Secretariat

Archive for the ‘Askin’ Haskin’ Category

A Farewell to Billy Turner

Monday, January 10th, 2022

Those who are regulars here can expect to read mostly feel-good stories with feel-good endings. This is not one of them. Who Billy Turner was and how he treated people and shared the gift of Seattle Slew is indeed a feel-good story, but where life led him is not. To those reading this, it is not meant to feel sorry for Turner, but to open one’s eyes to the sometimes harsh realities we must face. ~ Steve Haskin

A Farewell to Billy Turner

By Steve Haskin

 

Seattle Slew was not just another all-time great; not just one of a small iconic group of horses to sweep the Triple Crown. And not just one of the fastest horses of all time, For 41 years he was the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in the history of the sport, plucked out of a yearling sale for a meager $17,500. His story was meant to be one of racing’s great Cinderella fairy tales, and the first few chapters read as such, as his fame spread around the world. But then, somehow, the story began to unravel, as did all the major characters. Billy Turner, the true hero of the story and the architect of what would become arguably racing’s great equine dynasty, should have used his masterful training job with Seattle Slew as a springboard to success, stardom, and a place in racing’s Hall of Fame.

But that didn’t happen. Despite eventually conquering the alcohol demons that got him fired as trainer of Seattle Slew, a move he fully understood at the time, Turner’s career plummeted into racing’s abyss, a dark and empty place inhabited by cheap, mostly unsound, New York-breds, and even those dwindled down to four or five until the Thoroughbred finally was gone completely from Turner’s life. All that was left was the memory of one of the greatest horses of all time and their magical journey together through the Triple Crown.

At first, it looked as if Turner’s success would continue when he won the 1980 Metropolitan Handicap with William Reynolds’ Czaravich. But that would be his last hurrah.

As the mega-trainers came along with hundreds of horses, dominating the sport, there was no longer room for Billy Turner, despite his unmatched credentials. Many thought for sure they would have given him a lifetime access to good horses and a pathway to success. But credentials, no matter how impressive, are worthless if no one acknowledges them. And racing’s prominent owners either forgot or chose to forget the extraordinary skills of a lifetime horsemen, who took a speed crazy colt and turned him into a legend.

For the next four decades following Slew’s Triple Crown sweep, the only time Turner’s name was in the news was when the media contacted him to ask his opinion about a Derby and Preakness winner who was on the verge of making history. It became evident to Turner and his wife Pat, who he met at an AA meeting in 1991 and married in 1998, that Billy’s racing life had been relegated to the past. The present was fading quickly and there seemed to be no future.

All he had to cling to was the title of racing’s only living Triple Crown winning trainer, a title many fans felt should have gotten him into the Hall of Fame, but the years passed and those doors never even opened a crack.

All Turner could do over the years was train the few cheap New York-breds he was given and wait for a phone call that never came.

“The owners we did have cared about Bill, but all they had were unsound New York-breds who Bill had to back off on for months at a time,” Pat said. “It was a struggle watching him train those horses and so depressing to go to the barn every day. Bill was always known for his training of Slew, but his real genius was taking horses no one wanted and turning them into winners, but these were beyond his capabilities. We finally got down to three to five horses and couldn’t even feed ourselves. When Bill was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2015 it ripped the heart out of him.”

That was the same year Turner finally lost his title as the only living Triple Crown winning trainer, a title he held since Laz Barrera’s death in 1991. Despite falling on hard times and his career hanging by a thread, Turner was genuinely thrilled for American Pharoah, his connections, and most of all the sport and the fans, who had to wait 37 years to celebrate racing’s greatest achievement.

“I think it’s great,” Turner said the night of the Belmont Stakes. “If we didn’t get it done right about now it would have hurt racing’s fan base. You couldn’t have held the public’s attention much longer. I thought American Pharoah ran the best race of his life and improved with every race through the Triple Crown.”

That was typical of Turner, who never had any bitterness toward Slew’s owners, Karen and Mickey Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill for firing him or for the drastic decline in his career.

“I never heard him be bitter about anything or say one bad word about the Hills and Taylors,” Pat said. “If anything, he was too hard on himself. He took everything to heart.”

Turner said back in the early ‘90s he had no animosity toward the Taylors and Hills for the breakup. “There’s no bitterness at all,” he said. “We all made mistakes, but we’ve grown and learned a lot. If I was in their position I would have done the same thing. I appreciate everything they did for me and have no hard feelings whatsoever. I just feel very fortunate to have had a horse like Slew come along in my lifetime. Luckily, even with my problem I was able to appreciate everything Slew accomplished as a 4-year-old. The alcohol didn’t finish me off for another six or seven years following Slew. After practically drinking myself to death I still was able to make a solid comeback and am grateful for everything. Here I am the only living trainer to have won the Triple Crown. I figure I’ve gotten a lot more than I deserve.”

Seattle Slew’s groom John Polston recalled, “I didn’t know all the details, but I really enjoyed working for Billy. I knew Billy before I knew the Taylors and the Hills. You could walk up to him and ask him for 20 dollars and whether he knew you or not he’d give it to you. Billy is one of those happy-go-lucky guys, but he really didn’t like the publicity. When Billy left, he just wished me good luck. I could tell he was hurt. I still couldn’t believe a guy who had just won the Triple Crown would get fired. We all knew Billy liked to drink, but as far as I’m concerned he was always a good trainer.”

Hall of Fame trainer P.G. Johnson once told Pat, “If I had a trainer who was drinking and he won the Triple Crown I would buy him the bar.”

Jim Hill explained, “Billy could do the right thing with the horse, but he just couldn’t do the right thing with himself.” Sally Hill added, “People do get divorced. It certainly wasn’t what any of us wanted.”

As it turned out, the Hills and Taylors also got divorced, and their partnership was dissolved following a heated court battle, with Hill suing Taylor for misappropriation of funds. The” Slew Crew” was no more. The multi-million dollar kingdom they had built from a $17,500 yearling had come crumbling down as quickly as it shot up. As Turner said, “Slew became so big that it just consumed everybody involved.”

In the years following Slew, Turner waited for his next big opportunity, but he was not the type to go out there and try to sell himself, unlike the new breed of trainers that were coming into the sport. Turner was a humble, gentle soul who just loved horses, but apparently that wasn’t enough.

His first wife, Paula, knew he wasn’t cut out for the dog-eat-dog world of Thoroughbred racing and having to hustle to get horses.

She recalled their first date: “It was on the banks of the Brandywine River, near Unionville, Pennsylvania. Billy had his binoculars to his eyes, watching birds and I sat on a rock singing Simon and Garfunkel songs. I realized this interesting, brilliant guy loved nature and horses as much as I did. He was so shy and modest. Billy had been immersed in a hard-living culture, with its hard knocks the norm. I saw the difficulty of such a shy soul trying to make his way in a world where success often depends on how well you put yourself out there…talking to potential owners, when you’re only truly at home with the horses. It eventually took its toll.”

Paula also recalled the early days when Seattle Slew came into their life. She had grown up in an orphanage and kept having the same recurring dream. “I was a horse-crazy kid with no access to horses other than through books and westerns. I kept dreaming that I rode and trained a black stallion, and as we flew faster and faster he told me he was the fastest horse in the world.”

Paula told Billy about her dream after they were married when she realized he had been a successful steeplechase jockey from the photos on his parents’ wall. Then one day, years later, when she was training and galloping horses at Mrs. Henry Obrey’s Andor Farm in Monkton, Maryland, she was sent a big, near-black colt owned by the Hills and Taylors that eventually was going to be sent to Billy in New York. He was still kind of raw and clumsy and she nicknamed him Huey after the gawky cartoon character Baby Huey. Also, his right front leg turned out sharply from the knee down and he was a bit slow to learn; he thought everything was a game. But he soon began to learn his lessons well and it was time to send him and two other horses to Billy.

Then came his first gallop; his first look at a racetrack. That is when Paula realized this was the horse in her dreams. As he flew around the track, she thought, “This feels better than any stakes horse; this is like nothing I’ve ever known.” He had the “power of a locomotive and the grace of Nureyev,” and as she put it, “We were in another universe altogether.”

She jogged back to Billy and told him, “This is it, Willy. This is it.” He replied, “What are you talking about?” Then she said the words that would change his life, “Huey. He’s the one you’ve been waiting for.”

The following year, Seattle Slew and Billy Turner became household names and made history together. Turner was praised for his handling of Slew and getting this blazing-fast horse who ran seven furlongs in a track-record 1:20 3/5 in his 3-year-old debut to win not only the Kentucky Derby but the Belmont Stakes. After that allowance race, Turner asked, “How am I going to get this horse to go a mile and a half?” With all his steeplechase training he was able to get him to relax and the Belmont turned out to be the easiest of all his stakes victories. Baby Huey had become the first undefeated Triple Crown winner.

But the relationship between Turner and the Taylors and the Hills began to deteriorate over several disagreements, including running him in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park only three weeks after the Belmont Stakes; a race in which he suffered his first career defeat, finishing a dismal fourth. That would be his last race as a 3-year-old and the last time he would be trained by Turner.

Between their disagreements and Turner’s drinking problem, it was decided to send Seattle Slew to another trainer for his 4-year-old campaign, in which he would stamp himself as one of the all-time greats. Turner had some success after that, but his drinking problem got worse and his career began to suffer. Then he met Pat.

Despite Billy and Pat both conquering their demons, his career continued to decline. No owners would send him good horses. He finally was forced to retire several years ago and he and Pat moved to Florida when she got a job at Pavla and Erik Nygaard’s farm breaking 2-year-olds who were going through the sale.

“Billy came to the farm to be around the horses but it was tough on him,” she said. “It was painful for him to be around horses and not be involved in any way. The last few years were very difficult.”

One morning, about two years ago, Turner suffered a broken neck in a mowing accident and had a long and painful recovery. Pat said it was Bob Baffert who donated “a significant amount of money for his care.” While in ICU it was discovered he had prostate cancer that had spread to his bones.

This past December 17, at age 81, he was admitted to the hospital suffering from shortness of breath, and tests revealed the cancer had spread to his lungs. He chose not to receive further treatment and on December 27, he was sent home under hospice care. 

With medical costs spiraling out of control, the Nygaards set up a GoFundMe page for Turner and agreed to match up to $10,000 of funds raised.

On December 31, Pat crawled into bed with Billy and held him in her arms. “He died very gently a half hour later,” she said.

Pat was numb for several days before it all overwhelmed her. “Today I feel like I hit a brick wall,” she said. “I can’t believe all the outpouring of love and admiration people had for Billy.”

She thought back to that fall day in 1991 when she first met Billy at the AA meeting in Middleburg, Virginia and there was instant compatibility as they talked about many things in addition to recovery and horses.

“From that day on there wasn’t a moment I’ve had with Billy that wasn’t comforting,” she said. “Billy made everyone around him comfortable, from the owners to the backstretch workers.”

Anyone who knew Billy Turner is well aware he would not want any tears shed for him. At the end he might very well have been recalling the time he shed tears. That was when he attempted to talk about the death of his beloved Seattle Slew. They now reside together in racing’s pantheon.

Photo by Steve Haskin

Lava Man: From Fairy Tale to Pony Tale

Monday, January 3rd, 2022

As long as Doug O’Neill keeps sending horses on the Derby trail, the legend of Lava Man will continue to grow, as will America’s affection for the country’s most famous stable pony. ~ Steve Haskin

Lava Man: From Fairy Tale to Pony Tale

By Steve Haskin

 

How can a stable pony steal the thunder from two Kentucky Derby winners and a Secretariat Vox Populi Award winner? Very easily if his name is Lava Man.

When fans visited trainer Doug O’Neill’s barn at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park in 2012 it was to see Lava Man as much as it was I’ll Have Another, who looked like a cinch to capture the Triple Crown before he suffered an injury the day before the Belmont Stakes. Throughout that year’s Triple Crown, photographers took as many photos of Lava Man as they did I’ll Have Another as he was accompanied to the track by his illustrious lead pony.

That scene was repeated in 2016 when Lava Man shared in another Kentucky Derby victory, this time with champion 2-year-old Nyquist.

Five years later, in 2021, Lava Man showed that his popularity had not diminished in the slightest, and perhaps was even stronger, as he became the traveling companion for Hot Rod Charlie as he journeyed across the country five times, making stops in New Orleans, Louisville, New York City, Oceanport, and Philadelphia. When Charlie was voted the Secretariat Vox Populi Award winner as America’s most popular horse, some of the voters admitted they looked at him as an extension of Lava Man, who at the age of 20 still was the most beloved horse in the country. Some even suggested a special Vox Populi Award be given to Lava Man.

It was not only Lava Man’s sensational career as a racehorse that made him so popular it was his endearing personality. The first time I saw him in his new career was when he stepped off the van with I’ll Have Another at Churchill Downs. It didn’t take long for the flocks of fans to converge on O’Neill’s barn to see his superstar turned pony. One morning I was at the barn, and there was Lava Man walking by himself unattended in the shedrow as if just casually taking a stroll. He stopped by the large feed bin, reached down and opened it with the tip of his nose, grabbed a quick bite to eat and continued on his way. It was obvious to an Easterner who had not been around Lava Man that this was no ordinary horse.

We are all aware that Lava Man was an institution in Southern California, having raced until he was 8, winning seven Grade 1 stakes and earning over $5.2 million. But his was the true rags to riches story or Cinderella fairy tale or whatever name you want to give it.

So let’s go back nearly 20 years to where it all began.

June 19, 2003 was a warm, humid day in Stockton, California, with a brisk 20 mile-an-hour-wind. Those that attended the races at the San Joaquin Fair were there just for fun and certainly were not looking for any future stakes horses, never mind superstars. The fourth race on the card, a $12,500 maiden claiming race for 2-year-olds, had no particular meaning, and you can bet no one paid any attention whatsoever to the fourth-place finisher – a 35-1 shot named Lava Man, who was racing for his owner, breeder, and trainer Lonnie Arterburn, along with several partners.

Following three more defeats, at Santa Rosa Fair and Bay Meadows, Lava Man finally broke his maiden by four lengths on the turf at Golden Gate under jockey Francisco Duran. Even then, the gelded son of Slew City Slew had character and charisma, and made people notice him.

“I felt he was a special horse in his own way,” Duran said years later. “He was an incredible horse to ride, and he had a special demeanor about him. He also had a wonderful attitude toward everything he did. We all thought he was a good horse, but obviously we had no idea how far up the ladder he was going to climb. I don’t know how to explain how he got this good, but he’s evolved into an amazing horse.”

Lava Man followed up his maiden win with a starter allowance victory, but lost his next four starts before winning an allowance race on the grass at Bay Meadows by a nose. Arterburn had removed his blinkers for the race, and Lava Man showed tremendous courage to win after a stretch-long duel.

On July 28, 2004, Lava Man was entered in a $62,500 claiming race on the grass at Del Mar. One person who had his eye on the horse was Steve Kenly, who wanted to claim him for his STD partnership (with his father Dave and sister Tracy) and Jason Wood, but was talked out of it by his trainer Doug O’Neill.

“On the form and on the Sheets, I just felt $62,500 was too much money,” O’Neill said.

Kenly, who had been looking specifically for 3-year-old Cal-breds, because of the state’s lucrative program, had his eye on several horses and Lava Man was one of them.

“Doug said there were more negatives than positives, and I told him, ‘Well, let’s watch him,’ Kenly recalled. “He was coming from Bay Meadows, and for whatever reason, I decided to wait. I watched the race with interest anyway and took notes.”

