Every fan of racing has had that moment. A jaw-dropping, speech-stealing experience created when witnessing extraordinary speed or courage on the racetrack or from merely standing alongside an imposing equine athlete.
The first time I can remember being starstruck by a horse occurred prior to the 1992 Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park. On the Florida-bred beat for the Ocala Star-Banner, I was weaving between the white barns that used to be lined up like slats in a picket fence on Gulfstream's backside looking for trainer Darrell Vienna. Vienna had an undefeated chestnut speedball in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) named Gilded Time, who had been bred by Harry Mangurian Jr.
Rounding the corner of a barn, I was stunned by the sight of a gleaming copper colt being bathed by a couple of grooms near Vienna's stalls. I'd assumed this older horse was being aimed for one of the weekend's other stakes.
I told the grooms I was looking for Gilded Time. One of them smiled and pointed to the bodybuilder at the end of his shank. The look on my face elicited a wry smile from the groom.
"First time Gary Stevens sat on him, he thought the colt was 3 or 4," the groom said. Stevens had the first mount on Gilded Time when the son of Timeless Moment—Gilded Lily, by What a Pleasure, won by four lengths July 15 of that year at Hollywood Park. The colt then got shipped east and Chris McCarron became his regular rider.
Having spent a couple of hours at the barn getting to know the horse and the people caring for him, I found myself emotionally vested in the race—rooting for this impressive colt who was part of Florida's home team.
The task ahead would be no walkover for the post time favorite. Gilded Time would be making his first start around two turns against a deep field that included Sea Hero, winner of the grade I Champagne Stakes; River Special, who won the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II) followed by a six-length romp in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. I); and Mountain Cat, the winner of five consecutive stakes including the grade II Breeders' Futurity at the BC Juvenile's distance of 1 1/16 miles.
I shared the butterflies with co-owner/Hollywood producer David Milch, who would be watching Gilded Time in person for only the second time. Milch said he was so nervous, he didn't know if he could actually watch the race.
Despite being boxed in on the rail and rank heading into the first turn, and being forced to race wide through most of the rest of the race, Gilded Time prevailed in a stretch battle with a stubborn River Special and held off a fast-closing It'sali'lknownfact, who was only three-quarters of a length back in second at the wire. The 2-year-old championship honors eventually bestowed on Gilded Time—undefeated or not—were well-earned at Gulfstream that day.
After the races and with my deadline behind me, I sat in the auxiliary press tent in the back of the grandstand watching the Juvenile replay against the backdrop of a tangerine South Florida sunset. The moment made me reflect on another Milch comment from earlier in the week.
"I get nervous," he said about watching Gilded Time run. "But I sure wouldn't trade places with anyone."