Archive for the ‘Askin’ Haskin’ Category

Popularity of Horses Could Boost Racing’s Image

Monday, October 2nd, 2023

As racing attempts to restore its image through press statements regarding drug offenses and fatal injuries, along with tighter police work and stiffer penalties for cheaters, perhaps it is time to allow the horses to help by focusing on their popularity and creating the same kind of emotional bond with the public that existed years ago. It will never again reach that level, but hopefully the Secretariat “Vox Populi” Award can become more important each year in bringing out the human interest and feel-good stories and create new equine heroes. ~ Steve Haskin

Popularity of Horses Could Boost Racing’s Image

By Steve Haskin


As racing becomes less popular, in some ways it makes the Secretariat Vox Populi Award more popular. That is because popularity is one of the important elements that will keep the sport alive 20 years from now, as it attempts to encourage new fans and bring back the old fans who have deserted it for a variety of reasons. Right now the sport is attempting to survive under the constant firestorm ignited by the anti-racing activists in the wake of several recent horrific and injuries. By showcasing the positive aspect of racing through its heart and soul it is hoped the Vox Populi Award will continue to grab hold of people’s emotions and strengthen their bond with the horses that has existed for centuries.

We no longer have the iconic heroes of the past who achieve national stardom like Kelso or Seabiscuit or Secretariat or Man o’ War, all of whom possessed the power to lure people to the racetrack in droves. The popular horses we do have today are pretty much seen by the public on TV and computer screens or on their cell phones. They no longer are the powerful live physical entities they once were.

Gone are the days when racing fans packed the grandstand, many of them carrying binoculars to enable them see the horses and their glistening coats and all the action up close. Gone are the days of spending an afternoon at the track in the fresh air with the intoxicating (to me) smell of cigars, mustard, and beer wafting through the grandstand. Gone is the camaraderie between horseplayers as they share their victories and defeats with whoever is in ear shot. There were no Rainbow Pick 6 wagers, not even exactas; just win, place, and show and one daily double on the first and second race to encourage bettors to get to the track early. We not only knew all the stakes horses, but were fans of our favorite allowance horses and claimers as well.

There was something special about waking up on a Saturday morning knowing that Kelso or Buckpasser was running that day or that Damascus and Dr. Fager were about to clash in what promised to be another epic showdown. That was followed by the “Golden Decade” of the ‘70s with its parade of all-time great superstars and Triple Crown winners. Racing was thriving, bringing in new fans looking for new sports heroes to worship.

Then in the 21st century it all changed. You have to remember that racing lost perhaps its most powerful public relations weapon when newspapers as a whole starting becoming obsolete, and those that have survived have pretty much eliminated its coverage of horse racing. The sport no longer had the likes of Red Smith, Jim Murray, Damon Runyon, Edwin Pope, Whitney Tower, Grantland Rice and other nationally known sports journalists to promote racing and its equine stars and bring in new fans.

Those who used to run the sport never had to do much from an innovative aspect to promote it. Racing sold itself and its equine heroes were plentiful. They were known affectionately as Big Red, Kelly, Big Cy, The Biscuit, The Admiral, Mr Longtail, Old Bones, The Chocolate Soldier, and The Gray Ghost, just to name a few. That kind of intimacy between the horses and fans no longer exists. Today, the stars of the sport make far fewer appearances on the stage. With their lack of identity they are unable to attain the popularity of their predecessors.

The sport also had virtually no major obstacles back then. With no competition from other gambling outlets; with no corporate raiders threatening the survival of major racetracks; with no profit-craving companies running the sport; with no speed-seeking owners looking for instant gratification to weaken the breed; and without the powerful lure of dollar signs from stallion-happy stud farms, racing was allowed to go about its business undisturbed by outside forces, and the horses allowed to do what they were born to do, which is race.

Most of them were homebreds, who were born, raised, broken, and trained in one place under the watchful eye of their breeders until it was time to ship to the racetrack. Their childhood was pretty much carefree and they were allowed to mature and grow into their bones, which were much stronger than the horses of today. Stamina was not a dirty word as it is today, and in fact was coveted by breeders looking for classic horses and future stallions. After their racing careers many horses were  returned to their place of birth to stand at stud. It wasn’t until 1967 that a magnificent-looking yearling later to be named Majestic Prince gained headlines as the highest-priced yearling sold at public auction when he was purchased by Frank McMahon for $250,000.

When Majestic Prince won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness it sent buyers dashing off to the sales. But The Prince, who was by the fast but unsound Raise a Native, never made it past the Belmont. It was his arch rival from the Triple Crown, Arts and Letters, a son of the strong-boned and major stamina influence Ribot, who turned the tables in the Belmont and went on to be named Horse of the Year and elected to the Hall of Fame.

From the new popularity of the yearling sales eventually came the growth of the 2-year-olds sales where young horses whose bones were still not fully grown were asked to work an eighth of a mile in under 10 seconds and a quarter-mile in under :21 seconds, which is totally unnatural. The increasing number of 2-year-olds sold at public auction brought increased numbers of pinhookers, who buy and resell hoping for a profit, which meant that more and more young horses would have to go through the sales ring twice and be asked to run much faster as a newly turned 2-year-old than they would ever have to run as a racehorse. With speed now reigning and with the early siren calls from the breeding farms, stamina and longevity became less important.

So, with fewer starts, being overbred to fast unsound stallions, and the increased number of medications being administered, Thoroughbreds as a whole were no longer given the chance to become popular on the scale of those strong-boned, stamina-oriented homebreds of the past.

Enter Penny Chenery, who grew up knowing only sound and sturdy horses bred by her father Christopher Chenery at the family’s Meadow Stud in Virginia. She also knew the power of popularity from her two big stars Riva Ridge and of course the legendary Secretariat, who, aided by the power of television, became arguably the most popular racehorse in history, surpassing even Man o’ War and Seabiscuit, whose popularity outside the racetrack was confined to newspapers and radio and the occasional movie theater newsreel.

Penny was a firm believer that popularity helped fuel the sport and those horses who did reach deep into people’s hearts with their feats of valor earned and deserved a place of honor right up there with the divisional champions who were decided by a group of specified voters. But popularity had to be decided by the people and only the people, giving a voice to the fans, who have always been the engine that drives the sport. And so the Secretariat Vox Populi Award was conceived in 2010 to honor the nation’s and in some cases the world’s most popular horse.

From 2010 until 2021, the award was given to the horse who displayed all the qualities specified by Penny. On one occasion in 2013, it was the trainer, Kathy Ritvo, and her courageous fight for life combined with the gutsy effort of her colt, Mucho Macho Man, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic following an equally game, but losing effort in the previous year’s Classic that earned the horse the award. And in 2020, the award was given to Authentic, a horse who, although a top-class major stakes winner later in the year, won the award mainly due to the thousands of micro partners that comprised his ownership.

But then came 2022. For most of the year Cody’s Wish was known as a vastly improving colt owned by the powerful Godolphin juggernaut who excelled in one-turn races. To most, there was nothing overly popular about the horse. Then late in the year prior to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, NBC ran the heartwarming story of Cody Dorman, the son of the colt’s owner, for whom Cody’s Wish was named. The story was so inspiring and touched so many people that when the horse just got up to win the Dirt Mile it all but assured him the Vox Populi Award over the spectacular Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Flightline, who with only six career starts at 2, 3, and 4, all by huge margins, made him a virtual unknown among racing fans and many held his inactivity against him.

Now we come to 2023 and a possible crossroads for the voters of the Vox Populi Award. Last year there wasn’t much of a choice. But this year the fans will have to decide whether the award is for the most popular horse or the most popular story. When Cody’s Wish easily won the prestigious Met Mile to stretch his winning streak to six, and nine of his last 10, and with the Cody Dorman story being retold and updated, the 5-year-old son of Curlin clearly was again the most popular horse in the country. Yes the story made people aware of the horse, but his exploits on the racetrack gave him a popularity of his own.

Even following his defeat in the Whitney, stretching out to two turns, he still didn’t lose much, if any, of his popularity. He then bounced back with a victory in the Vosburgh Stakes, with NYRA running another feature on Cody Dorman. But when it comes to a horse gaining popularity through the human interest story behind his or her connections he was not alone. When small-time trainer Jena Antonucci won the Belmont Stakes with the lightly raced Arcangelo, becoming the first female in history to win a classic, it launched the trainer and her colt into the national spotlight, with Antonucci now the most sought after interview in the sport and the whole world knowing the Cinderella story behind her success. Arcangelo’s subsequent victory in the Travers Stakes off an 11-week layoff further enhanced the story and his trainer’s reputation, and the colt became the early favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

That gave us two main contenders for the Vox Populi Award, both through the stories behind their human connections. But could there be more? The 2-year-old colt Carson’s Run, who recently won the Grade 1 Summer Stakes at Woodbine, was named by Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds after Carson Yost, who suffers from the same affliction as Cody Dorman. Finley was a classmate of Yost’s father Wade at West Point and had promised to name horse after his son, but it took a while to find the right one. With two victories in three starts, Carson’s Run could add his name to the list of Vox Populi contenders if he continues his success this year. We would then have three human interest stories for racing fans to consider.

So what is the most important criteria for the Vox Populi Award and what might Penny Chenery have had in mind when she conceived it? According to Penny the award was established to reward the horse “who most resonates with the public and gains recognition for the sport.” As she said, “How can we, as an industry, expect the rest of the world to embrace our sport when we don’t annually honor our most beloved horses internally?

Well, there is another horse who personifies what the Vox Populi Award stands for, and it is based solely on his toughness, courage, longevity, and consistency, performing well at different distances in top-class races and still winning Grade 1 stakes at the age of 7. And he is a complete horse who eventually will head to stud. His name is Casa Creed, a throwback to a different era in racing, and this year he could very well challenge the three aforementioned horses for the award and force the Vox Populi voters to decide on who best “resonates with the public.” Voters will have to come to terms with whether popularity is based on the story or the horse. Penny’s words left that open for each person to search his or her heart for the answer.

Each horse still has a Breeders’ Cup race coming up, and how they perform in front of the nation and how they are presented to the public could be the deciding factors. That is why the Vox Populi Award is so compelling. And who knows what new stories or horses will emerge in the coming weeks.

Because there are few horses these days who maintain a strong fan base throughout the year, we often see stories emerge later in the year like we did with Cody’s Wish. At this writing there are other contenders who can possibly wind up as Vox Populi nominees. Before she even ran, Tamara had a fan following because of her dam Beholder, one of the most popular horses in recent years and a Grade 1 winner at 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. When Tamara won her debut impressively it brought a great deal of discussion on social media. She now heads to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies where a victory would boost her popularity even more. And we also have to pay attention to the brilliant filly Echo Zulu, who not only is undefeated this year with three dominating performances, she was a nominee for the Vox Populi in 2021 after winning all four of her starts, three of them Grade 1 stakes, by huge margins. So she has already resonated with the public. And how can you overlook the hard-knocking, hard luck 6-year-old mare War Like Goddess, who is always dangerous, against males and females, and would vault into contention with another big effort in the Breeders’ Cup, especially the Turf, in which she finished a solid third last year behind two male European invaders. She has been victimized by a number of sluggish paces, but always puts in a powerful stretch run and she definitely has developed a strong fan following. Will we see a comeback from Kentucky Derby winner Mage, one of the great stories of the year? If he should bounce back in the Classic it would surely re-ignite his fan base and make him a candidate for the Vox Populi Award.

In the past we have had two fillies win the Vox Populi, one (Zenyatta) from the U.S. and one (Winx) from Australia, and both based mainly on long winning streaks and exciting stretch runs. Both fillies became household names around the world. We even had a claimer named Rapid Redux who resonated with the public due to an amazing 22-race winning streak in one year and a tough, courageous turf sprinter named Ben’s Cat who was beloved in Maryland. Voters fell in love with the comeback from near death of Paynter, who was able to perform at a high level in major stakes. They ignored the lack of wins by Hot Rod Charlie and voted for him partly because of his toughness and always giving 100 percent even in several hard-luck defeats, and also because of his group of young and very visible owners who made their presence felt with great passion and excitement. We had the back story and rise from the Cal-bred ranks of California Chrome, the striking chestnut who became so popular his huge fan base called themselves Chromies. And finally there was Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who had more visitors to his barn and interaction with the public than any 3-year-old in memory.

This kind of diversity is what makes the Vox Populi Award so special, and that it is why it will be interesting to see in which direction the voters go this year.

But looking at the big picture, there is no doubt that racing has an image problem and its popularity could very well dictate its future. We will never again see the days when baseball, boxing, and horse racing ruled the sports world. The one-time Sport of Kings no longer is run by sportsmen who built racing and breeding empires, were closer to their horses, and appreciated the history of the sport. With the coming of the businessmen who strive for profits over all else, racing has spread itself thin and diluted its product, with stallions being bred to hundreds of mares a year and shuttling all over the world, and many top trainers now with hundreds of horses instead of the 40 they used to train. That leaves the smaller trainer with far fewer potent weapons to compete for the big bucks.

Many believe there has not been a male horse considered a true all-time great since Cigar or John Henry. They simply do not remain long enough to accomplish the feats of their predecessors and endear themselves to the public. That makes it more difficult for fans to embrace the stars we do have. It is the more extensive careers of superstar fillies such as Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and Beholder that have moved them up the popularity ladder, surpassing the males. Modern technology is great and like everything in this new world it makes it easier on the public, especially when it comes to wagering. But we must maintain that emotional link to the horse, without whom all else is meaningless.

That is why it is so important to let your voice be heard and participate in the Vox Populi poll to give the old warriors, the budding superstarsor those with great human interest stories an opportunity to be rewarded for their popularity on whatever level the public chooses. The more we keep the public involved, the longer racing will endure.


Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


Spencer and Luna: A Love Story

Tuesday, September 19th, 2023

Forget the highs and lows of Saratoga. Forget the upcoming Breeders’ Cup. This is about the true meaning of Thoroughbred racing and the special bond between a foal and a young boy that defied the odds and took them on an unforgettable journey. ~ Steve Haskin

Spencer and Luna: A Love Story

By Steve Haskin


This is not about a stakes horse or a stakes race….far from it. It is in fact about a bottom level horse at a bottom level racetrack. But most of all it is about a 9-year old boy’s love of a horse and his belief in him despite the astronomical odds of him ever getting to the races. Even when the horse did defy the odds and made it to the starting gate and proved to be totally useless as a racehorse, the boy’s love and pride in his horse never wavered.

In short, this is a story about the bond between a child and a Thoroughbred that the anti-racing people never read about or care about. They see only the cold and cruel aspect of the sport and ignore the warmth and extreme passion that has been the core of its existence for centuries.

Let’s go back to the 2018 Keeneland January mixed sale when Lexington Kentucky surgeon George Veloudis purchased a 10-year-old daughter of Pulpit named Paris Girl, who was inbred to Secretariat, for $8,000.  As a 2-year-old, she had sold for a meager $2,000 and never made it to the races. In 2020, she produced a bay colt by Alternation who was plagued with one malady after another and seemed doomed as a racehorse right from the start.

The colt was so large in utero they could barely get him out and eventually had to insert screws in his back legs causing his bones to grow in crooked with little support. It reached a point where he could hardly walk and was suffering from oxygen deprivation after getting stuck in the mare and having to be pulled out. When Veloudis finally did pull him out the colt’s tongue was blue. He also came down with infections where the screws were inserted.

He was so weak behind and the mare was so big he couldn’t even figure out how to nurse. He was what is known as a “dummy foal.” He had to have IV fluids and wore a bandage around his neck. Because he wasn’t nursing they had to give him antibodies. Every two hours they had to try to make him stand and give him a chance to nurse. For 24 to 36 hours they had to actually lift him up bodily.

