hook up early. So what could prevent the Classic from being another uneventful front-running victory by this year’s Whitney and Pegasus World Cup winner who has won his last seven two-turn races?

Well, things are not what they seemed two weeks ago, despite Knicks Go’s effortless victory in Saturday’s Lukas Classic against a field of overmatched opponents. The whole complexion of the Breeders’ Cup Classic began to change when the fast, game, and classy Hot Rod Charlie won the Pennsylvania Derby wire-to-wire in impressive fashion. Then this past weekend the rejuvenated Art Collector wired the Woodward Stakes field for his third consecutive stakes victory and Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit deviated from his gutsy, dramatic victories by crushing older horses on the front end in the Awesome Again Stakes, winning by five lengths. Just like that, the Classic was transformed from a solo act into a hotly contested affair, with four top-class horses whose best races have been on the lead. Two of those horses – Knicks Go and Art Collector – have never been a mile and a quarter.

Now we see the Classic with a contentious pace, with proven distance horses Essential Quality and the vastly improved Max Player tracking the leaders, along with the hard-hitting Maxfield, who needs to find the closing punch he had earlier in his career against less talented opponents.

So if that is the way the Classic is going to be run, what about a deep closer to take advantage of the prospective battle that will be waged up front?

Well, there is one, who will be a huge price and that is Dr Post, who finished a non-threatening third in the Woodward Stakes. But there is a catch. Not even his connections are convinced he belongs in the Classic, and trainer Todd Pletcher said on Sunday, “We’re not committed yet. We’ll probably wait a few weeks to decide.”

If they decide not to run then this column was for naught. But I’ll take a shot and try to make a case for him not only belonging in the field, but running a big race.

Let’s start with the Woodward and work backwards. On the surface this seems to be a decent, but uninspiring performance, even though he was beaten only 2 ½ lengths, and I stress the word “only.”

Having watched races at Belmont Park for over 50 years, I have seen so many come-from-behind horses go into that long sweeping turn four- or five-wide, and appear to make a threatening move only to fall apart in the stretch. You simply cannot go that wide into what I call the turn of no return and sustain your run all the way to the wire, unless you’re the immortal Forego, a giant of a horse with a gargantuan stride.

Dr Post not only went into the turn four-wide, made a threatening move, and was five-wide turning for home, he never changed leads, which can happen when you take that turn wide. Even Forego didn’t change leads at Belmont. And on top of that, Dr Post was herded in the final furlong by Maxfield. There was no way Dr Post was going to win, especially going a mile and an eighth, going that wide on that turn and staying on his left lead.

But he still was running strong in the final furlong following a swift :23 4/5 quarter and earned a 104 Beyer speed figure while running 27 feet farther than the winner, which pretty much makes up the 2 ½ lengths he was beaten.

Now let’s go two races back to the Pacific Classic. Another thing I have noticed over the years is the Eastern shippers have not had success running at Del Mar. Even Cigar’s 16-race winning streak ended in the Pacific Classic. Yes, Eastern shippers did win Breeders’ Cup races at Del Mar, but that was because they were beating mostly other shippers.

Dr Post is a rare Eastern shipper who has already run at Del Mar, finishing third in the Pacific Classic, in which he got all the kinks out and made the necessary adjustments during the race. Now he is familiar with the track and any quirks it may present to first-time invaders.

In the Pacific Classic, he was was racing well off the pace and when Joel Rosario asked him for his run he went backwards so abruptly it even caught race caller Trevor Denman by surprise. “Dr Post is being ridden and Dr Post is not responding. Dr Post dropping back to last!”

But in a flash he suddenly took off way out in the middle of the track and began picking up horses. At the top of the stretch he was fanned 8-to-9 wide. Denman bellowed, “Dr Post is starting to wind up, but he’s given himself a tall order.” Still far back in seventh at the eighth pole he flew by four horses in a matter of seconds and was able to finish third, as Denman called, “Dr Post got going far far too late.” Despite being beaten 5 ¾ length he still ran a solid “1/2” on Thoro-Graph. With this race under his belt, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be more effective and more polished over the Del Mar track.

Finally we go back three races to the mile and an eighth Monmouth Cup, in which he rallied six-wide turning for home and drew off to a 1 ¼-length victory in 1:47 2/5, which was three-fifths of a second off Spend A Buck’s 36-year-old track record. Yes, Hot Rod Charlie ran the same time finishing first in the Haskell Invitational (actually 15 one-hundredths of a second faster), but Dr Post lost so much ground he was given a faster Thoro-Graph figure. In fact, Dr Post has run two negative Thoro-Graph figures (both negative-1 ½) in his last four starts prior to the Woodward, as well as the “1/2” in the Pacific Classic. It is expected he will get another negative number in the Woodward.

I am not implying that Dr Post is as talented as Knicks Go, Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie, Art Collector and Medina Spirit, or even Maxfield and Max Player. He may not even be better than this own stablemate Happy Saver. But that doesn’t mean he is not capable of taking advantage of a contentious pace and closing strong, having already run a good race at Del Mar going a mile and a quarter, something the other shippers cannot claim. And most important, he likely will be no better than eighth or ninth choice.

So there you have a Breeders’ Cup Classic sleeper. Now, if they decide not to send him then I refer you to the closing line of the old Allan Sherman song from the ‘60s, “Muddah, Faddah kindly disregard this letter.”

Photos courtesy of Associated Press/Seth Wenig, Ryan Thompson/Coglianese Photos, and Equi-photo

A Love Letter to Joan

Monday, September 27th, 2021

I wrote this column on Bloodhorse.com for what I knew would be a cathartic experience and something that needed to be said. I now reprint it on Secretariat.com for our 41st anniversary on September 28. As it was then, this column is far and away the most special column I have ever written and is once again a much needed cathartic experience. For those who have read it, feel free to ignore it, but to me it needs to be in the Secretariat.com archives, just as it needed to be in the Bloodhorse.com archives as an everlasting tribute to the person without whom all else is meaningless. My mother gave me life, but Joan gave me a life, and one I never dreamed possible~ Steve Haskin

A Love Letter to Joan

By Steve Haskin

 

I can point out the exact spot. It was just as you pass the administration building at Belmont Park that I saw my wife for the first time. The only problem was that I only saw her from the back. I recognized the voice of her co-worker (who I had spoken to many times on the phone as librarian for the DRF) as they passed by me. They worked for Photocommunications, a Madison Ave. firm that handled all the publicity for the New York Racing Association, sending out photos, captions, and releases and the occasional feature.

I knew they were going to be at the track and wanted to meet me. I turned around and watched them walk away, too shy and insecure to go after them. I remember the image like it was yesterday — tall, blonde, wearing a beige raincoat and high heels. “What a jerk you are,” I said to myself. Joan’s co-worker was the one who called me more regularly, but mainly on a personal basis. I had spoken to Joan a few times, mostly for business, and felt I would be more interesting as a voice on the phone than in person. So I just kept on walking, the coward that I was.

It was the fall of 1977. Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew was on the sidelines, Forego was still going strong at age 7, and a pair of 2-year-olds named Affirmed and Alydar were establishing quite a rivalry.

As for myself, I was becoming heavily involved with European racing at the time and was making some important connections over there, having attended the Epsom Derby in 1976, Royal Ascot and the Irish Derby in 1977, and the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot in 1978. I also was freelance writing here in the States, mostly for the Thoroughbred Record, and was writing a column for the now-defunct Sporting Chronicle in England, reporting on all the European horses who were racing in America. I was able to land that gig by presenting them with an offer they couldn’t refuse – I would work for free.

By the following summer (1978), after returning from my trip to Royal Ascot, I was hired by longtime editor Peter Towers-Clark to be the American representative for Stud & Stable magazine, the European equivalent of The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Record.

So, this was my existence at age 31 — single for life, whether I wanted to be or not; still shy around women, still cloistered away in the Daily Racing Form library, and having found a new outlet as a freelance writer in America and Europe. It was easy to convince myself I was content, but I still hated myself for the void I had created and the inability to fill it. Here I was a hopeless romantic with a heartful of romantic feelings suppressed by shackles of inferiority and insecurity. So I resigned myself to my fate and continued to immerse myself in racing and now freelance writing.

My low point had come that day at Belmont when I couldn’t bring myself to approach this woman, whose beauty was confined to my imagination having only seen her from behind. Just the thought of that perceived beauty being a reality sent waves of cowardice up my spineless back. So I sheepishly walked away.

Our phone conversations increased, and I was again able to be the dashing, charming person I always wanted to be and how she perceived me to be. She seemed to enjoy our talks and I was not about to jeopardize that by actually meeting her and seeing that look of disappointment on her face, especially when my bumbling attempt at conversation contradicted the voice over the phone.

Our conversations eventually expanded from the office to the home. She was starting to get to know the real me, but I dared not cross that long distance line that separated us and protected me from being exposed.

In the spring of 1978 I left for my three-week trip to England. I came to miss our conversations and sent several postcards. When I returned, we spoke for four hours catching up. This beautiful woman who I had never really seen became more beautiful than ever. It didn’t matter that it was only in my mind. I had created my dream girl in my imagination and she began to take on that persona.

I couldn’t help but think of my favorite musical, Man of La Mancha, and the passionate, but heartrending lyrics to the song Dulcinea that so aptly described what I was feeling — “I have dreamed three too long. Never seen thee or touched thee, but known thee with all of my heart.”

I knew we had reached a point where I had to meet her. A man doesn’t talk to a woman for four hours on the phone and still find ways of avoiding meeting her. Even I couldn’t be that pathetic. Actually I could, but I had run out of excuses. What made me tremble with fear was finding out she used to be a model. I had never teetered on the edge of doing what was right and normal and doing what was safe and abnormal.

To demonstrate how far apart our worlds had been in our early twenties, I was at Saratoga to see Arts and Letters win the Travers in 1969 the same day Joan was about 65 miles down the New York Thruway at Woodstock. Not only was she surely beautiful, but cool as well. There was nothing cool about taking an Adirondack Trailways bus up to Saratoga to see your favorite horse run compared to driving a graffiti-splattered Volkswagen Bug to a rock festival with hundreds of thousands of scantily clothed girls.

