Secretariat

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Can Birdstone Become an Old Friend?

Monday, September 21st, 2020

One of the highlights of this year’s virtual Secretariat Festival will be Michael Blowen taking you on an online guided tour of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky. The newest arrival he will introduce you to is the 2004 Belmont, Travers, and Champagne winner Birdstone. If the smallish son of Grindstone is ever going to get the love he so richly deserves it is here, where Blowen can showcase the horse as only he can. Birdstone, you see, has been one of the most maligned horses of recent years since that fateful day at Belmont Park when he sent the majority of Belmont’s record crowd home in tears and despair by denying America’s hero Smarty Jones the Triple Crown sweep most everyone had come to witness. Before you link into this free extraordinary event to be live-streamed on the Secretariat Festival Facebook page Oct. 11, here is your opportunity to read the behind the scenes story of an “Old Friend” you really never got to know. ~ Steve Haskin

Can Birdstone Become an Old Friend?

By Steve Haskin

 

It is appropriate in some strange convoluted way that Birdstone is now at Old Friends Thoroughbred Farm in Lexington. The truth is, the little horse with the big heart doesn’t have many old friends. But it is hoped after being placed in the care of the irrepressible and energetic Michael Blowen he will soon have his share of new friends.

This is a horse who, despite winning three of the most prestigious and historic stakes in America, has never been embraced by racing fans. The reason is simple. He is best remembered as being the horse who brought 120,000 screaming fans to a stunned silence in about 10 agonizing seconds. He is the horse who turned tears of joy into tears of sadness. He is the horse who, 16 years later, still will not allow the vast majority of racing fans to watch a replay of the 2004 Belmont Stakes. He is the horse who sent NYRA track announcer Tom Durkin’s voice plummeting after reaching a resounding crescendo.

You can still hear the hope and excitement in Durkin’s voice as the field turned into the stretch with America’s darling Smarty Jones bounding along with a four-length lead; Triple Crown history a mere quarter of a mile away. A ticker tape parade through the streets of Philadelphia awaited the horse. Street Road, the main road in the town of Bensalem, where Smarty Jones resided at Philadelphia Park, was about to be renamed Smarty Jones Boulevard.

“And Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000,” Durkin bellowed. Everyone was on their feet, shouting and fist pumping; some already hugging, even Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. But then Durkin caught a glimpse of Marylou Whitney’s powder blue silks entering the picture and his voice changed. “But Birdstone is going to make him earn it today. The whip is out on Smarty Jones. It’s been 26 years. It’s just one furlong away.” Durkin’s voice was almost pleading with Smarty Jones to find more.

But the experienced Durkin could already feel the dream unraveling. “I was pumped, but you could tell from the sound of my voice that Birdstone was coming on,” he recalled years later.

“Birdstone is an outside threat. They’re coming down to the finish. Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone. Birdstone surges past.” And then Durkin’s voice went somber. “Birdstone … wins … the … Belmont … Stakes” — the last three words dropping as if it had been pushed off a cliff.

It was the first time in history that the owner of a classic winner actually felt badly and was unable to rejoice in the victory, even a little. Mrs. Whitney was near tears, not for her victory, but for depriving Smarty his chance for immortality and for what a victory would have done for the sport. “I feel so awful for Smarty Jones,” she said. “We were hoping we’d be second. I love Smarty. He’s done more for racing than anyone I’ve ever known.”

When congratulated on his victory, all Marylou’s husband John Hendrickson could say was, “No, that was bad.”

And then there were the comments on my old Twitter page:

“I can’t think of a more heartbreaking defeat than Smarty Jones in the Belmont. Still unwatchable 14 years later.”

“I can honestly say I have never felt so empty after a race than I did that day. I wanted him to win so bad as an undefeated champion.”

“It broke my heart that he lost the Belmont, I’ll never forget the largest crowd in history suddenly silenced. And the little girl next to me who I comforted when she broke out in tears.”

“Brutal. Still can’t watch that race.”

“It was following Smarty that got me into horse racing – still love him so much!! That Belmont about killed me!! Talk about crying my eyes out!!!”

“That Belmont run still breaks my heart. I cried so hard that day.”

“It was so eerie… thousands screaming and then… silence.”

“It was like a balloon got suddenly deflated. The roar of that Belmont crowd becoming still as he got passed….you could physically feel it.”

“His story was so compelling, so heartwarming. The outcome of the 2004 Belmont Stakes was like the worst kind of cruelty joke.”

“His Triple Crown campaign was brilliant and mesmerizing, and his loss in the Belmont will always be one of the most heartbreaking moments in my racing memory.”

“I felt absolutely SICK. Poor Smarty, he gave his all that day.”

You get the picture. This is what Birdstone did to racing fans all over the country and to an entire big city and their love of a horse.

But the bottom line is that Birdstone did what he was supposed to do, what he was born to do. Others who directly deprived the world of a Triple Crown winner, such as Arts and Letters, Easy Goer, Victory Gallop, and Touch Gold were never maligned as Birdstone was.

The was the horse who trainer Nick Zito’s assistant Reynaldo Abreu dubbed “Little Man.” Abreu was the colt’s biggest supporter, and that is why he was bawling after the race, tears streaming down his face. He kept telling Zito, Marylou, and John Hendrickson “Don’t lose faith in Little Man. No matter what, don’t ever lose faith.”

After the race, Marylou went over to him and gave him a hug, saying, “You were right.”

Now, here Abreu was leading Birdstone, all 950 pounds of him, back to the test barn in front of a stunned and deflated crowd, too drained to pay any attention. Still shaking and with tears still running down hs cheek, Abreu said to the horse, “You deserve this, little one, you deserve it.” He then gave the colt a big slap on the rump. “They said you were too little, but they didn’t know how big your heart is.”

They also didn’t realize that the Champagne Stakes winner, who had finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby, despised sealed tracks, which was the condition of the track for the Run for the Roses. Not only did he flounder over the track, he lost a shoe and kept getting bounced around while stuck down on the rail.

After the Derby, Zito sent Birdstone to Saratoga to train. When the colt turned in a strong six-furlong work over the deep Oklahoma training track, Mrs. Whitney, despite wanting Smarty Jones to sweep the Triple Crown and feeling Birdstone was unable to beat him, nevertheless said to Zito, “Go for it.”

For Zito, it had been a frustrating year, especially with Birdstone. The half-brother to the previous year’s champion 3-year-old filly, Bird Town, was a late foal, being born on May 16, and hadn’t done much growing over the winter. “I just can’t understand it,” Zito said. “This poor horse has never gained a pound, and has never grown an inch. But he’s got guts and he has a right to run in the Belmont Stakes.”

Before the race, Abreu said, “Everybody’s been knocking this horse all along, and even Jerry Bailey deserted him. All because he’s little. I don’t want to hear it. I know he’s little; what can you do about it? There’s nothing wrong with being small. All I know is that I love this horse. He’s a running s.o.b. and he tries so hard. His only two bad races were on a sealed track. I’m telling you, they better have their running shoes on.”

Birdstone had been suffering indignities ever since he was a young horse. When he was sent to Padua Stables in Ocala, Florida, to be broken, it was learned after he arrived that he had been sent by mistake. The horse that was supposed to be shipped was a Storm Cat colt, who Overbrook Farm and Mrs. Whitney owned in a foal-sharing partnership. Farm trainer Randy Bradshaw was asked to check the newly arrived colt’s papers, which indicated he had a good deal of white on him. Bradshaw informed the parties involved that this was just “a plain little old bay.”

The colt remained, and Bradshaw wound up breaking a future Belmont winner. He recalled calling Zito and telling him, “He’s not very big, but he does everything right, he’s training well, and he’s very professional.”

Birdstone shipped down to Belmont from Saratoga the Wednesday before the Belmont, the same day Smarty Jones arrived. No one noticed. The next day, with the massive throng gathered outside Smarty’s barn, and the path to the track leading right past the barn, Zito elected to keep Birdstone away from the madness and sent him to the training track. Again, no one noticed.

“I can’t believe it over there,” Zito said, referring to Smarty’s barn. “I’m just going to the training track; it’s nice and calm there.”

Zito, like Mrs. Whitney, had no grandiose visions of upsetting Smarty Jones. “I don’t see how Smarty is going to get beat, unless he beats himself,” he said. “But what’s wrong with finishing second to a hero? If someone is going to beat him, they’re going to have to have a very good day and move way forward, while he has to move way back. But we’re looking at it positively. You have to.”

Zito took some comfort in knowing that if he did manage to pull off the upset, he, as a New York hero himself, might have a better chance of escaping the wrath of the crowd than if someone else perpetrated the dastardly deed. “The one thing I have going for me is that I do have the New York deal going, so maybe I’ll get a little break. They’ll only throw one beer can at me instead of the whole six pack,” he said.