Lava Man finished sixth in the race, but had a ton of trouble, getting squeezed and trapped between horses. Kenly remembered that and stored it in the back of his head in case the horse showed up again for a price.

Meanwhile, Arterburn hadn’t realized what kind of a bullet he had dodged. Would he tempt fate again?

The answer, sadly for him, was yes. On August 13, Lava Man was back at Del Mar, this time for a $50,000 tag.

“I never should have run him back down there,” Arterburn said. “You go down to that claiming pit at Del Mar and you’re asking for trouble. They claim crazy down there, and I never should have taken him there. I really liked the horse. He had a great personality; almost a clown. He was like a big kid, always wanting attention. He was a one of a kind character, and we tried to protect him the best we could.”

Arterburn had a soft spot in his heart for Lava Man, having claimed his dam, Li’l Ms. Leonard for $16,000 at Bay Meadows and winning several races with her. He then partnered up with his friend, veterinarian Kim Kuhlman and wife Eve, breeding Li’l Ms. Leonard to Slew City Slew and getting Lava Man, who was foaled on March 20, 2001 at Carol Lingenfelter’s Poplar Meadows Farm in Sanger, California.

Kuhlmannwas friends with trainer Mike Puype, so instead of shipping Lava Man back to Northern California following their narrow escape at Del Mar, they decided to leave him with Puype at Hollywood Park and let him train down there for a couple of weeks. When a $50,000 claiming race showed up in the book, Puype told Arterburn about it. Arterburn had Puype enter the horse and saddle him in his absence. It was a decision he has regretted every day since.

“He had gotten beat for $62,500 and was 9-1 in that race,” Arterburn said. “The bettors there didn’t give him any respect, and I thought the trainers wouldn’t give him any respect either.”

He was right about the trainers, but didn’t count on an owner.

“I actually was seriously thinking about scratching him right before the race, because I started to feel afraid that we might lose the horse,” Arterburn said. “For some reason, I didn’t, and now I’m sick as a dog that I didn’t go by my gut and scratch him. We paid the price.”

Kenly, meanwhile, had been on the lookout for Lava Man, and was delighted to see him show up for $50,000. This time, there was no stopping him. When he saw him entered, he called O’Neill and told him, “Well, you just saved us $12,500.” As it turned out, Kenly’s was the only claim.

But O’Neill and his brother Dennis still were less than enamored with the horse. “Doug actually was even more negative than he was the first time,” Kenly recalled. “His running line was bad, and Doug thought he might be unsound. But he had a horrible run last out, and it was a typical Del Mar turf race where horses get steadied and never get out. He was trapped in there the entire race.”

“The beauty of Steve is that when he gets locked in on a horse he goes after it,” O’Neill said. “He had seen all the trouble he had gotten into in his previous race. So, we felt as long as the horse looked good in the paddock we were going to claim him. Lonnie had him looking great, and we put in the claim. I definitely feel bad for him, because I’ve lost a few Grade I horses myself and it does get to you. This can be a brutal game at times. There are a lot more disappointments and heartaches than there are high-fives.”

It was decided to point Lava Man for the Pomona Derby at Fairplex. They ran him in the Derby Trial and he won by 6 1/4 lengths in his first start for his new connections. He then finished a well-beaten third in the Pomona Derby and proceeded to lose his next six races. But he did finish second in the California Cup Classic and On Trust Handicap for Cal-breds before finishing a game second to Rock Hard Ten in the Grade I Malibu Stakes. It was just a matter of time before he put it all together.

But just when it looked as if his career was about take off, he lost his form that winter, turning in three poor performances in state-bred stakes, including the Sunshine Millions at Gulfstream in his first trip outside California. It was time for some re-evaluation.

It was now O’Neill’s and Kenly’s turn to flirt with destiny. Arterburn, still upset over losing the horse, waited patiently, hoping to see Lava Man back in for a price. He was determined to get the horse back. It took a year, but there he was, on May 14, 2005, entered for a $100,000 claiming price.

Unfortunately for Arterburn, he was in the process of moving to Florida in an attempt to upgrade his stock and was unable to come up with the money. It was that move that had precipitated his putting Lava Man in for $50,000. And now it was that same move that prevented him from getting him back.

“I was in the middle of real estate deals trying to get a farm bought,” Arterburn said. “I couldn’t find any partners who were interested in claiming him for that price, and I couldn’t afford to claim him back myself. It was bad timing for me and good timing for them. It was ironic, in a bad way, that we let him slip through our fingers because at the time we were in the pursuit of getting better horses some day.

“After that, it all went rosy for them. When he started running so good, I said to myself, ‘That’s it, I’ll never see him again. Game over.”

As Lava Man developed into a Grade I winner and then a legend, becoming the first horse to sweep the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic in the same year and emulating Native Diver’s feat of winning three consecutive runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup, Arterburn became more distressed over his misfortune.

“It’s almost killed me,” he said as Lava Man turned 7. “It’s not even the money, because I’ve earned breeders awards every time the horse runs. I would give all the money back if I could do everything over. It just tears me up, but what can I do? You hope for a horse like that to come along some day, and there’s no way I’ll ever get something like that again. I’ve always been a claiming trainer and this has made me hate claiming. All I can do is keep trying, but it’s hard to swallow. That’s why I’ll be glad the day Lava Man retires, because it still hurts.”

Kenly had lucked out getting Lava Man, as all the forces seemed to be working in his favor. So, why in the world did he and O’Neill decide to tempt fate and put a Grade I-placed horse in a claiming race, albeit for $100,000?

“Doug is a gambler and a pretty aggressive trainer when it comes to claiming races, and the horse had two bad outs and he thought he could get away with it,” Kenly said. “I was against it and just kind of went along with him. I remember telling him, ‘We can’t replace this horse for $100,000; no chance in hell.’ I stayed in Phoenix and watched the horse win in fast time with blinkers on, and was nervous as hell until I got a hold of Doug. I said, ‘Please tell me we didn’t lose him,’ and he said, ‘That (expletive) Hollendorfer.’ When he said that my stomach just fell out; I turned from a nice tan to white. Then he told me he was kidding. I said I’d get him back if it’s the last thing I do. He really got me with Hollendorfer, because he’s the kind of guy who would claim a horse like this. He’s famous for coming down from Northern California and taking high-priced claimers.”

So began the ride of a lifetime for all of Lava Man’s connections, who saw him become the first horse to win Grade 1 stakes on dirt, grass, and synthetic, and in addition to winning the historic Hollywood Gold Cup three times, becoming one of only three horses to win back-to-back runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap. He also took them to Japan and Dubai.

Lava Man’s third Hollywood Gold Cup victory had to be his most memorable. He had started off 2007 with a second Big Cap victory, but, at age 6, he was sent to Dubai for the Dubai Duty Free and like most American shippers he could not handle the turf at Nad Al Sheba and was badly beaten. The question was how he would rebound from that experience. Many horses can take three or four months to bounce back to top form, but Lava Man came back in just over two months and finished a strong second in the Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap on grass.

Then came the Hollywood Gold Cup, which turned out to be the most gut-wrenching stretch run of his career. At the quarter pole, he collared the front-running A. P. Xcellent, who he had been tracking through slow fractions. But A. P. Xcellent proved to be a stubborn foe and kept battling back. He had his head in front every step of the way down the stretch until Lava Man, fighting him every inch of the way, gave one final desperate lunge and stuck his nose in front right on the wire. A frantic Vic Stauffer, calling the race as if urging Lava Man on, let out with a resounding “Yes!” followed by “There’s the original rags to riches.”

On July 20, 2008, four years after being claimed, Lava Man finished sixth in the Eddie Read Handicap on grass. X-rays taken after the race seemed just a bit off, but that was enough to announce his retirement. However, 17 months went by and, remarkably, Lava Man, at age 8, seemed restless and ready to return to action. He was pronounced 100 percent sound, so they decided to give it a shot. But when he finished last after setting the pace in the San Gabriel Handicap he was retired for good.

There were three options for him: live out his days at Old Friends Retirement Facility in Georgetown, Kentucky, train him to be a hunter/jumper, or seeing if he would take to the job of stable pony for O’Neill, which would keep him close to home. It took him about six months to settle in, but it became obvious he enjoyed the role of stable pony and so began his second career.

At the 2012 Derby, Lava Man became an instant celebrity. Hall of Fame quarterback and TV analyst Terry Bradshaw, who is a horse lover, stopped by O’Neill’s barn and had his picture taken with Lava Man.

Dennis O’Neill told Sports Illustrated, “He’s very mellow around the other horses. He’s like their dad. He leads them around and he’s really good with babies. I’ll Have Another and him are best buds. They go everywhere together.”

So, that pretty much is the story of Lava Man and the contrasting fortunes of two men. Kenly gives thanks every day for the fortunes that smiled down on him. But, he still never takes anything for granted.

“In this game, the minute you start getting cocky and think you know it all, the racing gods will strike you down with a thundering blow,” he said. “It’s been a fairy tale, and we were living right in the middle of it. You have to ask, ‘Where is this book going to go?’ It’s been like a great novel already and you just hope it doesn’t end. You know it will someday, and when it does, you just have to say, ‘Look what he’s done for us. He’s put us in the spotlight; he can’t do any more.’ We always knew it would be a sad day when it ended. But on the flip side, we’re so appreciative to have been involved with a horse like this. No matter what happens, it’s in the books, and you can never take that way. It’s history.”

And that history has continued for another 13 years after his retirement, with the racing world falling in love with Lava Man all over again, as he proudly escorts O’Neill’s top horses around the country, leading them to the track and in the post parade, perhaps giving them a pointer or two from an old pro.

In between he will pose for photos, greet visitors, have little children put on his back, and enjoy all the attention given to him by two generations of racing fans and horse lovers.

As we head into 2022, Lava Man’s “Travels With Charlie” will have to be put on hold for a while as his number one pupil prepares to head off to Dubai for an extended stay. But the old boy still has a barn full of students back home who need his services, especially newly turned 3-year-old Slow Down Andy, who could wind up paying Lava Man’s way back east on another Triple Crown journey. But he, like I’ll Have Another, Nyquist, and Hot Rod Charlie, will come to the realization he will have to play second fiddle to one of the most extraordinary horses of our lifetime.

Photos courtesy of Doug O’Neill Racing Stable, Del Mar Racetrack, Marcie Heacox.

Please note, Lava Man’s original race-worn winning shoe from his record-tying third victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup will be offered as part of the Secretariat ‘Vox Populi” Auction beginning Jan.6 on eBay.

The authenticated shoe, still caked with actual dirt from long-departed Hollywood Park, is accompanied by a mint condition track program from 2007 Gold Cup day, a rare “The Story of Lava Man” DVD, assorted photos, and even a large cutting of his tail hair. A wonderful opportunity to own a special piece of racing history from one of its most beloved and accomplished horses.

Chrome Sweet Chrome

Monday, December 20th, 2021

With trainer Art Sherman announcing his retirement last month, the recent announcement of the Secretariat Vox Populi winner, and ballots for the Eclipse Awards nearly ready to be sent out, they have all combined to trigger memories of two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome, one of the most popular horses of our time who provided a whirlwind of emotions during and after his career. ~ Steve Haskin

Chrome Sweet Chrome

By Steve Haskin

 

On Friday, December 10, Art Sherman saddled his final runner. The 84-year-old trainer, who has been in racing for nearly 70 years, announced his retirement in November. Sherman will be remembered for his masterful job with California Chrome, getting this little-known California-bred , who was the result of a mating between an $8,000 claiming mare and a $2,500 stallion, to win the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and the hearts of a nation and eventually the world.

With the voting for this year’s Eclipse Awards getting closer, I couldn’t help but think of Sherman, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, but wound up exercising horses in California and traveling cross-county on a train with the great Swaps to the 1955 Kentucky Derby at the age of 18, sleeping in the straw next to the colt. I also had to think of California Chrome’s owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn who were just as unlikely to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as their horse, being two ordinary working stiffs from Yuba City California and Topaz Lake, Nevada, who, as Coburn said, put “so much blood, sweat, and tears and savings into this horse,” turning down million-dollar offers for the colt before the Derby.  Together they wrote one of racing’s great Cinderella stories.

So, what does that have to do with the Eclipse Awards? Even in a world obsessed with statistics, which often take precedence over singular achievements far more profound than numbers, it is inconceivable that neither Sherman or Martin and Coburn were even named finalists for an Eclipse Award as trainer and owner in 2014 even though California Chrome was named Horse of the Year by a huge margin. That oversight was repeated two years later (with Coburn no longer a co-owner) when Chrome captured his second Horse of the Year title.

In 2014, Sherman was able to get this unlikely hero to win stakes in January, March, and April, then win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and a grade I stakes on Nov. 29. With help from his son and assistant Alan, he actually got California Chrome to win stakes from Dec. 22, 2013 to Nov. 29, 2014, including four Grade I’s and a Grade II and two Triple Crown events, and nearly pulling off the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which Chrome was beaten only two necks, despite having had only one prep race since the Belmont Stakes. And he got nothing out of that prep race, while having to fly cross-country to Philadelphia and back to California.

Following the Classic, California Chrome captured the Hollywood Derby on grass, becoming only the second Kentucky Derby winner in history to win a grade I stakes on grass that same year. The other horse to accomplish that feat was Secretariat.

So, why was Sherman not even a finalist for leading trainer in the Eclipse Award voting, and why wasn’t Martin and Perry not a finalist in either the owner or breeder category? Once again, Eclipse voters went by statistics to come up with their three finalists, ignoring the exceptional individual accomplishments that actually made a major impact on the sport.

Did voters snub Martin and Coburn because of the latter’s unfortunate comments on national TV following the Belmont Stakes that caused a furor throughout the sports world? While Coburn, who was a minority owner in the colt, was attacked mercilessly on social media, few people saw his generosity with the fans, as he interacted with them, posing for photos and signing autographs. Watching him with the fans who cheered him outside the walking ring at Parx Racing before the Pennsylvania Derby, you would never guess this was a person who had been vilified so severely for his actions when a camera was shoved into his face immediately after the race at a time when he was emotionally vulnerable.

As for Sherman, there are times when statistics can be superseded by a single extraordinary feat of great national importance if one wishes to step out of the box once in a while. And has there been a better representative for racing than Sherman at a time when racing needed all the wit, wisdom, and conviviality that he provided all year. One meeting with Sherman and you felt as if you’ve known him all your life. He was the uncle you wanted to invite over for Thanksgiving. Those qualities normally do not equate to being named a finalist for an Eclipse Award, but his masterful job with California Chrome certainly did.

All three of these men authored one of the great fairy tales in racing history that was born on Feb. 18, 2011 at Harris Farms near Coalinga, California. That was when Love the Chase gave birth to her colt by Lucky Pulpit. But it was not an easy birth. The mare had lacerated the wall of her uterus and could not be re-bred that year. She was bright and active and outwardly unaffected by the ordeal, but she and her foal had to remain confined to the stall for an extended period of time while the mare was treated and recovering. As a result, the foal wasn’t able to be out with the others to socialize and run around, so he became more focused on people than he was on horses and developed an amiable personality that continued throughout his career and as a stallion.

Several days prior to the birth, Coburn had a dream the foal would be a big chestnut colt with four white socks and a big blaze face. When he went to see the newborn foal for the first time, his wife Carolyn walked over to the stall, took a look inside, and couldn’t believe what she saw. She told her husband to come take a look. There before him was the colt in his dreams. Coburn became convinced his deceased sister was the colt’s guardian angel and would guide him every step of his journey. He continued to believe that, and as a result he felt Chrome was invincible.

When California Chrome left his dam and went out on his own and later began training, he impressed Harris Farms trainer Per Antonsen.

