Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I)
(gr. I , 8.5f ,)
Stephen Got Even Heat Lightning , by Summer Squall
BDr. Walter Zent, KY.; OThe Merv Griffin Ranch Co.; TDoug F. O'Neill
Hennessy Meadow Flyer , by Meadowlake
BCHO, LLC, KY.; ODarley Stable; TKiaran P. McLaughlin
Giant's Causeway Freddie Frisson , by Dixieland Band
BJohn D. Gunther, KY.; ORobbins, III, Lansdon and Lunsford, Bruce; TFrank L. Brothers
Margins: 1¼, 2, 5¼. Others: Brother Derek 122($90,630) , Superfly 122($47,700) , Sorcerer's Stone 122 , Dr. Pleasure 122 , Stream Cat 122 , Leo (GB) 122 , Jealous Profit 122 , Dawn of War 122 , Ivan Denisovich (IRE) 122 , Set Alight 122 , Private Vow 122 . Winning Jockey, Garrett K. Gomez.
Merv Griffin had never won a Breeders’ Cup race before, but he was ready to give a command performance Oct. 29. While some owners flee from the World Thoroughbred Championships’ spotlight, the 80-year-old entertainment and real estate mogul embraced it with the verbal equivalent of a big, warm hug.
After his Stevie Wonderboy knocked off the highly regarded and previously undefeated First Samurai in the $1,458,030 Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), Griffin sang, joked, and charmed his way through a steady stream of interviews.
Griffin has had a No. 1 record, acted in movies, hosted a talk show, created the popular television game shows “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” and managed fancy hotels. But winning a Breeders’ Cup race was something pretty special, and Griffin wanted everybody at New York’s Belmont Park and out in television land to know it.
“There’s a lot of excitement winning Emmy Awards and all that stuff,” said a beaming Griffin. “Then there’s the fighting with Donald Trump, which is fun, but this is extraordinary. To stand in the winner’s circle and to be able to shout out my own name was a thrill.”
Even when NBC’s Mike Battaglia reminded Griffin that no Juvenile winner has ever captured the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), the owner’s enthusiasm remained high. Griffin promised “yes, absolutely” that Stevie Wonderboy would overcome the curse. Then, gazing into the cloudy sky, Griffin said, “Thank you, dear God.”
Next it was on to the post-race interview room in the basement of Belmont’s grandstand, where Griffin introduced himself to the gathered reporters with this line: “Welcome to ‘The Merv Griffin Show.’ Today, my guests will be…” As the audience laughed, Griffin sat down behind the microphones and started bantering with Stevie Wonderboy’s trainer, Doug O’Neill.
It was the 1960s all over again.
“My Lord, how many times have you had me in the winner’s circle, 18 times?” Griffin asked O’Neill. When the trainer started to respond, Griffin interrupted quickly, adding: “But we’ve run a thousand horses.”
Griffin talked about how he used to go to the racetrack with his father to see Seabiscuit. He spoke about an unsuccessful venture with Arabians and a $160,000 mare whose value fell to $12. He mentioned how singer and composer Burt Bacharach got him interested in owning racehorses. And he talked about the exciting running style of his strapping chestnut colt by Stephen Got Even.
“He likes to be in the back,” Griffin said, “and then he comes up a little bit on the turn. But when he sees all those acres in front of him, that guy just goes, right, coach?”
Replied O’Neill, who also was winning his first Breeders’ Cup race: “I agree. For me,” he added, “just to be involved with such a successful businessman such as Merv Griffin, it’s incredible. And to have a special horse like Stevie Wonderboy for him, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Eric Wing, whose job is to get the Breeders’ Cup post-race interviews started and keep them rolling, hardly had to say a word.
It was Griffin’s big moment, and he was the star of the show.
The mood was more somber among favored First Samurai’s connections. The son of Giant’s Causeway was four-for-four going into the Breeders’ Cup, including victories in the prestigious Champagne (gr. I) and Hopeful (gr. I) Stakes. But in the Juvenile, First Samurai wasn’t his usual dominating self. He finished third, two lengths behind old rival Henny Hughes, who had been second in both the Champagne and the Hopeful. Stevie Wonderboy, with a powerful late surge, reached the wire 11¼4 lengths ahead of Henny Hughes. The winning time for the 11¼16 miles around one turn was 1:41.64. Eighteen of the Juvenile’s 22 editions have been contested at that distance, and only Favorite Trick (1:41.47 at Hollywood Park) and Unbridled’s Song (1:41.60 at Belmont) were quicker.
“He got a little nasty in the gate, but he had a decent trip,” said First Samurai’s Hall of Fame jockey, Jerry Bailey. “He took dirt in his face. He had a good run to the eighth pole, but he flattened out.”
First Samurai’s trainer, Frankie Brothers, tried to look on the bright side, saying: “He’s still eligible to win the Kentucky Derby. He ran against 13 horses this time, and they all came out of some very special preps. It’s the Breeders’ Cup, and it’s the best of the best. We would love to have won, but I was very happy with my horse’s race.”
While First Samurai ruled the East Coast, Stevie Wonderboy was making a name for himself in California. Bloodstock agent Dennis O’Neill, Doug O’Neill’s brother, was responsible for bringing the colt to Griffin’s attention. Dennis O’Neill spotted Stevie Wonderboy at this year’s Fasig-Tipton Florida select sale of 2-year-olds in training at Calder Race Course. Consigned as agent by Robert Scanlon (who recently lost his battle with cancer), the colt worked an eighth of a mile in :11 while numerous other juveniles covered the same distance in less time. But O’Neill was still impressed.
