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Gold and Silver Anniversary of ’97 Belmont Stakes

Monday, June 6th, 2022

On the 25th anniversary of the Touch Gold — Silver Charm Belmont Stakes, it is time to get nostalgic and recall my personal interest in that historic race and how the journalist and racing fan in me clashed and left part of me ecstatic and another part sad following the race, which is what happens when you’re rooting for two horses. This was the rebirth of the Belmont following seven down years and would launch the race to new heights.over the next two decades. ~ Steve Haskin

Gold and Silver Anniversary of ’97 Belmont Stakes

By Steve Haskin

Silver Charm and Touch Gold photos courtesy of Old Friends

 

Even the most objective journalist has moments when personal feelings take precedence over objectivity. Racing is a sport often fueled by emotion because of the passion inspired by its athletes. Sometimes circumstances bring us close to some of those athletes and we can’t help bonding with them.

I, like all racing fans, have my all-time favorite horses, especially those who first grabbed hold of me 55 years ago and pulled me into this magical world that would change my life.

But as a professional you eventually train yourself to write about the sport and the horses with an open mind. That is until circumstances force those personal feelings to once again emerge. There was one time during my career when they not only emerged but collided. How do you deal with having two strong rooting interests in the same race?  And with one of them attempting to become the first Triple Crown winner in 19 years and trained by racing’s newest rock star to whom you had become very close. The other was strictly about the horse and the unique history I had with him from the time he was a yearling.

I am referring to Silver Charm and Touch Gold, and what better time to tell their stories and my personal connection to both horses than on the 25th anniversary of their thrilling battle in the Belmont Stakes.

Because of the rapid growth in popularity of the Belmont Stakes that reached a crescendo when 120,000 fans jammed into Belmont Park to see Smarty Jones, few take notice of the 70,082 fans who witnessed Silver Charm’s attempt to sweep the Triple Crown in the 1997 Belmont and even fewer can appreciate what a renaissance horse this was and how he and his trainer Bob Baffert reignited the public’s passion for the Triple Crown at a time when racing’s big hero was the older horse Cigar and there was little interest in the Belmont Stakes.

After all, there had not been a horse attempting to sweep the Triple Crown since Sunday Silence in 1989, and after seven uneventful years, the attendance for the Belmont Stakes had plummeted to below 40,000. The jump from 37,171 in 1995 and 40,797 in 1996 to 70,082 one year later was unimaginable at the time and made the Belmont Stakes THE place to be in early June. And it was all because of Bob Baffert and Silver Charm

Following Silver Charm’s victories in the Preakness Stakes, Baffert emerged from the race like a rock star, with fans flocking to the potential Triple Crown winning trainer wherever he went to have him sign anything they could get their hands on, from matchbooks to cocktail napkins.

Because of the Silver Charm/Baffert phenomenon I arranged with Baffert and Tex Sutton Horse Transport to fly commercially down to Louisville the Monday before the Belmont Stakes to watch Silver Charm’s final work and then fly back to New York with the horse.

Several days earlier, while doing a radio show, Baffert, unaware of the floodgates he was opening, invited the public to come to Churchill Downs to watch Silver Charm’s final work before departing for Belmont Park. Churchill Downs now had to contend with a problem they hadn’t counted on. Local television and radio stations announced the invitation, and at 7:30 Tuesday morning, a steady stream of cars began filing into the Churchill Downs parking lot.

Baffert called the work the most important of his life, and it was the crowd he had invited to watch it that almost caused a catastrophe. As Silver Charm turned around at the eighth pole and headed back to begin his work, Baffert told exercise rider/jockey Joe Steiner on the two-way radio, “Don’t let him duck out when he sees that crowd.”

Seconds later, as Silver Charm was galloping by, a horse named Firecrest, walking in the opposite direction, got stirred up when about 2,500 fans erupted in applause. Firecrest shied from the sudden noise and veered right into Silver Charm’s path. Steiner grabbed hold of Silver Charm and swerved sharply to avoid the out-of-control Firecrest, with the two horses merely grazing each other.

With disaster narrowly averted, Silver Charm went about his business and worked five furlongs in 1:01. It was time for Baffert and Silver Charm to leave Camelot and head to New York and the Triple Crown.

After 10 days of being treated like a king by an adoring community, Baffert now found himself face to face with reality as he approached the Tex Sutton Boeing 727 that would take him and Silver Charm to their final battle in their quest for racing’s Triple Crown.

Earlier that morning, just before 6 a.m., Baffert, accompanied by his main client and longtime friend Mike Pegram, arrived at Barn 33, where he had nine horses stabled with trainer April Mayberry. After unloading his luggage from his rented Lincoln Town Car, Baffert said, “I feel like I’m going to camp.”

Baffert said he felt like the weight of Kentucky was on his shoulders, especially after seeing the huge turnout for the previous morning’s work. “I’m looking forward to getting up to New York and getting this thing done and coming back to Kentucky wearing the Triple Crown on my head,” he said.

Silver Charm was loaded on the plane and would be the only passenger, at great cost to Lewis. There among the many empty red stalls was the familiar gray face of Silver Charm digging into his hay rack. Mel Prince, who had worked for Tex Sutton for 34 years, said it was extremely rare to fly only one horse.

From the time Silver Charm boarded the plane to the time he arrived in New York he did not stop munching hay. By the end of the trip he had dug a large hole in the rack and was still pulling out hay with great vigor. All the while, groom Rudy Silva sat in a chair, holding the shank, his eyes fixed on his horse.

“Look at Rudy,” Baffert said. “Is he dedicated or what? He hasn’t left that horse’s side for two months.”

Also accompanying Silver Charm was his hotwalker Eddie Thomas, who, ironically, worked around the last Triple Crown winner Affirmed as a teenager.

“It’s scary how this horse has gotten stronger and kept his flesh,” Thomas said. “Usually, they back up, but he drank three buckets of water after the Derby and only a half to three-quarters of a bucket after the Preakness.”

As the plane made its descent, Baffert, who had been suffering with his allergies throughout the flight, said all he wanted to do was get Charm settled in, go to the hotel, turn off the phone, and go to bed.

The plane touched down at JFK Airport in New York at 8:50 a.m. after the hour and 45-minute flight. Silver Charm was led on the van, and with a police escort leading the way, the van meandered through the streets of Queens into Long Island, as pedestrians quizzically watched the procession.

As the van pulled up near Barn 9 at Belmont, a mass of humanity could be seen gathered in front of the barn. It was the largest assemblage of reporters, photographers, and cameramen I had ever witnessed. They surrounded Silver Charm as he walked from the van to the barn, and before long, Baffert was engulfed by the media. Kentucky was already a memory. There was a Triple Crown to be won.

Yes, I had bonded with Silver Charm. How could I not sharing a plane ride and van ride and being that close to such a magnificent horse on his way to the gates of racing’s pantheon. How could I not root for him and for his trainer, with whom I would write his autobiography two years later? Silver Charm and Bob Baffert were about to make history and I was right there with them all the way.

But that is only half the story.

We have to go back two years to the 1995 Keeneland July yearling sale. Back then, as national correspondent for the Daily Racing Form who covered the Saratoga yearling sale each August, I decided to try something different. I would play buyer, or at least bloodstock agent, and select one yearling from the Keeneland July sale whose pedigree intrigued me and then go to Lexington several weeks before the sale to do a background piece on him. I would then return for the sale and follow his every move right up through his time in the ring. I wrote the first part of the feature for the July 8 issue of the DRF and then part two the Sunday after the sale on July 23.

I figured this would provide readers with an inside look at the life of a sales yearling and what it takes to prepare him for the sale, and the pressures and uncertainty of actually selling him.

After careful scrutiny and studying all the pedigrees, avoiding the obvious high prices and looking for a mid-priced, affordable colt, I settled on Hip No. 65, a son of Deputy Minister, out of the Buckpasser mare, Passing Mood. I loved Buckpasser mares, and this colt had a good blend of speed and stamina, and was a half-brother to Canadian Triple Crown winner With Approval.

The colt was being pinhooked by bloodstock agent John Moynihan, part-owner of Walmac Bloodstock Services with John T.L. Jones, who had purchased him in partnership as a weanling for $180,000 from Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency, owned by brothers John and Glenn Sikura.

Following his sale as a weanling at the Kentucky November mixed sale, the colt was sent to Bedford Farm, a 1,200-acre facility near Paris, Ky., which served s Walmac’s satellite farm. The farm, formerly owned by a French syndicate headed by Francois Boutin, was home to the broodmares, yearlings, and weanlings raised by Walmac for public auction.

For the yearlings, this was a time prior to the July sale for them to prepare for the most important journey of their lives. When I visited the farm in late June with Moynihan to see the Deputy Minister colt and learn about his background, the yearlings had already been prepping for the sale for a month, exercising on a lunging rein in a round pen, jogging for 10 to 15 minutes, then being walked by hand for 30 minutes.

Because “my” colt had been purchased as a weanling and wasn’t raised with the other horses he had been kept in a separate paddock ever since he arrived on the farm.

Farm manager Bobby Miller said this was done because it was difficult introducing him to the pack at such a late date, fearing he would wind up at the bottom of the pecking order and possibly get kicked or injured.

Moynihan said the Deputy Minister colt had always been easy to handle, but had a good deal of energy and was always full of himself. He said, although the goal was to sell him, he was not in a “do or die” situation, and would only sell him if they got a reasonable price. The colt was smallish to average size and was a May 28 foal, which is quite late, so he had a great deal of scope for improvement as he got older and matured physically.

Moynihan was also pinning his hopes on the fact that the colt’s full-sister, Daijin, was undefeated in four starts that year in Canada, racing in the colors of the Sikura brothers. Daijin had won the six-furlong Star Shoot Stakes before capturing the Selene Stakes.

After we arrived at the farm, Miller had the colt brought out. He made a splendid appearance, although nothing flashy. As I stroked his forehead, he cocked his ears and lifted his head, accentuating his well-conformed frame, complete with powerful hindquarters and a near-perfect hind leg (as Moynihan pointed out).

“He’s very correct,” Moynihan said. “He was correct when I bought him and he’s stayed that way throughout. With weanlings you never know if they’re going to stay the same as when you bought them. Of all the horses I looked at in the November sale, I thought he was one of the best physical specimens and the best pedigreed colt in the sale.”

I was happy to hear that an experienced bloodstock agent had seen the same promise in his pedigree as I had.

When they first bought him, the feeling was that he was extremely small, but they felt he had done a world of growing since the purchase. One of the reasons they went after him was his value as a stallion prospect. They didn’t buy him specifically to resell, but they were certainly prepared to if he brought what they felt he was worth.

