Thursday, April 10, 2008
No Wayne. No Bob. No Todd, Too?
They'll run the 134th Kentucky Derby this year, come juleps or high water, but it will seem strange if the race doesn't have at least one horse trained by Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert or Todd Pletcher. The last time the Derby's been run without at least one of them was 1980, when Lukas was still a newcomer to thoroughbreds, when Baffert was in the quarter horse boonies, and when Pletcher was 12 years old.
Lukas started going to the Derby in 1981, and was a fixture for 20 years in a row until he first stayed home in 2001. Baffert's first Derby appearance came in 1996, and since then he's missed only two years, 2004 and 2007. Pletcher, one-time Lukas assistant, arrived at Churchill Downs (with four Derby starters) in 2000, and but for 2003 he's had at least one and as many as five Derby contenders. Since 1981, these three trainers have saddled 21% of the Derby fields (and if you wanted to count Nick Zito, it would be 26%). A Derby sans Lukas-Baffert-Pletcher is man bites dog.
From 1988, when Lukas won his first Derby with Winning Colors, through 2002, when Baffert won with the just-purchased War Emblem, the two of them accounted for seven of the 15 Derby winners, four by Wayne and three by Bob. You might recall that Lukas' Proud Citizen ran second to War Emblem, but since then neither of them has finished higher than eighth. Lukas' Derby appearances are now rare, and in 2008 Baffert is missing the Derby in successive years for the first time since his baptism in 1996. Not coincidentally, their gradual Derby comedown is related to the deaths of some of their major patrons (Gene Klein, Bill Young of Overbrook Farm, Bob Lewis and Ahmed bin Salman, the prince from Saudi Arabia). Finding replacements for deep-pocketed horsemen such as those is a mean task, even for trainers with the promotional skills of Lukas and Baffert.
From the beginning this year, neither Lukas, who hasn't had a Derby horse since 2005, nor Baffert was in the hunt. Of the 105 male 2-year-olds that were weighted on the 2007 Experimental Free Handicap, only two were trained by Baffert and one by Lukas. Early on, though, the numbers were with Pletcher. Seven of his horses earned spots on the Experimental; in January, he nominated 31 horses for the Triple Crown, and since then that list has swelled to 34.
But with the dawning of Saturday, the day they run the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, Pletcher is down to two, perhaps three, Derby candidates, and their prospects are bleak. He is not represented in Arkansas, and at Keeneland his two starters, Monba and Cowboy Cal, are both 15-1 on the morning line. By the Daily Racing Form's reckoning, Cowboy Cal is 32nd and Monba is 34th on the Derby money list, should more than 20 seek to run. Another Pletcher horse, Atoned, is 21st on the list, but he has run out of pre-Derby earnings opportunities, and is likely to be passed by horses who win or hit the board in the remaining preps. Pletcher, winless in the Derby, has finished second twice and third once with his 19 starters.
A Derby without Pletcher, Baffert and Lukas is testimony that nothing is forever. It shores up the reality of how tough it is just to field a starter in the race. Several years ago, when Baffert was either winning Derbies or coming awfully close, he walked down the shedrow at Del Mar and introduced me to four highly promising 2-year-olds. "These are my Derby horses," he said. "That oughta be enough, shouldn't it?"
I hemmed and hawed over the question, but what I didn't say was yes. The Derby that Baffert was talking about was about nine months off, and as the poet said, There's many a slip twixt Del Mar and Louisville. Look at Pletcher. This year, dozens of hopefuls apparently aren't going to be enough to get him in the race.
Long before that Baffert barn tour, Zito won a Derby in 1991, with Strike the Gold, and another in 1994 with Go for Gin. Twenty-four hours after Go for Gin's win, Zito broke bread with a few of us at a downtown Louisville restaurant. "Winning one of these every three years," he mused. "That wouldn't be too bad, would it?"
The devalued War Pass, caught with his two-turn pedigree showing, and Cool Coal Man, running in the Blue Grass, are Zito's Derby hopes this time. From 1994 to 2008 is a long time, but every 14 years still wouldn't be too bad, would it, Nick?
Written by Bill Christine
Thursday, April 03, 2008
National Velvet, It Ain’t
Update: Comply or Die, the co-favorite at 7-1, won the 2008 Grand National on April 5. Cloudy Lane, also 7-1, finished sixth. Fifteen of the 40 starters completed the course.