The morning of the race, jockey Edgar Prado’s agent, Bob Frieze, stopped by the barn, which as usual was devoid of reporters or photographers. “Don’t worry,” Frieze told Zito. “We want the press here tomorrow, not today.”

The ominous weather forecast of a cold rain all day and heavy winds never materialized, with only a few light sprinkles falling on Belmont during the day. The crowd, as expected, came pouring in early and continued to arrive until late in the afternoon, shattering the old record of 103,222 set two years earlier.

Briefly, Prado eased Birdstone out off the rail down the backstretch and was able to get him to settle nicely, some three to four lengths off the lead. Stewart Elliott, feeling the pressure from Eddington on his outside and Rock Hard Ten and Purge on his inside, decided he’d have a better shot of getting Smarty to relax if he got him to the lead. But it took a brutal third quarter in :22 4/5 to get him there, and another testing quarter to keep him there. By the three-eighths pole, he had managed to run his three pursuers into the ground and quickly opened a clear lead as the crowd went crazy. The three big contenders were cooked.

But Prado still had a ton of horse, and it was time to pick up the pieces. “I knew I had a good chance to win at the three-eighths pole, when my horse kept coming slowly and Smarty wasn’t able to open up any more,” he said. “I knew all he had to do was maintain his speed and his pace and he was going to get there.”

Prado and Birdstone went after Smarty out in the middle of the track and suddenly the dream started evaporating right before everyone’s eyes. Each one of Birdstone’s little strides brought him closer to Smarty. Everyone knew by then that Smarty would have no ammunition left with which to fight back, and the wire was not coming up nearly fast enough for him to hang on.

Then came the familiar hush from the crowd, as it realized all was lost. Smarty was beaten for the first time in his career, finishing second by a length.

Smarty’s trainer John Servis came over to Zito, who was more restrained in his emotions than usual, and offered his congratulations. When Zito apologized, Servis said, “What do you mean? You did a great job.”

But for Birdstone, there still was one final indignity. Just as Abreu was about to lead the horse into the tunnel to return to the backstretch, he was instructed by the outrider to walk back along the track to a backstretch gate near the clubhouse turn. When he arrived, however, the gate was locked, with the locks held together by plastic cords. Abreu went from feelings of ecstasy to anger as he found himself stranded with a horse that needed water and to relax after his grueling trip.

Fortunately, he had a pair of scissors in his pocket and was able cut through the plastic. But his problems were far from over. By now, cars were piling out of the track, and as Abreu, Birdstone, and several others from Zito’s crew tried to make their way through the traffic, a stretch limo nearly ran into Birdstone. A number of patrons helped stop traffic while an incensed Abreu finally was able to lead Birdstone to the test barn.

Birdstone finally arrived at the test barn and then back at his own barn. There were few there to welcome him. By running his heart out over the testing distance of a mile and half he was branded a villain, and there are those who still shudder at the mention of his name and refuse to watch the race.

Fast forward to the Travers Stakes two and a half months later. With Smarty Jones sidelined with an injury, it was all about Birdstone this time. Marylou, known as “The Queen of Saratoga,” mainly due to her efforts in restoring the historic Spa back to its glory days, had an opportunity to emulate her late husband’s success in the Travers. It had been 36 years since C.V. Whitney captured the Midsummer Derby with Chompion, a son of the Whitney-owned and bred Tompion, who had won the Travers eight years before Chompion. So, this time a victory would be special.

And it was. Under a black canopy of clouds that had turned a sunny Adirondack afternoon into near darkness, Birdstone came charging down the Saratoga stretch to defeat stablemate The Cliff’s Edge. It was as if the clouds had been waiting for Birdstone to cross the finish line and complete his triumphant return before unleashing a deluge of Biblical proportions, even for Saratoga.

Marylou, soaking wet, stood on the track feeling a sense of the ethereal, as if there was something divine about this victory.

“I think the gods came out and did this; all this lightning and thunder to sort of congratulate him,” she said, as sheets of heavy rain cascaded down in wind-blown waves. “This is a dream come true.”

When she spotted Nick Zito, she clasped his hands in hers and asked, “Did we just cross the English Channel?”

By now, Marylou was soaked through and through, but that didn’t stop her from leading a chorus of “Singin’ in the Rain” with her husband, Zito and the rest of the team.

But this was not about her. It was all about Birdstone, who proved his Belmont Stakes victory at 30-1 was no aberration. For Marylou, the race, combined with the rain, was a cleansing of sorts. Smarty Jones had become a distant memory. This time there were no apologies, no feelings of regret for having conquered such a beloved hero.

“Smarty Jones made people all over the country love and cheer for a horse,” she said. “Then when we beat him I felt awful. This time I feel wonderful and I know now that Birdstone deserved to win the Belmont.”

In his first year at stud at Gainesway Farm, Birdstone did the unthinkable by siring the Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird. But he never saw that kind of success again. And now, at the relatively young age of 19, he was relieved of his stud duties and sent to Old Friends, where he will be pampered and showcased like the celebrity he always should have been. And he will be doted upon by those too young to have been traumatized by his Belmont victory and hopefully by those who were, but can now see him as Reynaldo Abreu did – the “Little Man” with the big heart.

Derby Recap: Bob and Jill’s Rocky Road to the Roses

Wednesday, September 9th, 2020

Bob and Jill’s Rocky Road to the Roses

By Steve Haskin

 

On March 26, 2012 at 3 a.m., Bob Baffert’s life changed forever. That is when he awoke in his hotel room in Dubai complaining of chest pains. His wife Jill immediately called paramedics who rushed him to City Hospital, where stents were inserted into his blocked arteries.

From that point on, Baffert entered the third and most successful phase of his life. His first phase began in 1997 when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm and followed it up the following year by once again winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown with Real Quiet. Both times he saw his hopes for a Triple Crown sweep thwarted in close finishes, with Silver Charm losing the Belmont in the final yards by a half-length and Real Quiet losing right on the wire by a nose.

Those two Triple Crowns made Baffert a national celebrity with his quick wit and larger-than-life personality, and of course with his distinguishable head of snow-white hair. In 2001, Baffert felt strongly he was going to get that Triple Crown sweep with the mighty Point Given. However, the towering chestnut was upset in the Kentucky Derby, but went on to score impressive victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and followed it up with victories in the Haskell Invitational and Travers Stakes before retiring with an injury. The very next year, Baffert was back in the national spotlight winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with War Emblem, but once again that third leg eluded him when War Emblem stumbled badly at the start and could never recover, finishing out of the money.

So in the span of six years, Baffert won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness four times, and the Belmont Stakes once. He was the unchallenged king of Thoroughbred racing.

But this sport has a way of humbling you, and in the next nine years, Baffert won one Triple Crown race – the 2010 Preakness with Lookin At Lucky. And he still was looking for his first victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He won his share of stakes during that time, but it was the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic that were always his main goals. The great entertainer Al Jolson used to have the theater lights turned up when he was performing so he could see the faces in the audience. Well, Baffert also needed those lights turned up so he could shine on racing’s brightest stage.

Then came his heart attack in Dubai and the seemingly indestructible Bob Baffert was humbled in a far more profound way than just being in a prolonged Triple Crown slump. Little did he know that phase two of his career was over.

Since his brush with death, Baffert, in the nine years since, has won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness twice, the Belmont twice, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic three times. He not only finally got his elusive Triple Crown when American Pharoah swept all three races in 2015 to become the first horse to accomplish the feat in 37 years, he did it again in 2018 with Justify. During this time Baffert also won the Haskell Invitational four times, the Travers twice, the Santa Anita Handicap twice, the Pacific Classic twice, the Dubai World Cup, the Santa Anita Derby three times, the Hollywood/Santa Anita Gold Cup three times, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Met Mile, Whitney, Kentucky Oaks, and a total of seven Breeders’ Cup races.

With him since their marriage in 2002, has been Jill, who not only was a stabilizing influence on his life, but his number one defender against all the so-called haters that emerged on social media. The old Bob Baffert might very well have been pounding his chest during this amazing run, but Jill would not let that happen, always keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground.

Just when Bob and Jill had thought they had seen it all, experiencing racing’s highest of highs and lowest of lows (the injuries and deaths of several horses), they encountered a series of events in a 24-hour span last weekend that sent their emotions on a roller coaster ride they had never experienced before, especially during the last 30 minutes.

The Bafferts, with their son Bode and their dog Tank, packed up and headed to Kentucky to see their top horses run at Churchill Downs, with the main focus on their budding superstar filly Gamine, who was coming off two Ruffian-like romps that stamped her as something extraordinary. Of course, there also was their top-class older horse McKinzie going in the Alysheba Stakes and their pair of Authentic and Thousand Words, who were in the Kentucky Derby, but Baffert knew very well it was going to take a Herculean performance to defeat the big favorite Tiz the Law.