Spencer, the Veloudis’ 9-year-old son, was already a professional actor, having appeared on TV and on the Broadway stage. In addition to acting, singing, taking tap dancing lessons, studying with The Joffrey Ballet and appearing in Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker.”  He spent much of his time in Manhattan with his older sister Ally, who also was an accomplished writer, actor, as well as a singer and dancer at The Joffrey. In the Fall of 2020, Spencer had just reached the final auditions for The Music Man and Les Miserables, but Covid basically shut down Broadway and became sick with what was believed to be Covid. Because of his illness his parents kept him home long past Christmas and he was there when the colt was born on March 5.

Spencer, who had grown up with horses at the family’s farm, had fallen in love with this stricken foal and rarely left his side. When Broadway opened back up he was offered first chance to go straight to the finals for The Music Man and Les Miserables, all but assuring him the role, but he declined, preferring to stay on the farm to take care of the foal. He eventually took his passion and his drive to succeed on the stage and redirected it toward horses.

“Spencer and Luna’s bond was instant,” said his mom Tiffiney, who is listed as the breeder. “From IV fluids, bottle feedings, surgeries, months in his stall, complications, and so much more, the baby, who we named Spencer’s Boy Luna because of their bond and the half moon star on the colt’s forehead, had a secret weapon on his side….Spencer. Spence cared for him, kept up with his care schedule, fed him, hovered over him, laid with him, and wrapped him in a blanket so he wouldn’t get cold. Spence disagreed strongly with the veterinarian’s opinions the colt would never race, and pushed us to trust him because he knew in his heart Luna was born to run.

“We tried to convince him that maybe one day he could become a hunter/jumper or a riding horse, but he was so much in love with the colt and always believed in him. He kept saying he wants to race. We told him, ‘But how can he? He has screws in him and he’s had all these problems and infections.’ All Spence said was, ‘Look at his heart.’”

The care and devotion paid off and so Spencer’s Boy Luna was sent to Jordan Hattaway to be broken and then to trainer Kara Toye. He stayed sound and finally made it to the races on September 1, 2022 in a one-mile maiden special weight race on grass at Kentucky Downs, racing in Spencer’s name. Not many horses in Kentucky were owned by a 13-year-old boy since the age limit for ownership was 18, but they made an exception for Spencer. Sent off at odds of 78-1, he did little running, finishing 10th, beaten more than 17 lengths. But Spencer wouldn’t give up on him. He had at least proven the veterinarians wrong who said he would never make it to the races.

On October 19, Luna ran in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Keeneland and was eased after falling so far behind the field at odds of 72-1. Instead of being discouraged, Spencer kept saying how proud he was of his horse for racing at Keeneland. Running him in a claiming race was out of the question, as there was no way they could risk losing him.

Spencer kept insisting there was something wrong with the horse the way he stopped so abruptly. So they tried again on December 16 at Turfway Park, but the result wasn’t much better, with Luna finishing 12th, beaten 21 lengths at odds of 116-1.

Also in 2022 Spencer began showing and riding Saddlebreds competitively after getting his lessons from Susi Day at Grey Ridge Farms. She could sense the love he had for horses right from the start. In his first major competition in full suit this past May in Madison, Wisconsin he won first place. When Spencer put his mind to something there was no stopping this determined young boy. And his mind was always on Luna.

Spencer’s parents kept trying to convince him they had done all they could with Luna and that he probably just needed to be “a fun horse.” But Spencer, who had the ability to read horses and connect with them, noticed Luna had shown good early speed and then “hit a wall.” He was convinced he had a breathing problem.

This past January, Luna was sent to Rood and Riddle clinic in Lexington to have two chips removed. Spencer, still feeling the colt was having trouble breathing, wanted the vets to scope him, but they found nothing. Despite that, Spencer remained steadfast in his belief the colt was losing his air. It was decided they had nothing to lose so they had the clinic perform a tie-forward procedure where a suture is placed to pull the larynx forward and prevent the soft palate from displacing.

It looked like an unwise decision when Luna developed an infection from the procedure and came down with a 104-degree fever. Sent back to Rood and Riddle he was put on a nebulizer and given steroids to control the swelling and then went to Kesmarc, a leader in equine hyperbaric medicine, in Versailles to continue his recovery.

If the colt was having trouble breathing in his races at least Spencer would now know for sure. After this it would be futile to keep going with him if he continued to run so poorly. The colt had been through so much already from the day he was born.

Earlier this year, the family’s friend, Billy Jarrell, who had provided insurance work for trainer Eric Reed, suggested they send Luna to him. Veloudis wanted to send Reed both Luna and a 4-year-old Arrogate colt who had already won. Reed said he was full and couldn’t take the Arrogate colt, but for some reason he took Luna and made room for him in the shedrow. Just like that, Luna was now being trained by the 80-1 winner of the 2022 Kentucky Derby — Rich Strike. Everyone at the barn immediately took to Luna because of his sweet disposition, which can be attributed in good part to Spencer for all the love he lavished on him since he was a baby.

Spencer became more optimistic when Luna’s works began to get faster, with one being faster than any work he had ever had. Reed agreed that Luna had been having breathing issues, and now he needed a confidence builder.

“Eric said, ‘Let’s send him to Mountaineer Park (in West Virginia) and let him have some fun races there,’” Tiffiney said. This way it would help him get over his confidence issues.

So they entered him this past Sunday going six furlongs. Earlier in the week Spencer and the family were in Indianapolis for a big national Saddlebred event, the All American Classic Horse Show, but Spencer’s mind was on Mountaineer and Luna’s return to the races to show that he was a different horse after all he had been through. George and Tiffiney returned to Kentucky to watch one of their 2-year-olds run and then went back to Indianapolis for the remainder of the competition, where Spencer finished second in his event despite his mind being elsewhere. “All he kept thinking about was he had to go see his baby,” Tiffiney said.

From Indianapolis they had to rush to West Virginia, arriving at the track just before the race. Unlike in Kentucky, Spencer, at age 13, was too young to be listed as owner and he wasn’t even allowed in the paddock. Because of his new high-profile trainer, who was very popular at Mountaineer, and his quick works, Luna, racing in Tiffiney’s name, was sent off as the even-money favorite.

Luna tracked a rapid pace of :22 1/5 and :45 1/5 before taking the lead inside the eighth pole and drawing away to a 2 1/2-length victory. Spencer, standing by the rail, kept cheering Luna on, finally putting his hands on his head and over his face, almost in disbelief, and continuously shouting “That’s my boy! That’s my boy! That is my boy! I knew you could do it, Luna.”

It didn’t matter that this was a maiden race at Mountaineer. There could have been no greater joy winning the Kentucky Derby. This was three years of love, dedication, trust, and never losing confidence in his boy all coming together in one glorious moment of jubilation.

“Spence is not a crier, but the tears were flowing,” Tiffiney said.

The first person to text Tiffiney was Luna’s first trainer, Kara Toye, who said simply, “Luna tuna!! Yay yay yay!” Tiffiney responded with only “Spence cried,” to which Kara replied, “Omg of course! So happy!”

“We supported Spence but never seriously thought Luna would win or stay sound enough to race,” Tiffiney posted on Facebook. I WAS WRONG. Spence loves horses and has a connection with them. He always has. He’s his daddy’s child. His reaction to Luna winning was the best. PRIDE! I’m proud we have raised a kid who will push us when he feels strongly about something. I can’t predict if Luna will ever win again. And it’s ok if he doesn’t. But on Sept 17, 2023 he made Spencer a winning Thoroughbred owner.”

Regardless of what the future holds for Spencer’s Boy Luna, this was a moment to cherish forever, a bond between a boy and his horse and their unlikely path to the winner’s circle. It didn’t matter which one.

It also didn’t matter in the end that Spencer decided not to do the coveted role of Gavroche in Les Miserables. But if he had he would have given new meaning to the young street urchin’s lyrics, “It only goes to show what little people can do.”

Photos courtesy of the Tiffiney Veloudis

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


Big Red Bounces Back in the Marlboro Cup

Monday, September 11th, 2023

This is the story of how Secretariat managed to recover from an illness suffered in the Whitney Stakes in time to once again make history in the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup, paving the way for an unforgettable fall season that solidified his greatness. ~ Steve Haskin

Big Red Bounces Back in the Marlboro Cup

By Steve Haskin


In the spring of 1973 Thoroughbred racing was basking in the glow of Secretariat’s epic sweep of the Triple Crown. Not only had he become the first horse in 25 years to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, he did it with such flair, accomplishing feats never before seen, it raised the Sport of Kings to new heights and turned this equine Adonis into a national celebrity. When he appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated the week before his mind-blowing victory in the Belmont it set new standards of journalism by making a horse the most newsworthy celebrity in the country.

But by August a cloud hung over the Sport of Kings; the cloud of uncertainty. How did this seemingly invincible force of nature who had tread where no other Thoroughbred had ever gone throughout his record-breaking Triple Crown manage to get beat in the Whitney Stakes by an allowance caliber sprinter named Onion? And how would his shocking defeat at Saratoga affect the running of the newly conceived Marlboro Cup with its lucrative $250,000 purse, which originally was designed as a match race between Secretariat and his illustrious stablemate Riva Ridge?

There was no doubt that Secretariat’s defeat in the Whitney was a major setback for the new Marlboro Cup. And in the following weeks more questions arose that could have put an end to the race before it began.

The Marlboro Cup already had a dubious foundation, with its rich purse and its sponsor, the Philip Morris Corporation, proposing a match race between two stablemates, which didn’t sit well with a number of racing fans who saw this as just payday for the colts’ owner Meadow Stable’s Penny Tweedy. This mile and an eighth event, scheduled for September 15, would mark one of the first times a sporting event would be sponsored by and named after a corporation. But it seemed as if forces were conspiring against it.

Secretariat was more than just the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. He already was a legend, an icon that had transcended his sport. As good as the kind-hearted, loppy-eared Riva Ridge was, Penny Tweedy and trainer Lucien Laurin knew he was not quite up to the task of beating Secretariat. But for $250,000, they weren’t about to turn down the proposal. They knew Riva would at least make it competitive and put on a show…up to a point. And many believed that Penny’s heart was with Riva Ridge, who had helped save the farm during a time of financial crisis and the death of Penny’s father, Meadow Stud’s founder Christopher Chenery.

Although some took exception to the race, many were intrigued at the prospect of seeing the two Kentucky Derby winners meet. This would be Riva Ridge’s chance to knock off the horse in whose shadow he had existed for almost a year.

Then something happened that made marketing director Jack Landry and the other top executives at Philip Morris start chain smoking. When Riva Ridge was upset by a 56-1 shot named Wichita Oil in an allowance race on the grass on August 1, it took a good deal of interest out of the match race. No one could understand why he had been put on the grass at that time, especially an allowance race, following back-to-back victories in the Massachusetts Handicap and a world record-breaking performance in the Brooklyn Handicap.

Then came the Whitney debacle only three days later. With Secretariat proving to be mortal after all, the Marlboro Cup pretty much lost its luster. The brain trust at Philip Morris had to do some quick thinking. They decided to continue on, but changed plans, altering the purse structure, and making the race an open invitation, inviting the best horses in the country.

But their problems were far from over. There were still major questions hanging over the race. It was announced several days after the Whitney that Big Red had developed a virus. The stress of competition apparently had brought it to a head. But it later came out that Secretariat had been sick before the Whitney. And there was a record crowd expected. If he had been scratched it would have been a major blow to the New York Racing Association and racing in general, with so many seats already sold.

It was not only the one-length defeat to Onion, but finishing only a diminishing half-length ahead of the vastly inferior Rule by Reason that convinced everyone Secretariat was nowhere near his best. He came out of the race with a 105-degree fever, his appetite declined and he acted sluggish for several days.

Secretariat’s hotwalker Steve Jordan added, “He was definitely sick for the Whitney. I can’t recall any trepidation going into the race, but most of the time these things explode from the stress of a race. And I’m sure he was incubating something going into the race. Afterward, we just walked him for eight to 10 days.”

There was no choice but to skip the Travers Stakes, which was won by four-time stakes winner Annihilate ‘Em with red-hot Ron Turcotte picking up the mount at the last minute.

The Whitney was now history, and all the attention turned to the Marlboro Cup. Could Secretariat rebound big-time and prove to everyone that it was indeed the illness that compromised his chances? Could he even recover in time from his illness to make the Marlboro Cup? Was Riva Ridge’s defeat on the grass an aberration and he would return to form on the dirt?

Although there was still a question surrounding Secretariat’s status, it was time to start scouring the country for horses worthy of competing for the megabucks and in the highest level of competition.

There was a slight ray of hope when Riva Ridge rebounded from his defeat to win an allowance race back on dirt on August 21, but just barely holding on to defeat Halo by a half-length. It wasn’t the kind of dominating performance everyone had hoped for, but it at least erased that blot from his record and put him back on the right track.

The big question, and on what the entire race hinged, was whether Secretariat could make it back in time and return to his Triple Crown form. It was going to be touch and go. Lucien Laurin felt he had to get four stiff works in the colt, with the last one being brilliant enough to convince him Big Red was ready to perform at his best coming off an illness and a six-week layoff.

Steve Jordan recalled, “One morning I was standing in the yard with Lucien and (assistant) Henny Hefner and Lucien said, ‘I don’t know, this is really squeezing on this horse to make this race after being as sick as he was. This is a big task facing all these good horses.’ Henny always had a way of putting things in perspective, and he shrugged his shoulders and just said, ‘Well, boss, then we’ll just win in it with the other horse.’”

Jordan walked Secretariat each day and could feel him getting stronger.

“I was out grazing him one morning, and back then we used only a single chain,” he recalled. “Out of nowhere, he started raising hell and rearing up right near the old wooden manure pit. The first thing I did was look to see where my car was parked, because I knew if he got loose I’m going right to my car and saying sayonara to the racing game; I’m gone. I jumped inside the manure pit to brace myself, and he finally settled down. I was ashen and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I looked up and saw Penny and Lucien standing at the end of the shedrow and they’re both smiling. Lucien yells to me, ‘Stevie, you can bring him in now. I guess he’s feeling better, isn’t he?’”

Jordan had discovered earlier just how strong Big Red was when the colt literally lifted him off the ground just by sneezing.

Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton described Big Red’s march toward the Marlboro Cup as only he could: “Returned to Belmont to point for the $250,000 Marlboro, the sport’s pin-up horse looked bloody awful, rather like one of those sick paintings which betoken an inner theatre of the macabre. It required supernatural recuperative powers to recover as he did. He was subjected to four severe preps in two weeks. Astonishingly, he gained weight and blossomed with every trial. He had to work in time approximating track records just to keep fit, and trainer Lucien Laurin never got to the bottom of him actually. The colt had a most accommodating appetite. Not to be vulgar, but one of Laurin’s contemporaries quipped, ‘Either he is a good doer, or he’s got a tapeworm.’”

With Secretariat seemingly healthy and feeling good and Riva Ridge back in the win column, the remainder of the field began to come together.

There was Riva Ridge’s archrival, the 3-year-old champion Key to the Mint, winner of the Suburban Handicap and second in the Met Mile, as well as being victorious in the previous year’s Brooklyn and Whitney against older horses followed by victories in the Travers and Woodward Stakes. In the latter he snatched the 3-year-old championship away from Riva Ridge by beating him soundly.

Then there was the ageless California invader Cougar II, a star on grass and dirt who was destined for the Hall of Fame. Even at age 7 “The Big Cat” was still going strong, having won the Santa Anita Handicap earlier in the year and the Sunset Handicap on grass in his start before the Marlboro Cup, in which he missed the course record by two-fifths of a second carrying 128 pounds. In his seven starts that year, all of them Grade 1, he finished in the money in all of them. Cougar had been sent east for the 1971 Woodward Stakes, in which he romped by five lengths only to be disqualified in a very controversial decision. In all, he had won 14 stakes and placed in 16 others since coming to America from his native Chile.