“He was a big, good-looking, correct horse,” he said. “Nobody knew much about Stephen Got Even at the time, but I just fell in love with him. I thought he would go for $300,000 or $400,000, so when he went for only $100,000 and we got him, I was utterly amazed. At every one of those 2-year-old sales, there are horses that fall through the cracks, and he was the horse at that sale who fell through the cracks. It was good for us and bad for everybody else.”
Griffin likes to name his runners by incorporating the names of their sires or dams. Stephen Got Even was an inspiration in choosing Stevie Wonderboy’s moniker, and so was the great blind singer Stevie Wonder, who first appeared on Merv Griffin’s talk show as a teenage prodigy.
“I thought, ‘Gee, Stevie. Stevie, that’s nice. Stevie Wonderboy,’ ” Griffin remembered. “It took about five minutes.”
Meanwhile, Doug O’Neill was discovering that his brother’s purchase was not only very mature for his age but also very talented.
Said Dennis O’Neill: “The first time he worked for Doug, he went three-eighths (of a mile) in something like :34 and change. Doug called me, and he was shaking. He said, ‘This horse is a freak.’ ”
Stevie Wonderboy opened his career running against the precocious What a Song, who had sold for the sale-topping price of $1.9 million to Bob and Beverly Lewis at the Barretts March select juvenile auction. Griffin’s runner finished second to that colt in a 51¼2-furlong maiden race in June at Hollywood Park and then finished third behind What a Song and Bashert in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship (gr. III) in July.
“In his first couple of races, he (Stevie Wonderboy) ran greenly just because he didn’t know what it was all about, but he’s always handled the pressures that go along with training and racing very, very well for a 2-year-old,” Doug O’Neill said. “He’s built and trains like a horse that will do better over a distance of ground, so we were actually very happily surprised in his first race by how involved he was going 51¼2 furlongs. In the Hollywood Juvenile Championship, he kind of blew the turn a little bit. It was a small field, but he took the turn kind of wide and lost ground. I don’t know if it was the eventual winner, but somebody kind of shifted ground a little bit and made him go outside. But he still came running at the end, so it was an impressive race.”
O’Neill turned down the pressure a little bit for Stevie Wonderboy’s next outing, entering him in a 61¼2-furlong maiden special weight at Del Mar.
“We were still excited about him, but at the same time, we wanted to see him actually win before we got too crazy,” O’Neill said. “And it worked out perfectly, and he got a great confidence builder.”
The colt won by four lengths and then headed to the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II), where he blew away his challengers in a five-length romp. The Futurity was Sept. 7, and the Breeders’ Cup wasn’t until late October. But O’Neill decided to train Stevie Wonderboy up to the New York race even though no runner had ever had a break from competition as long as 51 days before winning the Juvenile.
O’Neill did consider the 11¼16-mile Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) Oct. 2 at Santa Anita as a possible Breeders’ Cup prep race. But “one of the reasons we didn’t go was that we didn’t want to send him two turns,” the trainer said. “Sometimes, when a horse goes two turns, it dulls their speed a little bit. He was kind of in that sprinter mode, and we wanted to keep him that way.”
Stevie Wonderboy apparently didn’t relax too much during his long vacation. Five days before the Juvenile, he turned in a blazingly fast half-mile work of :46. More than 130 horses breezed the same distance at Belmont that morning, and none covered it more quickly.
“He was by himself, and he did it in hand,” O’Neill said. “It was real easy for him.”
Stevie Wonderboy needed to be at the top of his game because the Juvenile had attracted a strong group of competitors. Last year, the eventual Eclipse Award winner, Declan’s Moon, skipped the Juvenile, but this time around, the race had the division’s leader, First Samurai, along with such standouts as Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) winner Dawn of War, Futurity (gr. II) winner Private Vow, Norfolk winner Brother Derek, and previously undefeated Arlington-Washington Breeders’ Cup Futurity (gr. III) winner Sorcerer’s Stone. There also were three challengers from Europe: Ivan Denisovich, Leo, and Set Alight among the full field of 14 starters.
“Some Breeders’ Cup Juveniles have been suspect in depth and quality, but I don’t see how you can say that here,” said Steve Asmussen, Private Vow’s trainer. “This group has run fast compared to older horses.”
Dawn of War, who had won the Breeders’ Futurity on the lead at Keeneland, took command early in the Juvenile and set a brisk pace. With Henny Hughes challenging, Dawn of War rolled through a quarter-mile in :23.14 and a half in :45.75. Meanwhile, Private Vow bolted to the outside after his left rein broke and jockey John Velazquez lost control.
Stevie Wonderboy, who was the second choice in the betting, faced adversity, too. Ridden by Garrett Gomez, the colt was checked at the start and wound up near the back of the pack. He later stumbled going down the backstretch after clipping another horse’s heels. But Stevie Wonderboy didn’t lose his composure. He gathered himself and showed why Griffin says he has the body and mind of a 5-year-old.
Stevie Wonderboy and Gomez came flying on the turn and started reeling in Henny Hughes, who had surged past the tiring Dawn of War. Stevie Wonderboy charged to the front with less than a furlong remaining and pulled away with ease.
“He handled everything like a true professional, and when I pushed the button when he turned for home, he was there for me,” said Gomez, who was winning his first Breeders’ Cup race and would pick up another later in the afternoon with Artie Schiller in the NetJet Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT).
“I felt like crying,” said Gomez, who has rebounded from personal problems that included a dependency on drugs.
But it wasn’t long before Griffin had the jockey laughing in the winner’s circle.
“How much did you have to whip him? Just slightly? Don’t hurt my horse,” the owner joked as Gomez grinned.
NBC’s Battaglia, surrendering to Griffin’s exuberance, offered this suggestion: “You can do the interview. That would be good.”
Griffin, caught up in the joy of the moment, replied: “Here we go.”
With a talented colt as his sidekick, Griffin might not stop until he makes it all the way to Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May. b