It was May 1973. A young college couple from Ohio State University packed their tiny, old Mini Cooper for a road trip, and drove south to Churchill Downs in Kentucky. “We didn’t want to pay for a hotel, so we … Continue reading
Over the last few weeks as hope and enthusiasm for California Chrome was building, I found myself wrestling with questions about the fairness of the Triple Crown system. Who wasn’t rooting for another Triple Crown winner as the underdog, California Crown, raced toward immortality? But in that place, I kept coming up short in the “fairness” department for what was actually happening.
California Chrome wins the Kentucky Derby in a 19-horse field and makes it past Round 1.
The Preakness is two weeks later… a short turnaround that only one other horse in its 9-horse field decided to tackle. He wins Round 2 against mostly fresh, new horses. And the final jewel in the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, now looms as California Chrome tries to make history. The problem is, this is his third race in five weeks against horses that have either skipped the Preakness or that haven’t run either of the first two legs.
California Chrome came in 5th, 1 ¾ length behind the winner, and later was to be found running in spite of a quarter crack he sustained at the starting gate from a wound inflicted by his next-door neighbor. Only one other Belmont horse ran in the Derby and Preakness… and he was pulled up halfway through the race. And the first and second place horses? Both came into the Belmont “Triple Crown Fresh,” having not run either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness.
Some might say, “The Triple Crown is supposed to be hard, and these factors have been the same for every Triple Crown winner since its inception.” That’s only a partially correct statement.
Yes, it is true that horses have been always been allowed to jump on and off the Triple Crown bandwagon. But one significant thing has changed. When the Triple Crown began in 1920, they set the schedule for the three prestigious races with two weeks apart because, at that time, horses frequently raced every two weeks. It was the average recovery time at that time. But that statistic has changed, particularly over the last 30 years. It is an accepted fact that the horses today run about every four weeks, conservatively. They are bred, trained, and raced for this timeframe. And yet, the Triple Crown is still stuck in the old schedule. It has not evolved with the times, creating a situation that encourages horses to jump on and off the Triple Crown bandwagon as a performance advantage over the one ‘over-run’ Triple Crown hopeful… in this example, California Chrome.
In my opinion, there are two fairness issues at play: 1.) Allowing fresh horses to come into the Triple Crown series with a shot at upsetting a Triple Crown hopeful; and 2.) Insufficient and outdated recovery time in between races.
While it seems logical to me that it should be a “Last Man Standing” series like most other professional sports to determine the best 3-year-old in the country (i.e. If you sign up for the Kentucky Derby, you sign up for the Triple Crown series), the Triple Crown has allowed this since its inception, and great horses have overcome the bias. So, that issue has history on its side to be left alone.
But at a minimum, what does need to change is the length of time between Triple Crown races. Would the Tour de France allow outsiders to compete for the title at the last minute and allow them to compete against those who have stayed within the grinding qualification schedule leading up to the race’s final leg? Would the NBA allow fresh players to join a team during the NBA finals? No. In fact, all professional leagues: NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL prohibit teams from adding fresh, new players after the playoffs are determined. Adding late arrivals to the final championship run would be considered inane and highly biased in other professional sports. It just doesn’t exist, except in racing’s Triple Crown.
Some would argue that by increasing the time to four weeks between Triple Crown races, we are dumbing down racing’s ultimate crown and making it too easy. Not the case. It is simply staying true to the proportional recovery time originally intended by the Triple Crown series when it began. And greatness is still being made if a horse can win against new fields, on new tracks, in three distances, and against fresh horses.
Racing has so much to offer our world as a sport, a lifestyle hobby, and a source of the most inspirational stories our world has to offer. But, in order to remain a viable industry, it must have the courage to evolve as it should… sometimes it seems like it’s stuck in the past. I hope the racing industry considers this perspective not only for a more even playing field, but also for the sake of the horses. And another Triple Crown winner wouldn’t be a bad shot in the arm either.
Been wanting to write this for a long time, and rarely publish my opinions online. But it was prompted after just watching the PETA video on Steve Asmussen.
I can see the racing forums blowing up. PETA is this! But Asmussen is that!
I have a news flash for the racing world: Wrong Argument.
The issue is not whether or not public perceptions (be they PETA or otherwise) are correct. The REAL issue is that the perceptions, in fact 1.) Do exist; 2.) Are fatally mainstream; 3.) And, are doing incredible damage. For those reasons, they should be addressed and resolved head on. And by us, NOT PETA or anyone else. In short, racing needs to wake up, stop treating this as typical horse people would, and start treating this professionally as any business or industry would: A Mt. Everest PR Nightmare that needs immediate attention for continued life as an industry in our society.
