I had spent a year shadowing a young, talented trainer, Phil Schoenthal, on the Maryland circuit as his apprentice. I chronicled the year with him: the ups and downs of a struggling trainer. Then along came Digger and he gave Phil some hope for 2007.
Digger never reached significant stature with Phil, but he was a talented gelding that gave Phil something to look forward to besides nickel claimers.
Digger was privately sold in the spring of 2007, but soon went on to do some nice things for other trainers. The following is an excerpt from my unpublished book, "On the Backside", that I wrote as part of my masters thesis.
Meet Phil Schoenthal. Meet Digger.
At one point in his life, he was Hell-bent on getting there, but as a few years and a few belt notches later taught him, such things were out of his control.
A spiritual man, Phil Schoenthal prayed every day. Some days he prayed by his bedside, sometimes on the way to the Bowie Training Center in the morning, his headlights a literal guiding light to his spiritual power. Sometimes he prayed on his way to Laurel. Sometimes when he walked a colt to the machine to jog him; he looked silent on the outside but he was likely praying. All the while playing with a horse that had spent most of his time cooped up in his stall.
It was early November 2006, and Phil leafed through The Daily Racing Form for horses that were in for a claiming price, where horses race and are, in essence, up for sale should someone drop a claim slip. There were ten horses that he liked. Phil’s client, Bill Wise, had $40,000 in his account to use for the best possible horse. After doing his research, nothing quite grabbed Phil — pedigree not sharp enough, not enough upside here, this horse is outclassed, this one’s a donkey — so he resorted to the strength in his life. He prayed for peace, for guidance, for light; and while unsure of who to claim, Phil prayed to his God for a racehorse. Phil’s Toyota Tacoma his temple, stained and caked with mud, manure, and straw, a Bible on its side, and papers scattered, he asked for help in claiming the right horse. “All right Lord, you know all things. You’re a better horse trainer than I am. You know all about these horses. You know a lot more about these donkeys than I do. You know every little thing about them. You’re a better horseman than I am. I need your help.”
He wasn’t sure when, but it wasn’t too long before the word “digger” dropped into his spirit. Digger? It came to him not on his own, but from his higher power. It was the utterance of the living voice of God — rhema. He had no way of knowing what it meant, but he took note, the guidance, the light, that word digger.
Phil went to the track on November 9, 2006 representing Wise, who was willing to spend up to $25,000 of that bankroll on a racehorse. The Laurel dirt that day was termed “fast.” Then there, in the Form was a dark bay gelding by Yonaguska, out of Da Choice, named Digger. Digger? Phil thought. This can’t be happening. No way. Digger? Phil said to himself, “Oh. That’s weird. That’s pretty weird.”
Among the horses he had liked, Digger was in that group. Phil had forgotten about Digger when, right there, amidst all that black type, was a horse named Digger. There he was, getting ready to run a six-furlong race over the dirt in a maiden claimer for two-year-olds for the exact amount of money Wise wanted to spend. Phil thought to himself whether he should go with his gut and drop the claim for another horse he liked more, King of the Surf, or test his faith and go with Digger.
Digger walked to the paddock and his trainer, Robin L. Graham, tugged on the girth and saddled him up. Digger broke from the outside post in an eight-horse field and went to second place, two lengths behind the leader at the first call. At the top of the stretch, Digger was just a head back of the leader, King of the Surf. He made a two-wide bid, dueled, and then weakened, losing to King of the Surf. Great, Phil thought, there goes King of the Surf galloping out, the horse I liked.
But it wasn’t all bad. In a maiden claiming race like this one, Phil liked to see a horse win by fifteen lengths or lose by a nose. When the horse wins, he loses the maiden condition, meaning he’ll have to run against winners his next time out, so the win should be in dominant fashion. If he loses by a nose, it means he’ll be the best next time out in that same race. Phil thought Digger was green, which was good; it meant that experience could shape him into a better horse. He was probably the best in the race and got beat by King of the Surf. Phil thought, I was happy he got beat so he could come back and win that race. To watch that race and watch King of the Surf gallop by and win Phil thought, you know, you think to yourself, OK, all right. He felt like he was being tested.
