Sunday, June 24, 2012

Black Caviar: The Wonder from Down Under

Winning streaks build a horse’s fan base like no other accomplishment, especially the ones that span a large amount of races. In recent years, United States racing fans have enjoyed the remarkable winning streaks of Peppers Pride, Rapid Redux, and Zenyatta. Currently, there is a pair of great Thoroughbreds abroad that has maintained perfect records: Frankel and Black Caviar.  Arguably the greatest sprinter of all-time, Black Caviar has now run her record to twenty-two-for-twenty-two.

Bred in Australia, the dark-colored filly began her career there, winning her first three starts by a combined fifteen lengths. She made her group stakes debut in the Danehill Stakes (GII), cutting it the closest she ever had before (at the time) when she triumphed by ¾ of a length.

In 2010, Black Caviar captured four group stakes, including a sole group one, by a collective winning margin of thirteen lengths. By the end of 2010, Black Caviar had run her record to a perfect eight-for-eight. She was ranked as not just the top turf sprinter in the world, but the top sprinter overall in the world by World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings, a classification system formed by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities.

Black Caviar galloped to eight additional victories in just as many starts in 2011, conquering six group ones. As her winning streak magnified, she garnered more and more fans, acquiring fans from across the world despite the fact that she remained in Australia as she proceeded to win all sixteen of her career starts. In 2011, the great mare won each of her starts by an average margin of nearly 3 ¼ lengths. She was honored as Australia’s Horse of the Year and was yet again ranked as the top sprinter in the world.

To commence 2012, Black Caviar captured the Australia Stakes (GII) with utter ease, settling just off the pace before drawing away with effortlessness to win by 4 ¼ lengths. Fifteen days later, the remarkable mare went to post in the C.F. Orr Stakes (GI), winning that race by 3 ¼ lengths prior to scoring her second consecutive victory in the Lightning Stakes (GI) a week later, in which she ran her perfect record to nineteen victories in a row, tying Peppers Pride and Zenyatta.

It had been anticipated that Black Caviar would compete on the opulent Dubai World Cup night in the United Arab Emirates
in either the Dubai Golden Shaheen (GI) or the Al Quoz Sprint (GI), but the eight-time group one winner remained in Australia with the goal of later shipping to the esteemed Royal Ascot meeting in England. Black Caviar did not race again for over two months, returning with effortless wins in the Robert Sangster Stakes (GI) and the Goodwood Handicap (GI), extending her winning streak to an incredibly twenty-one victories.

Black Caviar remained on course for a start in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes (GI) on the final day of the prestigious Royal Ascot meeting, a race that would define her career and solidify her greatness should she triumph.

After breaking sharply, Black Caviar settled off the pace beneath rider Luke Nolen, galloping over the soft surface with a stride that appeared to come with more difficulty than normal. As the undefeated mare made the lead near the finish, it was clear that she was not at her best – surely she was exhausted from the trip from Australia to England, as well as from the soft going. Without the ease she typically displayed, Black Caviar maintained the lead in the final yards as the field grew closer to her, including the second choice in betting, Moonlight Cloud.

Then came the most controversial part of the race. Merely yards out from the wire, Nolen halted any urging, appearing to gear down Black Caviar. This allowed the others to grow even closer, thus leading Nolen to quickly begin urging the great mare again just a few jumps from the wire. Fortunately, Black Caviar kept her nose in front under the wire with a tremendous display of heart, courage, and determination, keeping her perfect record intact.

There were speculations after the race that Black Caviar had not pulled up well, but she was given the all clear after being scoped. However, she was later discovered to have two muscle tears and there is certainly at least a small chance that she will be retired, not just from the injury, but from the general wear and tear of her twenty-two-race career.

If Black Caviar is retired, it will be sad to see her go, but the racing world can always reflect on the great memories she gave us. More than anything, Black Caviar rallied the nation of Australia, but on the final day of the 2012 Royal Ascot meeting, Black Caviar proved that she had the love of the world embracing her. Not every horse receives a pat from spectacular jockey Frankie Detorrie – who didn’t even ride the mare – let alone Queen Elizabeth II. Black Caviar did. She also relieved cheers from crowds across the world that were unlike any ever seen before. On June 23, 2012, more so than ever before in her career, Black Caviar proved that she is a horse who is not only brilliant, but one that is surrounded by love.

A horse’s greatness is not measured by its winning margins. It’s not even measured by its winning streaks, though Black Caviar has certainly been aided in that category. It’s measured in the amount of adversity a horse overcomes, how the horse rallies fans, how the horse repeatedly displays brilliance while doing what most others are incapable of. Black Caviar can fit into all of those conditions. She is truly great and a horse that should be cherished and forever remembered.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

After the Auction: Pardonmecomingthru

As an avid fan of sales with possible aspirations to become an adviser/bloodstock agent, auctions are one of my favorite topics to write about on Past the Grandstand. This is the second edition in a blog series called "After the Auction" that will feature horses I selected in sales that have found success after the sale. *Note: If an "After the Auction" features a two-year-old, it will also be listed as a "Juvenile Spotlight."

On the very edge of being a top ten selection of mine for the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Texas Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale, hip 96 impressed me greatly not only with her bloodlines, but with her efficient furlong move in 10 4/5 seconds in the under tack show prior to the auction. Yet the daughter of Chatain failed to reach her reserve.
Pardonmecomingthru as Hip 96 at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton
Texas Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale
Photo by Terri Cage

She landed in the hands of Caroline Dodwell and was given the name Pardonmecomingthru. Just over a month after passing through the juvenile auction at Lone Star Park, Pardonmecomingthru made her racing debut at that same track. Entered in a five and one-half-furlong maiden special weight over the main track, Pardonmecomingthru was dismissed just as she was at the sale, going off at 16-1.

The bay filly broke well and thundered to the lead shortly after the start over a track labeled as good. She found herself in a speed duel with Final Song, one of three horses at odds of 2-1, posting an initial quarter-mile clocking of 22.73 seconds. Pardonmecomingthru held the lead as the fillies entered the homestretch, with Final Song dropping back as Bluejoy and Miss Goodthing loomed on her outside. Bluejoy began to fade inside the final furlong as Pardonmecomingthru maintained the lead, despite an outside rally from Miss Goodthing. Though Miss Goodthing came within a neck of Pardonmecomingthru at the wire, there was no getting past the daughter of Chatain in that particular race.

Approximately a month later, Pardonmecomingthru contested against stakes company for the first time, going to post in the TTA (Texas Thoroughbred Association) Sales Futurity for fillies, a race that any horse that goes through a Fasig-Tipton Texas Sale or that is an accredited Texas-bred is eligible for. Pardonmecomingthru broke mid-pack and gradually made up ground on the leaders down the backstretch before looming menacingly on the outside as the horses rounded the far turn.

Pardonmecomingthru was making a remarkable rally on the outside, but it was clear that the race belonged to Falling Star, a Will Farish homebred. Pardonmecomingthru held second, crossing the wire 1 ¼ lengths behind Falling Star while proving second best as she finished 2 lengths clear of the third-place finisher.

Pardonmecomingthru finishing second in the TTA Sales Futurity
Photo by Terri Cage

Pardonmecomingthru has clearly proved to be a blessing for Caroline Dodwell in just the two starts she has made and among the reasons the filly is as talented as she is exists in the blend of influential Thoroughbreds throughout her pedigree. She is a member of Chatain’s first crop, of which only three horses have raced so far. However, as a son of successful sire of Forest Wildcat – a son of the great stallion Storm Cat – Chatain could very well go on to become a productive sire.

Forest Wildcat has been a useful sire of sires, yielding the successful studs Beneficial, D’Wildcat, and Wildcat Heir. Having Storm Cat as his grandsire bodes well for Chatain, as the great horse is the grandsire of such lucrative stallions as First Samurai, Henny Hughes, Johannesburg, and Shamardal.