Tomorrow, that PETA video will show up in my non-racing friend’s Facebook feeds. PETA, whether you like it or not, is doing a better job meeting the public where they are at than we are. We live in the most animal-sympathetic society the world has ever known. On our best day, we are walking a tightrope in people’s eyes. If we do not start acknowledging these perceptions as important– whether we agree with them or not– Thoroughbred horse racing is on its way to being met with the same disdain as Greyhound racing in 10 years. It’s heart-breaking, as we have so much more to offer than these horrifying examples that only glorify the worst. What about the rest? Horse racing in its purest form offers stories so full of emotion, inspiration and soul that it can move a country. As Tom Hammond of NBC Sports said, “The Olympics offer the best stories. Horse racing comes next.” It’s not like we (or the horses) have nothing to offer. It’s just that we don’t focus on the right things.
The primary negative perceptions are drugs, disrespect for the horse, and “the whip.” If we really wanted to evolve with the society we find ourselves in, we would act swiftly, treat this as the PR nightmare that it is, and make intentional, committed changes. The obvious include:
- Removing the whip altogether. Hand-rides only. Raise true horsemen again who encourage horses to run through good horsemanship, or because they want to, or both.
- Tracks and organizations uniting to permanently disallow trainers who use performance-enhancing drugs. After the first five, trainers would seriously rethink everything. It would have to be a unified effort.
- Getting rid of Lasix. For crying out loud, Europe already has.
- Stop the racing of 2-year-olds (i.e. Don’t encourage racing until horses have fully matured.)
- Donating 1% of all auction sales, wagering totals, and stud fees to Thoroughbred aftercare. Make it a publicly visible priority.
We need to stop letting others be the master of our fate. We need to stop the false thinking that if a public perception is incorrect, it doesn’t matter… That thinking is so not current. In fact, it’s archaic. It also highlights the wrong things, only drawing out unresolvable arguments. We need to be more forward-thinking for the sake of our sport, our history, and our horses. If we don’t, we deserve our fate.
This is a true account of our experience visiting Hollywood Park on its final Saturday (December 21, 2013). I decided to go mostly so I could witness this historic, albeit bittersweet, moment. But I was overcome by the depth of emotion I saw and heard. Here is just a trifle of those conversations and images.
We visited Hollywood Park last Saturday. I didn’t think I could bear going on Sunday, it’s last official day, so we went on Saturday instead. As we walked in from the parking lot, I already heard old-timers recounting grand memories and highlights from the last fifty years.
“Remember Citation in the ’48 Gold Cup?” one guy said. “That was a great day. He tore it up.”
“How about Eddie D.?” another said. “The only comparison in my eyes is Gary Stevens.”
I knew it was going to be a long day. We hadn’t even left the parking lot.
The mood was sullen, quiet, reflective, with the exception of one inappropriate guy yelling at a TV monitor while the national anthem was being sung for one of the last times. There’s always one. In a way, he was the lone reminder of a track that had seen its better days. I found myself feeling silently defensive… of the track, the memories, the history of its past and the sadness of its future.
We walked by the tunnel, and stopped for a moment in front of it, reflecting on the countless horses and riders who walked through that tunnel and proceeded to make history, defining moments of inspiration, setting the bar higher and higher. Seabiscuit & George Woolf. Citation & Steve Brooks. Swaps & Bill Shoemaker. Affirmed & Lafid Pincay, Jr.. Charles Whittingham. Ferdinand. Cigar & Jerry Bailey. Zenyatta & Mike Smith. Mucho Macho Man & Gary Stevens.
An interesting side note is that tons of parents and kids came out for its last weekend. More than normal. Like it should be, I thought. One pair particularly stood out. Both wore their fedoras, and sat on the ground level bleacher seating. Dad and son were going through the program, discussing and deciding their next bet. I snapped a picture and captioned it, “So he’ll remember….” I applauded the father in my heart for immersing his son in this transformative moment.
We wandered upstairs so I could get one last look at the grand panorama. On our way, we passed Jimmy the Hat, dressed up in a black suit, tie, and black fedora. As if he were going to a funeral.
We rode the escalator upstairs, and headed straight to Whittingham’s Pub. Besides being a fabulous open-aired bar with great views of the stretch run, it was also the location of our first cashed ticket—a superfecta that brought back over $200. As we stood there, it became the location of the last cashed ticket we would place at Hollywood Park—a Pick 3 that returned $150. It was a bittersweet moment of clashing emotions.
Nearby, Kurt Hoover of HRTV was standing with a group of men. “I’m not even coming tomorrow. It will be too heartbreaking. I know I couldn’t get through it. Today’s my last day.”
I turned up to the sky and saw the familiar view of a Los Angeles-bound plane coming in for a landing to nearby LAX airport. Though easy to miss the planes in the background now, it was yet another sign of glamour, modernization and progress that Hollywood Park represented in its earlier years.
One of Hollywood Park’s more poignant moments in recent years involved those planes. A massive “Good Luck Zenyatta” banner, signed with well wishes by thousands of her local fans, was positioned on grandstand’s roof for the aerial world to see as Zenyatta left for her last race, the now-infamous 2010 Breeders Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
We toasted the track that welcomed us into the intoxication of horse racing with one last drink at Whittingham’s, cashed our ticket, and started toward the exit.
