It was a sunny December afternoon, with temperatures reaching the 50s and gusty winds blowing in from the northwest. The 2,453 hardcore racegoers who ventured to Aqueduct Racetrack on this Friday in 2003 had no way of knowing that they were witnessing the birth of a future winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) and the leading candidate for Horse of the Year honors.
In that day's feature race, Saint Liam, a 3-year-old colt owned by William K. Warren Jr. and his wife, Suzanne, drew off to a four-length victory over the inner track in his first start for trainer Richard Dutrow Jr., who had been given the horse on the advice of the Warrens' new racing manager, Mark Reid.
Dutrow had trained mostly claimers and allowance horses out of his Barn 10 on the Aqueduct backstretch, and in the big, strapping Saint Liam he saw a horse who could move him up to the next level.
"Rick told me he was bringing the horse to Florida and he had bigger and better things planned for him, so don't beat him up," recalled jockey Mike Luzzi, who was aboard Saint Liam that day. "This was going to be kind of his send-off. I remember him as being a push-button horse."
From that day on, Dutrow has pushed all the right buttons on Saint Liam. Despite having thin soles and suffering from occasional foot problems, the colt was able to develop into the star Dutrow was looking for all his life. In 2005, Saint Liam won the grade I Donn Handicap in February, the grade I Stephen Foster Handicap in June, and the grade I Woodward Stakes in September. All the work put in by Dutrow and his staff, veterinarian Steve Allday, and blacksmith Alex Leaf culminated with the biggest triumph of all-a victory over an international field in the richest race in America.
Dutrow had traveled a long, hard road to get to this point. He had suffered through several scrapes with the law in his younger days; substance abuse; the murder of his daughter's mother; the death of his father, trainer Richard Dutrow Sr.; and a down-and-out period in which he had no money for food and had to live in a tack room at Aqueduct.
More recently, he sat through a 60-day suspension this summer for two drug positives and a claiming violation, to which he maintains his innocence.
So, as he waited for Saint Liam to return following the Classic, he couldn't help but unleash all the emotions that had been building up for so many years. One moment he was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning, letting out screams of joy, and the next he was shaking his head in disbelief and trying to hold back tears. His quavering voice made each word difficult to get out. When Saint Liam and Jerry Bailey returned, Dutrow stood there applauding his horse, and kept it up for some 30 seconds.
"Oh, my God," he repeated constantly. "I can't explain the feeling. He gives me a feeling I've never had before. I owe him everything. He is my boy. I see him every night before I go to bed. And I'm going to miss him so much. Words just can't describe this horse."
It was an equally emotional victory for William Warren, who had been "floundering" as an owner before the emergence of Saint Liam, whom he named after his father by taking the last four letters of the name William (Liam means William in Irish).
"My dad was a great man," Warren said. "He had to drop out of school in the eighth grade after his father died in order to support his mother and two sisters. He still went on to build up a successful company that became the leading marketer of propane and butane in the world. I admired him tremendously and that's why this horse has such a special place in my heart. Dad died at age 92 in 1990. When he fell and broke his hip in 1983 I had to carry on the business. Every time this horse races, it's a special remembrance to me."
In gratitude for being given a gift like Saint Liam, Warren said he would donate half of the horse's breeding rights to the Saint Francis Health System in Oklahoma, a nonprofit health care system that includes five hospitals and the Warren Clinic with 215 doctors.
Warren recently sold Saint Liam's breeding rights to Lane's End Farm for a total believed to be $12 million, with the proviso that it would escalate to $14 million if the horse won the Breeders' Cup Classic, and $15 million if he is named Horse of the Year. That would result in a $7.5-million donation.
Saint Liam's story begins on Edward P. Evans' 3,000-acre Spring Hill Farm in Casanova, Va. Each year, Evans and farm manager Chris Baker look over that year's foal crop and decide which ones to keep and which ones to sell. One of those that fell into the latter category was a big, tough colt by Saint Ballado out of the Quiet American mare Quiet Dance.