Miller said several prospective buyers had already been at the farm to see the colt, and he expected to have about 15 showings before the sale. Passing Mood had died the previous June, shortly after foaling the Deputy Minister colt, and this was the last chance for buyers to obtain one of her offspring.

The Keeneland Sale

It was now several weeks later, and I was back in Kentucky for the July sale. What I found was a colt totally different than the one I had seen and played with back on the farm. On this particular morning he was a bit more ornery than usual, as the sweltering heat and humidity had buyers and sellers retreating into the air conditioned sales pavilion and buffet lunch in the Keeneland dining room.

Moynihan sat in one of the few shaded areas outside Barn 10, still trying to get a feeling of how this year’s sale was shaping up and how much appeal the Deputy Minister colt was going to have. He said he was afraid to even speculate, because no one was showing their hand on anything so far.

“It’s been feast or famine,” he said. “You either get the money or you don’t get any of it. All you can do is keep your fingers crossed.”

At 10:30 a.m., Frank Stronach, one of the leading owners and breeders in North America, stopped by to inspect the colt, along with his manager Mike Doyle. As the colt kept pulling hard on the lip chain and trying to turn his head, Cherise Gasper, head of sales for Walmac, explained to Stronach and Doyle that he has a habit of trying to bite the handler.

“He’s a nice kind of horse, though,” Doyle said nonchalantly, not wanting to tip his hand in any way.

Later that morning, the colt was given a heart scan, which measures the heart size and the intake of blood and oxygen. He was rated a “4,” which Moynihan said was “as good as it gets.”

That night, Hip No. 65 was the fourth horse scheduled to sell in the Monday night session. At 7:50 p.m., Greg Partain of Walmac was given instructions to bring the colt out and walk him prior to the sale.. As the colt was given a last-minute grooming outside his stall, he continuously tried to bite his handler.

“He can really get on your nerves,” Partain said. “But he’ll get over this when he gets older. Right now, he’s like a little kid who wants to play. But he’s been a real trouper. He’s been out hundreds of times and he’s stood up very well. When we first got him as a weanling he was just a little thing, but he’s really grown up. When John first bought the colt, people gave him a hard time because he was so small.”

The colt then was walked around near the back of the pavilion, where buyers could get one final look. Among those watching him closely were Stronach and Doyle. As they walked into the pavilion, Gasper gave Doyle some final words of encouragement and wished him luck.

I watched the sale on the TV monitor behind the pavilion. When the gavel fell, Stronach had bought the colt for $375,000, giving Moynihan a 100-percent profit on his initial investment.

Following the sale, I went to Stronach and asked him what he liked about the colt and what the plans were.

“He’s a little immature, but he’s a good-looking colt and I liked the whole family,” he said. “He’s a late May foal and we’re not going to hurry him. We’ll send him to our farm here (Adena Springs in Versailles) where he’ll be broken.”

Doyle added that the colt would then be evaluated along with the rest of Stronach’s young horses, and at that time a decision would be made where he’ll be sent.

“Letting him grow is probably the most important thing right now,” Doyle said.

Moynihan then stopped to congratulate Stronach. “You’ve got a really nice horse,” he said. “I’m glad you got him.”

Moynihan said he was thrilled with the price, feeling anything over $300,000 in the current market was a gift.

“I have mixed emotions about selling him,” he said. “I really believe he’s going to be a very good horse, but at the same time you have to take a profit when it’s there, and when you make a 100-percent profit it’s not a bad deal, especially when you’re buying at that level.”

Following his career

Naturally, I followed the colt closely, feeling as if I, in some way, had a vested interest in him, having picked him out and gotten to know him on a personal level.

Fast forward to June 1997. As lead writer for DRF covering the Belmont Stakes, I like most everyone was all prepared to witness the first Triple Crown sweep in 19 years after Silver Charm gamely captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. So, here I was at Belmont ready to witness history being made by a horse to whom I had become extremely close and writing about it. But there was a slight twist. Actually it wasn’t slight at all. One of the colts out to stop Silver Charm was my little Deputy Minister yearling, now named Touch Gold.

I had followed him as he demolished the speedy and classy Smoke Glacken by 8 1/2 lengths in Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes under Gary Stevens. There was brief talk about running him back in the Kentucky Derby, and when it was decided he wasn’t ready, the happiest person was Stevens, who was also the regular rider of Silver Charm. Stevens knew how good Touch Gold was and wanted no part of running against him in the Derby.

To this day, many believe Touch Gold was the best horse in the Preakness after he nearly went down at the start, his nose actually kicking up a cloud of dirt. How he stayed on his feet was truly remarkable. Then after dropping to the back of the pack, he got stopped three times in the race, including twice in the stretch when Free House came in and forced Chris McCarron to take up sharply, almost going into the rail. Despite all that, Touch Gold still was able to finish fourth, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths. His performance was even more remarkable when it was discovered he had grabbed his quarter severely, suffering a nasty quarter crack.

At Belmont Park, I watched each day as quarter crack specialist Ian McKinlay worked feverishly on the foot, trying to get Touch Gold to the Belmont Stakes. McKinlay said it was the worst quarter crack he had ever seen, with 2 1/2 inches of colt’s hoof having been ripped off, exposing raw flesh. The laminae had been exposed and McKinlay had to toughen up the tissue so an artificial acrylic wall could be put on. After 10 days of down time for the healing process to be completed, the horse needed to be able to train and the quarter crack had to be stabilized. Once the hoof got tough enough, McKinlay would wire it all together before the race.

“It’s not the patch that’s going to get him to the Belmont; it’s his toughness,” McKinlay said. “This horse is a monster. He’s so smart that when he wants to get away from you he’ll just drop down to his knees. He knows every trick in the book and you have to keep him busy with carrots.”

We all know what happened. Touch Gold set the early pace, dropped back to fourth, and somehow swung to the outside and ran down Silver Charm to deny the colt the Triple Crown, winning by three-quarters of a length, much to shock of Gary Stevens, who thought Touch Gold was finished after being passed by three horses down the backstretch.

When Stronach ran into Bob Lewis after the race he said, “In a way I’m sorry.”

Lewis reassured him. “No, don’t feel that way at all. It was a wonderful day for racing. It just shows what a tough job it is to win this. Someone has to run second, and we had a couple of wins. You’re a champion in every way.”

At the barn, Trudy McCaffery, co-owner of third-place finisher Free House, came over to congratulate fellow Californian Hofmans and to see how Touch Gold was doing. As she lavished affection on the colt, the tears began to flow, just as they did after seeing her own horse and recognizing the gallant effort he put in. She had nothing but praise and admiration for Touch Gold and what he had to endure.

A short while later, McKinlay showed up to check on the damage. He began by sanding and filing the hoof and then removed the patch with a drill. What he saw convinced him even more what a tough horse Touch Gold was.

“What we healed up he’s basically peeled right off,” he said. “It’s raw under there now. The tissue that we got tough enough to hold the glue, he jarred and busted it loose. He’s a very tough horse, believe me. He’s got so much heart. This is an amazing horse.”

An amazing horse. He was talking about my horse…well, sort of. There I’d been standing in the winner’s circle, trying to look as solemn as possible, along with most everyone else, while on the inside I was feeling as proud as a parent who had just seen their child accomplish something special. I could only think back to when Touch Gold was nothing more than a page in a sales catalog and a nondescript-looking yearling on the farm, and now he’s winning the Belmont Stakes and thwarting the Triple Crown attempt of one of the most popular horses in recent years.

No he wasn’t mine and I didn’t risk any money to buy him as a weanling as Moynihan did. But at least for a brief moment I got to experience what it would feel like if I had.

It is now 25 years later and Silver Charm and Touch Gold are in neighboring paddocks at Old Friends, living out their final years. I still feel as close to them now as I did back then.

Please be sure to view our Silver Charm link featuring original items from the Bob and Beverly Lewis Estate that will be available for purchase or auction.

Nest Hatches New Plot to Steal Belmont For the Girls

Monday, May 30th, 2022

Although no official decision has been made yet regarding Nest’s status in the Belmont Stakes, all signs appear to suggest she will join stablemate Mo Donegal in an attempt to accomplish something even Rags to Riches didn’t do, which is to defeat the Kentucky Derby winner in the Test of the Champions. ~ Steve Haskin

Nest Hatches New Plot to Steal Belmont For the Girls

By Steve Haskin

Photo courtesy of Ryan Coady

 

It was 15 years ago when Rags to Riches became the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont Stakes and only the third in the history of the race. Could Nest duplicate that feat if her connections decide to run? Obviously we don’t know how she stacks up against these colts, but we do know the remarkable similarities between her and Rags to Riches, and the ironic fact that Nest is a daughter of Curlin, who was beaten a head by Rags to Riches in the Belmont.

Nest’s sire, Curlin, is out of a Deputy Minister mare.
Rags to Riches is out of a Deputy Minister mare.

Nest has Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew in her 3rd and 4th generation.
Rags to Riches has Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew in her 2nd and 3rd generation.

Nest is out of an A.P. Indy mare.
Rags to Riches is by A.P. Indy.

Nest’s female family is from the Bold Ruler line through his son Boldnesian.
Rags to Riches’ male family is from the Bold Ruler line through his son Boldnesian.

Nest’s tail-female family traces to Alibhai though Your Hostess, granddam of Majestic Prince, winner of the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
Rags to Riches’ tail-female family traces to Alibhai through Traffic Judge, winner of the first two legs of the Handicap Triple Crown.

Nest would go into the Belmont Stakes off four career victories.
Rags to Riches went into the Belmont Stakes off four career victories.

Nest is coming into the race off the Kentucky Oaks, in which she ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 4/5.
Rags to Riches came into the race off the Kentucky Oaks, in which she ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 4/5.

Nest’s Dosage Index is 3.00.
Rags to Riches’ Dosage Index is 3.00.

Nest won the Ashland Stakes before running in the Kentucky Oaks.
Rags to Riches’ second dam Blush With Pride won the Ashland Stakes before running in the Kentucky Oaks.

And of course, Nest is trained by Todd Pletcher.
Rags to Riches was trained by Todd Pletcher.

As for Nest’s stamina credentials, three of her four great-grandsires sired a Belmont Stakes winner and the other sired a Kentucky Derby winner. Her sire and broodmare sire both won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Three of the last five fillies to run in the Belmont Stakes have finished first (Rags to Riches), second (Genuine Risk), and third (My Flag). Many believe Genuine Risk would have won had she not been stuck down on the rail in the mud most of the race and between horses with nowhere to go and forced to make an early move.

