Racing Voices is a new online feature dedicated to storytelling in the words of our sport's active figures—breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, bloodstock agents, and more. Florida breeder Bill Killeen kicks off the series with his essay on the hope that rises with the progress of a new homebred runner. To submit to Racing Voices, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Bill Killeen
Puck always was a smart horse. When he started training he saw no need for foolishness, so he went about his business in a professional manner; no nervous hijinks, no stubborn refusals. He just bowed his neck and took to the track like an old horse. Several months of galloping later, when it came time for his first work he went straight and true, no shying from his workmate, no leaning on him either.
One of the charming things about horse racing is that you, on your tiny little farm in Fairfield, Fla., can occasionally raise a better horse than the King Farouks of the world. We got our two-time stakes winner Juggernaut, who won $225,648, from a breeding between a stakes-placed mare of our own, Mito's Touch, and a $3,500 stallion, Is It True. We got Vaunted Vamp, winner of a preposterous 21 races and $419,641, from a mare given to us and bred to a free stallion, Racing Star.
You never know. So you go out there on Saturday mornings to observe, to try to detect the first signs of talent, to get excited at the slightest sniff of racing ability. Saturday mornings are rollicking good times around here.
Enter Puck—or, as he's known in racing circles, Cosmic Flash. A Florida-bred son of Hear No Evil out of our Wheaton mare Cosmic Light, Puck looked quick. But how fast was difficult to tell, since out at Eisaman Equine where our 2-year-olds learn to be racehorses, Barry Eisaman gives his riders assigned times. This keeps them from going too fast and coming back with, as he would say, "four flat tires."
Barry is the majordormo of the outfit, a tall, soft-spoken man with an easy smile and a charismatic demeanor. He presides over an empire of 250 horses, give or take a few, with all the pleasures and nightmares that entails, and he does a good job of it. With such an army to train each morning, things must go like clockwork—and most of the time they do. Eisaman Equine has a crew of 12 exercise riders, all Hispanic, all male, and all competent. Barry has one of the few facilities around Ocala that operates year round, thus, his employees are not out pounding the pavement looking for work during the quiet months.
Barry started out as a veterinarian, plied his trade for several years, and, in the process, decided he could make a little extra money as a pinhooker—buying horses at one stage of existence, spiffing them up, selling at a later stage. Some pinhookers buy weanlings and sell them as yearlings. Barry buys yearlings, trains them, and sells them as 2-year-olds.
We remember Barry from years back when we both trained horses at the old Tartan Farm near Ocala. He's moved up in the world, several years ago buying his current facility near Williston, a convenient five minutes from our place. In addition to his own horses, Eisaman trains for several other people, notably Hall of Fame California trainer Bob Baffert. Barry says he gets Baffert's "second team," but Baffert's second team is better than most people's first. He has 23 horses nominated for the Triple Crown this year. Barry prepped 2012 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner I'll Have Another, though not for Baffert. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of very good horses at Eisaman Equine. Which brings us back to Puck.
After working an eighth of a mile on two occasions 10 days apart, Puck went his first quarter-mile in :26 seconds flat, exactly what Barry wanted. He looked to be doing it easily, which you would certainly hope since that should be well within the capacity of anyone pretending to be a racehorse. His gallop out (slowing down) time was :38 1/5, about what one would expect. We thought his work 10 days later would be as much as a second faster, a very good time at Eisaman Equine.
On work day, we were surprised to see Puck out by himself. He would go solo, an experiment which could go one of two ways: He could fly off unrestricted by a slower horse or, as happens most of the time, run slower due to the lack of competition. Barry feels it's important, however, not to let his charges get the idea that they are always supposed to arrive at the finish together. If this didn't work out, well, there's always next week.
We could tell Puck was moving pretty fast when he hit the starting pole. He runs evenly and determinedly, with a longer and smoother stride than you might expect from a horse his size, not particularly long or large. I thought he might have shaded 25 seconds when he hit the wire, but it's difficult to tell when you're looking straight down the track; the angle is poor.
Barry looked at his watch. He looked at it again. Then, he called me over. He didn't want to show it to my partner, Siobhan Ellison, who worries about too-fast works; :23 1/5, the watch said. The gallop-out time was :34 2/5. The gallop-out is not supposed to be faster than the actual work, so I'm no longer confident Barry's pole is in the right spot. I asked him if he was sure he hadn't somehow inherited "a Jimmy Hatchett watch," named for an earlier trainer who invariably caught his horses in significantly faster times than the official clocker or anyone else. Barry keeps an assistant on a pony at the other end of the track, however, and he came back with :23 2/5 and :35 flat. Either way, it's a shocker.
I went back to the barn next morning to see Puck and ran my knuckles over his shins, looking for signs of trouble, but he didn't move an inch. Not even one "flat tire."
So now it's time to get excited, right? Only a matter of weeks 'till the fun begins at the racetrack and the money starts rolling in.
Not so fast, my friends.
There have been so many promising failures that the phrase "Fastest Horse in the World" is more often delivered with sarcasm than with a straight face. Horses that have had spectacular works in sales and sold for millions often have not delivered on the racetrack. Why? Tons of reasons, the main being injuries. You've got a large body bouncing along up there on pretty spindly legs. The wear and tear of racing erodes talent over time, in most cases. Some horses just don't have the mental strength to perform. It's pretty intimidating to break from a starting gate, bells blaring, jockeys hollering, horses knocking you left and right, and perform the task.
Not to mention, impressive early works at three-eighths of a mile don't necessarily translate into great performances at minimal racing distances of five or six furlongs. And then there's plain old bad luck...the everlurking colic or a raft of other potential horse diseases. A bad step, a jockey mistake, a muddy track, all allies of the devil.
Sometimes, the Fastest Horse in the World breaks from the gate, goes to the lead and is never headed. It could even happen again and again. Sooner or later, however, the Fastest Horse in the World moves up in competition. The purses get larger. The competition gets tougher. Sooner or later, the Fastest Horse in the World meets the Second-Fastest Horse and there may only be a nose between them in the final reckoning. Now, speed is not the only factor. Now, the Fastest Horse in the World must call upon all the reserves of courage built up over generations in his ancestry and extend himself to the max.
Can Puck do it?
We will see.
And they wonder why we like horse racing.
Update: On May 21, 2013, in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden special weight race at Calder Casino & Race Course, Cosmic Flash broke from the starting gate fourth, quickly moved up to third, settled in on the rail for the turn and easily passed the tiring leader in the stretch, winning his first and only start by a comfortable length and a quarter. That may not have been the day the music died, but it certainly went into hiding. One niggling injury after another kept our colt from the races for the rest of the year.
On Feb. 5, however, Cosmic Flash worked three-eighths in :36 and change at Eisaman Equine with the brakes on. Seven days later, he stepped onto a Lorraine van for the trip back to Larry Pilotti at Gulfstream Park, where he has since recorded three solid moves. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously told us there are no second acts in American lives. Hopefully he wasn't talking about horses.