Though he liked King of the Surf, given the choice, Phil would rather opt for the green horse that ran second than the horse that won and now had to face winners. Phil thought, maybe that was God’s little joke to himself. Maybe it was just to show me that He’s in control.
Phil went to the claiming office and found his friend, assistant trainer to Scott Lake, Hugh McMahon. McMahon was the only person in the racing business Phil could confide in on a spiritual level. It relieved Phil to see Hugh because if you have rhemas and you agree with God, you must confess it. Who better than Hugh? Phil thought. Hugh was going to be the only guy who’s not going to look at me like I’m from Mars.
It was a better story told in front of the claim instead of behind. But isn’t dropping the claim slip confession enough? Phil thought. No, I’d better confess it out loud before the shake.
“Hey, Hugh,” Phil said. “You might not believe me. You may think I’m crazy. I believe God told me to claim this horse.”
“Wow, that’s awesome. Well, I’m in for that horse too. There’s going to be a shake.”
“Well, Hugh, there might be a shake, but as far as I’m concerned, if I have a rhemas from God, he’s not going to tell me to claim the horse and test my faith and not win the shake, right? To me it’s a foregone conclusion.”
“This is what we’re here to see.”
The steward placed the three claiming slips on the counter for Lake, Schoenthal, and King Leatherbury, and took the numbered pills out. “One. Two. Three.” And then he placed them in the container. The steward shook the beads, dropped the number, and picked up the slip. “William Wise, Phil Schoenthal.”
Phil readied a halter and shank for his new horse smiling that childish grin. Hugh’s mouth dropped.
“I told ya!” Phil said. They both laughed.
Possibly the most overused word when describing racehorses is “beautiful.” Oh, this horse is just beautiful! Digger was an ugly, ugly animal. Never in a dozen races would you confuse Digger with a Curlin, a Hard Spun, or a Rags to Riches, three of the more beautiful two-year-olds galloping towards the Triple Crown, still some six months away.
Digger was born in a dimly lit stall, on a bed of straw on May 17, 2004 at Dance Forth Farm in Maryland out of the first-time dam Da Choice. Dr. Tom Bowman delivered the foal and his immediate thoughts were that, “He was the ugliest horse. He had a long body, an ugly head, and short legs. He was really ugly. That’s what I remembered most.”
Digger was a late foal, already three months behind Street Sense and Any Given Saturday, the more precocious horses in Digger’s class. When January 1, 2005 approached, Digger was a yearling even though he was just six and a half months old. As a result, Da Choice was not bred back immediately as the Skeedattle Associates opted to wait a year so her cover date wouldn’t be so late. If she were to be covered again she would deliver a June foal, the reproductive cycle of a mare being eleven months. Upon seeing Digger, Skeedattle Associates’ Willy White said, “He was not a pretty horse. He was kind of an ugly horse, really. We used to joke when he was little that his name was Fugly.”
Instead they settled on naming him Digger, in honor of a friend who is in the utility business digging ditches. Ditch Digger was tossed around, but Digger ultimately stuck.
When Dr. Bowman saw this ugly, little horse he urged White to sell the mare. First-time dams often deliver smaller foals, but this was bad, real bad. But, as Dr. Bowman said, common sense prevailed and they hung on to Da Choice and Digger.
On Day 2, when Digger stood on his al dente-spaghetti legs, Becky Davis, Dr. Bowman’s daughter, took care of him. When she got sight of him she said, “He was not an impressive foal. He was scrawny, the mare’s first foal, not robust, average, normal, very plain color, dark brown, not flashy. By the time he was weaned he was one of the ugliest horses we had at the farm.”
