Calder Race Report: Man About Town

Published in the Jan. 4 issue of The Blood-Horse
Jockey Jerry Bailey needed it, and so did trainer and co-owner Rick Violette Jr. And nobody needed it worse than Man From Wicklow. But for most of the W.L. McKnight Handicap (gr. IIT), the highlight of Calder's Grand Slam II card on Dec. 28, it appeared a win was out of reach.

As the field hit the last of the three turns in the 1 1/2-mile marathon, the then 5-year-old gelding, purchased privately as a yearling by Violette from longtime client J.R. Cavanaugh's Wicklow Farm, still had eight lengths to make up. He had eight horses well-bunched in his path to victory, even as the timer, flashing 1:40.52 for the opening mile, displayed the evidence of a dawdling pace.

"I thought, 'Oh no, here we go again,' " said Violette, citing the rotten luck that his gelding has worn as a badge of courage throughout the year. "I really thought he'd be sitting second or third, so when he was so far back I figured 'no way.' But he sprouted wings--he really had to be much the best to win today and he was."

Much the best not only because of the troublesome trip, but also because Man From Wicklow was the McKnight's starting highweight. He was the highweight despite his status as a non-stakes winner facing graded stakes winners Dawn of the Condor, Gritty Sandie, Mr. Pleasentfar, Whata Brainstorm, Whitmore's Conn, Williams News, and the favored Rochester among his 11 rivals.

"Maybe now that I've won one I can shed a few pounds," Violette laughed in the winner's circle. "The racing secretaries keep saying that you ran so well here or there, but I kept saying that this game is all about winning. You can run well 60 times and still be a maiden."

Though no maiden, Man From Wicklow did sport his share of couldas and shouldas. Since his last win, a conditioned allowance at Saratoga in August 2001, he was stakes-placed on four occasions without tasting victory. He finished third in each of his last two starts, beaten one and 1 1/2 lengths, respectively, in Woodbine's Sky Classic Handicap (Can-IIT) and Belmont's Man o' War (gr. IT).

"He should have galloped in Canada but he got shut off, turned sideways, and pinned against the fence," said the trainer. "He came back with white paint on his side. In New York, he was making his move when the jock lost his whip. And before that he was almost dropped in the Sword Dancer and was still only beaten two lengths," Violette said of a fourth-place finish, behind With Anticipation, Denon, and Volponi, in Saratoga's grade I event.

The McKnight started off in much the same manner, with Man From Wicklow pinched at the break and checked sharply going into the first turn. That left him far back in the early going as Riddlesdown jogged the first lap with little opposition, posting leisurely fractions. The challenges commenced when the stalking Serial Bride blew by inside the three-eighths pole and, having reserved much energy, appeared ready to post an upset win when the late runners failed to gain ground. But Man From Wicklow was flying--Bailey noting, "It was just a matter of finding a shot to shake loose"--and they passed Serial Bride near the sixteenth pole and drew off by a length, timed in 2:28.05.

For the jockey, the win was necessary to maintain any chance of catching Mike Smith's record of 68 stakes wins in a year, set in 1994. Bailey had previously failed aboard likely horses in the three stakes that preceded the score. They included losses by a pair of favorites when Mot Juste finished seventh behind winner New Economy, in the McKnight's corresponding race for distaffers, the La Prevoyante Handicap (gr. IIT), and on Best of the Rest in the Fred Hooper Handicap (gr. III).

"They all looked live to me," Bailey said, admitting he felt moving two or three notches closer to the record on this day was a real possibility. "Now I've got to win them all just to tie." That ghost, too, was lost when his cross-country journey to ride favored Decarchy in the following day's San Gabriel Handicap (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita resulted in a third-place finish.

That stood in direct contrast to the day that trainer Milt Wolfson enjoyed during Calder's Grand Slam II. The likeable 70-year-old, known as much around the track for his long-standing ownership of racing supply company Neshaminy Turf Shop, had suffered through a below par year in 2001 that was worsened by open heart surgery. But 2002 started with a boom when Stride Rite Racing's 3-year-old filly Stormy Frolic jogged home a winner in the Tropical Park Oaks on New Year's Day, and it would end in much the same manner with a pair of stakes scores on the year's final Saturday.

"Bookends," he called Stormy Frolic's first win since the Oaks in the $100,000 Stage Door Betty Handicap, also on the Grand Slam II card, though he could have easily used the term to cast a wider net. On the one hand, encircled by the pair of grade II, 12-furlong grass tests that served as the day's features, Wolfson accepted trophies for wins in both the "Betty" and with The Judge Sez Who in the Fred Hooper. And then there was Dick Simon, owner of Sez Who Racing and breeder of the now 4-year-old colt, who had himself undergone the same cardiac procedure as his trainer.

"I guess when they opened us up they must have put a little something extra in there," joked Simon, who in just four years since establishing his Ocala nursery has developed quite an operation. Sez Who now owns more than 700 horses, including almost 250 mares, and has become among the top commercial breeders in Florida.

"When you see a horse racing for Sez Who you know it's because we weren't able to sell him," Simon said.

"The Judge" is a case in point.

Simon believed he had the son of Judge T C sold for $10,000 as a yearling at an OBS auction, but the buyer reneged when radiology showed a small stifle problem.

"I offered to pay the vet bill but he demanded that we cut the price to $5,000," Simon said with a wry grin. "I said, 'You know what, I really never wanted to sell this horse anyhow,' so I just took him back. All of my advisers wanted me to sell him but I always loved him. I sent him to the farm, let the stifle heal, and then sent him to Milt, who was one of the people who told me I should sell him in the first place."

Despite the trainer's reservations, "the Judge" has done little wrong through a career that has now seen him win eight of 20 and earn $652,876. Though he had defeated fellow sophomores in August's Oklahoma Derby (gr. III), he was runner-up to Best of the Rest in his first try versus older horses in last month's Carl G. Rose Classic.

"But that was a different race; there was no speed in there," noted winning jockey Cornelio Velasquez, pointing to the Hooper's speed duel featuring Cool N Collective, Woodmoon, and Booklet. "I told my agent that I couldn't lose today." And he didn't, rallying from well off the pace to catch Best of the Rest (losing as the Hooper favorite for the third consecutive year) and drawing off by 1 3/4 lengths in the 1 1/8-mile race. "It's been a helluva day and a helluva year," concluded Wolfson.

(Chart, Equibase)