In preparation for our long overdue meeting, which I still had not suggested, I knew she was disgruntled with her job and was looking to get out. She was a gifted writer and photographer and well schooled in public relations. I contacted our head of advertising and got several references to give her, mostly as a crutch in order to have something to talk about. So, we decided to meet outside her office building on Madison Avenue for lunch. D–Day was June 28, 1978. Needing to give this my very best shot I wore a tie and three-piece suit even though the temperature was somewhere in the vicinity of 95 degrees. It didn’t matter. I needed every advantage I could get to assure she would not cringe in disgust or at the very least set a track record in eating lunch — “Oh, I just remembered, I have all this work I have to finish in the next half hour. Goodbye and good luck, and, oh, by the way, I’m changing my phone number.”

So, I waited outside her building, and when she came out and I realized it was her, with that long blonde hair flowing in the hot summer breeze, let’s just say I was in my mind the equivalent of a $5,000 claimer facing a grade I champion.

But we went to lunch, and despite having talked for months and learning all about each other, I no longer was a faceless voice on the telephone. I was me and not happy about that one bit. I quickly needed to come up with a sharp opening line, but Ralph Kramden had a hold of my tongue, complete with quivering jaw and a sole vocabulary of “hamanahamana.” We had so much in common on the phone and talked so openly, but now it was me and this gorgeous lady and I no longer knew her. But unfortunately I knew myself, and as predicted, I was tongue-tied, my mind had gone blank, and my palms were sweaty. I somehow was able to fight Ralph off and managed to actually speak in a semi intelligent manner: “So, how many floors in your apartment building?” Oh, my God, I was more pathetic than I thought. Did I actually say that?

Behind Joan’s beautiful smile was a “Who the heck cares? This loser is the cool guy I’ve been talking to for so many months, who I have shared intimate secrets with?”

I tried to save one last shred of dignity by giving her the names and phone numbers our advertising manager had written down for me. Actually, come to think of it, I believe she asked for it in order to steer me off the embarrassing course I had taken — “So, where’s the list?” Ouch.

So, the phone romance was over. I had been exposed. The following morning, my friend and colleague, Jack Zaraya, who was my driving companion to work every day for the one hour and 40-minute trip from Brooklyn to Hightstown, N.J., asked me how it went. He had been excited for me that I was taking this drastic step. My reply was as succinct as I could make it: “Forget it. I’m totally outclassed.”

The relationship was over. Well, at least in my mind. She actually called me again at work and I was able to crawl back into hiding, once again Mr. Cool with the sharp sense of humor; a voice of compassion, and someone who was easy to talk to. But to my utter shock, she actually still seemed interested. I figured with her having just hit the “30” furlong pole, she was, in her mind, getting a bit too far from the starting gate and her clock was ticking, feeling it’s better to catch a guppy than wait around for a marlin.

Believe it or not, she wanted to further our relationship and it was me who was reluctant. I use reluctant as a substitute for scared, gutless, and insecure. I even sank so low as to write her a letter telling her my budding writing career as American representative for a British magazine took precedence over anything else, especially romantic involvement. Every word of that was a lie. That was my inferiority complex talking. But she strongly suggested I read the book “The Thorn Birds,” and that changed my life completely and gave me the courage to follow the old adage, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

I knew after reading the book I couldn’t live with myself if I blew this opportunity. I remember closing the book and feeling its effect on me. I was Father Ralph and Joan was the beautiful Meggie, who dared to attempt to penetrate the wall between them. Father Ralph finally succumbed to the siren call that had reached deep into his heart. He couldn’t suppress his feelings any longer. He couldn’t live with himself without knowing what it was like to act out one’s desire to love in the physical sense.

I was scheduled to go to Charlottesville Virginia in about a week with DRF cartoonist Pierre Bellocq and his son Remi to watch Remi ride at the Foxfield hunts. I immediately called Joan and asked her if she wanted to go. I couldn’t believe it when the words actually left my mouth. She said yes without hesitation. This was it. I had crossed the line that I’d drawn as a youth and had always been afraid to cross. If I was going to be embarrassed and exposed this would be the time, but at least I could look myself in the mirror and then safely retreat back into racing and writing.

I never did retreat. It is now 41 years later. That phantom beauty I had created in my mind, whose real beauty surpassed my imaginary figure, is still as beautiful as the day I met her.

We climbed the first plateau when Joan invited me to spend Christmas with her family in Connecticut. When everyone was asleep and we were alone watching “A Christmas Carol,” on TV it began to snow. Yes, just like in the movie “White Christmas.” We went outside and ran through the snow, throwing snowballs at the lamp post. It was like an out-of-body experience. Scenes like this only happen in the movies. A week later, we celebrated New Year’s in a magical place called Fox Hollow in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. We cross country skied, sat in front of the fireplace listening to Johnny Mathis sing “Twelfth of Never,” and took a sunset ride on a one-horse open sleigh through the snowy fields, led by a horse named Odd Job with a beautiul Husky running alongside the sleigh. As we sat close together snuggled under a blanket it hit me. I was for the first time a real person leading a real life, even though it all felt like a fantasy. That was the weekend that opened the portal to a new life.

As I progressed in my writing, which eventually led to numerous awards and finally to induction into the Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor, every word I wrote was inspired by Joan.

Joan went on to work as public relations coordinator for the New York Racing Association for three years. During that time, she caught the eye of DRF executive columnist Joe Hirsch, who would constantly ask her out on a date. She politely declined every invitation, including several to the swankiest spots in New York City, such as Studio 54 and Regine’s. You couldn’t get into these places unless of course you were Joe Hirsch, who roomed for years with New York’s most eligible and famous bachelor Joe Namath. Was I actually competing with Joe Hirsch? Me? One night Joe called Joan and asked her out while I was there. She told him she was involved with one his colleagues, Steve Haskin. All Joe said was, “Good man,” and that ended that.

Working for NYRA meant three glorious summers in Saratoga, where I finally proposed in 1979, with a great deal of persuasion. I guess you never completely lose the coward in you. We broke the news to her entire family at the Wishing Well restaurant that same night. The following night we were having dinner with her parents when her mother casually asked her in front of me, “So Joanie, are you sure you’re doing the right thing?” Uh, hello.

We were married in 1980 on the Connecticut shore and spent two weeks in France on our honeymoon. After a week in Paris, concluding with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, we took an overnight train down south to Toulouse, where we rented a car, and I proceeded to drive over a thousand miles, staying in the ancient town of St. Emilion in the wine country, the historic city of Poitiers, the more modern city of Tours in the Loire Valley, visiting most of the surrounding chateaus, and finally to Bayeux, which was our base for our drives down the Normandy coast and the D-Day beaches, the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, Pont du Hoc, and the town of St. Mere-Eglise, where the 101st Airborne parachuted, landing in the center of town. It was an unforgettable experience and we both kept diaries.

That was followed over the next few years by trips to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone National Park, and Acadia National Park in Maine.

During her stay with NYRA Joan wrote the first ever feature on a young apprentice named Richard Migliore, she coordinated and put together the exhibit “That Belmont Look” at the New York Historical Society, and arranged for the city of Saratoga to proclaim “Affirmed Day” in 1979, with banners and posters all over town. She also helped bring the American-trained Grand National Steeplechase winner Ben Nevis to Saratoga in 1980, where he was brought to the lawn of the Reading Room adjacent to the track.

After Joan moved to Queens, we spent two fun years in our cozy apartment, complete with cardboard furniture in the bedroom. We then moved to New Jersey when Joan got a job as head of communications for Robert Brennan’s International Thoroughbred Breeders and was the go-to person regarding ITB’s purchase of Garden State Park. There we discovered birdwatching, going on several birding trips with the Bucks County Audubon Society.

We have shared many adventures over the years, traveling to places like Dubai, Uruguay, England, and Ireland, and all over America. We brought a beautiful and amazing daughter into the world who gave us a grandson last February. Through four decades we still are best friends.Everything I have in my life is because of Joan. In 1997, I was assigned to cover the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for DRF, giving us an opportunity to have a second honeymoon and expose Mandy to the wonders of Paris. We even stayed in the same little boutique hotel we stayed at on our honeymoon 17 years earlier.

Together we have painted our own version of the Picture of Dorian Gray. I keep aging as Joan keeps getting younger.

Because of her inspiration I learned to believe in myself and somehow made it into the Hall of Fame, a far cry from the nerdy insecure librarian who fell in love with a princess.

To have Joan and Mandy, and our family and friends, share in that remarkable moment at the National Museum of Racing and seeing the look of pride on their faces is what made it such a special occasion.

As I get older and think back to reading “The Thorn Birds,” and how that changed my life I can’t think of beautiful Meggie without thinking of the Irish song, “Maggie,” and the words that tug at my heart every time I hear it. We are in our seventies now and married over 40 years and only the spirit and passion of my writing can shroud what I see in the mirror. But the beauty of youth still emanates from Joan as it did the first time I laid eyes on the vision that would encompass my life. As so profoundly stated in “Maggie:”

“They say that I’m feeble with age Maggie
my steps are much slower than then
my face is a well written page Maggie
and time all alone was the pen

”They say we have outlived our time Maggie
as dated as the songs that we’ve sung
but to me you’re as fair as you were Maggie
when you and I were young”

Joan has never lost that beauty that both captivated and frightened me; a beauty I had at first envisioned that day at Belmont and then set eyes on for the first time one hot afternoon in Manhattan.

I often think of that day at Harkness State Park in Connecticut, standing on the rocks, placing a ring on Joan’s finger and declaring my everlasting love. “To cherish you for all time is what I live for. To live with you for all time is what I cherish.”  It was that moment that inspired the poem I wrote to her 18 years later after we returned there for one of our many visits.

It’s as if the ocean has stood still through the passage of time
As if the clocks no longer tick and the bells no longer chime
There are no signs that 18 years have hurried by
The same waves nuzzle against the rocks; the same birds dance across the sky
Two lovers once stood upon these rocks and proclaimed before the sea
Their undying love until eternity
And those same words still echo through the waves, drifting forever with the tide
And there they will remain until the rocks have withered and the ocean has dried
In the breeze you can still see an angel with her halo of gold
A ring placed on her finger, a vision to behold
And from that precious soul and loving heart still flow
The same beauty and warmth that graced these rocks so many years ago

No matter how often she returns, everything remains the same
The sea still reflects her beauty, the waves still call out her name
And years from now when others stand here and are caressed by the ocean’s spray
Hopefully they will feel love that was shared on an enchanting September day

So, this is just my way of saying thank you for everything that I am and everything I will ever be. The song I have heard for the past 41 years is as beautiful as the song of the Thorn Bird.

