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The Road to Louisville and the Kentucky Derby: The Wood Memorial
There are many roads that lead to Louisville and the Kentucky Derby.
The Wood Memorial route has been well travelled. Eleven Wood winners have prevailed in the “Run for the Roses.”
The Wood had its beginnings at Jamaica Racetrack, one of New York’s premier racing venues of the early twentieth century. It was named for the original owner of the track, Eugene Wood. Inaugurated in 1925, the Wood was originally run at the distance of a mile and one sixteenth.
In 1951 the race was lengthened to nine furlongs. That distance is the standard for all the final preps for the Kentucky Derby throughout the country. When Jamaica closed its doors in 1959 the race was moved to its present location at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The Wood is steeped in horse racing history. Five Triple Crown winners have come out of the event. Belair Stable’s Gallant Fox was the first to take the Wood on his way to horse racing’s Valhalla. He strutted his stuff in the 1930 version. Gallant Fox became only the second winner of the Crown that year. Next up came the 1943 champion Count Fleet. He took the race easily on his way to powerful performances in all three of the races that make up the Crown. King Ranch got its TC trophy three years later when Assault conquered the Wood. He flashed his brilliance with a decisive three length victory. It was a harbinger of things to come. He would go on to become America‘s seventh Triple Crown winner.
In 1973 Penny Tweedy, Lucien Laurin, Ron Turcotte, and a chestnut colt with the name Secretariat came to the Wood for his final Derby prep.
The racing world was in a state of shock when he finished third in the race won by his stable mate Angle Light. It didn’t take the big guy long to prove that the Wood was a onetime fluke. He easily took the Kentucky Derby two weeks later. Next up he added the Preakness. Then in one of the greatest performances ever witnessed on the American turf, Secretariat destroyed his competition with an incredible thirty-one length victory in the mile and a half Belmont Stakes. He had his Crown, and along with that the right to be mentioned in the same breath with Man O’ War as the greatest American racehorse that ever lived.
The Wood Memorial had one more Triple Crown champion on it’s list of winners. In 1977 a dark bay colt named Seattle Slew came to Aqueduct unbeaten in five races. He would remain that way as he easily took the Wood. He breezed through the Triple Crown events, becoming the first unbeaten racehorse to ever take the Crown.
There are six others who took the Derby after winning the Wood Memorial. They include well-known names like Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes, and Pleasant Colony.
Let’s look at the Wood winners that somehow lost the Derby yet became the Crème de la Crème of the sport.
Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s Native Dancer needs no introduction here. The “Gray Ghost” got a trip rivaling that of the Titanic on Derby day. It was the only race he would ever lose. He remains one of the most brilliant thoroughbreds to ever set foot on an American racetrack.
Two years later it was Nashua’s turn. He was the last in a line of champions to carry the famed white with red polka dot silks of William Woodward and his Belair Stable. Nashua took the Wood, only to lose to “The California Comet” Swaps on Derby Day. He went on to take the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. He wasn’t finished. Racing fans clamored for a match race between Nashua and Swaps to decide Horse of the Year honors. They met at Chicago’s long-gone Washington Park in late August of 1955. Nashua was never headed as he took the race easily over his West Coast rival. America’s premier race rider Eddie Arcaro had this to say about him. “Nashua had as much talent as any racehorse that ever lived.”
Then there was Edith Bancroft’s Damascus. He took the Wood and looked like a lead pipe cinch to drape the roses. Unfortunately, he was spooked by the huge crowd at Churchill Downs. He finished a lackluster third. Damascus went on to become a shining star. His ten length victory over two legends, Buckpasser and Dr Fager in the Woodward Stakes, rates high on the list of noteworthy performances in the annals of the sport.
Bold Ruler is another Wood Memorial winner that demands a look. The year was 1957. In one of the greatest renditions of the race, Bold Ruler met Gallant Man for the first time. The two ran head to head for the entire race. At the finish it was Bold Ruler by a nose. The pair would have an appointment at Churchill Downs two weeks later. In a shocker, Bill Shoemaker aboard Gallant Man stood up just before the finish line. Bill Hartack aboard the lightly regarded Iron Liege took advantage of Shoemaker’s mistake. He was up by a nose at the wire. Bold Ruler went on to win the Preakness. Gallant Man easily took the Belmont and Travers Stakes. They met for Horse of the Year Honors that fall at Garden State Park. Bold Ruler clinched the title with a two-length victory over his historic foe.
It’s been two decades since a Wood Memorial winner has gone on to take the Derby. Fusaichi Pegasus was the last to pull it off in the millennium year of 2000. Three years later a Saratoga favorite Funny Cide ran a close second to Empire Maker in the Wood.
The two went on to Louisville. This time Funny Cide turned the tables. Jack Knowlton and his partners at Sackatoga Stable took “The Run for The Roses” and a legend was born.
Due to the continuing nationwide effects of the Corona virus, New York Racing has been halted. Hopefully it will be of a short duration. As for the Wood Memorial, the race has been put on hold, to be raced later. With the Kentucky Derby postponed until September, the Wood will not have its usual place on the calendar as a major prep for America’s greatest horse race.
Whatever happens this year, one thing is for sure. The Wood will be back soon, in its rightful place on the road to Louisville.
Gulfstream Park and The Florida Derby…
Gulfstream Park opened its gates in the winter of 1939. The inaugural meet lasted only four days due to financial constraints.For the next five years the property lay in a state of ill repair.
In 1944 Jimmy Donn, a floral company owner and landscaper extraordinaire purchased the racetrack. He did not hesitate to put his skills to work. He envisioned a tropical paradise, one that would rival that of Hialeah Park, his competition further to the south.
More than 800 Royal palm trees were brought in to enhance the grounds. Flowering tropical plants added to the tracks allure.
Gulfstream Park became a resounding success, despite the fact that it was burdened with the later dates on the racing schedule. This became a prickly point of contention over the next three decades. The Florida legislature had guaranteed Hialeah the premier winter dates. The “Hialeah Law” stated that the track would keep the dates as long as it’s mutuel handle exceeded any of its competition.
With ownership of those dates, and a claim of being the most beautiful racecourse in the country, Hialeah’s position as Florida’s premier racing venue would prevail for the next three decades.
Jimmy Donn’s talents were not just limited to arranging flower beds. He had a keen understanding of the horse racing industry and how to promote his racetrack. He made the decision to present a major stake schedule that would compete with Hialeah’s signature races, the Widener Handicap and the Flamingo Stakes. In 1945 the inaugural running of the Gulfstream Park Handicap took place. It would become a major winter event for older horses.
A long line of champions including Armed, Round Table, Kelso, Gun Bow, Forego, Cigar and Skip Away were all hailed as winners of the prestigious race.
In 1952 Donn decided to add a contest for three-year old’s that would follow the Flamingo Stakes as a major prep for Kentucky Derby hopefuls. He named the race the Florida Derby. To draw the top Derby contenders, he offered a purse of 100,000 dollars. It became Florida’s first “Hundred Grander.”
To put it into perspective, the coveted Travers Stakes here at the Spa offered a much lesser prize of 25,000 dollars in that year.
The Flamingo Stakes was conducted in early March, towards the end of the Hialeah meeting. Donn decided to showcase his Florida Derby a month later.
It was the perfect timing for a Derby prep and one of the few perks of the later racing dates.
The 1955 version brought Belair Stables Nashua to contest the race. He had scored decisively in the Flamingo. Next, he notched the Florida Derby, becoming the first colt to take both events. He went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
In a nine-year period beginning in 1956, four great thoroughbreds would capture the Flamingo Stakes, and both the Florida and Kentucky Derby’s. The winners included Needles, then Tim Tam, Carry Back and finally, Northern Dancer in 1964. This illustrious group went on to win eight Triple Crown events. The Florida Derby had arrived. There is one running of the race that cries out for space here.
The 1957 version is one for the history books. Let’s set the stage.
Calumet Farms perennially sent out highly talented three-year old’s in pursuit of the Triple Crown Classic races. 1957 was no exception.
General Duke was an offspring of the great sire Bull Lea. Calumet’s renowned trainer Jimmy Jones called the shots for the brown colt.
Add the race riding skills of Bill Hartack, and a perfect storm for success was hatched. General Duke had his ticket punched, and was ready for a scenic train ride to the Sunshine State.
On the other side of the equation, it was Gladys Mills Phipps and her Wheatley Stables. This was one of America’s most recognizable racing operations. Mrs. Phipps had her Derby hopes in the form of of a colt named Bold Ruler. He was sired by Nasrullah, a revered name associated with the breeding of champions. The unmatched training skills of “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and the genius of jockey Eddie Arcaro were about to take the dark bay “for some fun in the sun” in Miami, Florida.
Hialeah’s seven-furlong Bahamas Stakes was one of the early Kentucky Derby tests for the sophomore class. Bold Ruler got the best of General Duke in this one with an easy five length score and a track record for the distance.
