Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Timphony and Wild Again: Made for Each Other
LOS ANGELES, December 14, 2010--If Wild Again hadn't landed with a trainer like Vincent Timphony, Timphony would have landed with Wild Again. They were a match made in Utopia, this well-bred but wrong-side-of-the-tracks colt and a trainer who had spent a lifetime looking for the Big Horse. Together with their jockey, Pat Day, they pulled off one of racing's biggest upsets, one of racing's biggest betting coups, one fall afternoon at Hollywood Park 26 years ago. Wild Again, given no more than a fat chance of winning, won the first running of the Breeders' Cup Classic by an eyelash, sending Timphony, his trainer, and his other owners to a men's-room stall where they nervously divvied up what were reportedly hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs. A little later, this band of opportunists, who called themselves the Black Chip Stable, would be in Las Vegas, splitting up the rest of the windfall. With both hands, they had bet their horse on-track and off, the better to keep the price high and to make sure the ribbon clerks didn't turn into wiseguys overnight.
Wild Again's winning purse was $1.35 million, but that was said to be only the tip of the iceberg. I was reminded of this remarkable day when Eddie Donnelly called to say that the 76-year-old Timphony, the victim of a series of strokes, had died in a hospital just around the corner from Santa Anita. Donnelly, once a jockey, once a turf writer, and now a man of the cloth, had visited Timphony a couple of times during the trainer's final days. In one of his earlier incarnations, Donnelly had worked for a Dallas newspaper, and he and I, on different days, had visited Timphony at his Hollywood Park barn, to be told that Wild Again was going to beat Slew o' Gold, Gate Dancer, Desert Wine, Precisionist and a few others, and that we better get our money down. "Can you imagine a trainer saying that to a reporter?" Donnelly said. Well, I thought, better us than a ribbon clerk. When you think about it, how many of us could bet enough to punish the odds?
As the Breeders' Cup got closer, there was a matter of a $360,000 supplementary fee that the un-nominated Wild Again's owners would have to pay just to get their horse into the starting gate. When the check was written, their Rubicon crossed, Mickey Taylor, one of the owners of the favored Slew o' Gold, whistled in admiration and said: "All that money for a longshot who couldn't win at Bay Meadows--now that's what I call dead game."
I went to YouTube to watch the race again. While Wild Again, on the rail, and Slew o' Gold were battling furiously for the lead only a sixteenth of a mile before the wire, there was a ghostly presence emerging from the rest of the pack. That would be Gate Dancer, wearing a pointy set of white earmuffs that looked big enough to transport him to the moon. Besides Day, the other jockeys were Angel Cordero on Slew o' Gold and Laffit Pincay aboard Gate Dancer--a who's who of riding talent. Gate Dancer, once 19 lengths from the front, was not only gobbling up real estate, he was lugging in on Slew o' Gold, and in the chain reaction Wild Again was also feeling the pinch. Day kept his whip in his pocket all the way. The trio was separated by just over a half-length at the wire, Gate Dancer disqualified from second to third for not running in a straight line. There was an eight-minute review by the stewards, and a lengthy hearing the next day, before Wild Again's improbable win could be notarized.
Wild Again, second-longest price in the eight-horse field, paid $64.60 straight. Even with Slew o' Gold, at 3-5, moved up to second place, the $5 exacta was good for a healthy $514.50.Three months later, Timphony woke up in a sweat, muttering something about "They took down Gate Dancer."
His wife Scarlet (they later divorced) shook the incoherence out of him. "Let it go," she said. "They left your number up, that's the main thing."
"No, it wasn't," Timphony said. "I had $500 worth of tickets on the Wild Again-Gate Dancer exacta. They leave Gate Dancer's number up and I get about $300,000."
Like many Breeders' Cup-winning trainers, Timphony campaigned several stakes winners, but he never caught the brass ring again. He never had another Breeders' Cup starter. For the last several years, he was out of the game, but not out of sight. You could find him many mornings at Clockers' Corner at Santa Anita, kibitzing with horsemen. My wife Pat beats me at gin rummy all the time, and since I was told that Timphony invented the game, I sought him out. He told me he regularly went to Las Vegas for high-stakes tournaments, and won a big one once. In his native New Orleans (he was born just back of the Fair Grounds), he was known as both an intrepid gin player and a restaurateur. Scarlet Timphony, his former wife, told me that Vincenzo's, his restaurant in the suburbs, had a barbecued shrimp dish, the recipe for which he won in a gin game.
At 18, Timphony was working for Marion Van Berg, the Hall of Fame trainer, when he won another gin game, which netted him his first horse. Timphony took out his first trainer's license, won several races with the horse and bet him shrewdly. One day, he lost the horse on a claim. The truth be known, the trainer making the claim represented the Baton Rouge bookmaker whom Timphony had taken to the cleaners. It goes with the territory when you go racing in Louisiana.