As author Colleen McCullough described it: “It outsings the Lark and the Nightingale…and the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles.”

 

Steve’s Sleepers: Commandperformance

Friday, September 17th, 2021
This is the first of a series of columns to be posted periodically through the start of Derby Rankings in mid-January. During that time let’s all play bloodstock agent and see if we can uncover some live sleepers for next year’s Kentucky Derby before they become well-known. They would be mostly horses who are still maidens, but left a big impression in defeat. Or maiden winners that are still flying under the radar. I will look for an interesting back story regarding each horse to bring them to life so people can follow them right from the beginning. If anyone sees a horse, male or female, who fits that bill you can email me at Sehaskin@aol.com and I will check them out. Hope you enjoy this new series. ~ Steve Haskin

Steve’s Sleepers: Commandperformance

By Steve Haskin

 

Whether you are a bloodstock agent or racing manager touting an under-the-radar Kentucky Derby prospect to your owner for possible purchase or just a simple journalist playing those roles, it is disheartening to “discover” a hidden talent, going out on a limb, and then seeing that horse turn into a bust. But as any racing person knows, it is going to happen more times than not. We are not risking anyone’s money here; just having fun and seeing if we can all find untapped talent, tell their story, and then following those horses hoping one or two can buck the odds and make it to the Kentucky Derby.

The first sleeper who caught my eye was a handsome gray Union Rags colt trained by Todd Pletcher named Commandperformance. If he didn’t have such an eventful trip in his career debut he probably would have won, and being trained by Pletcher and owned by the powerful team of St. Elias Stable and Mike Repole, he no longer would qualify as a sleeper. So let’s hop on his bandwagon now and tell his story and the story of his dam Smitten.

First, going back over his maiden race, he went into the six-furlong event at Saratoga on September 6 coming off two strong five-furlong works in 1:00 and change and then a half-mile drill in :47 3/5 from the gate, fifth fastest of 134 works at the distance. As soon as they crossed the finish line I knew this was a horse worth following.

Breaking from the disadvantageous inside post first time out, he was slammed into hard from a chain reaction and was bounced sideways about a dozen feet, winding up just inches from the rail. By the time Irad Ortiz was able to gather him he had one horse beat in the nine-horse field and was still down on the inside getting mud kicked in his face.

At the three-eighths pole, Ortiz eased him out a couple of paths, but he was still some six lengths behind the 5-2 favorite Don’t Wait Up, who was coming off a nose defeat to one of Pletcher’s promising colts Power Agenda.

Still bottled up in traffic turning for home, Ortiz kept waiting for a hole to open. And when none did, he hit Commandperformance three times left-handed to try to get him to the outside. But when he saw the colt was getting out too far, he switched to a right-handed whip and Commandperformance found another gear and quickly surged forward. But he was still fourth at the eighth pole with Don’t Wait Up drawing well clear of the field. Ortiz let the colt come home on his own under a hand ride and he narrowed the favorite’s four-length lead to two lengths at the wire, while finishing nearly three lengths clear of the third horse in a field strung out 25 lengths from first to last. They covered the six furlongs in a sharp 1:10 2/5 with Commandperformance closing his final eighth in a swift :12 1/5.

But what really impressed me about him was the way he shrugged off several obstacles on a muddy track in his career debut, the fluidity of his stride, the smoothness of his lead change, his turn of foot in the stretch, and how perfectly he holds his legs under him. In other words, mechanically he was flawless.

I’m not so sure he needs another maiden race, as this to me was equivalent to a victory and I saw all I needed to see to convince me he is ready to take the next step up.

Pedigree-wise, he is by Belmont Stakes and Champagne winner Union Rags, the sire of the St. Elias-Repole 3-year-old stakes winner Dynamic One. He also has the unique distinction of being inbred top and bottom to a U.S. Triple Crown winner (Seattle Slew) and an English Triple Crown winner (Nijinsky, the only horse to sweep that Triple Crown in the last 51 years).

Commandperformance, who was purchased at the Keeneland yearling sale for $220,000, is out of the Tapit mare Smitten, who was bred in Kentucky by Extern Developments. She sold as a weanling for $175,000 then pinhooked to the Keeneland Yearling Sale, where she was purchased by Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm for $280,000. What stands out in Smitten’s pedigree is that her dam, Hi Lili, s out of multiple stakes winner Snit, who is a daughter of Rokeby Stable’s Fit to Fight, the last of only four horses to sweep the old Handicap Triple Crown (Met Mile, Suburban, and Brooklyn Handicaps), previously won by Whisk Broom II, Tom Fool, and Kelso.

On July 27, 2011, Smitten’s half-brother J C’s Pride, by Henny Hughes, broke the track record for five furlongs at Saratoga, winning a race maiden in :56.54 by 3 1/4 lengths.

Smitten, trained by Larry Jones, was a hard-luck filly, whose career as a racehorse and a broodmare went unfulfilled, and it’s now up to Commandperformance to give her the recognition of which she was deprived.

Smitten was nothing to look at as a 2-year-old, and Jones had an array of stars in his barn at the time and paid little attention to her. But one person who fell in love with her was Jonathan Cozart, who was working for Jones as a hotwalker at the time. She became very special to him and was the horse who took the sport from a source of enjoyment to a passion for him.

Cozart eventually went to work for TVG and now also breeds Thoroughbreds. He met his wife Melissa, who works for Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Kentucky, when they both were working at Ellis Park. They have two sons ages 5 and 2.

When Smitten turned 3, she put on weight and a good deal of muscle and developed into a magnificent athlete, one who Jones started mentioning in the same breath as Eight Belles, his ill-fated filly who finished second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby. And he had major stakes winners Believe You Can, Joyful Victory, and Mark Valeski at the time.

Following two solid efforts in October at Keeneland and Churchill Downs in her first two starts, Smitten broke her maiden going a mile and 70 yards at Fair Grounds on December 16, 2012, demonstrating an excellent turn of foot. Jones said after the race he would point her for the Silverbulletday Stakes at the Fair Grounds, telling Brisnet.com, “I think she learned a lot in that last race. She’s starting to be more of a push-button type of horse now. In fact, she’s improving so fast lately that she’s starting to remind me of where Eight Belles (also owned by Fox Hill Farm) was at this point in her career.”

Smitten by now had become such a major part of Jonathan and Melissa’s life they started a Facebook page for her on January 11, 2013, which has over 2,200 followers. The profile photo on the page is a painting Melissa made for Jonathan of Smitten before they started dating.

In the Silverbulletday on January 19, she broke slowly, dropped back to 10th, 13 lengths off the pace, and then unleashed a powerful five-wide move to finish third, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths. After she worked a bullet three furlongs in :34 3/5, Jones pointed her for the February 23 Rachel Alexandra Stakes. But shortly after the work she got a rusty nail stuck in her hock, causing foot issues from which she would never fully recover. Jones tried her on turf because of her breeding, but she did little running. After another poor effort in June at Churchill Downs, she was retired and sold to Russell Davis of Damara Farm.

In 2018, Smitten was bred to Union Rags and the following year, on March 23, she produced a beautiful gray colt. But about five weeks after foaling, she developed a serious case of colic and was sent to Rood and Riddle clinic for surgery, where she continued to nurse her foal. Whether it was from the stress of the surgery, she developed laminitis a few days later. When it became apparent that she could not be saved, Jim Herbener, at whose Herbener Farm she was residing, took the foal back home and put him on a nursemare. Shortly after, with all hope gone, Smitten was euthanized. She was 9 years old.

“I was devastated when I learned of her passing,” Cozart said. “I would love for her story to be told the world over. I hope her son affords her that chance.”

The colt grew into a “grand-looking individual,” according to Herbener. “I was very high on him physically and we were happy with the price he brought at the sale and who bought him.”

Destin Heath, the farm trainer at WinStar Farm where Commandperformance got his early training, remembers him well.

“I can’t forget that one,” he said. “At first he was difficult to be around. He was a very tough, high energy colt who was strong-willed. We couldn’t get to the bottom of him. You needed to have the right pony with him and put the right rider on him. But we were extremely high on him, so we were patient and worked with him. In general he was a very nice horse to be around. When we had him at the farm during breaking season he was physically impressive to look at; a man among boys who did everything with ease. I kept thinking, ‘Man, when he puts it all together.’ We had him on the Polytack here at the farm, but when we transferred him to our Keeneland barn and put him on dirt he really started to excel and climbed the ladder very quickly. We worked him with our better horses and he just did everything so easily. St. Elias had some good horses and I told their people they would be good early on, but this colt will be the one who has the more prosperous career. I thought he was the best horse in his maiden race and now the sky’s the limit.”

So, now here we are, with a young unproven horse at his first crossroads. The horse who beat him likely will be heading into stakes company. Will he follow despite being a maiden? Will he eventually make people aware of his dam, so her story can continue to be told? Or are we off base with him, making this column irrelevant? That is the fascinating aspect of early life on the Derby trail. There is no way of knowing what you have. You just keep digging for gold, looking for anything that glistens, and then hope you’ve hit the mother lode. And this colt sure did glisten.

Even if Commandpeformance doesn’t fulfill his promise for whatever reason, at least we know the story of Smitten. It is horses like her who had a profound effect on people’s lives that need to be recognized.

Photos courtesy of John Sparkman and Jonathan Cozart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life on the Backstretch in the Wake of 9/11

Friday, September 10th, 2021
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 it is only appropriate to reprint from Bloodhorse.com my account of the events from a racing perspective following one of the most tragic days in American history, as well as adding new material pertaining to the 2001 Breeders’ Cup. ~ Steve Haskin

Life on the Backstretch in the Wake of 9/11

By Steve Haskin

 

It was Sunday evening and I, along with my wife and daughter, were flying back to Newark Airport from Lexington, Kentucky after attending John Henry Day at the Kentucky Horse Park, where I and trainer Ron McAnally signed copies of my book on the then 26-year-old legend. As we approached the airport from the north, flying along the Jersey side the Hudson River, I looked out the window and couldn’t help but be awestruck at the sight of the World Trade Center’s twin towers glistening like diamonds in the evening sun. I called Joan and Mandy to my side of the plane and they too marveled at this dazzling sight. Never before had I seen any structure shine so lustrously. Two days later they were gone.