Davis looked this horse up and down as he ran and trounced with other weanlings in the field. As weak as he looked, he wasn’t bullied around. He held his own, crashing into other babies, shoulder to shoulder, but the look of his body was startling. Davis thought his conformation was something you didn’t want to see. Digger’s hind end was straight up and down, his hocks and his pasterns had no angle. If they didn’t have the angle to pull forward and push off and back, it was like running on stilts; there was no flow. They couldn’t move properly. There was not a lot of angle, not much give. He’d bounce along like a deer, not really extending and pulling through the field well. Davis said Digger had pogo sticks for hind legs.
Davis wasted no time and called White, “He seems to be a bit off in the hind end. I don’t know what you want to do.” At one point, she thought, if she had a good home for him to go to, she may have considered giving him away. Plenty of people would’ve.
Digger came down with a case of diarrhea and had to be tended to on a personal level. He couldn’t retain his food: In one end and out the other. So Davis fed him ulcer guards and gastro guard as well as yogurt to replenish the bacteria he lost. Given all his complications and his conformational issues, they didn’t send him to Delaware for ninety days to be certified; they just sent him down to Frank “Goree” Smith’s training center in Elloree, South Carolina to be saddled and broke. What for? What’s the point? Everyone thought they wouldn’t be surprised if Digger never made it to the track. He was scrawny and didn’t have the look, but Davis did say one thing: Digger was hard to catch in the fields. He was elusive. He was quick.
Also, Digger was erratic, a bit on the crazy side. Davis thought it came from his mother. According to her, Da Choice was a fruit loop. She was a nice mare until she had a foal. She too was hard to catch. Da Choice undoubtedly passed this on to her son. Until they weaned him and got him away from his mother, he was like a little puppy dog, he was not hard to trim or give shots to; nice and laid back, not lethargic, but no spark.
Any crazed activity stayed on the X chromosome. Davis said Digger wasn’t very sharp, in fact he was pretty stupid, even by horse standards. She said, “The mother’s got a screw loose. She’s got the screw-loose gene. The mare didn’t pass along any smarts, hopefully some athletic ability.”
When Da Choice was in foal with Digger, Skeedattle put her in the mixed sale, in December of 2005, but she kicked the wall and bumped her knee so she was scratched for veterinary purposes. They had to hold on to the pregnant fruit loop, pregnant with the ugliest foal they’d come to see. When Da Choice had the foal, Davis thought, this was a big mistake. Besides Fugly and Ditch Digger, another name was tossed around for Digger: Dumb Choice.
Still, the thoughts and impressions when Dr. Bowman pulled Digger out of Da Choice were solidly on his twisted, homely appearance. He stared down at that dark, brown foal on a pile of crackly, yellow straw “He looked like a dachshund.”
Phil had won the Maryland Juvenile Championship with White Mountain Boy back in 2003. It was the last race the horse ran as a two-year old and the win bolstered the horse’s three-year-old campaign.
Many horses under Phil’s banner had circled the track since White Mountain Boy held Phil’s high hopes. The Illinois Derby — the last race White Mountain Boy ran for Phil — was a chance to go home, to run in front of his family. Running in Illinois was also a proven path to get to Churchill Downs. Past winners of the Illinois Derby have gone on to do well in the Kentucky Derby. In 2002, War Emblem won the Illinois Derby, then went on to wire the field in the Kentucky Derby for trainer Bob Baffert. In 2006, Sweetnorthernsaint won the Illinois and was the post-time favorite for the Kentucky Derby, but finished seventh after a bad trip. Two snows of winter, two green springs, two autumns, two humid summers elapsed. Eight seasons had changed over Barn 21 in Bowie since White Mountain Boy raced for Phil. Digger — considered a promising two-year-old — was the renewal of White Mountain Boy’s spirit.