The weekend started off horribly when on Friday, McKinzie finished an uninspired fourth as the 6-5 favorite. Then came the shocker of them all. Gamine, favored at 3-5, gave way in the upper stretch and faded to third, beaten three lengths by 15-1 longshot Shedaresthedevil. Baffert and Jill were crushed. Gamine was the main reason they had traveled cross-country during a pandemic. This was to be her bridge to superstardom.

Now their only hope was to somehow upset what was to be one of the shortest-priced favorites in Kentucky Derby history. As they saddled in the paddock, Authentic’s odds were pretty stable at 8-1, while Thousand words was fluctuating between 11-1 and 12-1, as Tiz the Law was bet down to 3-5. Baffert was not used to sending out Derby horses with odds this high.

Just when Bob and Jill thought things couldn’t get any worse, Thousand Words reared on the walking ring and flipped over backwards, sending assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes tumbling to the ground. Fortunately, the horse was OK, but Barnes had to be taken to the hospital with a broken wrist, and on the advice of the veterinarian, Thousand Words was scratched. The weekend was now officially a disaster.

But this was Bob Baffert, the Lazarus of horse racing, who always seems to rise from the dead, as he did almost literally on that morning in Dubai. As he did in 2014 when he couldn’t get his two best 3-year-olds, Hoppertunity and Bayern, to the Derby and had to watch Bayern finish ninth, beaten 20 lengths in the Preakness, but saw him emerge as a star, winning the Haskell Invitational and Pennsylvania Derby before giving Baffert his first Breeders’ Cup Classic victory. As he did in 2016, going from the ultimate high of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown sweep to a dismal 10th place Derby finish by Mor Spirit, and then unleashing a monster that summer in Arrogate, who crushed his field in track-record time in the Travers before defeating California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to walk away with the 3-year-old championship. As he did in 2017, when he lost his budding star, the undefeated San Felipe and Los Alamitos Futurity winner Mastery, to injury, but two weeks later watched in awe with everyone else as Arrogate scored one of the most amazing victories ever in the Dubai World Cup. And as he did in 2018 when his big 3-year-old McKinzie, winner of the San Felipe and Sham Stakes, dropped off the Derby trail only to be replaced by Triple Crown winner Justify.

As it turned out, this year would be no different. From the depths of Gamine’s and McKinzie’s defeats and Thousand Words’ accident and Jimmy Barnes’ broken wrist came yet another Kentucky Derby victory when Authentic turned back the challenge of Tiz the Law and enabled Baffert to tie Ben Jones’ iconic record of six Kentucky Derby victories that had lasted for 68 years. Baffert, still stunned by the turn of events, then was given a reminder how quickly things can change in racing when Authentic got spooked in the winner’s circle and put him on the seat of his pants. It was more embarrassing than anything, but it could have been much worse. For Baffert to win the Derby sandwiched by his assistant and then himself both being thrown to the ground by two different horses was something that could happen only to him, for no one writes scripts quite like Bob Baffert.

As usual, Jill was there with him to experience the bizarre gamut of emotions, culminating with what Baffert called “the most crazy 30 minutes I’ve had in racing.”

For Jill, it was an even crazier 30 minutes. “Friday was the day we thought would be our big day,” she said. “We felt Gamine had the best chance of winning and we thought McKinzie was going to run great. So that was a big disappointment. Then on Saturday we arrived at the track around 4 o’clock. We watched a couple of races and we went to saddle the horses. I wasn’t even in the paddock, I was standing outside the paddock talking to Jeff Lifson (of West Point Stable) when Bode comes running up to me and said. ‘Mama, why was Thousand Words scratched?’ I go, ‘What? That can’t be right.’ But I looked up and saw that the number 10 horse was off the board. So I hurried to the paddock and ran into someone from Spendthrift, I think it might have been Ned Toffey.

“I asked him what happened and he told me, ‘The horse flipped over and I think Jimmy broke his arm.’ I saw Bob and he ran me through what happened. Jimmy was in First Aid, so I ran over to First Aid and Jimmy was still there and they were trying to decide if they could get him out through the protesters. Jimmy was going to stay and watch the race, but they felt they better get him to the hospital and start moving things along with his arm. I asked him if he wanted me to go with him and he said, ‘Of course not, stay and go win the race.’ In the meantime I was trying to call Kim, Bob’s assistant, and texted Dana (Jimmy’s wife) to get all the insurance information and texted it to Jimmy in the ambulance.”

With all that taken care of, Jill got to the paddock just before they were getting in the gate to watch the race with Bob. She remembers seeing the break, but doesn’t remember too much about the first part of the race, as she felt overwhelmed by everything and bent over trying to catch her breath. She looked up when they were halfway down the backstretch and watched as Authentic turned for home still on the lead. But when Tiz the Law moved up alongside, she thought, like everyone else, he was going to blow past Authentic. When he didn’t they thought, “Geez, this horse might win.” In the last eighth of a mile, Jill kept shouting, “Get it for Jimmy…Get it for Jimmy.”

“Usually when I watch a race I try to be a little reserved, because it never translates well when you see yourself on TV screaming your head off,” Jill said. “But this time I took leave of my senses. When he won I couldn’t process everything in my head what had happened to Jimmy and that the horse had just run lights out. We were all kind of shell shocked. I hate to say that because you don’t want to diminish the horse in any way, but we weren’t expecting it. We were still in disbelief about what had happened in the paddock, especially since Bob had never had a horse scratched in the paddock, let alone in the Derby.

“Everyone was just stunned. I felt like I was in a haze. I didn’t feel like I was in that moment. We walked across to the winner’s circle, and I had never had an anxiety attack, but I couldn’t catch my breath and I felt like I was going to throw up. Somebody asked me, ‘Mrs. Baffert, can I get you some water?’ I said yes and he went and got me water and said, ‘If you’re going to vomit do it in the bushes.’ I sat on the steps to the winner’s platform to gather myself. Then the horse comes in and Bob tells everyone, ‘Nobody clap, just keep it down’ Everything still was kind of hazy, but the way I remember it, Bob was trying to get in position and I could see the horse high-stepping by the flowers and yelled to Bob to watch out. He tried to push me out of the way and the horse got him with his back end, and Bob’s momentum was going downhill and he couldn’t recover. He went down and landed on his back, and I’m thinking ‘Oh, my God.’ Fortunately, Bob was OK, but the horse stepped on Wayne Hughes’ son-in-law Eric Gustavson’s ankle, and he was in a lot of pain. You could actually see the horse’s hoofprint on his shoe.”

As it turned out, it was the ribbons at the bottom of the blanket of roses that came undone and kept hitting the horse around his ankles, and as Jill said, “He could see them out of the corner of his eye and he just lost his mind.”

Jill summed up the whirlwind experience of Derby Day by calling it “the damndest, most exciting, most terrifying 30 minutes of my life.”

Afterward, Bob told Jill he now holds the record of being the only Derby trainer “to wind up flat on his ass in the winner’s circle.”

“I still can’t believe it all happened,” Jill said. “It hadn’t been a good year with everything that has been going on.” That included Bob losing two top Derby horses, Nadal and Charlatan, to injury and having Gamine and Charlatan testing positive for the numbing agent lidocaine at Oaklawn Park, which resulted from Jimmy Barnes wearing a medicinal patch that contained a small amount of lidocaine to relieve the pain from a fractured pelvis suffered in 2017.

So, the 146th Kentucky Derby is history. Bob and Jill sent Bode and Tank to Tennessee to stay with her family while they headed to the yearling sales where things should return to normal and they can look for the horse that perhaps one day will get Bob that record-breaking seventh Kentucky Derby. One thing is for sure. All future Derby trails will seem like a stroll in the park to the Bafferts compared to the turbulent journey of 2020 and its chaotic conclusion.

Photo by Mike Sekulic

Horse Racing: Where Dreams Meet Reality

Monday, September 7th, 2020

Horse Racing: Where Dreams Meet Reality

By Steve Haskin

 

Consider this a public service column. Just heed my words and you will live a joyous, fulfilling life.

Let’s start with the battle that plagues us all, especially when it comes to the world of Thoroughbred racing. It is a world like no other, comprised of two hemispheres. In one hemisphere exists the stark reality of practicality, if I may use a phrase I just concocted. In the other hemisphere exists the impracticality of romance. Or in other words, one hemisphere is guided by the brain and other by the heart.

As an example, Penny Tweedy had to decide whether or not to cross that bridge from one hemisphere to the other. Her practical side probably knew her family was right in wanting her to sell the struggling Meadow Stud following the death of her mother and father, Christopher Chenery, who had built the Virginia farm into one of the most successful racing and breeding operations in the country. But Penny knew how much the farm meant to her father and she decided to follow her heart. The beckoning romance of the sport had won out, and the legends of Riva Ridge and Secretariat were born.

