The crazy, mixed-up world of the race for the 2001 steeplechase Eclipse Award took a tragic turn on Jan. 19 when Pompeyo died due to complications from an injury suffered in September. In the voting, however, he became a fitting winner. "In my heart, he deserves it the most because he hasn't been beaten," said the horse's trainer, Sanna Neilson, who conditioned all three Eclipse Award finalists for Augustin Stable.
That may be oversimplifying the case, but Pompeyo did dominate top-class fields in his only two starts of the year. The Chilean import opened the year by winning a $50,000 novice hurdle March 31 in South Carolina. The victory over subsequent grade I winner Flasher was merely a muscle-flexing, but Pompeyo looked like Charles Atlas in his next race.
The stocky dark bay throttled nine opponents--including 2000 champion All Gong and five other grade I winners--in the $185,875 Royal Chase April 27 at Keeneland. Ridden by regular jockey Gus Brown, Pompeyo settled easily off a quick early pace, collared All Gong leaving the backstretch, and won by three lengths while coasting over the final furlong. The performance broke Lonesome Glory's track record, gave Pompeyo four consecutive victories, and left Kentucky's racing fans talking about something other than the Kentucky Derby during the final week in April.
In a little more than a year, Pompeyo had gone from rank runaway flat-racing refugee (Pompeyo was a star in Chile, and a flop in Neil Drysdale's barn before going to Neilson) to golden boy. Seven wins, and $353,280 in earnings impressed witnesses from Florida to Kentucky to Pennsylvania, and left the steeplechase horse population at his feet.
Neilson opted to pass on the rest of the spring and the rich Saratoga season in favor of a lengthy rest and a try at the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase and Colonial Cup (both NSA-I) in October. Championships get won in those races, and Neilson figured she had a champion.
"I really wanted to run him in the fall--he was that good," she said. "In my mind, he would have been a bear for any horse to handle."
Would have been.
During a routine morning gallop Sept. 15 at Augustin's base in Pennsylvania, the stable star was kicked by another horse. Bruised, bleeding, and broken, Pompeyo was rushed from the training field to New Bolton Center a few miles away. The verdict was a fractured elbow, and surgeons inserted a metal plate and eight screws to stabilize the area. The bone isn't weight-bearing and was expected to heal.
Complications from the cut resulted in further surgery in January to remove the metal plate. When the horse's condition worsened, ultrasounds and X-rays revealed damage to the joint. "His elbow joint had deteriorated, although the original fracture had healed," Neilson said. "The vets were hoping that when they got the plate out his condition would improve, but that was not the case."
Pompeyo was euthanized and buried on Augustin's Pennsylvania farm.
"I think he was going to rewrite the book," said Neilson. "He was tough enough to do it--he had physical toughness and mental toughness. It took us a while to figure him out, but he was definitely the best horse I've ever been around."
The other Augustin horses responded when Pompeyo suffered his original injury. Lord Zada and Praise the Prince finished second and third, respectively, in the Breeders' Cup, and Lord Zada won the Colonial Cup. They joined Pompeyo in the race for the Eclipse, ensuring Neilson of a championship--even if she wasn't sure who would win.
"I'm so proud of all three of them--it's an honor to have just one horse considered," she said. "To have three horses compete at that level is saying something about our barn and the work we did."