Today, Christmas Eve 2006, Phil had Digger entered in the Maryland Juvenile Championship, so it was certainly a good day to get to the track and check out Phil’s runner. Digger was a menace, but maybe the best thing to say was that he had personality. He had a history of putting grooms on their backs and giving trainers saddling him headaches. This was a horse that once flipped himself over while being saddled. Digger even reared up and dropkicked one of his grooms. The issues the horse had were tolerable because the gelding could flat out run. He was also a horse that had Phil pretty excited. Two-year-olds that sparkle give a trainer a little bravado and a little hope that his horse could be the one — that big horse who brings notoriety to a trainer’s barn.
Phil’s wife, Sarah, knew he was excited about Digger. She remembered what an amazing claim it was, especially the circumstances that prompted Phil to claim him. Sarah said Phil was high on the horse and that it could be good for his career, to have at least a little hope going into the winter. Phil didn’t make a habit of telling Sarah everything that went on at the track, but he did share his optimism about Digger. He’d get excited and flashed a glimmer of hope. When he talked to her about him he said that maybe, just maybe this could be a Derby horse. There was a time in Phil’s life when he couldn’t stop talking about horses and it had only been through his experiences that he learned that some things were better left unsaid, to be able compartmentalize his feelings.
When Phil told people that he trained horses the first question many would ask is: “Have you been to the Kentucky Derby?” Deep inside he thought, How many times am I going to have to answer this question? However many dozens of times he’d been asked that question the answer had always been no. He’d answer quick and with a smile. But deep within his ability and his potential he knew that when it was his time to have a big horse, he’d receive a sign. Till then he waited and when two-year-olds ran like Digger, that no could turn into a yes.
Phil hadn’t had much luck during Laurel’s fall meet amounting just six wins, seven seconds and four thirds out of fifty-five starters for an eleven percent winning clip. Phil’s sixth win was Digger’s maiden victory when he beat five rivals and won by nine and a half lengths, putting Digger in that category of “promising.” Phil, no doubt, could be seen watching the race on the apron snapping that right hand, urging Digger along, snapping and snapping. Whether Digger would be a Kentucky Derby horse was left to be seen, whether he’d even be nominated was yet to be seen, as all three-year-old horses must be nominated in order to run in the Triple Crown races, but today Phil was dressed in a suit and tie, sitting across from his wife, and shaking his knee nervously with about an hour to go before the race.
Back in 2004, White Mountain Boy came out of the Illinois Derby bleeding out his nose while developing bone chips in the ankles thus ending his career — just like that. It was painful evidence of how fragile the animals are and how fragile the game is. It was those ups and downs, and how a trainer would respond to them Phil always talked about.
When Digger crossed the wire to break his maiden he had a dazzling eighty-eight Beyer Speed Figure — fast for any two-year old. It was enough for Phil to say to himself that Digger could be a special horse, special for now anyways. Robin L. Graham was surprised to see the horse claimed that day. She had him just three weeks and he never gave her a problem. Skeedattle’s Willy White was on hand that day as well, “When she put him in a $25,000 claimer, Schoenholfer, I think, claimed him.”
The sport had its way of reminding people that when you depend on horseflesh for success it was foolish to be upbeat for too long. The high from Digger’s romp wore off and now Phil was onto the 2006 Maryland Juvenile Championship to see if his dreams would be crushed or fulfilled for another try. The highs didn’t last long enough to get too used to them. But right there on the front page of The Daily Racing Form in the lower left hand corner was this: Young Stars — Digger and Spectacular Malibu bring the best credentials into the two divisions of the Maryland Juvenile Championship at Laurel. Page 12. Joe DeVivo wrote:
“Digger has proven to be a smart claim for owner William Wise and trainer Phil Schoenthal. Taken for $25,000 out of his second start, Digger finished a troubled second against straight maidens in his first start for his new connections then romped going nine furlongs in his most recent race. He improved his Beyer Speed Figure 25 points, to an 88.
