With the winds of change swirling hard around the South Florida racing scene, Gulfstream Park opened for its 2001 meet on Jan. 3 with its usual accompaniment of the top horses and outfits from across the East Coast and Midwest. Perhaps appropriately, with a wrecking ball due to demolish the plant once the meet concludes as part of a Magna Entertainment major reconstruction, and a war over racing dates in the offing, the results of a trio of opening week stakes were as likely as Frank Stronach joining Tim Smith for a friendly round of golf.
Just four months ago, Angel Camillo was a butcher in Colorado. But after capturing the opening day Spectacular Bid Stakes (gr. III) for newly minted 3-year-olds, nobody is likely to call him a butcher anymore.
Along with partner Diana Plummer, Camillo, a native New Yorker and former jockey, sold his Boulder meat market this summer and came to South Florida armed with a suitcase full of cash and dreams of making it in racing. He immediately caused a stir when, in a short span of time, he opened that suitcase to claim a stable of horses, one of whom was Icanseetherain.
Hauled in from a winning debut in late September for a modest $20,000, the Kentucky-bred son of Storm Boot followed the claim by running consistently, albeit without winning, in Calder allowance races. Justifiably, he was sent postward in the six-furlong Spectacular Bid at 48-1.
"But I knew we would win," said trainer Camillo. "He was the best-looking horse in the paddock and the most professional of the three that I shipped over from Calder this morning, even though he is the youngest of the group. The odds didn't say he had a chance, but fortunately horses can't read."
Facing a field that included some highly regarded young sprinters, Jose Santos, debuting aboard Camillo's charge, kept Icanseetherain in striking distance on the outside, within four lengths of the contested pace set by Tru Bull and Diablo's Choice. After a half-mile in :45.53, 7-5 favorite Tru Bull began a fade that would take him back to seventh place.
"I don't know what happened," said a puzzled Pat Day, who rode Tru Bull. "He just offered no resistance."
Diablo's Choice did offer resistance, yielding grudgingly, but was collared inside the final sixteenth by Icanseetherain, who won by a neck and was timed in 1:11.04. Slow-starting American Century rallied for third.
Asked about Icanseetherain's chances of stretching out--the Spectacular Bid was the first in Gulfstream's series of races for sophomore colts that culminates in the March 10 Florida Derby (gr. I)--the affable Camillo expressed the same level of confidence that one would expect of a man who, just months after trading in a cleaver for a bridle, was standing in the winner's circle after a graded stakes on Day 1 of a premier race meet.
"I think he'll run all day," he said.
Although he had been training horses at Gulfstream for 25 years, Leslie "Hoss" Weiner had never won a stakes race in Hallandale. Neither had Robert Irwin, an equally veteran trainer, nor owner James Orr Jr. All that changed in 1:33.69, the time it took their 6-year-old Associate to rally from well off the pace for a neck victory in the Appleton Handicap (gr. IIT) on Jan. 6.
"I said we were ready to roll," said Weiner, a festive Panama hat on his head and Associate's saddlecloth in his hand. "I had complete confidence in the way he was training for me. He had done everything right since I got him in November."
That was when Orr, upon the recommendation of his long-time friend and training guru Irwin, sent the horse from Irwin's barn at Hawthorne near Chicago to Weiner's in South Florida to compete in Calder's Tropical Turf Handicap (gr. IIIT) on Dec. 9. But an accident in his stall caused the Ontario-bred son of Shotiche to miss that race.
"He's been somewhat of a troubled horse," described Orr, the owner of a Kansas City-based service contract company, who purchased Associate as a juvenile at the Fair Grounds for a sum he would only say exceeded $100,000. "He was down here last year pointing for this race but came up with a leg injury and had to be laid up for six months."
Returning to the races in Chicago, the muscular bay showed some talent--a narrow win in a listed stakes followed by a third in the R.F. Carey Memorial Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Hawthorne in his last two starts--but it was uncertain whether he could handle a deep Appleton field that included defending champion Band Is Passing and the multiple stakes-winning gelding Delay of Game.
"I really wasn't sure if he could handle that caliber of horse," Weiner admitted. Nor was the crowd, who dismissed Associate at 36-1.
Underneath Jorge Chavez for the first time, Associate was content to glide along the hedge in mid-pack early, some nine lengths behind the suicidal pace duel of Honorable Pic and Stans Dream, each of whom had won a division of Calder's Pete Axthelm Handicap last month in front-running fashion. Band Is Passing sat the garden trip in third alongside Special Coach, with a large gap back to the other eight runners through a half-mile in :45.64.
Near the quarter pole, Band Is Passing passed the tiring speedsters with minimal effort and it appeared Stanley Ersoff's homebred would become a repeat winner, opening up a two-length lead in mid-stretch. But Chavez had angled the willing Associate off the hedge for a late run, and he got his neck in front within the shadow of the wire.
The win seemed a panacea for the ailments of Irwin, a 64-year-old "genius in taking care of horses' legs," according to Orr. In remission from prostate cancer and also caring for his wife, Lori, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, Irwin declined to bring a string of horses to South Florida this year for the first time in a decade.
"I ain't sick now," he beamed in the winner's circle. NOTES
After a stretch rally through traffic that would have made a Manhattan cab driver at rush hour proud, South African-bred mare Spook Express, ridden by Mike Smith, captured the Honey Fox Handicap (gr. IIIT) on Jan. 7. "A month ago, I would have been happy just to win the first at the Meadowlands," joked trainer Tom Skiffington, who, fresh from Prospectress' win in the Dec. 30 La Prevoyante Handicap (gr. IIT), is in the midst of an amazing run. Following a campaign as South Africa's champion distaffer in 1998, Spook Express was purchased privately by Janis and Robert Aron under the nom de course Kinloch Entrprises, and was winning her first North American stakes... With the first week of Gulfstream 2001 in the books, Eibar Coa found himself atop the jockey standings with nine winners, including a four-bagger on Jan. 5. "I've picked up some good mounts and caught some good breaks," he said. One "break" he is hoping to avoid is the type that derailed him last year: leading the standings after the first week, Coa fractured his collarbone in a spill and missed two months... On Calder's closing day, Jan. 2, Green Hills Farms' Voodoo Dancer captured the 8 1/2-furlong $100,000 Tropical Park Oaks on the turf. Trainer Christophe Clement indicated that Gulfstream's Herecomesthebride Stakes (gr. IIIT) on Jan. 21 may be the next start for the 3-year-old daughter of Kingmambo.