Also accepting an invitation was Kennedy Road, champion in Canada at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5, including Horse of the Year in 1973. Sent to trainer Charlie Whittingham in California in 1973, he won the Hollywood Gold Cup and San Antonio, San Diego, and Cabrillo Handicaps, giving Whittingham a powerful one-two punch with Cougar.

The field was completed with Travers winner Annihilate ‘Em and Big Red’s Whitney nemesis Onion. The seven runners assembled in what was now being billed as the “Thoroughbred Race of the Year” had earned a total of $4,539,335 and won 63 stakes, including six classics counting Kennedy Road’s Queen’s Plate victory, and 13 championships.

The last and most important piece of the puzzle would be Secretariat’s final work three days before the race. He was a horse who carried so much muscle and flesh he needed to work fast before a race to get sharp, both mentally and physically.

So Laurin sent out Big Red for his all-important final work, needing to see a fast time and strong gallop-out. If he didn’t demonstrate the sheer brilliance his trainer was looking for, there was a chance of him being withdrawn, which would have proved to be a disaster…for the race and the fans. But the last thing anyone wanted was for Secretariat to have a relapse because he came back a week too soon. With that $6,080,000 million syndication tag still hanging over his head, back-to-back defeats was unthinkable.

Any fears or trepidation that may have existed disappeared in the vapor trail Secretariat left as he rocketed his five furlongs in :57 flat, galloping out six furlongs in 1:08 4/5. There was no doubt now that he was ready, even though Laurin felt he was still a week away from being 100 percent.

Laurin was quoted as saying, “It hasn’t been easy. I could have used another week. I know I’ve got the two best horses; whether either wins is another question. I do know that if Secretariat were coming up to this race as well as Riva Ridge has, they could put 135 pounds on him and I wouldn’t be worried.”

In weighting the race, racing secretary Kenny Noe assigned Secretariat 124 pounds, with the 4-year-old Riva Ridge carrying 127. With the five-pound weight allowance for 3-year-olds, Secretariat was giving his stablemate two pounds on the scale. Cougar II and Key to the Mint would carry 126, down to 3-year-old Annihilate Em and the 4-year-old Onion at 116.

An all-night rain hit New York the night before the race, but the sun and wind dried out the track quickly, making it wet-fast, and then just plain old fast. That made the backers of Riva Ridge, who detested the slop, and Cougar II, who did his best on a fast track, very happy.

The 48,023 fans in attendance got a peek at what was to come the race before the Marlboro Cup when the brilliant filly Desert Vixen, riding a seven-race winning streak, including runaway victories in the Monmouth Oaks, Delaware Oaks, Alabama, and Gazelle, all by more than six lengths, romped by 8 1/2 lengths in the Beldame Stakes, running the mile and an eighth in a sizzling 1:46 1/5 and equaling the track record, while demolishing one of the greatest fields of fillies and mare in memory; a field that included champion Susan’s Girl, Summer Guest, Convenience, Light Hearted, and Poker Night. If this was the prelude to the big show, everyone knew the track record was about to fall in the Marlboro Cup.

The Meadow Stable entry, the original two opponents for the race, was sent off as the 2-5 favorite, with Key to the Mint at 7-2 and the late-running Cougar II 4-1.

Riva Ridge broke on top under jockey Eddie Maple, but was quickly joined on the inside by Onion, who attempted the same tactics he used in the Whitney by charging to the lead, with Riva in pursuit, followed closely by Kennedy Road and Annihilate Em. Sitting right behind them in striking position was Secretariat, as they blazed along the opening half in :45 3/5.

Heading into the far turn, Riva Ridge moved up to challenge Onion, as Ron Turcotte let out a notch on Secretariat and he began closing in from the far outside. It soon became apparent that the race was going to be between the two Meadow Stable colts, just as the Philip Morris people had envisioned. Cougar II was still far back and Key to the Mint for some reason wasn’t firing on this day.

Following a rapid 1:09 1/5 for the three quarters, it was now all Secretariat and Riva Ridge. Big Red headed his stablemate approaching the top of the stretch, with Turcotte keeping him well off the rail, while looking over his left and then right shoulder to see if there were any threats being mounted. There was no one even close on his outside, so he gave one last peek over at Eddie Maple on Riva Ridge and saw that he had them measured.

Turcotte never once went to the whip and let Secretariat open up on his own, passing the eighth pole with a two-length lead in a scorching 1:33 flat. Turcotte continued hand-riding Secretariat through the final furlong and just waved the whip at him briefly approaching the wire. Big Red crossed the finish line 3 1/2 lengths in front of Riva Ridge, who was two lengths ahead of the fast-closing Cougar II under Bill Shoemaker. The final time of 1:45 2/5 shattered Desert Vixen’s short-lived record by four-fifths of a second and established a new world record.

After the race, Steve Jordan was standing on the track waiting for both colts to return and found himself next to the great Charlie Whittingham, trainer of Cougar II and Kennedy Road, who was waiting for his two horses. Cougar was the first to return and when Shoemaker jumped off and pulled off the tack, Jordan, standing no more than five yards away, heard him say to Whittingham, “Charlie, those are two runnin’ sonofabitches that beat us.”

Secretariat, with such a brilliant performance, had made his Whitney defeat inconsequential, as if it never happened. The Big Red Machine was back operating at full power, with Secretariat pointed for the Man o’War Stakes on grass in three weeks, but that is a story for another day. As for the Marlboro Cup, it would continue to be one of racing’s most sought after prizes, run at different distances, until it was discontinued in 1988, having been won by the likes of Forego, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, and champions Slew o’ Gold, Chief’s Crown, and Turkoman. It was also where Forego carried a staggering 136 pounds to victory and where Triple Crown winners (Seattle Slew and Affirmed) met for the first time.

But it will be best remembered as the race in which the legend and greatness of Secretariat was resurrected against an all-star field, adding to Big Red’s list of track and world records. And he did it bouncing back from an illness. It showed once again that Secretariat was and always will be the sport’s greatest showman.

Photos courtesy of New York Racing Association / Bob Coglianese

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


The Ire of the Tiger at the Kentucky Derby

Monday, September 4th, 2023

One never knows where a story idea will come from. This week it took a maiden victory by a 2-year-old filly at Saratoga and one particular name in her pedigree to unlock the story of one man and his impact on the sport, as unconventional as it was, and the powerful legacy he left in the form of one nondescript runt of a horse. ~ Steve Haskin

The Ire of the Tiger at the Kentucky Derby

By Steve Haskin

Owner Robert Lehmann, left, and Dust Commander in 1970 Kentucky Derby winner’s circle

Does the name Robert Lehmann ring a bell? How about Golden Chance Farm? I hadn’t given those names much thought until I saw a 2-year-old first-time starter named Emery romp in a maiden race at Saratoga the final week of the meet for owner Stonestreet Stables and trainer Brad Cox. Looking at Emery’s past performances I could not help but notice she was inbred to Naskra, a foal of 1967 whose name I had not seen in years. But I remember him well, especially his toughness as a racehorse and his success as a sire. To be inbred top and bottom to this hard-knocking stallion was indeed a shock.

Just seeing Naskra’s name made me think of his wild and wacky Kentucky Derby trail, in which he finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes and fourth in the Derby. But it was who won those two races that unlocked the memories that inspired this column; one that needs to be told. It is the story of Robert Lehmann and the bombshell he dropped on Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, as well as the legacy he left . It also shines the spotlight on his wife Verna, who celebrated her 98th birthday this past April.

So let’s go back to the 1970 Kentucky Derby trail and arguably the most auspicious, and definitely most controversial, debut by any owner and breeder, who would go on to own and breed a classic winner, own and breed several horses who became an integral part of racing’s Golden Era of the 1970’s, and breed one of the greatest Thoroughbreds of all time.

In 1968, Lehmann had just purchased Golden Chance Farm in Paris, Kentucky with his wife Verna and their five children. This was not exactly your typical Kentucky blueblood operation. After purchasing the farm, Lehmann went out and bought six yearlings to go with the six mares that had been part of the farm purchase. One of those yearlings was a son of Bold Commander, out of a mare who had been winless in 28 starts. Lehmann got the colt for the dirt cheap price of $6,500. And he performed like it, too, running for a $7,500 claiming tag.

That horse’s name was Dust Commander, who would win the Blue Grass Stakes in the slop at odds of 35-1 and then romp by five lengths in the Kentucky Derby at 15-1. You knew this was no ordinary racing operation when Lehmann did not attend the Blue Grass because he was in India hunting down and killing a man-eating tiger who had been terrorizing a small village, killing a number of people. He learned of the victory from Verna several days later and was as surprised as everyone, assuring her that the horse had little shot to win the Derby. With the Run for the Roses run only nine days after the Blue Grass, Lehmann barely made back in time for the race.

A millionaire by age 27, Lehmann’s passion in life was building and creating, and he once said, “If you can’t build you might as well die.” It was that philosophy that caused a collective gasp from racing fans, the media, and especially the Kentucky bluebloods following Dust Commander’s Derby victory. After accepting the trophy, the usual humble acceptance speech heard every year was replaced by Lehmann, feeling he hadn’t created anything and didn’t deserve to rejoice in the victory, saying on national TV that winning the Derby wasn’t as exciting as bagging a big-game animal. Rubbing salt in the proverbial wound, he added, “It means twice as much to me to shoot a record tiger than winning the Kentucky Derby.”

That set off a firestorm of criticism from the media and shockwaves throughout the racing world. Animal lovers everywhere were stunned to hear that a man who owned and bred Thoroughbreds actually got more enjoyment killing a tiger than winning the Kentucky Derby. It was nothing short of blasphemy.

In Lehmann’s mind, all he had done was pay $6,500 for an unproven Illinois-bred yearling and got lucky. He had created nothing, and unlike big-game hunting he was merely an observer with no contribution to the ultimate victory. It just wasn’t the same thrill.

No horse had ever gone into the Derby with more divine assistance than Dust Commander. He had been blessed by the Zambian Archbishop, whose education Robert Lehmann had funded years earlier. Jockey Mike Manganello wore a St. Christopher’s medal that had been blessed by the Pope. Verna Lehmann wore a pin that Robert had brought back from India that was said to be a lucky token. And Robert carried with him the neck bones of a tiger and a leopard he had shot that also meant good luck in India. He even carried a rosary his grandmother gave him when he was 7. That was some heavy ammunition for someone who wasn’t excited to win the Derby.

To add to the craziness of this Derby, about 20 minutes before post time a man landed in the infield in a red, white, and blue parachute and somehow managed to get lost in the crowd before security could get to him. Minutes before, another person parachuted down but overshot the track and landed somewhere in the surrounding neighborhood.

Dust Commander, who sustained a soft tissue injury in the Derby, would go on to finish ninth in the Preakness, apparently aggravating the injury. He eventually placed in several stakes, retiring with eight victories in 42 starts. After standing at Golden Chance Farm, he was sent to Japan due to lack of interest, but returned to the United States after five years to stand at Gainesway Farm and finally to Springland Farm in Kentucky. But no one knew what became of him after his death in 1991. After years of searching by the Lehmann family, his remains were discovered in 2013 in an unmarked grave at a small farm near Paris, Kentucky that had been sold and divided. They were sent to the Kentucky Derby Museum where they were reburied in the garden next to fellow Derby winners Broker’s Tip, Swaps, Carry Back, and Sunny’s Halo.

In the years following Dust Commander’s Derby victory, Golden Chance Farm became the owner and breeder of top-class stakes horses thanks to Dust Commander’s sons Master Derby and Run Dusty Run. Lehmann had finally created something of his own on the racetrack. But he never lived to see it.

All during the early ‘70s, Lehmann, despite knowing he was dying of leukemia, continued to build. He expanded Golden Chance Farm, while building a bank, office building, motel, and restaurant in Clearwater, Florida. In the front yard of his home at Golden Chance, he constructed a 150-foot tower made of concrete slabs and a mausoleum that included the entrance doors from the old Metropolitan Opera House, gold-veined marble from Mexico, and Balmoral Red granite crypt covers from the same quarry in Finland that provided the crypt cover for Napoleon’s tomb.

Lehmann died in 1974, the year before Master Derby won the Preakness Stakes at odds of 23-1, as well as the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. He really blossomed at 4, winning the New Orleans and Oaklawn Handicaps, but in his biggest moment in the Metropolitan Handicap he ran into Forego, who beat him by a head.

In 1977, Run Dusty Run made his mark on the Triple Crown, but had the misfortune of coming along the same year as Seattle Slew, finishing second to the Triple Crown winner in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Preakness, and second in the Belmont Stakes. A winner of six of his nine starts at 2, he couldn’t buy a victory at 3, also finishing second in the Louisiana Derby, American Derby, and Blue Grass. He finally had his shining moment scoring a gutsy nose victory in the Travers Stakes only to be disqualified and placed second.

Golden Chance also had a good horse named Lot o’ Gold, who raced under the name of the Lehmann’s son Fred and won the Spiral Stakes at Latonia. But once again it was the same old story, as Lot o’ Gold finished second four times in a five-race span to Spectacular Bid, in the Hutcheson, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, and Blue Grass Stakes before finishing up the track in the Kentucky Derby.

Another Robert Lehmann family colt, Bob’s Dusty, won the Clark Handicap twice, the Fayette Handicap, Spiral Stakes, and William McKnight Handicap, but was best known as the horse Seattle Slew knocked out of his way to get the lead in the Kentucky Derby.

So Golden Chance-owned and/or bred horses, as talented as they were, kept running into the likes of Seattle Slew (four times),  Spectacular Bid (five times), and Forego.

No, the craziness isn’t over. In 1980, the Fred Lehmann-owned and bred Golden Derby, a son of Master Derby, won the Tremont Stakes in a stirring finish that is best remembered for the runner-up, Great Prospector, reaching over and savaging Golden Derby. The head-on shot of the incident won the Eclipse Award for best photo of the year. No one remembers that Golden Derby would go on to win five stakes in his career and place in six others.

As sad as it was that Lehmann never got to see these horses run, what was saddest of all was that he never knew that some three months after his death he would create arguably his greatest monument and work of art. But this work of art was constructed from the cheapest material available, and for several years it showed. If it were made of brick and mortar, Lehmann may very well have torn it down.

But it came in the form of a Thoroughbred foal, who was by a bottom-of-the-barrel sire considered nothing more than a clean-up stallion who stood for a meager $500 stud fee. With 60 mares on the farm and only one stallion and another on the way, the Lehmanns couldn’t afford to pay the stud fees required to breed to so many mares, so they went out and bought a cheap stallion named Ole Bob Bowers to breed to some of the leftovers.

But Ole Bob Bowers was so mean and difficult to handle, having attacked several people, the Lehmanns put him in the Keeneland November breeding stock sale where he was bought for $900 the year after his son and Robert Lehmann’s greatest creation was born. By then he was residing at his new home in Ossseo, Michigan.

His son hardly looked like a work of art. He not only had inherited his sire’s ornery disposition he was physically incorrect and looked pretty much like a runt. Bobby Paul, who was in charge of the foals and weanlings, called him a “mean, studdish little bugger.” Three veterinarians advised the Lehmanns to get rid of him, so they put him in the Keeneland January mixed sale for newly turned yearlings that was known as Kentucky’s “fire sale.”

In the pavilion was John Calloway, a small-time breeder and trainer who owned a horse farm with his wife Jean in a rural area of Pee Wee Valley, about 10 miles outside of Louisville. The Calloways had a nice horse who kept getting beat by this one horse who was out of a Double Jay mare. So when John saw this scrawny little yearling who was out of a Double Jay mare it caught his attention. When the colt stepped in the ring his head was bloody from hitting it on the screen of his stall. Calloway said “he looked like a drowned rat and was a real mess.” But he liked the pedigree, so when the auctioneer opened the bidding at $1,000, Calloway upped it to $1,100 and that was it. The colt was his. Of all the Golden Chance babies who sold at that sale he was the cheapest. Considering his pedigree, his disposition and what he looked like, Fred Lehmann said he felt that was a fair price.