The closest I've come to watching Liverpool's Grand National steeplechase race was getting a tour of the layout from the course superintendent several years ago. In his black SUV, he took my wife Pat, her sister Margaret and me around the entire four miles, 856 yards. Pat and Margaret grew up in Liverpool. We stopped at each of the 16 jumps for a brief history lesson. "Diabolical, aren't they?" our host said when we got to the hurdle known as Becher's (pronounced beecher's) Brook. When we were finished, he pointed to an old barn. "That's where Rummie went for his dope tests," he said.
"Rummie" was Red Rum, who for most of his 30 years was John Henry squared in England. After winning the Grand National three times (the last at age 10 in 1975), and finishing second in the marathon twice, Red Rum became the most beloved horse in the land. There were Red Rum Christmas cards, Red Rum jigsaw puzzles, Red Rum commemorative plates, Red Rum beer mugs, and they even had supermarket openings with Red Rum making personal appearances. Like John Henry, Red Rum's career started modestly, in cheap sprint races that he didn't always win. Ginger McCain, a Liverpool used-car dealer and taxi driver who also trained horses, bought him for his client, Noel Le Mare, for $12,000. In an equine version of "Chariots of Fire," McCain trained Red Rum on the beaches of neighboring Southport, and swam him in salt waters that led to the Irish Sea. Trips to Lourdes wouldn't have been more therapeutic.
By the way: Ginger McCain, like Johnny Cash's boy named Sue, is a guy. On Saturday, his son, Donald McCain Jr., will run the favorite, Cloudy Lane, at ancient Aintree, where many in the 40-horse field will carry 140 pounds or more as they vie for a purse of about $1.6 million. By one account, this will be the 160th running of the Grand National. This is a fact that's hard to pin down. The first three runnings, in 1836-38, evidently don't count, because they didn't come at Aintree. During World War I, the race was moved to a course that's since become the Gatwick Airport. When Hitler got in the way, the Grand National wasn't run at all.
Typically, most of the horses in the Grand National don't reach the finish line. Becher's Brook, almost five feet in height, buttressed by shrubbery as thorny as barbed wire, has a six-foot-wide pond waiting on the other side. All the jumps are unforgiving, and the field must negotiate 30 of them. They go around the course twice, crossing a country road at one point and coming back. The lone concession by Aintree is that the horses are asked to clear Becher's Brook and the more formidable obstacle, called The Chair, only once. The winning time will be something like nine minutes, and change.
A number of years ago, I interviewed the Welsh-born Dick Francis, who was a steeplechase jockey before he took to the quill. I tried to get him to say that word, "diabolical." Fat chance. He didn't call the queen "my aunt," either.
"The horses love this race," Francis said. "If you have a good, bold horse under you, you don't have to worry about him making the jumps."
In 1956, Francis was astride Devon Loch, a horse owned by Queen Elizabeth II's mother, in the Grand National. Fifty yards from home, Francis thought he was a sure winner, but all four of the 10-year-old gelding's legs went out from under him, and he landed on his belly. Their rivals galloped past while Francis tried in vain to get Devon Loch back into the race.
"There was such a clap of noise at that point in the race," Francis said. "I've never heard such a noise in my life. If there were 250,000 people there, I would say that 249,999 of them were rooting for the Queen Mother's horse to win. The horse had pricked his ears, and then that noise must have hit him. That is the only way I have ever been able to explain what happened."
Before the race, Francis had in his mind that if he were presented to the Queen Mother, he would bow and say, simply, "Thank you, mum."
After the race, the uninjured Devon Loch was led away and Francis was taken to the royal box.
"What happened out there?" the Queen Mother politely asked.
"Thank you, mum," Francis said.
Animal rights activists have protested at Aintree, and the Irish Republican Army has been said to threaten bombing the place. They start the horses the old-fashioned way, from a tape stretched across the track, and in 1993 there was a false start, only 30 of the 39 jockeys didn't know it. The first time around, officials and trainers tried to wave off the field, but the riders thought they were protesters and continued riding. For the first time ever, the Grand National was declared no contest.