“He always had a lot of class,” he said. “He was very precocious and very forward and never missed a beat. He was a sound horse; never had a temperature, never got sick, and never had a pimple on him the whole time he was here. He enjoyed training and I told the owners, ‘You’re going to have a lot of fun with this one.’”

Art and Alan Sherman began training the colt immediately after his arrival from Harris Farms. One morning at Hollywood Park, Alan, still not realizing what he had after only a few three-furlong breezes, was looking for a horse to work a half-mile in company with California Chrome. That would help him determine how fast and competitive the colt was. He found out that Eoin Harty was working one of his best 2-year-olds, on whom he was high, and was also looking to test him in company.

Harty went to the frontside to watch the work, while Alan remained on the backside, watching from the trainer’s stand. Harty was feeling good about the matchup, getting to breeze his colt with an obscurely bred Cal-bred. He felt that was the perfect scenario to make his colt look good and boost his confidence against a likely inferior opponent.

“I had Iggy Puglisi up on my colt, and when I heard Alan was looking for someone to work with his horse, I said, ‘Good, we’ll beat the tar out of this Cal-bred,” Harty said.

But what Harty saw was not what he expected. His colt worked well, but this other colt dominated his horse.

“After the work I said to Alan, ‘I don’t know what you’ve got there, but that is a very good colt,’”Harty recalled. “I’ve been around a lot of good 2-year-olds with Bob Baffert and then on my own and when you see something that catches your eye early on it really stands out. And that was an eye-catching work by that colt. As a trainer, when your good 2-year-old is outworked, it’s a terrible feeling, especially when he’s outworked by a Cal-bred trained by a low-profile trainer.”

Alan added, “Eoin was pretty high on his colt and Chrome just dusted him. I saw that and went, ‘Oh, damn, what have we got here?’”

The fun that Per Antonsen told Martin and Coburn they were going to have with the colt started early on and continued right up to the Kentucky Derby, which was an experience Coburn, Martin, and Art and Alan Sherman will never forget. The loquacious Coburn by then was one of the most recognizable figures in the sport, with his large white mustache and cowboy hat, and the spokesman for the colt, who had rattled off impressive victories in the California Cup Derby, San Felipe Stakes, and Santa Anita Derby.

Following the San Felipe, Martin and Coburn turned down a multi-million-dollar offer for half interest in the colt. When they received an offer of eight figures following the Santa Anita Derby, Coburn’s response was, “Last week, my answer was ‘no,’ and this week, my answer is ‘hell, no.”

California Chrome went on to score another easy victory in the Kentucky Derby. After the race, Martin was so proud to be able to share this moment with his 83-year-old mother Catherine, who was driven to Kentucky from Michigan by his brother. He stood by the rail and helped her into a wheel chair, then walked behind her as she was wheeled across the track to the winner’s circle. He tried hard to fight back the tears that were welling up and attempted to speak, but no words would come out. All he could do was shake his head and say with a quavering voice, “I have to go after my mom.”

Alan Sherman was trying to come to terms with his own emotions as he led California Chrome back to the barn area following the winner’s circle ceremonies, thinking about how special this was for his father after so many years of training mostly nondescript horses. He was breathing heavily walking on the track as the cheers from the crowd rained down on him and the colt. The wall of noise that engulfed him was drowned out by the thoughts and feelings swirling around in his head, as he tried to comprehend everything that had happened not only on this day, but over the past couple of months.

“It’s awesome,” he said, only able to get several short exclamatory phrases out at a time. “I can’t believe it; unbelievable… I’m at a loss for words… I’m just so excited… It’s amazing… This is so great. I can’t even imagine how my father feels right now.”

Art, after arriving in Kentucky, had gone to visit the grave of his beloved Swaps located behind the Kentucky Derby Museum to say a little prayer that California Chrome could become another Swaps. Several days later, at age 77, he became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby. He had found his Swaps.

Overwhelmed by the experience, he said as he was led to the interview room by four Louisville police officers, “This is pretty cool. I’ve never had a police escort before. You think about it, that you’re going to get lucky one day, but maybe it’s all fate somehow. I’m a big believer in fate.”

As Coburn said following the race, “Art Sherman has come full circle, from exercise rider of a California-bred that won the Kentucky Derby to training a California-bred that won the Kentucky Derby.” How could Sherman not believe in fate, which apparently has no timetable? After all, it only took 59 years for him to come full circle,

Yes, it truly was a time for California Dreamin.’ For Steve Coburn, his dream prior to the colt’s birth had become a prophecy; the ultimate fairy tale. For Perry Martin, his dream was to be able to share this experience with his mother. For Art Sherman, his dream had been guided by fate and the memory of Swaps and sleeping in the straw next to the horse on a cross-country train ride nearly six decades earlier. And while on the subject of fate, California’s Chrome’s broodmare sire Not For Love’s third dam is Intriguing, a daughter of Swaps. By being inbred to Intriguing through the great filly Numbered Account, it means that California Chrome is inbred to Swaps.

Art Sherman summed up the day and the experience best when he said, “I think of all my friends who have died and I’m so thankful that I’m here. I still have a lot of friends at the racetrack and I’ve been around a long time. But I’m still the same old Art Sherman…except I won the Kentucky Derby.”

When California Chrome triumphed two weeks later in the Preakness and approached the gates of the pantheon, it was evident that racing had undergone a brief, but dramatic change. This was not a time for bluebloods, but for blue collars. Not a time for nobility, but a couple of working stiffs whose stable name was Dumb Ass Partners. The silver spoons that fed racing’s giants for most of the 20th century were for now plated with chrome.

California Chrome’s career would go on to take many twists and turns, taking him all over the world, starting with a second-place finish in the 2015 Dubai World Cup and a stay in England, where he trained for months, but failed to make the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot due to a foot bruise. This was followed by Martin’s and Coburn’s breakup and the horse running under the name California Chrome LLC . Then came a resounding victory in the 2016 Dubai World Cup and a second Horse of the Year title before the colt’s retirement to Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky and  being shuttled to Chile for two years. Finally, in 2019, Chrome was sold to the JS Company of Japan, where he now resides at the Arrrow Stud in Hokkaido, with the stipulation that he be returned to the United States at the conclusion of his breeding career.

The story he has left and his legacy will be remembered for many years.

He is the only Kentucky Derby winner in history to be voted Horse of the Year at age 5 or older. That makes him a throwback, as not even the tough iron horses of the past who ran well past their 3-year-old year have accomplished that.

He also is the first Kentucky Derby winner to win multiple stakes after the age of 4 since Citation, who did not race at all at 4, and was dominated by Noor at age 5, but kept in training at age 6 in an attempt to become racing’s first millionaire.

He was the first horse to be voted Horse of the Year in non-consecutive years since John Henry in 1981 and ’84 and the first non-gelding in history to accomplish it (based on the nationally recognized Daily Racing Form/Morning Telegraph poll).

He is the only horse to win the Vox Populi Award twice. 

He became first California-bred to win the Kentucky Derby in 52 years.

As mentioned earlier, he is the only Kentucky Derby winner along with Secretariat to win a Grade 1 stakes on grass.

He is the only horse ever to win or place in two Breeders’ Cup Classics and two Dubai World Cups. (In his two placings in the Breeders’ Cup Classic he was beaten a total of three-quarters of a length).

His five victories in million-dollar races are second only to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and he is the only Kentucky Derby winner to win two million-dollar races at age 5.

Finally, a feat that may never be duplicated is winning two legs of the Triple Crown and then winning six stakes as a 5-year-old.

We who love this sport realize that horses are embedded in our soul from childhood, whether through equine heroes such as The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, and Misty of Chincoteague or TV stars like Trigger, Silver, and even Mister Ed

How many children have hopped aboard their rocking horse and built up speed until they felt as if they were airborne. They no longer were sitting atop a piece of wood, but atop Secretariat or Seattle Slew, imagining what it would be like to ride or even own or train such swift and noble steeds.

Art Sherman, Steve Coburn, and Perry Martin started off with a cheap rocking horse hoping to get a few thrills and saw it come to life, turning into a beloved superstar who would take them on an unforgettable ride.

Sherman is now retired with a lifetime of special memories and Perry Martin is working on a book about Chrome’s adventures titled California Chrome – Our Story scheduled for release in 2022 (and available for pre-publication purchase in January at Secretariat.com). 

All we can hope for now is that California Chrome has a good and productive life in Japan and that some day we can be reunited with him at Old Friends or another home. He no longer will look like the Chrome we remembered on the racetrack or at Taylor Made Farm, but at least we will be able to see those flashy markings and reminisce about his brilliant career, his burnished coat that shined like copper in the sunlight, and the amiable way he welcomed visitors. But most of all we will remember all the joy he brought to so many.

Photos courtesy of Juan Ignacio Bozello, Eclipse Sportswire, Harris Farms, Joe Ulrich, and Courtney Stone

 

There will be no column next week because of Christmas, but I want to take this time to wish everyone a Happy Holiday and to remind you to watch Vox Populi Award winner Hot Rod Charlie make his next start in the San Antonio Stakes, December 26 before targeting the Dubai World Cup in March. ~ SH

Travels with Charlie

Sunday, December 12th, 2021

The fans have spoken and the horse with the popular name is also the most popular horse, winning the Secretariat Vox Populi Award. Here is the story behind the charismatic and courageous Hot Rod Charlie. ~ Steve Haskin

Travels with Charlie

By Steve Haskin

My apologies to John Steinbeck for stealing his title, and Hot Rod Charlie is by no means as compatible a traveling companion as Steinbeck’s pet poodle Charley. But Steinbeck did conclude his 10,000-mile journey in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, which were all stops for Hot Rod Charlie on his 25,000-mile trek across the United States and back to California that included 10 cross-country flights and stops in New Orleans, Louisville, New York City, Oceanport, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Back home he made appearances in Los Angeles and Del Mar.

No one can deny the courage, fortitude, and consistency of this year’s top 3-year-olds. And they did stir our emotions. We saw the outpouring of love and admiration for Medina Spirit following the colt’s tragic death last week that deeply affected so many people. In many ways, Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie, as well as Essential Quality, mirrored one another in the way they battled hard race after race without wavering even once. Any of the three would have been a worthy Secretariat Vox Populi Award winner.

But in the end, Hot Rod Charlie was voted the award by racing fans mainly because of his consistency, resiliency, toughness, and traveling all over the country to take on the best over any distance and any racetrack. What also separated him from the others is that many regarded him as a hard-luck horse who always tried his best, but often came up just short, with almost every race being a mini-drama. And because of that, they were always pulling for him to land one of the major races.

One of his most heartbreaking defeats, which may very well have endeared him to the public even more, was running such a gutsy race in the Haskell Invitational only to be disqualified. And this followed a second-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, which was considered by many as one of the greatest losing efforts in memory. To then travel back east for the fifth time this year and finally get that elusive Grade 1 victory in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby only increased his fan base and put him in position to be seriously considered for the Vox Populi Award.

And how can you not be a fan of a horse who, from November 6, 2020 to November 6, 2021, ran in eight races (six of them Grade 1) at eight different racetracks in six different states and never finished worse than fourth (excluding his disqualification), while finishing in the top three in seven of them.

To demonstrate how versatile he was and how he could be placed anywhere on the track, he won or placed at seven different distances from five furlongs on the grass to 1 ½ miles on dirt , and in his half-mile calls he was first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and seventh, finishing in the money in all of them.

In his final start, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he was the only horse who posed a serious threat to the front-running older horse and likely Horse of the Year Knicks Go, making a move along the inside and getting almost on even terms nearing the eighth pole. But he was unable to sustain his move and was passed by fellow 3-year-olds Medina Spirit and Essential Quality, who finished just three-quarters of a length and a length ahead of him. Always in the mix, in Charlie’s previous defeats he was beaten three quarters of a length, a neck, one length, 1 ¼ lengths, and on a disqualification.

Despite all the hard races and all the traveling, he ran a career-high Beyer speed figure of 111 in his next-to-last start in the Pennsylvania Derby, the fastest non-sprint number by any 3-year-old this year. Perhaps he peaked in that race or perhaps the tough races and the traveling since January finally caught to him in the final furlong of the Classic. But he never stopped trying.

Before we go over all the stops in our Travels With Charlie let’s start at the beginning when Sean Feld called Doug O’Neill’s brother Dennis, who buys many of Doug’s horses at the sale, and told him that he and his father Bob were selling a half-brother to sprint champion Mitole by Oxbow at the Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale that he really liked, but there was no interest in him and he was getting little action. So Feld sent Dennis photos of the colt and a video of him walking and Dennis fell in love with him. He then called Greg Helm of Roadrunner Racing, which had been buying only 2-year-olds and told him, “I’ve got a yearling you might want to buy.

Helm wasn’t sure his five partners wanted to invest in a yearling so he sent them an email trying to convince them to put up more money, explaining that he was a half-brother to Mitole and could make a good sprinter, and they all agreed. “That’s why we named him Hot Rod,” Helm explained. “We thought he would be a bullet.”

Dennis bought him for $110,000 with Roadrunner Stable going in for half and Dennis getting Bill Strauss and Boat Racing to go in for the other half.

Boat Racing is comprised of five college buddies and football teammates from Brown University, who formed a strong brotherhood after graduating. Heading the partnership is Doug and Dennis O’Neill’s nephew Patrick O’Neill, who became the spokesman for the group, who named the stable after a beer game from their college days and have been vocal and fun loving at all of Charlie’s races.

“The Boat Racing guys are a unique addition to racing,” Helm said. “To bring in that kind of youth and energy and devotion helps give the sport the strength it once had.”

That youthful energy was on display at the Breeders’ Cup post position draw, at which there is little reaction when a number is called. But, even though post positions had little significance in the Classic, when Hot Rod Charlie drew post 3, a huge cheer went up, much to the amusement of the crowd. It was Helm who played up to the Boat Racing boys’ exuberance, telling them before the draw, “No matter what post we draw, let’s make some noise.”

Patrick told Lenny Shulman of Blood Horse, “It’s been incredible. I can’t even put into words the experience we’re having. It’s so cool to be able to share this with family and my best friends in the world. It’s been a remarkable journey; crazy how one horse can bring so many people together.”

Hot Rod Charlie also has been running for a cause, with a portion of his earnings going to fight melanoma, which claimed the lives of Doug and Dennis’ brothers Danny and David at an early age. Dennis fought the same disease and was able to beat it.

Charlie’s career had started off rather uneventful. Because of the colt’s illustrious brother, Doug started him off at five furlongs, once on dirt and once on grass, but troubled starts cost him any shot at victory. He was then stretched out to a mile on grass, but ran a non-threatening fifth. What was most disappointing was that he was the favorite in all three races. Doug put blinkers on Charlie in a one-mile maiden race on dirt and he showed much more life, battling every step of the way to win by a neck over John Shirreffs’ highly regarded Parnelli.

Following the race Doug shocked Dennis when he told him that this was a different horse now and that he was going to run him next in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Dennis admitted he thought Doug was crazy, but the colt nearly pulled it off at 94-1, battling the undefeated grade 1 winner Essential Quality to the wire, getting beat only three-quarters of a length.

In his 3-year-old debut, the Robert Lewis Stakes, Charlie got bounced around like a three-cushion billiard shot in the stretch while in tight quarters between horses and finished a game third, beaten a neck, by Medina Spirit in a three-horse photo. He then wired his field in the Louisiana Derby, run for the first time at the extended distance of 1 3/16 miles. In the Kentucky Derby, he had to check passing the finish line the first time, right behind Medina Spirit, dropping back to fifth. He fought hard in the stretch, but fell a length short of catching Medina Spirit and Mandaloun, although he did out-battle Essential Quality for third.