Looking at her second-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks, she broke a bit flat-footed and fell back before getting to the rail and making an early move down the backstretch from eighth, about eight lengths off the pace, to third, two lengths back. But the two leaders were directly in front of her and Irad Ortiz had to sit and wait while Secret Oath made a sweeping move to take the lead and open up by two lengths. When Nest finally swung wide, losing ground, and got clear, Secret Oath was still clear and in complete control. Nest continued to close well and seemed to be getting stronger the farther she went.

So, will Nest give it a go? Can she beat these colts and join Rags to Riches in the history books? Stay tuned.

2022 Preakness Stakes Follow-up

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022

So, the Derby winner doesn’t run in the Preakness and the Preakness winner isn’t running in the Belmont. That’s it, the Triple Crown is doomed. Look, things happen every year, but we’ll get into that later in the column. But first let’s look at whatever story there is about the Preakness winner and who really were the dominant figures in the second leg of the Triple Crown. ~ Steve Haskin

2022 Preakness Stakes Follow-up

By Steve Haskin

Photo courtesy of the Maryland Jockey Club

No Hanging Chads in Early Voting

And so another colt punches his ticket on the 3-year-old championship ballot. Let’s be honest, though, there isn’t much in the way of a human interest back story when it comes to Early Voting, who had a pretty easy time of it in the Preakness after the two favorites, Epicenter and Secret Oath, got squeezed back to next to last and last, respectively, leaving Early Voting with the simple task of putting away Armagnac, the longest shot in the field, and being unopposed the rest of the way on a track that was pretty much favoring speed all day. Adding to the lack of opposition was Simplification bleeding and dropping out of it after being in excellent position down the backstretch.

To his credit, however, he was able to rattle off fractions of :23, :23 4/5, :24, and 18 4/5 and no top-class horse is going to be easy to catch closing in under :19 off those fractions. But if Epicenter had been ridden a bit more aggressively early to get good position he wouldn’t have been in the position to get squeezed back. So once again we have to praise Epicenter in defeat, making up two lengths in the final furlong. It’s been a very frustrating Derby and Preakness for his connections to see him run two huge races only to finish second each time, being the victim of a too fast a pace in the Derby and too slow a pace in the Preakness that was not contentious at all.

Early Voting no doubt is a very talented horse who first made a big impression in the Withers Stakes over a very deep and slow track. His immediate story goes back to 2013 when Three Chimneys Farm, looking for potential well-bred broodmares, spent $1,750,000 to purchase a Tiznow yearling half-sister to champion sprinter and top sire Speightstown and full-sister to $1.6 million earner Irap.

Named Amour d’Ete, they tried to get her to the races, but she developed a corneal ulcer in her left eye in October of 2014 of her 2-year-old year. With her losing a lot of time and having some growth and maturity issues it was decided to retire her early the following year. She did give birth her first year, but her daughter by Distorted Humor won only one of five starts. When she was barren the second year in foal to Super Saver, Three Chimneys decided to test the market and put her in the Keeneland November mixed sale. But her market value proved less than what Three Chimneys valued her at, so they bought her back for $725,000 and bred her back to Super Saver the following year, but the resulting foal, another filly, managed to win only once in nine starts, with eight unplacings.

In 2019, she was ready to drop a colt by Gun Runner, but in the last 30 days of her gestation she came down with a tendon sheath infection that forced her to be hospitalized. The infection had to be drained and she had to be treated with heavy doses of antibiotics. She returned to Three Chimneys on Feb. 24, and 11 days later on March 7 she gave birth to her Gun Runner foal, a colt later to be named Early Voting.

The colt weighed in at 120 pounds, which was five to seven pounds below the average weight at the farm. But when he was weighed as a yearling he was 175 pounds, which was about 12 percent above the average weight and he stood 15 hands, two inches, which was slightly above average. He was very athletic at a young age with no major issues, but was considered more muscular and compact than the typical Gun Runners, who are more long and lean and looked more like stayers. Three Chimneys sells a number of yearlings each year, and being from the first crop of their own stallion Gun Runner they targeted him for the Keeneland September sale. When they saw that they had valued him more than he was going to sell for they lowered his reserve, based on level of interest and who they had bought and sold already, and were willing to sell him for $200,000.

Turned over to Chad Brown, Early Voting always trained well, had a “great eye” according to Brown, but was tough around the starting gate. He made his debut on December 18, his trainer’s birthday, and began “improving rapidly.” Right from the beginning, following his victory in the Withers Stakes in only his second career start, Brown said “it would be great to do the Wood Memorial and Preakness, which he thought was “more practical” than rushing him into the Derby.

Even having sold the eventual Preakness winner, all is great at Three Chimneys.  They still have the mare, her two daughters and all their future offspring, and of course they have Gun Runner, who now has sired an amazing five Grade 1 winners from his first crop, including a Preakness winner and the Santa Anita and Arkansas Derby winners, as well as last year’s 2-year-old filly champion and the Hopeful winner.

I remember seeing Gun Runner returning following his victory in the Whitney with a horseshoe that was thrown during the race somehow entwined in his tail. No one had any idea how something as heavy as a horseshoe could become knotted up in a horse’s tail during a race. Trainer Steve Asmussen kept the shoe, which turned out to be a lucky horseshoe for Gun Runner. But Gun Runner’s good luck in the Preakness turned into bad luck for Asmussen, who was beaten by Gun Runner’s son. Sometimes luck can be awfully fickle.

The Real Stars of the Preakness

No, the real stars of the Preakness were not Early Voting or Chad Brown or Jose Ortiz. The real stars have been dead for several years. John Nerud Is one of the true geniuses the sport has ever seen, and from that genius came super stud Fappiano, the Nerud homebred who paid for his owner’s Long Island estate. The Preakness is all about both these iconic figures, and it’s not even close.

We’ll start by blowing your mind. In the pedigrees of the first five finishers of the Preakness, horses bred by Nerud either for himself or for Tartan Farm and horses purchased by Nerud appear a total of 85 times. Fappiano’s name appears in the first five finishers and in five of the first six finishers, with the victorious Early Voting and fourth-place finisher Secret Oath being inbred to Fappiano, whose male line includes Unbridled (bred by Nerud), Unbridled’s Song, Candy Ride, Empire Maker, and Quiet American.

Fappiano’s broodmare sire, the immortal Dr. Fager, who Nerud bred for Tartan Farm and trained, appears a total of 12 times in the names of the first six finishers of the Preakness, with his half-sister and fellow Hall of Famer Ta Wee appearing in the names of three of the first six finishers. That means their dam, Aspidistra, appears 15 times.

To further demonstrate the impact of Nerud, Dr. Fager, and Fappiano on the breed, his two homebreds appear in the pedigrees of classic winners American Pharoah, Grindstone, Real Quiet, Empire Maker, Orb, Mine That Bird, Birdstone, Rachel Alexandra, Nyquist, Shackleford, Tonalist, Always Dreaming, Tapwrit, Creator, Cloud Computing, War of Will, Tiz the Law, Mandaloun, Rombauer, Essential Quality, and Early Voting, with the Nerud-bred Ogygian in the pedigree of Justify, giving Nerud a part in two Triple Crown winners. Ogygian also is in the pedigree of Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver, while Ta Wee is in the pedigree of Derby wnner Giacomo. In addition, the Nerud owned and bred Cozzene is in the pedigree of California Chrome. So you can find Nerud’s influence in the pedigrees of 11 Kentucky Derby winners, 11 Preakness winners, including the last six, and nine Belmont winners. Looking outside the classics, Dr. Fager and Fappiano appear in the pedigrees of Arrogate, Holy Bull, Gun Runner, Game On Dude, Will Take Charge, Catholic Boy, and Frosted. And finally, Fappiano is in the pedigree of the great stallion Tapit and all the stakes winners he has sired.

As a side note, no one could spot a stallion prospect like Nerud. When he was looking for a young stallion to breed to his Dr. Fager mare Killaloe he turned to Butch Savin, who had a young unproven stallion in Florida named Mr. Prospector, who Nerud remembered because of his blazing speed.

He decided he was the perfect match for Killaloe, but she had a late foal that year and it was already June. Savin did not want Mr. Prospector having any May foals and turned Nerud down.

But in typical Nerud fashion, he told Savin, “Butch, you’re so rich you don’t want to take my money? Look out the window and tell me what the hell Mr. Prospector is doing now.” Savin said, “Nothing,” to which Nerud replied, “Well, neither is my mare. Let me worry about having a May foal.” Savin finally agreed, and Nerud bred Killaloe to Mr. Prospector and got Fappiano.

Just think of racing today without the influence of John Nerud, the unquestionable star of Preakness 2022.

Time For Another Five-Week Freak

So the Derby winner is skipping the Preakness; time to panic again. Let’s settle down; almost everyone believes Rich Strike would have had little or no shot in the Preakness. His Thoro-Graph numbers, with a gigantic jump from a less than mediocre“9 ¾” to a “1 ½ ,” indicated a huge “bounce.” And there wasn’t going to be any blistering pace to set it up for him, especially on a speed-favoring track. Trainer Eric Reed said after the Derby that the plan was to go to New York for the Peter Pan if he didn’t get into the race. So he wasn’t too crazy about running in the Preakness anyway.

I am tired of hearing about horses being forced to come back in two weeks; it’s not enough time. In the 19-year span from 2001 to 2019, 17 Preakness winners had no trouble coming back and winning two weeks later. The two that didn’t were when Derby winners Barbaro and Always Dreaming were stopped by serious injury and a lesser physical problem. Yes, the last three Preakness winners did not run in the Derby, but the 2020 Triple Crown was a farce due to Covid changes and really doesn’t count with the Derby being run in September and the Preakness in October. And in 2021 the second- and third-place finishers of the Preakness came out of the Derby and in 2022 the runner-up came out of the Derby.

The truth is, this is not about the horse and whether the two weeks will hurt him; it is about the trainers, who are much more conservative today and just are not comfortable running a horse back in two weeks, regardless of what the facts have shown this century.