I am, have always been, and always will be an incurable romantic, as you might have gathered if you read my column “A Love Letter to Joan” a couple of years ago. Or if you read the numerous poems I have written to Joan over the years. From the time I was in school I was never guided by my brain, hence my Shawshank Redemption-like miraculous escape from the clutches of high school prison. I believe it has been my romantic outlook on life that drew me to Thoroughbred racing, which then led me to the wonderful life with which I have been blessed.

My wife Joan, who many of you probably feel like you know, certainly has a romantic side to her, but she, unlike me, exists in good part in the hemisphere guided by practicality, thank goodness. For if it wasn’t for that I doubt our bills would ever get paid and our checkbook balanced. I’m still trying to figure out long division.

So, where am I going with all this? OK, I will tell you.

Here I was going along at my usual leisurely pace handicapping the Kentucky Derby, pretty sure in which direction I was going. It all looked pretty simple. I, like the vast majority of fans, felt Tiz the Law, Art Collector, and Honor A. P. dominated this field that I felt was subpar for a Kentucky Derby field. I had latched on to three longshots early in the year – Sole Volante, Major Fed, and Attachment Rate – and to a slightly lesser degree, Enforceable. So I was merely going to stick with them after eight agonizing long months of following the Derby that would never come. This long, meandering, and bizarre road was feeling more like the Run for the Woeses, as prominent horses kept dropping out, including the late withdrawal of Art Collector.

So, here I was gathering my wagers in my head and just waiting for Sept. 5. I didn’t know what I was waiting more for, the race itself or for it to be finally over. And then it happened. Unfortunately, I read a Facebook post from Patti Reeves, who owns Sole Volante with her husband Dean. The post read:

“I’m proud to be a part of AUTHENTIC (Post Position #18 at 8:1), along with my sister; my sister in law; several girlfriends; and even my financial advisor. (The husband’s not in on this one; it was a girls thing!) So if anyone got Covid Crazy like I did and wants to have some fun before the big race, you too can own a microshare of a Derby horse! Check out MyRacehorse.com and join in for the ride. Shares are still available. Heck, it’s 2020 and anything can happen.”

“Wow, that is awesome,” I thought, as my romantic side came skyrocketing to the surface. I checked the website and there he was in living color charging to the finish line in the San Felipe Stakes and heading straight to Churchill Downs. For $206 paltry dollars I could buy 0.001 or one one-thousandth of a Grade 1 winner who is trained by Bob Baffert and running in the Kentucky Derby.

That’s it! That will be my surprise present to Joan, just in time for our 40th anniversary on Sept. 28. Or I could buy it for my daughter Mandy, who grew up around many of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time. But first and foremost, it would be a perfect anniversary present for Joan, who never wants jewelry and only wants books and more books, leaving me with nothing original to buy her other than a gift certificate at Barnes & Noble. I once bought her a star (yes, a real star) and named it Joanie’s Eyes, which is officially registered with the International Star Registry. We have a large framed certificate hanging on the wall to prove it. But since then, it’s been Barnes & Ho-Hum Noble every year, every holiday, as I watch Joan go through 500-page books like I went through comic books as a kid. Evelyn Woods couldn’t keep up with her.

So, I filled out all the information and was just about to push “Buy,” when I stopped and pondered the situation. Uh, oh, my practical side was beginning to engulf my romantic side. What would Joan say to me spending $206 the day after her big boss at the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, where she has been a part-time resolution writer for the past 17 years, decided to cut costs by eliminating all part-time workers. She had been seriously contemplating retiring anyway, but hoping to still work a couple of days a week. So, here she was out of work and me also recently getting the boot from The Jockey Club (BloodHorse) for similar reasons after having a lucrative free-lance stint there for the past five years.

I had just cleared it with Joan to order Dr. Ho’s Circulation Promoter, which I saw on TV, for her bad back and my arthritic feet. The cost was $219 and 96 cents, almost the same price as a microshare in Authentic. And, who knows, maybe it will help. Heck, it helped all those people on the commercial and it was a 90-day free trial. Why not give it a shot.

But then I got hit by Patti Reeves’ lightning bolt. The heck with pain relief, the heck with seeing our income diminished. I can buy a Derby horse for Joan, even an infinitesimal share of a Derby horse. Do I dare do something so foolish, and for a horse who was not even included in a single bet of mine? After all, he didn’t have a mile and a quarter pedigree, he was a confirmed front-runner who needed an uncontentious lead, and he had a perfect trip on the lead in the Haskell Invitational and tried his best to give a three-length advantage away, barely lasting by a nose. And in the Derby, he had drawn post 18 in an 18-horse field filled with classy pace horses and stalkers, and the last time he had an outside post in the Santa Anita Derby, he ducked out badly at the start, costing him the lead and any chance of winning. In my Derby rankings, I had him ranked at No. 8 and No. 7, even though most people had him ranked No. 3. What did they know? He simply was not my kind of Derby horse. Yes, he was very talented and fast, but everyone knows Into Mischiefs can’t go 10 furlongs, or at least have never given any indication they can, and on the lead no less, being hounded by Tiz the Law, Honor A. P., Ny Traffic, King Guillermo, and his own stablemate Thousand Words. And breaking from post 18.

Oh no, my romantic side was quickly conceding defeat to a practical side I despised, but sadly had to acknowledge. Should I incur the wrath of Joan for spending $206 for a strand of a Derby horse’s tail, and one that I didn’t like to win the Derby? But he will still be a good horse after the Derby, and should be a popular stallion, and who knows what’s going to happen in a crazy year like this? Come on, what a neat anniversary gift, even if you throw away $206. You are part of something unique and special and there are owner’s perks that come with it. It’s romantic, it’s something from the heart, it’s me. It’s poetry. It’s all about owning a star a billion light years away, which is as impractical as you can get. This star at least I can see in Joanie’s Eyes, charging under the famed Twin Spires. After all, racing is for dreamers.

I sort of tested Joan out and was convinced that this was nothing more than folly, and I knew she did not want me indulging in such foolishness, especially at this time. She told me so. So I grabbed my finger and pulled it away from that siren-like “Buy” button that kept calling, “Hit me, hit me. Do it.”

I went back to the harsh reality of handicapping and trying to win some money, as we got ready to drive up to Saratoga to watch the race with our dear friends, the Freedbergs. Authentic was now a dimming dream and I dismissed him completely, as owning a piece of him faded from both heart and mind.

But the lure of the siren wasn’t about to give up that easily. The day before the Derby I received an email with the subject line, “Last Chance With Authentic.” They knew I had reached the precipice of owning a piece of the horse by all the info I had provided and were giving me one more chance. Just when I thought I was free they were pulling me back in; tempting me, teasing me by implanting the dream in my psyche once again. The email read: “Authentic runs tomorrow in the Kentucky Derby, this is your last chance to invest. Offering closes for good at Post Time. Reach for the Stars. Run for the Roses. Authentic couldn’t be coming into the race any better.”

Stars again. I can see Joanie’s Eyes and this time I don’t need a high-powered telescope. I can see Authentic running to glory and destroying all my handicapping. I can hear Joan saying after the race, “I was wrong, sweetheart. I own part of a Kentucky Derby winner. I’m so happy you followed your heart.”

Stop, you’re killing me. I know Joan would want me to be strong and not give in to this last-minute temptation. She told me so yet again, and deep down I knew she was right and being the wiser of the two, as she always is. So I closed the email and that officially ended the romantic aspect of this year’s Kentucky Derby and the unwritten poetry I was going to present to my wife.

Of course, what happens? After Art Collector dropped out, so did another strong pace presence in King Guillermo. And then another strong pace presence in stablemate Thousand Words, who flipped and fell backward in the walking ring, with assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes suffering a broken wrist. Authentic now is breaking from post 15 instead of post 18 and three of the horses who could challenge him are gone, as is Honor A. P. who gets sawed off at the start and drops back to last.

The day before, the horse who was Baffert’s main focus this weekend, the brilliant Gamine, also by the distance-challenged Into Mischief, suffered her first defeat when she was upset as the odds-one favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. And his big older horse McKinzie finished out of the money in the Alysheba Stakes. This was getting to be a typical Bob Baffert Shakespearean melodrama. After the Thousand Words incident I said to Joan, “Knowing Baffert, this can only end one way – Authentic wins the Derby.” Not only does he win, he sets fast fractions and battles back after being headed to defeat the mighty Tiz the Law, something he had never shown he was capable of doing. Leave it to Baffert to turn agony into ecstasy and get an Into Mischief to win at a mile and a quarter. That concluded the strangest and most convoluted Derby trail of all time. It could have only ended this way. All I kept thinking was that I shouldn’t have wavered in the first place. I shouldn’t have told Joan about my intention and my indecision.

I am writing all this to tell you all, you can be practical in all phases of your life, but not in horse racing, where you have to dream before a dream can come true. The dream of Authentic is gone forever and I am trying to come to terms with that, not for myself, but for a beautiful woman who has made my life beautiful in every way. I wish I could have given her this, but she still says the right decision was made and, unlike me, has no regrets at all.

