Sultan of Saratoga: Remembering Fourstardave

Sultan of Saratoga: Remembering Fourstardave
Photo: Barbara D. Livingston
Opening Day at Saratoga rekindles memories of local legend.
(Published in the July 23, 2005 issue of The Blood-Horse)
It was Aug. 28, 1987, and the Saratoga meet was winding down. A week earlier, Java Gold had captured a memorable running of the Travers Stakes (gr. I), in which he defeated classic winners Alysheba and Bet Twice, as well as Cryptoclearance, Gulch, and Polish Navy.

With the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) scheduled for the following day, not much attention was paid to the six-furlong Empire Stakes for New York-bred 2-year-olds. And hardly anyone took notice when Randy Romero brought home the 2-1 second choice, Fourstardave, who was coming off a six-length defeat to the Kentucky-bred Endurance in an open-company allowance race at Belmont.

What no one had any way of knowing, however, was that this six-furlong race for New York-breds would have a far greater impact on the Sport of Kings and Saratoga than both the Travers and the Hopeful. It was here, in the appropriately named Empire Stakes, that racing fans witnessed the birth of a king.

For almost a decade, Fourstardave ruled over Saratoga like no horse before him. Nicknamed the "Sultan of Saratoga," the gelded son of Compliance --Broadway Joan, by Bold Arian, won at least one race at the historic Spa for eight consecutive years.

Parties and fundraisers were thrown in his honor. A street in Saratoga was named after him. "Fourstardave" T-shirts and caps were a hot commodity at souvenir stands up and down Union Avenue. Saratoga Springs held a "Fourstardave Day" and presented the horse with the key to the city. The horse was featured on CBS and other major TV news and sports shows. He was even paraded in the resort town of Lake George, some 30 miles north of Saratoga.

Each year his trainer, Leo O'Brien, would walk "Dave" to the Canfield Casino in Congress Park for the annual Fourstardave Party to raise money for the Belmont Child Care Association.

Bred and owned by Richard Bomze, Fourstardave won 21 races from 100 career starts, with 18 seconds and 16 thirds, for earnings of $1,636,737. But it was on the turf that he excelled, winning 15 races and almost $1 million.

Although he captured 13 stakes in his career and placed in 23 others, he gained his fame at Saratoga, where each victory added to his popularity. As he grew older and extended his consecutive-win record, he became a folk hero, as fans at the Spa cheered wildly each time he set foot on the racetrack.

He would win six stakes at Saratoga, in five consecutive years, while placing in four others, including victories in the 1990 and '91 Daryl's Joy Stakes (gr. IIIT). He also was second to two-time Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) winner Lure in the '93 Daryl's Joy and third behind Lure and eventual champion grass male Paradise Creek in the '94 Bernard Baruch Handicap (gr. IIT), a race his connections believe he would have won had he not stepped in a hole and fractured his ankle while in front turning for home.

It was only appropriate that the Daryl's Joy was changed to the Fourstardave in 1996, eventually growing to grade II status.

"I was so proud when they named a race after him," Bomze said. "Dave spoiled me as an owner. I've remained in the game ever since, and I've never lost the desire and excitement for the sport. But Dave was just so different from other horses. Every time he went out there you knew he was going to give everything he had, and that you probably were going to pick up a check. There was so much excitement, with everyone wishing you luck and stopping by the barn to see the horse.

"I'll never forget Tom Durkin's calls of Dave's races as he was breaking his own record year after year. Everyone was rooting for him, and Tom's calls would bring the crowd to a crescendo. I would go to Saratoga and look up in the stands and tell my wife, 'You know something, honey, there are a few thousand people here who have a heck of a lot more money than I do, but, boy, they'd give their right arm to have a horse like we've got.' "

Bomze and O'Brien said their biggest disappointment was when Dave finished first in the 1993 West Point Handicap, only to be disqualified and placed fifth.