The dam of Pardonmecomingthru is Bridal Tea, a mare who has produced nine winners from ten runners. Among those winners are two black-type victors: Postponed and Bridesmaid. The former won the Peter Pan Stakes (GII) and retired with earnings of $312,332. Bridesmaid finished her career with a bankroll of $149,192, having won the TTA Sales Futurity prior to finishing in the money in three black-type races.

There are plenty of reasons behind Bridal Tea’s success as a broodmare. For one, her sire is Gulch, who is the damsire of such horses as the group one-winning horses Media Puzzle, Refuse to Bend, and Strong Blood. But perhaps the horse that had the most influence on Bridal Tea’s broodmare career is her second dam – Pardonmecomingthru’s third dam. That mare would be the tremendous Terlingua, a result of the mating between the great Secretariat and the Reine De Course mare Crimson Saint.

Terlingua, a multiple graded stakes winner, of course produced the grade one-winning great sire Storm Cat, as well as the multiple graded stakes-winning Chapel of Dreams – who is the dam of Bridal Tea and the granddam of Pardonmecomingthru. Other direct descendants of Terlingua include the group one-winning Crowded House, as well as the multiple graded stakes-winning Juniper Pass. The fourth dam of Pardonmecomingthru, Crimson Saint, is not only the dam of Terlingua, but also the grade one winners Pancho Villa and Royal Academy, the black-type-winning Alydariel, and the black-type-placed horses Border Run and Encino.

Pardonmecomingthru likely will never become a top juvenile filly across the nation, but she could certainly grow into one of the best fillies in Texas. With the athleticism and star-studded pedigree she displays, it would not be astonishing if the bay filly continues her success. And should she not proceed to blossom into a talented racehorse, her pedigree certainly suggests that she could have a successful career as a broodmare.

Photo by Terri Cage

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

One Loss Wonders

They’re the races that pain us to watch again, the races that many devoted fans refuse to re-watch, the races that broke our hearts. Whether it was a demolishment or a photo finish, the sole defeat of an otherwise undefeated horse is always a sore spot for loving fans of such a Thoroughbred. We’ve had our fair share of near-undefeated horses recently, but there have been other horses of that sort in the past as well. One thing about these horses is certain: they were among the most popular racehorses of all-time. Here is a look at some of the “One Loss Wonders” of racing’s past:

The great mare did not begin her career until Thanksgiving Day of her three-year-old career and after winning a maiden and an allowance, Zenyatta went into 2008 with two wins in just as many starts. She posted victory after victory, winning four grade ones that year, including the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (GI). A year later, the “Dancing Queen” captured yet another four grade ones, becoming the only female racehorse in history to win the prestigious Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI).
Photo by Terri Cage

In 2010, Zenyatta was brought out of a very brief retirement to have one more year at the races. She continued to reel off wins, earning five more grade one triumphs as she ran her record to nineteen-for-nineteen, which, at the time, was tied with Peppers Pride for number of consecutive wins in modern-day North American racing. Her final start was the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI), a race full of possibilities for the great mare. A win would not only secure her immortality for becoming the only horse to go undefeated in twenty career starts, but she would also be just the second horse to win three times at the Breeders’ Cup – Goldikova had amassed that achievement earlier in the day – and also only the second racehorse to ever win the Classic twice.

Of the six losses discussed in this blog, this was the only one I was present for. That, combined with the fact that Zenyatta is my favorite racehorse of all-time, leads the loss to hit home for me. Zenyatta broke slowly from the gate at Churchill Downs – normal for her, but more detrimental than any other time she’d come out of the starting gate slowly. She never appeared comfortable as she galloped over a surface over which she’d never raced, seeming to dislike the kickback that flew towards her. Zenyatta made a valiant rally under Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, maneuvering traffic and charging like a freight train on the outside to miss defeating Blame by an official margin of a head, her head bobbing past him just after they flashed under the wire. It was certainly a race for the ages, but it was also one of the most heartrending races of all-time. It was a race that sent me rushing out of the grandstand before anyone could stop me, leaving me absolutely heartbroken. All along, I knew I wasn’t the only one left with a broken heart following the race.

Big Brown: He’d only raced three times going into the Kentucky Derby (GI), but each of those races – which resulted in wins – were monster performances. He’d won those three races by a combined winning margin of 29 lengths. As the favorite in the Derby, Big Brown cruised to a 4 ¾-length victory. With his impressive victory in the Derby, hopes were high as he continued on to the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes (GI). Yet again, the colt turned in a fantastic performance, crossing the wire 5 ¼ lengths ahead. The confidence invested in Big Brown as he proceeded to the Belmont Stakes (GI) in pursuit of becoming the twelfth Triple Crown winner soared. The racing world was nearly certain that Big Brown was the one.

However, nothing seemed to go right at the Belmont. Big Brown had recently suffered one of his infamous quarter cracks, though his connections assured the media the colt was fine. On race day, the colt was uneasy in the detention barn and as the field warmed up for the twelve-furlong race, the colt was lathered in sweat, clearly affected by the heat and humidity. The race was over from the start. His shoe was partly dislodged from his right hind hoof at the beginning of the race, leaving it only partially on as he embarked on the twelve-furlong journey – something that surely was uncomfortable for the colt. Big Brown appeared rather rank throughout the race, though he eventually seemed to find the perfect stalking position. But the normal Big Brown did not show up. Fans were used to seeing the colt loom on the outside on the far turn as jockey Kent Desormeaux sat as still as a statue prior to opening up on the field. Rather, Desormeaux began urging the colt with a half-mile remaining, getting no response from the Derby and Preakness winner. Then came the worst part of the race: Big Brown was eased.

The colt emerged from the race sound, leaving fans devastated by his abnormal, shocking loss. But he returned later that year to win his last two starts, the Haskell Invitational Stakes (GI) and the Monmouth Stakes in New Jersey. He was expected to compete in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) in the fall at Santa Anita, but a hoof injury forced his retirement. Despite his short career, unpopular connections, and distressing Belmont loss, Big Brown had rallied fans to become one of the most popular racehorses of the past decade.
Smarty Jones
Photo by Terri Cage

Smarty Jones: Despite his undefeated record that included a win in the Arkansas Derby (GII), Smarty Jones had plenty of doubters when he went to post in the Kentucky Derby. Over a very sloppy track, Smarty Jones settled off the pace set by Lion Heart before pouncing on the leader as the two turned for home. He hooked up with Lion Heart at the top of the stretch before looking the horse in the eye and galloping away to a 2 ¾-length victory. In the Preakness, Smarty blew his fans away by thundering to a dazzling 11 ½-length triumph, the largest winning margin in the history of the race.

It seemed as if we would finally see the first Triple Crown winner in twenty-six years. As the Belmont approached, fans were eager for Smarty Jones’ bid for the Triple Crown. As the horses turned for home and continued down the stretch at Belmont, Smarty seemed to have the win. But Birdstone caught up to the determined and exhausted colt, sweeping past him to win by just one length.

Smarty Jones was retired months after the Belmont, which ended up being his last race, due to bone bruises. Though his loss was heartbreaking, it displayed how elusive the title of Triple Crown winner is, how much love a nation can share for a horse, and that things can’t always be perfect. It also made it evident that Smarty Jones was a horse that never gave up.

Brigadier Gerard: As a juvenile, the British Thoroughbred won each of his four starts. He made his initial sophomore start in the first leg of the English Triple Crown, the 2,000 Guineas Stakes, winning the prestigious classic by three lengths. He added five more wins to his credit in just as many starts, dominating prestigious races throughout Great Britain. By the end of his three-year-old career, Brigadier had run his perfect record to ten races. As a four-year-old, Brigadier kicked off his final racing campaign with victories in five renowned races. The bay colt appeared unbeatable.

But when he started in the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup in his sixth start as a four-year-old, he was going ten furlongs – a distance he had won at before, but not one he really had an affinity for. Facing the Epsom Derby victor, Roberto, Brigadier Gerard was left behind as the champion colt led the field throughout, drawing off to an easy win that left Brigadier Gerard with the taste of defeat for the first and only time of his career.

