Tuesday, September 29, 2009
September Can Be the Cruelist Month
LOS ANGELES, September 29, 2009--One by one, almost day after day, they left us. El Prado. Summer Squall. Cryptoclearance. Kona Gold. T.S. Eliot isn't right all the time. April isn't always the cruelest month.
Three of them were past 20, and Kona Gold, victim of a paddock accident, was 15, but it's still a jolt to lose an iconic quartet such as this in less than a week's time. I never saw El Prado, a lightly campaigned Irish horse who became one of Frank Stronach's prize stallions, in a race, but I saw the other three run and often. It would be a coin flip to decide which one I liked the most. Only Kona Gold won an Eclipse Award, but all had the qualities of a champion.
Bruce Headley, who picked him out at an auction and trained him, was stymied by Kona Gold's bad knees until the gritty gelding reached the middle of his 4-year-old season. He ran for the first time at the end of May, and two months later, at Del Mar, a track he loved, he broke his maiden by 15 lengths. Headley never looked back, handling him with kid gloves all the way. At one point, Kona Gold was either first or second in 15 straight races. He never made more than six starts in any of the six years he was on the track.
By contrast, Cryptoclearance was a workhorse of the first order. His savvy trainer, the future Hall of Famer Scotty Schulhofer, bought him at a sale for $190,000, and together over four years they hammered out purses of $3.3 million. When Schulhofer had a good one, it was not his wont to leave the horse in the barn. Cryptoclearance's bane was to run his best races on days when very good horses were running better ones. Alysheba stayed on his feet to beat him in the Kentucky Derby. Alysheba duplicated that effort in the Preakness, and Bet Twice, running the race of his life, won the Belmont. Java Gold (Kona Gold's sire) outfinished Cryptoclearance in the slop at the Travers; Lost Code was on his game against Crypto at Oaklawn Park, and Easy Goer rose up in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Three times, with different jockeys, Schulhofer tried to win the Breeders' Cup Classic with Crypto, and they rolled three fifths before hoisting the white flag. The horses in front of him--Ferdinand, Alysheba, Seeking the Gold, Forty Niner, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer--were among the best of the decade. Some of Cryptoclearance's multi-talented get--Victory Gallop, Volponi--won the races that always escaped their sire.
In the fall of 1988, while Cryptoclearance was trying to win many of those races, Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stable was still trying to carve out a niche in racing syndications. Dogwood had bought five well-bred yearlings, and Campbell was offering 40 shares at $55,900 a parcel. Twenty-eight investors stepped up, some of them purchasing multiple shares, and in the final analysis only Summer Squall, a son of Storm Bird, mattered. One of the syndicators, Will Farish, allowed his private trainer, Neil Howard, to take over the colt, and after an undefeated 2-year-old season, Summer Squall and Unbridled began a recurring rivalry that is currently foreign to the game.
In six races they met, and while Summer Squall outran his rival four times, Unbridled won on the red-letter days, in the Kentucky Derby and at a Belmont Park Breeders' Cup when Summer Squall was unable to run. Summer Squall beat Unbridled in the Blue Grass and the Preakness, but he was a bleeder, and his New York appearances were restricted because the state hadn't legalized Lasix yet. Even at the Preakness, there were doubts that Summer Squall could beat the Derby winner. On the Thursday before the race, when asked by USA Today to give them the winner, I picked Summer Squall. But then the next day, after an early-morning gallop, Summer Squall bled all over the grazing area next to the stakes barn. My USA Today pick was already in the paper, so when the Baltimore Morning Sun came around, I flip-flopped in favor of Unbridled. Had anybody been paying attention, my passport to Pimlico would have been revoked. Summer Squall won by more than two lengths. Readers of USA Today hailed my acumen.
Like El Prado and Cryptoclearance, Summer Squall found his way to Kentucky as a stud. He was a ridgling, but still thrived at the Farish farm. One of his sons, Charismatic, won the Derby and the Preakness and was voted Horse of the Year. Kona Gold also made his way to Kentucky, to the Kentucky Horse Park, but in a roundabout way. For about four years, Bruce Headley kept him around his California barn as a stable pony. The last time I saw him was at Del Mar a couple of years ago. He still looked like he'd be good for a 1:08 and change if called upon.