Barring a severe bounce while returning on relatively short rest, Digger should beat this group. His toughest rivals appear to be Roaring Lion, who has won back-to-back starts, both at a mile, and Gammy’s a Winner, the track’s morning-line favorite at 5-2.”
Bill Wise owned Digger and happened to be one of the best clients Phil had ever had in that he let Phil do his job. He put all his trust in Phil, to the effect that Phil was in charge of Wise’s money in his racing account. Wise never called and tried to train the horse over the phone like some owners had the habit of doing. All he cared about was claiming. He didn’t want to buy a yearling or a two-year-old because there was a likelihood that he would not be able to see that horse’s potential in time, Wise pushing ninety years old. All phone calls were one way: Phil dialed Wise to let him know when Digger or any of his other horses were running. Wise drove to the nearest Off Track Betting facility, placed his bets, and told his buddies that he had a horse racing.
Once Phil finished his lunch, he rallied Wise’s entourage — Wise’s girlfriend, her kids, and her kids’ girlfriends — to watch Digger get saddled in the paddock. We walked out into the middle of the paddock to an island, which resembled the hole of a donut, across a cushy black pine-needle-like material. It was easy on the horses joints and hooves but got caught in the cuffs of Phil’s jeans, which then carried the rubbery trash to his house where his wife got peeved. No matter how hard they tried, the vacuum never picked up the little needles.
The stalls where the horses were saddled lined the perimeter of the paddock ending with number fourteen next to the three outrider stalls. The outrider, a rider who chases down the winners after a race or escorted racehorses onto the oval, waited patiently, watching all the other horses walk in circles with their hot walkers, warming up for the race. We stood on that center island and awaited Digger. Digger entered the paddock and had a frightened look on his face. His head darted and his hooves stomped. Phil encircled Digger and snapped his fingers behind him. Digger circled and swayed, unrelenting in his effort not to be saddled. Digger came in with navy blue blinkers patched with three little gold diamonds between the eyes. He bobbed his head with every gliding stride and when he saw Phil, he acted up and Phil wondered if he’d have a repeat performance of his other saddling disasters.
“Hey, Richie, have the pony hold him,” Phil said to a rider.
Ryan “Fogie” Foglesonger, Digger’s jockey, walked in from the jockeys’ room, cocky, confident, and ready to go. This was the third time Fogie would ride the horse and he needed to showcase Digger’s talent. Phil put the final touches on Digger’s saddle without much fuss.
“Wasn’t as bad as it might’ve been,” Phil said, brushing off his hands.
“What’s up, dude?” Fogie said as they shook hands.
They spoke in whispers about race strategy. Fogie leaned against the railing with his whip on his left hip. His silks looked inflated, like he was a Christmas lawn ornament with a mechanical pump, with their gold diamond on the navy blue shirt. His white pants said FOGIE down each leg in big, capital letters.
A young girl leaned over the rail and asked Fogie if he was the jockey on a reality show on MTV. Turns out he was part of a show titled TRUE LIFE, I WANT THE PERFECT BODY II.
“You know they filmed me for seven to eight months, had hundreds of hours of material and cut it to eighteen minutes,” Fogie said. The girl smiled bashfully.
Fogie asked to borrow her racing program and quickly assessed the five other horses in the field to see how the pace would shape up. Their biggest threat was the No. 2 horse, Roaring Lion. He was a big, big colt with early speed. Roaring Lion was riding a two-race win streak improving in each one. He broke his maiden going a mile over the Laurel dirt by a length in November and came back in allowance company to win by three-and-three-quarter lengths in another mile event.
Finally all the horses were saddled and the jockeys were hoisted up on their mounts.
“Good thing it’s not a twelve-horse field,” Phil said with a smile, brushing off his hands.
We all walked to the finish line to watch the race on the apron. This race was a one-turn mile, eight furlongs, on the dirt. Fogie warmed up Digger and they made their way to the starting gates down the chute.