Two weeks later they were at it again. This time it was once around Hialeah’s one and one eighth miles oval. The Everglades Stakes quickly became a two-horse contest. Hartack aboard General Duke stalked his foe, laying a length off the lead for much of the race. In the stretch run Hartack hit the accelerator and just got by a game Bold Ruler.
On the first Saturday in March, the two resumed the series. They were gunning for Hialeah’s big prize, the Flamingo Stakes. In this one Arcaro hustled the Wheatley entry to an early lead. General Duke made a late run at him. It was too little, too late. Bold Ruler took a 2 to 1 advantage in their 3 meetings. Along with that, he set a track record of 1:47 flat for the nine furlongs.
Jimmy Donn and his Florida Derby awaited the two shining stars. On March 30, 1957, racing enthusiasts across the country had their eyes firmly fixed on Gulfstream Park. 25,000 fans packed the stands to witness the main event.
Late in the afternoon a field of five entered the starting gate to contest the race. The entries included Iron Leige, General Dukes’ stablemate.
The bell rang and Arcaro tucked Bold Ruler in, just off the pace. Hartack lay further back with a tight hold on General Duke. They continued that way into the far turn. Bold Ruler took the lead after a less than perfect trip. In deep stretch General Duke drove past his nemesis. When they hit the finish line, he was a length clear of the field. The tele timer told the story. The Calumet colt had just broken the Gulfstream Park standard for one and one eighth miles by almost two full seconds. If that wasn’t enough, the time of 1:46 and 4/5 had equaled the Worlds mark for the distance.
General Duke’s performance stands to this very day as the fastest Florida Derby ever contested.
This, unfortunately was the high-water mark in the career of General Duke. He arrived at Churchill Downs, looking to take a record seventh Derby for storied Calumet. After a disappointing outing in the Derby Trial, Jimmy Jones made the decision to scratch him from the big race. Calumet sent out the lightly regarded Iron Leige. Bold Ruler went to post as the even money favorite. It wasn’t his day.
He made an early run only to falter in the stretch. Calumet’s lesser known entry upset the field, winning the race by a nose over the brilliant Gallant Man.
Bold Ruler went on to a spectacular Hall of Fame career. As for General Duke, injuries dogged him on his path back to the racetrack. He was inflicted with a rare disease, Wobblers Syndrome, and passed in 1958. He was buried on the picturesque grounds of Calumet Farms along with the many champions the stable had produced.
The Florida Derby has become the go to race for the top East Coast Derby Contenders. No less than 15 winners of the race would go on to Kentucky Derby fame. Even more impressive is the fact that 30 Triple Crown races have been won by them.
As previously stated, the great Northern Dancer took the race in 1964. The list continued with these remarkable Florida Derby winners who raced to glory in The Run for the Roses. The names are familiar to racing fans. Calumet’s eighth and last Kentucky Derby Champion Forward Pass, the immortal Spectacular Bid, Swale, Unbridled, Thunder Gulch, Monarchos, Barbaro, Big Brown, Orb, Nyquist and finally Always Dreaming round out the list.
Gulfstream Park is no longer the track that Jimmy Donn envisioned many years ago. It has changed ownership several times. The Stronach Group now owns the property. It has become a twenty first century facility that includes a world class casino, boutique shops and a variety of fine restaurants.
The floral shop owner turned racetrack entrepreneur is long gone, yet the race that he introduced in 1952 lives on as a testament to his visionary foresight. The Florida Derby now has a purse of 1,000,000 dollars. With its long and celebrated history, it has become one of America’s great thoroughbred horse races.
A FINAL REMARK:
The world as we know it for now has been turned upside down. As with everything else, it has had a profound effect on the sport of horse racing. As the Corona Virus continues to unleash torment across the country, racing dates are up in the air.
As of now, the Florida Derby will be run Saturday at a deserted Gulfstream Park. If the race does go as scheduled, it will have no bearing on this year’s Kentucky Derby. That, as many of us know has been postponed until the first week in September.
We are all in the same boat in these unsettling times. There are much more important things to worry about than any interruption in the world of sports.
Let’s join to beat this virus. That is our main concern for the immediate future. Everything will normalize at some time, hopefully sooner rather than later. As for now stay safe. As a country we will get through this and be better for it.
Kentucky Derby Postponed to Sept. 5; NYRA Issues Statement Regarding 2020 Belmont Stakes
NEW YORK — Tuesday morning, Churchill Downs Incorporated announced that the 2020 Kentucky Derby, originally scheduled for May 2, has been postponed and will now be run on Saturday, Sept. 5.
In response, New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) CEO & President Dave O’Rourke issued the following statement: “NYRA is working closely with all appropriate parties, including media rights holder NBC Sports, to make a determination about the timing of the 2020 Belmont Stakes. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend American life, decisions about large-scale public events must prioritize public health and safety above all else. NYRA will deliver an announcement only when that process has concluded to the satisfaction of state and local health departments. The Belmont Stakes is a New York institution with wide-reaching economic impact. We look forward to its 152nd edition in 2020.”
Since March 12, NYRA has conducted live racing without fan attendance at Aqueduct and through March 17 restated its intention to continue racing behind closed doors.
The 40-racing days Saratoga Meet is slated to run July 16 - Sept. 7. Spring training at the Oklahoma Training track, located on Union Avenue across from the main racecourse typically begins in mid-April.
The South Florida Road to Louisville: The Flamingo Stakes
The South Florida road to Louisville has produced its share of Kentucky Derby winners. For decades, until its demise nearly two decades ago, Hialeah Park led the way.
Let’s look at fabulous Hialeah, the Flamingo Stakes, and its nine Kentucky Derby winners. During the 1920s, South Florida with its warm weather and inviting beaches, was rapidly becoming the vacation capital of the East Coast. Northerners looking for a brief respite from the winter chill flocked to the Sunshine State. The swells also found paradise there, building luxurious homes all along the Gold Coast.
It was the perfect timing to bring quality horse racing to the Miami area. Joseph Widener, a major player on the horse racing scene, decided to build a world class racing venue there. The architecture would be of a Mediterranean style. Royal palm trees added to the splendor. Beautiful pink flamingos were imported from Cuba to inhabit the racetrack’s infield lake. The entire grounds were the epitome of class.
Widener understood major stakes races would draw the best horses in training to his track. He settled on two events.
Older horses would be featured in the Widener Handicap. For the 3-year old Kentucky Derby hopefuls, the Flamingo Stakes made its debut in 1937. Kentucky Derby winners would rain on the Flamingo for the next 42 years.
In 1938 trainer Ben Jones took the second running of the Flamingo with a colt named Lawrin. He became the first winner of the race to win the Kentucky Derby. Jones success in the Run for the Roses was far from finished. He would win five more as the conditioner for Calumet Farms, America’s storied breeding farm of champions.
For the 1948 version, Calumet’s wonder horse Citation arrived at Hialeah. He breezed in the Flamingo on his way to the Triple Crown.
The Calumet standard bearer became only the eighth horse to win the coveted series. To commemorate his Flamingo victory, a life sized bronze statue of Citation was incorporated into Hialeah’s paddock area. Citation, a racehorse for the ages.
The ‘50s and ‘60s can be considered the heyday of Hialeah Park. The greatest names associated with “The Sport of Kings” came together at the Winter Palace of their chosen sport. The Vanderbilt’s, Whitney’s, Wideners, and the Phippses savored the beautiful grounds that were Hialeah. The trainers of the top stables readied their stock for the 40 day meet. Eddie Neloy, the father and son team of Moody and LeRoy Jolley, Horatio Luro and “The Sage of Sheepshead Bay,” (“Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons) were among them. Many of the premier jockeys in the country were eager to compete at Hialeah. Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Angel Cordero Jr. and many other future Hall of Fame inductees vied for a trip to the track’s winner circle.
Racing fans and sightseers longed to be a part of the action. Celebrities also found the track to their liking. Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Bob Hope and Joe Kennedy were among those who made visits to the track.
On February 18, 1956 a record crowd of 42,366 converged on Hialeah to witness the great Nashua, take the Widener Handicap and become just the second thoroughbred to win a million dollars in purse money.
The 1950’s brought two more superb horses to the Flamingo and a trip to the Hialeah winner’s circle. Needles took the 1956 version. He became first Florida- bred to take the Kentucky Derby. Needles went on to win the Belmont Stakes. He was piloted by the recently deceased Dave Erb, a longtime Saratoga area resident and race rider par excellence.
Two years later it was Calumet for the third time with Tim Tam. He scored in the Flamingo, then won the Derby and followed it up with a tally in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. He entered the gate as a huge favorite to win the Belmont Stakes and join the Immortals. As fate would have it he fractured a bone in one of his front legs during the stretch run. He had the ferocity to hang on for second. Tim Tam’s short, but brilliant racing career was over.
