Tuesday, March 22, 2011
A Woolf Winner Who’d Like To Copy Borel
LOS ANGELES, March 22, 2011--A broken, black-and-blue John Shear was in a Pasadena hospital bed, missing his first George Woolf day at Santa Anita in an eon. There was a Daily Racing Form on his bed, but the pages Shear flipped were from his memory book as he went back to the days of old Lansdowne Park near Vancouver, sometime in the 1950s. They tell me that Lansdowne is a large shopping mall now. Shear had come from his native England, hat in hand, and was galloping horses there for a modest six-horse stable that also employed another exercise rider, a groom and a hotwalker. They could have met for lunch in a phone booth.
The trainer of this vast outfit was taking his stock to Southern California, but the trouble was, he could only afford three of his four hired hands. They cut cards, in one of the first episodes of "Survivor," and Shear drew a high card.
Over at Santa Anita, as Garrett Gomez was honored as this year's Woolf Award winner, some of the former winners showed up. I couldn't wait to tell one of them about Cross.
"That's funny," Eddie Delahoussaye said. "David must have just been a kid." In 1983, when Cross trained Sunny's Halo, Delahoussaye rode the colt to victory in the Kentucky Derby. The year before, Delahoussaye had won the Derby with Gato Del Sol. In the 136 years of the Derby, only five riders (Isaac Murphy, Jimmy Winkfield, Ron Turcotte, Delahoussaye and Calvin Borel) have won the race in successive years.
Borel was last year's Woolf winner, and less than two months later he won the Derby with Super Saver, giving him a stupefying three Derby wins in the last four years. Gomez can only hope that the George Woolf luster might also carry him to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. He is 0 for 7 in the Derby. Hall of Fame jockeys have done worse. Laffit Pincay was 0 for 10 when he finally won a Derby; he rode in 10 more and never won it again. Pat Day was 0 for 9 at the time of his first Derby win. Make that his only Derby win; he went 0 for 12 to round out his career. John Velazquez, who could be enshrined this year, is 0 for 12 in the Derby, and with Uncle Mo probably can't wait for this year's running to get here.
On one hand, Gomez' best chance in the Derby came last year with Lookin At Lucky. On the other hand, he had no chance at all when the colt drew the inside post position, which is hemlock in a 20-horse field. Lookin At Lucky won the Preakness, and was still voted the best of his generation at Eclipse Awards time.
The day before Woolf day, Gomez had gone to Oaklawn Park to ride Sway Away, who for five minutes was the wise-guy horse to win this year's Derby. Sway Away was atop the 3-year-old ratings of HRTV's Jon White; he was seventh according to the Racing Form; and he went off at 19-10 in the Rebel, even though he had only beaten maidens in three starts. His reputation rested on a pair of late-running seconds against some good horses in Grade 2 stakes.
The Factor had beaten Sway Away by only three parts of a length in a sprint at Santa Anita, and now Sway Away had gone all the way to Arkansas to face The Factor again. In the first two-turn race for both horses, The Factor led all the way to win by more than six lengths; Sway Away finished sixth, about nine lengths back of the winner. Sway Away now has an earnings problem if he hopes to qualify for the Derby field.
After Woolf day ended, Gomez and many of the other jockeys went over to The Derby restaurant for a reception. Outside The Derby is a lawn statue of a jockey which is entitled, "George Woolf, Founder." Woolf's widow sold the place in 1952; her husband died from injuries suffered in a spill at the track six years before.
Ron Anderson, Gomez' agent, was there. I asked him about Sway Away's race in Arkansas. "He gave Garrett absolutely nothing," Anderson said. "A very strange effort. Oaklawn is ridiculously speed-favoring. Horses on the lead have won 58 per cent of all the races there this season. So the track was against our horse, and made to order for (The Factor)."
Another of Gomez' Derby possibilities is To Honor and Serve, whom he'll ride for the first time in the Florida Derby on April 3. To Honor and Serve will have to make up almost seven lengths on Soldat if he's to win that race. Fortunately for all the horses who make it to Louisville, winning a final prep race isn't a pre-requisite for winning the Kentucky Derby. Since 2003, only three of the eight Derby winners--Smarty Jones, Barbaro and Big Brown--won their final prep.
At The Derby, stories persist that George Woolf's ghost haunts the restaurant. As I looked over at the beaming Woolf Award winner, surrounded by his wife Pam, their children and other relatives, I thought of cornering the ghost and introducing him to Gomez. A lot of good that would do Gomez in Louisville. George Woolf never won the Derby, either.