All I can say is that Dr. Ho’s Circulation Promoter better work.

Photo courtesy of myracehorse.com

Woodward Stakes Returns to its Roots

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

With the Woodward Stakes oddly competing with the Kentucky Derby this year, let’s not forget the major move by NYRA in changing the distance of this historic race back to a mile and a quarter and bringing back the glory days of the race that used to crown champions. Read about the early days of the Woodward and its amazing path to the Hall of Fame…

Woodward Stakes Returns to its Roots

By Steve Haskin

 

The New York Racing Association made a change in its stakes schedule this year that either escaped many people or was not considered significant enough to get excited about. But in reality it was one of the most significant and historic moves they have made in years.

That change was moving the distance of the Woodward Stakes from a mile and an eighth, which had been its distance for 30 consecutive years and 37 of the past 39 years, to a mile and a quarter, which was the distance when the race was inaugurated in 1954.

Forget the Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup. The mile and a quarter Woodward, which will be run on Kentucky Derby Day, Sept. 5, as weird as that sounds, has crowned more all-time great champions than any of the aforementioned races.

To demonstrate the importance of the mile and a quarter Woodward, from 1959 to 1969, eight of the 10 runnings of the Woodward were won by horses who are in the Hall of Fame. And in one of the two years it wasn’t, Kelso was beaten by the narrowest of noses by Gun Bow. Prior to 1959 (in 1956 and ’57), three horses who competed in the Woodward, but were upset (Nashua, Gallant Man and Bold Ruler), are in the Hall of Fame.

In 1972, the distance was changed to a mile and a half, then to a mile and an eighth in 1976. Two years later it was finally changed back to a mile and a quarter, and the next three winners – Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid – are all in the Hall of Fame. From 1981 to 1987 it was again changed to a mile and an eighth, and then NYRA went back to a mile and a quarter for only two years in 1988 and 1989 when it was won by Alysheba and Easy Goer, both in the Hall of Fame.

So, in a span of 16 years the mile and a quarter Woodward was won by horses who are in the Hall of Fame 13 times. In one of the years it wasn’t, California invader Cougar II finished first by five lengths and was taken down in one of the most controversial disqualifications ever in New York. Also, in a span of 19 years, 14 horses who competed in the mile and a quarter Woodward would be named Horse of the Year that year. Those that weren’t named Horse of the Year that year include Sword Dancer (1960), Damascus (1968), Spectacular Bid (1979), and Easy Goer (1989), who are all in the Hall of Fame. The horses they lost out to were Kelso, Dr. Fager, Affirmed, and Sunday Silence – all in the Hall of Fame.

Now, after 30 years of being run at a mile and an eighth, during which only seven winners went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, two in the past 15 years (Rachel Alexandra and Curlin), the Woodward has been restored to its original distance of a mile and a quarter.

Although the Woodward will never return to its glory days when Hall of Famers Sword Dancer, Kelso, Buckpasser, Damascus, and Arts and Letters accounted for eight Woodward victories in 11 years, and Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid won three straight in the late 1970s, it is good to have back where it belongs at a mile and a quarter.

The incredible run began in 1959 when the 3-year-old Sword Dancer faced older horses Round Table and Hillsdale in a showdown for Horse of the Year that was called the “Race of the Decade.”

Here we were, only 12 days after the reopening of the new modern state of the art Aqueduct Racetrack with one of the great three-horse matchups in years, right up there with Bold Ruler, Gallant, Man, and Round Table in the 1957 Trenton Handicap.
But this time we had an epic showdown between the best horse in the East, the best horse in the Midwest, and the best horse in the West. And here they were, all converging on Aqueduct to meet for Horse of the Year honors at a mile and a quarter and weight-for-age conditions.

Representing the East was the nation’s leading 3-year-old Sword Dancer, who was beaten a nose in the Kentucky Derby in a controversial finish, finished second in the Preakness, and then defeated older horses in the Met Mile, missing the track record by two-fifths of a second. Two weeks later he captured the Belmont Stakes, then defeated older horses again in the Monmouth Handicap before finishing second against older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap, giving 12 actual pounds to winner and breaking poorly at the start, dropping far back and rallying strongly to be beaten three-quarters of a length. He then wheeled right back and won the Travers Stakes.

Representing the Midwest was the already great Round Table, who revolutionized the sport by becoming the first superstar on both dirt and grass. Round Table came into the Woodward having equaled or broken 16 track records on dirt and grass and had won seven of his last eight starts, carrying from 130 to 136 pounds in all of them, and culminating with a victory in the United Nations Handicap under 136 pounds.

Representing California was the powerhouse Hillsdale, who came into the Woodward having won 10 of his 12 starts at 4 and 10 in a row, including the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1:59 1/5, the seven-furlong San Carlos Handicap, defeating Round Table in 1:21 4/5, the Californian Stakes, American Handicap under 130 pounds, Santa Anita Maturity (later changed to the Charles H. Strub Stakes), Los Angeles Handicap, and Argonaut Stakes. He then came to New York with visions of Horse of the Year and defeated the top-class Bald Eagle in the Aqueduct Handicap under 132 pounds. His only two defeats came early in the year when he was second in the Santa Anita Handicap and San Antonio Stakes.

In all, these three exceptional horses came into the Woodward having won 25 of their 35 starts in 1959, while finishing in the money in 33 of their 35 starts.

Their only two out of the money performances were Sword Dancer’s 3-year-old debut in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes when he finished fifth, and Round Table being virtually eased in a handicap stakes at Santa Anita when he tore open his left front heel while carrying 134 pounds, 25 pounds more than the winner.

History will show it was little Sword Dancer, with Eddie Arcaro flailing away with a roundhouse left-handed whip, who squeezed his way inside Hillsdale, barely visible to the crowd, and just got up in the final strides to win by a head, nailing down the Horse of the Year title.

The following year, Sword Dancer won the Woodward again, but lost the Horse of the Year title to Kelso, which began the historic five-year reign of the immortal gelding, who captured the next three Woodwards before suffering a heartbreaking nose defeat to the brilliant Gun Bow in 1964. That race, however did not cost Kelso his fifth straight Horse of the Year title, as he faced Gun Bow in a rematch in the Washington D.C. International, in which Kelso, at age 7, not only easily defeated his arch rival he set a new world record.

By now, the Woodward and Horse of the Year had become synonymous, and it continued following Kelso’s retirement with successive victories by Horses of the Year Roman Brother in 1965, Buckpasser in 1966, and Sword Dancer’s son Damascus in 1967.

Although Sword Dancer had won the “Race of the Decade,” his son outdid him by winning the “Race of the Century,” which attracted arguably the greatest three horses ever to compete in a single race – Damascus, Dr. Fager, and Buckpasser; names that resounded throughout the racing world.

A showdown in the Woodward Stakes is what racing fans clamored for all year, and it was like a jolt of electricity when it became obvious it was going to happen.

As the big day grew near, the race began to take on epic proportions. Gene Ward, racing columnist for the New York Daily News, wrote: “It’s a rare occasion when the two best colts of any given season are hooked up in a glamour gallop. But the true dream race arrives when there are three of them, as close talent-wise as your next breath, all in action together.”
As big a race as the ’67 Woodward was, no one at the time realized the true magnitude of the event. You had three Horses of the Year and three Hall of Famers who, between them, would capture an amazing 12 championships, equal or break 11 track records, set two world records, and win carrying 130 pounds or more 12 times. Six of those records have never been broken. When Dr. Fager set a world record for the mile, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/4-mile track record at Aqueduct, he broke Dr. Fager’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/8-mile track record at Arlington Park, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. And when Damascus equaled the 1 1/4-mile track record at Saratoga in the Travers, romping by 22 lengths in the slop, he equaled Buckpasser’s previous record.

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

The race also had plenty of controversy when the trainers of Damascus and Buckpasser, Frank Whiteley and Eddie Neloy, entered “rabbits,” or pacesetters, to get Dr. Fager’s blood boiling and prevent him from getting an easy lead. It worked out perfectly for Whiteley, as Hedevar, a former world-record holder at a mile, pushed Dr. Fager through suicidal fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:09 1/5. When Damascus unleashed his patented explosive move he left Buckpasser in his wake and roared by Dr. Fager, drawing off to a 10-length victory, turning the Race of the Century into a procession, while securing Horse of the Year honors.

Damascus, shockingly, was beaten a nose by Mr. Right in the following year’s Woodward, and Whiteley was so infuriated with Baeza’s ride, which he felt was deliberate, considering Baeza’s loyalty to Dr. Fager, he shouted his displeasure at the rider upon his return. Whiteley never spoke to Baeza again.