When Calloway got the colt home, a veterinarian took one look at him and said, “Oh my gosh, you might as well get rid of that one. He’ll never make it.” When the Calloways witnessed the colt’s behavior, taking out his anger on his water buckets and feed tubs, ripping them off the wall and stomping on them, they realized, like the Lehmanns, it was time to send him packing again.

But they did notice one thing about the colt as they stood by the fence of the large paddock and watched him scamper about with the other yearlings. “You know, he runs different from the others,” John said. Although still novices in the game they felt he glided over the ground and had the most beautiful action. But they were not experienced enough to know how to interpret it. They heeded their vet’s advice and decided to sell the colt at the next January mixed sale. But first they needed to name him. John Calloway would often name their horses with the name John. Of the five names that were submitted the one that was chosen was John Henry from the song about a “steel-drivin’ man.”

When it was time to ship him to the sale, John Henry was brought into his stall to be groomed, which he hated. His temperament was much better when he was outside in his paddock. When Jean Calloway went in to feed him, John Henry reared up like “a wild horse.” She dropped the feed bucket and dashed out of the stall, never wanting to see him again. When her husband loaded him on the van and drove off, Jean had only one thought: “Good riddance.”

And so John Henry was off to begin one the most amazing life journeys ever by a Thoroughbred, ending in racing’s pantheon. Bought and sold many times and tossed away like yesterday’s trash, he turned a frivolous short story into an uplifting epic. His belligerent nature from the day he was born continued to fuel his fighting spirit on the racetrack, enabling him to have his greatest year at age 9 and kept him younger than his years until his death at age 32.

John Henry’s life was woven like some great tapestry, not only of the Turf, but of the stage, where one human drama after another was played out. To those who lived in the shadow of John’s past, there was only gratification knowing that for a brief moment in time true greatness passed through their hands and that perhaps they helped move it along toward its place in history.

But it was Robert Lehmann who was the architect of this unlikely masterpiece. And he did it during one of the briefest and oddest careers of any owner and breeder. The man, the big-game hunter, the horse breeder who lived to build and create had built a one-horse dynasty and created a legacy that will endure in the hearts of racing fans and horse lovers.

As the Charlie Sheen character Bud Fox did in the movie Wall Street, Lehmann, in his final act as a breeder, had “bagged the elephant.”

Photos courtesy of Churchill Downs, Blood-Horse Library, NYRA/Adam Coglianese

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


Females Dominate Headlines in New York

Monday, August 28th, 2023

Once again we have to find storylines in the face of tragedy, which has plagued the Saratoga meet on its two biggest weekends. Hopefully we can provide a diversion with several iconic names from the past, while saluting the females of the sport, both human and equine. ~ Steve Haskin

Females Dominate Headlines in New York

By Steve Haskin


This week’s column will focus on the females who were in the news this week or made an impact on the racing, highlighted by Jena Antonucci, Mary Hirsch, Ruffian, Secretariat’s daughters, Gallorette, and Better Than Honour.

The more we see of Jena Antonucci the more we are convinced that she is much more than a small-time trainer who simply got lucky by being handed an extremely gifted colt named Arcangelo, who despite being by the brilliant Arrogate, sold for a paltry $35,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. Following Arcangelo’s victory in the Belmont Stakes, in which Antonucci became the first female trainer to win a classic, she demonstrated her acute knowledge of all aspects of racing and of horses in general, was a great ambassador for the sport, and had enough confidence in herself and her horse to ignore the critics who questioned her decision to run Arcangelo in the Travers off an 11-week layoff.

By winning the Travers, Antonucci brought to light one of the most unsung heroes in the history of racing, Mary Hirsch, the daughter of the great Max Hirsch. Mary not only became the first and only female trainer to win the Travers back in 1938, she fought the system and the prejudice of the times by becoming the first female to take out a trainer’s license in 1934. Three years later she became the first female to saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Hirsch won the Travers with a horse named Thanksgiving, who originally was trained by her father. As a 2-year-old while stabled at Saratoga Thanksgiving was ether struck or jolted by lightning and was found on the ground unconscious, but fortunately survived. His owner Anne Corning then developed s close friendship with Mary and asked her if she would train the colt as a 3-year-old.

If you want to know why Mary Hirsch was never heard from after that, she married racing executive Charles McLennan in 1940 and retired from training to become a housewife and mother.


Looking at several pedigree notes of interest from this past weekend, a salute to the broodmare Better Than Honour, who not only is the third dam of Belmont winner Arcangelo, she produced back-to-back Belmont winners Jazil and Rags to Riches in 2006 and 2007. She most likely would have had three straight if her son, the Japanese invader Casino Drive, hadn’t injured himself Belmont week after romping by almost six lengths in the Peter Pan Stakes in a swift 1:47 4/5 and then having Big Brown eased up in the Belmont with 38-1 shot Da’ Tara winning wire-to-wire.

A shout out also goes to Best in Show, the fifth dam of both Arcangelo and Personal Ensign Stakes winner Idiomatic.

An even bigger shout out goes to the legendary Gallorette, considered the most remarkable filly to ever race in the United States, having run against males, including Hall of Famers, Stymie, Assault, and Armed,  in an amazing 42 stakes, winning the Met Mile, Whitney, and Brooklyn and Carter Handicaps among others. Gallorette is the sixth dam of Gun Runner, who sired Grade 1 Forego winner Gunite, Grade 1 Ballerina winner Echo Zulu, and Grade 1 Travers runner-up Disarm all on Saturday’s Saratoga card and all for owner Ron Winchell, who owned Gun Runner.

Finally, remember Meadow Star, the undefeated 2-year-old filly champion with six graded stakes wins, four of them Grade 1, and victories at 3 in the Grade 1 Acorn and Mother Goose? Well, she is the third dam of Arcangelo’s sire Arrogate who also won the Travers, shattering the 37-year-old track record.


Ruffian Returns to Her Place of Birth

After being interred in the Belmont Park infield for nearly 50 years, the remains of the legendary Ruffian have been removed and relocated to her birthplace at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. She will rest alongside the great fillies and broodmares in Claiborne’s history and a number of male champions in the farm’s Marchmont cemetery. The move was made by the New York Racing Association, which is clearing the way for the construction of a new synthetic racing surface.

It was in the fall of 1973, when Secretariat ruled the racing world, that an imposing almost black yearling filly owned by Stuart Janney was sent from Claiborne Farm to trainer Frank Whiteley at the Camden training center in South Carolina.

Whiteley had already fallen in love with the Reviewer filly when he first saw her as a yearling at Claiborne Farm, shortly before she was sent to him at Camden.

When I visited the training center in June, 2000, it had been deserted for almost two months. Whiteley by then had a 176-acre farm about seven miles outside Camden. The stillness and quiet of the Camden barn area was interrupted by the occasional song of a wood thrush. Whiteley drove up a narrow dirt road and pointed out a barn just ahead and slightly off to the left. In front of it, across the road, was an empty patch of grass where another of his barns once stood before burning down in the late 1970s, killing 10 of his horses.

As Whiteley drove past his old barn that still remained, he pointed his finger toward it and said, “Ruffian stood right there in stall 4. That was her stall when she came to me as a yearling in November until we brought her to the track the following April. And it was her stall when she came back here the following winter after her 2-year-old campaign.

“It’s just an empty stall now, but there are memories, that’s for sure.” That was as nostalgic as Whiteley would get, and even that short comment contradicted his usual crustiness. When I went into his house and saw a VHS tape that was labeled, “Ruffian’s Races” sitting atop his television,  I asked Whiteley about it and he said he hasn’t been able to watch her races for years.

“Is it too tough to watch?” I asked.

“Hell no,” he shot back. “I don’t know how to work the goddamn VCR.”

As we continued to drive through the training center, Whiteley did think back to the morning when he worked Ruffian three furlongs from the gate with another promising, fast filly named Lady Portia. Another of Whiteley’s fillies, named Yankee Law, had just concluded her morning exercise. But instead of leaving through the gap, her rider decided to stand by the outside rail and watch the two brilliant young fillies work.

As they came charging down the stretch together, Yankee Law began backing up toward the inside rail, right in the path of the oncoming pair. Lady Portia collided with Yankee Law, sending both their riders crashing to the ground. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt, with Lady Portia the only casualty, suffering a concussion and a bloody nose.

Ruffian, meanwhile, never batted an eye through the entire incident and continued the final eighth of the work on her own. Despite all the turmoil and losing her workmate, she still worked her three furlongs in a blazing :33 flat. Demonstrating that kind of incredible speed and professionalism at such a young age was the first indication that Whiteley had something very special on his hands. She had come within inches of disaster, but instead bounded away unscathed and into history.

Whiteley knew he was about to unleash a running machine, and he would wait until 9:30 or 10 o’clock before taking Ruffian out to the track for training. He wanted to make sure no one was around except his help. This was one horse he was intent on keeping under wraps until it was time to send her up to New York.

“You knew damn well the word would get out on her,” he said.

After bringing her to New York, Whitelely made sure she did not work a half any faster than :50. And he did little talking about her. He didn’t even put a pair of shoes on her until the morning of her first race. She had breezed with nothing on her feet her whole life.

As Whiteley said, “Hell, she came into the world bare-footed. Even though they pick up five or six lengths with shoes on, they stay sound longer without them.”

Rufffian, of course, went on to rattle off one record-breaking or equaling performance after another, winning the majority of her races by huge margins.

Ruffian is still in a lot of people’s hearts, and there she will remain, forever equaling and breaking records; a gust of wind that blew through the Sport of Kings all too briefly. Although her gravesite in the Belmont Park infield no longer will be the hallowed ground it was for almost five decades, racing fans reportedly will now be able to visit her at the Marchmont cemetery that had been generally closed to the public. They can now visit arguably the sport’s two greatest undefeated fillies, Ruffian and Personal Ensign. (On Sunday, November 12, it will be my honor and privilege to lead a special Secretariat Festival expanded tour to Claiborne and the Marchmont cemetery, where you can also see the graves of many other great horses who were born, raised or stood at stud at Claiborne).

But there will only be one Ruffian, who like Secretariat has taken on mythical qualities over the years.  Walter Farley in describing “The Black Stallion,” could easily have been describing Ruffian, so I will change genders for him – “You’ve never in your life seen a horse run so fast! She’s all power…all beauty.”


The Impact of Secretariat’s Daughters in Travers

Whenever I look at Secretariat’s past performances there seems to be a big empty space where the Travers should be. Yes, we are all well aware that Big Red was recovering from a virus and 105-degree fever that no doubt contributed to his shocking defeat in the Whitney Stakes. But is there anyone who wasn’t totally convinced that Secretariat would have crushed the victorious Travers winner Annihilate Em, who he defeated by 15 lengths a month later in the Marlboro Cup, just as he trounced his Whitney conqueror Onion by 12 lengths in the same race.

But no one can say that Secretariat hasn’t had a major impact on the Midsummer Derby, just as he has in most of the other major races around the country. In fact Secretariat’s impact on the breeding industry continues to grow every year thanks mainly to his three remarkable daughters Weekend Surprise, Terlingua, and Secrettame.

This year’s Travers Stakes field has been regarded as one of the strongest and deepest in many years, with seven top-class horses, including the winners of the Kentucky Derby (Mage), Preakness (National Treasure), and Belmont Stakes (Arcangelo), along with Forte, last year’s 2-year-old champion, three-time graded stakes winner at 3, and runner-up in the Belmont. The remaining three horses were Blue Grass Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby winner Tapit Trice; Matt Winn takes winner Disarm, who was second in the Louiisiana Derby and fourth in the Kentucky Derby; and Curlin Stakes winner Scotland.

If you look at the pedigrees of all seven horses you will see the name Secretariat an amazing 16 times through six of his daughters – Weekend Surprise (five times), Terlingua (five times), Secrettame (three times), and Viva Sec, Six Crowns, and Chosen Lady once each.

Also, Secretariat is in the pedigree of six of the last seven Travers winners.

Secretariat’s first major impact on the Travers came when his son General Assembly won the 1979 running by 15 lengths, setting a new track record that would stand for 37 years. Previous Travers record holders included Hall of Famers, Man o’ War, Buckpasser, Damascus, and Arts and Letters, champion Honest Pleasure, and Belmont Stakes winner Jaipur.

To demonstrate General Assembly’s versatility, he was the only horse to win the 1 1/4-mile Travers and the seven-furlong Vosburgh. And the only horse to run a faster Vosburgh was the legendary Dr. Fager.

So Travers weekend comes to an end. Once again we experienced racing at its extreme highs and its extreme lows, and we were able to tie in the present with the past. The big question as we head into fall and the Breeders’ Cup season is what the future will bring. Perhaps that will depend in whose hands the sport is in.

Photos courtesy of Adam Coglianese, Steve Haskin, and


Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


Beware the Forgotten Pair in the Travers

Monday, August 21st, 2023

It is time to finally sort out the best 3-year-olds, and every one not named Geaux Rocket Ride will be in action Saturday in what promises to be one the most hotly contested Travers Stakes in years. But before you jump to any seemingly logical conclusions there may be two gems lurking below the surface who could prove to be big overlays. ~ Steve Haskin

Beware the Forgotten Pair in the Travers

By Steve Haskin


There is no doubt the main storyline in this year’s Travers Stakes is the battle for 3-year-old supremacy between 2-year-old champion and Belmont Stakes runner-up Forte, Kentucky Derby winner Mage, and Belmont winner Arcangelo, with due respect to Haskell winner Geaux Rocket Ride who is back in California awaiting the Pacific Classic.

It is going to be tough separating the big three, with the relentless and indefatigable Forte the likely favorite. We also will have Preakness winner National Treasure, who actually will be a fairly big price in this field, completing the Triple Crown trifecta. If Forte does go off as favorite as expected that means the Travers will have the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, and none of the three will be the favorite.

But there may be a lot more to the Travers than trying to figure out which of the big classic horses will emerge victorious and put himself at  the head of the 3-year-old division, at least until we see how Geaux Rocket Ride fares against older horses at Del Mar the following week.

However, what adds to the Travers intrigue is the strength of two horses who are likely to be overlooked, but are talented enough on their best day of upsetting the favorites. Both horses have been considered disappointments based on their failures in big stakes, but could be powder kegs waiting to explode when no one expects it. They are Disarm and Tapit Trice. Both were once highly regarded and you never want to give up on a talented horse too early, especially when there are circumstances surrounding their defeats. I believe Disarm and Tapit Trice are being dismissed prematurely and there is a decent chance either one could prove to be big overlays in the Travers and at least sneak into the exacta or trifecta. It won’t be easy, but this is Saratoga.

It is extremely rare for me to rank a maiden winner in the Top 12 no matter how impressive he looks because I have seen too many fail to reproduce that brilliance when they face winners, especially stretching out to two turns. But sometimes you see something special in a horse that gives you enough confidence to take a chance on him. I saw enough in Disarm’s maiden victory at 2 going seven furlongs to rank him No. 12 in Week 1 back in January. The following week I was even more brazen by ranking Tapit Trice No. 7 off a neck maiden victory going a flat mile in the slop.

Both horses looked as if they had bright futures at classic distances, especially with their long stride, fluid action, and powerful pedigree. Two months later in my March 27 Rankings, Tapit Trice was ranked No. 3 and Disarm No. 7, showing both had made great progress. It is now August and although they have taken a slight step backwards there have been circumstances surrounding their defeats and their 3-year-old campaigns, which I believe have compromised them, and they now return to 1 1/4 miles over a track that tests one’s stamina more than the Kentucky Derby. You can count on one hand the number of wire-to-wire Travers winners in the last 40 years. Usually, when a horse wins the Travers leading every step of the way they wind up breaking the track record (see Arrogate, General Assembly, and Honest Pleasure, the last three track record holders).