Brigadier Gerard, however, returned to his winning ways, capturing two more renowned races – the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and the Champion Stakes – while forming a new course record along the way. Despite his loss, he garnered the title of British Horse of the Year. Though he had a blemish in his record from his sole defeat, Brigadier Gerard retired with a nearly flawless record and is remembered as one of the best racehorses Britain has ever seen.

Majestic Prince:
The son of Raise a Native entered the Kentucky Derby with an undefeated record on the line, being sent off as the favorite despite a deep field that included Arts and Letters and Top Knight. Down the stretch, Majestic Prince battled Arts and Letters in a thrilling stretch duel prior to prevailing by a neck. The rivals duked it out yet again in the Preakness when Arts and Letters loomed on Majestic Prince’s outside in the stretch. The Derby winner had enough to hold off the great Arts and Letters by a head to score his ninth straight victory.

When Majestic Prince displayed a tendon issue following the Preakness, it was debated whether or not he would go for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. But the decision was made that the dual classic victor would go for the feat that hadn’t been accomplished in twenty-one years despite not being at his best. It cost him. Majestic Prince was defeated by his rival Arts and Letters by 5 ½ lengths in the Belmont to lose not only the Triple Crown, but the first and last race he would ever lose.

The popular colt never raced again after the Belmont, in which he joined a large assembly of horses that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but did not succeed in the Belmont. Ironically, a similar situation played out in this year's Triple Crown when I'll Have Another was diagnosed with a tendon issue prior to what would have been a Triple Crown attempt in the Belmont. However, unlike Majestic Prince, I'll Have Another was scratched.   

Native Dancer:
As a two-year-old, Native Dancer captured all nine of his races and even set a world record time for six and one-half furlongs while doing so. He was honored as 1952 Champion Two-Year-Old Male as a result of his spectacular juvenile campaign. Following wins in the Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial, Native Dancer went to post in the greatest race of the year and one he was expected to win, the Kentucky Derby.

But following a bit of a slow break, Native Dancer found himself behind a wall of horses as the field galloped into the clubhouse turn. On that curve, the Dancer was interfered with and forced to check, but found a good position after the incident. But later in the race, Native Dancer faced yet another wall of horses. After maneuvering traffic, Native Dancer set his sights on the leader, Dark Star, and despite rallying, he finished a head behind Dark Star to post his only loss in his career and a defeat in the most important race of the year.

Native Dancer’s loss hung like a dark, sad cloud over racing fans. This horse had been expected to win the Triple Crown, but by losing the Derby, he had not shot at doing so. Though his wins in the Preakness and Belmont were joyous to racing fans, they were also bittersweet, as the Dancer was just a scant head away from being a Triple Crown victor. After the Derby, Native Dancer never lost again, capturing nine more victories. His Derby loss remains a heartbreaker for his adoring fans, but what he couldn’t accomplish on the track, he made up for in the breeding shed, siring the winner of the 1966 Kentucky Derby. In fact, nineteen Derby victors have descended from the Native Dancer sire line.

Man O’ War:
Within a span of about two months, Man O’ War won all six of his initial six starts, many of which were won by substantial margins. He was viewed as the top juvenile colt in the nation, having won stakes at four different tracks in New York in impressive fashion. In his second start at Saratoga, the chestnut colt went to post in the Sanford.

Also in the field was a colt named Upset, a horse Man O’ War had faced before, even giving fifteen pounds to the son of Whisk Broom. Yet again, Man O’ War carried fifteen more pounds than the chestnut with three white stockings. Many accounts say that Man O’ War was facing the opposite way when the race began, giving him a huge disadvantage. Johnny Loftus guided the horse throughout the race, but Man O’ War became boxed in with just a furlong left of the race. The young jockey angled the brilliant colt to the outside and the two rallied, but Man O’ War came up a half-length short of Upset to record the only loss of his career.

Man O’ War’s defeat was a crushing loss, but the colt rebounded and never lost again, capturing many prestigious races, including the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Travers Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. The son of Fair Play is still considered by many to be the greatest racehorse of all-time. He may not have been undefeated, but his loss left not only an everlasting effect on horse racing, but on sports in general. The term upset, used when the favorite – or the competitor/team expected to win – is defeated by one expected to lose, derived from the name of the single horse to ever defeat the great Man O’ War.

This horse won his first four starts with breathtaking ease. In fact, he’d won them by a combined twenty-two lengths. He was deemed unbeatable, and certainly the best juvenile in the country.

Everyone expected for the bay colt to win his fifth start, the 1904 Futurity Stakes at Sheepshead Bay, in spite of having to carry 127 pounds as the highweight in a deep field. But Sysonby was defeated by a substantial margin as the eventual champion filly Artful galloped to victory. Many were stunned that Sysonby had been defeated, but a groom that worked for his owner, James Keene, confessed that he had drugged the colt as part of a bribe.

Sysonby’s sound but understood, valiant defeat remained the only blemish on his record as the bay horse went on to win the rest of his starts, though one victory came in a dead heat in the Metropolitan Handicap. By the end of his career, Sysonby had won fourteen of fifteen career starts. Unfortunately, the colt’s career came to a tragic end when he died at the age of four due to variola. His popularity was evident when the horse was buried, as more than four thousand people attended the event, bidding their farewells to the brilliant horse.

The losses of these horses may have left their fans feeling heartbroken and crushed, but for many of them, it also solidified their greatness. It proved that not even the best are perfect, and even without perfect racing records, these horses were flawless in their fans’ hearts and minds. 

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Modern Triple Crown Bargains

Of the sixteen different winners of Triple Crown races in the past five years, eleven have been sold at public auction. Three of those horses were bargains in the sales in which they were sold, becoming adroit purchases for their buyers. But when these horses went through the auction ring, no one could have guessed what their futures would hold.

Whenever an important auction nears, it is discussed which horses will bring the highest prices. Though the horses that sell for the large amount of digits can become very successful horses, a large portion of them never earn their worth or amount to much. It is the purchasers that find the bargains that are luckiest of all.

I’ll Have Another: Sold in the fifth book of six, I’ll Have Another strutted into the auction ring in Lexington, Kentucky for the 2010 Keeneland September Yearling Sale – the most well-known public auction for Thoroughbreds in North America – as hip 3660. Consigned by Brookdale Sales, agent, I’ll Have Another was foaled on Brookdale Farm outside of Versailles, Kentucky and possessed an immature appearance throughout his early days.

When I’ll Have Another was led into the ring on the twelfth day of the fourteen-day Keeneland September Yearling Sale, the colt’s sire, Flower Alley, had just one crop of racing age. The level of success of the winner of the prestigious Travers Stakes (GI) and runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) in the breeding shed was not yet known. I’ll Have Another’s dam, Arch’s Gal Edith, had only produced a two-year-old with little experience. With a rather unremarkable damside and an inconspicuous appearance, the price for which the unnamed colt was sure to be rather inexpensive.

As the yearling colt’s gangly frame walked about the auction ring, potential could be seen in him. He was all leg, but he was a well-balanced individual with a beautifully angled shoulder and strong topline. But bidders were hesitant to offer money for the son of Flower Alley. The bidding began at merely $1,000 and grew by small increments until it reached $11,000. The hammer fell and the yearling colt was officially purchased by Victor Davila of Eisaman Equine – a pinhooker, someone who purchases a horse at auction with the purpose of selling the horse at a later auction to make a profit.

That later auction was the 2011 Ocala Breeders' Sales Company Spring Sale of Two-Year-Olds in Training. The son of Flower Alley, still unnamed, breezed an eighth of a mile in 10
2/5 seconds while galloping greenly but efficiently. As hip 494, I’ll Have Another sold for $35,000 to J. Paul Reddam, who would campaign him throughout his racing career.

I’ll Have Another would of course go on to win the Kentucky Derby (GI) and the Preakness Stakes (GI) before being scratched from the Belmont Stakes (GI) and retired due to a tendon issue. I’ll Have Another proved that even the best of the best can be purchased for a low price. After all, most people who purchase a Thoroughbred within five digits don’t expect it to become a winner of two legs of the Triple Crown. But I’ll Have Another did just that.