"He went to his knees at the start and nearly fell," Bomze recalled. "He picked himself up and won the race. I couldn't believe it when they disqualified him. That was a horrible call; I just stood there dumbfounded for half an hour after the race. He floated out slightly into the fourth-place finisher who was already tiring, and (jockey) Richie Migliore was livid when they took him down, as was the crowd."

Fourstardave relished his place on the throne and all the idolatry that went with it. "He loved to pose for the camera," Bomze said. "Whenever he saw one he'd start to prance around."

O'Brien said that although Dave was a hyper horse, he was fantastic to be around. "He knew my voice," he said. "When I came back to the barn every night to check on the horses, as soon as he heard me speak he'd run to the front of the stall and whinny like crazy."

While the New York circuit was Dave's domain, he still managed to win or finish on the board at Laurel, Finger Lakes, Monmouth, Meadowlands, Rockingham Park, Philadelphia Park, Calder, and Canterbury Downs.

It was at the last-named track that Fourstardave first gained national prominence by upsetting the grade II St. Paul Derby at odds of 21-1. "That was a big thrill," O'Brien said. "It was his first graded win and it was on the dirt. It wasn't until I put him on the grass that he said the hell with the dirt."

While Dave's popularity was beginning to grow in the early '90s, his full-brother, Fourstars Allstar, became an international star when he won the 1991 Airlie Coolmore Irish Two Thousand Guineas (Ire-I), becoming the first American-trained horse in history to win a European classic.

At the end of each racing season, Dave, along with Fourstars Allstar and Austin Delaney's Irish Linnet, winner of five consecutive runnings of the Yaddo Stakes at Saratoga, were sent to Dr. Leslie Hagan's Country Road Farm near Ocala, Fla., to "live the life of Reilly for two and a half months," as O'Brien put it. They then were sent to Tony Everard's Another Episode Farm to be put back in training before being shipped up to O'Brien.

Following his ankle fracture in the Bernard Baruch, Fourstardave was brought back for his 10-year-old season. Saratoga was abuzz when Dave hit town, even though he had failed to finish in the money in his first three starts at Belmont Park. Still, they flocked to the Spa, wearing their familiar Fourstardave T-shirts and caps to see if their hero could extend his Saratoga winning streak to nine seasons. Sadly, the old horse was never the same after his injury, and in three appearances at Saratoga he could manage only a fourth and two fifths.

It was decided after the Saratoga meet to retire Dave to Everard's farm. "Richie was considering sending him to the Kentucky Horse Park, but Dave hated cold weather," O'Brien said. "He couldn't stand it. Anything above 90 degrees and he was in heaven."

Dave seemed to enjoy his new life, but missed the competition. At the age of 12 he competed at the High Hope Steeplechase in Kentucky in an amateur event for charity, and finished second. "They raised more money that year than any prior year," Bomze said.

In 2002, Bomze agreed to have Dave, then 17, lead the post parade of retired New York-breds on New York Showcase Day at Belmont in an effort to help the New York State breeding program. The horse was sent to O'Brien at Belmont for some light training to unwind. On the morning of Oct. 14, O'Brien's son, Keith, who had been Dave's regular exercise rider, mounted the old gelding and took him to the training track for a trot the wrong way. He said he could feel the horse's heart thumping over and over.

"He just turned around and died of a heart attack," Bomze said. "I remember clearly Leo calling me up and saying, 'Fourstardave is dead.' At first, I refused to believe him, but Leo wasn't the type to kid around. Looking back, I guess I made a mistake. I should have left him at Tony's farm. He was the boss of all the young mares and the fillies and colts. He had a great life there.

"But I thought, at 17, he was still young enough to handle it. I think his death typified what kind of heart and competitiveness he had. Just getting on the track and thinking about running proved too much for him. He was a gladiator. We buried him in Clare Court on the Saratoga backstretch."

His epitaph could have consisted of only a few Shakespearean words: "Ay, every inch a king."

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