But the Woodward was right back in the spotlight the following year when Rokeby Stable’s brilliant 3-year-old Arts and Letters, who had followed his narrow defeats to Majestic Prince in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness by rattling of impressive scores in the Met Mile, Belmont Stakes, Jim Dandy, and Travers, faced the best older horse, Nodouble, for Horse of the Year honors. Arts and Letters was just too strong for his older rival and outran him in the stretch to win by two lengths. With the new Belmont Park opening that year, the Woodward bid farewell to Aqueduct and was moved to “Big Sandy.”

In 1970, Preakness winner Personality became yet another 3-year-old to win the Woodward, which earned him the Horse of the Year title from the Thoroughbred Racing Associations. And then in 1971 came the controversial disqualification of Cougar II. The following year, the distance of the race was changed to a mile and a half and the opening, historic chapter of the Woodward Stakes was over.

No one knows how this year’s mile and a quarter Woodward will play out, but one thing is for sure. Whoever wins will be following in the footsteps of some of the greatest legends the sport has ever known.

Sackatoga Two and the History of NY-Breds

Tuesday, August 18th, 2020

Sackatoga Two and the History of NY-Breds

By Steve Haskin

Tiz the Law, Adam Coglianese Photo

It was a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting: a bunch of ordinary guys, friends since childhood, sitting in a backyard in the tiny town of Sackets Harbor, New York, enjoying a Memorial Day picnic. From that picnic would spring an idea that would have a profound effect on Thoroughbred racing and change the face of the New York breeding program.

One of those ordinary guys was Jack Knowlton, who had moved to Saratoga Springs and was back home visiting his mother. Having dabbled unsuccessfully in owning harness horses he wanted to try his hand at Thoroughbreds. Knowlton liked owning horses more than he liked being around them for the simple reason he was allergic to them.

Having been class president in high school, Knowlton was always the pied-piper type; the leader who his friends would follow. Knowlton’s idea was to purchase a New York-bred Thoroughbred at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sales. But even purchasing a New York-bred could run anywhere from $25,000 to $60,000. So Knowlton convinced his five buddies to put up $5,000 each just for the pleasure of owning a racehorse and having some fun. After mulling it over and discussing it with their wives, they decided to join Knowlton in his new adventure and Sackatoga Stable was born. The objective was to take the $30,000 and buy a yearling for $20,000 and keep the remaining $10,000 to pay the bills. In the beginning, that’s all it was…fun.

Several years later, trainer Barclay Tagg and his assistant Robin Smullen spotted a chestnut ridgling by Distorted Humor at Tony Everard’s farm in Ocala, Florida, where Tagg’s yearlings were broken. Everard had purchased the horse for $22,000 at Fasig-Tipton’s New York-bred yearling sale at Saratoga. Tagg and Smullen liked the horse, but Everard was asking $40,000, and they had no buyer at the time. The following spring they saw him again and liked him even more. Everard had upped his price and was asking $75,000 for the now gelded youngster, a bit too steep for the Sackatoga Stable partnership.

On March 6, 2002, however, Sackatoga’s 6-year-old mare, Bail Money, was claimed for $62,500 at Gulfstream Park. With some extra spending money to play with, Knowlton told Tagg, “If you like him that much, go ahead and buy him.”

It were those words that brought Sackatoga Stable into the national spotlight, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with that gelding, named Funny Cide, with the Sackatoga gang, including several other friends of Knowlton’s, becoming celebrities, arriving at the track in a yellow school bus because that was all they could afford.

Now, 17 years later, Sackatoga Stable, Jack Knowlton, and Barclay Tagg are back in the national spotlight with another New York-bred, named Tiz the Law, who in a couple of weeks likely will go off as one of the shortest-priced Kentucky Derby favorites of all time. The names are pretty much the same as they were 17 years ago, and the school bus is getting fueled up for its return, as America awaits the next chapter in yet another remarkable Sackatoga Cinderella story. But time does change things, and only one other member of the original Sackatoga team, Lew Titterton, a longtime friend of Knowlton’s from the health care business, is part of the Tiz the Law syndicate.

Titterton was not one of the original Sackets Harbor group who resided there, so the stable is now Sackatoga in name only. The members of that original cast of characters will be missed on this Tiz the Law odyssey. One of the greatest quotes I ever heard was after Funny Cide lost the Belmont Stakes ending the improbable Triple Crown dream. The late Dave Mahan, one of the more recognizable members of the original syndicate, along with the flamboyant Gus Williams, who also has passed away, was a caterer from Connecticut who knew Knowlton from his betting days at Saratoga Racetrack. Following the Belmont, Mahan, with the other members, headed to the Trustees Room to drown their sorrows. He then put everything in proper perspective when he came to a stark realization. “It could be worse,” he said. “I could be back home stuffing chickens.”

Because of horses like Funny Cide, Travers winner Thunder Rumble; the “Sultan of Saratoga,” Fourstardave, who won at least one race at Saratoga for eight straight years; two-time Whitney winner Commentator, and more recently Jockey Club Gold Cup and Whitney winner Diversify, and multiple Grade 1 winner Mind Your Biscuits, who was second in the Met Mile and Whitney, New York-breds no longer are the second-class citizens they used to be, mocked by the racing world as slow, grossly inferior horses.

Some may look at Tiz the Law, who was conceived in Kentucky and raised in Kentucky, as a New York-bred in name only who just happened to be foaled in the Empire State and in no way represents its breeding program. But the truth is breeder Randy Gullatt of Twin Creeks Farm (along with partner Steve Davison) had the New York breeding program in mind all the time when he sent Tiz the Law’s dam Tizfiz to Becky Thomas’ Sequel New York in the Hudson River Valley to drop her Constitution foal. Constitution wasn’t the big-name sire he is today and Tizfiz was a $125,000 purchase who they felt was good value and nicked well with Constitution. They bought the daughter of Tiznow to support their own stallions, mainly Mission Impazible, who stands at Sequel Stallions. They also wanted to take advantage of the New York breeding program. There was nothing fancy about Tizfiz. She was just considered a good solid horse.

After three months in New York, Tizfiz and her foal were sent back to Twin Creeks. The foal immediately made his presence felt. According to Gullatt, he did everything right, learned quickly, and was never sick or injured. He just liked bucking, playing, and squealing and having a good time. Gullatt said he was just a fun horse to be around. Gullatt watched him grow into a strong, professional athlete who they sold at the Saratoga yearling for $110,000, with Sequel acting as agent.

When Tiz the Law ran in the Belmont Stakes, Gullatt saw that distinctive white-rimmed eye of his and remembered seeing that eye every day for a year when he was a baby, and it all hit him emotionally when Tiz the Law drew off to an easy victory. “I literally cried when he won the Belmont,” Gullatt said. “I had never done that before. I just knew him so personally and to see his personality come out on the racetrack was very emotional. The Travers was different. While the Belmont was about emotion, when he won the Travers I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how great is this horse?”

And so for Sackatoga Stable, lightning has struck twice, and from that initial $5,000 investment has come two New York-breds who have combined to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Florida Derby, and Champagne Stakes. That is, as they say, the stuff dreams are made of.

New York-breds are no longer scoffed at or frowned upon, and have proven they are championship caliber horses. But it certainly wasn’t like that several decades ago.

The key race mentioned earlier is the Whitney and the success New York-breds have had in this prestigious and historic race. It is only appropriate, because the Whitney was where it all began for the modern-day New York-bred.

It happened 39 years ago when an obscurely bred New York-bred named Fio Rito shocked the racing world by winning Saratoga’s premier event for older horses.

What made this event so important to the New York breeding industry is that it was the first major impact by a New York-bred since the 1973 advent of graded stakes and the creation of the New York State Breeding and Development Fund, which placed New York-breds under a single umbrella and began the state-bred program and purse incentives. Eight years had passed since then and New York-breds were still considered pretty much a joke.

By 1981, there still had not been a New York-bred Grade 1 winner, and success in open company still was a rarity. That is until Aug. 1 of that year when the 6-year-old horse Fio Rito stepped into the gate for the Whitney Handicap. The gray son of the obscure stallion Dreaming Native was trained by Finger Lakes-based Michael Ferraro, ridden by local rider Les Hulet, and owned by bowling alley owner Raymond LeCesse, who had purchased Fio Rito’s dam, Seagret, for a mere $2,300 as a favor to the mare’s owner, who had put her up for auction at a small venue near Rochester, New York.

Fio Rito certainly did not look like a horse who would one day make history, but he began winning on a regular basis at Finger Lakes, with an occasional foray downstate. It was inconceivable that they would consider a race like the Whitney, especially with his ornery disposition. After shipping to Saratoga, he became too excited when a filly was placed in the stall next to him. When they moved him to another stall, he became so agitated he threw a tantrum and wound up bruising his foot. Initially, there was doubt that he would be able to make the race, but he received clearance from the veterinarian.

Carrying only 113 pounds, the 6-year-old gray was sent off at 10-1, as he attempted to become the oldest horse or gelding to win the Whitney since Kelso captured the race at age 8 in 1965 and the oldest complete horse to win the race since Round View in 1949.