He then provided one of the greatest second place efforts in the history of the Belmont Stakes, battling on the lead through a torrid half in :46 2/5, which was only a fifth of a second slower than Secretariat ran in his record Belmont victory. Again, he wouldn’t quit in the stretch, but just couldn’t hold off Essential Quality, who was able to sit back off that pace and wear him down, winning by 1 1/4 lengths with an 11 ¼-length gap to the third horse, Preakness winner Rombauer. It was the second fastest Belmont in the last 20 years, with only Triple Crown winner American Pharoah running faster. And this followed the second fastest Kentucky Derby in the last 20 years. The only Derby run faster was by Authentic the year before, but that race was run in September because of Covid when the 3-year-olds were far more advanced and experienced.

Charlie appeared to have finally landed his elusive Grade 1 victory when he out-battled Mandaloun by a nose in the Haskell Invitational only to be disqualified and placed seventh for interfering with Midnight Bourbon in the stretch. Despite another gutsy performance going for naught, Charlie missed the stakes record by only a fifth of a second and the track record by two-fifths. After the race, Bill Strauss told Helm, “We got Haskelled.” When the group later purchased a Practical Joke colt at the sale they named him Haskelled.

Everything finally went right for Charlie in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby and he had no trouble winning wire-to-wire by 2 ¼ lengths, earning his career-high 111 Beyer speed figure, but once again had to survive a foul claim for drifting out at the top of the stretch.

The previously mentioned Breeders’ Cup Classic was anticlimactic, but no one held Charlie’s fourth-place finish against him, knowing he gave 100 percent once again and was the first one to go after Knicks Go, which may well have cost him second or third. Even with only the two stakes victories and losing the rich Haskell purse, Charlie still ended the year with earnings of over $2 million.

“It was a heartbreaking, but exhilarating year,” Helm said. “It breaks your heart when he doesn’t quite get there, but he always puts everything into it and that’s why the people voted for him. We realized how popular he was when so many people at the Breeders’ Cup asked us for his hat. Charlie doesn’t fit the mold of your typical classic racehorse other than the size of his heart. When I think of the ride he’s taken us on it blows your mind.”

Contrary to the last two years when the Vox Populi Award was given to the eventual Horse of the Year,  this year the fans voted for a horse who has no championship aspirations, unlike Knicks Go, Essential Quality, and Medina Spirit. They threw away the stats and went with their heart, which was founder Penny Chenery’s intent when she created this award. Charlie showed that the true qualities of the Thoroughbred are not always determined by the number of victories as much as the fight and desire to attain those victories. And no one fought harder race after race than Hot Rod Charlie.

Photo courtesy of Coady Photography

Twin McPeeks

Sunday, December 12th, 2021

The 2-year-old season has pretty much concluded and we have a good idea how the Kentucky Derby trail is shaping up, with the exception of the Bob Baffert-trained horses, whose status is still in limbo. But at this point, Kenny McPeek is holding one of the strongest hands we’ve seen in years, with his two main hopefuls both looking like true Derby horses with little or no flaws.~ Steve Haskin

Twin McPeeks

By Steve Haskin

 

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. George Patton and Omar Bradley. Smile Happy and Rattle N Roll.

Huh? What’s he talking about? Has he finally gone off the deep end?

Nah, it’s just my weird, convoluted way of showing how two famous figures can be on the same team, fighting for the same goal, and still be antagonists. In other words, I’m trying to get your attention.

Just to explain, Ruth and Gehrig and Mantle and Maris didn’t dislike each other, but there was a rivalry between them; in the latter’s case to see who would be the first to break Ruth’s iconic single-season home run record. Adams and Jefferson were two of our most influential founding fathers and also good friends who were the force behind the Declaration of Independence, but eventually became enemies, both politically and socially. Patton and Bradley were two of our most distinguished generals spearheading the invasion of Europe, but they couldn’t stand each other.

Now let’s return to a sense of normalcy. the striking dark bay Smile Happy and the impressive chestnut Rattle N Roll share the same barn and have no personal feelings when it comes to the other, but one day they will have to face each other in battle to see which one will bring their trainer Kenny McPeek his long-awaited first Kentucky Derby victory, as well as providing their aptly named owner Lucky Seven Stable its first Derby score.

Right now they are traveling in parallel lines with little to choose between them. To demonstrate the similarities:

  • McPeek picked out Rattle N Roll as a yearling for $210,000 and Smile Happy as a yearling for $185,000. So they were pretty much the same market price.
  • Rattle N Roll broke his maiden at Churchill Downs, then won a Grade 1 stakes at Keeneland in his next start. Smile Happy broke his maiden at Keeneland, then won a Grade 1 stakes at Churchill Downs in his next start.
  • Rattle N Roll came from sixth to break his maiden by three lengths going 1 1/16 miles in 1:44 4/5 under Brian Hernandez. Smile Happy came from sixth to break his maiden by 5 1/2 lengths going 1 1/16 miles in 1:44 3/5 under Brian Hernandez.
  • Smile Happy’s dam is by Pleasant Tap. Rattle N Roll’s second dam is by Pleasant Tap.
  • Adrian Regan, with different partners, pinhooked both Rattle N Roll and Smile Happy as yearlings.
  • In the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager, Rattle N Roll is No. 17 and Smile Happy is No. 18.

Oh, wait, the No. 19 horse is Tiz the Bomb, also trained by McPeek.

Before we continue, let’s let McPeek sort out the similarities and differences between Rattle N Roll and Smile Happy, and Tiz the Bomb as well. All three are currently at his Silverleaf Hills Training Center in Ocala getting ready before hitting the Derby trail at Gulfstream Park. The main question is how to keep them separated.

“Rattle N Roll is the type who needs a better setup as far as pace, because he’s not as quick as Smile Happy, who has more tactical speed,” McPeek said. “He can stalk any kind of pace, while Rattle N Roll is better coming from farther back. Rattle N Roll is a little taller, but they’re pretty much a similar package. When it comes to the Derby I’ve been circling the wagons for a long time. Hitting it dead center is hard, but maybe this will be the year. Both colts have a big future. It’s been a real team effort.”

McPeek doesn’t want to forget Tiz the Bomb, who was scheduled to run in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes along with Smile Happy, but developed a cut that had be cleaned out and needed to be treated with antibiotics. But the way Smile Happy ran, McPeek feels everything may have worked out for the best.

Tiz the Bomb has won two stakes on grass and was a fast-closing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, but did break his maiden in an off-the-turf race at Ellis Park by 14 lengths. His sire, Hit it a Bomb, did win the BC Juvenile Turf for Aidan O’Brian, but Hit it a Bomb’s sire War Front was a dirt horse who sires both dirt and turf horses, and Tiz the Bomb’s broodmare sire, Tiznow, was strictly a dirt horse, winning back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Classics and has been a top sire of dirt horses for many years.

“Tiz the Bomb is more of a Northern Dancer type,” McPeek said. “He’s not quite as tall and long as the other two, but he has great balance and is a beautiful horse. I think he’s going to develop into a great 3-year-old. I actually think I can get him to the English Derby and I believe he can handle Epsom. He handled the undulating course at Kentucky Downs beautifully. There’s just a lot of things we’d have to work out and see how the owner feels about it.”

I have already told the story of Rattle N Roll in the previous “Sleepers” column, so here is my take and some background info and pedigree notes on Smile Happy.

The aforementioned Adrian Regan, who was partners with Pat Barrett, John Wade, Barry Claughessy, and Tim Wicks in the purchase and pinhook of Smile Happy, said they would have gotten a better price for the colt, but his sire Runhappy still was an unknown quantity at the time and there was no telling what kind of sire he would make.

“Smile Happy was a beautiful horse,” said Regan, who is part owner of Hunter Valley Farm in Versailles, Kentucky and teamed up with Paramount Sales to pinhook Rattle N Roll.  “But when he went to the sale, Runhappy didn’t have the aura he does now, so we knew we were up against it. Fortunately, when Kenny sees a horse he likes he doesn’t care who they’re by. He picks horses other people will shy away from. He was a super horse to prep for the sale. We all loved him. He was the type of horse when you lunged him in the ring he would put you in good humor because he did everything perfectly. He was very smart and was tough in that he loved his work. He certainly was one of our favorites.”

Smile Happy in two career stats has exhibited almost all the attributes you want to see in a Derby horse with no noticeable flaws. In his debut he was stuck on the rail in traffic, and as two horses began to separate themselves from the rest of the field on the far turn it was as if Smile Happy was slingshot out of the pack. He quickly pounced on the two leaders from the outside and drew off under a hand ride to win going away with a final sixteenth in :06 1/5.

Track announcer Kurt Becker summed it up perfectly and succinctly as Smile Happy drew clear down the short stretch: “Smile Happy, breathtaking move around the far turn, nifty maneuver between horses, through traffic, swung wide and kicked on.” That is the call of a Derby horse,

What struck me was how light on his feet he is. He just glides over the ground with a beautiful smooth stride and keeps his legs under him perfectly. It was as impressive a maiden race from a visual standpoint as I’ve seen all year.

In the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Smile Happy was 12-1 on the morning line, but was bet down to 9-2. He broke sharply, was behind three horses going into the first turn, then settled in fifth while out in the clear, some five lengths behind the 2-1 second choice Howling Time and right off the flank of the 7-5 favorite Classic Causeway. When Classic Causeway made his move three-wide, Smile Happy went with him four-wide, but when they turned into the stretch, Smile Happy, after changing leads smoothly, again drew off with those same fluid strides. His new rider, Corey Lanerie, threw a couple of crosses on him, then decided to hit him three times left handed even though the colt seemed to be well on his way to victory. Despite feeling the whip, Smile Happy never flinched and didn’t deviate at all from his path.

So in only two starts, Smile Happy has demonstrated the ability to be placed wherever his rider wants him, a big turn of foot, a flawless stride, the ability to quickly overpower his opponents in the stretch and draw off, and the kind of professionalism you always want to see.

And from a speed rating standpoint, Smile Happy went from a solid “7 ¼” Thoro-Graph number in his debut to a “2” in the Kentucky Jockey Club. That is 2 ½ points faster than Corniche ran in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 2 ½ points faster than Jack Christopher ran in the Champagne Stakes. Oh yes, it was 1 ½ points faster than Rattle N Roll ran in the Breeders’ Futurity, making the McPeek duo the two fastest 2-year-olds in the country on Thoro-Graph.

Now, you might ask yourself, can a Runhappy get a mile and a quarter? That was the same question they asked about Distorted Humor (Funny Cide), Elusive Quality (Smarty Jones), and Boundary (Big Brown). Let’s not forget that Runhappy is by Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver. And when you look at Smile Happy’s female family, there will be little doubt he will get classic distances.

His dam Pleasant Smile is inbred 4 x 4 to Ribot through his sons Graustark and His Majesty, full-brothers out of Flower Bowl, who is also the dam of two-time champion Bowl of Flowers. Graustark and His Majesty have sired classic winners Avatar (Belmont Stakes) and Pleasant Colony (Kentucky Derby and Preakness), respectively. Pleasant Colony’s son Pleasant Tap won the Jockey Club Gold Cup in a sizzling 1:58 4/5 and Suburban Handicap and is the sire of Pleasant Smile. In addition, Pleasant Tap’s broodmare sire is Belmont Stakes winner and top stamina sire Stage Door Johnny.

Smile Happy’s fifth dam is the Darby Dan mare Bravura, who is also the fifth dam of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide.

If that’s not enough stamina for you, Smile Happy’s second dam is by Relaunch, who is the sire of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Skywalker, as well as Waquoit, winner of  the mile and a half Jockey Club Gold Cup by 15 lengths, and With Anticipation, a two-time grade 1 winner at a mile and a half on turf.

So, if Smile Happy has any flaws or question marks I haven’t seen it.

Now, if Tiz the Bomb is as good as McPeek says he is and he stays home, those Twin McPeeks may turn into the Grand Tetons by the first Saturday in May.

Photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire and Keeneland/Coady Photography

The ‘Spirit’ of the Times

Monday, November 29th, 2021

Medina Spirit, through no fault of his own, has become a polarizing figure, and there is a good chance he will be deprived of any awards this year, although some will still make a case for him for 3-year-old champion. This is my take on the horse and the controversy that surrounds him.~ Steve Haskin

The ‘Spirit’ of the Times

By Steve Haskin

This column is not just about Medina Spirit. It is also about Thoroughbred racing, its highs and lows, its complexities, and how the sport and the Thoroughbred can trigger a wide range of emotions.

Aristotle named 14 distinct emotional expressions: fear, confidence, anger, friendship, calm, enmity, shame, shamelessness, pity, kindness, envy, indignation, emulation, and contempt.

Do we pity Medina Spirit and the lack of respect he’s been given since his drug positive? Do we wish more horses could emulate the courage and tenacity he has demonstrated in his races? Do we have anger, indignation, and enmity at what transpired following the Kentucky Derby and how it tarnished what was one of the great feel-good stories of the year that was too short-lived to fully enjoy and appreciate? Do we fear what the longe-range ramifications will be? Do we feel the positive test and its ensuing legal battles and banishments of Bob Baffert shamed the sport? Do we feel Baffert has been shameless having had several positives over the past year? Is the resentment of Baffert by a number of fans and rival trainers based more on contempt or envy? Do we still have confidence in Medina Spirit after he ran big races despite being under microscopic scrutiny and believe he is one of the best horses in the country? Will kindness and calm eventually prevail and we can all one day acknowledge the talent and courage of this obscurely bred, rags to riches colt?

Medina Spirit has brought out another emotional expression that escaped Aristotle – frustration. The roses that were draped across his withers on the first Saturday in May have long since wilted, and after six months we still don’t know whether they were rightfully his in the first place. Whether he gets to keep them or they are taken away from him, there will be debate, and in today’s society, the definition of debate has changed from “a discussion involving opposing viewpoints” to “an all-out verbal assault.”

In horse racing, debate has gone from “They were both great horses, but I still believe Damascus was better than Dr. Fager” to “If you believe Rachel Alexandra was better than Zenyatta then you really are a moron.”

Whatever is decided in the courts and commission hearings, there will be outrage. Some of the outrage will involve Baffert and some of it will involve Medina Spirit. In the case of Baffert, he has built up an amazing resume over the years and certainly does not want that and his reputation tarnished. In the case of Medina Spirit, no one will feel good about the horse being disqualified because he did something wrong and deserved to be, but many people will feel badly for the horse for running so gamely and having his name and his accomplishment ripped out of the history books.

Looking at that realistically, this isn’t Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa having to live with becoming pariahs and being disgraced. This is an athlete who could not care in the slightest if he is stripped of his Derby victory. If a horse can somehow comprehend the exultation around him after winning the Derby and feels proud of himself, then that is Medina Spirit’s trophy. The morning after the Derby, while all the barn workers were still rejoicing in his victory, his only moment of joy came when his groom brought his feed tub into his stall. When he was drawing off from the top older horses in California in the Awesome Again Stakes or chasing Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and finishing ahead of his fellow 3-year-olds he was totally oblivious to the turmoil that has surrounded him for months.

So why will I, a hardened veteran writer of some 45 years, feel badly for Medina Spirit if he loses his Derby victory over a dab of skin ointment that likely had zero effect on his performance? Because like many horse lovers I have a tendency to anthropomorphize when it comes to our equine heroes, or even with old claimers who find a new home after their racing career. Why else would I feel badly for Smarty Jones after the Belmont Stakes and Zenyatta after the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Perhaps it is because I have heard so many instances of horses sulking after they lost or learning about Kelso and John Henry having to be physically restrained by their jockey from going into the winner’s circle following a narrow defeat. Why do horses often respond to the atmosphere of their barn? Why do they stop winning when there is friction and chaos in the barn? I don’t know, but it happens.

