In 1996, I took a buy-out offered by Newsday and went to Gulfstream Park that winter looking for work. During my stay, I became close to a trainer whom I had interviewed many times, one I’ve known since he was a groom.
We broke bread often that winter. I stopped by the barn several times a week to say hey, things like that. I never found work, nor did I make money through the windows, but it was a good learning experience nonetheless.
That summer, I got a freelance job as a handicapper with the Saratogian for that season’s race meet, and my South Florida buddy had a strong contender for the storied Travers.
The trainer decided to prep his horse in the Jim Dandy, an event that looked like a two-horse race on paper. I picked the other horse in the newspaper to win, my buddy’s horse second.
On the afternoon of the race, my wife and I went down to the paddock to get a closer look at the entrants and wish my friend luck. As we approached and made eye contact, the trainer literally turned his back, then began to walk away. My wife and I looked at each other; we were stunned.
I thought of that incident when I sat down Tuesday morning with a list of contenders for this week’s NTRA National poll. After I typed out and sent my top 10 choices off to Joan Lawrence, I hoped the scenario above wouldn’t play itself out again.
I’ve known H. James Bond since he came downstate from Finger Lakes. I like him a lot, he and his wife, Tina, both. I don’t visit his private barn over on Gridley as much as I used to, but that doesn’t mean I don’t root for the guy to do good.
Bond’s a terrific horseman who blends an old school work ethic with new age technology, always eager to embrace one cutting edge approach or another. He’s not the kind of person who waits for you to say hello first; he never “big-times” you the way some horsemen do.
Last week, I voted Bond’s Tizway #1 in the NTRA Poll. This week, I moved Harve De Grace up from third, over Blind Luck, who beat Harve de Grace in their most recent meeting, and over Bond’s Met Mile and Whitney winner.
Harve de Grace and Tizway was a winning quinella combination for most voters, Harve de Grace amassing 180 total point to Tizway’s 173.
Parenthetically, 42% of responders in a Paulick Report poll this week “voted” for Harve De Grace “at this point in the year.” In second with 23% was Blind Luck; Tizway attracted 12% of the “Horse of the Year” vote.
Back in third came Blind Luck with 159 points and three first-place votes in what amounted to a three-horse race for the top spot.
A distant fourth was Pacific Classic winner Acclamation with 113.
Friendship notwithstanding, this still was a difficult call. In the press box moments after the Woodward field passed the finish line, I said to no one in particular, “guess there’ll be a new number one in next week’s poll.”
To that one colleague responded “what would you rather have, a Met Mile-Whitney winner, or an Apple Blossom-Woodward winner?”
This was a good point. Both horses own two G1 victories, and each finished ahead of Flat Out in both Saratoga Grade 1s for older horses this past meet.
In the final analysis I split hairs by acknowledging that a filly beat males, something I hold in esteem, since it’s not usually done in American dirt racing.
And that I thought, too, that owner Rick Porter needed to be acknowledged for stepping up out of restricted company to put his filly smack into the middle of the 2011 Horse of the Year conversation.
What’s most interesting is that I believe Blind Luck is several inches better than Harve De Grace, and I’ll worry about whether either one can defeat Tizway at scaleweights at some later date.
My gut, at this moment in time, says no. But as Wayne Lukas has said, “people have opinions, horses have the facts.” Hopefully this all will be settled on the racetrack.
Tizway runs next in the Jockey Club Gold Cup as a bridge to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Harve De Grace runs next in the Beldame; Blind Luck in the Lady’s Secret. After that, who knows where each filly will land.
All upcoming races are a bridge to somewhere, a direction that will not become clear until after the results of the JCGC, Beldame, and Lady’s Secret are made official.
These are the Big Three right now. But Stay Thirsty and Acclamation are waiting in the wings, so all of it is subject to change. It’s why they run the races.
So, may the best horse win. I’m sure I’ll get no argument from “007” on that.