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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, June 11, 2023–“He walks tall,” uttered Kelly Dorman on national television following the running of the Metropolitan Handicap, a race inaugurated in 1891.

You know Kelly, Cody’s dad, who said he never knew courage until he had a son who walks “taller than anyone I know, and he doesn’t have legs.”                      

The words came after a new network audience heard all about making wishes a reality. It is horse racing’s best story because of a namesake and because Cody’s Wish is the Thoroughbred Racing Association’s top rated horse in all the land.

The young man is keeping “his” horse’s improbable dream alive. Cody was home in Kentucky watching Cody’s Wish win the most prestigious one-mile race in America, Belmont Park’s Met Mile, for his fourth consecutive Grade 1 triumph.

If it weren’t for the neck of a horse called Scalding, it would have been 10 straight victories for Cody, the horse, dating back to the fall of 2021. The saga of Cody’s Wish was only the beginning of a magical Saturday afternoon on Belmont Stakes day in New York.

On this day, Bill Mott had a Hall of Fame afternoon. Todd Pletcher had a Hall of Fame afternoon. Javier Castellano had a Hall of Fame afternoon. And Jena Antonucci might have earned her sport a spot in the International Women’s Hall of Fame.

Liz Hartel entered that pantheon in 1994 as an Equestrian, the discipline that introduced Antonucci to the world of Thoroughbreds. By crashing through the glass ceiling, she could be instrumental in raising horse racing to the next level.

Hall of Famer Bob Baffert won a three-year-old Grade 1 with Arabian Lion in the aptly named Woody Stephens, who won one for the thumb in 1986.

Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen won the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps with an indomitable mare named Clairiere.

Future Hall of Famers Brad Cox and Chad Brown were both represented, too, Cox with Caravel, a filly who has become an absolute turf-sprint star, winning her fifth straight–beating males for the second straight time.

It was also a day when Rick Dutrow, returning from an unjust decade’s banishment, was back in Grade 1 company with a near white four-year-old by way of Florida.

In a case of historical irony, Dutrow’s gain was Saffie Joseph Jr.’s loss. White Abarrio finished very well behind another flawless run by Cody’s Wish, losing a head-bobbing place photo to an equally willing and resolute Zandon.

Mott helped make ‘Cody’s’ tour de force happen, just as he engineered another victory by America’s leading sprinter, Elite Power, in his return to the U.S. following a huge victory in Saudi Arabia for his seventh straight after breaking maiden June 5, 2022.

Mott kept two horses in top form for years at a time. That is what the game is about, looking for the next Cigar, whatever everyone tethered to the Thoroughbred strives for.

Antonucci’s history-making Belmont victory notwithstanding, it was Todd Pletcher having another huge day in another huge spot, scoring a trifecta, taking the lid-lifting opener with a maiden breaker, the Poker with rebounding Emmanuel, and establishing turf stardom for Grade 1 Manhattan victor Up to the Mark.

And he nearly saved what might have been, were it not for Arcangelo and Jena Antonucci, a signature victory that would have eclipsed anything he’s accomplished in a storybook career.

With the possible exception of Michael Dickenson winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile with Da Hoss off a one-year absence, Forte delivered a winning run that fell a length and a half shy, narrowly besting come-again stablemate Tapit Trice, who still doesn’t corner well.

A victory by Forte that might have brought down the Belmont house, too.

But Arcangelo and Antonucci were there, thanks to a daring  mid-move, ground-saving race-ride by Castellano, who might have had to suffer slings and arrows of criticism for moving prematurely. Instead, it was a book-ending to this year’s series for Castellano as he completed a personal Triple Crown.

At a Belmont Stakes NTRA pre-race teleconference, Antonucci unwittingly showed an astute understanding of horsemanship:

When asked when she decided to jump off the fence and enter Arcangelo in the Belmont, she said “this morning after his work, he handled it perfectly, Javier was beaming.”

And so Antonucci did right by her horse right up to time of entry. She and her gray colt are now a huge part of Triple Crown lore, the cherry on top of racing’s greatest confection.

Then harsh reality injected itself, muting the celebration, an unfortunate happenstance that sadly is part of racing reality.

Excursionniste, the 13-horse in the 13th race, the final horse to enter the gate in the final race on Belmont day, went wrong leaving the backstretch and was euthanized on the racetrack.

Being on PETA’s speed dial is part of the baggage turf writers carry. The e-mail we received read in part:

“…We urged the New York Racing Association and New York State Gaming Commission to require a CT scan for all horses racing today…they refused. The racing industry is digging its own grave, as well as this horse’s.”

CT scans indeed are part of Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Alliance protocols going forward, indicative of preexisting conditions in racehorses.  Racing will continue to improve on progress already being made.

It’s taken a very long time but the game, given unified federal overnight, helps horsemen continue to focus on doing what’s best for the horse. Since 2009, the dark side of the business has gotten a little brighter, admittedly slower than anyone likes.

But fate’s finger always will be fickle, too often more unkind than not. No one embraces death, life’s final phase, but it is a destiny that is inevitable and inexorable to us all. Father Time is undefeated.

Alas, the world is an imperfect place demanding that we accept the bad as part of the price we pay for the good. The choice is to keep your head up and stand tall. We could all take a lesson from Cody Dorman.

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8 Responses

  1. It was a great day for racing, everything considered. For me to watch Castellano {in my opinion} out ride Ortiz was worth the price of admission. Not saying Ortiz’s ride was bad, he didn’t do anything extraordinary to help his horse win. The first thing that came to my mind was Pat Day and Easy Goer. Kind of a strange thought, but that’s my story and I am sticking to it.

  2. Pat Day was riding a beast that day and could have done whatever he wanted; Javier was on a real nice, peaking colt, and was a possible difference maker IMO–the same but different.

    As for Irad, he did engineer a second place finish, which might not have happened using different tactics, so there is that.

    1. Agree,
      I thought Javier won the race more than Irad lost it. Like your take on the Easy Goer race.A discussion for another time,but never understood why Cordero was never asked to ride Easy Goer.

  3. I had a thought.

    A million years ago, the NTRA ran those Go Baby Go commercials. They hired Lori Petty, who is a fine actress, to play the hip racing fan in those spots.

    Perhaps recreate the Go Baby Go campaign with the real live shots of not only Arcangelo winning the Belmont, but his trainer Jena Antonucci emotionally cheering her horse to victory. Watching her reaction is something that really tells the story of this beautiful game at a critical point in racing history .

    1. A women-in-racing national campaign is a good idea, we have plenty of good examples. But what’s needed is a campaign on Thoroughbred care, present and after-care, to inform the public of the good that’s done, the improvements made since 2009, and perhaps some comparison with injuries in other sports, including jockeys that have been permanently disabled. It is not pleasant but it it real: Athletes in all sports suffer injuries…

  4. Agree with everything you said. You have to eliminate this perception that the horses are treated as a commodity . I think Jena would fit nicely into a thirty second spot.

    Another nice spot would be something similar to that scene in Seabiscuit. Red Pollard is walking thru the barn, looking at horses that are treated better than he ever was, and says very poignantly
    “ I want to be a horse “

  5. I can relate to Pollard’s wishes–Only hoped that it wouldn’t be just the back end of the animal!

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