I confess, I’m pretty excited.
I am excited to think that Justify may be the next Triple Crown winner. And I really believe it, so much so that I am to the point that — against my better judgment and personal theory that races should always be run before crowning a winner — I refuse to believe there will be any other outcome.
OK, so my current level of excitement is not to say I wasn’t ecstatic to have witnessed American Pharoah’s accomplishment three years ago, but I’d been let down so many times in both my personal and professional life that, before 2015, I didn’t think it was ever going to happen again — literally, ever.
I had convinced myself that the way horses were trained and raced and the way the Triple Crown was set up, comparatively speaking, that no horse conditioned in today’s world could physically get it done. So, I guess I wasn’t really ready for American Pharoah. Shame on me.
But, boy, am I ever ready for Justify now.
I was barely four when Secretariat was victorious in record fashion in 1973, so I don’t remember much. I have stronger memories of Seattle Slew and Affirmed — the former because I was seven and he looked like The Black Stallion to me, and the latter mostly because my parents knew Laz Barrera. And as we all know, it had been an epic drought for all of us somehow interested or involved in racing until 2015. After so many close calls, I am grateful to American Pharoah, but mostly because he made the myth of a Triple Crown winner a reality to me.
In 1997, I was at Belmont Park when Silver Charm had his Triple Crown snatched away by Touch Gold. I was lucky enough to have been invited by Silver Charm’s exercise rider, Larry Damore, to a fourth-floor clubhouse party hosted by Bob and Beverly Lewis for all their family and friends looking to celebrate the first Triple Crown in what, at the time, was a painfully long 19 years.
The room was decked out in the green and gold of their silk colors, the food was plentiful and the open bar was busy and everyone was happy. I didn’t really know anyone, but it was fun to watch, as I sat on a bench on the sidelines. Everyone was happy… that is, until the last few jumps of the 1 ½-mile classic, when the room fell silent. I finally understood the cliché involving a pin dropping.
As a Silver Charm fanatic, I was crushed too. I had a Derby win picture given to me by The Kentucky Handicapper, Steve Moody, which was the first print the track photographer took to be the official photo, but since it cut off runner-up Captain Bodgit’s tail, a reprint was made and Steve gave that one to me. I hauled it to New York and had everyone sign it — Bob Baffert, the Lewises, Gary Stevens, Larry. Silver Charm was going to win it, my young mind was sure… until it didn’t happen. That photo is now framed and hanging on my wall, still a treasure reminding me of that day and the grace and dignity in which the Lewises accepted defeat, even though it was a soul-crushing blow.
I missed 1998 and Real Quiet’s bid, mostly because I didn’t think my heart could take it after the previous year, but, in 1999, I was back at Belmont and looking for Charismatic to finally get it done for the Lewises, who I firmly believed deserved it after Silver Charm’s failed bid. And we all know what happened there.
War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, I’ll Have Another and California Chrome followed, all to no avail. I was convinced it’d never happen again… until it did.
I’m pretty lucky. I’m fortunate to have followed and fawned over a lot of good horses being based at Santa Anita and am so lucky to have watched Justify basically from the start. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m one of a very privileged club that has watched him grow for the past five months. I know I’ve seen a lot of good horses in my lifetime, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen people turn around mid-sentence or mid-bite of breakfast to watch a horse they didn’t know. To say there’s something about Justify — something electric — is an understatement.
Even before Justify was on my radar, my favorite photographer, Jim Safford, pointed him out to me. At first a lot of people thought he was stablemate Solomini way back in early January at Santa Anita because both are handsome chestnuts, but it didn’t take more than a stride or two to see the difference. One look and Jim and I were hooked and Justify still hadn’t had his first Santa Anita breeze.
Soon, Jim and I were exchanging text messages about his works and training and Jim sent me pictures virtually every day to share on social media. Now, did either of us think he’d even make the Kentucky Derby gate back in January? No, nobody did, except Baffert. With all the things against Justify (may Apollo rest in peace) it was an easy assumption, so it’s been an extra treat to watch him get to where he is now, staring at the face of racing immortality.