Also, the record books have chronicled racing for hundreds of years and is like our bible in that it preserves the sport’s history for future generations. I was here to see Medina Spirit win the Kentucky Derby. I got to write about it and tell the story of the horse and the people behind him; just hard-working everyday people who eke out a living doing what they love, which is being around horses, whether it’s breeding them, buying them, selling them or caring for them. I want their feel-good story and the story of Medina Spirit to be told because it deserves to be told and will make others in the future feel good.

For those who have forgotten or are unaware of Medina Spirit’s back story, please go back to my Derby recap about two women, one who was going through a divorce and had to sell Medina Spirit for $1,000 and one, recently divorced, who saw something in him and bought him for $1,000 for her exercise rider to pinhook. Her bid was the only one on the colt.

Because of the cloud that still hangs over the Derby, with no ruling yet on whether Medina Spirit will keep his victory, there is uncertainly surrounding the colt’s future status. As a result, he was not among the six nominees for the Vox Populi Award for most popular horse. If there is a horse this year who under normal circumstances should be seriously considered for most popular horse it is Medina Spirit. There is also a good chance this unfortunate situation will be held against the horse when it comes time to vote for 3-year-old champion. So, yes, I will feel badly for the horse for all the reasons mentioned earlier, and feel badly for the people in whose hands he passed through on his way to Kentucky Derby glory.

History may forget about Medina Spirit and what he accomplished on the first Saturday in May, and remember him only for another reason, but for anyone who admires the courage of the Thoroughbred, they won’t forget the stretch run of the 2021 Run for the Roses when an unfashionably bred colt who sold for the price of a cheap laptop computer refused to let regally bred horses owned and bred by the powerful Godolphin and Juddmonte operations get by him. No matter what the Kentucky Racing Commission ultimately decides, no one ever can take that away from him.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Jackson Baltimore Sun

The Days of Iron Horses

Monday, November 22nd, 2021

It is the 1960s. Horses retiring at the age of 3? Unheard of. Champions retiring with 10 career starts or fewer? Are you kidding? We’re not here to discuss the comparison between horse racing now and then. We are here just to bring to life the horses of a bygone era and what they were capable of. So sit back and relax and enjoy a time when horses did something they were put on this Earth to do – race. ~ Steve Haskin

The Days of Iron Horses

By Steve Haskin

So Essential Quality is retired after only nine starts. What’s all the fuss? Like this hasn’t become the natural order of things in Thoroughbred racing? We are all aware by now that “breed to race” has been pretty much replaced by “breed to breed.”

Yes, racing’s theme song could easily be, with apologies to the Clancy Brothers, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.”

We should be used to it already. We hardly get to know the majority of our male champions, especially with so many Kentucky Derby winners being whisked off to stud. A major part of racing was always about older horses running in handicap races. Now the only thing handicapped is the sport itself; handicapped by the unfamiliarity of our classic horses and major stars.

The last six Kentucky Derby winners (prior to question mark winner Medina Spirit) have averaged a grand total of nine career starts, with only one of them returning at 4, and that was for only two starts. The first 11 Triple Crown winners averaged 30 career starts. Just as a point of reference, the last two Triple Crown winners made 11 and six starts, respectively.

But rather than bemoan the fact that we rarely get to know our classic horses and majority of our 2-year-old and 3-year-old champions, let’s simply inform the newbie racing fans just what it was like when our top horses actually had a racing career and we got to know them as our Saturday heroes.

A warning, however, a good deal of what you are about to read may disgust and repulse you and give you the urge to hang trainers of the past in effigy; or maybe literally. But this column is not about what is right and wrong; it is about how dramatically the sport has changed. Just be aware that the horses you will be reading about all flourished and had safe, sound, and productive careers, many of them actually getting stronger the more they raced. And they became like good friends we looked forward to seeing almost every week.

I certainly am no expert on equine anatomy in terms of whether it is better for horses to race or spend most of the year in their stall, but I have no recollection of witnessing a single major star breaking down until Ruffian. You had to go back to 1959 when Black Hills broke down in the slop in the Belmont Stakes, and that was an extremely rare occurrence. I never gave injury a second thought before a race. Now, my first priority is just hoping everyone returns safely.

So, now that I have prepared you as best as I can for your trip in Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine (us oldtimers will remember that), let’s go back, not so much way back, but back to the 1960s and meet some of the true iron horses of racing. And, please remember that no horses were injured during the filming of this movie, so hold back your wrath and just enjoy reading about what Thoroughbreds were, and perhaps are, capable of doing, even in the most extreme cases.

Let’s begin half a century ago with a colt and a filly, whose names were Carry Back and Cicada. Carry Back made his career debut on January 29, 1960 and Cicada made her career debut on February 23, 1961. So what, many horses make their debut in the winter of their 3-year-old campaign. The only difference with Carry Back and Cicada is that they were 2-year-olds, and both debuted going three furlongs. Carry Back actually made 13 starts and still hadn’t raced as far as six furlongs, while Cicada raced 10 times before stretching out to six furlongs.

At the end of their 2-year-old campaigns Carry Back had made 21 starts and Cicada had made 16 starts. Carry Back raced at least once every month from January to November, including three times in March, July, and August, and four times in October. Cicada raced at least once in every month from February to October with the exception of April, but made up for it by running on May 17, 25, and 30 and June 10, 19, and 28.

How much did such a ridiculously long and hard campaign take out of them as babies? Carry Back got better as the year went on, closing out his 2-year-old campaign with victories in the Garden State Stakes and Remsen Stakes and then went on the following year to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, then the following year equaled the track record winning the Met Mile in 1:33 3/5, soundly defeated the great Kelso by three lengths in the Monmouth Handicap, and won the Whitney under 130 lbs. He concluded his career with 61 starts and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.

Despite her February debut, Cicada won eight stakes at 2, rattling off consecutive victories in the Schuylerville, Spinaway, Matron, Astarita, Frizette, and concluding the year with a 10-length victory in the Gardenia Stakes. Despite such an arduous 2-year-old campaign, Cicada went on to win the first two legs of the Filly Triple Crown, the Acorn and Mother Goose, before getting beat a half-length by Darby Dan’s great stayer Bramalea in the 1 ¼-mile Coaching Club American Oaks. Before that, Cicada was beaten a nose by the eventual even-money Kentucky Derby favorite Ridan in the Florida Derby and then won the Kentucky Oaks by three lengths. After running in the Delaware Oaks, Delaware Handicap, Alabama, and Travers, she was so knocked out she defeated the best older fillies and mares in the country in the Beldame Stakes, then the following year won four stakes, on dirt and grass, retiring with 23 victories in 42 starts and finishing in the money 37 times. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.

Another filly in the 1960s, Straight Deal, got a late start at 2, debuting in September, but made up for it by racing 22 times at 3, 20 times at 4, 22 times at 5, and 22 times at 6, concluding her career with 99 starts. She won major stakes on both coasts at a time when Eastern horses rarely went to California. She actually made seven consecutive starts at Santa Anita from December 1965 to March 1966. In her career, she ran against colts 12 times, finishing third in the Whitney and third behind the great Damascus in the Aqueduct Stakes. She ended her career at age 7 making 17 starts in a seven-month period. As a broodmare, she produced six horses who made more than 20 starts, four of whom made over 35 starts, including three stakes winners and one grade 1 winner.

New York racing had its share of Saturday heroes who became like dependable friends week after week, but none, with the possible exception of Kelso, could match California’s hero Native Diver.

The California-bred gelding raced until he was 8, running in an amazing 76 stakes, 69 of them in succession. He carried 130 or more 10 times and won the Hollywood Gold Cup at age 6, 7, and 8. He made 13 starts at age 8, finishing in the money in 11 of them, with one unplaced performance coming in his only career start on grass. After getting beat five times by Pretense, who became the sire of Sham, he got his revenge in the Hollywood Gold Cup, defeating his rival by five lengths in 1:58 4/5, one fifth off the track record, in the 80th start of his career.

In 1959, T.V. Lark made his career debut on February 20 as a 2-year-old and would race 14 times that year before going on to a long fruitful career, in which he made 72 starts, winning or placing in 28 stakes on grass an dirt, while racing all over the country from coast to coast and winning stakes from seven furlongs to 1 ½ miles.

Not all iron horses of the ‘60s were defined by the length of their career. Damascus gained his reputation as an iron horse by racing 16 times as a 3-year-old and getting stronger with each race, nailing down Horse of the Year honors with a 10-length demolition of Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in the Woodward Stakes. But it was as a 4-year-old that he demonstrated his toughness and resilience and his ability to improve with racing by finishing third to Dr. Fager in the 1 ¼-mile Suburban Handicap in a track-record equaling 1:59 3/5 under 133 pounds, finish third in the 1 ¼-mile Amory Haskell Handicap after a troubled trip under 131 pounds and giving 15 pounds to the winner, and then defeating Dr. Fager in the 1 ¼-mile Brooklyn Handicap under 130 pounds in a track-record 1:59 1/5, which still stands, all in the span of 16 days. That’s three 1 ¼-mile stakes, all carrying 130 pounds or more, and setting a track-record in the last one, in just over two weeks.

When we think of long winning streaks in top-class company in the past 25 years, we think of Cigar and Zenyatta, whose streaks spanned over a period of three and four years. But how about Buckpasser, who won 15 consecutive races over an 11-month period, 13 of them as a 3-year-old?

Another filly who began her career in January as a 2-year-old was Affectionately, who, like Straight Deal, was trained by Hirsch Jacobs. She wound up running 13 times at 2, winning the Fashion, Polly Drummond, National Stallion Stakes, Astoria, Sorority, and Spinaway. She would go on to race until she was 5, winning 28 of 52 starts, finishing in the money 42 times, and winning the Vagrancy Handicap under 137 pounds. That victory came two races after finishing third to Gun Bow and Chieftain in the Met Mile. She had previously defeated colts in the Vosburgh and Sport Page Handicaps. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.

No discussion of the 1960s would be complete without mentioning Kelso. Rather than rehash his 63-race career, let’s just say winning five consecutive Horse of the Year titles is a feat that not only will never be equaled, it will never even be approached. After his retirement, many New York racing fans were heard saying “It just won’t seem like Saturday without Kelso.”

Some other champions of the ‘60s were Gamely (41 starts), Gun Bow (42 starts), Lady Pitt (47 starts), Mongo (46 starts), Nodouble (42 starts), Roman Brother (42 starts), Tosmah (39 starts), and the indefatigable Parka, who was claimed for $10,000 and went on to race 93 times, closing out his career at age 7 with consecutive victories in the Kelly-Olympic, United Nations, and Long Island Handicaps.

Let’s go one year before the ‘60s and one year after the ‘60s. In 1959, Round Table completed an amazing 66-race career that began in February as a 2-year-old going three furlongs. He would go on to race 22 times as a 3-year-old alone, become the first ever great horse on both dirt and grass, win stakes at 11 different tacks all over the country, carry 130 pounds or more to victory 17 times, and equal or break 16 track records. He would then become one of the most influential stallions of the 20th century and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.

In 1970 and ’71, racing fans witnessed arguably the most exhausting Kentucky Derby campaign ever. The plucky little Jim French hit the Derby trail in late December of his 2-year-old campaign having already crammed 11 races into a four-month period, racing four times in November alone, including a victory in the Remsen Stakes.

Then the real racing began.

—On Dec. 26, he engaged in a thrilling stretch duel with Sir Dagonet to win the 1 1/16-mile Miami Beach Handicap at Tropical Park.

—Two weeks later, he just got up to win the 1 1/16-mile Dade Metropolitan Handicap at Tropical by a nose, carrying top weight of 125 pounds and conceding 10 pounds to the runner-up.

—Eleven days later, now at Hialeah, he dropped back to six furlongs and finished a fast-closing fourth in the Hibiscus Stakes, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths by the brilliant Executioner.

—He was back two weeks later, coming from 10th at the top of the stretch to win the seven-furlong Bahamas Stakes by a head, with the regally bred His Majesty third.

—Two weeks later, he was beaten a head by His Majesty in the 1 1/8-mile Everglades Stakes, but was disqualified to fifth for bearing in down the stretch.

—Like clockwork, he was back in the gate two weeks later, coming from 19 lengths back to finish third behind Executioner in the 1 1/8-mile Flamingo Stakes.

—Instead of waiting for the Florida Derby, Jim French not only ran 17 days later, he shipped up to New York, where he finished third to the early Kentucky Derby favorite, the brilliant Hoist the Flag, in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes, run in a scorching 1:21.

—Just one week later, he was back in Florida, where he closed fast to finish third to Eastern Fleet in the Florida Derby, run in 1:47 2/5, just a fifth off the stakes record.

—Not content to wait for one final Derby prep or train up to the Derby, trainer John Campo put Jim French on a plane to California and ran him one week later in the Santa Anita Derby, which he won by 1 3/4 lengths in 1:48 1/5.

—Two weeks later, he was back in New York, where he rallied to finish a close fourth to stablemate Good Behaving in the Wood Memorial.

Nowadays, if a horse runs four times in four months it’s a lot. Jim French entered the grueling Triple Crown series having competed in 10 stakes at five different racetracks in a little over four months, traveling from New York to Florida, back to New York, back to Florida, to California, back to New York, and then the Kentucky Derby. Although most horses would have been totally wiped out by then, Jim French went on to finish a fast-closing second to Canonero II in the Kentucky Derby, third in Canonero’s track record-breaking Preakness, and a fast-closing second in the Belmont Stakes, in which he made up more than five lengths in the final furlong to be beaten three-quarters of a length.

Instead of being given a well-earned vacation following arguably the most ambitious Triple Crown campaign ever, Jim French amazingly was back in the starting gate two weeks after the Belmont, finishing a fast-closing fourth in the one-mile Pontiac Grand Prix (formerly the Arlington Classic) at Arlington Park. Following his first three-week “vacation” since the previous November, he shipped to California, where he finished second in the 1 ¼-mile Hollywood Derby, giving the winner, Bold Reason, 13 pounds. One week later, he was back in New York, winning the 1 ¼-mile Dwyer Handicap, conceding 12-15 pounds to the rest of the field.

In less than seven months, Jim French had run in 16 stakes from six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, never finishing worse than fourth (except for his disqualification). During that time he competed at 10 different racetracks, made two round trip cross-country flights at a time when Eastern horses rarely flew to California for one race, and logged some 20,000 miles of traveling.

The rest of Jim French’s career reads like a crime and mystery novel, which has no bearing on this column. But he eventually wound up standing at stud in France and then Japan, where he left an indelible legacy as a sire and grandsire of classic horses. This year, his great-great grandson Bolshoi Ballet captured the grade 1 Belmont Derby.

Finally, we have to mention Secretariat’s underrated reputation as an iron horse. After setting track records in all three Triple Crown races and having to bounce back from a bad viral infection and 105-degree fever, he returned to set a new world record for 1 1/8 miles in the Marlboro Cup, finish second in the 1 ½-mile Woodward Stakes in the slop as a last-minute substitute for stablemate Riva Ridge without being trained properly for the race, and then set a new course record in the 1 ½-mile Man o’ War Stakes in his grass debut, all in the span of 23 days. Just 20 days later he concluded his career with a victory in the 1 5/8-mile Canadian International Championship. That is an aspect of Big Red’s career that has gone overlooked and often underappreciated.