I respect all opinions on this, for each person has his or her own feelings on this matter. If you want the Triple Crown races to be run the first Saturdays in May, June, and July so be it. I’m not here to change your mind. But let’s look beyond the horses and the trainers. What really separates the Triple Crown from all other races is its ability to attract the general public, most of whom have either a casual interest or no interest in the sport. It is just the place to be, and to many the ultimate party where they can place a bet and boast about picking the winner. So my question is this: do you have any idea what the attention span is of the general public? Does anyone really believe they are going to maintain their interest in the Triple Crown over a two-month period, spilling over into July and the holiday weekend when thoughts are now of family picnics, vacations, and trips to the beach or the nearest lake? Racing fans are already planning their trips to Saratoga and many New Yorkers and New Jerseyites are looking ahead to the Haskell Invitational, which will suffer greatly being crammed tightly between the Belmont and Travers.  And so will the Belmont, as few if any trainers will want to come back and run in the Travers dropping back from a mile and a half without a shorter prep and not giving their horse some down time between the spring and summer season, which they would with the Belmont remaining the first Saturday in June.

From a TV standpoint, remember, Fox is now televising the Belmont and they are going to make sure the race is run when it suits them best. And you can be sure they are going to want interest in the final leg of the Triple Crown to carry over from the Derby and Preakness and not stand as an island in July trying to generate interest from the Derby run two months earlier.

And finally, more horses get hurt training than in a race. The Derby horses are still on an adrenaline high coming off the Derby, which is why they run so well in the Preakness. Imagine a horse winning the Derby and Preakness in May and June and then getting hurt training or in his stall or coming down with a fever the week of the Belmont. “Oh, if only the Belmont had been run in June, I would have had a Triple Crown winner.” You know it’s going to work both ways.

Anyway, just some thoughts to ponder before we start tinkering with something that might not need tinkering with after all.

Steve Haskin’s 2022 Preakness Stakes Analysis

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

The Preakness lost its headliner when Derby winner Rich Strike backed out, but we still get a good matchup between Derby runner-up Epicenter, who most believe ran the best race of anyone, and the exciting filly Secret Oath, who has that big turn of foot. Here is something resembling an analysis of the race and how it shapes up. ~ Steve Haskin

Steve Haskin’s 2022 Preakness Stakes Analysis

By Steve Haskin

 

Before we get into the Preakness,  a few things you should know about the Derby. Rich Strike went into the race off a pedestrian “9 3/4” Thoro-Graph  number, with his fastest career number being a “9.” That slow a number spells automatic throwout. By comparison,  Taiba went in off a “negative-1/2” and White Abarrio a “1.” But lo and behold on the biggest day of his life he somehow rocketed to a “1 1/2 ” Considering his trainer said after the race the plan was to go to the Peter Pan and the Belmont if he didn’t get in the Derby and his owner said five days later the plan was to go to the Preakness if he didn’t get in the Derby, could it be they saw a massive “bounce” coming and decided that the Preakness would send them crashing back to earth from their high perch on cloud nine? This way they get to live the dream for another five weeks. Otherwise, why the contradiction and why announce the defection five days after the race? Food for thought.

Now looking at how big a race Epicenter ran in the Derby and why he will be a solid favorite in the Preakness, horses within eight lengths of the brutal :45 1/5 half were beaten 10 lengths, 15 3/4 lengths, 17 3/4, 18 3/4, 19 1/4, 20, 28, 42 3/4, 57, and 64 1/2 lengths. Epicenter and Zandon, who were 5 1/4 and 7 1/2 lengths back, respectively, were beaten three-quarters of a length and 1 1/2 lengths, respectively. Zandon, as reported, will not run in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Considering Epicenter ran basically the same Thoro-Graph number in the Kentucky Derby as he did in the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star Stakes and was coming off a six-week layoff going into the Kentucky Derby there is no reason to believe he will regress coming back in two weeks. With his versatility and tactical speed he should get a great position sitting right off likely pacesetter Early Voting, who will be a fresh horse coming off his big effort in the Wood Memorial.

Even though you have a classy confirmed frontrunner in Early Voting the pace scenario is still very much in the air. We know that another Baffert/Yakteen invader Armagnac has good early speed but has yet to demonstrate his class and we don’t know how huge longshot Fenwick is going to do but he’s only shown speed once and that was a moderate pace in a Tampa allowance race. But the key horse could be Simplication, a horse of many faces, who will be breaking from the rail under new rider, the crafty John Velazquez. We know Simplification has the early speed to go for the lead from the inside post. But we also know he is effective coming from midpack or even far back, as he was in the Derby, coming from 15th to finish fourth. So that adds to the confusion.

Epicenter as we know has early speed but now has become a stalker who rated beautifully in the Derby some five lengths off that brutal pace. Breaking from post 8 he has all the speed inside him, which is just what you want. But he still has to break well and make sure he doesn’t get caught too wide on the first turn.

So the bottom line is it is difficult to predict who will be where going into the turn. We do know that Secret Oath and the vastly improving Creative Minister will be the main threats coming from farther back and will be dependent on a fast or at least contentious pace.

Thoro-Graph numbers or any other speed figures sure didn’t do any good in the Derby and I’m not sure they will do any good in the Preakness. One to watch, however, is Creative Minister who has gone from a “9” to a “6 1/2” to a “2,” which was actually faster than Epicenter’s “2 1/4” in the Derby and Simplification’s “2 1/2.” His Beyer figures also have made significant improvement with each race, so this is a horse who definitely is on the rise and who has shown a powerful closing kick in all his races.

Imagine if Kenny McPeek, who had three strong Derby candidates early in the year, wins the Preakness with a different horse that no one heard of until his recent allowance victory.

If you want to know about Secret Oath, she ran a “2” in the Kentucky Oaks, which puts her right there with the leading Preakness horses. But she actually has run faster this year, so her best can certainly win this race.

Remember,  as strong as Epicenter looks his Thoro-Graph numbers have not improved since the Risen Star Stakes, nor has Simplification’s in his his last five starts. But it doesn’t look as if it’s going to take a fast number to win the Preakness.

There doesn’t seem to be many betting possibilities in this nine-horse field. Epicenter will be the clear-cut favorite and if he can avoid getting hung wide on the first turn he has the perfect running style to win this race, but obviously can only be played in the exotics and even then you’re not likely to make much money, especially if you play him over Secret Oath and Early Voting.

You can play all three over Creative Minister and Simplification to try for a decent return on your money and play Creative Minister and Simplification to win. You can add Skippylongstocking underneath as well if you believe the Wood Memorial was legit. Again, don’t be too surprised if Creative Minister gets bet down. Simplification could turn out to be the best overlay possibility.

Nothing clever here. The focus is on Epicenter vs. Secret Oath, so let’s hope both get good trips and run their “A” race.

A victory by Epicenter would set up an interesting rematch between him and Rich Strike in the Belmont Stakes along with the exciting fresh face We the People, a runaway winner of the Peter Pan Stakes. But let’s get through this one first.

 

A Young Intern and a Small-Time Buyer Become Part of History

Friday, May 13th, 2022

In horse racing, you never know who you are going to encounter and what effect they will have on your life. What may seem like a brief insignificant moment during the course of one’s life can prove to be far more meaningful years later. Amy Walters and Tommy Wente learned that when they least expected it. Here is their story and how it led to the family history of one special racehorse. ~ Steve Haskin

A Young Intern and a Small-Time Buyer Become Part of History

By Steve Haskin

Gold Strike photo courtesy of Tracey Caudill, Watershed Farm

One of the most fascinating aspects of Thoroughbred racing is the unexpected, and that does not apply only on the racetrack. Sometimes names and faces long forgotten appear years later in the most unexpected places.

Amy Walters was majoring in Horse Production at the Ohio State Agricultural Technical Institute from March to May of 1983 when she did her internship at Glade Valley Farms near Frederick, Maryland. Once one of the country’s great breeding establishments, where the nation’s leading sire Challenger II stood and where his son, two-time Horse of the Year of 1939 and ’40 Challedon was born, Glade Valley finally shut down after nearly 100 years following the death of its most current owner Howard M. Bender. The farm’s original co-owner William Brann also owned the legendary filly Gallorette as part of a foal sharing agreement with Preston Burch.

Walters’ job was mainly to assist in caring for Glade Valley’s client mares and foals — mucking stalls, feeding, holding mares and foals for vet work, and taking mares to the breeding shed.

“I was glad to work in that barn, rather than with the farm mares, because of the greater variety of foals sired by outside stallions,” Walters said. “They were mostly boarders for the breeding season, but we also dealt with the wet and dry mares that shipped in to be bred and shipped right out within an hour.”

Walters’ favorite task was working with that year’s barren mares. Two she remembered the most were half-sisters Apple Pan Dowdy, who was 16, and the 15-year-old La Belle Alliance, both of who whom were booked to the farm’s stallion Rollicking. Amy became fond of both mares because of how attached they were to each other.

“All the barren mares stayed in this one pasture 24 hours a day, every day,” she recalled. “When either Apple Pan Dowdy or La Belle Alliance was taken out of the field and led up to the breeding shed for instance, she’d only be gone for about 15 minutes, but even so their reunion would always be like something out of a movie. The mare left behind would  be grazing with the rest of the mares in this huge field. As soon as she’d spot her half-sister being led back up the lane from the breeding shed, she’d come racing over to the gate, whinnying her lungs out, then the two would gallop off together to rejoin the group, bucking and whinnying as if they’d never been so happy. It was even more impressive because they weren’t young mares. These cute reunion scenes played out every single time one of these two was taken out of the field and was always very touching.”

Apple Pan Dowdy was a daughter of Bold Commander, out of the Cosmic Bomb mare Apple Bomb, and had been unplaced in all her three lifetime starts. From 1974 to 1982 she had produced only three foals to race, with none of them earning more than $62,000. Barren in 1983, she was sent to Glade Valley to be bred to one of the top Maryland stallions Rollicking.

Apple Pan Dowdy’s Rollicking foal the following year would win seven of her 49 starts, but of her only two subsequent foals, one earned only $5,578 and the other was unplaced in her only start.

Apple Pan Dowdy had accomplished little as a racehorse or a broodmare, so it was highly unlikely that Walters or anyone else could envision that she one day would become the great-great granddam of a Kentucky Derby winner.

Five years before being sent to Glade Valley, Apple Pan Dowdy produced a Search for Gold filly named Panning for Gold, who won six of her 20 starts, earning $62,179. No one thought much of Search For Gold, whose biggest earner at the time was Reef Searcher, a $7,000 yearling purchase who won 12 of his 32 starts for earnings of $357,720. A year after Search For Gold was born, his dam Gold Digger produced his full-brother by Raise A Native, later to be named Mr. Prospector.

Panning For Gold, bred in Pennsylvania by Mrs. Charles B. Lyman, won six of her 20 starts, including something called the Tattler Handicap at Greenwood Racetrack in Canada. She showed her versatility by winning from five furlongs to 1 3/16 miles.