As we reached the top of the stairs that overlooked the paddock, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Distinct rays of bright light were shooting down like beams through one spot of an otherwise densely clouded sky directly onto the paddock. It was a heavenly moment, and a fitting reminder that no wrecking ball can touch the untouchable memories, moments, and history that this great track gave us.
Hollywood Park will never be forgotten.
“The importance of knowing history is that one realizes that one is the recipient of a tradition, that the world didn’t begin with ones’ self…. The ignorance of history has an effect that people don’t think even of their own lives in historical terms. Without history, nothing has any meaning.” – Theodore Dalrymple (Author and Psychiatrist)
On September 19, Breeders’ Cup announced a special Grade 1 Arabian race to be run as the last race of the day on the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Friday. The race would be part of the UAE President’s Cup, an international series of purebred Arabian races around the world. Some scoffed at the mere mention of it. Others were confused. A few embraced it as noble. It dawned on me that the American racing world didn’t have a relative context for what to do with this Arabian race, particularly at the Thoroughbred World Championships.
Allow me to help with this.
1.) Thoroughbreds are apples. Arabians are oranges. Resist the temptation to compare them; rather approach them in suitable context with each other.
2.) Arabians are the oldest breed of horse, dating back to 1520 B.C. This depth of antiquity is to be admired of any topic in our world, whether it is art, archeological finds, or cultural development. Arabians are walking, breathing artifacts. They have paralleled man’s own journey through history.
3.) Thoroughbreds are direct descendants of this original breed of horse. No other breed can make this clean claim. Arabians stand as living convictions that we, as Thoroughbred enthusiasts, are the recipients of a tradition that began with the Arabian horse.
4.) In fact, recent DNA studies have shown that more than 95% of all modern Thoroughbreds can be traced directly back to the Darley Arabian or Godolphin Arabian.
5.) Arabians and Thoroughbreds exhibit the same level of heart, inspiration, courage and intuitiveness. The intangible qualities we so admire from Thoroughbreds exist because of their Arabian origins.
In an effort of full disclosure, I spent 2002-2012 as a marketing professional in the Arabian horse world (though admittedly no involvement in its racing sect). Seven years were spent in market development for the breed association. Three years were project managing The Arabian Horse Galleries—a $10 million 2-level museum at the Kentucky Horse Park that unfolds the historic story of this breed—from concept to completion.
However, once the museum opened and my contract finished, my life took a dramatic turn, and I considered myself out of the horse business altogether. Life happens, and takes turns you could never imagine.
Out of left field, I was introduced to two things I had very little experience with: Thoroughbreds and the sport of racing. My husband and I started attending races at California tracks, and fascination turned to full-on obsession. We began applying our equine background to studying and learning form-to-function conformation of Thoroughbreds. We met cool horses personally, like Zenyatta and I’ll Have Another. Our eye started shifting from what we knew before, to what we saw now, in Thoroughbreds. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In short, we started appreciating Thoroughbred racehorses. So when the press release announcing the Arabian race at Breeders’ Cup went viral, I was as surprised as anyone.
“History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.” – Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)
As we stood on the rail for the Arabian race on Breeders’ Cup Friday and the gates were loading, I wondered how it would unfold… talk about a clash of my old and new worlds. Would it be silly– or worse – an embarrassment? Would it just not fit at Breeders’ Cup? Beholder had just swept the Distaff in a scintillating, courageous performance. To go from that to the Arabian race… I just wasn’t sure.
The gates flew open, and out sprung 11 Arabian horses. And by the quarter mile pole, I found myself choking up, paralyzed with a realization that, in that very moment, I was watching history, watching antiquity, watching the beginning of the Thoroughbred, racing across deep desert sands, surviving harsh environments, enduring wars, pleasing their master. Their try-hard was so evident, so endearing.
I saw their form-to-function come into play, much more in this environment than their show arena setting. Oversized nostrils allowed greater air intake. Their dished faces made air passage continual. Arched neck and throatlatch kept air passage full and available to big lungs and chest. Smaller conformation and dense bones provided optimal strength and minimal weight across heavy sands of the desert. Black thin skin protected against sunburn in the harsh sun. High tail carriage was a built-in air conditioner to cooling the body temperature down in hot, dry climates. Or at the high speed of the gallop.
“History is the huge succession of events that created us. You can’t begin to know about yourself until you understand something of your roots in the past. The past gives the present it’s value.” – Edward Rutherford
As I stood their on the rail at Santa Anita, it all made sense.
It didn’t matter to me that they weren’t as fast. Or as big. Or that they looked different. What I saw was their tremendous heart. And history. And a survival instinct. And functional package. And heart and soul. I don’t say this from a dramatic place. I say it from a factual place.
