Every 12th year, according to the Chinese, a different animal takes over, and this is the Year of the Rabbit. Some might conjure up a magician's hat, or a lucky furry foot to attach your keys to, but my thoughts turned to Hedevar, perhaps the most famous thoroughbred ever to masquerade as a rabbit. There have been many, as far back as the first Kentucky Derby ever run, but Hedevar stands alone. He, more than Damascus, the horse the record books show, was responsible for half the four losses in the incomparable Dr. Fager's career.
Ron Hale, who writes historical pieces for the Daily Racing Form, pointed out to me that one of the first rabbits might have been Aristides, winner of the 1875 Kentucky Derby, possibly by mistake. The plan was for Aristides to soften up the other contenders, making way for the more capable Chesapeake's closing bid. But the devil was in the details, and Chesapeake finished eighth. I had never read the graphic footnotes in the chart of the race, but had they been written today, somebody on the copydesk probably would have said, "Get me rewrite." It was said that Chesapeake, "a vicious starter, was among the last to break. McCreery retired after a half-mile, as his owner expected, due to recent illness. . . Owner (H.P.) McGrath, standing near the head of the stretch, waved to jockey (Oliver) Lewis on the little red horse to go on because Chesapeake, supposedly the better of the McGrath horses, was far back and had no chance."
There is nothing illegal, not even unethical, about resorting to a rabbit. But when the strategy works, the winning horse seldom gets full credit. Damascus beating Dr. Fager sounds much better than Damascus/Hedevar beating Dr. Fager. In the 1984 Breeders' Cup Classic, the owners of Slew o' Gold seemed to have the best horse, who would go off at 3-5, but just in case they tossed the nondescript Mugatea into the fray, to make sure someone like Precisionist didn't steal the race. Mugatea kept Precisionist company for a fast opening half-mile, before finishing last in an eight-horse field. While Mugatea did his job, Slew o' Gold lost out to Wild Again in a slam-bang finish that also involved Gate Dancer.
In 1992, Loach was a rabbit who was bought by the owners of Strike the Gold, the 1991 Kentucky Derby winner. Loach was such an accomplished rabbit that he helped two horses in the same race, the Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park. Fly So Free, his camp intimidated by the 1-2 punch of Strike the Gold and Loach, was withdrawn, but when all was said and done, Pleasant Tap, who also had a late running style, was first and Strike the Gold second. "Sometimes they (rabbits) can help you, sometimes they help someone else," said Nick Zito, trainer of the two-horse entry.
In San Francisco, for the kickoff to the Year of the Rabbit, minds turned to revelry and thoughts of horses were in the outer recesses. The Chinese Zodiac has a Year of the Horse, which will be observed three years from now. You know, in 4712.