Bred to Dixieland Brass, Panning for Gold produced a filly named Brassy Gold, who never made it to the races. All she showed were several workouts at Hastings Park in Vancouver, British Columbia.

This family line sure didn’t show any indication it was headed for Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Brassy Gold would produce only three foals. The first in 2001 was a son by the unknown stallion Ares Vallis named Copper Kid, who ran 23 times, all claiming races, and closed his career in a $3,000 claiming race at Assiniboia Downs. Her third foal in 2003 was a colt named Kestrel, who was by another unknown stallion named Shrike. Kestrel ran four times, all claiming races, winning once and finishing out of the money in his other three starts, closing out his career getting beat 36 lengths in a $10,000 claiming race at Delaware Park.

But her second foal, by the 10-year-old stallion Smart Strike, a son of Search for Gold’s full brother Mr. Prospector, was a filly named Gold Strike, who won four of her nine starts, including the Woodbine Oaks, and was voted champion 3-year-old filly in Canada.

However, after having some success at stud with her son Llanarmon, who won two stakes in Canada, Gold Strike’s 2015 and 2016 foals never made it to the races; her 2017 foal, My Blonde Mary by Calumet stallion Oxbow, ran 29 times, all claiming races, and was claimed in her final start for $5,000 at Tampa Bay Downs; and she was barren in 2018.

In 2019, she produced a colt by another Calumet Farm stallion Keen Ice. Later that year, following three dismal years as a broodmare, Calumet, who had bought Gold Strike in 2015 for $230,000, sold her at the Keeneland November Mixed Sale for a paltry $1,700. As if that weren’t bad enough, they wound up putting her Keen Ice colt, now named Rich Strike, in a $30,000 claiming race following a dismal career debut on the grass and lost him to trainer Eric Reed and owner Rick Dawson.

Do you think Tommy Wente, who bought Gold Strike for $1,700, could have imagined her weanling that year was going to win the Kentucky Derby, and at odds of 80-1?

“It’s crazy, isn’t it; you can’t make this stuff up,” Wente said. “I’m a cheap buyer. My clients and I can’t afford the big prices. I loved this mare, even though I knew she had problems getting in foal since producing her Keen Ice colt. And I knew Calumet Farm wanted to get rid of her as they often do with older mares. I just thought I would take a shot. I bought her for M.C. Roberts, who has a farm in Indiana. He took great care of her, but he couldn’t get her in foal. Finally, he called me and said, ‘I’m done. I’m at my wit’s end.’ I suggested he send her to a specialist to try find out why she couldn’t get in foal, but he kept insisting he was done, so he gave her away to Austin Nicks, who has a farm in Sellersburg, Indiana. A week after he gave her away her son won the Kentucky Derby. I’m telling you, you can’t make this stuff up. What this solidified for me is that no matter how little you spend in this game you have a shot.”

If you don’t feel divine forces were guiding Rich Strike, Wente pointed out that he was stabled in Barn 21, he had post position 21, and he was No. 21 on the earnings list. Now, that’s what you call three straight blackjack hands.

So from a family inundated with cheap claimers over the years, a number of runners from small Canadian tracks, and a mare who was given away a week before her son won the Derby has come one of the great stories of the year and one of the most shocking winners ever of the Kentucky Derby.

For Amy Walters, who had fallen in love with a 16-year-old mare named Apple Pan Dowdy and her sister as a young intern 40 years earlier at Glade Valley Farms and who went on to breed and show Quarter-Horses for 10 years before getting out of the business in 1993 when it became too expensive, she could only recall those days and express her feelings about seeing Apple Pan Dowdy’s great-great grandson win the Kentucky Derby.

“I was watching on TV alone and was in utter shock at the result,” she said. “When Larry Collmus yelled out Rich Strike’s name I recognized instantly he was the colt who had just made it into the field the morning before. I screamed out loud, ‘What the hell?’ Then my cousin texted me and all he said was, ‘Wow, wow, wow!’ Hours after the race I looked up Rich Strike’s pedigree on Pedigeequery.com and I gasped when I saw Apple Pan Dowdy’s name. I was so delighted that a Kentucky Derby winner descends from a mare I worked with so long ago.”

Yes, in racing you never know when you are going to be confronted with something seemingly mundane that eventually will become a part of history. Sometimes it has to weave its way through a morass of  small tracks and cheap claiming races before reaching its place in the history books. This sport is a never ending chain of events, some minor and some major, and you never know where it will lead. Amy Walters and Tommy Wente can now say that for a brief period of time they in their own way had a small piece of history pass through their hands. For Walters, four decades would pass until it came to light on the first Saturday in May.

 Our next column will be a Preakness analysis to be posted next Wednesday. Yes, even without the Derby winner.

Rich Strike Hits the Mother Lode with Improbable Derby Victory

Sunday, May 8th, 2022

Well, the 2022 Kentucky Derby wasn’t what we expected. Most people had no clue who Rich Strike was before the race, but they sure know who he is now and the remarkable story of how this $30,000 claim found his way into the race at the 11th hour. ~ Steve Haskin

Rich Strike Hits the Mother Lode with Improbable Derby Victory

By Steve Haskin

Photo courtesy of Michael Clevenger and Christopher Granger/Courier Journal

Gabriel Lagunes’ alarm clock went off at 4 a.m. By 4:30 he was out of his house in Florence, Kentucky and on the road for the two-hour drive to Churchill Downs. For two weeks the Mexican-born jockey was a on a special assignment. Trainer Eric Reed, for whom Lagunes began riding at Mountaineer Park two years ago and exercised horses for him at Turfway Park, had asked his rider to drive to Churchill Downs every morning to get on Rich Strike, a son of Keen Ice who had run three times over Turfway’s synthetic surface, finishing third in the Leonatus Stakes and Jeff Ruby Steaks and fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial. He hardly seemed like Kentucky Derby material, but he had enough points to at least have him placed at number 24 on the earnings list. And it was obvious the colt, who came from far back in his races, was getting good at the right time, so why not train him at Churchill and see what happens, even though getting him in the race seemed like a longshot.

There was no one Reed wanted on the colt’s back other than Lagunes. Last November at Turfway Park Reed told Lagunes “I need you to work with this horse and take care of him,” so he started exercising the colt and working with him. And boy was he a handful.

“He was kind of goofy, he had his problems and needed a lot of work,” said Lagunes, who was a top jockey in Mexico and once finished second in the rich Clasico del Caribe in Puerto Rico. “He was sore in his back and ankles, he was very green and was mean in the mornings, he was scared of other horses behind him and in front of him, and he didn’t like ponies. He just didn’t want horses close to him. Every morning we would ice him and I would walk him and talk to him and jog him to try to get him to relax. I would gallop him way out in the middle of the track because he was so strong and if I got him close to the rail he would know he was working and would be hard to hold.

“We raced him in blinkers, but he seemed nervous in them so I suggested to Eric that he open up the blinkers and use cheaters because he needed to see everything and that would relax him more.”

Rich Strike had changed quite a bit since he was broken by April Mayberry in Ocala. “He was just one of the boys back then,” she said. “He was young like a teenager and his mind was never really in it. He was always messing around and playing. But he learned and became a very game and confident colt. I’m surprised to hear they had problems with him, but when I had him he was still a baby.”

Reed had claimed Rich Strike from Calumet Farm and trainer Joe Sharp for $30,000 in a race he wound up winning by 17 ¼ lengths. The colt continued to improve and would rally from far back to pick up a piece of the purse in stakes races at Turfway, but after seven races he still had only that one victory.

Reed put Venezuelan-born jockey Sonny Leon on him last December and he taught the colt how to run through horses. After he closed from 11th to finish fourth, beaten three lengths, in the Battaglia, Leon dismounted and told Reed, “We’re there. This is a Derby horse.” He then picked up valuable points finishing third in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, again rallying from 11th at odds of 26-1.

The Kentucky Derby was still in the back of their minds because of his running style, his late closing punch, and how quickly he was improving. When Reed told his daughter Lindsy about their plans to try to get in the Derby she was “amazed and excited,” mostly for her father and mother to have this opportunity. She never thought he would win, but it was exciting just to be able to get there.

Lindsy, who is a top hunter jumper, had taken care of Rich Strike, grooming him, bandaging him, and giving him his medicines, until he left for Churchill Downs. “He was quite full of himself and could be a handful,” she said. “He wasn’t mean, just playful and kind of goofy like a young prankster growing up. He loved to play with his grooms.”

On April 27, Lagunes worked him five furlongs at Churchill Downs and he went in a sharp :59 3/5.

“I could feel he was getting better and better the last few weeks and he was so strong in his work and really happy,” Lagunes said.

But as the Derby got closer the chances of Rich Strike getting in grew slimmer. Reed had someone giving him information every day about the status of the field and he would text him whenever a horse withdrew. There was some hope when he jumped from 24th on the list to 22nd, but after the Lexington Stakes they were back to 24. All they could do now was enter the horse and put him on the also-eligible list, hoping somehow four horses would drop out.

We came here on a prayer,” Reed said. “I told my dad and I told Rick (owner Richard Lawson), the worst thing that could happen to us is to have a call a day or two before the Derby and say you’re going to get in and not be prepared. So we came up to Churchill and we trained against all odds. Nobody thought we could get in. We got a defection, and then we got another one.”

At 8:45 the morning before the Derby Reed was notified that there were no scratches and that they were not going to get in. The security guard was told to leave the barn and Reed texted his dad and simply said, “Didn’t happen.” He texted some of his friends and said, “We didn’t get in. Sorry guys.” He then went in to his crew to tell them in person because he knew they were going to be really let down. “I told them, ‘Guys, look, we didn’t make it, but we were Number 21.’” They were one spot away from experiencing the moment of their lives, but time was desperately running out and it seemed hopeless.

Reed told his crew, “We got to get ready for the Peter Pan next week. And if we run well, we’ll go to the Belmont and show them that we belong.”

“I was trying to keep their spirits up, Reed said. “It didn’t matter how I felt because I have to keep my crew going. And they were really sad.”

Then just before 9 o’clock, Reed’s pony girl Fifi called him and said “Don’t do anything with your horse. Don’t move him.”

Reed had no idea what she was talking about and said, “What do you mean? Calm down.” But she was still excited. “No, you’re getting in,” she said. But Reed still didn’t believe her. “No I’m not. I’ve already been told I’m not. Somebody gave you bad information,” he said.

But Fifi insisted. “I’m telling you I just got notification that Wayne (Lukas) is scratching (Ethereal Road) and you’re going to get in.”

Shortly after, Reed received a call from steward Barbara Borden who said, “This is the steward. Tomorrow in the 12th race, the Kentucky Derby, do you want to draw in off the also eligible?”