Neither the Arabian or Thoroughbred racehorse should be compared as equals. Rather, they should be accepted for what they have become: One is the world’s most celebrated racer, the other its progenitor and torchbearer. In this realization we see both are now subtly different in appearance, yet explicitly tied in history, talent and heart. Centuries have seen these two breeds grow in separate directions, but still they share one historic culmination: To run. With grace, speed and purpose.
Yes, it all makes sense. Let the Arabians run their race. Truly, it was theirs from the beginning.
Interview with Arabian Racing Dignitaries
I had the good fortune of talking with the three individuals who are largely responsible for guiding and overseeing Arabian racing’s route of massive expansion, both internationally and stateside. Their answers (some surprising) provide critical understanding to this small-but-powerful racing niche that is seeing huge growth surges, largely due to Middle Eastern support. Included in this conversation is:
- Neil Abrahams – Head of Racing for the Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF) for both Thoroughbreds and Arabians, the Arabian handicapper for the Emirates Racing Association (a sister organization to EEF), and Racing Secretary for the new Al Ain Racecourse.
- Kathy Smoke – President of the Arabian Jockey Club (AJC)
- Sue Meyer—Vice-President of the AJC
Neil, how did you get into Arabian racing from your Thoroughbred world?
Abrahams: Many years ago I was working in the Racing Office at Delaware Park. I had trained as a Steward and served as the Assistant Racing Secretary and Stakes Coordinator. Our Director thought it would be a great learning experience for me to oversee the Arabian racing program. This work prepared me for the opportunity to work in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where Arabian racing is a major industry.
Q: What are the major U.S. and international Arabian racing organizations, and how is it similar to Thoroughbred structure?
Smoke: The Arabian Jockey Club was a founding member (representing the USA) of the International Federation of Arabian Horse Racing Authorities (IFAHR) which emulates the Thoroughbred organization of IFHA. The USA had become a sleeping member of IFAHR until 2007 when I began chairing the Arabian Racing Commission and became President of the Arabian Jockey Club. We determined it was important that our national organization play a more active role with Europe and the Middle East. Being an active member of IFAHR encouraged and ultimately led to sponsorship of high-profile Arabian stakes races in the USA.
What qualities do you see in Arabians that make them great racehorses?
Meyer: Arabians love to run, and since they are the original racehorse, as well as the progenitor of the modern thoroughbred, racing is part of their DNA. They are not as fast as the modern Thoroughbred, but they are plenty fast and extremely durable. One of my greatest hesitations in getting involved in racing was the fear of one of our horses having a catastrophic injury. But research revealed that catastrophic injuries in Arabians were almost non-existent. They can and do suffer from tendon and ligament injuries due to the extremely demanding sport that racing is. However, race bred and retired racehorses go on to participate in other disciplines from endurance, to jumping to dressage to reining to trail horse. An injury may preclude them from the extreme demands of racing, but they are still able to enjoy long and active lives after their racing days are over.
In addition to their inherent athletic abilities, Arabians have a pre-disposed will to please and the heart to give it their all, which can be traced back to their days in the desert with their Bedouin families. They are absolutely awe-inspiring.
How did the President’s Cup series get started? When? And Why?
Abrahams: The President of the United Arab Emirates Cup Series began in the 90’s. The series was established to promote the Arabian horse worldwide, as a result of an instruction by His Highness Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the UAE. The Arabian horse is a key part of the heritage of the UAE, and the series demonstrates the breed’s athletic abilities. The President’s Cup runs annually in the USA, UK, France, Ireland, Belgium, Russia and Turkey. The series has also visited Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Canada.
Q: Arabian racing has been going on in Europe for many decades. When did the first major Arabian stakes race take place in the U.S., and how was it received?
Smoke: The first major USA stakes race took place about 10 years ago with the President of the UAE Cup at Delaware Park, sponsored by the Emirates Equestrian Federation. (The EEF is the federally appointed supervisory organization of equestrian and racing in the United Arab Emirates.) Its reception was very positive, and the EEF felt they could bring a larger recognition to their countries’ breed by sponsoring more stakes races on more prestigious Thoroughbred race days and at more well-known Thoroughbred tracks. Historic Keeneland, world-renown Churchill Downs, and Pimlico—home of the Preakness Stakes—are the types of tracks they gravitated toward. And of course, running at the 2013 Breeders’ Cup was especially enjoyable. It can certainly be said there has been a surge in Arabian racing in the USA that will only continue at an exponential pace. It’s very exciting.
How did the concept of an Arabian race at Breeders’ Cup come about?
Abrahams: The Breeders’ Cup is a major date on the global racing calendar attracting the best Thoroughbred horses from around the globe. The President’s Cup series attracts the best Arabian horses worldwide, so the two concepts compliment each other.
What was the betting handle of the Arabian race at BC, and how does it compare to other Arabian races?
Abrahams: The handle was over $1.7 million, which was substantially higher than previous records. Breeders’ Cup was thrilled. It outpaced the best number in their heads by a large margin.