Of course, Forte, Mage, and Arcangelo all come from off the pace, which should make this Travers a real battle down the stretch. But remember, Arcangelo had a perfect ground saving trip in the Belmont and hasn’t raced in 11 weeks and Mage had a perfect pace setup in the Derby, and we are looking for potential overlays in an absolutely loaded Travers with three exceptional contenders.

Before we continue I just want to add that I was surprised to hear that Bob Baffert is now pointing Reincarnate for the Pennsylvania Derby and National Treasure for the Travers, as it would seem each horse is better suited to the other race. But Baffert has his reasons and is almost often proven right. We could very likely be looking at another paceless race that National Treasure will be able to control if he can outrun the lightly raced Curlin Stakes winner Scotland, who has some early lick. . But as we said it is not easy stealing the Travers, with its deeper surface and where closers can turn into stalkers.

So now let’s take a look at the careers of Disarm and Tapit Trice and how they are coming into the Travers.

DISARM – He displayed all the tools I look for in his maiden win at Saratoga last August and did not run again in over six months. He returned in a one-mile allowance race at Oaklawn and had to chase a loose on the lead speed horse. Despite closing his last quarter in :24 2/5 he had to settle for second. It was now late March and trainer Steve Asmussen had no choice but to run him in the Louisiana Derby at 1 3/16 miles in order to pick up enough points to make the Kentucky Derby. That was a tall task considering he was so far behind. Despite still being behind the proverbial eight ball and being victimized by an insanely slow pace set by another loose on the lead horse, this time the highly regarded Kingsbarns, he rallied from sixth in a 12-horse field to finish a clear-cut second behind Kingsbarns, coming home his final three-sixteenths in a blistering :18 flat.

When it became apparent he was going to need more points to be assured a spot in the Derby, Asmussen again had to make a bold move, running him back in only three weeks in the Lexington Stakes, dropping back to 1 1/16 miles, and then having to come back in another three weeks in the Kentucky Derby. He needed only to finish third to assure a spot in the Derby and Joel Rosario rode him with that in mind. He gave him just enough to do and managed to pick up the show spot behind two talented and fast horses, First Mission and Arabian Lion. Disarm bounced out of that race in great shape and was training sensationally leading up to the Derby. Sent off at 27-1 in the 18-horse field, he overcame traffic problems and a rough stretch run to finish a strong fourth.

Asmussen, wanting to give him some time after his frantic Derby campaign, ran him back five weeks later in the Matt Winn Stakes and he scored a gutsy victory over Blue Grass Stakes runner-up Verifying. Then came the Jim Dandy for his Travers prep. Run over a sloppy track, and with only five horses in the field, he was last throughout behind a slow :48 half, and ran evenly in the stretch to finish fourth, beaten only 2 1/4 lengths by Forte, while striding out with great authority in the final furlong. So with everything, he now has two lengths to make up on the favorite and gets back to 1 1/4 miles.

Looking at his Equibase speed figures, I couldn’t help but notice the progression – 75, 83, 85, 95, 98, 100, and 106. That last figure in the Jim Dandy is six points faster than Arcangelo in the Belmont; four points faster than Mage in the Kentucky Derby; four points faster than National Treasure in the Preakness; and three points faster than Tapit Trice’s career-high figure in the Blue Grass Stakes.

With his low action and the great extension to his stride, as well as his strong distance pedigree and being inbred three times to Fappiano through his three stamina-oriented sons, I am anxious to see if this colt is ready to fulfill the promise his connections have had for him from day one.

TAPIT TRICE – There have been a number of handicappers who have come out following the Haskell and stated emphatically they are done with this colt, feeling he has either been underachieving, needs a perfect trip on the outside with no traffic, or simply is not as good as they once thought. But let’s take a closer look at this colt before dismissing him. First off, he went into the Kentucky Derby riding a four-race winning streak, including a late-running victory in the Tampa Bay Derby following a slow start and a gutsy score in the Blue Grass Stakes.

I don’t believe he was ready mentally to handle an 18-horse field, in which he got swallowed up in traffic and didn’t really get into the race until he was steered way out to the middle of the track all by himself away from the kickback and managed to finish a respectable seventh. This colt has a big long stride and is sluggish coming out of the gate, but he knows how to win in different ways when he gets the right kind of trip.

Following the Derby he waited for the Belmont, the race most everyone had him winning months in advance. While many were disappointed with his third-place finish, I thought he ran an excellent race to finish third, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths, and a nose for second by Forte. If there is one thing you never ever want to do at Belmont it is go wide into the far turn and get hung on the outside the entire turn. It is too long and sweeping and that prolonged ground loss takes too much out of a horse, who rarely is able to sustain his run through the stretch. Tapit Trice was forced to go five-wide into that turn. Although Forte was outside Tapit Trice tuning for home, he had swung out at the five-sixteenths and was never hung wide for that long like Tapit Trice was. As a result, Tapit Trice actually got a faster Thoro-Graph figure than Forte, equaling his career-high “1” in the Blue Grass Stakes. Only Mage has run a faster figure in his career.

Despite losing all the ground, Tapit Trice kept on relentlessly down the stretch and was just nipped at the wire for second by Forte. In short, this was a far better race than many people felt, especially those who had conceded the Belmont to Tapit Trice months earlier and were upset he didn’t win.

OK, so what happened in the Haskell, in which he showed little and finished a well-beaten fifth? What happened is that he ran a bad race, period. But in his defense I will say I’m a firm believer that if Forte was not a confirmed starter for the Jim Dandy there is no way Todd Pletcher would have run Tapit Trice in the Haskell. If there is one horse who is not suited for 1 1/8 miles at Monmouth Park it is Tapit Trice. This is a small track with short turns that is firmer than Saratoga and is more geared toward quick athletic horses like the one-two finishers, Geaux Rocket Ride and Mage. Last year’s winner was the quick and agile Cyberknife, who won by a head over the equally quick and agile Taiba in a track-record 1:46 1/5. There is no way you’re ever going to see Tapit Trice run 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 1/5. So in my opinion he simply was not a good fit for the Haskell and could never get in gear. I believe he will handle the looser Saratoga track, which tests a horse’s stamina.

He’s been sharp in his training at Saratoga, working in company with Forte, and like Disarm just might be ready to find the right race at the right distance and on the right racetrack.

So although you likely are trying to separate the big three, and rightly so, or are even trying to make a case for National Treasure pulling off another typical Baffert heist, just keep Disarm and Tapit Trice in mind when you are plotting your strategy for the exotics. One of these days these two talented horses are going to find the right conditions and put it all together at enticing odds. Could it be Saturday?

Photos courtesy of Coglianese Photos

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


From Camera to Canvas, Big Red Photo Lives On

Monday, August 14th, 2023

This is the story of the birth, resurrection, and odd journey of a single photograph and how it came to tie in to this year’s Saratoga meet and the Secretariat art exhibits on the 50th anniversary of Big Red’s iconic 3-year-old campaign. ~ Steve Haskin

From Camera to Canvas, Big Red Photo Lives On

By Steve Haskin


On March 17, 1973 at the Bay Shore Stakes I took my first of many photographs of Secretariat, who was making his first start of the year and, most important, his first since being syndicated for a record $6,050,000. For reasons I can’t recall I took only one photograph that day and that was from the rail following the post parade. Because Ron Turcotte had him gallop closer to the rail than I thought I wasn’t able to get my focus set quick enough to compensate for it. I took one shot as he galloped by and actually caught him just as I wanted, with his neck arched, mane blowing, and showing off his powerful shoulders and hindquarters. But because the photo was not sharp, which was no surprise considering the circumstances, I put my 4 x 6 print away knowing I could never enlarge it and pretty much forgot about it…for almost 50 years.

When we moved from New Jersey to Connecticut in April, 2022 after 40 years in our Hamilton Square home we were cleaning out our basement and I found that photograph, which had been long forgotten. Although I was still disappointed after all that time that the focus was a bit off I did admire the photo itself, as I felt it captured so many aspects of the sheer magnificence of Secretariat, and I had never seen a photo like it of Big Red. But so what? It seemed such a waste. There was nothing I could do with the photo, so on a whim I posted it on Facebook just to see what kind of reaction it got if any.

I was blown away when it got 62 comments, 40 shares, and 618 likes, with comments such as, “Magnificent! Shows the essence of Secretariat…Just breathtaking…Look at all that power…An equine Adonis…Wow! What an amazing capture, you can see the strength emanate through the lens…Oh, this is poetry in motion.” Not a single mention of it not being that sharp.

Now what do I do? I still can’t enlarge it. So I sent it to the Secretariat merchandising magician, Leonard Lusky, for whom I write and contribute on and who has worked wonders with my other Secretariat photos. In March of this year, Leonard and his photograph gurus remastered the negative and released it in the 5″ x 7″ size, titling it “Bay Shore Buff,” adding it to my “Secretariat Collection” on the website where it is currently offered.

Let’s fast forward to Thursday, August 3 at Saratoga. My wife and I and our friends Avi and Rhoda were attending the private reception for Lisa Palombo’s new exhibit of Secretariat paintings at the Saratoga Fine Arts gallery on Broadway. It was a magnificent exhibit and I had my photo taken with Lisa and Kate Chenery. After almost an hour it was time to leave for dinner at a nearby restaurant. A few doors down from the gallery was our favorite shop in Saratoga, Impressions, where we always stop to buy gifts for our grandchildren.

As I we walked past the store I looked over and had to do a double take. What I saw took a while to register in my brain. “That’s my photo!” I bellowed. In front of the store in full display was a T-shirt with a painting of my Secretariat Bay Shore photo on the front. To say I was shocked would be a gross understatement. I thought this could only be the work of Leonard, who manages the licensing of everything Secretariat. But how would I not know about it? What struck me the most, however, was how great the painting looked. There was my little photo after all these decades all big and vibrant and full of life, and on a shirt. I was bewildered, yet thrilled, and texted Leonard: “A funny thing just happened as we were passing Impressions…”

But Leonard was still busy back at the gallery and I didn’t hear back from him that night. Did Leonard decide to market this? Does he even know about it? Who painted it? When did all this happen?

The next morning Joan and I went to Broadway and of course stopped first at Impressions to buy the grandkids their gifts. I was all prepared to buy the shirt, still not knowing what it was all about. We walked in the store and the first thing we saw was the shirt again. Not only was it being displayed prominently outside and inside the store, right next to it were packs of note cards with the painting on it. These were even more vibrant and striking than the shirt.

I tried texting Leonard again and told him I was in Impressions and was going to buy the note pads, ignoring Joan’s insistence that I should wait and get them for free from Leonard. But I still had no idea what his involvement was. When I told the sales clerks that was my photo, they were so impressed they asked to take my photo next to the shirt. The clerk texted me the photo, which I promptly sent to Leonard.

The whole situation became even more wild when Joan looked at the shirt and saw it was done by Celeste Susany, who sells her paintings at Saratoga every year at the booth located just inside the main gate. She was our favorite artist and just last year Joan bought a painting from her that we have hanging in our living room. I felt like I had entered some bizarre universe. But it was about to get even more bizarre and surreal.

The following morning, Whitney day, we went to the National Museum of Racing for a special 50th anniversary event at the Secretariat exhibit that will be there through the end of the year. While Joan was in the gift shop I walked over to the Peter McBean Gallery where the exhibit was held and there outside the entrance hanging on the wall was the full-sized framed original painting of my photo. The National Museum of Racing? Seriously? It was now one shock after another that had reached the comical stage. But we weren’t done yet.

Original Celeste Susany painting on display at the National Museum of Racing. Contact for print information.

Joan then dropped me off at the track because I was signing photographs and meeting people at the Secretariat merchandising area at 11:30. As I entered the track I immediately passed Celeste Susany’s booth. I looked over and there was the T-shirt; there were numerous prints in all sizes; there was a smaller original study. It seemed as if my little photo, dead and buried for half a century, had become the most ubiquitous presence in Saratoga.

Rather than keep you in suspense any longer, I will let Celeste tell you the entire story.

“When I started in the sport I missed Secretariat by a year and always wanted to do a painting of him,” she said. “I know everyone remembers the Belmont, and watching the film of the Preakness was amazing. But when doing a painting, what do you paint to really capture him?  I looked for inspiration in books, watching videos, going online, but I saw nothing that inspired me. Then a little over a year ago with the 50th anniversary coming up I was doing research for the painting and went on Google images and there it was. It stopped me dead. Nothing I had seen moved me like this. I needed something that embodied Secretariat and after all these years I had found it. It was the feeling you get when you meet your future companion.  You just know it.

“The photo was the perfect combination of strength and elegance. Nothing compared over the years. Just the artistic tilt of the head excited me. I searched for the photo credit. There was none. I could have researched further, but the race meet was just beginning, so I put off the project. I eventually decided to do a small study of it and when Leonard saw it he recognized it from the photo. He told me he knew the photographer

“In April I called Leonard and told him I really wanted to do something with the painting’s image for Secretariat’s 50th Anniversary celebration and asked about doing reproductions after I completed it. He said that we would work something out. I honestly did not finish it until two weeks before the meet started this year. It just took me some time to get it exactly the way I wanted.

“I changed Secretariat’s saddlecloth number to reflect the Belmont Stakes, had someone work on Ron Turcotte’s face to bring out his features, and worked on the mane a little,” Celeste said. “It gives me great joy to know that this lovely photo is yours…and how you got it. I have to tell you there was one day recently a woman stopped by the tent, saw the large painting and started to cry.”

Leonard further explained “Celeste’s initial study and original painting were both simply spectacular. The Secretariat team was already familiar with her work and we had previously collaborated with her nearly 20 years ago on a Secretariat print now long sold-out. There was no question Steve would be flattered that his photo provided the inspiration for the painting and that the new piece would prove to be popular with admirers of both Secretariat and Celeste’s work. We started discussing the business details just days before our trip to Saratoga, but we were not sure if Celeste would have enough time to create any product for release during the current summer meet, let alone in time for the Aug. 4 Hall of Fame weekend festivities. To all our pleasant surprise, it came together quickly and she knocked it out of the park with the new offerings!”

As if this entire story wasn’t implausible enough I just learned that Celeste sold the small study for $2,800 and the large painting for $15,000. I am now convinced I was dreaming the whole thing. It was as if I had found a rock, tossed it away somewhere, and 50 years later I found it laying around. Then someone came along and chipped away at it and discovered a shimmering emerald inside.

And so ends the story of the photo that wouldn’t die. Let’s just say that innocuous little photo was Lazarus and although I don’t want to embarrass Celeste by comparing her to Jesus, to me she is a miracle worker. She might not be quite up to the standards of Rembrandt, who painted the resurrection of Lazarus, but if you’re in Saratoga stop by her retail tent and see all her magnificent work. When you come to one painting in particular you can marvel at what she did to bring a once long forgotten photograph to life. And while you’re at it think of a then 26-year-old amateur photographer who was blessed to be in the presence of the great Secretariat for the first time that day… and got lucky.

Secretariat and Saratoga Shine in 2023

Jocelyn Russell’s magnificent 21-foot statue of Secretariat that has attracted thousands of Saratoga visitors since the beginning of the meet has come and gone and is now in Virginia where it will permanently reside, but the Spa remains alive with the presence of Big Red. Whether you are on Broadway, at the National Museum of Racing, or at the racetrack you can find an explosion of images and colors, mainly through the artwork of some of the sport’s most noted artists.

For a Big Red bonanza you can start your day at the Spa Fine Art gallery on Broadway where the walls are covered with the stunning new collection of paintings from Lisa Palombo that depicts Secretariat in all his magnificence, as only Palombo can with her kaleidoscope of colors.