Racing has this weird thing of one-upsmanship in the fan department. When it comes to good horses, everyone wants to be the first to the party. Everyone wants to say they saw a horse first or knew someone who knew someone — you all know how it goes.
I can honestly say I have never been one of those people. Until now. It’s a fun feeling to know you were one of the first, so I finally get it. I have a certain sense of pride in sharing him with everyone, even though I have no right, rhyme or no reason to feel that way. And I’m going to enjoy it because I know it’s probably never going to happen again.
Two summers ago I spent the morning with Baffert’s vet, Dr. Vince Baker, discussing all kinds of things regarding horse racing. We talked about the current state of racing affairs, medications, testing, protocols and policy, as well as where he thinks racing is going, both positive and negative. His father was a racetrack vet and he’s been one his entire life, so to say he’s seen and heard a lot and knows what he’s talking about is an understatement. And of all the time we spent together, one thing still rings in my head. We had let the conversation drift to American Pharoah, who Baker nursed through a relatively minor, but chronic, foot injury to get him to become the twelfth Triple Crown winner.
“Bob will win the Triple Crown again,” Baker said to me. “When he has the horse he will win it again. I predict within the next five years, there will be another Triple Crown winner and Bob will be his trainer. He’s figured out the kind of horse it takes and how to train him to get it done.”
Ransom Notes: Gronkowski Ownership Good for the Game
Originally posted on April 21, 2018
Last summer, at the inaugural Equestricon convention at Saratoga, a young, yet high-profile owner intimated that racing needed to attract more celebrity owners. I won’t quote him directly because I wasn’t in attendance and most of what I read was what was posted on social media, but the negative backlash he received was loud and it was brutal. Anyone who knows anything about racing knows that celebrity ownership could be the least of horse racing’s worries.
I do remember thinking at the time, though, that the person who said this grew up in the game and currently runs one of the more successful ownership syndicates. I also remember at the time that I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that the words didn’t come out right and what he meant was that celebrity ownership was something that could have a positive influence on the game.
So, this week, as I read on every racing website and most mainstream sports outlets, that New England Patriots tight end and famous party boy Rob Gronkowski purchased an interest in his nameskake, Kentucky Derby (GI) contender Gronkowski, I got to thinking about the poor guy who was heavily criticized for his comments made at Equestricon last summer may have actually been on to something. Gronkowski, who graduated from my alma mater and, therefore, always is on my radar despite my lack of interest in the NFL, has been a regular at the Kentucky Derby for a handful of years now, so owning a piece of racehorse is not exactly a stretch for him.
I even read some opinions that Gronkowski purchased an interest in the Jeremy Noseda-trained Burradon Stakes winner from Phoenix Thoroughbreds for good seats and better access to Millionaire’s Row, which is ludicrous to consider as he wears two Super Bowl rings and was just a touchdown and field goal away from his third this year. Let’s be honest, his regular seat would be in Millionaire’s Row regardless of ownership.
So, then I got to thinking about some of the other more notable celebrity owners and what they brought to the game.
Nobody in racing — especially those with an appreciation of history — won’t remember television star Jack Klugman’s homebred Jaklin Klugman, who was third in the 1980 Kentucky Derby. Many thought the gray colt was actually a filly due to his name, which was actually a mix-up from when he was foaled and some confusion about his sex. Klugman hung with a celebrity crowd at the races for many years, which included the late Mickey Rooney and Dick Van Patten. Klugman said Jaklin Klugman’s success was the biggest thrill in his life.
Several years ago, country music superstars Reba McIntyre and George Strait dabbled in thoroughbred breeding and ownership. The former owned a farm in Tennessee named Starstruck Farms and, at one point, bred her own horses and also purchased a few at auction. In her book, Reba: My Story, McIntyre details the process of buying yearlings, naming them, starting and breaking them, the thrill of victory and also the heartbreak of injuries followed by the promise of more success in the future. She and her husband, Narvel Blackstock, eventually got out of the throughbred business and Starstruck Farms was sold, but McIntyre has nothing but fond memories of her foray into thoroughbred ownership.