Like everyone I was shaken and angry, and still numb from the cataclysmic events of September 11 that still seemed surreal several days later. But I was still a writer and almost three years into my job as Senior Correspondent and head writer for Blood-Horse publications. So that Saturday morning, September 15, I decided to drive to the Belmont Park backstretch, a diverse world unto itself, and see how the people, the horses, and the sport were coping with the disaster and how it affected life within its gates.

Although many have read this first part since I first posted it 20 years ago, it is still good to remind racing fans on this anniversary what it was like back then, especially with the Breeders’ Cup scheduled to be run at Belmont Park only 46 days later.

View From the Verrazano

Driving over the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn on the morning of Sept. 15, it was apparent why the New York Racing Association decided at the last minute to cancel racing until Sept. 19. Any thoughts of Belmont Park or Thoroughbred racing were obliterated by the sight of the now-naked skyline of Lower Manhattan off to the left and the deathly shroud that still hung over it.

The Statue of Liberty, once nestled under the shadow of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, now stood under an ominous ashen cloud that stretched across New York Harbor all the way to New Jersey.

After the initial shock of seeing nothing where the twin towers used to stand, one had to marvel at how the mighty city could have both its arms ripped out and still retain its ability to embrace.

Throughout New York, millions of hands linked to form an unbreakable chain. And beneath that gaping space where the World Trade Center once filled the sky, many of those hands scraped and clawed through tons of steel, oblivious to the crippled structures standing precariously above them.

With pride and sadness competing for dominance in the mind and heart, there was little room left for celebrations other than the discovery of life among the ruins. So, NYRA officials decided at 10 a.m. Friday that the cheers and the trophies could wait. Thoroughbred racing, like most everything now, is a mere speck against the cataclysmic events of Sept. 11, and New Yorkers were not quite ready for any diversions to take their mind off the horrific wounds they, and all Americans, had suffered.

But life did go on at Belmont Saturday morning, as horses and horsemen went about their daily chores. Unlike other athletes across the country, Thoroughbreds have been oblivious to the darkest day in American history. There were no billowing black clouds of smoke or haunting images to obscure their view. They still saw the same wide open spaces before them and felt the same crisp breezes blowing in their face. And on Wednesday, when Belmont reopens, just maybe, for a few hours, they will be able to help people see and feel something beautiful again after a week of unspeakable anguish.

“We understand we need to get back to normal and basically get on with our lives, but unlike the other tracks that are racing, we’re just so close to it,” NYRA president Terry Meyocks said. “There’s so much tension around here, we felt it wasn’t in the best interest of New York to conduct racing so quickly. We were going to race, but then baseball, football, golf, and NASCAR all canceled, and Friday was proclaimed a day of mourning. We’ve developed a good rapport with the communities over the years, and we realized that there’s a lot more to life than racing this weekend. It just wasn’t the right thing to do. The employees and the horsemen are still pretty somber, and this will give them another weekend to be with friends and family.”

All around Belmont were sights and sounds that continued to pummel Tuesday’s disaster into our psyche. On the Belt Parkway, just outside the gates of Aqueduct, a funeral procession headed east, escorted by two police cars and a fire engine, strongly suggesting it was for one of the deceased firefighters. On the Staten Island Expressway, another police car escorted a dump truck, filled with debris, to the Great Kills dump.

At the Belmont stable gate, a sign was tucked into the window of the booth, showing the American flag, with the words “Pray For America.” Media pins no longer wielded the same authority as before. “I can get that in a box of Cracker Jacks,” the security guard said. “Let me see the ID number on the back.” The guard, who wished to remain anonymous, later said, “You can imagine what it’s been like around here. It’s pretty morbid. But everyone has been showing solidarity. Everyone is proud to be an American. A lot of people were very upset when they originally announced they were going to race.”

Tony Pittelli, a security guard directing traffic inside the backstretch, was happy to see planes flying overhead once again. “The mood hasn’t been too good,” he said. “One of my sons lost his sister-in-law, and one of the riders here lost his son-in-law. His daughter and son-in-law had been married for two years and have a one-year-old baby. Unbelievable. It’s just terrible.”

Buzz Tenney, assistant to Shug McGaughey, can’t believe how quiet the backstretch has been. “It feels like it does when a meet is over and you’re just hanging around waiting to move to the next track,” he said. “We’re all going through our work, but there’s been only one topic of conversation.”

As Tenney spoke, Tiznow, who has been stabled in their barn, walked down the shed with Ramon Arciga aboard. Last year’s Horse of the Year, has been unable to return home to California following his third-place finish in the Sept. 8 Woodward Stakes. “We’re stuck here,” Arciga said. “We were supposed to have left Wednesday, then again on Friday. Now they say Tuesday, but we’re not sure when we’ll be leaving.”

One barn that has been affected in a much different way is the Godolphin stable of Sheikh Mohammed. The Godolphin grooms are all Pakistanis, and they have been told by assistant trainer Laurent Barbarin to keep a low profile. “It’s a very difficult situation,” Barbarin said. “I spoke to them and told them to stay quiet. It’s safer for everybody. But we’re all holding up very well.”

Another trainer, Bobby Frankel, was scheduled to return to California on Monday, following You’s appearance in Sunday’s Matron Stakes. “It’s tough getting a commercial flight, so I’ll stay through the week and leave after I run Squirtle Squirt in the Vosburgh Saturday,” he said. Frankel ran into racing secretary Mike Lakow, who was driving out of the stable area, and said about canceling the races, “You definitely did the right thing.”

Neil Howard, who had entered Secret Status in Saturday’s Ruffian Handicap, was also forced to remain in New York. He had originally been scheduled to fly out of LaGuardia to Louisville on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. “I’ll just stay here for a while, and point Secret Status for the Beldame. Even if we had won the Ruffian, how can you go in the winner’s circle and act happy?”

One person who has been doing everything he can to offer assistance is veterinarian Russell Cohen, who purchased two dozen work gloves from True Value and several cases of soda, then brought them to the fire house on 48th Street and Seventh Avenue, which had lost 14 firefighters – one third of its entire crew. He also brought other goods to a police precinct in the Bronx. From 48th Street, he walked down to Canal Street, offering his services in case the police needed any assistance with their horses.

“There’s nothing much we can do, but every little bit helps,” Cohen said. “I’ve done work for the ASPCA before, and was on the Animal Planet (network) once, so a lot of the people know me. I just found out that one horse owner, a member of a syndicate, was killed at the World Trade Center. And there’s probably more that we don’t know about.”

So, Belmont Park sits back and quietly waits for the country to return to some sense of normalcy. Because of the timing factor, four of the five stakes scheduled this weekend have been canceled, while the Jerome Handicap will be run next Saturday.

Returning back over the Verrazano, smoke from newly ignited fires continued to rise from the ashes of Lower Manhattan, adding to the hell-like conditions. But beneath the smoke, the Statue of Liberty could be seen, still sparkling like an emerald in the morning sun. Uptown, the Empire State building still stood as tall as ever, with both iconic symbols of New York City reminding us that there is still a great powerful city out there waiting to get on with its life.

A Breeders’ Cup Unlike Any Other

Weeks later, America, especially New York City, was still in shock over the catastrophic events of 9/11, and there was talk about many of the Europeans not showing up for the Breeders’ Cup, whose officials, along with the New York Racing Association, was trying to figure out a way to stage the event under adverse conditions never before seen or even imagined. But Ballydoyle trainer Aidan O’Brien assured the Breeders’ Cup that he’d be there with his powerful arsenal.

The first surreal sight came at JFK International Airport on Oct. 11 when Sheikh Mohammed’s private 747 jet, which had departed Stanstead Airport in England at 1:30 p.m., touched down at the Saudi Arabian cargo terminal. On board were three of Godolphin’s biggest stars — the brilliant Sakhee, runaway winner of the Arc de Triomphe and Juddmonte International; the globe-trotting Fantastic Light, a major stakes winner in the United States, Ireland, England, Hong Kong, and Dubai, and third, beaten a neck, in the Japan Cup; and the top miler, Noverre, winner of the Sussex Stakes.

Awaiting the trio upon their arrival were two FBI agents, four customs agents, and three carloads of Port Authority police. The horses, under the car of head assistant Tom Albertrani, were vanned to Belmont, joining the other Godolphin horses.

At 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 22, an Air Transport International DC-8 taxied up to the same Saudi Arabian terminal at JFK. Veterinarian John Miller boarded the plane and took the blood on the seven Ballydoyle-trained horses arriving from Shannon Airport. The blood would then be flown by Lear Jet to Ames, Iowa, where lab technician John Eli would meet the plane and take the samples to the lab for analysis. Expediting the procedure would allow the Ballydoyle horses to clear quarantine by 10 p.m. the following day.

The Ballydoyle contingent was believed to be the most expensive shipment of Thoroughbred racehorses in history. An insurance company appraised their value at $200 million, with Galileo, winner of the English Derby, Irish Derby, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, alone valued at $65 million. Also on board were the brilliant undefeated 2-year-old Johannesburg, St. Leger winner Milan, and top-class stakes horses Black Minnaloushe, Bach, Mozart, and Sophisticat.

About an hour after the arrival of the Ballydoyle horses, an Air France 747 pulled up to the Air France terminal, carrying three French-trained horses — Banks Hill, Spring Oak, and Slew the Red, all trained by Andre Fabre in Chantilly.

This three-pronged European force was the strongest and deepest ever sent to the Breeders’ Cup.

On Oct. 24, the morning of the entries, Godolphin sent shock waves rippling through the backstretch when it was announced that Fantastic Light would run in the Turf and Sakhee would go for the Classic in an attempt to climb Mt. Olympus and enter the pantheon of greats.

Breeders’ Cup Day was unlike anything ever seen at a racetrack. Police dogs were used to search random automobiles entering the track parking lot. Soldiers were stationed throughout Belmont, armed with AKA assault rifles. Snipers were positioned on the roof, observing the crowd with high-powered binoculars. The whole scene was surreal.

As part of the opening ceremonies prior to the races, dozens of jockeys, accompanied by members of the New York Police and Fire departments, lined up, each holding the flag of his country. The National Anthem was sung by Carl Dixon of the New York Police Department following a bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Alastair Donald of the International Racing Bureau was expecting a big day from the powerful European brigade. “If we get our asses kicked, we’ll have to think up some good excuses,” he said.