In 1961 Carry Back took the Flamingo, charging out of nowhere to win the race. He went on to win the Derby and Preakness with his patented late move. Hugely popular, he thrilled racing fans throughout his long and storied career.
Then came 1964 and a Canadian- owned entry with the apropos name of Northern Dancer. The trio of E.P. Taylor, Canada’s leading owner, the dapper Argentinian trainer Horatio Luro and the superb riding skills of Bill Hartack added to the mystique of The Dancer. He took the Flamingo on his way to victory in the Derby and Preakness Stakes. Northern Dancer went on to become one of the premier sires in the long annals of the sport.
The ‘70s would see the last of the Flamingo winners to take the Kentucky Derby: In 1975, LeRoy Jolley brought the talented Foolish Pleasure to contest the Flamingo. The bay colt did not disappoint. He took the race and followed it with an easy Derby score. Two months later Foolish Pleasure met the brilliant filly Ruffian in a winner take all match race at Belmont Park. The two gladiators were stride for stride down the backstretch when disaster struck.
Ruffian took a bad step, shattering bones in her right front leg. The great champion was put down after a valiant effort to save her life. Foolish Pleasure went onto have a stellar career culminating with a well-deserved induction into Horse Racing’s Hall of Fame.
Two years later it was the year of Seattle Slew. Tommy Roberts was at that time VP and GM of the track. Slew needed a tightener before his connections would agree to enter him in the big race. Roberts sought to convince enough trainers to fill the Flamingo prep. This was no easy task. No trainer in his right mind wanted any part of Slew. With some arm twisting Roberts was able to gather a decent sized field. The competition was no match for the unbeaten colt. Slew decimated the competition in a blistering time of 1:20 3/5 for the seven furlongs and a track record for the distance. He easily took the Flamingo next time out and went on to become America’s tenth, and first unbeaten Triple Crown winner. Seattle Slew, one of the great champions.
The year 1979 would see the last of the Flamingo winners that went on to take the Kentucky Derby. A dark gray colt named Spectacular Bid won the race with ease on his way to what looked to be the third Triple Crown Champion in succession. Unfortunately, Bid stepped on a safety pin the night before the Belmont Stakes. Add to that a poor ride from his bewildered jockey Ronnie Franklin, and the dream turned into a nightmare. Bid was a tiring third in the grueling mile and a half marathon. Spectacular Bid went on to a fabulous career.
How good was he? There were no takers when he ran in his last race, the 1980 Woodward Stakes. The gray was breezed around the Belmont Park oval uncontested in a rare walkover.
Hialeah’s glory days were rapidly ending. Shifts in the population centers and the shuffling of racing dates to accommodate Gulfstream Park’s surging business and better location were important factors in the decline of the once mighty Hialeah.
“All good things must come to an end.” The last running of the Flamingo Stakes took place on April 8, 2001. On May 22 of that year Hialeah ran its last thoroughbred horse race.
Next week we will look at Gulfstream Park and one of todays most important Kentucky Derby prep races, the Florida Derby.
America's Greatest Horse Race Part 2
THE DECADE OF THE IMMORTALS
Last week we took a look at some of the more interesting runnings of the Kentucky Derby from its inception through the swinging sixties. Where better than the seventies and Secretariat to begin part two.
This was the decade that the Racing Gods decided to bombard the Kentucky Horse Farms with the creme de la creme of the Thoroughbred Racing Breed.
Let's begin with His Royal Highness, the immortal Secretariat. He was owned by Penny Chenery and her Meadow Stable. From north of the border, Lucien Lauren was responsible for his conditioning. Ron Turcotte, a fellow Canadian, had the mount on the Big Chestnut for most of his career. Secretariat was so good that he was named Horse of the Year at two. At three he would shake the racing universe to its core. He not only took the Derby, in doing so he set a new track record in winning the event. "Big Red" as he was fondly called continued his dominance through the Triple Crown events. He wrapped it up with a devastating thirty-one length romp in the Belmont Stakes. Secretariat was on his way to a second Horse of the Year title and a stall secured in "The Pantheon of Champions." Charles Hatton who witnessed them all including Man O' War had this to say about him: "I never saw perfection before. I absolutely could not fault him in any way." Pure poetry from the premier turf writer of the twentieth century.
Four years later lightning struck Louisville again. An unbeaten dark brown colt by the name of Seattle Slew thrilled the Derby crowd as he easily dominated his competition. He went on to become the second TC Champion of the decade.
If Secretariat and " The Slew" were not enough, 1978 brought thunder to Churchill Downs on a sunny day. Harbor View Farm sent out their Derby hopeful Affirmed to combat Calumet Farm's Alydar. Calumet was looking to nail down its ninth Derby trophy. Affirmed, with seventeen year old sensation Steve Cauthen in the saddle had other plans. The combo was too much for Alydar. They met again in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Affirmed prevailed by the slimmest of margins both times. The Warriers faced off against each other a total of eight times in their Hall of Fame careers. They are forever linked. When one thinks of Affirmed, Alydar comes naturally as the next thought. The seventies had now produced three Triple Crown winners after a twenty-five year drought.
Next up was 1975 and Spectacular Bid. He was trained by Grover G. Delp better known as "Buddy." He took his highly talented specimen to Kentucky with no doubt that he would win the Derby...and he did just that. Bid added the Preakness. He came to Belmont Park seeking the fourth TC in seven years. The powerful gray stepped on a pin the night before the race. That along with jockey Ronnie Franklin's sophomoric ride ended the dream. Only a blip in his tremendous career, Spectacular Bid went on to reach dizzying heights...a Champion of the highest order.
The 1970's had produced four Kentucky Derby winners who found themselves among ten or so of the greatest racehorses of all time. What a decade it was for "The Sport of Kings."
THE EIGHTIES AND BEYOND
On the first Saturday in May, 1980 it would be Ladies Day at Churchill Downs. Leroy Jolley, at the top of his training skills, sent out Filly Genuine Risk and jockey Jacinto Vasquez to test the boys in "The Run For The Roses." She stunned her male counterparts and headed home with the Derby Trophy and a blanket of roses befitting a queen. It was the first time that a member of the fairer sex had taken the Derby in eighty-six years.
Four years later Swale came to Louisville and got his Derby with ease. At the Belmont Stakes Swale took on the look of a champion, as he toyed with the rest of the field. A week later his life ended when he collapsed after a morning workout. A autopsy showed a flawed heart. That may have been his only flaw. We can only wonder how great Swale's career could have been.
For the older set, the 1986 Derby was a dream come true. Bill Shoemaker flew into Louisville seeking his fourth Derby. This one would be special, very special indeed. "The Shoe" had the mount on Ferdinand. With all the great skills in his arsenal he waited for the perfect time to make his move. At the top of the stretch Shoemaker weaved through traffic. Then out of nowhere he came flying on the inside with his mount. He blew past the leaders and won the race. At age fifty-four the "Shoe" had become the oldest jockey to take the Derby...the Immortal Bill Shoemaker.
Let's move ahead to 1989. This one was one to remember. Ogden Phipps had Easy Goer in this rendition. "The Goer" came into the race with an impeccable resume. Charlie Whitingham, a topnotch West Coast trainer brought a formidable challenger, Sunday Silence to test the big horse. The California upstart drew clear and won the Derby by two lenghts over Easy Goer. The two went on to become arch rivals, contesting some of the most thrilling races in memory.
The nineties was the decade of three great trainers on Derby Day. The brilliant Nick Zito got the first of his two in 1991 with Strike The Gold. Three years later he would "pardon the pun"...Strike again with Go For Gin.
Derby slayer Bob Baffert got his first with Silver Charm in 1997. He followed with Real Quiet the next year. Both of his steeds took aim on the Triple Crown. Silver Charm came close in his attempt. Real Quiet came closer. He was lengths clear of the field at midstretch in the Belmont Stakes.
His nemesis Victory Gallup came toward him like a Concorde in full throttle. At the wire they were inseparable. The photo finish showed Victory Gallup the winner by a hair. Baffert was denied the Crown for the second time. As we shall see, the worm would turn in his favor seventeen years later.
Zito and Baffert had both struck twice in the nineties. D Wayne Lucas would outdo them both. Lucas was at the top of the heap in the final decade of the twentieth century. He had scored his first Derby win with filly Winning Colors in 1988. She was only the third damsel to get the roses. When the nineties rolled around Wayne Lucas was about to own Churchill Downs on Derby Day. The roll took some time to get started. Halfway through the decade it began. He nailed down the 1995 version with Thunder Gulch. It was back to back when Grindstone charged home the winner the following year. Lucas had one more up his sleeve. In the last year of the twentieth century he pulled the hat trick with the ill fated team of Charismatic and his jockey Chris Antley. Charismatic broke down after a valiant effort in his quest for the Triple Crown. Antley passed away a year later. Racing fans will never forget his heartfelt cradling of Charismatic's injured leg moments after the Belmont Stakes loss.