"He was a solid, strong individual with good size and good bone, but maybe a touch coarse as a yearling," Baker said. "He looked like he'd get better as he matured. He was a strong-willed horse who was going to have a say in what you did with him. We have 90 mares on the farm, and it gets pretty expensive paying $90 to $100 a day plus vet bills on 60 to 70 foals every year. So, Mr. Evans feels we'll keep the goose that's laying the eggs and we'll find out if her eggs are gold or not, while letting someone else pay the per diem. Saint Liam fell into that category. He was the second foal out of Quiet Dance, who was a good broodmare from a good family but at that point was very unproven."
Evans and Baker obviously had no idea just how golden this one particular egg was when they put the fledgling up for sale at the 2001 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale and set a $124,000 reserve on him. "We knew there was interest in him when he was scoped several times," Baker recalled. "But it took about four men and a gorilla to scope him."
One of those who showed particular interest in the colt was bloodstock agent Mike Ryan, who purchased him for the Warrens for $130,000. "I loved the way he moved, and he just looked like a horse who would get better as he matured," Ryan said.
The Warrens turned Saint Liam over to trainer Tony Reinstedler, who was able to win a pair of races with him, including a 91Ú4-length romp in allowance company at Churchill Downs. But after two dismal performances at Saratoga, it was time to make a change.
Mark Reid, a former trainer who had worked as an assistant for Dick Dutrow Sr., had retired from training and turned to bloodstock work, finding Medaglia d'Oro and You for Bobby Frankel. One day in the summer of 2003, he received a phone call from Warren's secretary, who asked him, "Do you have time to talk to a fellow lover of horses?"
Reid met with Warren, and after a productive talk Warren hired him as his racing manager. In the course of their conversation Warren told him, "By the way, Mark, I have this 3-year-old, Saint Liam, currently laid up at the farm for a freshening, and I'd like your suggestion what we should do with him." Reid checked the Ragozin Sheets numbers and liked what he saw. He called Warren and told him he wanted to send the colt to another trainer. His first choice was Frankel, but the Hall of Fame trainer had a barnful of top-class 3-year-olds at the time, including Empire Maker, Peace Rules, Midas Eyes, and a lightly raced colt with a great deal of promise named Ghostzapper.
"This horse looked like he needed a lot of work with his feet and was going to be a project," Reid said. "I thought of Rick, who seems to get amazing results out of racehorses. I was working for his father when Ricky was a little punk kid running around and being a pain in the ass. The way his horses look and how they repeat their performances time and again, he reminds me a lot of Frankel. And in fact, Bobby has helped Rick a lot."
Saint Liam joined Dutrow's barn and proceeded to launch his new trainer's career to heights Dutrow never dreamed of. Following an allowance score at Gulfstream, Saint Liam was beaten a head by Peace Rules in the New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) before finishing a troubled third to the same Frankel-trained colt in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II). He returned from a five-month layoff and hooked the then-budding superstar Ghostzapper in the Woodward, dropping a neck decision in a memorable eyeball-to-eyeball street fight that knocked Saint Liam out and prevented a rematch in the Breeders' Cup Classic, which Ghostzapper won in stakes-record time.
For Reid, being beaten by Frankel three times in a row was "getting on my nerves." But he felt Ghostzapper was a "freak of nature," and the fact Saint Liam was able to stand up to him and look him in the eye coming off a long layoff convinced Reid he had a potential champion in the making. Reid, Warren, and Dutrow sat down and mapped out a plan for 2005 with Horse of the Year in mind.
When Ghostzapper was retired in June of this year after a spectacular victory in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), it left Saint Liam as the leader in the older horse division. Following Saint Liam's neck defeat against the brilliant Commentator in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I), Dutrow felt his horse needed an easy race this time in the Woodward to prevent a repeat of the previous year. He employed two rabbits owned by his main client, Sandy Goldfarb and his partners, to kill off Commentator early, which enabled Saint Liam to coast home an easy winner under new rider Jerry Bailey, who had replaced regular rider Edgar Prado.