Strait owned horses until early this decade under his Ocean Front Property banner in partnership with Keith Asmussen. He didn’t have a ton of stakes winners, but had several six-figure earners over the course of several years.
I used to see Toby Keith, who races under his Dream Walkin’ Farms banner, at Santa Anita quite a bit with his then-trainer, Ted West Jr. He and West were hard to miss, both towering over just about everyone else, as they watched the overhead hanging televisions closer to eye-level than you’d imagine. He still has “300 to 500” horses on his property in Oklahoma or on various farms in Kentucky. He also campaigned the now successful stallion Cactus Ridge and Grade 3 winner Smack Smack and is active in many of racing’s charities and fundraisers.
Syndicated sports radio talk show host Jim Rome went from saying horse racing is “not a sport, it’s a bet” to being one of the most high-profile owners in the game. In a few years, Rome journeyed from one of the game’s biggest critics to the one of its biggest supporters as co-owner of dual Breeders’ Cup winner Mizdirection and the ill-fated champion Shared Belief, both under his Jungle Racing stable name. Posts from his Jungle Racing social media accounts frequently reminisce about all of his horses, as well as the sadness he still feels at the loss of Shared Belief.
Academy Award-winner Steven Spielberg bought into Public Storage and Spendthrift Farm owner B. Wayne Hughes’s Atswhatimtalknbout during the promotional tour for his Oscar-nominated film Seabiscuit 15 years ago, and the colt went on to finish fourth in the 2003 Kentucky Derby.
Hip Hop artist MC Hammer owned Dance Floor, third in the 1992 Kentucky Derby, and Grade 1 winner Light Lite. And I don’t think there’s a soul who is even a casual racing follower who doesn’t know that A&M Records founder Jerry Moss is one of the biggest and most celebrated owners in the game, largely thanks to he and his former wife Ann’s generous sharing of Horse of the Year Zenyatta with the public during her racing career.
Celebrity chef Bobby Flay owned or still owns individually or shares in several horses, including 2016 Belmont Stakes (GI) winner Creator, and sits on many of the industry’s boards. Gronkowski’s former teammate, Wes Welker, owns the Grade 2-winning millionaire Undrafted, among others either solely or in partnership. Olympic gold medal-winning skier Bode Miller bought a barn at Fair Hill training center in Maryland and is training his own horses in a state-of-the-art facility he built.
Basketball player Rex Chapman is an active owner, as is European rugby player Wayne Rooney, Joe Torre, Rob Dyrdek, Michael Phelps, Burt Bacharach, Kevin Costner, Drew Brees, Alex Ferguson and, of course, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who is celebrated at Royal Ascot every year with traditional pomp and circumstance, which is followed by both racing fans and royal watchers around the world.
And who doesn’t sing with Bing at Del Mar every summer, the track the Hollywood legend help build in the 1930s? He also owned his share of racehorses back in the day and was a regular at all tracks. His friend, Fred Astaire, was also a part-time owner and eventually married former jockey Robin Smith, who was 46 years his junior when they tied the knot in 1980. They remained married until his death in 1987.
My favorite celebrity story, though, involves former trainer Jude Feld (now a Horse Racing Radio Network personality), who conditioned a horse in the late 1980s for comedians Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, as well as famous voice-over actor Ernie Anderson. Feld can probably tell the story better than anyone, but it involved a claimer and some fancy silks, which read in big letters on the back “NO PASSING.” Remember to ask Jude about it the next time you see him.
So, yes, racing is facing a ton of issues that need attention and rectification and by no means is celebrity ownership the cure for all of racing’s ills. However, the positive attention the partnership of the human Gronkowski and the equine Gronkowski has brought already can’t hurt. And the truth is, regardless of the horse’s chances, his sheer presence can only help viewership and possibly bring new fans — who could potentially become new owners — to the game.
Ransom Notes: In Memory of Jose Flores
Originally posted on March 22, 2018
Today I was writing an opinion piece about the Breeders’ Cup and how I think the event has changed — and not necessarily all for the better — when my Twitter feed showed the notification from Jim Dunleavy of the Daily Racing Form that, this morning, jockey Jose Flores had succumbed to the catastrophic injuries he suffered in a spill at Parx on Monday.
I didn’t know Flores aside from his name and reputation as a leading rider in Pennsylvania, but my reaction was overwhelming sadness. Instantly, my bitching about the Breeders’ Cup felt so trivial and my thoughts about the Breeders’ Cup, instead, centered on the fact that Flores never rode in the event and never would, despite giving his entire career — and ultimately his life — to the sport of horse racing.
I’m not a person who openly criticizes jockeys, either publicly or in private. Sure I’ve said to myself or to friends that perhaps a certain rider made a poor choice or that maybe one didn’t turn in the best ride, but you won’t ever see me on social media — or anywhere else for that matter — criticizing, critiquing, bashing or blaming one for a horse’s poor finish, regardless of the circumstances.
I will never be a jockey. From the time I was 12 and 5’9” it was pretty clear my riding days wouldn’t be on the back of a speeding racehorse, not that it was ever my ambition. It’s just something I never have and will never do, so harshly criticizing one, either on the internet or in person as I see so many people do daily, seems an uneducated thing to do. And mean. Very mean.
A long time ago, I was married to a jockey, one who dreamed of riding at the elite level someday, but who was never fortunate enough to make it there, despite hard work and dedication. Long since divorced, he is still my friend and someone whose happiness is important to me. And as much of a happy front as he puts forward, I always sense the sadness of his never hitting the big time. He also suffered a pretty horrific injury when we were together, in addition to a few broken bones. The full set of dental implants he carries around in his mouth every day are also a constant reminder that being a jockey wasn’t what he’d hoped it would be, though he doesn’t regret a single day of trying.
Jose Flores never made the big time either, as he mostly carved out a decent living riding horses who were no longer competitive on the large circuits or ones never destined for the large circuits. But he rode them to the best of his ability all the same and, like my ex-husband, by all accounts, he loved what he did.
I grew up lucky to know the daughter of a Hall of Fame jockey who I am still friends with to this day. Fifteen years ago, I watched mostly silently as her father and her family struggled with the end of a brilliant career after a lifetime of mostly extreme highs, but also brutal lows. A broken neck — and the possibility that, should he ride again and endure another spill, he would risk permanent damage and paralysis —took his choice to retire on his own terms right out of the talented hands he was known for having on the back of a racehorse. He was 56 years old on the last day he rode — one year younger than Jose Flores was today as he took his final breath.
I’ve been lucky to call several jockeys friends throughout my life in horseracing, some I still talk to and some not as often as I’d like. But it’s always nice to catch up a little with them when they’re in town or when I’m travelling. Some are Eclipse Award winners or, now, Hall of Famers who spoke little English 20-plus years ago when they arrived from Venezuela and other countries with little more than a dream and some talent. One friend I saw throw caution to the wind and bungee jump from a hot air balloon two decades ago only to suffer a career ending spinal cord injury years later, now dependent on his family for almost all of his care. His son is still an active rider and I often wonder if he holds his own breath when he watches him ride, praying he doesn’t suffer the same fate.
Some say jockeys choose to be jockeys and put their own lives in danger of their own accord and the truth is that’s absolutely right. But to say that and not understand how much more is involved also minimizes their contribution and necessity in racing. Last I checked horses didn’t run around the tracks alone. The dedication to making weight and the courage to ride a speeding animal at 30-plus miles per hour doesn’t deserved to be minimalized by the “choice” argument.