Any chance of this Cinderella horse upsetting the Whitney seemed lost when Fio Rito broke through the gate before the start, actually dragging the assistant starter, who was flat on his belly holding on for dear life and refusing to let go of the horse. When he finally got Fio Rito to come to a halt and jumped to his feet, still clinging desperately to the horse, he received an ovation from the crowd.

Fio Rito, under a barrage of right-handed whips from Hulet, dug in the length of stretch and refused to let Rokeby Stable’s top-class Winter’s Tale get by him, winning by a neck.

Not only had a New York-bred won the Whitney, and at age 6, he had run faster than past Whitney winners Dr. Fager, Kelso. Gun Bow, Carry Back, Key to the Mint, and Ancient Title, and had run more than a full second faster than Onion when he upset Secretariat eight years earlier.

It was a jolt to racing purists and the word spread far and wide. Even the Wabia tribesmen of New Guinea were shocked to learn that a New York-bred had won the Grade 1 Whitney.

Fio Rito died in 1996 at age 21 and was buried in the infield at Finger Lakes.

But Fio Rito was not the first New York-bred to elevate himself into top-class company. Well before there was a New York breeding program and New York-bred races with lucrative purses, New York-breds were extremely uncommon. The one rare gem was another Cinderella horse named Mr. Right.

Prior to the mid 1960s, New York-breds were looked upon by racing’s elite as oddities, confined to their own little world made up of inferior horses competing mainly in cheap races. In 1966, however, a horse came along who broke all the rules and made the blue bloods shudder in disbelief. Mr. Right, not only ventured into the world inhabited by major stakes winners and champions, he actually had the audacity to beat them, and on a regular basis.

When this genetic anomaly (by Auditing, out of La Grecque, by Tehran) retired in 1969, he had won nine major stakes races and placed in 10 others, earning a then whopping $667,193. Along the way, he captured such prestigious hundred-granders as the Santa Anita Handicap, Woodward Stakes, Suburban Handicap, and a host of $75,000 and $50,000 stakes, equivalent to grade II and grade III stakes today.

Among his victims were Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Damascus, Kentucky Derby winner Proud Clarion, Belmont Stakes winner Amberoid, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Quicken Tree, Wood Memorial and Gotham winner and Kentucky Derby third Dike, 2-year-old champion Successor, Widener Handicap winner Ring Twice, Suburban Handicap winner Buffle, Hollywood Derby winner Tumble Wind, and Charles H. Strub Stakes winner Most Host.

La Grecque’s dam, Gay Grecque, had been purchased by New York hotel businessman George Zauderer for $5,000, and she went on to win the Test Stakes and place in several other stakes, including the Alabama. After Zauderer purchased the English stallion Tehran he sent Gay Grecque to England to be bred to him and the resulting foal was La Grecque, who never made it to the races and eventually was sent to Westchester County in New York to be trained in dressage with the intention of competing in horse shows.

But when it was discovered that La Grecque did not have the temperament for such regimented training, Zauderer decided to breed her to Auditing, a stakes-winning son of Count Fleet who stood at Mr. and Mrs. Tom Waller’s Tanrackin Farm in Bedford Hills, New York. Her second foal was an “independent little cuss from the start, standing out there paying no attention to his mother,” according to Zauderer, who considered him his favorite.

In 1964, Zauderer’s daughter Cheray, a Manhattan socialite, married the New York City born Peter Duchin, who was a popular pianist and band leader. As a wedding present, Zauderer gave his daughter and son-in-law his favorite yearling colt, who was a late foal, being born on May 21. That yearling later was named Mr. Right and he would grow up to be a star; a David who slew many a Goliath.

At the time, the New York Racing Association had been paying 10% of the winner’s share to the breeders of winning horses foaled and registered in New York. This was the first move to improve the quality of state-breds and it seemed to be working, as the sums paid out began to increase steadily. But it wasn’t until Mr. Right captured the Dwyer, defeating top-class horses such as Buffle and Amberoid, that NYRA had to pay out a substantial sum of money, which amounted to $5,352 and 75 cents.

Following the Woodward Stakes, Mr. Right was sold by the Duchins for $400,000 to a group headed by Daniel Schwartz, who brought in his attorney Martin Rudin and his neighbor Frank Sinatra as partners.

After spending six months at Flag Is Up Farms in California, Mr. Right returned as a 6-year-old, winning the Suburban Handicap in a gutsy performance, defeating Claiborne Farm’s multiple stakes winner Dike and 1968 Travers winner Chompion in a three-horse photo and then added his third Trenton Handicap later in the year.

That November, Mr. Right was retired sound, but instead of going to Flag Is Up Farms, he was sent to Tartan Farm in Ocala under the management of John Nerud to join Dr. Fager, the horse he helped nail down Horse of the Year honors by defeating his arch rival Damascus.

Years later, he was moved to Kerr Stock Farm in Moreno, California, and finally to the Schoenborn Brothers Farm in Climax, New York. He died at age 16, but no date of his death was ever listed or a cause of death.

For all Fio Rito and Mr. Right did for the New York breeding industry, there isn’t even a stakes named after them. But these tough, courageous horses who defeated champions and Grade 1 winners will forever be regarded as the founding fathers of all the successful New York-breds that followed.

And so here we are, more than a half-century after Mr. Right, with a New York-bred on the verge of superstardom who is two races away from becoming the only horse other than the great Whirlaway to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, and Travers. He still has a tall task ahead of him. But if he should sweep that “Quadruple Crown,” it will be the pinnacle of success for New York-breds and elevate them to heights never before imagined.

Tiz the Law farm photos courtesy of Kim Gullatt

Sweat Legacy Etched in Stone

Tuesday, August 11th, 2020

Our inaugural and very special installment of Askin’ Haskin on Secretariat.com. What better way to begin this new adventure than to write a much-needed story about how a group of people took it upon themselves to get Big Red’s groom, Eddie Sweat, a proper headstone. Future blogs will be about all aspects of racing, especially the human side, and nostalgic behind-the-scenes pieces about the greats of the past.

“Sweat’s Legacy Now Etched in Stone”

By Steve Haskin

On a barren-looking tract of land in Rock Hill AME Church Cemetery in Vance, South Carolina, laid a withered slab of unknown material surrounded by dead grass and a tangle of weeds. At its head was a small vase of plastic blue and white flowers that had toppled over. Atop the slab was a plastic miniature horse and a plastic or ceramic miniature cardinal, along with a small faded blue sign attached with two screws with the simple words: “Edward Sweat 1939-1998.”

At the foot of the slab was what appeared to be an added piece of concrete with the words “Edward S. Sweat 1939-1998,” which looked as if it had been hand-inscribed with a nail or another sharp object by a good-willed person who thought highly of Sweat.

It was hardly a fitting tribute to a gifted horseman who was well known in Thoroughbred racing as the groom of the legendary Secretariat, as well as the horse who helped save Meadow Stud, Riva Ridge, and champion Chief’s Crown. Grooms, who devote their lives to these noble steeds while toiling in relative anonymity, can only dream of taking care of and being responsible for three such magnificent athletes and titans of the Turf, including one many believe to be the greatest Thoroughbred of all time.

In 2019, Pam Shushkowski, a member of the Facebook group, “THE Secretariat Group – dedicated to the Horse that God Built,” visited Sweat’s grave and was saddened by what she saw. Shushkowski decided then and there to rectify this great injustice. Sweat needed to have a proper headstone and memorial befitting a man of his stature and accomplishments. After all, this was a person who was part of history and helped make Secretariat arguably the most iconic equine athlete in the history of the sport, right up there with Man o’ War.

She contacted her friends, Buddy Hassell and Elaine Kreil, and all three began their quest to give Sweat the headstone and memorial he richly deserved. Hassell reached out to potential donors, while Kreil contacted Sweat’s family, tracked all the funds collected, and worked with the monument company. Kathy Wood, creator of “THE Secretariat Group,” organized and ran the auctions that would help pay for the endeavor.

Thanks to their diligent work and the generosity of all those who donated, Eddie Sweat now has more than an appropriate headstone; he has a magnificent memorial, shimmering in polished black granite, on which is etched a tender photo of him and his beloved Secretariat inside a horseshoe. Engraved on the headstone in white lettering are the words: “Edward ‘Shorty’ Sweat, August 29, 1939, April 17, 1998, Beloved groom to Chief’s Crown, Riva Ridge, and Secretariat.” Below that are the profound words of Sweat himself: “I think they’ll take me to my grave with a pitchfork in my hand and a rub rag in my back pocket.” In many ways, those words salute all grooms throughout history who devoted their lives to the horses they loved and cared for.

The headstone now is surrounded by lush carpet of green grass and is a treasured shrine, not only to Sweat, but Secretariat.

Sweat, who died of leukemia 25 years after Big Red captured the hearts of a nation with his historic Triple Crown sweep, now has the headstone and epitaph he deserves. You can bet his gravesite will now be visited by scores of people who want to feel part of one of the greatest legacies of the Turf.