Sue, you possess a unique perspective coming from the Arabian show world as a competitor, breeder, member of multiple boards, and international judge… to becoming infatuated with racing. How did that interest develop?
Meyer: I had been active for many years in the Arabian Horse Association. My husband Jim and I were breeders, owners and exhibitors in the show ring at all levels and in many disciplines. I was (am) also an accredited judge for both domestic and international Arabian horse show competitions.
My involvement in Arabian racing started when I was asked to join the Arabian Horse Registry board and had the good fortune to sit next to Hamp Johnston, an avid Arabian racing enthusiast, at my first board meeting. We became fast friends and soon he was encouraging me to become involved in racing. My first reaction was, “I can barely afford showing my horses… I would never be able to afford racing.” But Hamp put numbers to paper and convinced me that it was totally affordable. I couldn’t believe it. It was considerably less than our horse shows.
We met Loren Nichols, an owner/trainer at Delaware Park, who proposed a leasing partnership among several people that allowed us to have four horses to race for a season. It was perfect. It provided a lot more racing action than one horse and gave us a way to test the racing waters with limited exposure.
Our partnerships were very successful; in no small part because Loren always offered us his best horses, and did everything he could to ensure we had a positive experience. One of our first races was a graded stakes race with a three-year-old filly named Whos Your Daddy. We all went to Delaware Park to watch her, and we were not disappointed. She won the race and, from our reaction watching her come down that stretch, you would have thought we had just won the Kentucky Derby. We were hooked. She went on to race for us for five more years and won over $160,000 for us. I am an example of many Arabian show horse enthusiasts who are now gravitating toward Arabian racing. The potential is huge.
Fast-forward a few years. I had become immersed in Arabian racing and talked into serving in the Arabian Jockey Club, as Vice President. My husband Jim and I bought broodmares of our own and began our own race horse breeding program. The rest, as they say, is history. Our first homebred ended up as the 2011 Darley Champion 3-Year-Old Colt/Gelding [The Darley Awards are the Arabian equivalent to the Eclipse Awards]. The hook just got set deeper!
Where do you see Arabian racing in 5 years?
Meyer: Like everything else, Arabian racing has suffered from global and U.S. economic woes in this last decade. But thanks in large part to the Arabian Jockey Club working closely with the Middle East, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Arabian racing has enjoyed a tremendous surge in the United States at very visible and prestigious racing venues. From the UAE President’s Cup series at Keeneland, Stephen Foster Day at Churchill Downs, Pimlico on Preakness Day, to the Breeders Cup undercard this year at Santa Anita, as well as the Wathba Stud Farm series for small breeders, and the Sheikh Mansoor bin Zayed Al Nayhan Flat Racing Festival races, Arabian racing is definitely the comeback kid.
We look forward to adding new and exciting venues for Arabian racing in the next five years and increasingly breeding more and better racehorses every year. American-bred Arabian racehorses are sought after all over the world and the market for well-bred, successful racing stock is extremely strong. From our vantage point, the best is yet to come!
Author’s note: The President of the UAE Cup Series is in its 17th year hosting Grade 1 Arabian racing at prestigious racetracks around the world, including Kentucky (Churchill Downs), Maryland (Pimlico Race Course), Ireland, England, France, Germany, Russia and Abu Dhabi. For more information on the President’s Cup Series, visit www.presidentscup.ae. For more information on Arabian racing, visit www.ArabianRacing.org.
Evie Sweeney is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the horse & racing industry appears in a variety of outlets, including Horse Illustrated, Modern Arabian Horse, Arabian Horse Times and turfsoul.com. She lives in Santa Ynez, CA.
The craziest gold nuggets occasionally surface in the Land of Twitter. Last Saturday, Angie Stevens, wife of comeback jockey Gary Stevens, plopped down a gold mine, packaged in a tiny, neat tweet anyone could have easily missed. When I saw it, I got goosebumps. For a golden thread spanning 75 years and a day connects two of the most inspirational turf stories our country has ever witnessed: the stories of Mucho Macho Man and Seabiscuit.
November 2, 2013
Kathy Ritvo is a small person with a quiet grace about her. She smiles a lot too. After battling fatigue for many years, she was diagnosed in 2001 with cardiomyopathy, a degenerative disease that weakens the heart muscle and had claimed both her father and brother. Though progressively failing over the next 7 years, she managed to keep herself going, along with a stable of Thoroughbreds, her husband and two teenage sons, until early 2008. At the 11th hour in November 2008, and given only two weeks to live, she received a new heart. Have faith in possibilities of the impossible. It has now been 5 years.
In June 2008, while Kathy lay in a hospital bed, a mare named Ponche de Leona gave a final push in a Florida stable, and her foal emerged. It was a colt. But he was not breathing. Or moving. The farm managers talked to him, prodded him, massaged him. No response. He was a stillbirth, and his onlookers began accepting the reality. One person then prayed over his lifeless heap, and to their sheer shock he awoke, jumped up and started running around—not just standing, but running. Who gives the horse its strength? In disbelief, one of his onlookers uttered “Lazarus.” His name eventually became Mucho Macho Man. But his Bible nickname stuck.