Mine That Bird: A colt in a plain brown wrapper, Mine That Bird wasn’t much to look at when he entered the Fasig-Tipton auction ring in Lexington, Kentucky for the 2007 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling Sale. Sold as hip 208, the small bay colt did not make much of an impression.

The then unnamed colt, consigned by Highclere Sales, agent IX, did not have a very impressive catalog page, as it had just little black-type on it and he was a member of the first crop of his young sire, 2004 Belmont Stakes conqueror Birdstone. In addition, Mine That Bird, was not much to look at. As a result, the price was quite low; the fall of the hammer came at the small price of $9,500.

Mine That Bird was purchased at that auction by Canadian trainer David Cotey, for whom he put together a juvenile campaign in Canada that earned him the title of 2008 Canadian Champion Two-Year-Old Male. The colt was privately sold to Double Eagle Ranch Inc. and Buena Suerte Equine for a price much higher than the one he was sold for the previous year: $400,000.

The colt went on to win the Kentucky Derby as the second longest price ever, going off at odds of nearly 51-1 and paying $103.20 to win. By the end of his racing career, the small, ordinary-looking $9,500 yearling purchase had acquired $2,228,637 in earnings – much more than any inspector or bidder ever expected him to earn.

Curlin: The Keeneland September Yearling Sale has recurrently proven to be a significant auction that sells a large portion of the greatest horses racing sees each year. In fact, four of the past five Horse of the Year title holders passed through the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. One of those horses is accountable for two of those titles. That horse is Curlin.
Photo by Terri Cage

But Curlin did not garner much attention at the esteemed sale, despite the fact that his sire, Smart Strike, had sired six champions at the time and that his second dam was a multiple graded stakes winner. It was a calcium deposit on the colt’s left front ankle – a minor blemish – that led Curlin to be sold for just $57,000 – nearly half the sale average – to trainer Ken McPeek, who was serving as an agent for Midnight Cry Stable.

Curlin was later sold for a price much higher than the value for which he was purchased as a yearling – $3.5 million. After being owned by several different partners, Curlin finally ended up being owned by Stonestreet Stables, LLC.

All because of a minor veterinary issue, Curlin was sold for a bargain price, but went on to win seven grade ones, including the 2007 Preakness Stakes. Interestingly, he was purchased at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale the same year that Zenyatta sold for just $60,000 at the same sale. Anyone inspecting the horses at the time likely never would have guessed that both horses would go on to become Horse of the Year and among the best horses the nation has seen in the past decade. Curlin, sold for the bargain price of $57,000, would become the richest racehorse of all-time in North America, earning $10,501,800. He certainly earned his worth.

These three horses proved the price doesn’t determine how good of a horse you have; the horse does. Sometimes it’s not the tremendously expensive horses – such as the $16 million flop, The Green Monkey – but the bargains like I’ll Have Another, Mine That Bird, and Curlin that are the horses worth buying.

*Big Brown, winner of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, was purchased for the bargain price of $60,000 as a yearling, but was pinhooked and sold for $190,000 as a two-year-old.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Union Rags Earns Redemption in the Belmont Stakes

With disappointment filling racing fans’ hearts, the field paraded before the expansive grandstand at Belmont Park for the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes (GI). This was supposed to be a day full of excitement and anticipation, perhaps even a day that would rewrite the history books and end a long drought. Fans had looked forward to I’ll  Have Another’s bid for the Triple Crown, but a day before the race, the Kentucky Derby (GI) and Preakness Stakes (GI) victor had been scratched from the race and retired with a tendon issue.
Union Rags
Photo by Terri Cage

But it was the valiant Union Rags that dazzled the crowd of over 85,000 gathered at Belmont Park under cloudy skies. The colt who had shown so much brilliance early on in his career had garnered quite the group of doubters due to losses in the Florida Derby (GI) and Kentucky Derby, but those who kept their faith in the dazzling bay colt held steadfast, maintaining their love for and trust in the Michael Matz trainee.

Union Rags suffered from traffic issues in the Florida and Kentucky Derbies under Julien Leparoux and with these problems, Union Rags’ gallant rallies were hindered, leaving him to finish third and seventh respectively, thus leading many to lose faith in him.

Though overshadowed by I’ll Have Another’s bid for the Triple Crown, Union Rags became my top selection when the Kentucky Derby and Preakness victor was scratched and retired. Though many doubted his ability to get the mile and one-half distance of the Belmont Stakes, I believed in the colt I had followed since his romp in the Saratoga Special Stakes (GII) as a juvenile. His sire, Dixie Union, was sired by Gone West – a producer of several routers, including 2000 Belmont Stakes winner Commendable. In addition, Union Rags’ second dam, Terpsichorist, was capable of winning at twelve furlongs.

So as Union Rags flashed across the wire ahead of Paynter – a colt I had followed since his first race – there was no surprise for me. Rather, I was taken back to a sunny November afternoon beneath the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs – the day before Union Rags ran a game second behind Hansen in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI).

It was the day I met Michael Matz, the trainer famous for training 2006 Kentucky Derby victor Barbaro. Of course, Matz’s new superstar was Union Rags, a colt who was entering the Juvenile with three impressive victories, including a romp in the prestigious Champagne Stakes (GI) at Belmont Park. Union Rags was easily my favorite horse in the Juvenile, as well as the horse I felt was the most brilliant. So when I got the opportunity, I asked Michael Matz for his autograph.

Kindly, Matz signed his name next to Union Rags’ name in my program. I was thrilled to have the trainer – an Olympian who had saved four children’s lives in airplane crash in 1989 – have signed my program next to the tremendous colt’s name. It was something I cherished and it became even dearer to my heart when Union Rags captured the Belmont Stakes to score his second grade one and first classic victory.

Photo by Mary Cage

As Paynter set the pace, Union Rags settled off the leader, relaxing beautifully beneath John Velazquez, who had the mount aboard the stunning bay for the first time. Paynter, by a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and out of a full sister to two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic victor Tiznow, posted steady fractions while galloping along for the same connections as Bodemeister, I’ll Have Another’s foe in the Derby and Preakness. As the field turned for home, Union Rags was trapped behind a wall of a horses – a situation in which most believed the colt would not be able to handle.

But under the brave Velazquez, Union Rags skimmed the rail as Paynter remained tough, battling Mike Smith’s mount down the stretch at the expansive Belmont Park. There was no longer a Triple Crown on the line, only redemption for Union Rags as the three-year-old Thoroughbreds put on an exciting show in the homestretch before Union Rags got his blazed face in front at the wire.

So, among the exhilaration, a sigh of relief was exhaled among Union Rags’ fans and connections. The Dixie Union colt had finally proved his brilliance, garnered a classic win for Phyllis Wyeth and Michael Matz, shown the doubters that he was capable of great things, earned a classic victory, and stamped himself as a remarkable racehorse. Yes, there was a cloud of disappointment hanging over the Belmont Stakes with the scratch and retirement of dual-classic winner I’ll Have Another, but following the race was a mood of redemption, relief, and love for a magnificent horse named Union Rags.

Since Union Rags was one of my featured “Derby Hopefuls,” you can read more about him here.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

2012 Belmont Stakes Field Analysis

Eleven Thoroughbreds have swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes to become one of racing’s elite Triple Crown winners. Eleven Thoroughbreds have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness prior to falling short in the Belmont since the most recent Triple Crown champion. It is safe to say that enthusiasm and disappointment have been recurring themes throughout the past thirty-three Triple Crowns.

Our last memory of the Triple Crown being conquered is
Affirmed’s narrow victory over rival Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes. Since then, there have been eighteen horses that have won just two legs of the Triple Crown – one of those horses still has one jewel left to go.

Ever since I’ll Have Another followed up his Kentucky Derby victory with a win in the Preakness, excitement has been building. On Saturday, it will be soaring through the roof. The colt is in pursuit of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. America will have their eyes on I’ll Have Another, but though fans are eager for his chance to win, they have their guards up, because for over three decades, we have been let down. Is 2012 the year?