Steve Tinker, Phil’s former exercise rider, joined us. “I think he’ll do good myself,” he said. “I do.”
“The 2-horse is the favorite,” Phil added. “It’s that 1-horse I’m afraid of too.”
“How do you like Digger’s chances, Phil?” I asked.
“I think he’ll be the best or bounce and not be good at all.”
The gates blasted open and Phil’s attention shot to the Jumbotron on the infield, with its patchy reception. Roaring Lion stumbled out of the gate, but got his hooves under him and was a half-length off the pace-setting Norjac. Gammy’s A Winner stalked the leaders and was three lengths off Roaring Lion’s flank. Digger rated behind Gammy’s A Winner, just off the rail saving ground. Bianchi’s Boy hung with Digger near the rear of the pack.
“He’s running fourth,” Phil yelled. He urgently walked closer to the fence, on his toes, eyes glued to the screen. “He’s four-wide going into the turn. He’s got a lot of horse!” Phil snapped his fingers on his right hand with a pop.
If you were to freeze the top of the stretch, Digger looked poised to shoot off the final quarter-mile and eat up the dirt. Phil’s body turned to face Digger, his fingers ready to snap. Fogie had him ready to fly past Roaring Lion. Digger, with his front legs pointed, his hind legs in full drive, had Roaring Lion in his sights, his nose nearly whiffing the tail of Roaring Lion. Once you set them back in motion, Digger clopped four-wide in the middle of the track and pulled dead even with Roaring Lion. Fogie went to the whip and popped Digger’s hide.
“C’mon, Digger! C’mon, Digger! C’mon, Digger! C’mon, Digger!” Phil urged, snapping those fingers.
With a furlong to go, Digger hung, not unable to catch Roaring Lion but not caring to catch him. Digger’s indifference got the best of him and he faded while Bianchi’s Boy put in a closing run and breezed past Digger for second. Fogie had Digger too far into the middle of the track going around the final turn and that was certainly the difference between second and third — possibly second and first.
“It was a good race considering he was four-wide in the far turn,” Phil assured Wise.
Phil retreated to talk to Fogie about what happened. Fogie adjusted his goggles and fixed them on the front of his helmet. He handed his saddlecloths and saddle to the stewards and explained to Phil what happened atop the staircase by the weigh-in room. They walked down the stairs, Phil headed back to Wise and Fogie retreated to the jockey’s room. Phil hesitated to put the blame on Fogie because he said Digger had a lot to give and just didn’t fire. Phil thought to himself that if Digger had been angled closer to the rail to save ground on the far turn, he could’ve made a better run. It may be time for a new rider. No matter. He couldn’t worry about that now and he went on to explain the race in better detail to Wise.
“Ryan said the horse just hung,” Phil said. “The first two times Digger ran he was much the best horse. When he ran the other day, he made the lead easy and kept on running. He has mental issues when passing horses. That was also a fast time for a two-year old, 1:38 and change for a mile. Being four-wide around the turn he lost ground.”
The dust settled and Wise’s family went out to eat and Phil hung for a moment to speak with his buddy, Bill Kenney, explaining what happened in the race. He noted that Digger was four wide and that Fogie took him that wide because he had so much horse left, though Digger felt that running any harder was trivial. But Phil thought that four wide was four wide and that meant Digger traveled dozens of feet further than Roaring Lion, who beat Digger by ten feet. For every path a horse moves off the rail, he loses a forward length. If two horses are dead even, one on the rail and one in the four-path, the horse in the four-path could conceivably be three lengths ahead were he on the rail. That was behind him now.
Phil promptly wrapped up his conversation, since he and Sarah had a wedding to catch in New Jersey. They planned on leaving straight from the track in their nice clothes.
“I’ve never seen you dressed up before,” Kenney said.
“I’m a good lookin’ guy,” Phil replied. “Don’t go hittin’ on me!”