By the time the Classic rolled around, America was a heartbeat away from being embarrassed by the European horses, and a defeat would have been an ignominious end to the 2001 Breeders’ Cup. First, it was a thrashing from the French in the Filly & Mare Turf by Banks Hill. Then, it was the Irish who decimated the American youngsters in the Juvenile, as Johannesburg burst clear to win going away. Adding insult to injury, the Turf then went to Godolphin’s Fantastic Light, trained in England.

With an Arab-owned horse having won the second biggest Breeders’ Cup race, it was up to horses like Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Aptitude and Tiznow and Albert the Great, who both would have to rebound off disappointing efforts in order to close out the event with a much-needed victory for America in the Classic.

But after making a big sweeping move on the far turn, Apitude began to falter. It was now up to Tiznow and Albert the Great. At the top of the stretch, however, it was another Godolphin horse, Sakhee, who came charging up on the outside, having all the momentum. Albert the Great tried to battle back but it was apparent he had fired his best shot. It was now all up to Tiznow, who was between the two in third and still in the mix. But that fire from the previous year seemed to be gone, especially coming off two uncharacteristic defeats. Plagued by severe back problems and behavioral issues in the mornings, this was not the same tenacious fighter we had seen the previous year.

Sakhee gained a narrow advantage and looked as if he were on his way to a sure victory. With immortality a mere furlong away, he reached back to deal the fatal blow. But then something happened, something we’d seen before. A desperate Chris McCarron hit Tiznow once left-handed and the colt surged forward. Right before everyone’s eyes, last year’s Superman again took on the role of superhero, just as he had in the previous year’s Classic when another European powerhouse, Giant’s Causeway, one of the gutsiest horses seen in Europe in many years, dared to challenge America’s dominance on dirt. No matter how hard he tried he could not get by Tiznow, who prevailed by a neck.

Now, in the blink of an eye, that Tiznow was back; his problems behind him. All he needed was an opponent, apparently a foreign invader, to re-ignite the fire in his eyes. One look at Sakhee about to deal America it’s most crushing defeat and Tiznow reached down into that indefinable reservoir we call heart, and in the shadow of the wire was able to snatch victory away from Sakhee. America, for a fleeting instant, at least in the realm of horse racing, was as she was before Sept. 11– untainted and impenetrable. The nation’s fighting spirit that emerged in the face of disaster had manifested itself in the form of a magnificent, powerful Thoroughbred who simply refused to be defeated.

It is now 20 years later. The 24-year-old Tiznow has been retired from stud duty, but is still represented by major stakes winners and dams and sires of major stakes winners. And we are about to embark on another Breeders’ Cup, this year at Del Mar.

But first and foremost it is a time to remember all the heroes, living and dead, who sacrificed their lives and their health to save thousands of others, and also those who lost their lives so senselessly on a gorgeous, cloudless September morning.

And in our own little realm of Thoroughbred racing, we must remember the sport we love and a gallant warrior named Tiznow for shining even a dim light on a world that had turned dark.

Photo courtesy of Racingfotos

When the Greats Came to Arlington

Monday, September 6th, 2021
Secretariat, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Buckpasser, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Whirlaway, Kelso, Native Dancer, Round Table, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Nashua, Cigar. They all raced in stakes at Arlington Park. Several set track and world records there, one inaugurated a new and important race named the Arlington Million, and on two occasions, Secretariat and Cigar made special appearances to run in races carded especially for them at the height of their popularity. ~ Steve Haskin

When the Greats Came to Arlington

By Steve Haskin

 

To celebrate Arlington’s rich history as it faces its tragic demise under the brief ownership of Churchill Downs Incorporated, I am going to take a look back at four of the track’s most historic moments and the equine heroes who made it such an important stop on the road to the Hall of Fame. The races are listed in chronological order.

 

1967 AMERICAN DERBY (DAMASCUS)

Arlington Park was one of the great tracks of that era, with dirt races like the American Derby, Arlington Classic, Washington Park Handicap, Chicagoan Stakes, and the rich Arlington-Washington Futurity and Lassie all attracting the nation’s top horses.

In the summer of 1967 Damascus had established himself as the leading 3-year-old in the country with victories in the Wood Memorial, Preakness, Belmont, Leonard Richards Stakes, and Dwyer Handicap under 128 pounds. Having already run 10 times at 3, the logical next step appeared to be the Travers. But back then, five weeks was a long time between races and Damascus was an iron horse who thrived on competition. So trainer Frank Whiteley decided to ship to Arlington for the 1 1/8-mile American Derby, even though Damascus was coming off a hard race in the slop, giving runner-up Favorable Turn 16 pounds and would then have only two weeks to the Travers.

The brilliant Dr. Fager, who had defeated Damascus in the Gotham Stakes, was suffering from a virus at the time, so Whiteley didn’t have to worry about him. His main concern was In Reality entering the race. The talented Florida-bred colt had run a solid second to Damascus in the Preakness after having won the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby earlier in the year. He then was placed first in the Jersey Derby after the egregious disqualification of Dr. Fager, in what is regarded as one of the worst disqualifications in racing history, wiping out a brilliant 6 1/4-length victory by Dr. Fager. In Reality then went home to Monmouth Park where he captured the six-furlong Rumson Handicap and 1 1/16-mile Choice Stakes.

Because Damascus had to carry 126 pounds in the American Derby and give away substantial chunks of weight to top-class stakes horses, Whiteley, not wanting to give Damascus another strenuous race with the Travers only two weeks later, decided to feel out In Reality’s trainer Sunshine Calvert, asking him what his intentions were.

Calvert assured Whiteley that he wanted no part of Damascus, feeling that after the Preakness defeat there was no sense trying him again. So Whiteley went ahead and sent Damascus to Arlington Park, which still would be no stroll in the park with Blue Grass Stakes winner Diplomat Way getting eight pounds from Damascus; Hollywood Derby winner Tumble Wind in receipt of six pounds; Kentucky Derby runner-up Barbs Delight, who had finished ahead of Damascus at Churchill Downs and was coming off a victory in the one-mile Assault Handicap at Arlington Park in 1:33 1/5, getting 10 pounds, and Favorable Turn, who had given Damascus all he could handle in the Dwyer, and Gentleman James, third in the Belmont Stakes, both in receipt of 14 pounds.

But when Whiteley arrived at Arlington after vanning Damascus there, he was in for a surprise. He went into the track kitchen, and sitting there was none other than Sunshine Calvert.

“You little lyin’ sonofabitch,” Whiteley growled at the diminutive Calvert, who tried to defend himself.

“Well, I saw you had to spot me six pounds, so I felt if I was ever going to beat him this would be the time,” he said.

Despite the weight concessions, Damascus was sent off as the 4-5 favorite with In Reality at 7-2 and Barbs Delight at 5-1.

At the start, Barbs Delight, as expected, shot to the lead and quickly opened a two-length advantage after a sharp opening quarter in :22 4/5. Around the clubhouse turn, the seven-horse field was already strung out, with Bill Shoemaker and Damascus 15 lengths off the lead. In Reality, farther back than usual under Earlie Fires, had settled in fifth, about five lengths ahead of Damascus.
Down the backstretch, Barbs Delight maintained his two-length lead, followed by Favorable Turn and Diplomat Way, with the half in a lively :46 flat.

Going into the far turn, Barbs Delight kept up his brisk pace, hitting the three-quarter marker in 1:10 1/5. It was time for Shoemaker to step on the gas. Damascus had amazed racegoers several times with his spectacular turn of foot, pouncing on horses like a cat its prey. When Shoemaker unleashed Damascus, he took off after the leaders, but despite running his next quarter in a blazing :23 flat, he still was six lengths back with only one horse beat.

Passing the three-eighths pole, Shoemaker switched into second gear and the result was devastating. Damascus, as usual, lowered his head slightly, and with lightning-quick strides, he circled the field, sweeping by horses in a flash. Six lengths back at the three-eighths pole, he was two lengths in front at the top of the stretch and just kept pouring it on, opening a four-length lead at the eighth pole.

After another blistering quarter in :23 1/5, Damascus continued to draw clear with every stride, as an overmatched and overwhelmed In Reality tried futilely to keep up. Shoemaker just hand-rode Damascus the rest of the way, cruising to a seven-length victory, with In Reality drawing three lengths clear of third-place finisher Favorable Turn.

Damascus’ final time of 1:46 4/5 erased Buckpasser’s track record and missed the world record by only two-fifths of a second. Even more impressive was Damascus’ final five-eighths in a spectacular :58 2/5.

The superlatives came flying in immediately after the race. Arlington Park race-caller Phil Georgeff and Blood-Horse writer Joe Agrella both called it “electrifying.” Daily Racing Form columnist Don Grisham called it an “illuminating demonstration.” And Elmer Polzin, writing in the Thoroughbred Record, used the words, “explosive,” “blistering,” and “demoralizing.”

Georgeff, who had been calling races at Arlington for over 40 years, added, “That was absolutely amazing. He suddenly went into overdrive and that was it. I’ll never forget it.”

It was also a rude awakening for Earlie Fires, who always felt In Reality was by far the best horse he’d ever ridden. But after the American Derby, he finally threw in the towel, trying to beat Damascus.

And what did Sunshine Calvert have to say after the race?

“I’m heading back to New Jersey.”

 

1968 WASHINGTON PARK HANDICAP (DR. FAGER)

As soon as Dr. Fager crossed the finish line following his easy romp in the Whitney, making light of 132 pounds, everyone knew what was coming next. If ever a race and a horse were meant for each other it was Dr. Fager and the Washington Park Handicap over the Arlington speedway that had already seen several world records broken. The most recent came in 1966 when Buckpasser took advantage of his stablemate Impressive’s insane fractions of :43 3/5 and 1:06 4/5 and lowered the world record to a seemingly untouchable 1:32 2/5.

But everyone knew the world record was in jeopardy as soon as Nerud announced his plans to ship to Arlington, despite Dr. Fager being assigned 134 pounds.

Of all the distances, there was a mystique surrounding the mile record. That is the one distance where a horses has to have speed, stamina, and toughness, and the ability to run fast from the start, withstand pressure the whole way, and keep going strong to the wire. Dr. Fager was the quintessential miler who could carry his extraordinary speed from sprints to a mile and a quarter and set records regardless of the distance, while carrying staggering weights. He had already run the fastest mile by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing, romping in the Withers Stakes the year before in 1:33 4/5, a fifth of a second off the track record.