“What a difference a year makes,” Shushkowski said. “One year ago I was standing over Eddie Sweat’s grave, feeling so sad. I dreamed of him having a headstone, one I believe he deserved. I mentioned it to a couple of members who said it could be done. Then other members started believing, too. To anyone who generously contributed, no matter the amount, we did this. We accomplished it much sooner than I expected. For me this has been a way to celebrate Secretariat’s 50th birthday by helping honor his best friend.”

Kate Tweedy, daughter of Penny Chenery and also a contributor, said of the new headstone, “I am very impressed. It is beautiful, and I’m so grateful for all the effort that was put into it.”

Although the racing industry knew him as Eddie, he was never called that in the barn. He was either Edward, Mr. Sweat, or Shorty. And to some he was much more than a groom.

Steve Jordan, who hotwalked Secretariat and Riva Ridge and then went on to a career as a trainer and eventually working for the New York Racing Association as head of the holding barn, said of Sweat, “Throughout our more than 15 years together, Mr. Sweat was not only a mentor professionally, but an inspiration as an honorable and gentle family man. After the (Lucien) Laurin years, Edward was at my side as I began my training career in Delaware. It was his friendship, however, that was treasured most of all.”

From Humble Beginnings to Famous Groom

Eddie Sweat was born in Holly Hill, South Carolina, in 1939 to David and Mary Sweat, the sixth of nine children. He grew up poor. His father was an African American, Cherokee sharecropper who knew how to make poultices out of plants. He used this folk knowledge to heal his plow mule’s sore legs, passing this knowledge onto his son Eddie. Education of her children was important to Mary. It was a means to escape the poverty and hard life. Even in grade school, Eddie helped the family by working on nearby farms plowing fields and harvesting crops after class.

On his way to school, Eddie would look longingly out the bus window at the Thoroughbred horses on a farm. That farm belonged to trainer Lucien Laurin, the man who would later train both Riva Ridge and Secretariat and entrust both horses to Sweat. On a number of occasions Sweat would skip his studies to get closer to the horses and observe them, which displeased his mother. But the bond had already been created. Although just a youngster, Sweat asked Laurin for a job and began by digging post holes and erecting fences in the afternoons and on weekends. It wasn’t long after that Sweat quit school. His work ethic on the farm soon earned him a job driving the horse van as well as increased responsibilities as a hotwalker and groom.

Physically, Sweat had all the attributes. He was short, but powerfully built, especially in his forearms, which helped him handle all kinds of horses and enabled him to succeed in a physically demanding career. But it was not brute force that helped him communicate with his horses. It was the way he talked to them and looked at them, and more importantly, the way he understood them. He and Secretariat had that kind of understanding. Although Sweat would let him be playful, they had a mutual respect for each other, and Big Red always knew when it was time for business. Sweat admitted he was closer to Red than his own family during those years.

Sweat was, without question, Secretariat’s best friend, spending long days and even some nights with him. He believed in treating his horses more like humans and they responded to him. When he spoke to them, some would say he almost sang to them. Sweat was using Gullah, a language the South Carolina and Georgia African slaves created in order to be able to communicate with one another. It is part West African, part English. Its melodic sounds, combined with the rhythmic brush and rub rag strokes, calmed and soothed the horses, all the while building trust.

Although Secretariat was the star of the stable and a national hero, Sweat always made Riva Ridge, the previous year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner and world-record holder at 4, feel like a champion as well. After all, he was as a 2-year-old in 1971, ushering in the Meadow Stable glory years. Both Sweat and owner Penny Tweedy had soft spots in their heart for the amiable, lop-eared Riva. When Lucien Lauren retired, Sweat went to work for his son Roger, where he groomed the classy 2-year-old champion and Travers Stakes winner Chief’s Crown.

One of the hardest days for Sweat was when he had to accompany Secretariat and Riva Ridge on their flight to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, following their retirement. Having to say goodbye to both of them at the same time made it twice as tough. During the flight, Secretariat would gently clench his teeth on Sweat’s jacket, as if knowing he would never be this close to him again.

After Big Red and Riva were safely tucked away in their new home and it was time for Sweat to depart, he stood alone in the parking lot with his suitcase resting atop a small brick wall, and appeared to be wiping away a tear. The image was captured by Daily Racing Form photographer Ray Woolfe Jr., who shot it from behind Sweat as he gazed at an empty paddock, depicting the solitude and loneliness he must have been feeling.

Remembered Near and Far

Sweat had already been memorialized in 2004 with a statue at the Kentucky Horse Park, which shows him leading Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte to the Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle. A humble and quiet man, Sweat would have been thrilled, yet embarrassed, to know that 16 years later a group of strangers cared enough about him to give him such a magnificent tribute.

But no one was more thrilled and grateful than Sweat’s youngest sister, Geraldine Holman, who lives in Florida.

“Oh my God, you just don’t know,” she said. “I was so stunned I just bust out crying when I saw it on Facebook. It is just so beautiful. Kathy Wood sent me a picture of the group who helped her raise the money and I wrote to every one of them. They were going to go to South Carolina and have a ceremony, but because of the COVID they decided to do it another time and said that they wanted to meet me. I told her, ‘If the Good Master allows it I want to come and meet each and every one of you.’ I just wish he and my mom and my dad were here to see this. I miss him a whole lot, but I know he’s looking down and smiling.”

As she spoke, the memories came flooding back. “Elwood (that’s what they called him) left home when he was 11, and my mom used to talk about him and I would say, ‘Mama, I don’t have another brother,’ and she would say, ‘Yes you do,’ and I would ask, ‘Where is he?’ That’s when she told me what happened. She said, ‘One day he went to school and he never came home, so I went looking for him and I couldn’t find him.’ He was hiding out at the track, which wasn’t too far from where we lived.

“Mama cried like a baby day and night, because she didn’t know where her child was. I was just a little girl and she told me the story later. He wound up going to New York on the van hiding behind the horses. When they opened the van and saw him they asked him what he doing back there, and all he said was, ‘I’m with the horses.’ But he was only 11 years old and he was too young to work with the horses. He continued to work for Mr. Lucien, who raised him.”

Geraldine was 12 years old when her big brother finally came home to visit. “He came off the truck and I said, ‘Mama, who is that?’ She said, ‘My God, Lord, I’m so happy to see my child.’ I said ‘Your child?’ Mama, that’s not your child,’ and she said, ‘Yes it is, just you wait.’ He walked off that truck and he looked exactly like my mom. He walked like my mom and he acted like my mom. He walked up to me and he said, ‘Hey sis. Look at my baby sister, she done all grown up. You don’t remember me, do you? You don’t remember when you was little and I used to give you a bottle?’ And I said, ‘No, I ain’t your sister. I was just tiny and I don’t even know you.’ And when he and my mom said I was his sister, I asked him, ‘Where have you been?’

“We all got to talking and my mom said to him, ‘Lord, I prayed day and night for this day,” and then she started crying. And Elwood said, ‘Mom, don’t cry, I’m here now.’ But then he told us he was only staying for a couple of days, and he asked my mom if he could take me out to the track with him. And my mom went, ‘No, no no, I don’t want my baby around them horses.’”

But Eddie convinced his mom she would be in good hands and he wanted to spend time with her and get to know her. The first thing he did was teach Geraldine how to drive the van. “But I’m too little,” she told him. “He sat me in his lap and showed me how to switch the gears and everything, and I was so thrilled.”

What really amazed Geraldine was watching her brother take the horses off the van. “Mr. Lucien asked, ‘Who is this little girl?’ He said, ‘This is my baby sister. I haven’t seen her since I left home.’ I stood there and I watched him with those horses. He was just talking to them and they obeyed him. I couldn’t believe it, it was like they were listening to every word he said.”

Geraldine followed Eddie’s career closely and celebrated all his great victories. But then in 1998, Eddie was stricken with leukemia at the same time Geraldine was battling cancer. Because his sister was ill, Eddie wouldn’t tell her what was wrong with him when she flew up to New York to see him. But she knew he was sick by the amount of weight he had lost. When Eddie went down to Florida to visit his sister he told her, “Sis, I want you to fight, because I’m not coming back. This is my last trip. If anything happens to me I want you to bury me in a blue casket with blue interior, and I want to be dressed in a double-breasted blue suit, blue shirt, blue socks, and a blue and white necktie. All Geraldine said when he left was, “Please Lord, take care of him.” He gave her a hug and a kiss and said, “This is goodbye, but I will be watching over you.” Geraldine never saw her brother again.

But when the day comes that she goes to South Carolina and meets the Facebook group, she will see her brother once again in all his glory, adorned in shiny black granite. A fitting way to see a man who was made of granite and who left a legacy that will live on as long as people remember the name Secretariat. And that will be forever.

Claiborne and Barn photos by Ray Woolfe