Listed below are all of the horses entered to run in the 2012 Belmont Stakes, along with descriptions of their pedigrees, racing records, final preparations, and my opinions of them. The colts are listed in post position order.

#1. Street Life: The sire of this colt is Street Sense, a two-time grade one winner at ten furlongs. His grandsire, Street Cry, is also the sire of the great Zenyatta, who was also victorious at ten furlongs, and Shocking, who won the near-16-furlong Melbourne Cup (GI). Street Life’s broodmare sire, Grindstone, won the 1996 Kentucky Derby and is a son of Unbridled, who sired Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker. Grindstone himself produced a Belmont victor in Birdstone, who also sired a Belmont champion in Summer Bird.

A colt I have followed since he broke his maiden, Street Life garnered his first career victory in his second race while making an impressive late rally to take a mile and seventy yards maiden special weight at Aqueduct. Following a closing win in the mile and one-sixteenth Broad Brush on the same track, Street Life finished sixth in the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) after having too much ground to make up and not changing leads until late in the stretch. He then finished third in the nine-furlong Peter Pan Stakes (GII), making up much ground to close impressively before running out of room late. He looked like he was ready to keep going.

Street Life has been working at Belmont Park, posting mostly five-furlong breezes. His final work was a 1:01.15 five-furlong work in company. The colt has also had several strong gallops over the track.

Street Life will need to step it up on Saturday, but his pedigree and running style support him in his ability to get the twelve-furlong distance of the Belmont. He is a threat, but he will have to bring his A-game. For more on Street Life, please click

#2. Unstoppable U:
This Ken McPeek trainee is sired by Exchange Rate, a horse who never won beyond a mile and one-sixteenth and was primarily successful as a sprinter. Exchange Rate is a lucrative sire of middle distance runners and sprinters. Though Unstoppable U’s dam never won beyond one mile, the colt’s damsire is Point Given, a son of Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Thunder Gulch who won the Belmont by 12 ¼ lengths in the same final time that Affirmed captured the race, 2:26.80 – the sixth-fastest in history. Notably, the sire of Unstoppable U’s granddam is Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew.

Unstoppable U has only started twice, winning a six-furlong maiden at Aqueduct in late March prior to easily winning a one-mile allowance optional claiming at Belmont at the end of April. A twelve-furlong classic is an enormous step up for the colt.

His final work was an unremarkable 1:02.05 five-furlong work at Belmont on Sunday – a breeze that McPeek was not thrilled with. This is quite discouraging.

Though Unstoppable U should receive some stamina from his dam side, he is lacking plenty of it and two one-turn races, along with a string of four- and five-furlong works, certainly do not prepare him for twelve furlongs. A good race from Unstoppable U in the Belmont would be surprising.

#3. Union Rags: The sire of Union Rags, Dixie Union, was winless beyond nine furlongs and faded to finish fourth in his single ten-furlong attempt and is more useful as a sire of middle distance horses or sprinters. The colt’s dam is sired by Gone West, who produced multiple distance horses, including Belmont Stakes winner Commendable. Though his dam only won at six furlongs, Union Rags’ second dam was capable of winning graded stakes up to twelve furlongs. With horses such as Nijinsky, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat found in his pedigree, the distance may not be as much of a question as many believe it is.

Union Rags has shown that he needs a clean trip, but when he gets one, he is absolutely brilliant and difficult to defeat. He has not won since his spectacular Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) victory in February, but he made good rallies in both the Florida Derby (GI) and the Kentucky Derby.

Union Rags has prepped for the Belmont at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland and seems to be maturing. His most recent work was a bullet 59-flat five-furlong move over the dirt training track at Fair Hill, in which new rider John Velazquez was aboard. I would have preferred for him to have training time at Belmont, but he clearly has an affinity for the track, as he impressively won the Champagne Stakes (GI) there as a two-year-old.

Though there is some doubt in his pedigree as far as distance is concerned, Union Rags’ action and brilliance just may provide him with the ability to get the distance. Many have viewed him as overrated, but I believe he has become underrated. But Union Rags has several questions to answer in the Belmont. For more on Union Rags, please click

#4. Atigun:
This colt’s sire, Istan, never won beyond a mile and a sixteenth, though he is by Gone West, who sired multiple grade one winners at the twelve-furlong distance of the Belmont, including Belmont victor Commendable. In addition, Atigun’s most successful half-sibling, Rimini Rebel, never won at a distance farther than a mile and one-sixteenth. However, his damsire is Dynaformer, who is a great stamina influence in a Thoroughbred’s pedigree. But the appearance of speedy horses such as Devil’s Bag and Dr. Fager on the dam side of Atigun’s pedigree do not bode well for his chance at a mile and one-half.

Atigun is winless in stakes company, only having a maiden special weight and two allowance optional claiming victories to his credit. He’s never finished in the money in a stakes race, his best performances being fifth-place finishes in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII) and the Arkansas Derby (GI). He has also never won beyond a mile and one-sixteenth.

Atigun has had plenty of time to get acclimated to Belmont Park, as he has had four works at the track, including a bullet work for four furlongs. However, his last two breezes have been at just a half-mile – not exactly a stamina-building distance.

I do not expect for Atigun to be competitive in Saturday’s Belmont.

#5. Dullahan: As a half-brother to Mine That Bird, many believe Dullahan is bred through-and-through for the Belmont. However, Mine That Bird finished a distant third in his Belmont pursuit, partially as a result of Calvin Borel’s early move. In addition, Mine That Bird was more thoroughly bred for the twelve-furlong distance, as he was sired by Belmont victor Birdstone. Dullahan, on the other hand, is by Even the Score, who never earned a win in a race longer than nine furlongs and only managed a third in his sole ten-furlong attempt. Even the Score has sired a grade one winner at ten furlongs in Take the Points, who was beaten 1 ½ lengths at eleven furlongs. However, Dullahan’s broodmare sire, Smart Strike, was the sire of English Channel – who won five races at eleven furlongs or longer – and Curlin – who came within a head of winning the 2007 Belmont Stakes.

Dullahan still remains winless on dirt. Though he has run some very good races on conventional dirt, he never seems to travel over it as well as he runs over synthetic. Though many have raved about his rally to attain third in the Derby, I feel as if he simply just did not have a good enough kick to get there and did not gallop out as well as I’ll Have Another. In addition, he was drifting out in late stretch, which is a bit discouraging. However, as a grinder, the stretch in distance could certainly be to his advantage.

Many have praised Dullahan’s bullet half-mile work that came on Sunday. The Dale Romans trainee travelled four furlongs in a dazzling 45.97, posting the fastest of sixty-six works at that distance. Though the work was similar to the one he posted before his win in the Blue Grass Stakes (GI), there is also a difference in distances. Prior to the Blue Grass, Dullahan travelled five furlongs in 57.40 in preparation for the nine-furlong race. On Sunday, he worked one furlong shorter for a race that is three furlongs longer. However, the colt did breeze a mile eight days prior and has been galloping at stamina-building distances.

Dullahan poses a huge spoiler threat in the Belmont. Though not as bred for stamina as his famous half-brother, he does appear to be able to go the distance. However, the dirt question still looms menacingly and the Belmont surface is not particularly kind to horses that prefer synthetics or turf, though he appears to be handling the track quite well. He is certainly one of the top Belmont contenders nonetheless. For more on Dullahan, please click

#6. Ravelo’s Boy: This colt appears to be bred more towards one-turn races or middle distances, as his sire is the late Lawyer Ron, a brilliant horse who never won beyond nine furlongs and was winless in four tries at ten furlongs. Lawyer Ron’s best offspring is Drill, a colt who has never been victorious beyond seven furlongs. The dam of Ravelo’s Boy never won at a distance longer than seven furlongs and is sired by French Deputy, a horse who never won farther than one mile and finished ninth in his sole ten-furlong attempt.