TWO MORE DECADES OF DERBY MAGIC
Lightning struck home in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. A Saratoga area partnership led by Jack Knowlton and Gus Williams owned Funny Cide. The gelding hit his stride at the exact right time to make him a Derby contender. Racing enthusiasts were ecstatic as the fan favorite took the roses. Funny Cide became the first gelding to win the race in seventy-four years. He went on to demolish the Preakness field by almost ten lengths. He was always a tough competitor and can be considered something of a folk hero for his exploits on the racetrack.
Next up was Smarty Jones. He like Funny Cide the previous year had a huge fan base. He had a loveable name and was bred in of all places, the State of Pennsylvania. Despite being bred in a state that was far removed from the Kentucky Bluegrass, he could outrun any three year old on the planet, save one. He headed for Louisville unbeaten and stayed that way. He easily won the Derby, then moved onto Baltimore where he exploded to an eleven length romp in the Preakness. He was off to Belmont and a shot at glory. Saratoga's great benefactor Mary Lou Whitney sent out a distinct outsider named Birdstone to test his luck in the Belmont Stakes. Trainer Nick Zito had the thirty to one shot prepped and ready to run... and he did just that. Birdstone caught Smarty down the stretch and drove past him to the finish line. In a grand gesture Mrs. Whitney apologized to Smarty Jones' connections for ending their dream of taking the Triple Crown. Birdstone had one more gift in his shopping bag for Mary Lou. He came to the Spa that August and garnered a much deserved Travers Stakes Trophy for The Grand Dame of the Saratoga Racing Scene.
There was one more running of the Derby that decade worth a look. This time it was Big Brown...and big he was. In 2008 the lightly raced and unbeaten colt came to Churchill Downs and toyed with the rest of the field. He continued his success with an easy score at Pimlico two weeks later. The Big Guy had aspirations of glory. Nick Zito put that dream to rest with another long shot as Da'Tara romped home in the Belmont Stakes.
The decade had produced four Kentucky Derby winners that failed in their attempts to take the Triple Crown. Things were about to change.
The last decade is not over just yet. This weekend's Derby will see the end of it. It has been one for the ages. Let's take a look.
We can start with 2014. It was the year of trainer Art Sherman and California Chrome. The first time Art had made the trip to the Derby, he rode in a boxcar with 1955 Derby winner Swaps. At the time he was the exercise rider for the "California Comet" as the great Swaps was known. This time he flew first class to Louisville on a jet plane and was ushered to a box seat to watch his horse win The Kentucky Derby. To quote the great one, Jackie Gleason, "How Sweet It Is." Chrome went on to win the Preakness and reaped Horse of the Year Honors for 2014 and again in 2016.
Next up it was Amercan Pharoah. This beautiful bay colt would have made Ramses ii proud. He won The Derby in a driving finish. Bob Baffert had captured his fourth Derby and it was about to get better. he rolled home in The Preakness. His next stop was Elmont, New York and a shot at immortality. Baffert's horses had failed in two previous attempts at Triple Crown glory. This time he would not be denied. Pharoah devastated the field. He was all by himself at the wire. Baffert finally had his Triple Crown, the first in thirty-seven years.
Last year Bob Baffert was back at Louisville with a lightly raced, highly talented colt named Justify. He had gone to the post only three times before The Derby. Given the same task that Big Brown had faced a decade earlier, Justify too got the roses despite his lack of experience. Unlike Brown, he went on to capture The Triple Crown, Bafferts second in four years. The thirteenth TC winner was retired shortly after taking the series.
The decade has seen the likes of California Chrome, American Pharoah, and Justify thrill racing fans across the country with breathtaking efforts. They as so many before them, raced to fame at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Many that we have discussed went on to beome great champions. A select few entered the gates of immortality. Others had their brief moment of fame, then faded into relative obscurity. Then there were the Derby losers who forged on to great careers. They include Native Dancer, Damascus, Point Given, and Nashua to name a few. Last but not least is Man O' War. This icon plain skipped The Derby. His "Out Of This World" exploits need no introduction here.
This Saturday will mark the end of fifteeen decades of Kentucky Derby history. We don't know what the outcome will be. We do know that when the band strikes up "My Old Kentucky Home" we are about to witness the one hundred and forty-fifth consecutive running of "The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports."
America's Greatest Horse Race
Cover photo: Jockey Don Meade on the inside spars with Herb Fisher. Meade gets the call with longshot Broker’s Tip. Photo provided.
It is called “The Run for the Roses” and “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.”
Call it what you may, there is no doubt that The Kentucky Derby is America’s greatest horserace. Let’s go back and take a look at some of its glorious history. So many great, near great, and not so great renditions of the race have been witnessed. We can only cover so much here. So let’s get started.
It all started one hundred and forty five years ago. It was 1875. A racing meet began in Louisville, Kentucky. The course was named Churchill Downs. In that first year of the track’s existence, the initial Kentucky Derby was contested. The date of the race was May 17. A three-year-old colt, Aristides, took the event. That fact alone lends his name to the lore of the sport. Also worth noting, the first Derby was run at the distance of a mile and a half. It wasn’t until 1896 that the race was shortened to the classic distance of a mile and a quarter. Many of the three-year-old colts that won the nineteenth century runnings of the race are now just footnotes in hisory.
What is of more interest to that era is the dominance of African American jockeys in “The Sport of Kings.” They were led by Isaac Murphy who took home three Derbys. He is considered one of the greatest race riders of all time and a charter member of horseracing’s Hall of Fame. Right behind Murphy were Willie Simms and Jimmy Winkfield. They took a pair of Derbys each at the turn of the century. Let’s not forget Oliver Lewis who guided Aristades to the winner’s circle in the inaugural race. As a group they had collectively won fifteen of the first twenty eight renditons of The Kentucky Derby.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Let’s move ahead to 1915. Harry Payne Whitney’s filly Regret took center stage in this Derby. She became the first female winner of the race. It would take sixty one years to duplicate this feat. Genuine Risk got hers in 1976. Winning Colors made it a hat trick when she held on to win the 1988 version. No filly has prevailed since.
1918 brought an end to the great World War 1. At Churchill Downs a colt with the apropos name Exterminator took the Derby. He would go on to become one of the great handicap stars of the American Turf.
Sir Barton came along a year later. He got his Derby. He added the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to his resume to become the first of thirteen Triple Crown Champions. Of note, the term Triple Crown wasn’t used as a title for the series until 1930. America’s foremost Turf Writer Charles Hatton coined the phrase in the year of Gallant Fox, the second of the TC Champions.
The Roaring Twenties brought the immortal Man O’ War to the forefront of sports pages across the country. His owner Samuel Riddle did not believe a colt should be asked to go ten furlongs so early in his three-year-old campaign.
Man O’ War skipped the 1920 Derby in what surely would have been a cakewalk.
1923 came along. Harry Sinclair’s famed Rancocas Farm sent out the future Hall of Famer Zev. He easily took the race. Warren Harding, America’s twenty-ninth President, died unexpectedly that August. Soon after news of a major scandal in his administration hit home. Sinclair was heavily implicated in what became known as “Teapot Dome.” He ended up in Federal prison. With that came the end of Rancocas Farm, one of racing’s premier racing venues in the Golden Age of the sport.
The 1925 Derby was won by Flying Ebony. Of note here, it was the first Derby that was broadcast on radio. Also it marked the great Earl Sande’s second Derby win. He had previously won it with Zev. He would win it one more time, five years later.
The clock moves forward to 1930. This was the Year of Gallant Fox. William Woodward and his beloved Belair Stud notched their first Derby. Sande got his third. Belair would do it again in 1935 with Galland Fox’s progeny Omaha. Both these Derby winners went on to take the Triple Crown, the only father and son tandem to accomplish the feat.
A year later, the 1931 event was moved to the first Saturday in May. Not realized at the time, this would become a Kentucky Derby tradition now in its eighty-ninth year.
The 1933 race deserves a look. The winner Broker’s Tip only had one win in his entire career. You guessed it, The Kentucky Derby. The story doesn’t end there. Don Mead, Broker’s Tip jockey and his counterpart Herb Fisher aboard Head Play beat on and whipped each other in a ferocious nose-to-nose stretch drive. Inexplicably, neither rider was suspended for the rough riding. The finish of the race was called official with Broker’s Tip the winner by a nose. Ah... The Good Old Days!
The year 1937 brought a change in thinking from Sam Riddle. Riddle faced the same dilemma that he was in seventeen years earlier. This time he had War Admiral, a son of Man O’ War as a Derby contender. He decided to enter him. The decision was a wise one. The Admiral not only took the Derby, he went on to sweep the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to become the third Triple Crown winner of the decade.
