Even majesty has its slapstick moments. As Kalanisi prepared to head back to the grandstand, just heartbeats after his sterling victory in the $2,271,680 Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT), the mahogany colt found himself all alone, the center of the world's attention.
A shy type described by trainer Michael Stoute as "a little bit of a playboy," he took a quick glance left and spotted the six-furlong gap exit. For a transplanted European, it meant only one thing. That was the way home. A nifty side step later, jockey John Murtagh was planted on the Churchill Downs dirt, smiling up in bewilderment.
"He threw me off, yeah," chuckled Murtagh, suffering not a single scratch to his pride. "See, that shows how much he had left. I'll forgive him for it today."
And from now on, too. Under the Irish green and red silks of his breeder, the Aga Khan, Kalanisi laughed in the face of a snail's pace in the 17th running of the Turf, turning in a capital performance that has grass pundits already charting the arrival of a major superstar.
When Kalanisi came to Stoute's yard for his 2000 campaign, the trainer gave him a quick once-over and nodded his approval. He had it all--top-shelf breeding, a compact, sturdy frame, and solid class--enough for one to overlook the seemingly impish tendencies. Instead, Stoute played mental masseur for Kalanisi's youthful unsteadiness, gradually honing the colt into a well-balanced machine.
He had to be just that, for his first voyage to North America matched him against a star-studded cast, headlined by the great Montjeu. With triumphs in group-I jewels like the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Irish Derby, French Derby, and Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, Montjeu brought to Louisville the glossiest European résumé the Breeders' Cup had ever laid its eyes on. Had the Turf been staged in late summer, shortly after his condescending jaunt in Ascot's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes (Eng-I), nobody would have dared even show up.
But the son of Sadler's Wells had hit some major speed bumps of late. Back-to-back defeats--a new experience for the colt--sullied his reputation enough to leave many wondering whether the glory was finally starting to wither.
Montjeu had still shown some fire in Newmarket's 10-furlong Dubai Champion Stakes (Eng-I), his usual late rally falling just a half-length short. The one he couldn't get by that afternoon was Kalanisi. A 4-year-old son of Doyoun, Kalanisi had gotten rave reviews over the summer, when he twice went eye to eye with Giant's Causeway and lived to tell about it. The Champion Stakes was finally his moment in the sun.
"He really dug deep when Montjeu came at him at Newmarket," Stoute said the day before the Cup. "I think when they keep getting tough races, it can leave a scar, but the evidence with this fellow is that he's a real proper racehorse and he keeps coming back. He's a real man of a horse. He's tough."
But even Kalanisi drew doubt at Churchill Downs. It had been a grueling five-race campaign, according to his trainer, and the Turf would be contested at 1 1/2 miles. For Kalanisi, it would be the longest race he'd ever run in. Stoute and Murtagh were quietly concerned about the distance in public, but gushed confidence behind the scenes.
"The way he finished in the Champion Stakes over a mile and a quarter, at the end he was running pretty strong," Murtagh said later. "And I knew if I could be there at the furlong pole that he still would have a good turn of foot over this mile and a half trip."
When Kalanisi left with the one-hole and Montjeu the four after Wednesday's post position draw, assuring them likely traffic woes somewhere en route, the local squad got a bit of a boost. And they would need all the help they could muster.
Manndar--from the same crop of Aga Khan-bred Doyoun as Kalanisi--was king of the hill after a pair of convincing grade-I tallies in midsummer, but got knocked off his perch following a rough second to Chester House in the Arlington Million (gr. IT). A subsequent fever had kept him out of action since.
Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) winner Ciro, an upstart 3-year-old, was looking sharp and training even better for trainer Christophe Clement, but had never taken on the older generation. Godolphin's Fantastic Light had made a big splash in the Man o' War Stakes (gr. IT) in September but followed up with a dud in the Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT). Aly's Alley, Subtle Power, and Williams News all sported the look of longshots.
Down the Aisle, a 7-year-old whose litany of physical ailments was surpassed only by his sheer fire to win, was enjoying his finest year yet after wins in the United Nations (gr. IT) and Kentucky Cup Turf Handicaps.
"It's a huge thrill to watch him," confessed trainer Bill Mott, "just knowing all that he's overcome, and not only that but to see him rise to the best form of his career. 'Course we're asking him to do more this next trip than maybe he's ever been asked to do before."
It was John's Call, though, the ageless wonderhorse, who truly breathed new life into the 17th Turf. In the midst of a second childhood, the son of Lord At War had roared to life over the summer, steamrolling his competition in Saratoga's Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap (gr. IT) before shocking them again in the Turf Classic at Belmont. Owner Douglas Joyce wouldn't let fate pass by--"How often do you get a chance?" he said--and his $240,000 supplement gave John's Call a shot in the biggest ring of all. At nine, "Big John" would be the oldest horse ever to compete at the Breeders' Cup.
"Unbelievable, isn't it?" said John's Call's trainer, Tom Voss. "I can't explain it. Maybe I'm training him better, who knows? Doesn't seem right--the older he gets, the better he gets. That just doesn't seem to happen. I mean, he always gives 100%. He's doing so well; he's doing probably better now than he's done all year. He's scary."
It was a loaded field, to be sure, and positively wide open.
"I couldn't call the danger," said Alec Stewart, trainer of group-III winner Mutamam.
"The competition's very stiff. Very, very stiff," said trainer Mark Johnston, in town with the globe-trotting Fruits of Love. "I think we can say Montjeu stands out if he comes back to his best. But there's grave doubt whether Montjeu is back to his best."
So that was the lingering question. For $2,271,680--the Turf's richest pot ever thanks to Joyce's supplement of nearly a quarter-million large and additional penalty payments from the connections of both Montjeu and Subtle Power--everybody would find out the answer. But as the runners began to assemble into the gate on a calm Kentucky afternoon, the picture was still unfocused. Montjeu settled in as the favorite, but he was a shaky 3-1. Manndar and Kalanisi were next at about 9-2, followed by Ciro, John's Call, and Down the Aisle. Aside from Fantastic Light, who hovered near 12-1, the rest were riding on prayers.Continued. . . .