In thirteen starts, Ravelo’s Boy has only found the winner’s circle twice, has never been victorious in a stakes race, and has not raced outside of Florida. He started ten times as a two-year-old, acquiring his pair of wins then, and has contested solely in stakes races this year without success. He has not run since the Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) in March, in which he finished fifth.

Over the past sixty days, Ravelo’s Boy has put together a wide variety of workouts, spanning from three furlongs to seven, at Calder. His most recent work was a good six-furlong work in 1:11.80 on Sunday, but I find it discouraging that he has not had time to grow accustomed to Belmont.

Due to a non-stamina-based pedigree, mediocre racing performances, and little time to adapt to Belmont, I do not foresee a good race from Ravelo’s Boy in the Belmont.

#7. Five Sixteen:
This colt should receive stamina from his sire, Invasor, as he captured the third leg of Uruguay’s Triple Crown, the Gran Premio Nacional (Uruguayan Derby) (GI), at a distance of 2500 meters, which is nearly 12.5 furlongs. However, his broodmare sire, Salt Lake, was brilliant as a sprinter and as a broodmare sire has been primarily lucrative in producing horses of the same nature. In fact, the cross on which Five Sixteen is bred only has an average winning distance of about six and one-half furlongs.

Five Sixteen did not break his maiden since his fifth start and next out, in his most recent race, he finished fourth of six in a nine-furlong allowance, beaten 11 ¾ lengths. Since that disappointing allowance finish, Five Sixteen has put together a string of five-furlong works at Belmont Park.

I believe all Five Sixteen has going for him is his rider, Rosie Napravnik. I don’t view him as a threat.

#8. Guyana Star Dweej: By Eddington and out of a Pine Bluff mare, Guyana Star Dweej has one of the more stamina-marked pedigrees in the field. Eddington was victorious as far as a mile and three-sixteenths and finished fourth in the 2004 Belmont. Guyana Star Dweej’s broodmare sire, Pine Bluff, won the 1992 Preakness prior to finishing third, beaten just approximately a length by
A.P. Indy, in the Belmont. Guyana Star Dweej’s dam is a half-sister to the winner of the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Classic (10F, GI), Concern. Guyana Star Dweej is truly bred more along the lines of a ten-furlong runner, but since American horses are not really bred for twelve-furlongs anymore, this colt has one of the best pedigrees for the Belmont distance of the entrants.

But Guyana Star Dweej falls short when it comes to racing performances. It took him nine tries to break his maiden and most recently, he was demolished by Unstoppable U in an allowance optional claiming in his first effort against winners.

The colt has been turning in simple half-mile works at Belmont, none of which have been very impressive. In fact, he has been travelling to the wire more slowly than he begins the works, as he does not seem to be able to settle.

I do not expect for Guyana Star Dweej to perform very well in the Belmont.

#9. Paynter: This stunning colt can certainly at least cover ten furlongs. His sire is Awesome Again, winner of the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). Awesome Again has sired multiple grade one winners at ten furlongs, including Awesome Gem, Game on Dude, Ghostzapper, and Ginger Punch. Notably, Paynter is out of a full sister to two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow and is bred on a very similar cross to Ghostzapper.

I have followed Paynter since his debut, which was an easy win in a five and one-half-furlong maiden special weight at Santa Anita in February. Following a troubled fourth behind I’ll Have Another in the nine-furlong Santa Anita Derby (GI), Paynter ran a very good second to Hierro in the one-mile Derby Trial Stakes (GIII) over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs. On Preakness day, the brilliant colt trounced an allowance field going a mile and one-sixteenth at Pimlico.

Seeking revenge for stablemate
Bodemeister, Paynter has had two impressive works – both of which were bullets – at Belmont. The first was an efficient, brisk five furlongs in 59.26 seconds over the training track, which was the fastest of forty-one works covering the same conditions. His final work was a seven-furlong work in a notable time of 1:25 flat – a stamina-building work that I find very advantageous.

Though Paynter has been asked of a lot in his brief career, I have always felt he is a brilliant colt. But contesting in the Belmont Stakes is a huge step up for him, not only in class but of course in terms of distance and the effect it could have on him as well.

#10. Optimizer:
This colt certainly is bred for the Belmont. His sire, English Channel, was victorious five times at races that spanned a distance of eleven furlongs or longer. The dam of Optimizer, Indy Pick, is sired by none other than the great A.P. Indy, who won the 1992 Belmont and sired the 2007 winner of final leg of the Triple Crown, Rags to Riches. Indy Pick has also produced Humdinger, a black-type-placed winning steeplechaser whose longest winning distance was an incredible three and one-eighth miles. Optimizer is bred to run all day.

Optimizer, however, has not won since his debut and has not won on dirt – a situation that is certainly to his disadvantage at Belmont, a very demanding dirt track. Optimizer has never fared very well against the best of the best, finishing eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI), eleventh in the Kentucky Derby, and sixth in the Preakness. His rally in the Preakness was decent, but nothing spectacular.

Optimizer has been posting four- and five-furlong works at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Belmont. His trainer, a four-time Belmont winner, certainly knows how to prepare a horse for the final leg of the Triple Crown, though these works are not very stamina-building.

If anything leads Optimizer to a race in the Belmont that eclipses the ones he has run recently, it will be his pedigree. Should only one horse handle the Belmont distance, it would be Optimizer. However, I do not believe he is as talented as several others in the field.

#11. I’ll Have Another:
All eyes will be on him come Saturday, so while butterflies will run rampant in the stomachs of racing fans throughout the nation, it may be reassuring to many fans that I’ll Have Another is about as bred for the Belmont as an American horse can be in this day and age. His sire, Flower Alley, won the ten-furlong Travers Stakes (GI) and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at the same distance. The sire of Flower Alley, Distorted Humor, is as close to as stamina-influencing as sires come in the United States nowadays. Distorted Humor has sired the Belmont- and Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning Drosselmeyer and the Kentucky Derby- and Preakness-winning Funny Cide. I’ll Have Another’s broodmare sire, Arch, is the sire of Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning Blame and captured the Super Derby (GI) when it was contested at ten furlongs. I’ll Have Another is also a member of the same stamina-filled female family as the most recent Triple Crown winner Affirmed – female family twenty-three.

Undefeated this year, I’ll Have Another has displayed brilliance, confidence, and determination in his Derby and Preakness wins. Trainer Doug O’Neill made the controversial decision to just gallop his famous horse up to the Belmont, but considering this horse gallops so vigorously, he may as well be working every day. Yes, he very well could be quite fresh and yes, Alysheba lost after not putting a final work in before the Belmont, but I’ll Have Another gets absolutely plenty out of his routine gallops. In fact, some of his split times are even quicker than fractions posted in works and the gallops he has been executing could be very stamina-building.

History is against I’ll Have Another to win the Belmont, but I feel he has a very good chance to win the race should he settle and receive a great ride from Mario Gutierrez yet again. He is a very versatile, tactical horse with a post that suits him very well, and he has proven to be the top of this class so far. A win by him would be tremendous for racing and certainly not a surprise to me, though he has a tall task ahead of him. For more on I’ll Have Another, please click

#12. My Adonis: By Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI)- and Dubai World Cup (GI)-winning Pleasantly Perfect and out of a mare by Elusive Quality, who is the sire of the Derby- and Preakness Stakes (GI)-winning Smarty Jones, My Adonis appears to have the pedigree to go at least ten furlongs. However, Elusive Quality is primarily successful with milers and sprinters and as a broodmare sire, his mares’ offspring have won at an average winning distance of just over six furlongs.

My Adonis is winless this year and in graded stakes races. Following good in-the-money performances in the Holy Bull Stakes (GIII) and the Gotham Stakes (GIII), My Adonis was the last horse to cross the wire in the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI). He has since finished third of five in the mile and one-sixteenth Canonero II Stakes at Pimlico.

The colt has had only one work since his performance in the Canonero II Stakes, going five furlongs in 59.80 at Monmouth.

