Though it is always there, shrouding the grounds like the thick Miami springtime humidity, history is never more omnipresent at Hialeah Park than on the day of the Flamingo Stakes (gr. III). The track proudly displayed the epic runs of heroes of old such as Nashua, Northern Dancer, and Spectacular Bid--the last Flamingo winner, in 1979, to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I)--and trotted out Citation's trainer Jimmy Jones to adoring fans. However, the focus on the 2001 edition, held April 7, was on Hialeah's future.
For the track is conducting its 2001 meet under the expectation it may be the last. Local competitors Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course have filed for 2002 live racing under state deregulation that would leave the historic track few unopposed dates.
"This is a bittersweet moment," admitted Hialeah chairman John J. Brunetti, the track's owner for the past 25 years, when the Flamingo field was drawn. "I'm not blind to what this may represent. Things for us now are as bad as they have ever been."
By contrast, things now are quite good for Thunder Blitz, whose convincing 6 3/4-length Flamingo win gives breeder/owner Frank Stronach and trainer Joe Orseno a potential Kentucky Derby (gr. I) starter. "At least we can talk about it now," said Orseno. "He's always shown us he had this kind of potential, and now he's finally coming into himself."
While the lanky colt's future may be brighter than Hialeah's, his past was spent in the shadows of not only colts such as Monarchos, Invisible Ink, and Distilled--3-year-olds who handled Thunder Blitz in a succession of Gulfstream allowance races--but also Stronach's "other" 3-year-old son of Holy Bull, Macho Uno. Orseno admitted to being down after last year's juvenile champion was forced to the sidelines, saying, "I never dreamed we would be talking about Kentucky."
But in Thunder Blitz' last start, the trainer saw a "light go on" inside the colt whose sole career victory heading into the Flamingo was an Aqueduct maiden race last November. "He couldn't get to Distilled, but Edgar (Prado) really woke him up. For the first time he went by other horses in the lane," Orseno said.
Thunder Blitz didn't even wait that long in the Flamingo. Breaking from the midpoint of nine, Prado took the gray well off the early pace, securing position on the rail. Heading into the first turn, Prado had only the slow-starting Wild Summer beaten, but that quickly changed down the backstretch. Though the fractions were reasonable and Tour of the Cat maintained a clear margin, the leader had drifted into the three-path and allowed Prado to move up without yielding position.
"He started getting into the bit pretty good around the five-eighths pole," said the jockey. "And I saw the rail was open so I let him run up in there."
Under his own power, Thunder Blitz had edged to within a half-length of the front heading into the turn. With Talk Is Money challenging four-wide and Papa M and M looming just behind, Thunder Blitz threatening to cut the corner. Prado made the decision to go for it, nudging his mount to the flank of Tour of the Cat on the rail side.
Entering the stretch, Prado reached back and cracked Thunder Blitz left-handed...and it was over. The colt drew away from his rivals and straight into Derby contention, completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.23. Tour of the Cat held for second while Talk Is Money nabbed third. Outofthebox, the 3-5 favorite following a runner-up finish in the Florida Derby (gr. I), grabbed a quarter during the race, tearing a large gash in his right hind foot and finishing a well-beaten fifth.
For his part, it was not likely that Brunetti relished presenting the $150,000 winner's share for his marquee race to Stronach, the chairman of Gulfstream's parent Magna Entertainment Corp. and his biggest rival as owner of Gulfstream. As he retreated to his office, Brunetti quipped, "I wonder if (Stronach) will take an IOU."
Outofthebox's disappointment made it an exceedingly long day for owners Richard, Bert, and Elaine Klein. Their hopes of a Hialeah stakes double was quashed 30 minutes before the Flamingo when Hidden Assets, their even-money favorite in the $100,000 Poinciana Breeders' Cup Handicap, was upset by Ralph Evans' 4-year-old filly March Magic.
"I hope I don't have to see this place again," said Richard Klein, rushing to catch the first plane back home to Louisville.
Sadly, he may not even have the chance