“I couldn’t even breathe to answer and say ‘yes,’ Reed said. “I was like, what just happened? I was told no I’m not in, I lost my security guard, and now we’re in.”

Were the Derby gods at work conjuring up this unlikely scenario? Reed had gone through some tough times and nearly left the business. Several years ago he lost 23 horses in a fire at his farm. He told his wife, “We’ve probably lost everything.” But as he said, by the grace of God the wind was blowing in the direction where it prevented the fire from spreading to his other two barns. Then a year ago two of his assistants died of cancer within three months of each other.

Now, just like that, here he was in the Kentucky Derby. Reed never thought he would win, but he knew if he did get in “they’d know who he was when the race was over.”

Going to the paddock Reed was happy to see the colt calm and handling everything like a pro, just as he done all week schooling. When he got to the paddock he was composed and nothing seemed to bother him. But once he got on the track he perked up, yet was still well behaved.

On the tote board he was 80-1, and most everyone had no clue who this horse was, especially getting into the race the day before. Although he had to break from post 20, Leon was able to work out a trip and get him to the rail, where he has always loved to be. On the far turn Reed lost him for a second, then saw him cut to the inside. “That’s when I almost passed out,” he said. “I didn’t remember what happened after that.”

Down the stretch following a blazing fast pace of :21 3/5 and :45 1/5, the favored Epicenter took over the lead as the pacesetters wilted badly from the fast early fractions. Then Zandon came charging at him and it looked like a two-horse battle to the wire. Epicenter dug in and refused to let Zandon get by him and appeared to have the race won. Just then another horse came flying up the rail, eased outside of a tiring Messier, and stormed up alongside the two leaders. Most people had no idea who it was. Even track announcer Travis Stone and NBC racecaller Larry Collmus missed him, not mentioning his name until he came charging by Epicenter and Zandon. He already had his head in front when Collmus shouted “Oh my goodness!”

Even April Mayberry, watching in her living room with her mother, her assistant trainer and several friends, didn’t recognize him. “I saw it was a chestnut and thought it was Taiba” she said. “But then I saw the blinkers and thought ‘You got to be kidding, it’s Rich Strike.’ When he crossed the finish line everyone went so crazy my poor dogs ran out of the house. I thought the neighbors were going to call the police.”

In the paddock, Gabriel Lagunes and his partner Lindsey Matthews watched along with the Reeds. “We were completely shocked,” Lindsey said. “This was not what we were expecting. We were all jumping up and down and there was lots of crying and hugging. It looked like Eric was having a heart attack.”

Lindsy Reed said hugging her father and grandfather was “the greatest moment I will ever remember. We wrapped our arms around each other in total astonishment. I wanted this so much for my dad and mom. It’s been a hard road and they really deserve this. I just wanted him to get in the race for them. I never thought he had a chance to win, but he proved me wrong in the biggest way possible. I was so happy he at least got to run, but he blew us out of the ballpark.”

Owner Richard Dawson said after the race, “What planet is this? I feel like I’ve been propelled somewhere.” He asked Reed, “Are you sure this isn’t a dream?”

All the work and all the anxiety of trying to get in the Derby had paid off in shocking fashion. Rich Strike no longer was that baby whose mind was more interested in “messing around and playing.” He no longer was that “goofy” colt with all the hang-ups who was afraid of other horses.

But it was obvious he still was that the same colt who disliked ponies, as witnessed by his constant attempts to savage the lead pony escorting him to the winner’s circle. Meanwhile, in the grandstand and infield most everyone was savaging their mutual tickets wondering what had just happened.

So we come to the end of another Kentucky Derby journey and a fascinating Derby trail. Somehow the Derby gods worked their miracle, as they have done a number of times in the past. The unlikeliest of heroes, Rich Strike, struck it rich and added a wild new chapter into the annals of the Kentucky Derby. It sure didn’t end like we expected, but that is what the Derby trail and the Derby itself is all about. Always expect the unexpected, because you never know whose dreams are destined to come true. In this case even the dreamers couldn’t imagine they would come true. But in the end, the Derby gods spoke and when they speak the whole world listens.

********

Sixty miles away from Churchill Downs at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement facility, there is a black marble headstone that stands as a reminder of how a horse, a life, a dream, and a feel-good moment can end so abruptly and alter the course of history. It also serves as a stark reminder of how quickly Thoroughbred racing can turn a bright ray of sunshine into a dark ominous cloud.

That headstone, on which is inscribed the name of Medina Spirit with the words “Noble and Cherished Champion,” is all that is left of the legacy of this courageous colt, along with the memory of his gallant victory in last year’s Kentucky Derby.

The powers that be at Churchill Downs can remove his name from their record books and can tear down his sign in the paddock as winner of the 2021 Derby, but they can never remove the image of him turning back challenge after challenge down the stretch, and they can never tear down his reputation or convince anyone that a topical skin ointment helped him in any way win the Derby.

This is not about his positive drug test for a non-performance enhancing medication or how and why it was administered. I understand that rules are rules, but those rules and the colt’s disqualification will never alter my belief that Medina Spirit’s victory was a deserving one, and in my mind he will always be the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, with all due respect to Mandaloun, who also ran a courageous race.

Was Medina Spirit betrayed by human frailty? That is up to each person to decide. What is important one year later is what is in each person’s heart and whether they will remember the name of Medina Spirit based on what transpired in a laboratory or what they witnessed on the racetrack, not only in the Kentucky Derby, but race after race. No one can deny that he gave every ounce of his heart each time he stepped into the starting gate. That is all I will remember of Medina Spirit, whose life and career ended way too soon.

As for Gail Rice and Christy Whitman, the two small-time horsewomen who orchestrated this feel-good, rags-to-riches story and lived out the dream of every horse lover, I only hope that dream and the exultation they experienced haven’t diminished even in the slightest. Their story and the story of Medina Spirit will endure as long as the Derby roses bloom and the Twin Spires pierce the skies above Churchill Downs.

So as we salute Rich Strike as the winner of the 2022 Kentucky Derby we also must remember that black marble headstone 60 miles away and the name of Medina Spirit for what he represents and how he will always be part of Derby lore, not for his disqualification, but for the indomitable spirit that has defined the Thoroughbred for centuries and, despite the ignorance of some, will continue to do so for centuries to come.

The Forgotten Horse Who Nearly Saved The Meadow

Sunday, April 24th, 2022

The Derby Rankings take a break this week as we look back fifty years ago, when history was almost changed by a horse whose name has faded over time. But for a brief period in the winter and spring of 1972, it was Upper Case who looked to be the one who was going to help save one of America’s most iconic racing and breeding operations. ~ Steve Haskin

The Forgotten Horse Who Nearly Saved The Meadow

By Steve Haskin

If there’s one thing we can take from this year’s overall Kentucky Derby picture it is the number of top trainers who have had multiple serious contenders on the Derby trail. We’re talking about Steve Asmussen with Epicenter and Morello, Kenny McPeek with Smile Happy, Rattle N Roll, and Tiz the Bomb, Bob Baffert/Tim Yakteen with Taiba and Messier, Chad Brown with Zandon and Early Voting, Brad Cox with Cyberknife and Zozos, and of course Todd Pletcher with Mo Donegal, Charge It. Pioneer of Medina, and Emmanuel. Some of these have recently fallen off the Derby trail while others are about to.

There is no doubt that a majority of the contenders come from a select few barns run by America’s leading trainers.

It is interesting to envision the different scenarios than can unfold on Derby Day just from these half-dozen trainers. Many of the scenarios we have seen before throughout the history of the Kentucky Derby.

We have had trainers with multiple Derby horses left with nothing on the first Saturday in May and we have had trainers who saddled as many as five horses in the Derby. Nick Zito and Todd Pletcher saddled five horses (in 2005 and 2007, respectively) and none of them finished in the money.

There were Triple Crown winners who had stakes-winning stablemates in the Derby – Citation and Coaltown, Secretariat and Angle Light, and American Pharoah and Dortmund.

On several occasions we have had the Derby won by the weaker half of the entry – Real Quiet over Indian Charlie, Charismatic over Cat Thief, and Cannonade over Judger. And there was 24-1 Thunder Gulch beating Timber Country and Serena’s Song.

And finally we come to the scenario that pertains to this story, and that is a stable with two strong contenders on the Derby trail who had one not make it to the race but winning it with the other horse.

We have seen that with Devil’s Bag and Swale, Gen. Duke and Iron Liege, Eskendereya and Super Saver, McKinzie and Justify, and Life is Good and Medina Spirit (yes I am including Medina Spirit). In each case it was the stable’s big horse that failed to make the Derby only to have either the lesser regarded of the two or the horse who came on the scene late emerge victorious.

Racing researchers can look all these up or go strictly by memory. But there was one prominent horse on the Derby trail who over the years has been totally forgotten and even researchers would have to stumble upon him by accident to remember him, and even then have only a vague collection of him.

But this was a horse who at one point on the Derby trail looked as if he might be the savior of one of America’s leading breeding and racing operations. However, it was his stablemate who proved to be the savior of the farm and is a member of racing’s Hall of Fame.

Going into 1971, the once powerful Meadow Stable was in decline as its owner and founder Christopher Chenery lay in a hospital bed, his faculties diminishing each year. That is when his daughter Penny Tweedy was summoned from her home in Denver, Colorado to help save the farm on which she grew up.

That year, Meadow Stable unleashed a brilliant 2-year-old son of First Landing named Riva Ridge. It was their first big horse since the heroics of champion filly Cicada in the early ‘60s. By the end of the year, Riva was the overwhelming 2-year-old champion, winning the Flash, Futurity, Champagne, Pimlico-Laurel Futurity and Garden State Stakes, becoming the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, a race that had eluded Meadow Stable, who had come close in 1950, finishing second with eventual Preakness and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and Horse of the Year Hill Prince.

All eyes were on Riva Ridge as the 1972 season began. It didn’t look as if there was a 3-year-old around who was as fast and classy as Meadow’s gazelle-like colt with the loppy ears. Riva was given a four-month layoff over the winter and wouldn’t be seen again until the seven-furlong Hibiscus Stakes at Hialeah on March 22. During his absence, trainer Lucien Laurin sent out a regally bred colt by Round Table, out of Bold Experience, a granddaughter of Meadow’s foundation mare Hildene, by Bold Ruler named Upper Case, who ran well, but didn’t exactly set the world on fire, running in four allowance races at Gulfstream Park in January and February, three of them on grass, with two victories and two seconds. As a 2-year-old, he had a win and a second in four starts, so he was never mentioned in the same breath as Riva Ridge. As March rolled around, he had yet to compete in a stakes race despite having made eight starts.