Considering the choice to run My Adonis in the Belmont was a last minute decision, he has an unspectacular racing record, and a questionable pedigree, I do not foresee My Adonis being very competitive in the Belmont.

My top pick for the Belmont is, yes, I’ll Have Another. I believe the horses that pose the biggest threats to be the next “Triple Crown Spoiler” are Union Rags, Dullahan, Street Life, and perhaps Paynter. But what horse racing needs is a win by I’ll Have Another – the first Triple Crown triumph since 1978. What the plethora of people that will be tuning into the Belmont that never watch horse racing want to see is a win by I'll Have Another. And frankly, I’ll Have Another has a good shot at it.

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Chance of Dual Triple Crowns

Nothing rallies racing fans like the prospect of a Triple Crown. For this reason, racing fans across the nation are tremendously eager to see Kentucky Derby (GI) and Preakness Stakes (GI) winner I’ll Have Another compete in the Belmont Stakes (GI) on Saturday in attempt to become America’s twelfth Triple Crown victor and the first one in thirty-four years. But what a plethora of fans throughout the country do not realize is that there is another nation with a chance to end an even longer Triple Crown drought.

That country is none other than England, a nation that has not seen a Triple Crown victor since Nijinksy II captured the 2,000 Guineas Stakes (GI), the Epsom Derby (GI), and the St. Leger Stakes (GI) in 1970. Since then, only three horses have won the first two legs: Nashwan, Sea the Stars, and most recently, Camelot.

Camelot, a horse with the perfect name for an athlete in pursuit of the Triple Crown, or the Holy Grail of horse racing, was a top juvenile in Europe. The colt captured a maiden special weight at Leopardstown Racecourse in Dublin, Ireland last July prior to conquering five rivals in the prestigious Racing Post Trophy (GI) at Doncaster Racecourse in the United Kingdom. With ease, the Aidan O’Brien trainee drew away to win the esteemed race by 2 ¼ lengths, becoming the winter book favorite for England’s premier race and second leg of its Triple Crown, the Epsom Derby (GI).

In just his third start, Camelot went to post in the 2,000 Guineas, the first jewel of the English Triple Crown. As a field of eighteen three-year-old Thoroughbreds began their one-mile journey about Newmarket Racecourse, the highly-touted Camelot found a position near the back of the pack with the young Joseph O’Brien – famous with United States racing fans for winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf (GI) aboard St. Nicholas Abbey in 2011 – aboard. With the finish growing closer, Camelot was maneuvered through traffic by O’Brien, drawing even with the group one-winning French Fifteen. Camelot, despite his brilliance, had plenty of disadvantages going against him. Not only is he bred through and through for stamina rather than the one-mile distance of the 2,000 Guineas, but the colt did not particularly care for the soft going at Newmarket. Nonetheless, he pursued victory, crossing the wire a neck ahead of French Fifteen.

Very highly regarded, Camelot continued on to the prestigious Epsom Derby at Epsom Downs. In the fifth race on the card, the Aidan O’Brien trainee again found a spot near the rear of the field as Joseph O’Brien coolly settled aboard him, appearing absolutely confident in his superb mount. The 2,000 Guineas victor remained several lengths off the lead as the nine horses continued their mile and one-half journey, relaxing beautifully beneath nineteen-year-old O’Brien. As stablemate Astrology set the pace and kicked away from the field, Camelot began to make his move on the outside. With urging from O’Brien, Camelot accelerated impressively, rapidly gaining ground on his stablemate in the long straightaway. In spite of the fact that it appeared Astrology would battle him to the wire, Camelot kicked clear under confident handling from O’Brien, winning by a remarkable 5 lengths.
The scary part about his unbelievably impressive Epsom Derby victory? Joseph O’Brien yet again did not believe the colt relished the going.

A week after Camelot’s Epsom Derby triumph, America’s sweetheart, I’ll Have Another, will attempt to become the twelfth Triple Crown champion in the United States. Should I’ll Have Another win the Belmont Stakes on June 9, he will be the first horse since Affirmed to win the coveted Triple Crown trophy. As long as the thirty-four-year drought is in America’s Triple Crown, England’s Triple Crown drought is even lengthier. A horse has not captured the three-race series since Nijinksy II swept it in 1970, making it forty-two years since a horse has conquered the English Triple Crown.

There are many differences between the American Triple Crown and the English Triple Crown. Both series often commence on the first Saturday in May, though the beginning date of the English Triple Crown is not as set in stone as ours. Whereas the American Triple Crown spans just five weeks, the Triple Crown in the United Kingdom begins in May and ends in September. However, the distances of the English Triple Crown are much more grueling: one mile, a mile and one-half, and a mile and three-quarters.

Due to the demanding distance of the final leg of the English Triple Crown, the two horses that won both the 2,000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby between Nijinksy II and Camelot, Nashwan and Sea the Stars, avoided the St. Leger Stakes. You have to go back to when Nashwan swept the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby in 1989 to find the most recent year in which both an English horse and an American horse had a chance to win their respective Triple Crowns. However, Sunday Silence lost the Belmont in his attempt whereas Nashwan skipped the St. Leger. Rather, it was Dark Mirage that won the Triple Tiara for fillies in New York and With Approval who captured the Canadian Triple Crown that year. An English Triple Crown triumph and an American Triple Crown coronation has not occurred within the same year since 1935, when Bahram and Omaha triumphed in their corresponding race series.

The confidence in Camelot’s chance at winning the Triple Crown is overwhelming. The colt is clearly the top of his class, by far and away. The main worry is the exhausting mile and three-quarter distance of the St. Leger, should he enter the race. However, as a son of the late great Montjeu, Camelot should certainly be able to handle the distance. Montjeu captured several races at a mile and a half and is the sire of last year’s St. Leger victor, Masked Marvel, as well as Scorpion, who won the St. Leger in 2005. Camelot's dam, a group three-winning daughter of the great Kingmambo, should also aid him in the taxing journey.

Camelot has an incredible chance to capture the Triple Crown in England. His chance to do so will be three months after I’ll Have Another’s date with destiny, but one can only imagine the joy among the racing world if both great colts rewrite the history books and end the droughts in their nations. 2012 could truly be one of the greatest years racing has ever seen.

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Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Tragedy of Swale

Claiborne Farm
Photo by Terri Cage
My eyes took in the rolling hills, the black wooden fences, and the quaint barns ahead of me. I could almost feel the history surrounding me. These were the grounds on which the great Secretariat had spent his last days, the land on which his noble sire Bold Ruler had created his dynasty, the place where so many champions had been bred, born, and raised. It was the historic Claiborne Farm – among the most renowned Thoroughbred farms in the industry.

Just a short distance away from the stallion barns is a small area overwhelming with history. One step into the area walled by hedges and you will read the names of some of the greatest Thoroughbreds to ever live on rugged stone headstones. Of course, Secretariat’s gravestone is the most popular one in the cemetery, but across the small sidewalk is a similar gravestone displaying the name of a horse that the world tragically only got to enjoy for a short moment in time: Swale.

The first time I visited Claiborne Farm, I had no idea who Swale was. But the fact that the years under his name only spanned from 1981-1984 instilled me with sorrow – not only for the fact that the horse had only lived for three years, but also that I did not know who this star-crossed champion was. When I visited the celebrated farm three years later, I paid my visit to Swale’s grave, for I had learned the colt’s heartbreaking tale.

The story of Swale begins with his dam, Tuerta. A mare who descended from a long line of great mares, Tuerta was a direct descendant of the great mare Chelandry, the foundation mare of family 1n. The daughter of the Argentinian Horse of the Year Forli and the track record-equaling Continue was born with just one eye, thus being dubbed with a name that meant “one-eyed” in Spanish. Despite her impairment, Tuerta became a very successful racehorse, capturing three stakes victories – two of which were graded – before retiring with earnings of $125,912. A Claiborne homebred, Tuerta visited several different stallions, foaling the multiple graded stakes-placed Illuminate and the multiple stakes-placed Sight within her first four foals.