The Forties, brought one champion after another to Churchill Downs on Derby Day. Whirlaway was the first of a record eight winners produced by Warren Wright’s Calumet Farms. The Dean of America’s race riders Eddie Arcaro took him home for his second Derby score. When it was all said and done Arcaro would end up with five Kentucky Derby Trophies. Whirlaway went on to a Triple Crown season and became the only winner of that series to also win the Traver’s Stakes here at the Spa.
Move ahead to 1943. It was all Count Fleet. The great Johnny Longden took him on a joyride as he took the Derby with the utmost ease. He then buried his competition in the final two jewels of the crown. HIs dominance of that series wasn’t duplicated until Secretariat came along in 1973. Count Fleet...An all time great!
The war ended in 1945. A year later King Ranch and trainer Max Hirsch sent out Assault to contest the Derby... and assault he did. He breezed to an eight length victory on his way to The Triple Crown Trophy. He became the third colt in six years to sweep the crown.
Two years later storied Calumet iced the Derby with the immortal Citation. He went on to obliterate all competition to seize the fourth Triple Crown of the decade.
1949 brought another Derby Trophy to Calumet. The immensely talented Steve Brooks guided Ponder to the winner circle. This one was special. The race was locally televised for the first time. Three years later it was presented nationwide.
The 1950’s opened with a bang. A sixteen-year-old apprentice jockey named Bill Boland guided Middleground to victory in the first Derby of that decade. Boland would go on to a Hall of Fame career that spanned twenty years.
Three years later the Racing Gods were not in a kindly mood. Alfred Gwynn Vanderbilt brought his super horse Native Dancer to the Bluegrass State looking to conquer the Derby. In one of the worst rides in Kentucky Derby history, jockey Eric Guerin piloted the Great Dancer on a scenic tour of the course. As entrepreneur and racetrack legend Tommy Roberts relayed a quotable quip to this writer...”Guerin put him everywhere except the ladies room.” It was the only time the Big Gray lost a race. Despite his Derby loss, he is considered one of the greatest racehorses of all time...One of the immortals.
1955 brought a Derby that pitted East verses West. Belair Stud sent out the great star Nashua to compete against Rex Ellsworth’s West coast invader Swaps. The cowboys from California got the best of the East coast bluebloods in this one. Swaps prevailed, setting up a Match Race later that summer. Nashua got even this time besting Swaps by six lengths. They both rank among America’s Greatest Champions and hold highly respected positions in the Hall of Fame here on Union Avenue.
Two years later it was a Derby to remember. Three of the toughest gladiators in the history of the sport knocked heads to get the prize. They were Bold Ruler, Round Table, and Gallant Man. It was not to be their day. In a nightmare ending Bill Shoemaker aboard Gallant Man misjudged the finish line. This gave Bill Hartack the greatest gift of his fabulous career. He got the nod over Gallant Man by a nose with lightly regarded Iron Liege. In so doing Hartack seized his second of a co-record five Kentucky Derby scores.
1958 saw another Calumet star Tim Tam take the Derby. Five weeks later he went to the Belmont Stakes as a prohibitive favorite to take the Triple Crown. At the top of the stretch he took the lead. In a split second Lady Luck took a devastating turn. Tim Tam suffered a career ending leg injury. Yet with the grit and courage of a champion he was able to finish the race a game second to the winner Cavan.
The 1961 version of the Derby was all Carry Back. Without question he was a fan favorite. He was owned by Jack Price, a self-made millionaire who loved the spotlight. He acquired the services of Johnny Sellers to ride his stead. Carry Back with his patented come from behind move gave his fans everything they could ask for as he swept past the field and nailed down his Derby. Johhny Sellers would wow fans here at the Spa a year later when he finished the then four week meeting with thirty-five wins and a highly deserved riding title.
Three years later Canada came to the Derby. That country’s leading horseracing figure E. P. Taylor brought the great Northern Dancer to Louisville. This guy was about to make racing fans North of the Border proud. This Dancer was trained by the stylish Argentinean, Horatio Luro internationally known as “El Grand Senor” a title of the greatest respect in his native Spanish language. Bill Hartack, The Dean of Kentucky Derby race riding had the mount. He held off a late challenge by the formidable Hill Rise and got his Derby setting a new track record for the ten furlongs. On his retirement from racing Northern Dancer became one of the most important sires to ever enter a breeding shed. His DNA stretches universally in the bloodlines of thoroughbred champions.
The great Damascus came to Louisville in 1967 looking to take the roses for the asking. Unfortunately he was spooked by the large crowd. Plainly speaking it was not his day. He finished a lackluster third. Damascus went on to become one of the premier stars of the turf. His head-to-head battles with Dr Fager are the stuff of legends.
The following year disaster struck the famed race. Peter Fuller won the 1968 version of the Derby with Dancer’s Image. The scene at the winners circle was one that you would expect from a racing stable that had just captured America’s greatest race. The exhilaration was short lived. A post race urinalysis found traces of Phenylbutazone, a painkiller that was illegal and could not be administered to horses racing in Kentucky. The State Racing Commission came down with this harsh verdict. Dancer’s Image was disqualified and placed last. The Derby, it’s trophy, and purse money were awarded to Calumet Farms and Forward Pass who finished second in the race. Courtroom battles lingered for years over the decision. The original ruling after all was litigated prevailed. With it, a sorry chapter in the annals of the Kentucky Derby was finally put to rest.
The sixties ended on a high note. Majestic Prince became the first unbeaten colt to take the Derby since Morvich pulled it off in 1922. Of note here, Johnny Longden became the first and only horseman to win the race as both a jockey and trainer. Also, it was Bill Hartack’s Swan Song as he rode his fifth and final Kentucky Derby winner.
Next week we will take a look at the Derby from Secretariat and the 1970’s through the first two decades of this Century.
FOREGO... Last of the Great Handicap Legends
THE MIGHTY KELSO
When the immortal Kelso was retired early in 1967, it was presumed that there would never be another one like him. He had thrilled racing fans in a career that included five consecutive Horse of the Year Titles. He had eclipsed all of the great handicap stars of the past. The list included the likes of Equipoise, Discovery, Exterminator, Armed, Round Table, and Seabiscuit. The Royalty of the mid-sixties, Buckpasser, Dr Fager, and Damascus also demand recognition here.
Twenty-two times mighty Kelso carried 130 or more pounds. These were weights that Racing Secretaries across the country assigned to the elite of the sport. They had earned through past performances the right, and also the disadvantage that gave the lesser horses an equal playing field. Twelve times Kelso prevailed under those conditions.
His greatest achievement may very well be winning the 1961 Brooklyn Handicap while carrying 136 pounds and becoming only the third horse to take New York’s Handicap Triple. At the time this was considered the most challenging feat in the sport. Would there ever be another Kelso? Racing fans would not have to wait long to find out.
ENTERCENTER STAGE... FOREGO
It was the age of Secretariat. In 1972 he began his run to Valhalla. For the next two years he was the main event. Everyone knew his name.He became the first Triple Crown Champion in 25 years. At age two and three he garnered Horse of the Year Honors. The wonder horse sucked all the air out of the decade.. Or had he?
In a time when horse racing produced some of its greatest stars, a bay gelding with the name Forego appeared on the racing scene. His was a star that would burn brightly for a very, very long time.
Let’s take a brief look at his legendary career. Breeding paves the way to major success on the racetrack. The bloodlines that ran through Forego are remarkable. His sire, the Argentine Champion Forli, had the blood of Hyperion churning through his veins. On the dam side, it was that of Calumet’s great stud Bull Lea. This combination was about to create a thoroughbred masterpiece.
Forego’s career started with little fanfare. He made his debut as a three-year-old in 1973. After a few decent starts, he showed enough progress with a game second in the Florida Derby to take a shot at America’s premier event for three-year-olds, The Kentucky Derby. He finished a well beaten fourth to the winner Secretariat.
After the Derby his conditioner Hall of Fame Trainer Sherrill Ward decided on Heliodoro Gustines as his regular rider. Known as one of the best jockeys on the grass in the country, it may be thought of as an odd mix. Forego in his fifty-seven starts never raced on that surface. That being said, Ward had made a wise decision. For the next three years the combination of the two raced into the history books.
Forego began to mature that summer of 1973. With that came size. He became a monster of horseflesh, standing at a remarkable seventeen hands. Late in the season he took a couple of stake races at Aqueduct. Ward made the decision to take the Big Guy to south Florida and open his four-year-old campaign there. He took in succession three of the Sunshine States most important events for older horses. Among them were the Widener and Gulfstream Park Handicaps. Forego was on his way.