The colt’s main problem was that he had a breathing issue, having lunged at the starting gate as a youngster hitting himself just about the nose, damaging his sinuses. From that day on he would be fine some days and others he would “choke up,” as jockey Ron Turcotte described it, losing his air.

On March 2, with Riva Ridge still in the barn, Upper Case finally made his stakes debut, rallying from sixth to win the Florida Derby by a length. Just like that, Meadow Stable had a powerful one-two punch with this latecomer having a pedigree and running style almost guaranteeing he would have no problem getting the mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby.

“I had to beg Lucien to run him in the Florida Derby, Turcotte recalled, “He kept saying no, that he felt he was a grass horse and wanted to keep him on the grass. But my agent and I kept after him telling him the horse was doing so good he deserved to be in the race. Lucien also felt he had a Derby horse in Spanish Riddle, who he also ran in the Florida Derby, but we beat him.”

Laurin decided to run Upper Case back only nine days later in the nine-furlong Flamingo Stakes and he finished a well-beaten second to Hold Your Peace in a sharp 1:48 2/5. Although he was beaten he still was considered a leading Derby contender who would get better with the added distance,

Eleven days later, on March 22, Riva Ridge finally made his 3-year-old debut, easily winning the seven-furlong Hibiscus Stakes in a quick 1:22 4/5. Now that Riva had shown he had made an excellent transition from 2 to 3 and was the same brilliant colt he was the year before the future was starting to look bright for The Meadow. Penny had come, had seen, and had conquered in a short period of time and was now the face of the operation.

However, on April 1, Riva Ridge went off at 3-5 in the Everglades Stakes and couldn’t handle the sloppy track, finishing a disappointing fourth, beaten nearly six lengths. Questions began to arise whether it was the slop that got him beat or whether it was the mile and an eighth. Did the colt have too much speed to handle the mile and a quarter?

Laurin then sent Upper Case to New York to point for the Wood Memorial. But instead of waiting six weeks between the Flamingo and Wood he dropped the colt back to a one-turn mile in the Gotham Stakes. At the eighth pole he was way back in eighth, 6 ½ lengths off the lead, but closed like a rocket to finish third, beaten 1 ½ lengths.

That set him up perfectly for the Wood Memorial. Laying close to the pace this time over a sloppy track, he took the lead on the far turn, opened up a four-length lead at the eighth pole, and was not urged the rest of the way by Turcotte, winning under a hand ride by 1 ½ lengths over Darby Dan’s classy, late-running True Knight, who would go to a productive career, eventually defeating Forego in the Suburban Handicap.

“We went to the front early and he just galloped home,” Turcotte said. “He looked as if he was going to be our big Derby horse.”

Racing fans and the media also started wondering if it was Upper Case and not Riva Ridge who was Meadow’s main Derby hope. He had already won two of the biggest mile and an eighth races on the Derby trail, had the right running style and the breeding to run all day, and all Riva had to show for himself at that point was a victory going seven furlongs and a fourth-place finish in his only start at 1 1/8 miles.

But when Riva Ridge bounced back and easily won the Blue Grass Stakes by four lengths, he eased a lot of fears and once again became the Derby favorite. Laurin decided to go with only Riva in the Derby and point Upper Case for the Preakness.

Riva went on to score a decisive victory at Churchill Downs, giving the Meadow its most important victory since it was founded by Chenery in 1936. He took the lead early and never looked back, winning in hand by 3 ¼ lengths over the late-running No Le Hace, winner of the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbys.

A week Later, Upper Case ran in the Preakness Prep, but he went right to lead and tired at the head of the stretch, as his breathing problem acted up. At the finish, he was fifth, beaten 5 ½ lengths, by the improving Key to the Mint.

Then came the Preakness a week later, and when heavy rains turned the track into a quagmire it was Upper Case who Laurin scratched and not Riva Ridge, despite the latter having run poorly in the slop in the Everglades and Upper Case having won the Wood in the slop.

“I asked Lucien and Penny why would they scratch Upper Case and not Riva Ridge, and Lucien said he wasn’t convinced Riva didn’t like the slop,” Turcotte said. And having already won the Derby so easily there was the Triple Crown beckoning.

This is where the careers of both colts took dramatic turns. Riva as everyone knows, went on to a Hall of Fame career, but Upper Case continued to be plagued by his breathing problems. After a terrible performance in the Jersey Derby, in which he “choked up” again according to Turcotte, he was sold to a group from Ireland for breeding purposes for $750,000 because of his strong pedigree. They continued to race him, but in his next seven starts he finished out of the money in six of them. He managed to win an allowance race on the grass at Belmont in late September when they shortened him up to seven furlongs and the breathing was not a problem.

At the end of 1972 Upper Case was retired to stud in Ireland where he sired a few good horses. But for Americans, he quickly became a forgotten horse with his name fading into obscurity over the years.

“He was a tough horse, especially to gallop” Turcotte said. “But when he was able to get his air he could really run. He was a very good colt and at one point we thought he was the big horse.”

Now, 50 years later, the story of Upper Case can be told, about how for a few months in 1972 he was the horse who was going to help save The Meadow. Of course, it was all a prelude to the following year when a big red horse came along to elevate himself and The Meadow into immortality.

A Centennial to Remember

Thursday, January 27th, 2022

A new and revised edition of Penny Chenery’s 100th birthday celebration. And you’re all invited. ~ Steve Haskin

A Centennial to Remember

By Steve Haskin

The party is about to begin. The guests, both two-legged and four-legged, are arriving to celebrate Penny Chenery’s 100th birthday. The room is decked out in blue and white balloons, and hanging on the walls are dozens of racing photos, including the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek. It is a time for nostalgia, for remembering a great lady, who in 1973 was The Queen in a sport of kings and later became its greatest ambassador.

One by one, the guests arrive and present Penny with a birthday card, inscribed with their birthday wishes.

“Dear Penny, first off, thanks for losing that coin flip and for being the greatest press agent a star like me could ask for. And thanks for all the comforts in life you provided, especially supplying me with the most dazzling harem a handsome stud could ask for. I know I rewarded you and helped make you famous, but it only equals what you did for me. Yes, there were some mistakes made with me and Riva, but this was all new to you and you learned from them. All in all, it was a magical journey and we should take great pride in knowing that we raised the equine genus up a notch and created the standard by which all others are measured. It’s amazing that half a century later I still hear my name mentioned on TV by non-racing people as a symbol of greatness. And I never told you this, but I did see you flailing your arms wildly as I came down the stretch in the Belmont Stakes. Heck, I had nothing else to do. What a moment that was. I’m sorry I left you so soon, but, unlike the racetrack, there are things in life we have no control over. I did leave three amazing daughters and mothers who changed the face of the breeding industry. A brief thank you to my girls Weekend Surprise, Terlingua, and Secrettame for keeping making my – and your dad’s — bloodlines so dominant. In closing, hopefully, one day they’ll find a cure for laminitis. And I do miss those Certs breath mints at Claiborne Farm and all those wonderful visits from my fans. Now that we are reunited on this day, and I see my name in the pedigrees of so many top-class horses, I want to take this time to wish you a very Happy 100th Birthday and thank you for the legacies we both left.”

— Your number one glamour boy, Secretariat

“Dear Penny, it gives me great pleasure to return to wish you a Happy 100th birthday. I remember those early days when you had that funny-looking hairdo and no one knew who you were. I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about being cast aside and living in the shadow of you know who (I still can’t say his name), but deep down we both know who always remained number one in your heart and who really helped bring Meadow Stud back to national prominence. I even forgive you for allowing the Disney people to cut me out of that movie, as if I never existed. But I understand why they had to do it. If they hadn’t, the movie would have been about me. You and Lucien learned a lot from the admitted mistakes you made with me after the Triple Crown, and I’m glad at least for that, although I would have loved to go out a winner after the Stuyvesant Handicap and not have to slog those two miles in the Jockey Club Gold Cup again. But I’d rather concentrate on those glory days of 1971 and early ‘72 when I was The Boss and America’s sweetheart. With my lop ears and narrow frame I wasn’t the movie star that a certain big red horse was, but I was a kind, gentle soul, and it is with all sincerity that I wish you the happiest of birthdays.”

— Your first love, Riva Ridge

“Dear Penny, we had some rough times and some stressful times, but mostly loving and joyous times together, and through it all you were one classy lady, and I don’t even mind you telling the world about us after all these years. You plucked me out of retirement and a sedentary life of boredom and thrust me onto the national stage and gave me fame and fortune at a time when I thought I had saddled my last horse, never to be remembered in the history books. We had a great run together, sharing all the ups and downs, mostly ups, and for that I will remain eternally grateful. Happy Birthday, and I have to say, you still look damn good.”

— Your admiring trainer, Lucien Laurin

“Dear Penny, Well, although I somehow am the only primary member of the team left, we’re all in a way still around after all these years. I certainly have no regrets, despite the unfortunate twist my life took. But that was many years ago as well. Thanks to you and Big Red, and, yes, Riva, I still have been able to keep busy all these years doing autograph signings and attending major events and meeting the fans, old and new when I am able. I thank you for two days in particular – August 2, 1971, when you put me on Riva Ridge for the first time in the Flash Stakes, and July 31, 1972, when you and Lucien allowed me to get a leg up on the greatest horse of all time in an allowance race, when no one had heard of the name Secretariat. I had ridden many top horses before that, but my career was launched into orbit that day at Saratoga. I often think that the incredible energy and power I felt through Red has stayed with me all these years. Have a wonderful birthday and I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”

— Your favorite jockey, Ron Turcotte

“Dear Penny, how great it is to see you and all the old familiar faces again. I see Big Red over there and have a burning desire to go over and take the brush to him and give him the brightest shine he’s ever had. But I think I will go over and wrap my arms around his neck one more time and tell him what a champ he is. And how about ‘ol Riva, still lookin’ as laid back as ever, with those ears floppin’ all over. Boy, do I miss those days, and I have you and Lucien to thank for allowing me to spend every day of my life during those unforgettable years taking care of legends. Always remember, you made racing a better sport, and, boy, wouldn’t it love to have you now.”