Gary Stevens had everything a retired jockey ever hoped. He was broadcasting for national networks. He was acting in Hollywood films. But there was one thing missing, a void that could not be filled—the horses. I wanted to see if life ends at a certain age… it doesn’t. In a move that stunned the racing world, he announced his comeback out of a 7-year retirement this year at the ripe age of 50—near elderly in the tough world of jockeys—with breathtaking success. He’s won more than 5,000 races in his career, but the Classic had always eluded him… his sights were set.
On November 2, 2013, the trio walked onto the track at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Against bigger trainers. Against more favored horses. Against younger jockeys. But they were confidant. They believed in each other. Thundering down the homestretch, three horses battled head-to-head as they neared the wire. Mucho Macho Man gave one last lunge. He won by 3 inches.
The trainer was told she wouldn’t live. The horse was told it was dead. And the jockey was told he was too old. Horse, rider, trainer and owner became an inspiration to a struggling country, symbolizing just how much is possible when courage is summoned, faith is offered, and fear pushed aside. Because sometimes the greatest miracles surface when we have the courage to call anything possible.
November 1, 1938 (Seventy-five Years Earlier)
An undersized, depression-era horse that people gave up on, Seabiscuit was often the butt of jokes in his barn. You are what people believe you to be. Wracked with conformational flaws and declared ‘lazy,’ he was therefore subjected to a grueling schedule of claiming races, where he could have been purchased via a claim for only $2500. Nobody did. He was simply running to cover his feed bill.
A new, unorthodox trainer named Red Pollard showed up on the track. Necessity is the mother of all invention. Tom Smith was a quiet cowboy whose livelihood on the back of a horse was dying a slow death with the invention of the automobile. So he came to the racetrack because all he knew—and really cared about—were horses. Irony plays a tough hand at times. His new employer? An automobile mandate named Charles Howard. But even Howard started as a nobody. He was all about seeing potential in unlikely places. He saw it in this trainer, and hired him.
Red Pollard was a scrappy, half-blind jockey, who was abandoned at a Montana racetrack at 15 years old by his Depression-ladened family. He battled his perceived inadequacies and questioned his abandonment. The Why Question is a haunting one. Match made in heaven. Horse and rider with similar struggles were introduced. The team was set.
On November 1, 1938, The Greatest Match Race of the Century at Pimlico was set. Seabiscuit, the sentimental favorite of America, was, true to fashion, not the favorite. His lone competitor, War Admiral at 4-1, loomed over the scrawny, small Seabiscuit. Over 40,000 people watched in the stands. Four million listened on the radio. In a herculean effort, David beat Goliath that day in a Cinderella story for the ages.
Horse, rider, trainer and owner became a lifeline to a hopeless country, symbolizing what heights can be realized when people start believing in the Nobodys. Because there is always a Somebody waiting to be woken up in a Nobody.
Santa Anita was home to Seabiscuit’s last race, the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. After recovering for two years together at the Howard Ranch from outside injuries, both horse and jockey returned for this final comeback, and won. A greater ending to Seabiscuit’s story could not have been written.
In his honor, a life-sized bronze of Seabiscuit stands in the center of the Santa Anita paddock as a continual reminder that all Nobodys are Somebodys waiting to be believed in.
How appropriate it is that 75 years and 1 day later, Seabiscuit’s presence loomed in that same paddock, watching over another unlikely trio of impossibilities, as Ritvo, Stephens and Lazarus walked into the tunnel to claim their piece of history, and show the world once again that all things are possible when faith and belief are undaunted.
Enjoy this fine piece of literature exploiting the romance of two well-known racehorses like a bad tabloid. Don’t drink wine while reading. You might spew it toward the end.
Thursday, November 7
Beholder: Can’t wait to see @theGoldencents run and win the Cigar Mile November 30th! #GoGoldencents
Goldencents: my favorite tweet!! #crush
Goldencents: Can’t believe @Beholder_Filly tweeted me tonite, feel like a 10 yr old at a Justin Bieber concert #coltcrush hmmm clearing throat #ManUp
Goldencents: @Beholder_Filly come over to Barn 89
Beholder: @TheGoldencents I’ll just jump my stall door!
Goldencents: @Beholder_Filly bring your HoofPad
[from a concerned friend]
Friend: Hey @TheGoldencents stay focused #CigarMile #EclipseAward –> then get girl @Beholder_Filly
Goldencents: I get told this every time #colt problem
Friend of the Friend: The banter between @Goldencents and @Beholder_Filly is hilarious. #twitterneedsmorehorses
[back to Goldencents’ love story]
Goldencents: @Beholder_Filly sweet dreams mi Corazon #filliesdigSpanish
Goldencents: @Beholder_Filly You make me have a twinkle in my eye!