But it was her fifth foal that made the greatest impact. Sent to the Triple Crown-winning Seattle Slew in April of 1980, Tuerta foaled a nearly-black colt sired by the great Slew, who was the only undefeated horse to ever capture the Triple Crown. A horse who had a particular affinity for sleeping, one day he appeared to have disappeared from his paddock. Fortunately, he was not gone. Rather, he was sound asleep in a low spot in the land – a swale. And thus, a champion was named.

Swale made his racing debut for legendary trainer Woody Stephens in July of his juvenile career at Belmont Park, setting a blistering pace before finishing a good second. He broke his maiden next out two weeks later at the same expansive track by 1 ¼ lengths before shipping to the prestigious Saratoga Racecourse for the Saratoga Special (GII), a race that had seen many greats win early on in their careers, including Colin, Native Dancer, Nearctic, Regret, and Whirlaway. In the Saratoga Special, the dark colt faced a muddy track but handled it well, capturing the grade two by ¾ of a length over Shuttle Jet, the colt who had defeated Swale in his debut.

But in the Hopeful Stakes (GI) twenty days later, Swale finished third behind Capitol South, beaten 4 ¼ lengths. Swale made three more starts as a two-year-old, all of which were victories. Following a pair of tough photo finishes that resulted in wins in the Futurity Stakes (GI) at Belmont and the Breeders’ Futurity (GII) at Keeneland, Swale went to post in the Young America Stakes (GI) at the Meadowlands, in which Swale faced a large field of fifteen other rivals. Like his previous two races, Swale found himself locked in a duel throughout the race, but despite the fatigue from the battle he had fought within the race, Swale rallied from mid-pack, digging in deep in spite of his exhaustion to cross the wire in a thrilling photo finish with Disastrous Night. Moments later, the photo revealed that Swale had triumphed by a nose – his third consecutive tight photo finish victory.

Despite his four graded stakes victories, three of which were grade ones, Swale lost the Eclipse Award for Champion Two-Year-Old Male to stablemate Devil’s Bag, who had won one less grade one that Swale. But Swale had displayed true brilliance during his juvenile campaign and one significant characteristic in particular; Swale had shown a great amount of heart.

Swale made his three-year-old debut in early March of 1984 in the Hutcheson Handicap (GIII) at Gulfstream Park, galloping his way to an effortless 8-length victory. It appeared Claiborne Farm had a serious Kentucky Derby (GI) contender on their hands, and not just a horse that could bring them to the Run for the Roses, but a horse that could gallop their yellow silks across the finish line at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May in front.

Ten days later, Swale suffered a defeat in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII), winding up 1 ½ lengths behind Darn That Alarm and Counterfeit Money. But he rebounded in the Florida Derby (GI) at the end of March, defeating the grade one-winning Dr. Carter by ¾ of a length.

Swale’s final prep for the Derby came in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, in which the almost-black colt was surprisingly annihilated by He is a Great Deal, who captured the race by a stunning 8 lengths over a sloppy track. Nonetheless, Swale continued on to Churchill Downs for the world’s greatest race, the Kentucky Derby.

Sent off as the second choice, Swale found a good position in third as the field raced around the clubhouse turn, travelling wide. Down the backstretch, he settled in second behind the eventual champion filly Althea, pressuring her as the daughter of Alydar completed the initial half-mile in 47
2/5 seconds. As the track began to arc, turning into the final curve, Swale stuck his black head in front, opening up on the twenty-horse field midway through the turn. He never looked back after taking the lead, holding a substantial advantage on the others as he led the talented Thoroughbreds into the homestretch beneath the Twin Spires. Swale – quite reminiscent of his sire down the stretch – won with overwhelming ease, capturing the Kentucky Derby by an effortless 3 ¼ lengths.

With his win, Swale had given Claiborne Farm and Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr. their first victories in the Kentucky Derby, and Woody Stephens his second. But they were forced to push the Derby behind them, as the pursuit of the Triple Crown was upon them.

But it was not meant to be. In the Preakness Stakes (GI), Swale raced over a very hard track that he never seemed to relish. Despite a perfect position throughout the race, Swale began to falter due to the difficult track and finished a disappointing seventh – his first out-of-the-money finish – behind Gate Dancer. Though he finished near the back of the pack, he was only beaten by 7 lengths.

Swale proceeded to Belmont for the grueling twelve-furlong Belmont Stakes (GI), the race in which his sire had claimed the Triple Crown. This time, no Triple Crown was on the line – only the confirmation of Swale’s greatness. A win in the race that had been labeled the “Test of the Champion” would prove that Swale was the best of his generation, and among the greatest of any Claiborne homebred in history.

A fairly large field of eleven sophomore Thoroughbreds gathered in the sweltering heat for the mile and one-half contest on June 9, 1984. As the young horses stood serenely in the starting gate, the crowd at Belmont Park was completely unaware that they would soon witness one of the greatest performances a Belmont victor ever executed.

Swale broke sharply from the sixth gate, going straight to the lead as Pincay guided him closer to the rail as the field galloped into the wide, sweeping clubhouse turn at Belmont. Leading the ten others by a half-length around the initial curve, Swale relaxed beautifully, completing the first of six quarter-miles in 24
4/5 seconds. A gorgeous dark athlete in yellow silks, Swale lengthened his advantage on the field to about a length midway down the backstretch. The pace remained moderate as the Claiborne homebred entered the final turn, beginning to open up on the field as Pincay started urging the Derby winner. The others were attempting rallies, but Swale was gradually turning the race into a one-horse contest. Gate Dancer and Play On loomed on the near-black colt’s outside as the final turn reached its end, but as the curve phased into the straightaway, Swale accelerated, propelling himself forward as Pincay mildly urged the colt.

Swale didn’t need much asking. The race was his. The others attempted to chase after him, but Swale readily galloped towards the wire, striding away to an effortless 4-length victory in what was, at the time, the fourth-fastest final clocking of the Belmont: 2:27.20. Swale had completed the race 2.40 seconds faster than his sire despite the suffocating heat. As his almost-black flame flashed under the finish line, Swale sanctioned his greatness, broadened his farm’s and fans' love for him, and stamped himself as the champion of his division, though that honor would not be awarded for months. Most of all, Swale had further demonstrated his tremendous will to win.

Fans eagerly awaited Swale’s next start, enthusiastic about seeing the tremendous horse compete again, though his next start was not expected to come until the fall. He remained in training after the Belmont, and within just a few days after his victory in the great race, the colt returned to light, routine gallops in the morning. One of those gallops came on the morning of June 17, 1984 – just eight days after his Belmont triumph.

Following the gallop, Swale returned to Woody Stephens’ barn, still on routine. Like all other racehorses, Swale was cooled off and given a bath. Everything was normal. Then, out of the blue, the normally laid-back colt reared and fell to the ground. 

The fight for his life was a short one – the brilliant colt was dead in moments. The horse that had made Claiborne Farm’s dreams come true was gone. America’s beloved racehorse was to never race again, to never produce offspring, to never breathe another breath. Swale was gone forever.

The necropsy disclosed that despite the fact that he appeared to have died from cardiac arrest, Swale’s cause of death was unknown. His organs were just fine. After several studies, the reason why the great horse had died was still a mystery. But eventually, it was discovered that Swale had died because of a heart abnormality. Nothing could have been done to save him. It had just taken seconds to tear the beloved champion away from the world 
– seconds that never could have been prevented.

His life was short – much too short. But during the small amount of time that the world was able to enjoy Swale, he provided the racing world with joy, awing fans with his brilliance. Swale’s story is truly a tragedy – a champion that left us too soon, that never was able to give us a dynasty like his great sire, that was buried at Claiborne Farm at the tender age of three. The story of Swale is one that reminds us of the amazing highs and lows of the sport of horse racing, but it is also one that awakens the soul, that reminds you how much we should appreciate our athletes. I was not alive during the short amount of time Swale was, but I will forever remember him, just as the rest of the racing world will. Swale will never be forgotten.

Photo by Terri Cage