The decision to change jockeys was made by Warren, who felt the horse needed a change after his defeat in the Whitney. "I anguished over the decision," he said, "but Jerry had ridden for me before and I felt I had to go where my heart and mind said to."
With Ghostzapper retired and Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont (gr. I) winner Afleet Alex on the shelf, the Classic lacked a true media star. If Saint Liam or Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner Rock Hard Ten or the vastly improved Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) winner Borrego were able to win the Classic, the victor would become the frontrunner for Horse of the Year honors.
Saint Liam was a dream horse to train and did everything that was asked of him. "My daughter could train this horse," Dutrow said. "He's just so quiet and doesn't demand any attention, except for his feet."
It was an ill-timed foot problem that gave Dutrow a scare two weeks before the Classic.
"We got lucky," Dutrow said. "He came up with a bruise in his foot and it popped out by the coronet band. I was sick over it, but we were able to dodge a bullet. He wouldn't be here if it weren't for his blacksmith, Alex Leaf, who worked for my dad before going to Dubai where he was Sheikh Mohammed's blacksmith for five years. Now, he only works for me and my brother (Tony), and Tommy Bush in Saratoga."
On the Monday before the Classic, Dutrow worked Saint Liam five furlongs at Aqueduct. "You're gonna go five (furlongs), out six, babe," he told exercise rider and assistant Rudy Rodriguez. "About a minute would be beautiful, but if he goes a little faster or a little slower, no big deal."
Saint Liam worked in 1:013Ú5, flying home his final quarter in :233Ú5, which brought a coy smile to Dutrow's face. "Look at him galloping out," he said, as if in awe of his horse. "Just look at him. He doesn't look like he puts any effort into it." After pausing for a second, he thought of how this horse has changed his life. "How lucky did I get?" he said.
Meanwhile, over at Belmont, the other Classic horses were preparing for the big race, which drew a full field of 14. Borrego, who had destroyed the Gold Cup field with a devastating move, continued to impress trainer Beau Greely. Rock Hard Ten, the near-black mountain of a horse, shipped in on the Wednesday before the race. He had been scheduled to arrive three days earlier, but a bruise on his left front foot forced trainer Dick Mandella to alter his plans.
Adding a touch of foreign intrigue to the race were the Irish-trained Oratorio, from the Aidan O'Brien stable, who had won a pair of a group I stakes at 11Ú4 miles, and Starcraft, the Australian champion 3-year-old of 2004, who had won group I stakes at a mile in France and England. Both colts would be trying the dirt for the first time, but what made Starcraft such an appealing story was the decision of his outspoken owner, Paul Makin, to pay the $800,000 supplementary fee, which boosted the purse to a record $4,291,560.
Back for his fourth Classic attempt was the hard-knocking 6-year-old Perfect Drift, accompanied by his longtime groom and constant companion, Marvin Anderson.
"It's been an up and down road, and I sure hope I can win one of these," Anderson said. "Maybe the good Lord will bless us this time. I'm 50 years old and I'm still travelin' with this horse. But it's been a blessing just being around him and keeping him sound and running."
Todd Pletcher had gone back to the drawing board with Travers (gr. I) winner Flower Alley following the colt's poor effort in the Gold Cup, in which he got cooked by his own rabbit. Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr., who exercises Flower Alley, said the son of Distorted Humor was more subdued in his training for the Gold Cup, but seemed to be back to his old aggressive self. Flower Alley confirmed that by rearing up on the training track one morning, unseating Cordero.