When you leave, walk a few yards up the block and stop in Impressions. I hear they have some real nifty T-shirts and note cards of Secretariat painted by Celeste Susany.

You can then head to the National Museum of Racing and visit the special Secretariat “Tremendous Machine” exhibit that will be there through the end of the meet. Before entering, look to the right of the gallery entrance and gaze in wonder at the painting of Secretariat hanging on the wall by Celeste Susany. Perhaps you read about it somewhere.

Finally it’s on to the racetrack where you can sample the mineral water at the Big Red Spring, and see the various artists’ tents inside the main gate featuring a wide variety of Secretariat artwork. The first one on the left will be the aforementioned Celeste Susany with her now iconic painting and T-shirt of Secretariat. If you go there just mention my name and I’m sure she’ll give you a dollar off anything over a thousand dollars. If not, just send me your name and address on a Secretariat note card and I will send you the dollar out of my own pocket.

If you are unable to get to Saratoga this year, save the money you were going to spend on overpriced hotels and restaurants and on your losing wagers at the track and use it to get to Kentucky for the Secretariat 50th anniversary Festival on the weekend of November 11, where you will be inundated with more Secretariat statues, merchandising items, and artwork, including the debut of Jocelyn’s newest bronze of Secretariat and Jamie Corum’s spectacular three-story mural of Big Red painted on a century’s old brick wall in downtown Paris, which will be the central location of this year’s Festival. Here is a tip. If you Google hotels in “Paris” you will notice that you can get a room at the Ritz for under $2,000 a night. Don’t jump to any conclusions, not the same Paris. You can do a little better closer to Lexington!

I will leave you on a personal note. Of all my photos of Secretariat only two were taken on the racetrack (I got too wrapped up in watching races back then)—the shot that is the main subject of this column and a black and white workout photo taken before the Wood Memorial that I am proud to say was used by Jocelyn Russell as a model for her magnificent statue that has been touring the country and its twin located in Lexington. I am starting to think that perhaps I knew what I was doing. Thank you Jocelyn and Celeste for breathing life into two photos that lay dormant for so many years. But to be honest, you didn’t need to be a great photographer to get super photos of Secretariat. You just aimed the camera, pressed the shutter button, and he did the rest.

So, hope to see you in November in Kentucky. If you ask, I will be glad to take your picture. You never know where it might show up.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


Racing Needs True Heroes More Than Ever

Tuesday, August 8th, 2023

This column is about the loss of a Thoroughbred and those horses who endure and provide years of enjoyment to so many racing fans. It is also about the emotional aspect of the sport that often goes beyond winning, and about the resilience and competitive spirit of the Thoroughbred. ~ Steve Haskin

Racing Needs True Heroes More Than Ever

By Steve Haskin

Casa Creed  – 2023 Kelso Stakes


I was there when Ruffian broke down. I stood on the track when they loaded Barbaro into the horse ambulance and then had to cover the race. I also had to cover the races in which we lost Eight Belles, Prairie Bayou, and George Washington. And there were others. All were some of the most agonizing days of my life. Each time I screamed under my breath, “Enough, I can’t handle this anymore.” When Go For Wand broke down in such a horrific manner in 1990 I wanted desperately to leave, but I had to stay and cover the Breeders’ Cup Turf, a race that suddenly seemed so insignificant. I’ve witnessed the tears and shed more than a few myself. Haven’t all of us who love this sport? But every time racing finds itself drowning in tears it is the Thoroughbred that rescues it.

The bottom line is, this is the sport I fell in love with, because the beauty and the majesty of the Thoroughbred that lured me in back in 1967 still stirs my emotions and thank goodness it has not let me quit during the rare times of gut-wrenching sadness and despair. I still grieve for all horses we lose and those close to them, but like Maple Leaf Mel’s trainer Melanie Giddings, who has suffered so much anguish in her young life on so many levels, said to the Daily Racing Form’s Dave Grening, “Can’t quit now, right?”

On the Oklahoma training track, just a short distance from Giddings’ barn, life went on as usual Sunday morning. It had to. There are rows and rows of barns filled with horses who want nothing more than to go out there and run their heart out. They know little or nothing of the grief humans can suffer. They just know the undying love and dedication their caretakers have for them. 

Giddings expressed her feelings on Facebook several days later: “Her heart was bigger than the grandstand and if I could tell her it was okay to run last and just come back to me I would, but trust me she wouldn’t. The passion she had to run was incredible. I told the world about her every chance I had because she was special and I will never forget what she gave to me. I will continue to find ways to honor her forever and not a day goes by I will forget her. I lost my best friend that day.”

These horses become our heroes and there are few things more precious to me than my own. I wouldn’t trade the memories of Damascus, Dr. Fager, Arts and Letters, and Gallant Bloom, and so many others after them, for anything. They gave me my life. I owe the Thoroughbred everything and will never desert them because I know what magnificence they bring to the world.

But I admit the sport has changed. With racing’s transient nature of having its top horses passing through quickly and then returning to the world of breeding sheds, pastures, and rolling hills before we got a chance to know them, it is important to occasionally take time out and salute the old warriors who race long after the young studs have departed.

We all have horses that have touched our hearts more than others. This is the story of two such horses that stand out to me, to whom racing fans owe a great deal for providing us with so many memorable moments over so many years. The third horse mentioned shows how one can be rewarded with time and patience.

Casa Creed Building a Strong Fan Base

Whether Cody’s Wish wins or loses the rest of the year he still will be one of the favorites to take home his second straight Secretariat Vox Populi Award as the most popular horse as voted on by the American public. But he will, or should, have some serious competition from one of the great old warriors seen in years, Casa Creed, a complete horse who seems to be running his best races at the age of 7.

While Cody’s Wish’s popularity originates from the heartwarming story of his namesake Cody Dorman, Casa Creed, even though owned by one of the most likeable owners in Lee Einsidler, has gained the affection of fans through his continuing exploits on the racetrack.

But Casa Creed’s growing reputation is not based on his number of victories or even his number of in-the-money performances, as he has lost 24 of his 32 races and been out of the money 14 times. Well, the legendary Kelso finished out of the money 10 times. Native Diver, one of the most popular horses in the history of California racing, finished out of the money 25 times. One of the greatest warriors of all time, Exterminator, finished out of the money 16 times. Seabiscuit, certainly one of the most popular horses in racing history, finished out of the money 28 times, though most of those were early in his career. We can say the same about John Henry.

No one holds Kelso’s defeats against him, or Forego, or Whirlaway. It is the victories and the heart and courage and resilience a horse shows over a long period of time that one remembers. And no horse racing today has shown more heart, courage, and resilience over a long period of time than Casa Creed. He always gives 100 percent, as indicated by the fact that 16 of his defeats were by less than three lengths, with nine of those less than two lengths. In his last 16 races his biggest margin of defeat was 4 1/4 lengths and that was at 5 1/2 furlongs, which didn’t suit his come-from-behind style of running.

Racing on the grass and being dependent on pace, he has been versatile enough to win at six furlongs twice, seven furlongs once, 7 1/2 furlongs once, one mile three times, and seven furlongs on dirt once. He also was second, beaten a head going 6 1/2 furlongs, and was beaten 2 1/4 lengths going 1 1/16 miles.

He has taken Einsidler and partner JEH Stable and trainer Bill Mott to New York, Florida, California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and as far off as Dubai and Saudi Arabia twice, where he finished second, beaten a neck, in the 2022 Saudi Arabia Turf Sprint and returned in 2023 to finish second, beaten a head. He also was beaten only 2 1/4 lengths in the Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai. This horse has earned almost $2.2 million on guts alone.

“He has meant so much to our life,” Einsidler said. “He’s taken us around the world. When Kenny McPeek bought him for us for $105,000 as a yearling he said he’s the type who should be ready by early Saratoga, and we’ve had so much fun with him. Here he is 7 years old and his last race (a victory in the one-mile Kelso Stakes) was as good as any he’s run in his life. Before the race he had his neck bowed and was dancing on his toes like it was time for business.

“After the Kelso (in which he defeated Todd Pletcher’s top-class Annapolis) I asked Bill if we should pass the Fourstardave and have a fresh horse for the Woodbine Mile. He said, ‘I want to show you something.’ He took me over to look at the horse and said, “He doesn’t even look like he ran. We can run him in the Fourstardave and the Woodbine Mile.’ “

That isn’t something you see often in a 7-year-old horse who has been running hard all over the world. In 2022, after getting beat a neck in Saudi Arabia and 2 1/4 lengths in Dubai, he returned home and won the grade 1 Jaipur Stakes, blazing six furlongs in 1:07 2/5, and came right back to win the grade 1 Fourstardave at Saratoga, going a mile in 1:34 1/5. Despite having won at a mile it was decided to run him in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint going 5 1/2 furlongs. Although he was good enough to win going six furlongs, shortening him up to 5 1/2 furlongs was asking just a little too much of him, having to come from far back in such a big field. Even though he was more than nine lengths back at the top of stretch he still was beaten only 4 1/4 lengths by some of the best grass sprinters in the world.

At a time when most top horses are retired early, here is Bill Mott winning major stakes this year with the 5-year-olds Cody’s Wish and Elite Power, the 6-year-old War Like Goddess, the 7-year-old Casa Creed, and the 9-year-old Channel Maker. If this doesn’t inspire owners to keep their horses racing nothing will. All you have to do is look at how much fun the owners of these horses are having and you are reminded why most owners buy horses in the first place.

And so Casa Creed, who it must be reminded again is not a gelding, keeps rolling along and loving being a racehorse. And for popularity purposes it must be remembered that he first sold as a yearling at the OBS January mixed sale for only $15,000 to someone named Amalio Ruiz-Lozano, who then pinhooked him for a good profit. So when it comes time to vote for the Vox Populi Award I hope people keep this old warrior in mind. He is everything the sport of racing stands for, and he does it just by being himself.

The Channel That Just Keeps on Playing

What we said about Casa Creed can also be said of another warrior, Channel Maker, who at the age of 9 still has that big race in him, and while he has slowed down and those big races are few and far between, when he turns in a performance like the one we saw in the recent grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes at Saratoga it has to stir the emotions, just as it did watching his stablemate Casa Creed win the Kelso.

Both still have that spark and love being a racehorse. But with the big races coming up and the impending European invasion, this actually might be the right time to let the old boy go out in style and have that big grade 2 win sitting atop his past performances. Even with his four grade 1 victories, in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic twice, Man o’War Stakes, and Sword Dancer Stakes, his Eclipse Award as champion Male Turf Horse at age 7, and earning almost $3.9 million, he would always be remembered for winning a grade 2 stakes at Saratoga at age 9 and going out a winner.

But whatever they decide to do it has been a joy to watch him run for so many years and still be a horse to reckon with when things go his way.

“Isn’t it amazing, I don’t know how he does it,” said Dean Reeves, who with his wife Patti bought Channel Maker at the OBS April 2-year-old sale for $185,000 and own the horse in partnership with Gary Barber, Wachtel Stable, and R.A. Hill Stable. “It must be something in them from a mental standpoint to still love what they’re doing at this age. Maybe this will convince owners that many horses don’t even peak until they’re 5 or 6. I know he’s changed my outlook and I’ll keep running these horses longer from now on.”

Reeves should know about longevity. He also owns the New York-bred City Man, who has won or placed in 16 stakes, in state-bred and open company. The son of the Reeves’ foundation horse Mucho Macho Man is still going strong at age 6, coming off a stakes victory at Belmont, blazing 1 1/16 miles in 1:39 2/5. He also set a new course record at Aqueduct last year, going 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 4/5.

As for Channel Maker, he also has won or placed in 16 graded stakes in the United States and Canada, including a third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at age 7, two grade 1 placings at Del Mar and Santa Anita, and a second in the Turf Cup in Saudi Arabia. You just don’t see resumes like that at such a high level over so long a period of time.

It is so refreshing to see horses like Casa Creed and Channel Maker and feel as if we know them, unlike all the horses that are retired at an early age and with so few starts. These old warriors add so much fun to the sport and remind us old timers of the horses we grew up with. And it is these horses we hold dear to our heart. Kudos to the owners of Casa Creed and Channel Maker and to Bill Mott, who remains an old school trainer who thinks long term and is not obsessed with getting a horse to the Kentucky Derby. If it happens it happens, but only if the horse takes him there. He knows what they are capable of when fully mature at 4 and 5 and in some cases, as you have just seen, older than that.

Racing’s stars today burn brightly for only a short time, so when stars like Casa Creed and Channel Maker come along it is reassuring to know we can gaze upon them and enjoy their brilliance for many years. Isn’t that the essence of what this sport is about?

Speaking of 9-year-olds, we also have to acknowledge another old warrior, Red Knight, who was able to emulate the great John Henry by winning a grade 1 stakes at age 9 this year, taking the prestigious Man o’ War Stakes. The past two years he has won a grade 1, grade 2, and grade 3 stakes in three different states under three different jockeys. So let’s put aside all those quick fix horses who come and go in a flash and salute those tough, resilient old boys who come out punching round after round and do it year after year. They are all true Thoroughbreds.

The Rebirth of High Oak

While on the subject of emotional performances, let’s return to Lee Einsidler and Bill Mott, who are having quite a Saratoga meet so far. How about the story of their 4-year-old colt High Oak? This was a horse meant for great things, but was deprived of fame and glory by an incident that should never have happened, but cost him dearly.

The son of Gormley, who Einsidler picked up for a mere $70,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale, was a precocious 2-year-old who won first out at Belmont in late June of 2021. Mott thought so highly of the colt he threw him right into the grade 2 Saratoga Special, where he crushed the promising Gunite by 4 1/4 lengths at odds of 10-1.

Sent off at 5-2 in the grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, he banged his leg very hard on the side of the gate at the break. He was in good position early, but tired to finish a well-beaten fourth behind Gunite, the horse he had just easily defeated. After the race, jockey Junior Alvarado told Mott and Einsidler there was something wrong with the horse. It was discovered he had the beginnings of a small fracture and was put away for six months.

The plan was to come back in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes, but High Oak came down with a fever and Mott had no choice but to run him in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes. He was making what looked like a winning move nearing the head of the stretch when another horse came in on him forcing him to clip heels and fall heavily to the ground. Fortunately, he was OK physically, but the incident caused emotional scars that would mar his career. It would take him a year to get back to the races, returning in a seven-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream this past March. Although he was bet down to 3-1 he showed no desire to run and was beaten almost 39 lengths. Mott sent him up to Aqueduct and ran him right back 3 1/2 weeks later in another seven-furlong allowance race. Once again, High Oak never ran a lick and was beaten 36 lengths. It seemed apparent that the spill and the trauma had taken the spirit out of him.

Mott then tried the grass, running him the seven-furlong Elusive Quality Stakes hoping that would put some life back in him, and although he did improve he still was beaten almost 11 lengths at odds of 22-1. Mott refused to give up on him and dropped him back to a six-furlong allowance race. Sent off at 33-1, he basically ran around the track and was beaten a little over 10 lengths. It was feared he no longer wanted to be a racehorse and those promising days early in his career when he looked like a sure-fire star were far behind him.

But after the race Alvarado came back and said simply, “Much better.” Mott felt as long as the horse looked good and trained well he wouldn’t give up on him, and High Oak, according to Einsidler, “was in great flesh and looked awesome.”

So Mott brought him up to Saratoga and ran him this past Saturday in a six-furlong allowance race with Katie Davis aboard. Sent off at 19-1, he dropped back to last and still trailed the field at the top of the stretch, some 10 lengths back. It looked like another dud performance that could have finally ended his career as a racehorse. But then something happened. After turning for home he began to show some life for the first time all year. He started picking off horses along the rail, but was still far back at the eighth pole. He kept coming, getting stronger and stronger, and at the finish was second, beaten 1 1/4 lengths. He was closing so fast he surged far ahead of the winner on the gallop-out.