Unlike current world record holder Buckpasser, Dr. Fager was on his own. Regardless of who was going to show up against him, it was going to be him against the clock. When asked about the possibility of Dr. Fager breaking the record, Nerud said bluntly, “Those things aren’t important to me. I’m only interested in winning.”  That is what was so amazing about Dr. Fager. Nerud never trained him or asked him to set records. He just wanted him to get the job done and come back sound for the next race.

Dr. Fager arrived at Arlington two days before the race right in the middle of an oppressive heat wave. The Doc, like others in his family, was susceptible to colic. Nerud knew he had to watch him closely, and the afternoon before the race he sat with the Dr. Fager and just talked to him and soothed him trying to keep him settled. That night he walked him to keep him moving and help him relax.

By race day, Dr. Fager was doing fine, and fortunately a cool wind whipped through the Chicago area breaking the sweltering heat and humidity.

In the paddock, Nerud did not give jockey Braulio Baeza any instructions and there was no talk at all about world records. If he was going to break the world record he would have to do it without any urging from Baeza, while carrying 134 pounds, nine pounds more than Buckpasser carried when he broke the record.

A field of 10 was entered, with the main danger coming from the fast and versatile Racing Room, who was in receipt of 18 pounds. In the span of one month, Racing Room had won the 5 1/2-furlong Hollywood Express Handicap in a blistering 1:02 2/5; finished third in the mile and an eighth American Handicap on the grass; finished second, beaten a neck, in the mile and a quarter Hollywood Gold Cup in 1:59 4/5; and won the mile and three-sixteenths Citation Handicap on the grass. Another contender was the tough and resilient 7-year-old miler R. Thomas, winner of the Westchester Handicap twice, Equipoise Mile, Salvator Mile, Sysonby Mile, Vosburgh Handicap, and Sport Page Handicap.

Also in the field, carrying a feathery 112 pounds, and going off at odds of nearly 48-1, was none other than the thorn in Dr. Fager’s side, Hedevar, Damascus’ rabbit from the previous year’s Woodward, and a previous world record holder who ironically was breaking right next to Dr. Fager. To further ensure a rapid pace was the 3-year-old speedster Kentucky Sherry, who earlier that year had run the fastest opening six furlongs (1:09 4/5) and equaled the fastest opening half (:45 4/5) in the history of the Kentucky Derby.

Dr. Fager, sent off at 3-10, broke on top from post 9, but was taken in hand by Baeza. One thing about Dr. Fager was that he could rate briefly in one turn races, but when breaking in front of the cheering crowd he got his blood up early and was almost impossible to control if another horse tried to outrun him. Alone on the lead he could rate, as he did in his track record-equaling Suburban Handicap. That is why rabbits were thrown at him by the trainers of Buckpasser and his arch rival Damascus.

In the Washington Park Handicap, Dr. Fager dropped back to sixth early, less than three lengths off the lead, and when the teletimer revealed a tame opening quarter in :22 4/5, all thoughts of a world record evaporated.

As they continued down the backstretch, it was a mad scramble up front, as R. Thomas slipped through on the inside to stick his head in front, but Dr. Fager had enough of Baeza’s restraint, and when the good doctor had enough of restraint so did the jockey, whether he wanted to or not. Baeza, as usual, let Dr. Fager take over and prepared to sit back and enjoy the ride. The Doc charged to the front, stopping the teletimer at :44 flat for the half-mile. He had run his second quarter in an unheard of :20 3/5. It was believed to be the fastest quarter-mile fraction ever run in a non-sprint race and the fastest quarter ever within the body of a race at any distance.

Around the far turn, Dr. Fager began drawing away from the pack, with only Racing Room giving chase. Baeza kept Dr. Fager well out from the rail and actually looked like he was giving him a breather. It was apparent the world record was the furthest thing from his mind. Dr. Fager, as usual, had his head up and was cruising along with Baeza just sitting on him, about four paths off the rail.

Baeza admitted he never knew how fast Dr. Fager was running and if only he could have seen the tote board he would have realized that the horse seemingly galloping along beneath him was actually flying, his six furlongs run in a scorching 1:07 3/5. The world record would be his with a sub :25 quarter. But Baeza could never have imagined it was within his reach, so not only did he not ask Dr. Fager to run down the stretch, he wrapped up on him as soon as he straightened for home.

Despite Baeza sitting like the proverbial statue every step of the way, Dr. Fager still kept opening up on the field in the final furlong. The Doc’s ears were straight up, his long mane blowing wildly in Baeza’s face, and it was obvious there would be no last-ditch attempt at the record. With each humongous stride, Dr. Fager’s lead increased and he crossed the wire eased up by 10 lengths.

Track announcer Phil Georgeff, stunned by the performance, forgot to turn his microphone off. As Dr. Fager pulled up, out of the silence came a single faint word: “Wow!”

Like Baeza, the last thing on Georgeff’s mind was the world record. “He was just galloping through the stretch and was running so effortlessly that I had forgotten all about the record, especially since he was carrying 134 pounds,” he recalled. “When I saw the time I was shocked.”

Georgeff announced to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, may we draw your attention to the final time of 1:32 1/5, which is a new world record.”

Baeza admitted he had no idea Dr. Fager was within reach of the record. “I never in any of his races knew how fast he was going,” he said. “He moved so smoothly and his action was so fluid I felt like I was in a Lear Jet. All I knew was that he was going faster than the rest of them. I’d try to slow him down, but he’d still pull away from them.”

Over the decades, those of around to experience and truly appreciate this historic event keep asking the same question. If only he had been given the opportunity, how fast could Dr. Fager have run that day?

The legendary jockey Ted Atkinson, for whom Nerud once worked as agent and who eventually became a state steward at Arlington Park, told Nerud after the race, “Hell, he could have done it in (one) thirty and change. He was six lengths within himself.”

Based on Dr. Fager’s time for the mile, a study was made a year and a half later with the help of the St. Louis and Bronx Zoos, which concluded that Dr. Fager was faster than a cheetah, recognized as the fastest animal on Earth.

It has now been 53 years, and no one has been able to break a world record set by a horse carrying 134 pounds and winning eased up the entire length of the stretch. Many have tried, but like Dr. Fager himself, it was like trying to catch the wind.

 

1973 ARLINGTON INVITATIONAL (SECRETARIAT)

In the weeks following Secretariat’s spectacular record-breaking Triple Crown sweep, culminating with an other-worldly 31-length procession in the Belmont Stakes, the colt they called “Big Red” had become more than another equine hero. His fame and persona had taken on mythical qualities and he was deified as much as he was adored. Never before had a horse been featured on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. It is doubtful any human had in the same week.

It was now up to the colt’s connections, owner Penny Tweedy and trainer Lucien Laurin, to decide on his next race. Wherever it was it would be the event of the year, with hordes of fans flocking to the track to get a look at this modern day Pegasus.

Between the Belmont Stakes and the historic Saratoga meet, there did not appear to be a race for 3-year-olds that would be special enough for Big Red’s next stop on his journey to immortality, and the first since his record-shattering performance in the Belmont.

That is when Bill Thayer, Arlington Park’s general manager, threw his hat in the ring. He flew to New York and headed to the Belmont backstretch to make his case to Lucien Laurin on why Arlington Park would be the next logical step for Secretariat. Why not bring the horse to the Midwest and show him off to avid racing fans who had never seen him in the flesh?

But Thayer was not alone in his thinking, as he found representatives from Monmouth Park and Hollywood Park already there, both offering substantial purses; much more than Thayer had to offer.Thayer told Chicago’s Daily Herald years later that he hid behind a tree until they left because he was too embarrassed by his $100,000 offer. But Laurin had great respect for Thayer and he knew he was friends with Penny, so he gave her a call and explained how Arlington’s reputation had been stained by an ugly court case involving former Illinois governor Otto Kerner and the track’s business had “hit rock bottom.”

According to the Daily Herald, Penny told Thayer she would come for a purse of $125,000 and he was so excited he dropped the phone. Now all he had to do was convince Arlington president Jack Loome to put up another $25.000. As it turned out there was no convincing needed, as Loome jumped at the opportunity.

So the one shot deal Arlington Invitational was born. But there was still the task of finding horses to run against the mighty Secretariat. Three accepted, with two of them being Blue Grass winner My Gallant, who had been crushed by Secretariat in the Belmont, and Florida Derby winner Our Native, who had finished third behind Secretariat and Sham in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The other was a local outsider named Blue Chip Dan.

The race was set for June 30, only three weeks after the Belmont. A massive crowd of 41,233 showed up, with Arlington opening the infield to accommodate the overflow. Wagering was so heavy on the card that it raised attendance and handle 13 percent for the rest of the meet. Thayer called it one of the greatest days in Arlington Park history. Mayor Richard Daley proclaimed June 30 “Secretariat Day” in the city of Chicago. So unique was this event that there were only two betting interests – Secretariat and the other three horses lumped together as a mutuel pool.

As Secretariat made his way on to the track, the crowd, which was crammed together shoulder to shoulder on the apron, gave Big Red a rousing ovation.

ABC televised the event and had noted TV broadcaster Chris Schenkel sit with Penny and Laurin in the box during the race with them commenting on the running. Penny admitted that “being up here with all of you scares me to death. All these people who have come out have a right to see him and I hope he doesn’t disappoint them.”

Despite Penny’s fears and a few unnecessary anxious moments watching the race, Secretariat was never in any danger. After breaking last, he quickly shot to the lead and was pretty much kept on on cruise control by jockey Ron Turcotte the rest of the way, drawing off with ease to win by nine lengths and missing Damascus’ track record of 1:46 4/5 by a fifth of a second, which was extremely impressive considering he crawled the opening half in :48.

The race itself was not competitive, but it was what the fans had come out to see – a procession worthy of the noblest of kings.

 

1981 ARLINGTON MILLION (JOHN HENRY)

I wrote about this race in detail a short while back in my “Profiles in Courage” column. So now I am going to get personal and divulge a story about the inaugural Arlington Million I have never made public before, except for a mention on Facebook.

