Presence of Heroes

By Steve Haskin -- The American racing fan is starving for a hero. Not one of these short-term heroes that are merely a brief flash of light, but one that can keep the fire aglow. In early May, virtually no one paid much attention to a New York-bred gelding named Funny Cide. Then, in the two weeks it took him to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I), he suddenly was racing's latest messiah, a treasure to behold for years to come.

He single-handedly put a small town on the map and made national celebrities out of his common-folk owners. A victory in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), and he would be the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. But it failed to happen. The Funny Cide saga still may be written, but he first must rekindle the flame and keep it lit.

With the release of the movie Seabiscuit July 25, Americans have back-peddled through the corridors of history, hoping to at least grasp on to a 65-year-old legend. But soon, the movie, and Seabiscuit, will fade from public consciousness, and we once again will continue our search for a true equine hero.

Well, guess what? We have been in the presence of such heroes for the past several years and aren't even aware of it.

Dorothy Parker, one of the wittiest and most profound writers of the 20th century, once said, "Most good women are hidden treasures who are only safe because nobody looks for them."

That's right; it is the female of the species that have been the real heroes, only we've taken them for granted and failed to truly appreciate what has been right before our eyes. From a $4,700 yearling, a Zimbabwe-bred, a filly withdrawn from three consecutive sales, a Louisiana-bred by obscure parents, and a New Zealand-bred have come five fillies that have won 109 of 138 starts, finishing in the money in 132 of them. They are Xtra Heat, Ipi Tombe, Azeri, Hallowed Dreams, and Sunline. They're not all Americans, but they are heroes for the entire world to admire and revere.

They have performed their heroic deeds over long periods of time at nearly 40 different racetracks in seven different countries on five different continents. Azeri was named Horse of the Year in North America, as well as champion older filly or mare; Xtra Heat was voted champion 3-year-old filly in North America; Ipi Tombe was the champion 3-year-old filly in South Africa; and Sunline won an amazing 15 championships in Australia and New Zealand combined, including five Horse of the Year titles.

Hallowed Dreams was more of a local hero in Louisiana who set track records at five and six furlongs, while Ipi Tombe, Sunline, and Xtra Heat ventured to far-off lands. While their records speak for themselves, it is the images they painted that will endure as works of art. Together, they melded into the quintessential Thoroughbred athlete. Can anyone forget the raw speed of Xtra Heat and Hallowed Dreams? Can anyone forget the power, class, and sheer poetry of Azeri? Can anyone forget the explosive acceleration of Ipi Tombe as she inhaled a top-class field of males in the deserts of Dubai? And can anyone forget the brilliance, courage, and durability of Sunline as she took on Australia's best males year after year, becoming the first horse in the Southern Hemisphere to top $6 million in earnings?

Xtra Heat, Sunline, and Hallowed Dreams have all recently retired, their place in history secure. But Azeri is still in training, and Ipi Tombe will hopefully run again next year. They can only add to their remarkable feats. And as they do, they should be embraced and exalted as one would the most valiant of male heroes.

If there was one everlasting image in 2002, it was Azeri's trainer, Laura de Seroux, applauding her filly's breathtaking victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), while overcome with pride and reverence, as one would have for her own child. Normally, one's energy at a moment like this surfaces in the form of jubilation. But for de Seroux, all her energy was being used to hold back tears.

It is time we all shared in such emotions; those reserved only for heroes.

Steve Haskin is senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse.