Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Paid to Spoil Dreams

Sometimes in life it’s more natural, to quote Metallica’s “Broken, Beat and Scarred”, to “Rise, fall down, rise again.” We saw this with John Travolta, but that’s a tired reference to an already tired-again actor. Harrison Ford? He had a sustained go of it right through the 80s, the 90s with The Fugitive and Air Force One. Cowboys and Aliens and the latest Indiana Jones are the current slide. Nothing like sharing the bill with Shia Labeouf.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens had similar rises in the early part of their careers. Bonds sustained it, plateaued to Hall of Fame status, then creamed and cleared his way into the Pantheon of Pariahs. Clemens raged so much he even threw a bat at Mike Piazza.

All this points to our latest person to rise, fall down, and rise again: D. Wayne Lukas. The career arc of The Coach has been well documented: Basketball coach, quarter horses, Triple Crown fame, Hall of Fame fame.

He rose to altitudes as high as the planes his horses flew on. He once got paid to fulfill people’s dreams, now he’s paid to spoil people’s dreams. He was once the King, an absolutist cut from the silk of Thomas Hobbes, but now he’s more of a constitutional monarch, but one who still can wield a heavy sword.

Lukas won the Travers Saturday, his first since 1995 when he won both the Derby and the Travers with Thunder Gulch. That was the last year he won a Triple Crown race and the Travers in the same year. He was the sprightly age of 61. At 77, he completed that elusive Daily Double with Oxbow and Will Take Charge, his 2013 1-2 punch (back to this in a moment).

Lukas, for many, many years, tanked. Perhaps that’s unfair; he did win the Belmont Stakes and Distaff in 2000 and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2002, but that was more of the long tail of his 90s Triple Crown success capped off with Charismatic. As he sank, his disciples took the loose rein.

Lukas won the Juvenile Fillies in 2005 with Folklore, but beyond that, it’s been a long, long time since Lukas felt relevant. He felt relevant only as the trainer who spawned the greatest set of assistants since Bill Parcells and Mike Holmgren. You can actually see how Todd Pletcher, Lukas’s greatest apprentice, and maybe the most gifted trainee since Anakin Skywalker, has morphed into Lukas. Just look at the hair: completely silver. Yeah, he wins a lot, but you can see the mileage. Just ten years ago he looked like this. Here he is in 1990.

Lukas sat back and watched as Pletcher took over the earth faster than Sauron (minute 2:10); Kiaran McLaughlin won the Dubai World Cup, a Saratoga title and the Belmont Stakes; Dallas Stewart won the Stephen Foster and finished second in the Preakness and Kentucky Derby. Lukas was in the twilight of his career. His clients died or moved on. He persevered, wore his red blazer, and walked the long walk over and over again from the Saratoga paddock to his box in the clubhouse. If he won a race, he dragged some kid into the winners’ circle with him. He became more Arnold Palmer while his Tiger Woodses tore up the turf.

Then he started getting the clients again. He replaced the old with new, fresh muscle. His 2013 Triple Crown campaign saw him pit two colts against one another in the Rebel: Oxbow and Will Take Charge. It was up to these two to take him to the heights he knew not so long ago.

Oxbow was gritty and game. Will Take Charge plodded and waited. Will Take Charge ran Oxbow down in the Rebel this year in a stretch drive that would project, at least in terms of stretch drive, what Will Take Charge would do in the Travers. “It’s Lukas 1-2!”

Lukas had his Derby horses and they were contenders, both with different running styles. Lukas was clearly on the rise again. Oxbow won the Preakness and Lukas, who was once expected to win these races, has become the sleeper. He even took a subtle dig at his greatest protégé after the Travers:

"I was concerned about the fractions. I thought the fractions were way in favor of the horses that you all liked and not him," Lukas said, referring to Verrazano and Palace Malice. "When they threw up that half-mile and then the [1:13.43] for three quarters, I thought it was tailor made for the favorites. When you go 13 and four and you're a world-class horse, you're supposed to finish."

Grenade thrown.