Beholder: @theGoldencents anything for you Goldencents!
[getting his Game Face ON]
Goldencents: Hey I read that filly Groupie Doll will run against me in the Cigar Mile. Hmm guess its girls against boys
Concerned Fan: @TheGoldencents You better be on the lead so you won’t get distracted looking at her hiney #theDollvsGoldie
Goldencents: Lots of pressure, but business is business and I show up to win
Industry Bigwig: Tremendous marketing opportunity for @NYRANews with BC Winners Groupie Doll and @TheGoldencents running in 2013 Cigar Mile
Goldencents: Can I be on the marketing team? I have lots of ideas. I need to be in Times Square in the lights. That is my first idea.
TVG: If BC Dirt Mile winner @theGoldencents wins the Cigar Mile should he be Champion 3YO Male?
Goldencents: Too late for my input?
Goldencents: Is the Cigar Mile becoming where all the cool kids are going? A-listers only? #velvetrope
[back to crush distraction]
Beholder: @TheGoldencents is such a handsome colt! #lovethecurlymane #BreedersCupChampion
Goldencents: @Beholder_Filly Who knew that such a cute little devil would turn out to be a winner that tweets!!
[bro talk with Lava Man]
Goldencents: @IAmLavaMan suggested I dazzle Groupie Doll w/ my smile as my strategy before the Cigar Mile. I ordered a mirror in my stall to practice.
Fan reply: AND SHE WILL BE DAZZLED WITH YOUR BULLS**T AS WELL. ROCK ON, GOLDIE, ROCK ON.
To which Goldencents replied: Ummmm… that’s HorseS**t #KeepitReal
[special thanks to Doug O’Neill, Goldencents’ voice. You had me spewing wine tonight.]
This post is for all you horse lovers who have never been to a horse race. There is a thing you should know about. It’s called the Homestretch High. It’s similar to a “runner’s high,” if you’ve heard that term. I feel like someone should have prepared me for it, so I’m doing the same now for you.
I make no bones… the sport of horse racing didn’t draw me into horse racing. A horse did.
I followed Zenyatta’s career virtually, through television, magazines, feature articles, and some great blogs. But I had never even been to a horse race.
The 2010 Lady’s Secret at Hollywood Park was coming up. Zenyatta still maintained her perfect record, 18-for-18. It was a race to be remembered because it was her last ‘regular’ race before Breeders’ Cup (being held that year at Churchill Downs) at which point she was being retired, and also the last race of her career on her home turf in California at Hollywood Park.
It was time for me to go to a horse race.
There was a sort of awe at the vintage quality of Hollywood Park when I walked up to the gates. I remember being surprised at how large and daunting it was. It exuded an ‘Old California’ quality about it, and my mind immediately went to Seabiscuit running his “Greatest Match Race of the Century” here against War Admiral.
“Cool,” I thought. This is going to be fun.
But I was anxious to get in, not having a frame of reference at all for race times, gate entrances, and even how to get to the track-part-of-the-track. Talk about a complete and total newbie. I did have the good sense to walk straight to a window, read the instructions and bet $20 on Zenyatta to win, took my ticket and kept walking to the track.
She had everyone electrified, emotional. She came through the tunnel, dancing in her fabulous fashion, with dozens of cameras sticking in her face all the way to the starting gate. And true to fashion, she ran her typical race… last at the start, last at the first quarter, last at the second and third quarters, and then a monstrous move that had her at the wire first just a hair faster than her nearest opponent. The crowd was going nuts. I thought I was going to faint.
Let’s hit pause. This was the first moment I ever experienced what I call the “homestretch high.” I remember hearing people talk about the excitement. But this was way more than that. It totally took me over. The build and build and build felt like it exploded in me as the horses bore down the home stretch, thundering, strategizing, fighting to win. It was like my psyche (the emotions of my excitement) collided with my physiology (the building sensation) and then exploded into a state of euphoria as the horses crossed the wire.
Oh. My. Word. I was hooked.
I cashed my ticket, pocketed $43, and drove home in a wild, happy, sloppy daze. I was in love. With Zenyatta. With racing. With the homestretch high.
I’m sitting in the hotel room on Sunday after Breeders’ Cup dazed and recovering from the weekend’s wild ride. In the coming weeks, I’ll release an arsenal of more focused, in-depth stories that get personal with specific people and horses (including the Classic champ, Mucho Macho Man). Their stories are epic. I’m so excited to get writing, knowing what will be uncovered. For now, let’s key in on a few standout moments.
A major trending topic is the wild number of repeat BC contenders, three of which came back and successfully defended their crown from last year, including:
- Groupie Doll (Filly/Mare Sprint)
- Mizdirection (Turf Sprint, beating the boys again)
- Wise Dan (Mile)
It’s additionally impressive to consider that 4 of the 14 BC races are restricted to two-year-olds (the “juvenile” races), thereby allowing only 10 races to offer repeat opportunities. Out of these 10 races, three contenders repeated their win from the year before… nearly 30%. That amazing stat not only speaks to the horses’ raw ability, but also their longevity and positive training regiment.