This is just an example of what racing was like from the late 1950s to the early ‘70s when horses were sound, tough, and durable and thrived on racing. They earned their place in history over a period of time, and when they finally were retired they left us with years of memories, and we were happy to bid farewell to them knowing how much they had enriched our lives.

Yes, they became like friends to us. We as fans got to know them and were grateful for all they gave us. And racing was a better sport because of them.

Meet the 2021 Vox Populi Award Finalists

Sunday, November 14th, 2021

The ballot box is open for the 2021 Secretariat “Vox Populi” Award, but before you cast your vote be sure to read the story behind each of the six finalists. ~ Steve Haskin

Meet the 2021 Vox Populi Award Finalists

By Steve Haskin

 

It is that time of the year again to start thinking about championships even though the Eclipse Awards are out of the public’s hands. It is just the opposite when it comes to the Secretariat Vox Populi Award, which goes to the most popular horse as voted by the public. The award was the brainchild of Big Red’s owner Penny Chenery, who inaugurated it in January 2011, with the honor going to the great mare Zenyatta.

It was Zenyatta’s owner Jerry Moss who summed up the award best when it was presented to him by Mrs. Chenery at Santa Anita.

“We’re thrilled to receive this fantastic award,” Moss said. “Having grown up in the business, to have our horse mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat is an honor indeed. Thank you to the fans and to Penny Chenery for this beautiful award and to Secretariat for setting the mode.”

Now, more than a decade later, the award has gone to a vast cross section of equine stars, from Horses of the Year and Eclipse champions to lesser known, but equally as popular, horses such as Rapid Redux and Ben’s Cat, whose careers were light years from an Eclipse Award, but whose achievements endeared themselves to racing fans all over the country. To show how diverse the Vox Populi Award has become, it even went to the Australian wonder mare Winx, who had racing fans in America staying up all hours of the night to watch her race after race extend her amazing winning streak to 33 races.

Mrs. Chenery came up with idea for the Vox Populi Award to “recognize a horse whose popularity and racing excellence best resounded with the American public and gained recognition for the sport during the past year.”

This year the Vox Populi nominating committee came up with six such horses as finalists that will now go to the public, which has the option to submit write-in votes if they feel there are others who deserve the honor.

Following are the six finalists in alphabetical order, all of whom competed in this year’s Breeders’ Cup. But even though half of them were defeated it did not diminish their popularity.

ECHO ZULU
How popular can a 2-year-old filly be who raced only four times from mid-July to early November? As odd as it may sound, it’s not her unblemished record that makes her popular, it is the promise of the future. And it is that promise that has enabled Echo Zulu to capture the imagination of the public.

Ever since 1975, whenever a brilliant 2-year-old filly has come along who is undefeated and totally dominates her opponents, while dazzling racing fans with her freakish victories, the thought begins to enter people’s minds: “Could this be the next Ruffian?” Younger fans can only go by stories and videos, but hardened veterans who witnessed the magnificence of Ruffian in person still hope to see another one come along after almost half a century, knowing full well the chances of it happening are close to zero.

When Echo Zulo won her career debut by 5 ½ lengths at Saratoga at odds of 4-1, outshining all the colts and doing it with little urging, it opened people’s eyes, but there were no thoughts at all of Ruffian, who ironically also went off at 4-1 in her career debut. Then came the leap into grade 1 company and an easy four-length score in the Spinaway Stakes, a race also won by Ruffian. Although Ruffian was forced to miss the Frizette Stake with a season-ending injury, Echo Zulu demolished her opponents by 7 ¼ lengths in a swift 1:35 flat for the mile.

Now everyone’s eyes were open much wider. Facing her strongest opposition by far in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, the story was the same, as she ran her opponents into the ground, winning by 5 ¼ lengths and running faster than the undefeated Corniche in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile.

No one at this stage is comparing Echo Zulu’s accomplishments with Ruffian and her 10 stakes-record victories. But her first few brush strokes suggest a possible masterpiece in the making. There is a long way to go until its completion, but for now, she appears to be in a totally different class than her opponents, whether it’s at 5 ½ furlongs, seven furlongs, one mile, or 1 1/16 miles. So we can’t help but dream, and it is that dream that makes Echo Zulu worthy of a place on the list of Vox Populi finalists.

ESSENTIAL QUALITY
Essential Quality will not be remembered as a brilliant horse who turned in even one jaw-dropping performance. Owned and bred by the powerful Godolphin operation that has sent out waves of international Group and Grade 1 winners this year, Essential Quality certainly is never going to be mistaken for Cinderella and he surely was not bred with fairy tales in mind. Yet the handsome gray colt became one of the most popular horses in the country. The reason why can be answered in one word – respect. And respect often breeds popularity.

This was a horse who liked to do three things – eat, sleep, and run. At the barn in the morning you would likely find him sprawled out in his stall fast asleep after his breakfast. That was a scene a good portion of the racing world got to witness through his groom’s videos on Twitter. But on the racetrack in the afternoon Essential Quality was a running machine with a burning competitive spirit. After a while, it seemed that all trainer Brad Cox had to do was wind him up and wait for some horse to look him in the eye.

Essential Quality was the quintessential pro. Fast track or slop he still won. Six furlongs or 1 ½ miles he still won. Fast pace or slow pace he still won. He could be placed anywhere on the racetrack. At the half-mile pole of his races, he was second, third, fourth, fifth, and eighth and won them all. He won four major stakes by under a length and two major stakes by 3 ¼ and 4 ¼ lengths. He became the first horse ever to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Belmont Stakes and ran the second-fastest Belmont in the last 20 years, with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah running only two-fifths of a second faster.

The only two defeats of his career came in the Kentucky Derby when he was very wide the entire trip, losing a good deal of ground on both turns, and in the Breeders’ Cup Classic when his stablemate Knicks Go came in on him at the break forcing him to drop back to sixth and get stuck on the rail behind horses.

With all his accomplishments, Essential Quality wasn’t even the best horse in his own barn, although we didn’t find that out until his career finale in the Classic. In the world of the Vox Populi Award that means little or nothing or that he was beaten by Knicks Go, who deprived him of Horse of the Year honors. It is the entire journey that counts and how many fans hop aboard the bandwagon and bet him down as favorite in his races, as they did in the Classic.

Essential Quality’s fans followed him, rooted for him, admired him, and wagered on him, not because he was so dynamic, winning by huge margins in record times. It was because he earned something that doesn’t show up on the highlight reels – he earned their respect.

HOT ROD CHARLIE
Many of the qualities we saw in Essential Quality we also saw in Hot Rod Charlie, except that the latter was considered more of a common folks version of the Godolphin colt. And racing fans took an immediate liking to him, as they did to his co-owners, five college buddies and football teammates from Brown University, who formed a strong brotherhood after graduating that eventually led them to owning part of Hot Rod Charlie under the name Boat Racing after a beer game from their college days. Their main connection to racing was the group’s spokesperson, Patrick O’Neill, who happens to be the nephew of Hot Rod Charlie’s trainer Doug O’Neill and Doug’s brother Dennis, who bought the colt at the Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale for $110,000. So Charlie was truly a family affair.

But the son of Oxbow earned his popularity mainly because of his consistency, resiliency, and toughness and traveling all over the country to take on the best. But also because many regarded him as a hard-luck horse who always tried hard, but often came up just short, with almost every race being a mini-drama. And because of that, they were always pulling for him to land one of the big races.

In last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he emerged virtually from nowhere, coming off a neck maiden victory, and was just beaten three-quarters of a length by Essential Quality at odds of 94-1. That would be his first of eight-consecutive races at eight different racetracks in seven different stakes.

In his 3-year-old debut, the Robert Lewis Stakes, he got bounced around like a three-cushion billiard shot in the stretch and finished third, beat a neck, by Medina Spirit. He then wired his field in the Louisiana Derby, run for the first time at the extended distance of 1 3/16 miles. In the Kentucky Derby, he had to check in tight quarters passing the finish line, right behind Medina Spirit, dropping back to fifth. He fought hard in the stretch, but fell a length short of catching Medina Spirit and Mandaloun, although he did out-battle Essential Quality for third.

He then ran one of the greatest losing races in the history of the Belmont Stakes, battling on the lead through a torrid half in :46 2/5, which was only a fifth of a second slower than Secretariat ran in his record Belmont victory. Again, he wouldn’t quit in the stretch, but just couldn’t hold off Essential Quality, who beat him by 1 1/4 lengths, with an 11 ¼-length gap to the third horse, Preakness winner Rombauer.

He appeared to have landed his elusive Grade 1 victory by out-battling Mandaloun by a nose in the Haskell Invitational only to be disqualified and placed seventh. Everything finally went right for him in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby and he had no trouble winning wire-to-wire by 2 ¼ lengths, earning a career-high 111 Beyer speed figure, but once again had to survive a foul claim.

In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, having run hard all over the country since January and never finishing out of the money, Hot Rod Charlie gave his all chasing Knicks Go, but could finish no better than fourth.

As it stands now, he could face fellow Vox Populi finalists Knicks Go and Life is Good in the rich Pegasus World Cup in January. One thing is for sure, he will have his legion of fans backing him, and five exuberant college buddies who found the horse of a lifetime.

KNICKS GO
Is Knicks Go about to make Vox Populi history? If he wins the award it would be the first father and son duo to do so. His sire Paynter received the honor in 2012 after battling back from three life-threatening illnesses — pneumonia, colitis, and laminitis. He actually made it back to races where he finished second in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes named after his sire, who, like Knicks Go, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Although Knicks Go did not have to go through such an ordeal, he did have a resurrection of his own, returning from an injury at 3 to earn a likely Horse of the Year title two years later. No horse in memory has had as unusual a career as Knicks Go.

Trained originally by Ben Colebrook, he scored a shocking victory in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, romping by 5 ½ lengths at odds of 70-1. Despite his impressive score he still went off at 40-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and finished second to the Bob Baffert-trained Game Winner. His career then went into a sudden and dramatic nosedive. Not only did he lose his next nine starts, he was out of the money in seven of them, finishing as far back as 10th and 11th, and in the Gotham Stakes was beaten 51 lengths. The promise he had shown at 2 for some reason had taken a 180-degree turn and his career was now in a free fall and appeared to be plummeting into the abyss.

He was turned over to trainer Brad Cox following a 10th-place finish in a Grade 3 grass race at Churchill Downs. His physical ailment was corrected and he emerged a new horse with a new life and never looked back, going from strength to strength. His ability to accelerate on the turns and his incredible quickness to go along with his powerful strides made him a terror in two-turn races. In his eight starts going two turns he won all eight by an average margin of 5 ¾ lengths. By winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at 4 and Breeders’ Cup Classic at 5, he became the first horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races and finish second in another. His time of 1:59 2/5 was the third fastest Classic ever run on dirt behind Skip Away and Ghostzapper.

In the Classic he instilled something in the opposition few horses are able to  – fear. To pretty much sacrifice your chances of winning because of the fear you have to look him in the eye or even attempt to stay close to him says a lot. He basically had the best horses in America running for second.

But Knicks Go was more than just a brilliant horse who appears a lock for Horse off the Year honors. Fans all over America and as far away as Saudi Arabia got a chance to see him run, as he scored victories at Oaklawn Park and Gulfstream in the south, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and Prairie Meadows in the Midwest, Saratoga in the northeast, and Del Mar in the west, not to mention his trip to Saudi Arabia that likely took its toll physically and contributed to his defeat in the arduous Met Mile in hIs first start back. Both those races were around one turn and his strength is putting his opponents away on the first turn and then accelerating again on the second turn before drawing off in the stretch.

To demonstrate how popular he became during his travels, his appearance in the Cornhusker Stakes practically made the season for a small track like Prairie Meadows.

“We were excited to see his name in the nominations,” said director of racing Derron Heldt. “When Brad Cox confirmed he was running I told everyone let’s hold this race together and make sure it goes. To watch him win off by over 10 lengths with that high cruising speed was so exciting. It was such a great feeling to have a horse of that caliber run here and then go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The morning after the Cornhusker several of my staff members went to the barn to have their picture taken with him. I’m sure our marketing department will put him on the cover of our first condition book.”

Not bad for a horse who two years earlier was rapidly fading into obscurity.

LETRUSKA
It took a little while for racing fans to embrace Letruska, but when they did it started a love affair that lasted all of 2021. They were intrigued by her when she came to the United States from Mexico in 2019 unbeaten in six races and coming off two grade victories by 9 ½ and 14 lengths. She ran some good races here in late 2019 and 2020, winning the Grade 3 Shuvee Stakes and a pair of overnight stakes but she also threw in clunkers in the Tropical Park Oaks and the Ballerina and Beldame Stakes.

She did open some eyes this year with impressive stakes scores at Gulfstream Park and Sam Houston before getting beat a head by the top-class filly Shedaresthedevil in the Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn. But it wasn’t until she surprisingly out-dueled the gutsy two-time Eclipse champion Monomoy Girl in the Apple Blossom Stakes that fans really began to take notice of her.

Even Oaklawn race caller Vic Stauffer was stunned by the outcome, as he bellowed, “Letruska has turned away the champion…oh my goodness!”

That victory propelled her to a five-race winning streak at five different tracks, four of her victories coming in Grade 1 stakes. After arriving at Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff where another victory could have earned her the title of Horse of the Year, depending on what happened in the Classic, Letruska became the most visible horse on the grounds, with photographers and TV cameramen constantly around her and the media doing countless interviews with her trainer Fausto Gutierrez.

Gutierrez had been successful in Mexico and thought it was time to bring his small stable to the United States and give Letruska a chance at stardom. He felt his mare was carrying the flag of Mexico and was hoping she could show that a horse from his country could beat the best fillies and mares in the world. The fairy tale ending was set, despite one of the strongest and deepest Distaff fields ever.

But the race went downhill from the start when Bob Baffert’s fast 3-year-old filly Private Mission took it to Letrustka immediately with jockey Flavien Prat intent on outrunning her. The result was suicidal fractions of :44 4/5 and 1:09 3/5, which killed off both horses. To demonstrate the toll they took, Letruska, who had been racing steadily all over the country since April of 2020, was beaten 32 lengths, with Private Mission another five lengths behind her bringing up the rear. The first five finishers came from ninth, seventh, eighth, 11th, and 10th, respectively, thanks to the blistering pace.

The Distaff will soon become a forgotten blot on Letruska’s record as she and Gutierrez, who said the Distaff was “a very, very tough race on her,” prepare to regroup for another sensational campaign in 2022.

You can tell how people feel about Letruska when she can get beat 32 lengths in the biggest race of the year and no one has a disparaging word to say. Now that is what you call popular.

LIFE IS GOOD
There was a time when Life is Good and his trainer Bob Baffert were indeed living the good life. Following a learning experience winning the Sham Stakes over Medina Spirit, in which he was pulling himself up in the final furlong, he went into full Kentucky Derby mode by crushing Medina Spirit by eight lengths in the San Felipe Stakes, despite drifting out badly in the stretch. That proved to be a foreboding sign as he came out of a March 20 workout with an ankle chip that required surgery and kept him out of the Triple Crown races. Without the setback he was on his way to becoming the Kentucky Derby favorite.

What made it even more frustrating to his owners WinStar Farm and CHC Inc, was then having to watch Medina Spirit win the Run for the Roses after having fallen victim twice to Life is Good.

During his absence, Essential Quality, Medina Spirit, Hot Rod Charlie, and Mandaloun all emerged as the stars of the 3-year-old division. As Life is Good prepared for a summer and fall campaign, and with the best races being in New York and the New York Racing Association attempting to ban Baffert from racing there following Medina Spirit’s positive drug test in the Kentucky Derby, it was decided to move the colt to Todd Pletcher.