But the silver hair, the bad-ass sunglasses and perfectly crisp shirts, blazers and suits, are back. He rose, fell, and rose again. You’ve heard the one about the phoenix. Behold Lukas, red blazer, burning brighter for having weathered the fall.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Riding the Rail to Immortality

You’ll have to be loaded with forgiveness. The intention was to write about Calvin Borel last week, then a ticket went gone and a horse died, which trumped our Ragin’ Cajun from getting his “ink” in this carryover of carryovers. Without much of anything going on, save for Princess of Sylmar wrapping up Champion Three-Year-Old Filly honors (maybe Horse of the Year consideration??? How'd you like that five-horse field. Yee-haw!), Borel seems about as vibrant a topic there is.

Footnote: The ceremony needs to do away with honoring the living members of the Hall of Fame in this time slot. It’s repetitive as they do it every year, but more than that it takes away from the current class going in. They cast a long shadow and drain the energy and attention away from spectators. By the time new members are getting inducted, we feel as though we’ve been through it already. Put the onus on the newbies. What induction ceremony pays this much attention to inductees of year's past? This is why I need to be commissioner, right? Exactly.

Back to Borel. The ceremony started with Tom Durkin delivering what I believe to be an irony-free intro where he said, “And there’s Kelso. Remember when he won five straight Jockey Club Gold Cups? Then it was run at two miles. That’s pretty cool.
“And remember when Calvin Borel won three Kentucky Derbys in four years? That’s pretty cool.”

Joined by his wife Lisa, Borel finally got up on stage and donned his new blue blazer. He had no paper for his speech. “I have family and friends I want to talk about, but I’ll have my wife tell a story and go from there.”

So he receded and basked in the glow of his beautiful wife, shining in white telling stories of the barns Borel schooled in where “the rats were bigger than the cats.” It looked as though she was going into the Hall through her whole touching speech. In a way she was because Borel, if he’s good at anything else besides riding horses, it’s that he lets other people do their thing so he can—you guessed it—ride horses.

She thanked many people with tear-glazed eyes and when she thought about Rachel Alexandra, she had to hold back the tears even more. You truly felt the gravity of Rachel Alexandra to them. She made history with them, and made them a lot of money too.

Lisa recalled the day when Rachel Alexandra was sold to Jess Jackson. They feared they’d lose the mount since the Jackson/Steve Asmussen connection opted for Robby Albarado with Curlin. We all know how that ended. (Footnote: Lisa almost forgot to thank Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke. She fired through her list, all off the top of her head, and when she reached the end, realized she had nearly forgotten to mention them. Danger averted.)

She stepped down and Borel took the mike, he was done in the time it takes to run a turf sprint. “I just wish my mom and dad were here. If they could only see. I was very, very blessed to have a good mom and dad to let me do what I do.”

Which seamlessly led to Borel speaking of his long-time agent Jerry Hissam. “I’ve never seen a jock and his agent stay together that long,” Borel said. “There was not two bad words between us. He did his job. I did mine. If we lost the horse, we always tried to find another horse to beat him”

It was over before we knew it, just like when he slipped up the rail on Mine That Bird in 2009. He found a hole the size of a watermelon and threaded the eye with that gelding. Bo-Rail to a 'T'.

“The horse is a drug,” Borel said in closing. Indeed it is.

That's pretty cool.

Pick 5 Follow Up

I have no real definitive information to add to the Pick 5 talk. I was told that what was reported is all that's known. All that was reported was in my piece, which means there's no further information about carryovers or the races the Pick 5 encompasses. I have an email out to someone else at NYRA. When I find out more, you'll know. Oh, yes, you will know. She will be mine. Oh, yes, she will be mine.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Sometimes You Lose Even When You Win

I stare at my reflection—warped and contorted—on the black cover to my Weber grill. The veggies steam within packets of foil and the burgers sizzle to a purely succulent medium. I think of two questions:

1. Why am I not in my car heading back to Saratoga Race Course?

2. Why had my father-in-law’s statement ‘I’m the luckiest man alive’ really come back to bite us?

But, really, why am I not in my car heading back to Saratoga Race Course?

Originally I had intended to write something about Calvin Borel and his wonderful induction into the Hall of Fame, which I may reserve some words come the closing bell, then again, maybe not. But in this moment I sit and stare blankly, on the edge of a decision I know I won’t make.

