Tuesday, July 12, 2011
The Beat of the Millennium
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, July 11, 2011--One of my favorite racetrack moments ever came on March 7, 1986 in South Florida. Hialeah Park was still glorious then and only beginning its spiral downward. But not on this day.
This was a day when the game was all it can be. Toni Pricci and I were on vacation, and I said we must go to Hialeah today because you must see this horse live and up close.
If he weren’t the most charismatic horse I had ever seen, he was pretty damn close. And I was around such cracks as Secretariat and Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Alydar, Spectacular Bid and Ruffian, too.
Memory, especially as the teeth lengthen, is a fading thing but the mind’s eye sees Turkoman as the biggest and baddest of them all. I promised Toni she would see something remarkable and so we were off to Hialeah.
Turkoman certainly had the bloodlines; as he called Alydar daddy, and if you went back a few generations, there was Polynesian, Princequillo, Nasrullah twice, and all the rest.
March 7 was the day of the Tallahassee Handicap and Turkoman was making his 4-year-old-debut. The six furlong sprint was intended as a prep for the important Widener and Oaklawn Handicaps to follow.
The Tallahassee was nowhere near his best distance, but he had to start somewhere. Eight horses were set to line up against him including an extremely fast flyer named Beveled, trained by a youthful Steve Young, now a bloodstock agent and adviser.
Not many horses, certainly none in this field, could stay with Beveled sprinting, and I wasn’t alone in that assessment; Beveled was a strong 5-2 second choice.
Turkoman didn’t disappoint, maybe even looking bigger and badder than I remembered. Toni was suitably impressed, too, but not be his size. Rather, it was his pre-race act, a routine that seemed as if it had to be rehearsed.
At what must have been 20 minutes to post time, six or seven minutes before making a few circuits of the walking ring, Turkoman, already tacked up, left his stall on the grandstand side and began walking toward us.
As soon as he reached the last stall, Turkoman stopped of his own accord, stood regally, then returned to his own stall--stopping in front of every slip along the way to send the equine message that he was the man among boys.
That really happened; maybe not in front of every stall but four of five of them, anyway. It really wasn’t his size that either of us remember; it was his bearing, the prideful manner in which he held his head: high so that all the world might see.
The Tallahassee field broke from the gate and Beveled immediately went to the lead from his inside post, quickly opened a clear advantage of 2, maybe 3 lengths. He was well within himself down the backstretch but the fractions as I remember were fast.
Even with the hot pace, there was no way Turkoman could win; no way to come from that far back even if the whole field feinted in his path.
Turkoman had to be--had to be--nearly 20 lengths behind as Beveled took the field to the middle of the far turn; Turkoman was just leaving the half-mile pole and entering the bend. It was like two separate races.
By the time Beveled reached headstretch, he was still clear of the field with no evidence of tiring. By this time Turkoman was underway from the middle of the far turn, moving like a tremendous machine, as they say.
There was no way Turkoman could win from there, but certainly would make that patented late charge and at least make it exciting. Beveled never stopped, but then neither did Turkoman stop rallying.
The momentum carried the big horse way out to the middle of the track and, after straightening away, he flew through the stretch with ground-gobbling strides. Not only did he do the impossible; win, but did so by 2-¾ widening lengths.
Turkoman went on to win the Widener and Oaklawn Handicaps, beating Preakness winner Gate Dancer on each occasion. After beating the great Precisionist in that year’s Marlboro Cup, he was voted champion older male.
I recall this because on Saturday a filly named Sassy Image took me back to thoughts of Turkoman, winning the Grade 1 Princess Rooney at Calder Race Course, about 20 miles to the north and west of Hialeah Park.
Badly outrun after breaking slowly, Sassy Image was only nine lengths behind but last of 10 while racing very wide into the Calder stretch, only a quarter-mile from home.
There was no chance--no chance--she could catch Musical Romance, the 7-1 fourth choice and a surface lover in the midst of a great ride from regular partner Juan Leyva.
Leyva ran up behind the speedsters who had set meltdown fractions, steadied slightly awaiting room, found a seam, surged into the breach, emerged with a two length lead with a sixteenth left to run and, like Beveled, she never stopped running.
But, like Turkoman, Sassy Image never stopped finishing, nailing Musical Romance by a neck right on the line.
I also bring this up because I was alive in the 50-Cent Pick 5--with its attractive 12% takeout and carryover provision--to Musical Romance on a $24 ticket. The explosive, impossible rally of Sassy Image cost me $5,400, less withholding.
I gladly would have grumbled all the way to the IRS window. Toni and I went out to dinner that night, anyway. As I remember, more cocktails than victuals were consumed.