Obviously at this level, all the equine athletes are daunting specimens. But there were four horses who stood out as being blessed with athleticism and looks to kill for… art meets sport. Do yourself a favor and look these horses up. They were a joy to see in the flesh.
- Rookie’s Sensation (a 3-year old who ran in a G2 undercard race on Friday)
- Artemis Agotera
- Royal Delta
- Mucho Macho Man
By far the best race in terms of domination was the Dirt Mile. Goldencents absolutely controlled the race in wire-to-wire fashion. He broke from the far outside post and gunned to the lead, at which point the race was truly over. He loped across the wire 2 ¾ lengths in front of Golden Ticket. It was a ‘wow’ moment that made you feel privileged to just be there and see it in person. Watch a video of the race here.
A fun, different addition to Breeders’ Cup weekend was an Arabian race at the bottom of the Friday card. Sponsored by the UAE Equestrian Federation, this G1 offered a different feel to the Thoroughbred day. It held a sense of antiquity and completeness watching the breed of horse that birthed the Thoroughbred run at Breeders’ Cup. More thoughts on this topic later.
Twitter provides a wealth of information during big racing weeks. One of the most profitable Twitter finds was a handicapping seminar by bloodstock agent Larry Zap, hosted at Matt Denny’s restaurant (Matt Denny is a racing aficionado) just down the street from Santa Anita. We attended both Friday and Saturday’s sessions and received invaluable information. On top of that, I won a bottle of le’pear Grey Goose and Red Stag bourbon… a bonus at 9am! It was a warm, welcoming group, and I’d highly recommend it if you are attending next year. We definitely will be.
I was really, really looking forward to seeing a horse named Caracortado run. He is a true turfsoul story. A beautiful big chestnut now six years old, Caracortado ran a race in January 2012 that has gone down in history books as one of the most mind-blowing homestretch kicks ever witnessed. Shortly after that race, he was in a wash rack when his frog was injured. Though never lame, it required a special shoe, treatment to prevent infection and 20 months off to allow the frog to strengthen. He was finally back. He ran one prep race before Breeders’ Cup, and word on the street was that he was going to put on quite a show. But alas, he was scratched at the last minute. I love that his trainer, Mike Machowski, isn’t tempted to take chances even after the long two-year wait. So we’ll happily keep waiting. Oh, and Caracortado is on Twitter and loves skittles. How can you not love him?
NBC’s coverage of Saturday’s races included an interesting snippet of yet another fabulous, new blockbuster movie on horse racing. “50 to 1” tells the inspirational story of Mine That Bird, the underdog little horse who shocked the world by winning the 2009 Kentucky Derby. “50 to 1” will open in theaters March 31, 2014, and is being produced and directed by the notable Jim Wilson (directed “Dances With Wolves”). Yep, just another turfsoul story gone Hollywood. Horse racing is all about overcoming the odds, and it is so cool to see how non-racing people consistently gravitate toward it in such a powerful way.
You can’t write about big moments without mentioning reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan. He will go down in company of “the greats.” He reminds me of what I call the old-school type of Thoroughbred, the Secretariat type that is muscled, big chested and with a big hind end engine. And, ah, there’s something about those chestnuts *sigh*. He looked fantastic, took the race, and will most likely repeat with 2013 Horse of the Year as well. Watch the race here. There is a great moment you can see at 1:20 into the video when Wise Dan comes out of the final turn, swings wide and makes his massive move. As I watched the race, I was taken back by how the pink sunset light just radiated off his red coat. He looked magnificent.
The last race—the coronation of Breeders’ Cup—was the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, and it delivered to be the most thrilling and satisfying race of the whole weekend. I get chills each time I re-watch the video. The favorite, Game on Dude, just didn’t fire in the last quarter mile, and it was a three-way dual between Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge and Declaration of War down the homestretch that will leave you breathless. In case you haven’t seen it, I’ll not spoil and let you just watch the race.
But I will say there is no better story than the winning connections of the Classic: the owners, the trainer (small stable and first female trainer to ever win the Classic), the jockey, and the horse (lost by a nose in last year’s Classic). Each one has a story for the history books, and will be featured in upcoming posts as soon as the connections have time to get home and settled.
So many epic moments. Gary Stevens’ comeback. Mud-caked jockeys and horses. The level of try-hard by horses and people. Tears of pain and joy, defeat and success. Glorious sunsets against the mountains behind Santa Anita. The sun appropriately hitting Wise Dan’s glistening red coat as he rounded the final turn. You feel everything with horse racing. The emotions are palpable, the horses inspirational. Turfsoul is everywhere. This morning, Angie Stevens, wife of jockey Gary Stevens, posted a perfect culmination to Breeders’ Cup: “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.”
The Olympics have the best stories. Horse racing comes next. — NBC Sports commentator Tom Hammond