And the stark reality is only a small percentage of jockeys makes up the big earners and big winners, as most barely make ends meet living out of suitcases and cars going from second-tier track to second-tier track. Most aren’t the Mike Smiths or Gary Stevens or Javier Castellanos or even one of the talented Ortiz brother. Most — at every level — just hope to pick up a win or two each week and make it back to weigh-in after each race unscathed. I don’t know a racing fan who hasn’t seen a horrific spill resulting in severe injury to a rider, regardless of what level and what track.
So, maybe, just for a little while, instead of criticizing a jockey we can thank one. Or show them kindness even after a horse we’ve bet on has lost. Say something nice. Maybe just for a little while we can all acknowledge that they do put their lives on the line for our enjoyment and entertainment every day. Maybe we can acknowledge that losing some money on a horse they ride is less important than their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Maybe, just today, in memory of Jose Flores.
Ransom Notes: Where Have All the Stars Gone?
Originally posted on February 27, 2018
Question: Does anyone miss Gun Runner? What about Arrogate, Songbird, or even California Chrome? Has anyone really recovered from the retirement of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah after his record-setting sophomore year? Honestly, has anyone else noticed that, right now, in this game we all love, we are suffering from a significant void of equine stars?
The good news is that’s the bad news. The best thing about the game being without any stars is that there are now several spots atop the ladder in just about every division waiting to be claimed — and a plethora of talented runners lining up to do just that.
After the Breeders’ Cup every year it’s always fun to anticipate the new year returns of our favorites, map out the Road to the Kentucky Derby, enjoy the exciting summer racing from coast to coast and, eventually, the Breeders’ Cup once again. Because, well, they’re our horses too, right?
It’s been said the Triple Crown trail these days gets underway in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and it could be fair to say the path to the Breeders’ Cup never ends. Part of the fun is playing armchair trainer and deciding where we’d run, if they were our horses.
So, with the Gun Runners and Arrogates and California Chromes and Songbirds carefully tucked away at various farms in Kentucky, second careers well underway, who do we have left and what can we expect?
I think it’s safe to say the biggest star still running is a mare — a good mare, a champion mare, but a mare nonetheless. Last year’s Kentucky Derby winner hasn’t won a race since and hasn’t started since beating just three rivals in the Travers Stakes nearly six months ago. And the top two juveniles from last year have yet to start as 3-year-olds, while perhaps the most promising one of the entire bunch we’ve seen just once.
Who are the top runners for fans to follow now and who can we expect to rise to the top?
Last year’s champion older female and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (GI) heroine has been tucked away at Fair Grounds prepping for her big date against boys in the March 24 Dubai World Cup at Meydan. No filly or mare has started in the Dubai World Cup since Royal Delta in 2012 and 2013 and no female has finished better than To The Victory’s second in 2001.
The Charles Fipke homebred has been working well for Dallas Stewart at Fair Grounds all month and will have a few more workouts before shipping to the Middle East. She’s got a big fan following and, while it may be hard to get too excited when she’s yet to make a start this year, the concept of her entire year is something to look forward to.
This 4-year-old daughter of Tapit, who was last year’s champion female sprinter, has had a nice beginning to the year. She won the La Brea Stakes handily on Santa Anita’s opening day then came back to romp in the Santa Maria a couple weeks ago and has been working well enough for local clockers to give her the coveted “breezing” tag in the mornings.
Though honored as a sprinter, she’s bred for routing, has won around two turns and will probably be pointed toward a lot of the same races as Songbird was last year before she retired. After the Santa Margarita on March 17, she would likely travel for the Ogden Phipps, Delaware Handicap and Personal Ensign. Regardless, The Don Alberto Stable-owned daughter of Tapit and Unrivaled Bell (Unbridled’s Song) is with a trainer in Jerry Hollendorfer who isn’t afraid to take risks.
The $500,000 colt from the next-to-last crop of Scat Daddy, who died prematurely at age 11 in late 2015 as one of the most promising stallions we’ve seen in a long time, broke his maiden in a romp at first asking nearly two weeks ago, living up to the quiet buzz he’d generated training.