Although he was defeated in his return by the brilliant Jackie’s Warrior in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at Saratoga, he gained a good number fans with his gutsy performance, coming on again in the final sixteenth to be beaten only a neck by arguably the fastest horse in the country while coming off a nearly six-month layoff and running the seven furlongs in a near stakes record 1:21 1/5.

He then toyed with his opponents winning the one-mile Kelso Handicap at Belmont by 5 ½ lengths before romping by almost six lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, giving him victories in one-turn and two-turn miles.

That concluded an unusual 3-year-old campaign, in which he went from early Kentucky Derby favorite to missing half the year with an injury and then returning with another trainer 3,000 miles away and picking up right where he left off, showing improvement with every race.

Life is Good was too late to have a shot at Horse of the Year and likely the 3-year-old title, but his fan base is growing and it’s looking as if he will get his chance to dethrone the overwhelming favorite for Horse of the Year, Knicks Go, in the Pegasus World Cup, which should be an epic battle of speed and will to see who cracks first. Who knows, by then, life may be great for the son of Into Mischief.

Now that you know the story behind each finalist it is time to let your voice be heard. So make sure you vote. Remember, this is your award.

CLICK HERE TO VOTE

Corniche’s Speed a Matter of Record

Monday, November 8th, 2021

With one of the most unusual Breeders’ Cups in memory in the books, it is time forget this year’s rather bizarre and relatively formless event and start looking ahead to the Kentucky Derby trail, as we have already done with our Derby Sleepers series. The one lingering discussion that should create a stir for a while is who should be the 3-year-old male champion, and we’ll get into that as well. But first let’s take an early peek at the Derby trail in regard to the horses we saw in the Juvenile, but only after we give a brief overall look at the event in general. ~ Steve Haskin

Corniche’s Speed a Matter of Record

By Steve Haskin

The 2021 Breeders’ Cup will be remembered for many things, most of them bizarre and even embarrassing. But at least we were able to crown a legitimate Horse of the Year in Knicks Go, who is like a snowball rolling down a mountain, getting bigger and faster the farther it goes until it becomes an unstoppable force. No matter how fast you are, you can’t outrun it and you sure don’t want to get in its path.

In a race where it looked as if a couple of the 3-year-olds, especially Medina Spirit, would at least put pressure on Knicks Go, no jockey made even a feeble attempt at it, as if they conceded that running with him would be suicide, and to do so it would cost them a placing and a possible shot at a 3-year-old Eclipse Award. In short they all seemed afraid to take him on and were content to just finish ahead of the other 3-year-olds. And just for good measure, Joel Rosario, on Knicks Go, came in on his stablemate and main threat Essential Quality at the break, forcing him to drop back to sixth. To Knicks Go’s credit he did run is opening half in an eye-opening :45 4/5, and there isn’t a 3-year-old in the country who can or would dare go that fast and take him on in a mile and a quarter race.

So Knicks Go merely shrugged off the three talented but overmatched and overwhelmed 3-year-olds futilely chasing him down the stretch, as if he were teaching them not to mess with your elders. Like a throwback to a different time, he showed what a horse (not a gelding) can do when given time to reach its peak by competing in three different Breeders’ Cup races, winning two of them and finishing second once, culminating with a Horse of the Year title at the age of 5 after a fairly major injury at 3.

We all saw the bizarre aspect of this year’s Breeders’ Cup with the crazy incidents surrounding the Godolphin horses, which had two of its best horses scratched at the gate after nearly killing themselves only to win with another horse. We won’t get into the embarrassment of the first incident or the thrashing our grass horses received from the Europeans and for the first time from the Japanese, who beat us on grass and dirt. And we won’t get into why our two sprinting superstars, Gamine and Jackie’s Warrior, both laid the proverbial egg at 2-5 and 1-2. We did have two of the tightest finishes in Breeders’ Cup history, one involving a 49-1 Japanese horse coming out on top, with the 8-5 favorite Letruska, a candidate for Horse of the Year, getting beat 32 lengths. And then there were the powerful contingents of Chad Brown and Aidan O’Brien both coming up empty. And Del Mar isn’t a quirky track? It’s time to leave the salty ocean air and get back to Keeneland, where the turf meets the turf.

We also have to mention the number of horses who were scratched the week leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, with Chad Brown losing two likely favorites, one them who would have changed the entire complexion and possibly the result of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The only sense of normalcy was Wesley Ward winning both grass sprints. What was good about this year’s Breeders’ Cup is that it gave the Japanese, the Europeans, and longshots a chance to shine. They just did it at the expense of the Americans and the heavy favorites.

So that wraps up Breeders’ Cup 2021. Now we can settle back and look ahead to next year and the continued exploits of undefeated 2-year-old champions Echo Zulu and Corniche, as the latter hits the Derby trail, bringing with him a pedigree that is unmatched when it comes to speed. Now the big question will be, how far can he carry all that speed?

Corniche’s family rivals Elvis when it comes to number of records. Now it’s just a matter of how he gets to Kentucky with the current ban of his trainer Bob Baffert by Churchill Downs that excludes Baffert’s horses from accumulating Derby points. But that is a topic for another time.

Right now let’s look at Corniche’s amazing pedigree. To begin with, his sire, Quality Road set a new track record of 1:47 2/5 for 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream winning the Donn Handicap, eclipsing his own record of 1:47 3/5 set the year before in the Florida Derby. He also set a new track record of 1:13 3/5 for 6 ½ furlongs at Saratoga that still stands and ran a mile in 1:33 flat in the Metropolitan Handicap. Quality Road’s sire, Elusive Quality, set a new world record of 1:31 3/5 for the mile on the turf at Belmont Park in the Poker Handicap. Elusive Quality’s sire, Gone West, is by Mr. Prospector, who set a new track record of 1:07 3/5 for six furlongs at Gulfstream Park and a new track record of 1:08 3/5 at Monmouth Park. Gone West’s dam, Secrettame, is by Secretariat, and we don’t have to go into all the track, American, and world records Big Red set on dirt and grass. Mr. Propector’s sire, Raise A Native, set a new track record of :57 4/5 for five furlongs at Aqueduct, then equaled it, and a new track record of 1:02 3/5 for 5 ½ furlongs at Aqueduct. Quality Road’s third dam is by Bold Bidder, who ran a mile in 1:32 4/5 at Arlington Park, one-fifth of a second off Buckpasser’s world record.

On the female side, Corniche’s dam Wasted Tears set a new course record of 1:32 4/5 for a mile on the grass at Lone Star Park that still stands. Wasted Tears is by Najran, who equaled Dr. Fager’s coveted 35-year-old world record of 1:32 1/5 for a mile, winning the Westchester Handicap at Belmont Park. That record has not been equaled on dirt since. Wasted Tears’ dam is by Greinton, who set a new track record of 1:32 3/5 for a mile at Hollywood Park and a new track record of 1:58 2/5 for 1 ¼ miles at Hollywood Park. Wasted Tears’ second dam is by Beau’s Eagle, who set a new track record of 1:40 3/5 for 1 1/16 miles at Golden Gate. Wasted Tears’ third dam is by Raise A Cup, who set a new track record of 1:03 for 5 ½ furlongs at Belmont Park. Also in Corniche’s female family is Conquistador Cielo, who set a new stakes record of 1:33 flat in the Met Mile.

So, in Corniche’s pedigree, you have horses who have run a mile in 1:31 3/5, 1:32 1/5, 1:32 3/5, 1:32 4/5 twice, and 1:33 flat twice. Now it is up to Corniche to show he can carry that speed a mile and a quarter. We just have to see what the future holds for him as he embarks on the Derby trail.

So who is the 3-Year-old Champion?

We will lay this out in very simple terms and you and the Eclipse voters can take it from there, whatever your thought process may be.

Knicks Go has in a way exposed all of the 3-year-olds, but mainly Essential Quality and Medina Spirit as Horse of the Year candidates. But believe me there is nothing to be ashamed of getting beat in a two-turn race by a brute and a speed freak like Knicks Go, who destroys his competition with his ability to accelerate on the first turn, take a little breather, and then accelerate on the second turn before pouring it on again in the stretch. That is why he is a far different horse in two-turn races than one-turn races.

But enough of Knicks Go. What about the 3-year-old championship that at one point looked like a virtual lock for Essential Quality with victories in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Belmont Stakes at Belmont, and Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes at Saratoga. But Medina Spirit returned to win the Shared Belief Stakes and easily defeat older horses in the Awesome Again Stakes to go along with his victories in the Robert Lewis in January and the Kentucky Derby that for now he still owns.

After the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which Medina Spirit finished second and Essential Quality third, do you look at Essential Quality’s impressive body of work running all over the country or the fact that Medina Spirit has finished ahead of Essential Quality the only two times they met? If you are more impressed with the latter, then you have to at least give a second thought to Life is Good, who defeated Medina Spirit the two times they met in the Sham Stakes and San Felipe Stakes early in the year and then closed out the year with victories in the one-mile Kelso Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, which he won for fun by almost six lengths. But the fact that Life is Good won only one Grade 1 stakes and never ran farther than 1 1/16 miles likely will prevent him from challenging the top two, especially with the BC Dirt Mile having arguably the weakest field in the Breeders’ Cup with only eight starters and very little depth to it.

Whatever slim chance Hot Rod Charlie may have had for an Eclipse Award disappeared when he finished fourth in the Classic. But he is still to be admired for his toughness, consistency, and ability to turn in powerful performances all year, racing seven times at seven different tracks.

So, let the discussion begin. I still have to ponder the situation more carefully, especially with the Derby result still up in the air. But after watching Medina Spirit demolish older horses in the Awesome Again and then run a bang-up second in the Classic coming from several lengths off the pace, you have to believe his Kentucky Derby victory was well earned. But you also have to consider that Essential Quality was basically taken out of his game plan in the Classic by his stablemate and was forced to come from seventh, closing well to finish three-quarters of a length behind Medina Spirit, who to his credit had a much wider trip. So you have to decide who ran the better race, and in the long run, who deserves the 3-year-old championship based on their accomplishments over the course of the year. I admire both horses and what they have achieved in the biggest races of the year, but right now, only a day after the Breeders’ Cup, I’m still befuddled and will let everything sink in before making a commitment. Oh, wait, I don’t vote any longer, so what I think doesn’t matter.

Photo courtesy of Washington Newsday

Breeders’ Cup Longshot Picks

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021

I’m going to be selective with my longshot picks because there aren’t too many bombs I love and several of the races either have a standout who looks too tough or are very strong at the top, with a number of short-priced contenders who appear too formidable to look past. ~ Steve Haskin

Breeders’ Cup 2021 Longshot Picks

By Steve Haskin

 

If you’re looking for short-priced horses in this year’s Breeders’ Cup you’ve come to the wrong place. The fun of handicapping these races is looking for the longshots or overlays because there are always plenty of both.

With that said, several of the races this year are terrible betting races if you like depth. Gamine towers over her six opponents in the Filly and Mare Sprint on her best day, with Bella Sofia the only real threat pressing her from the outside, and the Dirt Mile looks very uninspiring with Life is Good a standout. Yes, there is the Met Mile winner Silver State and you always have to respect him, but this year’s Met Mile was not a strong field or a fast run race, and the top California hope Ginobili does not have an extensive resume, with his reputation based on one seven-furlong victory, so he is still unproven. Both these races would be good features on a given Saturday, but they are not “World Championship” caliber.

In the Sprint, another race that lacks depth, it’s going be very tough defeating Jackie’s Warrior, who can run you off the track or beat you in a dogfight.

Letruska obviously looks strong in the Distaff, but there are several other older fillies in there who are on a great speed figure pattern and appear to be peaking, and Malathaat is tough as nails and you know is going to be hounding Letruska from the start. In addition, there are a couple of fillies in there with early speed, one of whom is Shedaresthedevil, who has already defeated Letruska this year, handing her her only loss. But the favorite, who is in the running for Horse of the Year, will still take a lot of beating. It’s just that this might not set up for her as much as her other races when she was in control from the start, and she is not the fastest horse in the field on Thoro-Graph. That filly, Royal Flag, actually is on a stronger Thoro-Graph pattern and is really peaking right now.

As for the turf races, we have a huge contingent of foreign horses from Europe, Japan, and South America, and let’s be honest, the three distance races are wide-open with no standout, except for possibly Tarnawa in the Turf, who drew post 13, so that could compromise her chances, and she is coming off a hard race in the Prix de ‘Arc de Triomphe over a bog. In fact, the three top Europeans in the Turf drew posts 12, 13, and 14, which makes the race even more wide open. War Like Goddess is the top American horse in the Filly and Mare Turf, but has to contend with three top-class Euros — Love, Rougir and Audarya, and one of the leading international stars, the Japanese-trained Loves Only You, who was only a half-length behind the outstanding Mishriff in the Dubai Sheema Classic. Audarya won the Filly and Mare Turf last year, but couldn’t handle Rougir in the Prix de l’Opera and drew post 12 on the far outside.

Love looked like a world beater last year romping in the 1,000 Guineas, English Oaks, and Yorkshire Oaks. She faced the boys for the first time in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot in her 4-year-old debut and beat Audarya to keep her winning streak going, but has been beaten in her last three starts, with two solid thirds in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Juddmonte International, but was upset in the Group 3 Blandford Stakes at 6-5 in her last start.

The 2-year-old races look pretty wide-open in general and you never know who is going to step up on this day. Echo Zulu has looked all the rage, but she has never faced opposition this strong, with several other brilliant fillies in there with spotless records and big-margin victories. But good luck trying to beat Echo Zulu at 4-5. The Juvenile favorite Jack Christopher drew the rail, and I’m not sure that’s where they want him in his two-turn debut, as they’ve been teaching him to sit behind horses. But with second choice Corniche, a speed horse, on the far outside, he will be charging to the lead, leaving Jack Christopher down on the inside behind him. The 2-year-old turf races are usually crap shoots, with the Europeans total guesses.

Finally, the Classic is going to be all about strategy. Knicks Go is the fastest horse in the race and has enjoyed uncontested leads in his races, and I doubt he’ll get that this year with Bob Baffert well aware that Medina Spirit’s best races have been on the lead. But he’ll have a tough time getting it from post 8 and Knicks Go breaking from post 5. Art Collector wants to be right up there as well and he’s right outside Knicks Go in post 6. But last year I was sure Tiz the Law and some of the others were not going to let Authentic waltz around there with an easy lead, which is the way he won all his races, but lo and behold everyone went to sleep and let him do it again. My one issue with Knicks Go in addition to never having been a mile and a quarter is that, other than the Whitney, he really hasn’t beaten anyone even remotely in the class of those he’ll be facing in the Classic. I would imagine Brad Cox would prefer swapping the post positions of Essential Quality and Knicks Go and have the former breaking outside Knicks Go instead of directly inside him.

So here are some of the longshots who look as if they are ready for a big effort or simply will be overlooked by the bettors. There are a number of races where I really don’t like any longshots, so I will spend more time on those I do like. I have already given you Tripoli in the Classic, so no need to repeat that. But he is more of an exotics pick, with a shot to win if everything sets up perfectly for him.

PAPPACAP (JUVENILE)
Although my first Derby sleeper, Commandperformnce is in the race, he won’t be anywhere close to a longshot, but if he’s up around 7-1 or higher I will bet him. But remember, he is my Derby sleeper and I am looking past the Juvenile, but if he lures me in with his odds I will be happy to comply. His best days surely are ahead of him. Post 10 is a little too far outside on this track, but he’s a big long-striding colt, so better there than down on the inside. As long as he makes his presence felt and takes another step forward I’ll be happy.

That brings us to another horse whose best days are ahead of him when the distances stretch out and definitely looks like a Derby horse with a classic pedigree. I don’t know if Pappacap is quite ready to knock off these horses, but I feel he is going to run the best race of his life, and if that’s not good enough to win it should be to put him in the exotics. However, if I see him at around 15-1 or higher I would put a win bet on him, because you never know with these 2-year-olds, who mature quickly, and I believe he is sitting on a big race.

Mark Casse’s original plan after the colt’s maiden victory at Gulfstream was to run in the Saratoga Special, Hopeful Stakes, and then the Breeders’ Futurity before heading to California for the Breeders’ Cup. But Casse called the owners and told them he had a new plan, which was to go immediately to Del Mar for the Best Pal Stakes and Del Mar Futurity to get a couple of races over the track and avoid all the brilliant 2-year-olds in Saratoga, knowing this colt would be much better going two turns, and that would come in the American Pharoah Stakes. So the son of red-hot freshman sire Gun Runner headed to Del Mar where he crushed his field in the Best Pal Stakes, galloping out a dozen lengths clear of the others and was difficult to pull up, as if he wanted to do a lot more.

In the Del Mar Futurity, he broke from the rail and ducked in sharply passing the gap to the clubhouse turn and then got rank, throwing his head up when restrained by Joe Bravo, while being stuck right behind a scorching half in :44 3/5. He came up empty in the stretch, finishing fourth. Stretching out to two turns in the American Pharoah, he drew the outside post this time and got caught four-wide wide into the first turn. He moved into second and chased the Baffert-trained Corniche all the way. Despite getting beat 3 ¼ lengths he actually got a faster Thoro-Graph number than the winner. A fast-closing Oviatt Class charged by him after the wire, but when he did, Pappacap got competitive again and went right by him on his inside on the turn.

He was always immature as a youngster and when they put him in the Keeneland yearling sale he didn’t get a second look, so they withdrew him. It’s a different story now. Casse’s assistant who has had him in California told him he has put on weight and grown, and it’s amazing how much bigger and muscled up he is now, and how much more mature he’s gotten, which is what you want to see with a 2-year-old. So far he seems more of a grinder, but he is able to sustain his run a long way, never gets tired, and is a beautiful moving horse.

So, although I am looking at him more as a Derby horse, he is a horse I have to pay attention to now in his second start at two turns and with more pace to run at. But I want to see him farther back this time. They would be more than happy to see him finish in the money, but with a little bit of luck he could be a win play at a pretty big price.

There are not a lot of horses in here who have fast closing speed figures on Brisnet, so if there is enough pace, most of the favorites could be vulnerable in the stretch. The horse who has the best closing figures and decent early pace figures to go with it is OVIATT CLASS and he is a must in the exotics. This could be another Texas Red for Keith Desormeaux. The sneaky good closer at a huge price is the maiden winner GIANT GAME, who could be any kind. But his early and middle pace figures are very slow, so he would need a pace meltdown.

CASA CREED (MILE)
First let me say this was written before he drew post 13, which certainly is far from ideal going a two-turn mile on a tight course. So keep that in mind. He needs every break he can get, but at least there are no major standouts in this field, with the top American being the house horse Mo Forza, winner of his last four and eight of his last nine, who looks like the horse to beat, and the one-two finishers of the seven-furlong Prix de la Foret, Space Blues and Pearls Galore, topping the European contingent. Space Blues is a seven-furlong horse, but his turn of foot in the Foret was spectacular and he is likely the horse to beat. All three are top-class horses, but Mo Forza has narrowly beaten the same two horses, Smooth Like Strait and Hit the Road, in his last two starts, and if you want a California horse at a price you can feel comfortable betting Smooth Like Strait, who hasn’t been worse than fourth in his last 17 starts. But we’ll go for a bomb in here.

Casa Creed has had his ups and downs over a four-year career, but his up may be good enough to win this race. He earned a career-high 104 Beyer figure and career-best “0” Thoro-Graph figure winning the six-furlong Jaipur Stakes in 1:08 flat before finishing a strong third in the one-mile Fourstardave, getting a career-best Thoro-Graph number (“1/2”) at a mile. He then dropped back to six-furlongs in the Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint and was way too far back in 12th, but rallied through traffic to finish fifth, beaten three lengths in 1:07 4/5.

Now he stretches back out to a mile, his favorite distance, and should return to his regular style of running, which is to lay third, fourth, or fifth. But he can be deadly from anywhere. The key to him is timing your move right and if Junior Alvarado does I can see him coming on strong late. He hasn’t won a lot and ran poorly in last year’s BC Mile, but he does have four stakes victories at four different distances, and we are looking for longshots to either win or fill out the exotics and he is going to be a huge price. And I do love the way he worked at Del Mar, so just maybe he is sitting on a big race coming off that sprint.

UNITED (TURF)
This is another race without a true standout, and you don’t have that classic European glamour horse. In addition, most of them drew outside posts, with Teona, Tarnawa, and Japan breaking from posts 12, 13, and 14, respectively. The leading American hope looks to be Domestic Spending, but he has never been a mile and a half and has run only once at a mile and a quarter and was beaten at 2-5. But he’ll be closing for sure. The main danger could be Gufo, who made a very premature move in his last start, but when his move is timed right he is a powerful closer who has gotten a lot more mature with the addition of blinkers and stretching out to a mile and a half. But he is not an easy horse to ride, so Joel Rosario will have to time his move perfectly.

The horse that intrigues me and should be a big overlay is the gutsy, hard-knocking 6-year-old gelding United, who very well could be the most under-appreciated and underrated horse outside of California. He is even disrespected by his own jockey, as Flavien Prat deserted him to ride Domestic Spending, despite having ridden United in his last 16 starts.

All United has done is finish on the board in 17 of his last 18 starts, with his only poor effort coming when he shipped east for the only time in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf, and we all know his trainer Dick Mandella is far more effective defending his home turf than shipping back east. The last time they ran the Breeders’ Cup in California, United was beaten a head by eventual Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar at odds of 51-1. I bet him that day so he owes me one.

United can beat you on the lead, just off the pace, from midpack, or as far back as 10th. In his last two races he was seventh at the eighth and flew home to win the John Henry Turf Championship and was beaten three-quarters of a length after a disastrous trip in the Del Mar Handicap.

Mandella is old school and is not afraid to work his horses long. He worked United seven furlongs in 1:25 3/5 before his victory in the John Henry and went one better by working him a mile in 1:37 1/5 last Thursday.

Although he loses Prat, he gets John Velazquez, who is as big a money rider as there is, so all he loses is familiarity. Also, remember, United has three victories and two seconds in six starts over the Del Mar turf course, with his only other race being the fourth, beaten three-quarters of a length, in this year’s Del Mar Handicap when he came from far back, encountering traffic problems in the stretch. I feel he’ll be an overlay and will be fighting to the end.

If you’re looking for European longshot, keep an eye on the 3-year-old German invader, SISFAHAN, a horse with a strong closing kick who won the German Derby and then, taking on older horses in Grosser Preis von Baden, was second, beaten only a length, by Torquator Tasso, who came back to score a shocking upset in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at 80-1. In his last start, the Preis von Europa, Germany’s version of the Arc, Sisfahan ran on well to finish third, blowing by the first two past the wire. The big difference is that the Preis von Europa is run right-handed around one big turn like the Arc, while the Grosser Preis von Baden is run left-handed around two turns like American racing. And I never underestimate the German horses. They are tough.

Another Euro who I find intriguing is BROOME, who has been used as a pacesetter by Aidan O’Brien, and was 56-1 in the Arc. But earlier in the year he won the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud wire to wire and was beaten a nose in the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup, so he does have class and could be dangerous if he goes out there by himself. He was also beaten a half-length in the 2019 English Derby, coming from well of the pace, which is another reason I find him intriguing. And he gets Frankie Dettori, which moves him up even more.

DUNBAR ROAD/CLAIRIERE (DISTAFF)
We’re being realistic here. It’s difficult enough trying to beat Letruska, but to beat her and Malathaat and Royal Flag is an extremely daunting task. So we’ll just throw these two fillies out there and mention the reasons why either one can run a big enough race to threaten the three top choices or at least be part of the exotics.

Dunbar Road seemed to lose her way after winning last year’s Delaware Handicap and was far from the filly that had won the Mother Goose and Alabama Stakes in 2019. But after an uninspiring fifth in this year’s Shuvee Stakes behind Royal Flag she seemed to wake up in the Personal Ensign Stakes and was flying at the end to be beaten three-quarters of a length by Letruska in a four-horse blanket finish, finishing two heads behind Bonnie South and Royal Flag. She lost a lot of ground, going six-wide at the top of the stretch, was bumped by Royal Flag, and probably would have been second if she hadn’t shied from a left-handed whip and drifted out at a critical point inside the eighth pole and losing just enough momentum.

In the Spinster Stakes, Letruska was allowed to coast along on an easy uncontested lead, and Dunbar Road, racing in fifth in the six-horse field, ran a huge race to finish second, cutting Letruska’s 3 ½-length lead at the eighth pole to 1 ¾ lengths at the finish, while pulling 2 ¼ lengths clear of the late-running Bonnie South. So it was impressive on two counts – gaining on Letruska and pulling away from a strong closer like Bonnie South.

She had run a pair of “1 ¾” Thoro-Graph numbers last year, which is slightly slower than Letruska has been running this year. In her last four races she has gone from a “5” to a “3” to a “2 ¼” to a “2,” so she looks like she is on pattern to take another step forward and be right there with Letruska. She has already been running as fast as Malathaat, but it is Royal Flag who is coming off a “negative-1 ½” in the Beldame, so she actually is the fastest filly in the race right now on Thoro-Graph and is really getting good at the right time, and this race should set up well for her. She could be the overlay in this field as third choice, but is still short for a longshot pick.

As for Clairiere, she is only 3 and has never faced older fillies, and has finished behind Malathaat three times. In her defense, however, she made a premature move in the four-horse Coaching Club American Oaks to put pressure on Malathaat, setting it up for Maracuja, who was able to take back and wait to strike. And that is not the way Clairiere wants to run. She basically was used as a sacrificial lamb to prevent Malathaat from having things her own way on the lead.

She really looks to be peaking now after an impressive victory in the Cotillion Stakes, in which she jumped from a career-best “4 ½” Thoro-Graph figure to a “1 ¼.” What really impressed me was how good she looked working in company with BC Classic contender Max Player last week, in which he was under the whip and she was not being asked, but still finished ahead of him and galloped out ahead of him. So, even though she is a 3-year-old going against exceptional older fillies and mares and the leading 3-year-old filly in the country, she looks ready to run the race of her life. Whether that’s good enough we don’t know, but she, like Dunbar Road, is in great form and will be big odds.

TIZ THE BOMB/DAKOTA GOLD (JUVENILE TURF)
One is an overlay and the other is a megabomb. There is no way I am claiming Dakota Gold is in the same class as Mackinnon, Tiz the Bomb, Dubawi Legend, and the Godolphin pair of Modern Games and Albahr. But if you are looking for a monster price to play with them you had to be impressed with the way Dakota Gold burst clear of his opponents in the Nownownow Stakes at Monmouth Park, winning by 2 ¼ lengths, with another six lengths back to the With Anticipation Stakes winner Coinage. This was Dakota Gold’s grass debut and we really have no idea how good he is. So why not take a shot that he is as good as he looked at Monmouth, and that his turn of foot in the stretch was for real.

Tiz the Bomb is not going to be much of a longshot, but still should be a decent price behind Mackinnon and Dubawi Legend and maybe a couple of others. When Tiz the Bomb broke through the gate in the Bourbon Stakes and ran off a short distance it looked like he had lost all chance, but for him to win anyway from post 12 and looking like he was dropping back nearing the top of the stretch, only to pour it on in the stretch shows how talented he is. And remember, his sire, Hit it a Bomb, trained by Aidan O’Brien, won the Juvenile Turf from post 14.

I try to stay away from the Juvenile turf races, because you never know what’s going to happen, especially figuring out the European form and how they’ll do here. The Euro standout in the Juvenile Turf is the group 1 Dewhurst Stakes runner-up Dubawi Legend, but he drew post 14. So unless he gets lucky and has a dream trip the horse to beat looks like the house horse Mackinnon, who has the turn of foot to match the Europeans and is undefeated in two starts on the Del Mar turf course. Tiz the Bomb’s trainer Kenny McPeek, who is always dangerous in these 2-yar-old races, lost his big Juvenile hopeful Rattle N Roll to a minor injury and I can see him winning this one.

C Z ROCKET (SPRINT)
This is not a longshot pick, but a possible overlay to either save on or put under Jackie’s Warrior. What intrigues me most about C Z Rocket is that he is coming into this race looking very similar to Whitmore last year, who proved to be the overlay of the Breeders’ Cup. Both of these old geldings appeared to have lost some of their fastball, but still were competitive against top-class company. Whitmore got things his own way and fired his best shot.

After winning seven of his eight starts, including back-to-back victories over Whitmore this year, and with his only defeat a second behind Whitmore in last year’s BC Sprint, C Z Rocket has lost his last four races, finishing second twice and third twice, closing well but not with the same punch he had shown earlier. But one race was at seven furlongs and one at a mile, and he has been most productive at six furlongs since being claimed by Peter Miller, and this is the type of race in which Miller is most dangerous, as he showed twice with Roy H in the Sprint at age 5 and 6 and twice with Stormy Liberal the Turf Sprint at age 5 and 6. Now he tries with C Z Rocket at age 7. C Z Rocket’s last three starts were his only races without Lasix and I have no idea if that has any bearing on anything. I just know this is when Miller is most dangerous and he just might have the old gun loaded again when the big money is on the line.

OTHER RACES
I haven’t taken a long hard look at the Turf Sprint, but I was very impressed with GEAR JOCKEY’S last three races since dropping back to sprints, especially his most recent victory in the Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint. But, again, he probably won’t be big odds. I try to stay away from this race, because everything has to go perfectly to win and there is so much room for error.

I will leave the Filly and Mare Sprint to Gamine and the Dirt Mile to Life is Good. And the Filly and Mare Turf is just too strong at the top. Echo Zulu also looks too good, and if she’s beaten it likely will be by the second or third choice, Hidden Connection or Juju’s Map.

As I mentioned earlier, I have already written a column on TRIPOLI and his upset chances in the Classic, based on his wide trip in the Awesome Again and getting a faster Thoro-Graph number than the victorious Medina Spirit, but to be honest, anyone can win this race, and it’s very difficult separating Knicks Go, Essential Quality, Hot Road Charlie, Medina Spirit, and Art Collector — the five top choices. But it sure wouldn’t be a shock to see Tripoli, Max Player, or Express Train pop up and run big. So, other than a minimal win bet on Tripoli and maybe Max Player, this looks like a race to sit back and enjoy rather than try to figure out who to bet in the exotics. If you like one of the favorites just be prepared to make a fairly large bet if you want a big return. The overlay of this group could be HOT ROD CHARLIE, who finally is back home after traveling all over the country and having quite an interesting and eventful campaign. But boy does he run hard and never backs down from a fight, and his second in the Belmont Stakes may be the most impressive losing effort of the year. He could be fourth or even fifth choice, and if he is, he certainly would be worth a win bet. But he does have a following, especially in California, so we’ll see how he gets bet.

Look out for our Breeders’ Cup wrap-up column either late Monday or early Tuesday.