"After he dumped me, I grabbed hold of the shank and he dragged me all the way to the kitchen, bucking and snorting," Cordero said. "I was just holding on, running behind him. Everybody was yelling at me to turn him loose, but I said, 'Are you kidding; my boss told me if that horse ever gets loose, not to come back to the barn again. I'm not turning him loose even if it kills me.' "
The day before the race, Rock Hard Ten went out for a strong gallop, but when he got back to the barn, he shed the frog on his right front foot, which probably was caused by a bruise festering underneath.
Although it was just a minor setback, it was enough to force Mandella to scratch the colt.
Later that day, Saint Liam and stablemate Silver Train, who was running in the TVG Sprint (gr. I), departed Aqueduct and shipped into Bobby Frankel's barn. The morning of the race, Dutrow walked Saint Liam around the shed and was brimming with confidence, despite having drawn the 13 post (he moved in one place with the scratch of Rock Hard Ten).
"This horse is sittin' on a race; I can feel it," Dutrow said. "All he needs is a good break. The break is the biggest key to the race."
Saint Liam, favored at 2-1, didn't quite get the break Dutrow had been hoping for. "He broke to the right and continued that way for four jumps until I could reel him in," Bailey said. "He lost ground and ended up farther back than normal."
Saint Liam was some six lengths off the lead and racing wide as they headed into the backstretch. Sun King, breaking from the rail, had taken the initiative and was sent to the lead, where he was pressed by Suave through an opening quarter in :23.98. Flower Alley broke sharply and took up a striking position, two lengths off the leaders. Bailey let Saint Liam ease his way into fourth but still was on the far outside, with five lengths to make up.
Sun King continued to lead the way down the backstretch, the half in a moderate :47.68. Oratorio was the first to make a move, closing in along the rail, with 69-1 shot Super Frolic, winner of the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II), splitting horses just outside Oratorio. Around the turn, Sun King held a narrow lead over Suave, but Flower Alley was now a threatening presence on their outside, with Saint Liam moving into contention right behind. Borrego, the 5-2 second choice, was still far back, but, unlike the Gold Cup, was showing no signs of getting involved.
At the top of the stretch, there were four horses across the track, with Flower Alley and Saint Liam, on the far outside, ready to blow by Sun King and Suave. Bailey went to a right-handed whip and Saint Liam kicked on, but Flower Alley was stubborn and fought him every step of the way. Saint Liam, however, always looked like a winner, easing clear in the final sixteenth to win by a length. With his final two quarters in :242Ú5, he completed the 10 furlongs in 2:01.49. The tough old warrior, Perfect Drift, closed well to finish third, 11Ú2 lengths behind Flower Alley and a neck in front of Super Frolic.
Saint Liam's record winner's share of $2,433,600 catapulted his career earnings to $4,456,995. "This is his last race," Warren said. "He'll be sent to stud at Lane's End Farm." For Bailey, it was his record 15th career Breeders' Cup win and fifth in the Classic.
Dutrow paid thanks to his assistants, Rudy Rodriguez, who occasionally rides for Dutrow, and Juan Rodriguez, a former groom for Nick Zito. "I couldn't possibly have done this without them," he said.
Dutrow, his face still flushed with emotion, headed back to the barn to check in on Saint Liam and Silver Train. His lifelong dream had come true. All the hard work and planning had paid off. It was time to party.
There would be a wild celebration at the Savannah Club on Hempstead Turnpike, where Dutrow, Sandy Goldfarb, and partners hosted hundreds of friends and horsemen, and just about anyone else they knew who was looking for a good time. Adding to the festivities were Halloween costumes, loud music, and lots of food. Picking up the tab was none other than William Warren.
"We made a deal with Mr. Warren that if Saint Liam won the Classic he pays for the party in return for the rabbits Sandy Goldfarb provided for the Woodward," Dutrow said. "It's going to cost him around $60,000, which is still cheaper than if he had to go out and buy one."
Dutrow's smile was still frozen to his face as he walked briskly to his car. "I'll be partying until four in the morning," he said. "Can you blame me?"