Groom Sean Coulthard seemed to be waiting in ambush, as he stood in barn 2, stall 18, rubbing down Exciting Story. He had something he wanted to share, and he didn't care with whom he shared it.
Coulthard, it seems, knew who was going to win the $750,000 Metropolitan Mile Handicap (gr. I), which was to be run in about 2 1/2 hours. "Here's the best bet of the day," he said emphatically to an unsuspecting passerby.
Now what does a Delaware Park groom know about winning the Met Mile, one of the most prestigious races in the country, especially when he'd never rubbed a stakes winner in his life? The shirtless Coulthard may not have known much about the Met Mile, or what it was like to win a stakes, but he sure knew the grizzly bear that was standing next to him trying to remove chunks of his flesh. In fact, he already sported a nasty welt on his abdomen where Exciting Story had nailed him earlier. But still he methodically rubbed the colt's chestnut hide as if he were polishing his new Lexus.
When he was informed how tough a race the Met Mile is, Coulthard didn't flinch. "This is a tough horse," he responded. "They don't come much tougher than him. He's an intimidating horse; he's got a ton of class; and he's already been to hell and back. Let me tell you, he's gonna run 'em down in the stretch today."
The hell Coulthard was referring to came during the running of the 1999 Grey Breeders' Cup (Can-I), when a horse clipped Exciting Story from behind, severing his tendon sheath on his left hind leg, causing a 6 1/2-inch laceration. Surgery was performed and the wound was disinfected, and for 30 days, trainer Mark Casse and owner Harry T. Mangurian Jr., who bred the colt at his Mockingbird Farm in Ocala, Fla., weren't sure he'd make it. The wound became infected again, and Exciting Story was forced to remain in his stall for the next five months. Despite the severity of the injury, he still managed to finish first in the Grey by 8 1/2 lengths, only to be disqualified.
He eventually made it back, but while finishing fourth in the Gravesend Handicap (gr. III) last Dec. 23, a horse clipped him in the exact same spot. He reinjured the leg, but made it back in 3 1/2 months.
It was during this time Coulthard looked after the horse, and when Casse sent him to Belmont for the Met, Coulthard came up from Delaware to take care of him. In his two starts this year, Exciting Story had finished second in the Jacques Cartier Stakes, then captured the Vigil Handicap (Can-III), both at Woodbine.
Casse entered him in the 1 1/16-mile Connaught Cup Stakes (Can-IIIT) on the turf May 26. But when it rained the night before, turning the Woodbine turf course very soft, Casse decided to scratch and take his shot in the Met Mile two days later. So, just like that, Exciting Story was loaded on a van at 8 p.m. that same night, arriving at Belmont at 7 a.m. the following morning, accompanied by traveling assistant Robert Goddard. On race day, the colt took a nap from noon until two, then woke up with mayhem on his mind. First he took it out on Coulthard, then he took it out on his nine opponents in the Met Mile.
The Met drew nine graded stakes winners, with Ogden Phipps' Traditionally, winner of the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. I), going off as the 9-5 favorite. A win by the son of Mr. Prospector would have given Pat Day his 8,000th career victory. Next at 7-2 was the rags-to-riches Peeping Tom. Others getting some play were Trippi and Left Bank, from the Todd Pletcher stable; Exchange Rate, trained by D. Wayne Lukas; and the California invader Blade Prospector. The longest shot in the field was Exciting Story at 56-1, despite the fact he had some excellent form in New York, having finished second in the 2000 Fall Highweight Handicap (gr. II) and third in the 1999 Hopeful Stakes (gr. I).
With the track still muddy from two days of rain and favoring speed, Trippi, Blade Prospector, Exchange Rate, and Left Bank all went for the lead, battling through fractions of :22.35, :45.13, and 1:10.55. Exciting Story, ridden by Patrick Husbands, was in good position in sixth, about seven lengths off the battling foursome. Around the far turn, Peeping Tom began his move from the back of the pack and cruised by Exciting Story, who also was launching his bid. Traditionally never got hold of the track, and would eventually wind up beating one horse.
As Peeping Tom charged up on the outside turning for home, Exciting Story was trapped behind a wall of horses. Husbands finally found an opening between the tiring Blade Prospector and Left Bank, and when he sent Exciting Story through, he set sail after Peeping Tom, who looked as if he had the Met Mile in his back pocket. But as he began to shorten stride, Exciting Story collared him from the inside and drew off to win by three-quarters of a length. The final time of 1:37.14 was the slowest Met since 1947.
With Casse remaining in Toronto, watching on television, Exciting Story was saddled by his Monmouth-Delaware-Fair Hill assistant Greg DeGannes, who embraced Coulthard after the race. "My hands are shaking," he said. "I've never saddled a grade I winner before."
Like Coulthard, DeGannes was amazed at how far Exciting Story had come. "With the help of a lot of people at Mockingbird Farm and tender loving care, this horse got back to the races, and that in itself we thought was a miracle," he said. "For him to win a grade I stakes like the Met Mile is unbelievable. This horse tries so hard; he literally drives himself to exhaustion. You should have heard how hard he was breathing coming back after the race. He was flat-out exhausted. You won't find a more battling, competitive horse. It doesn't matter if he's running on dirt, turf, broken glass, or burning bushes. The success of this horse this year is due in no small part to our Woodbine assistant Ricky Griffith, who did such a tremendous job caring for him. The horse is like his child."
Back at barn 2, Exciting Story took a roll on the grass outside the barn, as Coulthard looked on, still gloating. Why not? He had known it all along.
After grazing the son of Diablo for several minutes, Coulthard handed the lead shank over to Goddard. He then walked off, searching for some final words to describe the experience. "That," he said, "was an 'Exciting Story.' "Continued. . . .