— Your faithful groom, Eddie Sweat

“So great to see you again, Penny. Man, what a ride!  My buddy Billy Silver and I want to thank you for making us the most recognizable horse and rider team in the country not named Secretariat and Ron Turcotte. I can’t even describe what it was like leading Red to the racetrack in the morning and to the post in the afternoon through that magical 3-year-old campaign. Oh, wait, yes I can: “Oh, baby! Oh, baby! Oh, baby!” I know I kept saying those same words, but with Red you had to speak from the gut. No long sentences were needed. That said it all. Billy enjoyed it even more than I did because he probably thought all those cameras were for him. Look, we had one job only, and that was stick to Red like barnacles to the hull of ship. I just want to conclude by saying that I apologize for hitting that bottle of champagne Churchill Downs sent to the barn after the Derby. It was a time for celebration, and even though you hadn’t gotten back yet, I wasn’t about to wait for you to celebrate. To tell you the truth I can’t even remember much after popping the cork. So, for your 100th birthday, here is that bottle of champagne I owe you.”

—  From Secretariat’s sidekicks, Charlie Davis and Billy Silver

 

“Dear Penny, exercise riders as you know do not get much recognition and must be satisfied and thrilled just to get on the back of top-class horses every morning. There is an old Arabic saying that goes: “The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.” Well, thanks to you and Lucien I got to feel that heavenly wind in my face every time I took Big Red out for his morning spin around the track, whether in a work or a gallop, even if it was just as a 2-year-old. So speaking for me and Charlie, thank you for providing us with the thrill of a lifetime; we will always be grateful to you. Hope you have a wonderful 100th birthday.”

                            Your faithful morning servant, Jimmy Gaffney

“Dear Penny, although I felt badly that Ronnie was unable to ride Secretariat in his career finale, and in Ronnie’s native Canada, I could not have been more thrilled when I was asked to replace him. I knew the pressure would be enormous, making sure Red went out a winner, and was well aware what the repercussions would be if I messed it up. But, if I didn’t know it then, l certainly was convinced down the Woodbine backstretch that the only way I could mess it up was to fall off. All you had to do was stay on and leave it all up to him. So thank you for allowing me to share in Secretariat’s final hurrah and being part of his historic journey. All the best on your 100th Birthday.

                                                             From the most grateful pinch hitter in racing history, Eddie Maple

“Dear Penny, this special occasion is the proper time to tell you what a joy and honor it has been working with you and keeping Secretariat’s name alive and in the hearts of racing fans from 9 to 90. We have built Secretariat’s brand name, his merchandising, and his website Secretariat.com into something everlasting, as well as the creation of the Secretariat “Vox Populi” Award, and you can rest assured I will continue to keep that connection with the fans alive. And thanks for allowing me to share the Meadow Stable legacy with the fans and keeping yours and Red’s memory alive at all the festivals and celebrations. Here’s to all the wonderful special moments we have shared over the years and all we have built together. I’m sure Red would have been proud.

— Your keeper of the flame, Leonard Lusky

“Dear Penny, I know we had our differences and you and your horse robbed me and my horse of our immortality, and I do have to tell you that regardless of how they portrayed me in the movie, I am not a loudmouth and a bully, and deep down was a great admirer of you and Secretariat. I did get in the Hall of Fame, so there is something to say for that. I still would love to get another crack at that big red horse with my beautiful Sham, but that’s not going to happen, so I’ll just accept it and think about what might have been had Sham come along in a different year. But my boy still has a loyal following and had a couple of books written about him. They say a warrior’s greatness is measured by his opponent, and I am proud that ‘ol Sham bought out that greatness in Secretariat. See, I told you I’m not a bad guy. I’m so glad you were able to stay around for so long to tell everyone about those days and of two very special horses.”

— Your one-time antagonist, Frank “Pancho” Martin

“Dear Penny, all I can do is echo my trainer’s words and wish I hadn’t bloodied my mouth and lost a couple of teeth hitting it against the gate at the start of the Derby. Who knows, right? Hey, I did finish ahead of you guys in the Wood Memorial, abscess or no abscess. That’s’ something. It was a good fight overall; I just came out second best even with running the second fastest time in the history of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. They said I had an unusually large heart, but Red’s heart was even larger. Some luck, huh?”

— Happy Birthday from your equine antagonist, Sham

“Dear Penny, it’s great to see you again. I’m happy to say that Big Red’s old home, Claiborne Farm, is back on the upswing thanks to Arch, Blame, Pulpit, War Front, Run Happy and many other new and exciting stallions. Things are going well here, and on your 100th birthday I would love to give you the world’s biggest cake, so that it could hold six million candles. Well, 6.08 million to be exact. You helped make my career when I was just a mere youngster and trying so hard to fill my daddy’s shoes and impress Mr. Phipps and the other board members. It was so great working with you in putting together a deal far beyond anything anyone had ever seen before. We rewrote the book on syndicating horses. We made history, and we will share that bond for all time.”

— Your one-time partner, Seth Hancock

“Dear Penny, bet you didn’t think we’d make it here, but there was no way we were going to miss seeing you and all our old friends. We remember those old days at The Meadow and you as a little girl growing up, and the apple of your pappy’s eyes. Man, it’s good to see Big Red and Riva again after helpin’ raise them as babies. We remember the day we put Red in that first stall in the yearling barn, so we knew then he was the special one of the bunch. Man, he was strong. He was so different from Riva. Red would test us, but Riva was just a kind soul. We all still shudder thinking about the time baby Red escaped from the farm and ran out onto route 30, where a truck driver had to go out and get him. Or the time when Red took off from his mama and decided to go swimming in the North Anna River. Yikes! It was sad to see The Meadow go, and we never did go back again, even though we passed it all the time. We remember bein’ picked up every mornin’ in Duval Town, that was built after the emancipation to house freed slaves. They’d pick us up and bring us to the farm. We sure did love workin’ for Mr. Chenery. He always treated us so well, as you did. Oh, by the way, Aunt Sadie and Magnolia say hi and Happy Birthday. And so did ‘ol Wilbur (Bill) and Harry Street, who vanned Red to Hialeah as a 2-year-old, and Howard Gentry, and Olive Britt, who still regrets not gettin’ to the farm in time to take Red out of Somethingroyal. But she remembers Mr. Gentry telling her, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for for 35 years.'”

— Happy Birthday from the boys at home — Charlie Ross, Howard Gregory, Bannie Mines, Lewis Tillman, Raymond “Peter Blue” Goodall and the rest of the gang

“Dear Penny, all I can say is thank you for allowing me to name Secretariat, even though it took six tries to get it. It was my honor and privilege working by your side during those years. You were indeed your father’s daughter. A very Happy Birthday.”

— Meadow Stud secretary Elizabeth Ham

“Dear Penny, what can I say, I got damn lucky. Right place at the right time.

— The Giant Killer (I hated that name) Allen Jerkens

“Hey, Penny, you remember that young kid you and Lucien took in, and then gave him a shank and told him to walk Secretariat and Riva Ridge around the shedrow? Well, how in the world am I ever going to forget that thrill and being within arm’s length of greatness every morning. These two amazing superstars became my buddies and I still have a couple of old photos to remind me of our special times together. Then you had me work at The Meadow for a while, so I became part of the racing and breeding family before becoming a trainer for many years and ultimately in charge of the NYRA holding barn. And just look at where it all started. Thank you so much for your kindness.

                                                                  — Happy 100th from that now 70-something kid Steve Jordan

“Dear Penny, I was just a writer for Newsday when Jimmy Gaffney told me about a big red colt I should keep an eye on. Well, I sure did keep an eye on him, and thanks so much to you and Lucien for opening your door to me, so I could write what many believe to be the greatest equine biography of all time, certainly by first-hand account, and forever linked me to the greatest horse ever. Like all of Red’s team, when he died, a piece of me died with him, which inspired me to relive the magic in my sports illustrated article “Pure Heart.”

– Big Red’s biographer, Bill Nack

“Dear Penny, I’m sure you don’t remember us, well, maybe you do, but although we were a big disappointment to you, not living up to our brothers’ reputation, we did try, but we just weren’t blessed with their talent. But we do want to thank you for at least putting us in the spotlight for our maiden races and having all of racing following us and rooting for us. They are moments we’ll never forget. Have a wonderful birthday and we’ll go over now and try to renew family acquaintances. Thanks again for the 15 minutes of fame.”

— Happy Birthday from Red and Riva’s brothers, Capital Asset and Capito

“Dear Penny, I had so much fun playing you in the Secretariat movie. I have to admit I hadn’t been to a racetrack since I filmed ‘A Little Romance’ at Longchamp when I was 13. It was inspirational becoming you and just being with you at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day and seeing the admiration people still have for you. I have to admit my favorite moment in the movie was telling our shady trainer to pack up and take a hike. So, thanks for letting me into your world and for making this such a fun role. I hope I look as good as you in my ‘90s.”

— Happy Birthday from the other Penny, Diane Lane

“Dear Penny, I am honored, not only to be a descendant of the great Secretariat, but the last horse you ever bred and to carry the Meadow Stable silks. Also, being inbred to Native Dancer and Dr. Fager ain’t exactly chopped liver. I had so much fun greeting visitors at the Secretariat Birthday celebrations in Virginia and then at Old Friends in Kentucky. Just think, with all the great horses at Old Friends, people actually came to see me. One of my biggest thrills at Old Friends was when Michael Blowen introduced me to Silver Charm. He still looks like a stud, but I realized he was just too old for me. Thank you for deciding to breed Cotton Anne to Quiet American, and a Happy 100th Birthday.

— From an “Old Friend,” Groundshaker

“My Dear Penny, thank you for being there when I needed you and for keeping the name of our beloved Meadow alive. You gave up the life you had built for yourself and your family to return to your roots and help save what we built up over so many years. I’m so proud of you for what you accomplished and the self-confident, strong-willed person you became. I didn’t live to see Secretariat, but I was there with you all the way. I hope you’re aware of that. It is so reassuring to know that it was from our blood, passed on through the generations, that a legend was born; perhaps the greatest of all time. And, yes, I was well aware at the time that we finally won the Kentucky Derby with Riva. It gave me a great deal of comfort knowing that. To see what you have accomplished, even after Secretariat, warms my heart. The Meadow is gone, but it will never be forgotten thanks to you.”

— Your loving father

So, let’s light the candles and cut the cake and celebrate a life well-lived, and remember a very special time, not only in racing, but in America. It truly was a time for heroes, and like Secretariat, Penny Chenery was a hero who raised the sport of Thoroughbred racing to a different plateau.

A Farewell to Billy Turner

Monday, January 10th, 2022

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

A Farewell to Billy Turner

By Steve Haskin

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Steve Haskin

Lava Man: From Fairy Tale to Pony Tale

Monday, January 3rd, 2022

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

Lava Man: From Fairy Tale to Pony Tale

By Steve Haskin

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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