A few hours earlier Mrs. Carryover and I took her parents to the track as we usually do when they visit in the summer. We even got our Fourstardave bobble head figurines. My father-in-law bought a Racing Form and I helped him out and gave him some opinions. I started a Pick 3 wheel. He nearly hit the tri and I was alive with a 3-1 horse on the first leg. Nice. We’ll take it.

Next leg, I give him some opinions and he’s one horse off from hitting the tri again. I too am one horse out of order in the tri, but I hit the second leg of the Pick 3 with a 6-1. Feeling pretty good as we head into the Adirondack. I’ve got the favorite, Fiftyshadesofgold, at 1-4, and Thank You Marylou, at 8-1. Will-pays for $1 are $31 and $450.

I looked at the race and told him I liked the 2 (Fiftyshades), the 3 (Thank You Marylou), and the 5 (Designer Legs). He ran off and placed a $2 tri box and I glued myself to the fence to watch from atop the stretch.

The race went off and I looked through the binoculars and saw Who’s In Town and Hop the Sixth berating Fiftyshadesofgold during a 21 and 3 quarter mile, while my Thank You Marylou came running. She loomed large in my glasses and charged down the center of the track. Who’s In Town squeezed through and won. I pressed my forehead to the fence. Then I looked up.

Galloping, limping, without a rider, right in front of me some 20 yards, was Charming Hour. Her right front was snapped to the bone. It swung like a wind chime and she kept on going, worse, and worse, and worse. I put my hands over Mrs. Carryover’s eyes, but she looked anyway. Where were the outriders to put a stop to this? My stomach still turns at the memory of that near-disembodied foreleg. It’s the worst injury I’ve ever seen.

My father-in-law said, “Let’s go,” and we left. He was mad. He loves animals. He felt someone was to blame for the horse breaking down. I told him that her trainer, Ken McPeek, was a great horseman and these things happen. He was mad at the jockey, as if John Velazquez could have done something. I said he could very well be on the way to the hospital. We just didn’t know. I hadn’t seen my father-in-law at the time, but he took his ticket from the Adirondack, crumpled it in a ball, and tossed it onto the back of a golf cart as we exited the grounds.

We were left with a haunting visual of horse racing’s bad breaks. Again, my father-in-law loves animals and he wanted to blame somebody. He wanted to punch the jockey in the face. We told him there was nothing he could do, but he was upset. We all were. I sent a tweet to Ken McPeek, though he has no idea who I am, to say I was sorry about his horse. I trolled Facebook while in the car and in one thread someone said something to the effect, “I can’t believe they took Who’s In Town down.”


I thought, for an instant, that the ticket in my wallet might reflect Fiftyshadesofgold or Thank You Marylou on top. I pulled up the results and saw that Thank You Marylou was second. Followed by Fiftyshades. Designer Legs was awarded first. 5-3-2.

“Uh, who did you have for your tri box?” I asked.

“The 2, the 3, and the 5,” my father-in-law said.

“And you boxed them?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Do you still have your ticket?”

“No, I threw it out.”

“You hit the tri … And you don’t know want to know how much it paid.”

“Now you have to tell us!” said Mrs. Carryover.

“$412. Did you have it for $1 or $2?” I asked.

“$2,” he said.

“$412 then.”

We were quiet for what felt like 30 minutes, though it was close to 30 seconds. My mother-in-law made like she wanted to punch him in the back of the head. My father-in-law just started laughing. We all started laughing because sometimes even when you win, you lose.

I asked where exactly he threw the ticket and we thought about turning around. We thought there was a chance the cart might still be there. Then we just resigned ourselves to my near-win (a euphemism for loss) and his win that lay on the back of a golf cart unbeknownst to its driver.

I stare at my reflection, hunched over in that horse-racing-degenerate posture that defines the near-triumphs and the wins that aren’t wins after all. My keys are over there and I think that in 25 minutes, if I’m lucky, I may find the golf cart still there and a crumpled piece of UnitedTote paper worth $412 resting in the bed.

We sit down to a delicious dinner and pay homage to Charming Hour. We laugh and say we’ll never forget this, how $412 gets away, and how this game and this track is the genesis of a generation of memory and narrative.

“I knew you saying you were the luckiest man in the world yesterday would bite us,” I say.

He looks at us between bites of his hamburger and says, “I still am.”

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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