It was the spring of 1978. I was working as librarian for Daily Racing Form and starting to write freelance features for major racing magazines in the United States and abroad. While attending Royal Ascot I was hired as American Representative for Stud & Stable, which was Great Britain’s leading racing magazine. I was staying at the Sussex, England home of my friend George Ennor, racing writer for the Sporting Life, and his family. One night George invited his friend John Hughes and his wife for dinner. Hughes was the clerk of the course at Aintree and a powerful man in the industry.

After dinner, John told me about a plan he was working on and wanted my help. He also worked for Waterford Crystal and said the company was looking to do something new and bold in the racing industry. They wanted to stage the first ever $1 million horse race, preferably at a mile and a quarter, and sponsor it, naming it the Waterford Crystal Million, with the winner receiving a Waterford Crystal trophy.

They wanted the race to be run on grass in the U.S. but not on either coast. They wanted a neutral site in the middle of the country to accommodate European horses and not give any American horse stabled in New York or California an advantage. He asked me to make inquiries to see if there would be any interest and what track would be best suited to hold the event.

I spoke to my friend and colleague at the Daily Racing Form Clyde Hirt, who was very close to Sonny Werblin, owner of Arlington Park. I asked him to mention the idea to Werblin and see what his thoughts were.

When I called Hughes in England and told him I had set his plan in motion he became very upset, telling me I wasn’t supposed to reveal any specific plans. I told him I had no other way of making inquiries unless racetracks knew some of the details of Waterford’s plan.

He was so upset about the details being leaked, Waterford Crystal dropped the idea completely. Werblin, however, liked the idea so much he decided to go ahead with it on his own, with the same $1 million purse, which was unheard of back then, to be run at a mile and a quarter on grass as stipulated by Waterford Crystal. And so the Arlington Million was born and became a huge hit from day one thanks to the heroics of John Henry and The Bart…and the big mouth of a lowly librarian at Daily Racing Form.

There have been many other great moments in the history of Arlington Park. As it did with Secretariat, the track capitalized on the popularity of a great horse at just the right time, coming up with the idea to have a race for Cigar, who was one victory away from equaling Citation’s modern-day record 16-race winning streak. They named it the Citation Challenge and once again a huge enthusiastic crowd showed up and cheered on Cigar as he put his name in the record book with an easy victory under 130 pounds.

Another coup was luring racing’s media darling Native Dancer for the 1953 Arlington Classic. The Gray Ghost was the sport’s first TV personality and he came to Arlington having won 15 of his 16 races and put on a show, coming from behind to win by two lengths and missing the nine-furlong track record by a fifth of a second. That record was shattered in 1959 when Round Table romped by 6 1/2 lengths in the Washington Park Handicap, blazing the mile and an eighth in 1:47 1/5 under 132 pounds. In his previous start he captured the mile and three-sixteenths Arlington Handicap on grass, breaking the course record, also carrying 132 pounds.

The sun may be setting on Arlington Park, but the memories will live on. Not only will its demise create a huge void for racing in the Midwest, but also in the hearts of racing fans who witnessed many of these great moments and the parade of superstars who have come there since the days of Gallant Fox, Omaha, Equipoise, and Discovery. It is just another example of racing consuming itself from within, piece by piece until there is little left but a handful of corporate owned tracks.

That is why I will continue to write about the sport’s glory days and how racing used to be. As Ishmael said at the end of Moby Dick, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Photos courtesy of Steve Haskin, Arlington Park. Secretariat photos available at Secretariat.com. 

A Midnight Run, But Quality Wins Out Again

Sunday, August 29th, 2021
Once again, Essential Quality proved he is a winning machine, as he overcame a dawdling pace and a blistering final quarter to outrun the top-class Midnight Bourbon in the Travers Stakes. ~ Steve Haskin

A Midnight Run, But Quality Wins Out Again

By Steve Haskin

 

In 54 years of watching horseracing, surely I must have seen a horse that reminds me of Essential Quality. I have been trying to think of one and was getting nowhere until I watched the Travers Stakes. Then it hit me. Although he has run only nine times, and is nowhere near as accomplished as any of the all-time greats who ran for four or five years, I can now say that Essential Quality is Buckpasser with tactical speed.

Now I know many of you cannot relate to that because you never saw Buckpasser and know little about him, so I will enlighten you. Buckpasser was the winning machine of his day, and like Essential Quality he would win by only as much as he had to. But he knew where that wire was and could sniff it out like a bloodhound. He didn’t win in fast times except when one of his many rabbits set a scorching pace for him, and he never won by big margins. He just won…race after race.

In his 25 career victories, 17 were by 1 ½ lengths or less and 14 of those were by less than a length. Five of Essential Quality’s last six victories were by 1 ¼ lengths or less and four of those were by less than a length. While Essential Quality has the ability to adapt to any pace, Buckpasser had a rabbit in 12 of his races.

But let’s focus on Essential Quality from here on. Simply put, when the pace has been fast he dropped back in sixth, seventh, or eighth and when the pace has been slow he was right up there within striking distance of the leader. Although Midnight Bourbon was allowed to get away with very slow fractions in the Travers, for Essential to beat him by a neck he had to do something I cannot recall a horse ever doing, which is to come home his final quarter in a mile and a quarter race in :23 flat. After those snail-like fractions he somehow was able to run the 10 furlongs in a more than respectable 2:01 4/5, earning a 107 Beyer speed figure. Only eight Travers winners have broken 2:02 in the last 27 years.

If anyone had told me before the race that Midnight Bourbon, who is just coming into his own as his sire Tiznow did around this time, would be allowed to crawl on the front end by himself in :48 4/5 and 1:14 2/5 I would have thought there was no way he was going to lose. As it is, closing as fast as he did, he shouldn’t have lost, but tell that to Essential Quality.

And briefly getting back to Buckpasser, he needed a rabbit to run his mile and a quarter in the Travers in 2:01 3/5, which at the time equaled the track record. And he came home his final quarter in :24 3/5 to beat Amberoid by three-quarters of a length.

The final point about time is that in the past 20 years, only Triple Crown winner American Pharoah has run a faster Belmont Stakes than Essential Quality, who has won at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Oaklawn Park, Belmont Park, and Saratoga, on fast and sloppy tracks from six furlongs to 1 ½ miles.

What I also love about him is that when he won the Blue Grass Stakes by a neck it was 5 1/2 lengths back to the third horse. When he won the Belmont by 1 ¼ lengths it was 11 ¼ lengths back to Preakness winner Rombauer in third. And when he won the Travers by a neck it was five lengths back to the third horse.

Yes, although he has run only nine times, he is a throwback to the types of horses I was weaned on; horses who would scrape and claw their way to victory in any manner possible, as long as they got to the wire first. He could blow right by you and win by open lengths, as he did in the Breeders’ Futurity and Southwest Stakes ; he could run you down in the final strides, as he did in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; or he could look you in the eye and battle you every inch of the way, as he did in the Blue Grass Stakes, Belmont, Jim Dandy, and Travers

Perhaps his main attribute is taking care of himself and knowing when to relax and when to get fired up for competition. His assistant trainer Jorgito Abrego posted a video on Travers day and a photo on Jim Dandy day of him sprawled out in his stall fast asleep. When I visited him several weeks ago I got photos of him snatching his feed before it even got in his stall; looking bright and alert watching all the activity; getting sleepy-eyed standing by his webbing; and finally laying down for a snooze. In short, he knows how to conserve energy on a daily basis, which is so important on race days.

The big question now is, how does anyone overcome trainer Brad Cox’s “Two Shades of Grey” in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, meaning Essential Quality and Knicks Go, the division leading 3-year- old and older horse? Who can possibly knock off this powerhouse one-two punch?

Although the temptation will be strong to retire Essential Quality at the end of the year, as so many top 3-year-olds are, perhaps it is time for a big owner like Godolphin to think of getting a horse in the Hall of Fame or at least give him a chance to be included among the all-time greats. If Essential Quality shows in the Classic that he is not ready to match Knicks Go’s remarkable speed and staying power, there is always next year, when he should be an even more formidable foe than he’s been this year. Sheikh Mohammed was in the same position in 2006 with Bernardini and elected to retire him. Now he has an opportunity to elevate one of his horses into the realm of the all-time greats, as Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid did in
the seventies by racing at 4.

Yes, I am getting way ahead of myself, but horses like Essential Quality don’t come around every year and no one wants to say goodbye to him when there is so much more for him to achieve.

We have gotten too used to early farewells. Heck, I have already compared him in a way to the immortal Buckpasser. Now it is up to the sheikh and the Godolphin braintrust to share Buckpasser’s place in history with one of their own.

Photos courtesy of Adam Coglianese and Steve Haskin

A Biased, But Dynamic, Analysis of the Travers

Thursday, August 26th, 2021

Who is going to win Saturday’s Travers? That’s easy, Essential Quality, right? Well, perhaps it’s not quite that cut and dry. Yes, he looks like the logical choice, but sometimes you just let your heart dictate your pick and run with it for better or worse. ~ Steve Haskin

A Biased, But Dynamic, Analysis of the Travers

By Steve Haskin

 

If you want an objective analysis of the Travers Stakes, there are plenty of professional handicappers out there that will dissect the race using speed figures and trip notes and any other tools on which they rely. And after all the intensive study, 90 percent of them are going to come up with Essential Quality.

And rightly so, as he is by far the fastest and most accomplished horse in the race with a near unbeaten record, six graded stakes victories, a championship, and a classic victory to his credit. And he is as close to a winning machine as any 3-year-old seen in years and is so versatile he can be placed anywhere on the track. Oh, and he’s also ridden by Saratoga’s leading jockey and trained by last year’s Eclipse Award winning trainer.

I have visited Essential Quality on several occasions at Saratoga and was so impressed with everything I saw. He trains, he eats, he relaxes, then sprawls out and takes a morning nap. No fuss, no muss, no problem…the perfect racehorse.

So why would anyone pick against him going a mile and a quarter and with a win over the track?

Because I don’t want to pick a horse who is going to be even-money or less, and I have a history with another horse, finding him mired in a fourth-place finish in a maiden race back in January and clinging to him like a barnacle to a ship all the way to the Derby. And I must admit I had him ranked him much higher than anyone else and certainly higher than his record would indicate. In short, I have an emotional attachment to him, and, oh, one other little thing…I really believe he can win the Travers. And that last line is not based on emotion, but pure handicapping.