Yes, the “Curse of Apollo” is always at the forefront regarding potential Kentucky Derby horses that didn’t start at two, but who is going to doubt the Hall of Famer who trained the most recent Triple Crown winner (Bob Baffert)? Justify is beautiful, moves like liquid and, though so inexperienced, looks and acts like a pro every day. He has a good mind to go along with a good pedigree, and we’ll probably see him in a stakes next, where he’ll either rise to the challenge or wait for the bigger races for 3-year-olds later in the year.
He spent much of the second half of 2017 as the division’s standout until that very rough and very wide trip in the Breeders’ Cup cost him not only the race, but also the division championship, despite a pair of Grade 1 wins, which is a head-scratcher.
His owner/trainer Mick Ruis had hoped to bring him back earlier this year after a winter freshening, but a pulled muscle curtailed plans and he’s only been back working for a month. A rider kerfuffle with Corey Nakatani produced a switch to Hall of Famer Javier Castellano and the pair are expected to return to action in the March 10 San Felipe Stakes. The best thing about this colt is that he’s been training at Santa Anita during a live meet with a lot of cameras and live workouts on XBTV.
This $1 million Curlin colt used racing’s biggest stage to break his maiden, taking the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over a very good field by more than four lengths. His connections, eFive Racing and Stonestreet Stables, collected the Eclipse Award a week after he returned to the work tab after a little winter break, but he’s been mostly training for Chad Brown with no fanfare and not much attention at Palm Meadows Training Center in South Florida.
He’s set to be the headliner this weekend in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and his return to action could not come at a better time.
Beat the declining Arrogate last summer and, after a bumpy Breeders’ Cup, came back to win the San Pasqual. He may be California’s best shot at the Big ‘Cap in two weeks.
Sprinter-turned-router won the San Antonio Stakes in early January, then tanked in the Pegasus World Cup. Hard to say whether he’ll sprint or route for Pete Eurton, but he’s kind of a fun horse to follow and seems to rise to most challenges thrown his way.
Undefeated in three starts, this son of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, named for a late beloved Calfornia racing executive, hasn’t made a wrong move, winning the Los Alamitos Futurity and the Sham Stakes. He’s been training exceptionally well for Bob Baffert and is likely to face Bolt D’Oro and some others in the San Felipe.
The most successful maiden winner in a while, he was runner-up to Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup then was disqualified from a win in the Los Alamitos Futurity in favor of Stablemate McKinzie. He’s been back on the work tab all month and trainer Baffert has said he could sent this talented son of Curlin just about anywhere.
The standout and undefeated sophomore filly has three stakes wins, including a Grade 1 and a Grade 2. Another from the powerful Baffert brigade, she’s set for the Santa Ysabel next week after a nice work this weekend. Her owners, Phoenix Thoroughbreds, paid a lot of money for her ($750,000), which she’s probably already made up in value as a broodmare when this career is over.
Potential star honorable mention (in no particular order):
Audible – Impressive Holy Bull winner likes the Florida winter.
World Approval – Champion turfer back in Calfornia for a second run at Eclipse glory.
Kanthaka – Impressive San Vicente Stakes winner.
My Boy Jack – Southwest Stakes winner.
Mourinho – Smarty Jones Stakes winner who is better than his last.
Instilled Regard – LeComte Stakes winner, who is also better than his last.
Bravazo – Purists will love that D. Wayne Lukas trains this one.
Snapper Sinclair – Ran too good to lose in the Risen Star.
West Coast – Second in the Pegasus makes him the male to beat in the Dubai World Cup.
Lombo – Humble horse wins Robert B. Lewis, trains like a boss every day.
Gunnevera – Fan fave still giving it his best.
Collected – Recent bad performance earned this Pacific Classic hero a break.
Free Drop Billy – Grade 1-winning Holy Bull Stakes runner-up.
Who are your potential stars?