Four years later, a bomb scare forced Aintree officials to postpone the race. They ran it without incident 48 hours later, but local hotels had run out of rooms by then. Gregory Peck, who had finished third with a horse named Different Class in 1968, was an honored guest who was left without lodging. A Liverpool family offered him their spare bedroom, and that's where the movie star spent the two intervening nights.
Eddie Harty, who rode Highland Wedding to victory in the 1969 Grand National, is the father of Eoin Harty, who trains Colonel John, probable favorite in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby. Years later, Eddie Harty told Sports Illustrated that he drank a "Liverpool cocktail" before the race. That libation, Harty explained, was half orange juice, half champagne, with a healthy jigger of glucose. Highland Wedding may have passed his dope test, but I wonder whether Harty would have.
Red Rum, who died in 1995, was buried at the finish line at Aintree. "Respect this place, this hallowed ground," reads the marker. "A legend here, his rest has found. His feet would fly, our spirits soar, he earned our love, forevermore."
Written by Bill Christine
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Putting War Pass' swan dive in Florida in perspective, Jon White, writing for XpressBet.com, has entertainingly catalogued the 20 biggest flops in Kentucky Derby prep races in the last 40 years.
War Pass' el foldo ranks fourth on White's list, behind Secretariat's defeat in the 1973 Wood Memorial; Devil's Bag's loss in the 1984 Flamingo; and the upset of Foolish Pleasure in the 1975 Florida Derby. I've never taken on such a task, but if I did, I can't say that my top three would be any different. It's interesting that the trainers of all three of those horses won the Derby in those years. Secretariat and Foolish Pleasure rebounded to take the roses, and Woody Stephens, the trainer of Devil's Bag, still triumphed at Churchill Downs with his so-called second-stringer, Swale. For Stephens, that was a heaping portion of deja vu. In 1974, he won the Derby with Cannonade, at the expense of Judger, the Blue Grass winner and supposedly the stronger half of the Stephens entry.
Stephens was not known for going trackside after one of his horses lost, so after Devil's Bag, at 30 cents on the dollar, ran fourth as Time for a Change won the Flamingo, I hustled toward the trainer's favorite Hialeah bar. The bartender there said that the Woodman had thrown back a couple of Scotches and left.
Next I repaired to the test barn. "Why would Mr. Stephens be here?" one of the guys at the barn said. "Devil's Bag isn't here."
A 3-10 shot, the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, loses for the first time, and he's not being detained for a drug test? That prompted a call on Monday, two days after the race, to the Florida racing commission.
"It's a budget consideration," someone at the commission said. It was the wrong answer to the right question.
"All these tests are expensive," he went on. "We've got all these greyhounds in Florida to test, and it runs up the bill."
So Devil's Bag wasn't tested because Florida runs too many dog races. Ten years later, in the Kentucky Derby, in a state where there's no dog racing, the stewards at Churchill Downs made the same mistake. Holy Bull, the 2-1 favorite, beat only two horses and neither urine nor blood samples were taken. A year after the race, Jimmy Croll, Holy Bull's trainer, told me that he'd never be convinced that somebody didn't meddle with his colt in the days leading up to the race. Under the trainer-insurer rule, a bad test would have been bad news for Croll, but he said he would have welcomed a test, anyway.
Secretariat's loss in the Wood--he finished third, behind his stablemate, Angle Light, and Sham--came after trainer Lucien Laurin, without telling anybody, ran the colt despite an abscess about the size of a quarter in his mouth (whether War Pass had a fever a few days before the Tampa Bay Derby was child's play compared to this). Laurin, a former jockey who was typically short, was standing in a downstairs box at Aqueduct and couldn't discern the finish after the horses hit the wire. Penny Chenery (Tweedy then), the owner of Secretariat, was standing next to him.
"Who won it?" Laurin said.
"You won it," said Chenery, somewhat derisively.
Laurin seemed confused. He had seen Secretariat struggling through the stretch before he lost sight of all the horses.
"Angle Light won it," said Bill Nack, a reporter who was nearby.
"Angle Light?" Laurin said. Angle Light's owner, Edwin Whittaker, was, like Laurin, a Canadian, but Secretariat had already been syndicated as a stallion for more than $6 million. Laurin was going to Kentucky with the wrong wind at his sails.
Written by Bill Christine