I am now going to subject you to a brief journey on this year’s Derby trail and a few comments that even I, in all my modesty, have to consider somewhat prophetic, even though he did finish 18th in the Derby. But more later on that race and why it is a complete throw out.

On the January 25 Derby Rankings, I wrote following a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Gulfstream: “As alluded to earlier, ANOTHER DUKE, coming off a third to Greatest Honour, broke his maiden at Gulfstream Saturday in fine fashion, but it was DYNAMIC ONE, second to Greatest Honour, who was much the best, going six-wide into the first turn from the disastrous 11-post and then making an eye-catching wide move on the far turn to battle for the lead four wide. He couldn’t sustain it for good reason and had to settle for fourth, beaten two lengths. If you’re looking for a real early sleeper for the Derby, this is my hidden gem of the year so far.”

I later found out he lost a shoe in the race and had mucus in his lungs when he was scoped. That made me even more convinced this was a very good horse. I later wrote in Knocking on the Door: “A few weeks ago I mentioned DYNAMIC ONE as my megabomb sleeper. Todd Pletcher still has time to get another race in him in early March and have him ready for a huge leap to one of the big 100-point preps. He had a number of excuses in his last start, which I believe he would have won by several lengths.”

He did break his maiden convincingly in his next start, but did it in slow time. Following the race I wrote: “Granted, he didn’t beat much and they ran very slow over a deep and tiring track, but he trudged his way through it to defeat a highly touted Chad Brown colt by 5 1/4 lengths… he already demonstrated his explosive turn of foot in his last race and this should springboard him to bigger and better things.”

So, it was on to the Wood Memorial and his first meeting with top-class Derby horses. He desperately needed points to qualify for the race. As I wrote: “Now he steps into the big-time in the Wood Memorial. He certainly doesn’t have to win this race, just run well enough to get into the Derby. He has a pedigree to die for and has as strong a female family as you will ever see. Although he needs a fairly big jump forward off his “5” Thoro-Graph number it is doable. I’m just taking a wild shot that there is a top-class colt lurking in there just waiting to bust out. But I admit that more likely will come later on.”

When he finished second, even if it was to his 72-1 stablemate Bourbonic, who nailed him in the final strides, I loved his effort, especially considering how wide he was the entire race.

I moved him up from No. 12 to No. 9 and wrote: “According to Trakus, he ran 43 feet farther than the winner, indicating that with a ground-saving trip he would have won by many lengths. He still showed a good turn of foot sweeping by horses on the far turn to reach contention. He kept on determinedly, but all that ground loss eventually took its toll. He has a tremendous pedigree, but it’s just a question of whether he is fast enough now to win the Derby. He surely has the bottom under him and is dead fit. He may be more of a Belmont or even Travers horse, but I still feel with a good trip he can make his presence felt in the Derby.”

I then took a shot and moved him all the way to No. 4, in good part to his Thoro-Graph pattern. As my comments stated, “We haven’t seen anything close to his best yet… I’m not saying he’s going to win the Derby, but don’t be too quick to dismiss him, especially in the exotics.”

Then came the Derby, and, boy, was I shocked by his 18th-place finish. What in the world happened? There were no excuses coming out of the Pletcher camp.

The weekend after the Derby, my wife and our close friends Avi and Rhoda Freedberg drove to Fair Hill to see their horse, Grade 3 Westchester winner, Nicodemus, who was recovering from an injury at Bruce and Amy Jackson’s Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center. We walked into one of the barns and the first horse I saw stopped me dead in my tracks. There was Dynamic One peering out of his stall. It was almost surreal, having seen him the week before in the Kentucky Derby and now at a clinic in Fair Hill. In deference to his owners I won’t reveal the reason for his being shipped to a therapy center, as it was avoided completely by Pletcher, who simply said they were going to regroup. Nothing was released by the owners, so they obviously did not want to make it public. However, I can say it was not an injury, but two maladies that had to severely affect his performance, both of which were treatable with proper therapy.

The question was, can he be ready for the Travers? Two and a half months later he was entered in the 1 1/8-mile Curlin Stakes at Saratoga and he unleashed a powerful late run to win going away by almost two lengths in 1:49 1/5. So, can a rejuvenated, late-blooming colt with as classic a pedigree as you could want going a mile and a quarter in late August defeat the likes of Essential Quality and several other top-class horses in the Midsummer Derby?

His “2” Thoro-Graph figure following that dreadful Derby figure of “14 ½” equaled his Wood Memorial career high. But he still has improving to do to get close to Essential Quality’s four negative figures and a “zero” in his last five starts. He even has to improve slightly to match Keepmeinmind’s back-to-back “1 ¾” figures in the Jim Dandy and Ohio Derby.

So, from a speed figures standpoint, Essential Quality towers over the field if he can just maintain the numbers he’s been running.

But I am going to stick with my early discovery and hope he can turn in a career-best performance, while Essential Quality regresses just a little. He never does, but if you’re looking to upset a horse of his caliber you need both to happen. I have become an Essential Quality fan and would be happy to see him and Dynamic One run-two. But my heart belongs to the latter.

Now that I have bored everyone with my self-indulgence, let’s take a more logical look at the Travers.

I have been saying all along that when Midnight Bourbon has his break-out performance it will be on the front end when he is the only horse who wants the lead. And he will be hard to pass in the stretch once the Tiznow, and maturity, comes out in him. Now he shows up coming off that near-disastrous incident in the Haskell, and I don’t see anyone trying to outrun him early, especially from post 1, with Essential Quality and Masqueparade stalking, but giving him enough breathing room. Essential Quality normally would have been better served drawing farther out, but from post 2 he will be able to break next to Midnight Bourbon and get a good position right off him.

Dynamic One would need one of these two to go after him early enough to at least give the closers a shot. And Dynamic One, Keepmeinmind, and Miles D can all close.

Now we come to the most intriguing horse in the race and my longshot pick. King Fury was going into the Kentucky Derby the potential wise guy horse after his impressive victory in the Lexington Stakes, but he was forced to miss the race, coming down with a fever the day before. He returned in the Ohio Derby and was flying at the end to barely miss catching Masqueparade by a half-length and finishing ahead of Keepmeinmind. He was all set for big effort in the Jim Dandy Stakes, but NYRA would not allow him to run because his barn’s quarantine ended one day after the race. Trainer Kenny McPeek decided to use the Saratoga Derby as his Travers prep rather than go into the race off a two-month layoff, even though he had never run on grass. When he drew post 11 in the 11-horse field it put him at even a bigger disadvantage, and McPeek was reluctant to run him. He raced wide the entire race, put in a brief bid, then tired, with Jose Ortiz not persevering with him in the final furlong. He will appreciate a return to the dirt and will relish the mile and a quarter. He looks live, especially in the exotics, and to me is the huge upset possibility. I’ll take the generous 15-1 morning line odds right now.

So, it is a Dynamic One, Essential Quality, King Fury exacta and trifecta box, with my main win bet going on Dynamic One and a smaller wager on King Fury. Although Miles D, Keepmeinmind, and Masqueparade are all eligible to run big races, the main danger would be Midnight Bourbon stealing the race. After what he went through at Monmouth, it would be a great story.

But on a personal level, I am looking for Dynamic One to fulfill the promise I saw in him way back in January when he was still a maiden. Now, how’s that for an objective analysis?

Time to Anoint Gamine the Queen?

Gamine hasn’t gotten much attention lately, but she is back in the big-time, taking on some classy filly sprinters in the grade 1 seven-furlong Ballerina Stakes. If she wins this race with the same brilliance she has won most of her one-turn races then perhaps it is time to consider her, pound for pound, the best horse in the country.

It is the belief of most veteran racegoers that the immortal Dr. Fager is the fastest horse ever produced in this country. The Doc’s two most iconic records were his world-record mile in 1:32 1/5 under 134 pounds, which has not been broken on dirt in 53 years, and his career finale, the Vosburgh Handicap, in which he lugged 139 pounds and broke Aqueduct’s seven-furlong track record, blazing the distance in 1:20 1/5. Well, Gamine equaled Dr. Fager’s time of 1:20 1/5, winning by 6 ¼ lengths, and ran a mile in 1:32 2/5, just a fifth of second slower than The Doc’s world record, while winning by almost 19 lengths. And we’re talking about a 3-year-old filly. When she won the Test Stakes by seven lengths, she ran the seven furlongs in 1:20 4/5, which was the co-fastest time in the 99-year history of the race.

Even with her winning the Derby City Distaff at Churchill Downs by only 1 ½ lengths when trainer Bob Baffert had her a bit short over a track she didn’t care for, her average margin of victory in one-turn races is still eight lengths.

Never Dismiss Swiss

Here is a statistic you will never see again. Last year, Swiss Skydiver, who runs in the grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes, won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks at Gulfstream with Paco Lopez aboard, the Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park with Brian Hernandez aboard, the grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks at Santa Anita with Mike Smith aboard, the grade 1 Alabama Stakes at Saratoga with Tyler Gaffalione aboard, and the Grade 1 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico with Robby Albarado aboard. That is five graded stakes wins at five different tracks in five different states, ridden by five different jockeys. She won in the South (Florida and Arkansas), the West (California), and the East (New York and Maryland).

She also finished second in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, second in the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and third in the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra Stakes at Fair Grounds. So in all, she won or placed in eight graded stakes at eight different tracks in seven different states…in just one year. Not bad for a $35,000 yearling purchase. No matter what she does the rest of the year, her legacy is secured.

Will Life be Good for Jackie’s Warrior?

Is there a more intriguing matchup on Saturday than Jackie’s Warrior vs. Life is Good in Saturday’s Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at seven furlongs? Jackie, arguably the fastest colt in the country, will take on the undefeated Life is Good, who was forced off the Derby trail with an injury after crushing eventual Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit in the San Felipe Stakes. Initially trained by Bob Baffert, he has since been turned over to Todd Pletcher.

I doubt there is anyone who can outrun Jackie’s Warrior early, but you can bet Pletcher will have Life is Good cranked up coming off a layoff. No one, with the possible exception of Baffert, gets horses to break more sharply than Pletcher. And let’s not forget that Drain the Clock also has plenty of early lick, with three major sprint victories to his credit, and is the only horse to defeat Jackie’s Warrior sprinting, although he was trounced by him last time out.

This should be the proverbial barn burner.

 

Photos courtesy of Steve Haskin