It was back to New York for the rich Handicap Schedule. Racing Secretary Kenny Noe didn’t take long to let Ward know how he felt about the Big Gelding. He assigned 134 pounds as Forego’s weight load for the upcoming Metropolitan Mile. As was the case with Kelso, it was the first of twenty-two times that he would be burdened with weights of 130 pounds and more. Forego handled the impost well. He finished a strong second, a couple of lengths behind a lightly regarded Arbee’s Boy who was spotted twenty-two pounds of weight in the race. He went on to take the Brooklyn Handicap. Later that fall he took his first of four consecutive Woodward Handicaps, a major stop on the American Racing Scene. Next he added the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup. With that score, Forego cemented his first of three consecutive Horse of the Year honors.
1975 brought more of the same. It was pretty much a replay of the previous season. The year 1976 would catapult Forego into the Pantheon of Champions. One of the premier trainers in horse racing, Frank Whiteley who navigated the careers of both Damascus and the ill-fated Ruffian, took charge of Forego due to the ailing health of Sherrill Ward. Whiteley brought along the immensely talented Bill Shoemaker to pilot the Big Horse. In his six grade-one appearances Forego carried weights of no less than 130 pounds. In four of them the number was staggering. Twice it was 134. He carried the dimunitive Shoemaker and 30 odd pounds of lead weight for a total of 135 when he took his third Woodward. If that wasn’t enough, his next race would be one for the ages. For the important Marlboro Cup, the number rose to 137. No horse had carried this much weight in a major event in decades.
Get this.. Forego was so good that he was spotting that year’s Travers Stakes Winner Honest Pleasure eighteen pounds. The track came up sloppy. Honest Pleasure took an early lead. The champ got off to a slow start. He was in the back of the pack until the field made their way to the top of stretch. Forego began to make his move. Stride after massive stride he made up ground. At the eighth pole it seemed an impossibility that he would overtake the leader. He would not be denied. The great Shoemaker urged him on. He passed horses like they were standing still. He was able to close the gap and overtake Honest Pleasure at the wire. Forego had just put on one of the greatest performances in the history of the sport. The race is available to all on YouTube. If you are a racing fan and can spare a couple of minutes, please do yourself a favor and watch the film of the race. It is one that defies reality. With his Marlboro Cup victory, Forego was honored with the last of three Horse of the Year Trophies.
He did come back for one last campaign. At the age of seven he still had fire in his belly. In a shortened season he won two major events. In a losing effort in The Suburban, he carried a massive load of 138 pounds. This was the year of Seattle Slew. He was named Horse of the Year. Forego settled for best Handicap Horse that last season.
The day of the great Handicap Champions was coming to an end. Triple Crown Winners Seattle Slew, then Affirmed, and in the same decade the great Spectacular Bid all raced with high weights as four-year-olds. After Bid there was no stomach for it. Shorter campaigns, early retirement, and the mollycoddling of thoroughbreeds due to their immense stud value has put an end to Handicap Racing as we knew it. There will never be another Kelso or Forego to cheer on year after year as they got better with age as a great Bordeaux does. The more weight they carried, the more we loved them. As history tells us, nothing remains the same. In this case, it is a sad truth.
Weezie at the Flagpole: “Take Me To Church!”
JUBILANT OWNER BOB LAPENTA PROCLAIMED “take me to church” after his newly minted star, the athletic Catholic Boy, took the rest of the Travers field to school with his dominant 4-length victory in the 149th running of the Midsummer Derby!
Mendelssohn surprisingly held on for 2nd, following two dismal performances on the dirt in the Kentucky Derby and the Grade 3 Dwyer at Belmont, while Wayne Lukas’ Bravazo was 3rd.
On a picture perfect postcard day in front of a packed house of 49K+, the versatile 3-year-old ridgling son of More Than Ready, out of the Bernardini mare Song of Bernadette, earned a 104 Beyer, and gave Hall of Fame jockey Javi Castellano his record 6th Travers victory, while giving young trainer Jonathan Thomas his second Grade 1, this time on dirt, following Catholic Boy’s Belmont Derby Grade 1 victory on turf.
Javi won his first Travers aboard Bernardini for Tommy Albertrani in 2006, and his second on Afleet Express in 2010 for Jimmy Jerkens. The following year he rode Stay Thirsty to victory for Todd Pletcher. In 2014 he won the Midsummer Derby once again for Jimmy Jerkens with V.E. Day, and back-to-back in 2015 with the memorable upset of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, aboard Keen Ice for Dale Romans and Jerry Crawford of Donegal Racing.
Born and raised on Paul Mellon’s iconic Rokeby Farm in Virginia, Jonathan Thomas spent his early days entrenched in his parents’ lifestyle as career horsemen. The experience he gained has proven to be invaluable, as was his time as a steeplechase jockey.
Although his jump career was shortlived, he was fortunate to ride for leading jump trainer Jack Fisher, and had a couple big graded stakes victories with him, before he suffered a career-ending injury.
Thomas broke his back and had temporary paralysis following a scary accident, and it took him an entire year of intense therapy and “a lot of luck” to regain his mobility, and I’m sure this harrowing experience has also strengthened the 38-year-old trainer’s resolve.
Upon his return, Thomas was given the chance to be Fisher’s assistant at Saratoga, and at the end of the meet, Christophe Clement asked him to join his staff. He stayed with Christophe for almost 5 years before moving on to work briefly for Dale Romans, and also spent 2007 in Saudi Arabia working for King Abdullah. And then he received the career-changing call!
Todd Pletcher was obviously impressed with the resume Jonathan was building, and when the multiple Eclipse Award-winning leading trainer in North America offered him a job, Jonathan’s career began to skyrocket.
Under Todd’s tutelage, Jonathan would further hone his talents as a horseman and conditioner, working with the likes of Uncle Mo, Super Saver and Eskendereya. After 6 years of learning from one of the best in the business, Jonathan would then spend time with Todd’s Dad J.J. at his Ocala farm to learn more about breaking horses and the sales side of the industry.
In 2013 Jonathan, who calls the late, great John Nerud his earliest hero, was offered an opportunity of a lifetime when Bridlewood Farm, also in Ocala, asked him to lead their Training Division, and it is here that he was united with Bob LaPenta, and subsequently, Catholic Boy.
LaPenta, the 73-year-old Westport, CT native, had faith in the young trainer, so when Jonathan called Bob and requested that he purchase a particular horse at the 2016 Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale, Bob obliged. The horse that Jonathan wanted Bob to purchase had been with him since he was a weanling at Bridlewood, and would go on to be named Catholic Boy after Bob purchased him as a $170K RNA. And as they say, the rest is history!
The Midsummer Derby has always been a dream of Bob LaPenta’s, as he’s been coming to the Spa for 55 years, and this purchase made his dream become reality. Bob battled a potentially deadly case of Legionnaire’s disease earlier this year, which made this Grade 1 victory even sweeter, as I know he feels truly blessed.
A year after Thomas earned his first graded stakes win with Catholic Boy, in the Grade 3 With Anticipation on the turf at Saratoga, he now has a unique dilemma, and has a decision to make as to where to place his star pupil next. He increased his residual value as a sire exponentially following his Grade 1 victory in the Travers on the dirt, and it is now estimated he could be worth about $20 million because of his rare turf to dirt talent.
Although Thomas has not ruled out the Jockey Club Gold Cup, it appears that the Hill Prince on the turf at Big Sandy is the more likely option. The conditioner prefers the “kinder surface” as a prep for the Breeder’s Cup Classic on the dirt at a mile and a 1/4 at Churchill Downs, and Catholic Boy has certainly proven he is able to make the switch as effortlessly as he makes lead changes.
Thomas also isn’t thrilled at the prospect of meeting the 5-year-old Whitney winner Diversify on his home track in the JCGC, or of facing older horses at a mile and a 1/2 in the Breeder’s Cup Turf, but is confident that the BC Classic at a mile and a 1/4 on the dirt “hits him between the eyeballs.”
Catholic Boy, who has now earned more than $1.8 million, will remain in training at Saratoga until the end of September, and will then head down to Belmont. Thomas has also stated that there’s a possibility he may just train up to the BC, and skip a prep.
In the cruelest of sports, with all of its ups and downs, Saturday’s card, and in particular the Travers, had to be a crushing blow for leading trainer Chad Brown.
In spite of sending out 12 horses this day, including Travers favorites Good Magic and Gronkowski, Chad was only able to manage a victory in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa with Quidura, and was shut out in the five out of six Grade 1s he was entered in.
Gronk was rank after the start, and Good Magic didn’t break well, and it was all downhill from there, as Chad’s two favorites ended up 8th and 9th out of 10 horses, and were only able to beat the filly. Wonder Gadot ran well early on, sitting in 3rd place behind leaders Mendelssohn and Catholic Boy, but tired and faded to last in the late going, at the very same time Catholic Boy was gearing up.
