Wednesday, December 25, 2013
In Memoriam: Summer Bird
On Christmas Day, the Internet is a lot like a Chinese restaurant: Open.
I woke, startled, at 7 AM not by reindeer, not by Santa, not by my snoring spouse, but by the stark realization that Carryover Clause needs to deliver a sleigh full of Christmas invective.
What’s this? Horse racing stands below the mistletoe. Let’s give it a wet smooch, especially to the memory of the too-young Summer Bird.
I joked, and perhaps it was in poor taste, but, hey, it’s kind of how I roll, that Summer Bird kicked it because he couldn’t stomach the idea of a Mine That Bird movie. But then even “stomach” was a tad insensitive since he died of colic, that horrible gastrointestinal disease.
Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes for Tim Ice, the oft-neglected trainer from 2009. Ice stood in the shadows at Saratoga while Steve Asmussen hosted daily powwows for Rachel Alexandra. Chip Woolley crutched around the grounds and paraded his Derby winner, Mine That Bird, on the track. Meanwhile, all the while, was Ice, prepping his strapping colt for the Haskell and Travers.
He finished a distant second to Rachel in the Haskell and he went on to validate Rachel’s win by kicking tail in the Travers. I remember watching the Travers with Charlie Hayward and Hal Handel. Handel said, “Summer Bird just won the Travers and Rachel Alexandra killed him in the Haskell. How good is Rachel Alexandra!?”
Summer Bird looked like Curlin: A tall, thick chestnut cut from a championship silk. Ice let him graze by the stakes barn while he sipped on an extra large cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, a cigarette blazing from his lips.
There was the hope, as is the hope every year, that the three winners of Triple Crown races will square off in the Travers. It almost never happens. Someone always gets hurt. That year Mine That Bird had surgery and Rachel wanted to play jail bait to the older horses.
It was a great meet where great horses carried with them the hopes of their previously anonymous handlers.
Summer Bird then handled older horses like Quality Road, Macho Again and Dry Martini. He finished a game fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to the Big Mare, lacking that cracking turn of foot in the final 200 yards to enter immortality or be relegated to history’s footnotes.
Summer Bird was born on April 7, 2006, a late-bloomer by Birdstone, out of Hong Kong Squall. He was in Japan when he came down with colic.
The Ghost of Christmas Past harbors the memories of our horses’ greatest achievements. We spend so much of our time beating down the present day. Much of it is deserved because there’s ineptitude that must bask in the light. T’is the season to do better, to be better.
Largely, where it matters, on the dirt, on the grass, where the Summer Birds of our time go to work, we’re left with the thrill of their violent collisions with the earth, propelling them forward, onward.