Track announcer Frank Mirahmadi called, “A hard-charging High Oak flew into second.

A thrilled and emotional Lee Einsidler said, “That was the resurrection of Christ for God’s sake. I never felt so good losing.”

No one knows what the future holds for High Oak, but it showed what patience and determination can do and never losing faith in your horse. It also showed that God-given talent isn’t something that burns out. It often just requires time to rekindle the flame. We wish High Oak all the best the rest of the year.

And may we always remember Maple Leaf Mel and all the joy she brought to her trainer and owner Bill Parcells, one of the sport’s great ambassadors. Melanie Giddings will never replace her beloved Mel, but you can bet she will always be looking for another horse to take her on such a magical journey, as brief as it was. For now, memories are all she has, but like with all trainers the future will always look bright.

Photos courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese and Steve Haskin

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


Haskell and History a Big Part of Mandella’s Life

Monday, July 31st, 2023

Dick Mandella has won two Haskell Stakes 23 years apart and both experiences were totally different. This story is not just about Haskell winner Geaux Rocket Ride, it is also a look back more than two decades to Mandella’s unexpected journey into an earlier era in racing history. We also will discuss Forte’s victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes and yet another overly aggressive ride from Irad Ortiz Jr. ~ Steve Haskin

Haskell and History a Big Part of Mandella’s Life

By Steve Haskin


It was 23 years ago that Dick Mandella came to New Jersey to run Dixie Union in the Haskell Invitational. When he left New Jersey he was a different person, having experienced a trip back in time that nearly changed his entire life. And it had nothing to do with his Haskell victory in 2000, as special as that was.

So you can imagine how he felt when he realized this year he was going to return more than two decades later with a very special colt named Geaux Rocket Ride, who like Dixie Union came away with a victory in New Jersey’s biggest race. But this visit would be a quick one with no time for history. Before we get into Geaux Rocket Ride and this year’s Haskell, and a look at this past Saturday’s Jim Dandy Stakes, let’s go back to Mandella’s first trip to the Jersey Shore and a surreal moment he will never forget.

Prior to the draw of the 2000 Haskell, Mandella, a huge history buff, happened to be discussing that he was reading a book about the legendary trainer Sam Hildreth for the second time. Hildreth had co-written a history of American racing called, “The Spell of the Turf,” published in 1926. Hildreth, who trained such greats as Zev, Grey Lag, and Mad Play, was the trainer for Harry Sinclair, who owned the famed Rancocas Stud in New Jersey, previously the birthplace of Iroquois, the first U.S.-bred to win the English Derby in 1881. Founded by Pierre Lorillard in the 1870s, Rancocas was first farm to breed and raise a Kentucky Derby winner and English Derby winner.

Hildreth turned Rancocas Stud into the showplace of American breeding; the most lavish, innovative stud farm in the country, complete with indoor and outdoor training track, magnificent and ornate rooftops and cupolas, and an entrance gate that looked more like the entrance to the palace of Versailles.

So successful was Rancocas Stable, it set a record for earnings in 1923 that stood until 1941 when it was broken by Calumet Farm, which won the Triple Crown that year with Whirlaway. Hildreth also won the Belmont Stakes seven times – three for Rancocas with Zev, Grey Lag, and Mad Play and two for August Belmont Jr. with Hourless and Friar Rock. He won it with Jean Bereaud in 1899 and with Joe Madden, who he owned, in 1909. Hildreth was the leading money-winning trainer in the country nine times, a record that stood for more than 60 years until broken by D. Wayne Lukas in 1992. To demonstrate just how unique a horseman Hildreth was, he was also the leading owner in the country for three consecutive years from 1909-11.

There was no doubt that Hildreth was Mandella’s hero and he couldn’t read enough about him. Mandella had been turned on to books, especially racing history books, by his mentor, trainer V.J. “Lefty” Nickerson. In no time, Mandella, who had never read a book in its entirety before meeting Nickerson, began absorbing the old-time tales of the Turf, including jockeys like Tod Sloan and Fred Archer, like a sponge.

Now that Mandella was in New Jersey, the home of Rancocas Stud and the ghost of Sam Hildreth, the heck with the Haskell. Somewhere there was hallowed ground on which he wanted, maybe even needed, to stand. He realized that Rancocas probably was long gone, but that didn’t matter.

“I wish I knew exactly where it was located,” Mandella said. “Even if it’s now a shopping center or condos, I just want to stand on that ground. I don’t care how far away it is.”

I told him to sit down. “Well, you’ll be interested to know that not only do I know where Rancocas Stud was located, it’s still there,” I said. Mandella the veteran horse trainer suddenly turned into 9-year-old Ralphie, who was just given a Red Ryder Range Model Air Rifle BB gun, the “Holy Grail” of all Christmas presents.

I explained that it was now called Helis Stock Farm, home of the Helis family that used to own horses, including the top-class Helioscope, who stood at Darby Dan Farm. The farm was located in the tiny hamlet of Jobstown, only about 20 minutes from my house, which consisted of about 10 old buildings and a church. The farm was sprawled out as far as the eye could see, covering over 1,300 acres. The stunning front gate was still there, as was the training track, although overgrown, and trainer’s stand, and several of the barns. It had been converted by the family of the late William Helis into a cattle, produce, and tobacco farm, but you could still feel the history all around you.

Mandella quickly made arrangements to visit the farm and the following morning I met him at Monmouth where Mandella, his wife Randi, and I got in their rented Explorer, hit the New Jersey back roads, and headed back about a hundred years. On the way, he kept pointing out houses in which he would love to live.

We drove into the farm, and in no time, there was Mandella with a look of awe and wonder on his face and disposable camera in hand, standing on that same hallowed ground he had been reading about. When he looked out on the one-mile training track, the thought hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks that he would love to make an offer on the farm and convert it back into a working Thoroughbred training facility. The barns, although still ornate with their striking cupolas, needed a good deal of repair. Was Dick Mandella, a legend in Southern California for so many years, actually considering moving cross-country to New Jersey?

After all, this was where 1923 Kentucky Derby winner Zev, who won a historical match race against the European champion Papyrus, once worked and galloped. Mandella continued on through the indoor training track and barns and could envision their one-time elegance and charm and what they must have looked like back in the glory days of the farm. He looked out over fields of corn and soybeans where the legendary Iroquois once frolicked as a youngster. The history books were coming alive. Words like “amazing” and “unbelievable” flowed freely for the next two and a half hours.

You would never guess that Mandella was running a horse in the Haskell the next day, who was schooling in the paddock as he toured the farm. The present was on hold for the time being and thoughts of Dixie Union would have to wait.

After profusely thanking farm manager Ed Lovenduski, Mandella reluctantly departed, with visions of what it would be like to restore this farm to something resembling its former glory and train there. But reality soon set in. The Helis family had no desire to sell or turn it back into a horse farm. As for Mandella, he won the Haskell the next day, and went back to California, taking with him a special piece of history he believed no longer existed. The pipedream was over, but for a brief moment in time he was able to escape into a magical world that had existed only in books and in the imagination.

Three years after Dixie Union’s Haskell victory, Mandella would become the first trainer to win four Breeders’ Cup races on one card at a time when all the races were run in a single day. And he did it at his home track of Santa Anita.

Returning to the Haskell this year, Mandella hadn’t forgotten our memorable day together. I kiddingly texted him after Geaux Rocket Ride’s impressive 1 3/4-length victory over Kentucky Derby winner Mage saying, “If I knew you were coming I would have taken you back to Rancocas Stud for your 23-year visit.” Believing I was serious and not knowing I now live in Connecticut, he replied. “Sorry, I got so busy I forget to call you. I came in there close to the race. I wish I would have had time to go out and see it again.” It was so great to know the magic still had not worn off after all these years.

This year, the Breeders’ Cup will again be run at Santa Anita, and it looks as if Mandella could have a big shot to win his second Classic with Geaux Rocket Ride, who has two Grade 1 preps, the Pacific Classic and the Awesome Again Stakes, on his agenda.

With Geaux Rocket Ride’s win in the Haskell, it was a deja vu moment for Mandella, once again sending out a Grade 1 winner, this time wearing the famed blue and gray striped silks of Pin Oak Stud, built by Josephine Abercrombie and and her father in 1952. Abercrombie died in 2022 at age 95 and Pin Oak was purchased by new owner Jim Bernhard, who retained the name and storied silks.

In 2021, Jim, knowing his wife Dana had been involved with horses since she was a little girl, decided to buy a horse for her birthday. While at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky yearling sale they met Matt Wiseman of Equine Analysis Systems, whose team had been buying horses for their clients for years. Bernhard told Wiseman he was looking to buy one horse for his wife, and after thorough scrutiny by the team they bought him a Candy Ride colt, out of the Uncle Mo mare Beyond Grace, for $350,000. Bernhard also hired Wiseman to be his racing manager and bloodstock advisor.

“My team and I were working the sale like we usually do, using our technology and data to measure physiology along with traditional horsemanship to find the best prospects,” Wiseman said.” Geaux Rocket Ride came up on our system as horse with a high statistical likelihood of success. He had just enough size and strength so we went for it. We knew we had a pretty special horse if he grew up and filled out.”

The following January Wiseman went to see the newly turned 2-year-old colt at Keith Asmussen’s training center in Laredo, Texas where he was being broke and loved what he saw. “When I arrived Keith told me right away I had a pretty nice horse,” Wiseman said. “My team measured his physiology again and he had grown and filled out into a lovely horse. I called Jim and Dana and told them, ‘I think we have something pretty special down in Texas.’

Wiseman contacted Dick Mandella and told him he had a really nice colt he wanted to send to him, and Mandella agreed to take him.

“I called Richard and said I was sending him a Candy Ride colt that reminded me of Shared Belief,” Wiseman said. “I’m sure he’s heard stuff like that from a lot of racing managers so I doubt he believed me. But he liked him from the start and told me we just needed to be patient with him while he developed, so we targeted a big 3-year-old campaign with him rather than rushing him to the races at 2. I fell in love with horse racing as a teenager and both Richard Mandella and Mike Smith were two people I idolized. To win the Haskell with both of them doesn’t get much cooler than that.”

Geaux Rocket Ride had shown he could be something special when he finished a strong second in the San Felipe Stakes to the leading California 3-year-old Practical Move in only his second career start. He had broken his maiden by almost six lengths on January 29 blazing six furlongs in 1:09 2/5. The Santa Anita Derby was next, but he came down with a 103-degree fever the morning of the race and had to be scratched.

“When that happened we knew we wouldn’t have enough points to make the Kentucky Derby so we regrouped and circled the Haskell on our calendar as the main target for the summer,” Wiseman said.

So Richard Mandella returned to New Jersey where 23 years earlier history had come alive right before his eyes as he stood on the hallowed grounds of the old Rancocas Stud and witnessed the sights he had been reading about and imagining in his mind. When he departed New Jersey last weekend he had left his own mark in the history books, and judging from Geaux Rocket Ride’s emphatic Haskell victory there likely is more history to come.

Forte Needs Better PR from his Rider

First let me say I am not one who continuously spits into the wind, so to come out and again say what I think of Irad Ortiz Jr.’s riding tactics and his no-touch relationship with the NYRA stewards would leave me with yet another wet face. This isn’t the place to spout off on what has become the routine in New York, so just listen to the Fox commentators after Saturday’s Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga and read Twitter and Indian Charlie and leave it at that.

Finally, we’ll see what the stewards do in the aftermath of Forte’s nose victory over Saudi Crown when they watch Ortiz aboard, after coming out and plowing into Angel of Empire, go to a left-handed whip and come out into him again. What I will focus on is Forte, and I must admit I was rooting for him and always have and was glad in a way he was saved from suffering yet another indignity, for he deserved the victory and was the best horse in the race. The champ is still the champ who wants to win and knows how to win.

Forget the Belmont Stakes except to say he had to overcome a great deal to get second at a distance that no longer can be used to discredit a horse’s reputation. Forte is a champion in the truest sense of the word and when he targets a horse his aim is dead-on no matter how he gets it done. Regardless of how big a lead you have on him he will find a way to get you. So I will say the stewards, right or wrong, left the best horse up.

I just hope Todd Pletcher has a talk with Ortiz before the Travers and enlightens the talented but sometimes controversial rider to the fact that there will come a day when he is not going to benefit from the stewards’ good graces and to make sure Oritz doesn’t put them on the hot seat in the Travers when the pressure will be on them after the Jim Dandy.

Getting back to Forte, it’s been a wild and crazy journey. He was criticized after his so-called unimpressive victory in the Florida Derby when he looked lethargic on the far turn and had to run his guts out in the stretch to beat Mage. Then his speed figures, which weren’t Derby caliber and never improved from 2 to 3, pointed to him as a beatable Kentucky Derby favorite and many handicappers jumped off the bandwagon. His works leading up to the Derby were fairly mediocre and there was little buzz surrounding him. Then one morning at Churchill Downs he stumbled while in a routine gallop and the warning flares went up.

Then came reports of a foot bruise that supposedly was no big deal and downplayed by Pletcher. Meanwhile, Churchill Downs was undergoing a rash of horse fatalities that had everyone on edge trying to figure out what going on over a track that normally is considered one of the safest. So on Derby morning Forte was given one final examination by the state veterinarians, who decided to scratch the Derby favorite, much to the ire of Pletcher and the more vocal owner Mike Repole.

As if that wasn’t enough of a jolt, by being placed on the vet’s list it meant Forte would be unable to run in the Preakness, so just like that the first two legs of the Triple Crown were lost. But the indignities weren’t over. Several days later it was announced that Forte had come up positive for the anti-inflammatory drug meloxicam in the previous year’s Hopeful Stakes and the victory and the purse were taken away from him. That case is still under appeal.

Now he had to go into the mile and a half Belmont Stakes off a 10-week layoff, and despite losing ground and having the circle the field seven-wide he still dug in and rallied to get up for second behind an up-and-coming star who had a ground-saving dream trip.

Pletcher decided to experiment by putting blinkers on Forte for the Jim Dandy, and after showing more speed than usual out of the gate, he again had to dig deep to run down another up-and-coming star who was the only speed in the race and was able to get away with moderate to slow fractions. Once again we saw a relentless Forte overcome all odds to snatch victory in the final strides.

So, yes, Forte deserved this victory, and all we can hope for now is that Ortiz allows Forte to run in the Travers without detracting from the race. This horse knows how to win and will find a way to win on his own… just let him.

Photos courtesy of Ryan Denver/EQUI-PHOTO and Adam Coglianese

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


A Stroll Down the Funny Cide of the Street

Sunday, July 23rd, 2023

The recent death of Funny Cide has inspired numerous tributes and rekindled many memories. I covered his Triple Crown and his Jockey Club Gold Cup victory for The Blood-Horse and here is my behind the scenes story of the horse they called “The Gutsy Gelding.” ~ Steve Haskin

A Stroll Down the Funny Cide of the Street

By Steve Haskin

Photos courtesy of Skip Dickstein


It was 20 years ago that a horse became so synonymous with the city of New York it was as if the fast-moving Big Apple slowed down for three weeks to soak in the wonder that was Funny Cide, as he prepared to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. When Secretariat swept the Triple Crown in 1973 it also followed a 25-year drought, so maybe it was in the cards.

Funny Cide had already become the first New York-bred in history to win the Kentucky Derby, and also the first gelding to capture the roses since 1929. He followed that up with a spectacular 9 3/4-length romp in the Preakness that resounded all the way from New York City to the small town of Sackets Harbor in upstate New York, where a bunch of former high school buddies had put up $5,000 each and joined a small racing partnership headed by their pal Jack Knowlton, who had moved from Sackets Harbor to Saratoga. On May 3 and May 17, 2003, Sackets Harbor witnessed its biggest explosions since May 29, 1813, when the British attempted to destroy the town’s shipyard that was so vital to the American Navy during the War of 1812.