Although it’s no immediate consolation for Chad, following his disappointment in the Travers, the not yet 40-year-old certainly will have many more opportunities in the future, and can take solace in the fact that he has 34 wins in the meet, doubling 2nd place Todd Pletcher’s 17.
Steve Asmussen sits in 3rd with 13, while Bill Mott follows with 12, and Rudy Rodriguez has 11 and Big Miah Englehart has10.
The eagerly anticipated rematch between Bob Baffert’s Abel Tasman and Bill Mott’s Elate in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign for fillies and mares 3 years old and up, at a mile and an 1/8, lived up to its billing and all the hype, and was as eerily contentious as last year’s controversial Coaching Club American Oaks.
While it remains doubtful that the stewards will ever take down Hall of Famers Mike Smith or Bob Baffert, it was evidently very clear to fellow Hall of Famer Bill Mott, and to a young Jose Ortiz, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning jockey, that they were once again not given a fair shake.
They were both visibly upset and very frustrated with the ruling that left Abel Tasman and Mike Smith up, following the inquiry, and they were not alone!
I have never in all my years heard such raucous booing as that which rang down from the normally genteel crowd in the Clubhouse boxes, when Mike Smith entered the Winner’s Circle. It was an extremely awkward moment that did not end there!
I followed Mikey, who is generally a beloved figure, as he ran through the Clubhouse under guard, and all the way out to the Jock’s Room in the backyard, and the vociferous booing continued the entire way! It’s obvious that either it was a very partisan crowd, biased in favor of NY-based Jose Ortiz and Bill Mott, or else they had really strong feelings about the stewards’ decision.
To add insult to injury was the fact that it was an identical scenario and outcome for Mott and Ortiz as last year’s CCAO, and I can only imagine the intensity of this rivalry going forward, and in the BC Distaff!
It didn’t take long for Mikey and Bob to quiet the crowd, however, as they came right back out in the next race, the Grade 1 Ballerina for fillies and mares 3 years old and up, a 7 furlong sprint, with Marley’s Freedom, to go 2-2 on the day. The 4-year-old daughter of Blame easily dispatched the tough field, winning by 3-1/4 lengths, and is headed to the Breeder’s Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
It was a Dale Romans exacta in the 7 furlong Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens for 3-year-olds, when Promises Fulfilled, the son of previous Romans trainee, Shackleford, completed an Amsterdam-Jerkens double for owner and local businessman Bob Baron, with his 1-1/4 length victory under Luis Saez. His stablemate, West Point’s Seven Trumpets, beat a late charging Firenze Fire, while Engage was 4th.
It’s been a wonderful meet for the always affable Saez, and it’s nice to see him in 5th place in the Jockey Standings with 26 wins, behind leader Irad Ortiz with 45, Jose Ortiz and Javi Castellano now tied with 33, and Manny Franco with 31.
In the other Grade 1 Sprint on the card, the Forego for 3 year olds and up, Bob LaPenta, once again along with Sol Kumin, picked up his second Grade 1 on the day, when he and trainer Ron Moquett’s 5-year-old gelding Whitmore avenged his neck loss to Limousine Liberal in the Grade 2 Belmont Sprint on July 7th, while earning his first Grade 1 victory.
Whitmore, with Ricardo Santana aboard, beat the favorite, City of Light, the flashy Cali-based shipper for Michael McCarthy, under Irad Ortiz, by 1-1/2 lengths, while Limousine Liberal was nosed out in 3rd.
City of Light was bet down to 4-5 based on his set of Grade 1 wins at Santa Anita, and his more recent victory over leading older horse, Accelerate, in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap in April, which made Whitmore’s victory even more impressive!
In the $1-Million Grade 1 Sword Dancer, run over the inner turf course at 1-1/2 miles for 3 year olds and up, Chuck Lawrence’s 7-year-old gelding Glorious Empire wired the field, and made sure he didn’t have to share the victory with anyone else, as he did in the Grade 2 Bowling Green, when he and Channel Maker were in a dead heat.
Lawrence, who just like Jonathan Thomas is a former steeplechase jockey, actually went to the same High School as Jonathan, too, and now they share one more thing in common, as they both won Grade 1s on Saturday, Lawrence’s very first, and Thomas’ second!
It was also the very first Grade 1 for relative newcomer, owner Matt Schera, who actually claimed Glorious Empire for just $62,500 in May of 2017, and it has to be a real thrill to see his notoriously problematic Irish-bred gelding win a million dollar race!
On Friday’s New York Showcase Day, it was so heartwarming to see veteran 9-year-old gelding Kharafa get his first victory in seven tries at the Spa in the West Point. They just don’t make them like this anymore, and his indomitable spirit was a sight to see, with Dylan Davis aboard.
It’s hard to believe that the final week is here, and I’m trying hard not to get too melancholy, as I think about this weekend’s stakes races, but the pang in my heart is inevitable.
I am thankful that I’ll get to see the marvelous Voodoo Song run one more time in the Bernard Baruch, where he’ll be challenged by Inspector Lynley, and I’m looking forward to seeing Antonio Sano’s Gunnevera return for the third straight summer to run in the Woodward, after winning the Saratoga Special in 2016, and coming in 2nd behind West Coast in last year’s Travers.
Other probables for the Woodward include Dallas Stewart’s Seeking the Soul, the trio of Dalmore, Imperative and Uno Mas Modelo for Anthony Quartarolo, and a trio for Todd Pletcher in Patch, Rally Cry and Tapwrit. Other possibles could also be Realm, Discreet Lover, Kurilov, Sunny Ridge and Term of Art, in what is expected to be a crowded field.
With three Grade 1s this weekend in the Woodward, the Spinaway and the Hopeful, and with a trio of Grade 2s in the Bernard Baruch, the Prioress and the Glens Falls, plus the Grade 3 Saranac, there will still be plenty of great racing, and I hope everyone will join me there to bid farewell to another amazing meet!
The Travers Winners, Losers, and Champions
WE KNOW THIS FAMED RACE for three-year olds at the classic distance of one and one quarter miles as the Mid-Summer Derby. It has been the main fixture here at the Spa for the last one hundred and fifty-two years. The colts that have made their way here to contest the event read like a who’s who of the American Turf. Let’s take a look at some of the great performances in this historic race.
The 1920 version brought the greatest champion of them all, the immortal Man O’ War to the Spa. A tremendous crowd came to see this eighth wonder of the world perform his magic. The fans got their money’s worth that mid-August day. The old stands were about to shake to their core. Not only did the greatest horse in the annals of turfdom win the race, he set a track record that stood the test of time. It wasn’t until forty-three years later that it would be equaled, we will discuss that shortly.
A decade later, the great Gallant Fox came here looking to add the Travers to his conquest of the Triple Crown earlier that Spring. The Fox went off as the odds-on favorite. Ridden by the great Earl Sande, he looked like a mortal cinch. In the four-horse race was a colt named Jim Dandy. He went off at the odds of one hundred to one. In a startling upset, he galloped home by eight lengths leaving a stunned Gallant Fox in his wake. Saratoga was now known as The Graveyard of Favorites. It has held that reputation to this very day.
Let’s move on to 1941. Storied Calumet Farms champion Whirlaway easily took all three Triple Crown races. He was the fifth horse to attain that feat. His trainer Ben Jones now had his eyes firmly fixed on a trip to Saratoga to add the Travers to Whirlaway’s stellar resume. Race day only two others were entered. All they would see was the long bushy tail of the champ. He got the lead early and never looked back. Whirlaway had just become the only horse to take both the Crown and the Travers. Two others would make a bid. Neither one would succeed.
Let’s go forward twelve years to 1953. This was the year of the immortal Native Dancer. Owned by Alfred G Vanderbilt, he was a once-in-a-lifetime gift to the horse racing kingdom. If it wasn’t for a horrific trip in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished a close second to Dark Star, the Big Gray would be in every conversation as the greatest horse that ever stepped on to a racetrack. The Dancer was no stranger to the Spa. He had won four races here as a two-year-old. He came back a year later with every intention of winning the Travers. And that he did. Bet down to a prohibitive favorite, Hall of Fame jockey Eric Guerin hand rode this great champion to an easy score. He returned one more time in 1954 for what would be his Swan Song. Laden with 137 pounds, he ended his career with an easy nine length romp in a special non-betting race. He is forever memorialized with a majestic statue at the onset of Congress Park, a gift from Mary Lou Whitney and John Hendrickson.
Later in the decade, the brilliant conditioner John Nerud took the 1957 version with Gallant Man. Sword Dancer closed out the 50s with his Travers score in 1959.
