Third Try a Charm

By Victor E. Zast -- This is a story in search of a happy ending. The names have been used to protect the innocent.

The innocent are all the faceless pests with forgotten names. They're guys who hang around the track and form partnerships with their friends. They struggle with horses which the trainers assign to assistants. All they want is a chance in a game that is stacked against them. They're last on the list for Breeders' Cup seats.

Once in a blue moon, lightning strikes. The racing gods look down upon you and send you a genuine runner. Twenty-three winner's circle photos hang in a room I've devoted to memorabilia. The first is dated May 25, 1991.

Six of the 23 photos are of Dash of Salt. This is the name of my only stakes-winning horse, a flash of a sprinter whose speed was diminished by an injury that delayed her first start by a year. Since her last winning photo was hung on the wall in March of 1999, I've waited for another. My trainer says her unraced daughter by Wild Rush will earn one this fall.

Two and a half years is a long time coming for a guy like me who's been paying the bills in between.

My chance at recovery rests in a Dash of Salt yearling by Unbridled's Song. This filly has been pretty as a picture since the day she was foaled. Word on the farm is she's a standout. If she can run like her mama, she can be something special. But enough of the hope. I'll sell her at Keeneland in September.

Breeding and selling has become my method of staying afloat. But it didn't take long to learn to bail water. In the awful year of mare reproductive loss syndrome, Dash of Salt lost a foal by Stephen Got Even. The vet who cares for her said there wasn't a connection between the loss and MRLS because Dash of Salt carried the foal for nine months. But I'm leery of that information. Like so many of us out here in the land beyond Lexington, it's difficult to know what is really going on.

When small-time horsemen have their hopes tied up in a horse, they learn to sit on their hands. There are seats reserved for us in horse heaven, if not in Saratoga. The best horse I ever owned broke down in the stretch at Belmont. One that looked like a champion had the heart of a pea. None of this ever stopped the money.

I don't doubt for a minute that the leaders of the industry are doing all they can to inform the horse owners of what is going on. But MRLS seems a mystery beyond their own understanding. The horse business has always been one in which time has served as a solution. But the people on the fringes are getting hurt. Before long, the foundation of the sport may be harmed beyond the solution of hope that sustains it. Learning that the rate of foal loss is a fraction of what occurred last breeding season is no satisfaction to a man who owns one broodmare.

As soon as I was certain that Dash of Salt was fit for breeding, I sent her to the stallion Old Trieste to begin the process anew. She failed to get pregnant on the first try. It happens.

Waiting for the next opportunity was like watching hair grow. A second visit to Old Trieste proved as futile as the first one.

Now the imagination started spinning out of balance. Was this a mare who didn't suit the stallion? Was Dash of Salt still feeling the sting of her miscarriage? Did we need to move the mare out of Kentucky? There are cherry trees and Eastern tent caterpillars on a farm nearby.

At best I had two more covers. I didn't want a young, robust mare like Dash of Salt to be barren this season. Back to back years of expenses with no chance to make money would be draining. Hold firm.

Today I walked into my office at 9 a.m. My secretary handed me a note that she scribbled on a Post-it. "The farm called. Your mare is in foal." Third try a charm.

Now I've got a long hot summer and a cold anxious winter to get through. This is a story in search of a happy ending. I believe it's coming.

Victor E. Zast is president of Private Perfumery in Chicago.