With the thought of Funny Cide returning to the Big Apple to make history, it was difficult getting the lyrics of the song  “New York, New York,” which had become the Belmont Stakes theme song, out of one’s head.

It also could have been Funny Cide’s theme song with lyrics like: “Start spreadin’ the newsI wanna be a part of it, New York, New York…I wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep and find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap.”

Even the old standard New York song that used to be the Belmont Stakes theme song could have been changed to “The Cidewalks of New York.”

Although Funny Cide could not complete the Triple Crown sweep on a rainy, downright miserable day, he provided one of the most amazing and memorable days ever witnessed at a New York racetrack, just by being there.

He didn’t win the Triple Crown, but he made more than 100,000 people see the sun when there was no sun. He made them feel warm and dry when they were cold and wet. He made them briefly cast aside their chosen idols and worship a Thoroughbred racehorse. He made the normally hushed halls of Belmont Park resound with deafening cheers as he left the paddock. He even made a reluctant hero out of his trainer Barclay Tagg, who early in his career would haul his one horse by trailer to Penn National in a snowstorm for an 11 p.m. race and had to sit in the trailer with a blanket around him to keep him warm. He never would lose that hardened exterior and no nonsense approach to racing, always doing what was best for Funny Cide at the cost of his own popularity.

Immediately after the Preakness the New York Racing Association had begun to prepare for the massive jolt of electricity that promised to rock the huge grandstand on Belmont Stakes Day. Funny Cide may have lost the Belmont, but no one can ever say he didn’t deliver that jolt of electricity.

When it was all over, Funny Cide had enabled a New York-bred gelding to transcend the Sport of Kings and infiltrate mainstream America like no other horse since the Golden Age of the ‘70s, even making an appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He had his own store in Saratoga, selling nothing but Funny Cide merchandise, and his own ice cream that became an instant hit, constantly selling out at all the Stewart’s shops in and around Saratoga. There also was Funny Cide beer, a Funny Cide song, a Funny Cide Bobble Head, a Funny Cide children’s book, and a riveting hard-covered biography written by Washington Post journalist Sally Jenkins. In the weeks leading up to the Belmont, the New York Post published a daily diary written by, yes, Funny Cide with his own byline (with a little help from Post writer and handicapper Anthony Stabile).

To best demonstrate Funny Cide’s popularity on a national scale, the Belmont was the No. 1 rated prime-time show on network television that week, the highest-rated horse race since the 1990 Kentucky Derby, and the highest-rated Belmont since 1981. The show finished ahead of CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” and the ABC News special featuring Barbara Walters’ interview with Hillary Clinton.

Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports, said, “This rating underscores the continuing re-emergence of horse racing in general. The unbelievable saga of Funny Cide brought all kinds of new fans to horse racing, which bodes well for the future.”

We’ve all grown up with horses, and have been touched by them, whether it was Black Beauty, the Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, My Friend Flicka, Silver, or even Mr. Ed. Those feelings of our youth don’t die; they just become dormant as we move on and pursue other endeavors. But on rare occasions, a horse like Funny Cide and his fairy tale story comes along to awaken those feelings and passions, and we are all kids again.

Funny Cide wasn’t a great horse and there is no plaque for him in the Hall of Fame, but he left a legacy from Kentucky to Maryland to New York City and all the way up to tiny Sackets Harbor, and to horse lovers everywhere.

It was on the porch of optician J.P. Constance’s home in Sackets Harbor that the story began on Memorial Day, 1995. That is where Jack Knowlton arranged to have his buddies put up a total of $30,000 to purchase a racehorse. They would spend $20,000 on the horse and keep $10,000 for training expenses. They eventually brought in four of Knowlton’s friends from Connecticut and Saratoga, and Sackatoga Stable was born.

Their goal was a modest and realistic one – to break even and have some fun. And that is just what they did for the next several years, until their trainer Barclay Tagg and his assistant Robin Smullen spotted a chestnut ridgling by Distorted Humor, out of Belle’s Good Cide in late 2001 at Tony Everard’s farm in Ocala, Florida, where Tagg’s yearlings were broken. Everard had purchased the WinStar Farm-bred for $22,000 at Fasig-Tipton’s New York-bred yearling sale at Saratoga. Although the horse was bred by WinStar, he was foaled at Joe and Anne McMahon’s farm just outside Saratoga.

WinStar and the McMahons had been involved in a joint venture where WinStar would supply the mares and the McMahons would supply the breeding and raising, and veterinary care. One of the mares they sent to New York was Belle’s Good Cide, thinking she wasn’t much, being an Oklahoma-bred. When her Distorted Humor foal was a few days old, Rich Decker from WinStar called the McMahons asking to buy back Belle’s Good Cide and her foal after WinStar co-owner Kenny Troutt had researched her pedigree further and liked what he saw. The McMahons agreed, and in exchange they were given full ownership of one of the other mares and her foal that they eventually sold for $105,000.

Although Tagg and Smullen liked the horse when they saw him at Everard’s farm, they had no buyer who could put up the $40,000 asking price. As the horse progressed, his price escalated, and by the following spring Everard was asking $75,000 for the now gelding. That is when fate stepped in. On March 6, 2002, Sackatoga Stable’s 6-year-old mare Bail Money was claimed for $62,500 at Gulfstream Park. When Knowlton saw how much Tagg liked the Distorted Humor gelding, he convinced his partners to use the $62,500 from the claim to buy him. “If you like him that much, go ahead and buy him,” Knowlton said to Tagg.

Tagg, Smullen, and Sackatoga thought they had bought a nice, useful New York-bred gelding with whom they could have some fun and perhaps make some money. But in fact they had bought a piece of history.

Funny Cide showed his ability in the mornings and caught the attention of Mike Sellito, agent for Jose Santos, one of the top riders of the 1990s who was attempting a comeback, but finding it difficult getting good mounts. One morning, Sellito told Santos, “Go over and work this horse for Barclay Tagg.  He’s supposed to be a good one.” Tagg told Santos to work a half in :49, and Santos was shocked to learn he had gone in :47 4/5.

After the work, Santos went to Sellito and told him, “Whatever you do, don’t lose this horse. I don’t care if he runs in open company or against state-breds, he’s going to win first time out.”

Funny Cide in fact won his first three career starts. In his debut on Sept. 8, 2002 at Belmont Park he blew away a field of New York-bred maidens by almost 15 lengths with Santos aboard. When he came back three weeks later and won the state-bred Bertram Bongard Stakes by nine lengths, Santos told Sellito, “This is our Derby horse.”

In the one-mile Sleepy Hollow Stakes, Tagg experimented by having Santos take Funny Cide back and drop in behind horses. “I almost paid dearly for it,” Tagg said. Funny Cide won, but by only a neck over the Allen Jerkens-trained Spite the Devil, after which he was out for three months with a chronic lung infection that had clogged up his trachea.

At 3, a better-than-it-looked fifth in the Holy Bull Stakes was followed by a game third to the highly regarded Peace Rules in the Louisiana Derby. The next stop was a return to New York for the Wood Memorial, which came up muddy, Tagg, whose boots were still hardened by too many cold Maryland winter campaigns, said of Funny Cide before the race, “He’s a fighter and he’s not going to quit. Whether he handles the mile and an eighth and the mud I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out so I’ll know whether to stop all this foolishness or go on with him.”

Sent off at 5-1, Funny Cide battled with the Derby favorite Empire Maker, only to fall a half-length short, earning a whopping 110 Beyer Speed Figure. Following the Wood, Smullen was in tears, but they were tears of pride after seeing how hard the horse had tried and how much he had improved. Tagg had no choice but accept the fact that this was not foolishness; he had himself a Kentucky Derby horse.

Although he had the credentials to be a legitimate Derby contender, having held his own against Empire Maker, he was sent off at almost 13-1 at Churchill Downs, with Empire Maker bet down to 5-2.

Funny Cide was the last horse to arrive at Churchill Downs, working five-eighths under Smullen in :58 2/5 at Belmont Park. The Sackatoga team raised a few eyebrows when they arrived at Churchill Downs in a yellow school bus they had rented. No need to travel in style when this was more practical and got them to where they wanted to go. That school bus would become their method of transportation throughout the Triple Crown and the subject of several features, endearing people to Funny Cide and his team of average Joes even more.

The walk over to the paddock on Derby Day was not what everyone had expected. Funny Cide lost his composure in front of the massive and noisy crowd and was nearly out of control. Smullen, out of desperation, brought the horse to the inside rail as far away from the crowd as possible.

“Funny, what are you doing? You’re letting me down; don’t let me down here,” she pleaded with the horse. In the tunnel he was even worse, and it was a question of whether he had already lost the race. But as soon as he emerged from the tunnel and into the paddock, he settled right down and was a perfect gentleman the rest of the time.

As history shows, Funny Cide became sports’ new Cinderella story when he defeated Empire Maker by nearly two lengths in the Kentucky Derby, writing one of the great fairy tale chapters in racing lore. Tagg, who was as far from the celebrity type as any high-profile figure in memory, tried to downplay it all and just concentrate on the Preakness, but was besieged by the media. To Tagg, he was still a trainer first and foremost and wasn’t going to let the media stand in his way of training his horse. As for Sackets Harbor, the town soon was once again being invaded; this time by TV news crews and reporters. There was even a celebration at the state capitol in Albany.

Jack Knowlton put it all in perspective following the race” “We’re the American dream. Ten guys who bought a lottery ticket – but guess what? We hit it.”

And they hit again two weeks later in the Preakness watching Funny Cide demolish his foes. In the jocks’ room following the race, Santos’ wife Rita waited for her husband to return from the press conference as their daughters Selena and Savannah played ping pong and her son Jose Jr. rode the Equicizer horse pretending to be on Funny Cide and reliving the race his father just rode.

Rita sat on the couch and watched the replay. As the field turned for home she recalled, “This is when I burst into tears.” As Funny Cide began to draw away, Rita said, “Right here I’m going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s doing this. I can’t even imagine what Belmont is going to be like. This is going to be so big for New York. The kids go back to school Monday and we’re trying to be as normal as we can, but is there any way to be normal? We’re living in a dream right now.”

Leading up to the Belmont Stakes, Suzanne Tingley, superintendent of Sackets Harbor Central School, which the core of Funny Cide’s owners attended from kindergarten through high school, said “We’re a very small town and to see Funny Cide carry our school colors (the maroon and gray colors of Sackatoga Stable) to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness is so special to all of us. The kids are excited, the teachers are excited, the whole town is excited.”

As mentioned earlier, the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont were unlike anything seen in New York in a long time. The media used Tagg’s barn as Town Hall, gathering around at all hours, mainly outside its confines hoping for some sort of invitation. Tagg, meanwhile, did all he could to keep Funny Cide away from photographers and the hordes of onlookers intent on following him to the track. When he announced Funny Cide would have his final work for the Belmont on the Wednesday before the race at 8:30, it brought out crews from CNN, Fox, and all the major networks and publications. But when they arrived they were told Funny Cide had worked at 5:30. You never saw a more angry and disgruntled group of media members than those outside Tagg’s barn, especially a fuming writer from Sports Illustrated.

“He could be high strung and I didn’t want to risk upsetting the horse by having all those people running after him,” Tagg said, “I know that didn’t make me very popular.”

What was more important was whether the five-furlong work in :57 4/5 and a half in a scorching :45 flat three days before going a mile and half was too fast. The work drew mixed reviews.

“That was scary,” said Santos’ agent Mike Sellitto. Santos’ reaction was equally as short and to the point. “I’ve got chills now,” he said. Private clocker Joe Petrucione also was impressed. “He was like a runaway freight train,” he said.

Empire Maker’s trainer Bobby Frankel had a totally different view of the work. “Forget him; he’s done,” he said. “He needed that like he needed a hole in the head. If he was my horse I’d walk him for two days and pray.” When Empire Maker’s exercise rider, Jose Cuevas, heard the time, all he said was, “Oh my God!”

Ron Anderson, the agent for Empire Maker’s jockey Jerry Bailey, agreed with Frankel. “That was a terrible work,” he said. “He’s gonna run off in the Belmont and get beat an eighth of a mile.”

Like so many Derby and Preakness winners before him, Funny Cide came up short in the Belmont. He set the early pace in the slop, but tired at the top of the stretch, finishing third behind a fresh Empire Maker, who had skipped the Preakness.

Although disappointed, Sackatoga partner Dave Mahan, a caterer from Connecticut, put it all in perspective in the Trustees dining room following the race with one of the greatest quotes ever.

“It could be worse,” he said. “I could be back home stuffing chickens.”

Funny Cide would have a long up and down career racing until the age of 7, winning the 2004 Jockey Club Gold Cup and several lesser stakes, and placing in a number of grade I and grade II stakes. When he ran in the 2004 Saratoga Breeders’ Cup, a record crowd of over 70,000 showed up, which brought traffic in and around Saratoga to a standstill. Even the Northway (I-87) leading to the track was backed up for miles.

Funny Cide was never the same horse the nation fell in love with in the spring of 2003, suffering from back and respiratory problems, but he concluded his career with an emotional victory in the 2007 Wadsworth Memorial Handicap at Finger Lakes, which was as close as he’d ever get to Sackets Harbor. It was decided after the race to let him go out a winner. He retired from racing having amassed over $3.5 million in earnings.

In August, 2007, the New York Racing Association held a “Funny Cide Retirement Party” at Saratoga, as the gelding paraded around the paddock and on the track to the cheers of his fans and nibbled on his special oat-and-carrot retirement cake presented to him by New York State Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno.

The horse who stole America’s hearts became a stable pony for Tagg and was often seen tied up on the path behind Tagg’s barn, all by himself, greeting an occasional visitor. Many walked by him unaware that this nondescript pony was a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. Eventually his new job began to take a physical toll on him and it was time to let him live a well deserved life of leisure. In December, 2008 he took up residence at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions. He made an appearance at Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week, parading in the paddock, and visited Saratoga, spending time as a guest at Cabin Creek Farm, the New York division of Old Friends. He returned to Kentucky, spending his final years at the Horse Park entertaining visitors.

Rob Willis, supervisor of the Horse Park’s Hall of Champions, told writer Tim Wilkin on that Funny Cide was “a rock star at the park; a great ambassador. People would take pictures and give him treats.”

In April 2010, the New York Thoroughbred Breeders voted Funny Cide the New York–bred Horse of the Decade.

On Sunday, July 16, 2023, Funny Cide died at age 23 due to complications from colic. A New York legend was gone. To draw a crowd of 101,864 to Belmont Park on one of the wettest, most miserable days of the year was simply astounding. And I can still hear the thunderous roar that went up as Funny Cide left the paddock and headed through the grandstand with fans shouting from both sides.

It is memories such as this that come flooding back as we all bid our farewells to a horse that turned New Yorkers into small-town folks who took pride in a racehorse they could call their own. And a horse who made a town of 1,400 people, whose only claim to fame was a battle fought almost 200 years earlier, feel like it was the center of the sports universe and a major destination for the media.

Racecaller Tom Durkin once dubbed Funny Cide, “The Gutsy Gelding,” and that is how we will remember him.  The great Bill Shoeemaker was far from the strongest or most aggressive rider, but he once said, “I have always believed that anybody with a little guts and the desire to apply himself can make it.” Funny Cide was not the fastest or strongest horse, but no one can deny he had the guts and desire to not only make it, but make it to the top, even for a fleeting five weeks that 20 years later remains ingrained in our memory.

As tragic and unexpected as Funny Cide’s death was, it has enabled those memories to resurface and recall a time when a modest New York-bred gelding stood among the giants with the whole country cheering him on. And that will forever be his legacy.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.