Three years later lightning was about to strike at the Spa. It came in the name of two horses, Ridan and Jaipur. George D Widener’s Jaipur had just come off a Belmont Stakes triumph. Ridan had earlier lost the Preakness, in the closest finish in that event’s history. They were headed for a collision course. And the Travers would be it. It was one for the ages. The immortal Bill Shoemaker had the mount on Jaipur. Ridan had the services of the great Panamanian Manuel Ycaza. The bell rang and both jockeys hustled for the lead. On the clubhouse turn they hooked up. From that point on they raced as one. Fred Capossela, America’s premier race caller of the twentieth century, saw it this way. Over and over he stated, “It’s Jaipur and Ridan”, then “It’s Ridan and Jaipur.” Up the backstretch and into the far turn they were inseparable. Down the stretch a pin could not separate them. They hit the finish line as one. After reviewing the photo finish pictures, the stewards declared Jaipur the winner. He had beaten Ridan by a nostril.
He had also equaled the track record set by Man O ‘War. The greatest Travers Stakes of all time was now etched into history.
Later in that decade, it would be Ogden Phipps’ great champion Buckpasser. He took the Travers in 1966. A year later Damascus took home the cup. On a sloppy track he made one of the greatest moves in the history of the sport. 17 lengths behind the leader on the backstretch, he blew past the field. At the finish line he was an astounding 22 lengths clear of the rest. It was an incredible performance.
1973 was the year of Secretariat. We all know his credentials. He came here looking to take both the Whitney and Travers. The dream became a nightmare. In a shocker, he was beaten by a lightly regarded Onion in the Whitney. Trainer Lucien Lauren decided against running him back in the Travers. Saratoga had seen the last of the legendary Secretariat.
Five years later, two Hall of Fame members were about to make this town rumble. It was the year of Affirmed and Alydar. They rhyme like Maris and Mantle, Dempsey and Tunney, sports names forever joined as one. In the Spring of 1978 these two went head to head in all three Triple Crown events. Affirmed won everyone by slim margins over Alydar. So close were they, that the racing public was craving for one more. What better place than Saratoga and the Travers. The race had all the earmarks of a championship match. Over 52,000 fans converged on the grounds to see the event. All previous attendance marks were shattered. The race itself was a disaster. Laffit Pincay had the mount on Affirmed. Midway up the backstretch Jorge Velasquez was making his move on the rail. Pincay did not realize Alydar was there. As he moved Affirmed closer to the inside, Alydar was banged into the rail and almost went down. He was able to recover, only to come up second to his nemesis again. It didn’t take long for the stewards to disqualify Affirmed. The race was tainted. We will never know for sure who was the better horse that day. Yet this Travers ranks high in racing lore here at the Spa.
1982 gets an honorable mention. Long shot Runaway Groom stunned the crowd when he beat the winners of all three Triple Crown events. Then in 1989 it was Easy Goer. This magnificent racehorse took both the Whitney and Travers. Five years later powerful Holy Bull prevailed on his way to Horse of the Year honors.
The second year of the Millennium brought Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Point Given here. He added the Travers to his brilliant resume and a Horse of the Year award for 2001. Saratoga’s sweetheart, Marylou Whitney, got hers when Nick Zito and Birdstone found the winners circle in 2004.
Eleven years later it was American Pharoah’s turn. He had just become America’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. He came to town looking to join Whirlaway as the winner of both the Crown and the Travers. Saratoga got a weekend to remember from this one. On Friday preceding the race, he was galloped around the oval to the delight of 15,000 fans in attendance. Then in a shocker, he was defeated the next day by Keen Ice. His bid to join Whirlaway had come up empty.
A year later it was mighty Arrogate’s turn. He simply demolished the track record for the event, with an eye-popping time of 1:59.36.
Last year turned out to be a repeat of 1982. Bob Baffert brought his colt West Coast here. He proceeded to tame all three winners of the 2017 Triple Crown events.
This Saturday 50,000 fans will be on hand to join in on the festivities of Travers day. Always a probability, a great race may be in the offing. I hope you enjoyed this look back at the many memorable renditions of The Mid-Summer Derby. If history tells us anything, we can count on many more great runnings of this spectacular event. Stay tuned!
TRF and Oakencroft Providing a Dual-Benefit for Retired Thoroughbreds and Future Vets
THE COST OF A THOROUGHBRED horse in training can be expensive with the cost of feed, stalls, stable help, and especially veterinarians, but some of that cost can be offset when the horse runs for purse money.
However, it can be difficult to cover those veterinarian costs once the racehorse has been retired. General examinations, teeth care, x-rays, and other services can easily reach hundreds – and even thousands – of dollars. At the same time, there are gaps in that horse’s medical history.
That has been one of the challenges for the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation each time a retired racehorse is brought to the Heading for Home barn for adoption. From there, a thorough evaluation by a veterinarian is helpful to determine the horse’s capabilities before adoption.
One of Capital Region veterinary groups is assisting in that area by donating their services: the Equine Clinic at Oakencroft in Ravena, co-owned by Dr. Steve Naile and Dr. Ryan Penno. Kim Weir, Director of Major Gifts and Planned Giving for the TRF, believes the accredited service is significant, especially for the future of the horse.
“When the horses stop racing, no one is spending money to figure out what happened to them or what’s wrong with them. All we hear is that they won’t run anymore,” Weir said. “This allows us to provide a better future for each horse. It is improving our ability to make sure each horse has the happiest and healthiest long life with us in sanctuary.”
About once a week, Dr. Suzanne Jaynes of Ballston Spa and two of her veterinarian interns – Dr. Ali Catalino and Dr. Chris White – come from Oakencroft to visit the TRF and Heading for Home adoption barn on 863 Lake Ave. for five horses: recently-adopted Dusk to Dawn, Blown Save, Cogs My Man, Son of a Gun, and Bold Mon, whose career ended at Saratoga with a second-place finish in claiming race in August 2007.
One person who has helped bring the Oakencroft and TRF partnership together is Director of Communications and Development Jennifer Stevens, who already had a good relationship with Jaynes as the veterinarian for her horse Saving Grace and as a board member for Heading for Home.
“I trust her with the horses,” Stevens said. “I told her about our situation. She came and saw what we were up against. The horses retired a few years ago and they needed a new look over, and that is really costly. Because of Suzanne’s demeanor, she is practical with her veterinarian advice and treatment. I thought it was a perfect match for our horses.”
The work that Jaynes, Catalino and White do goes beyond routine exams, which typically costs $75. There are lameness workups that cost as much as $250. Dental costs can range from $105-$130. Plus, there are diagnostics that include nerve blocks, x-rays and ultrasounds, as well as emergency care.
These exams and treatments can add upequickly, which could easily impact horse owner’s budget. While the trio of veterinarians are not there to correct injuries that ended the horse’s racing career, they are there to provide a medical history for the horse.
“Once you start adding up those diagnostics, the cost can go up to $1,000 easily,” Jaynes said. “Initially, we would come as needed. We usually spend about 4-5 hours. If it was a normal appointment, it wouldn’t take that long, but we like to go over the horses thoroughly and look at every body part.”
“The goal is not to fix these horses,” she added. “Our job is to determine if they are suitable for trail riding, pasture peddling, or another athletic career.”
This has not been the first time Jaynes has worked with Thoroughbreds in the Saratoga Springs region. After graduating from the University College Dublin School of Veterinary Medicine in Ireland in 2005, Jaynes came to the area as an intern for Dr. Harold Barnes at Saratoga Equine Veterinarian Services.
Through her knowledge and pervious experiences of working with Thoroughbreds, Jaynes is now mentoring both Catalino and White, who are recent graduates of the Atlantic Veterinary School at the University of Prince Edward Island, while providing services to these retired racehorses. Jaynes believes everyone is benefitting from this experience without any external pressures.
“It is a good learning experience for our first-year veterinarians,” Jaynes said. “They can do the work underneath the supervision of a senior clinician. This gives us a chance to go over the horse thoroughly without the pressure of an owner being there and do what’s best for the horse. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship between the TRF and us.”
A Baldwinsville native who was part of the Geneseo Equestrian Team at the 2014 Intercollegiate Horse Show Championships, Catalino believes by working with retired racehorses is going to help her path of continuing her work in equine sports medicine with the emphasis on lameness, imaging and cardiology.
“Since we are new vets and these horses need homes, we are out here to refine our skills with the horses and giving them some routine work they need,” Catalino said. “We also want to make them a profile so they can be adopted and what they can do once they are adopted.”
Competing in barrel races throughout Maine prior to moving to Canada for college, White knows this experience is significant coming out of college as he plans to work with horses who experience lameness, dental concerns, eye issues, or geriatric care.
“You are not going to know everything when you come out [of college],” White said. “If you have a comfortable place to learn, that’s the most important part.”
With the success of Oakencoft, Weir is hoping this partnership can eventually be a model for other TRF Second Chances farms and facilities throughout the country.
“In these horse industry towns with big operations, there must be other Oakencrofts out there,” she said. “There must be veterinarians who have this vision. We need to celebrate and inspire this. This would help all of us across the board.”