John's Call, Jean-Luc Samyn up, shown winning the Gr. I Sword Dancer at Saratoga, August, 2000.

John's Call, Jean-Luc Samyn up, shown winning the Gr. I Sword Dancer at Saratoga, August, 2000.

Barbara D. Livingston

John's Call a Perfect '10'

Who more than John's Call deserves the shades--you know, the Hollywood movie-star treatment?

On Thursday, adorned with "sunglasses" protecting his sensitive eyes, the 10-year-old gelding jogged and galloped at Atlanta Hall Farm in Maryland in preparation for his seasonal debut Sunday at Delaware Park.

Last year at 9, the ageless chestnut accomplished the improbable. He won two grade I stakes, finished a close third in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) and earned distinction as one of three finalists for the Eclipse Award as top
turf runner.

This year at 10, John's Call will attempt to make history. He will try to become the first 10-year-old Thoroughbred to win a grade I stakes. Highest ranked among races, grade I stakes are the nation's most prestigious.

"Last year was something that wasn't supposed to happen," said Tom Voss, trainer of John's Call. "Can it happen again? Who knows?"

The quest will begin as it did last year, in the Cape Henlopen Handicap at Delaware Park. Last year, John's Call set a course record in the race that launched his spectacular season.

The laid-back, handsome gelding is perhaps racing's most endearing story. A $4,000 steeplechase prospect as a yearling, he proved to be a mediocre jumper. And then, he proved to be a mediocre turf runner on the flat--until last year.

Voss still scratches his head over the transformation of John's Call from an anonymous participant in allowance and high-level claiming races into one of racing's most popular and grittiest performers.

A son of Lord At War, John's Call obviously loves the battles. He pins his ears to his head and grits his teeth as he bears down on the wire. When he finds himself trapped inside horses down the stretch, as he was in last year's Breeders' Cup, you can almost feel his frustration at not being able to break free and stretch out. His stride is unusually long and powerful.

Maybe when John's Call won for the first time at 1 1/2 miles (Laurel Turf Cup, fall of his 8-year-old season), he discovered his optimum distance. Maybe judicious management by Voss allowed John's Call to remain sound and develop into a superior racehorse.

He has raced a mere 36 times over seven years, winning 15, placing in 11 and earning $1.5 million. Every winter, Voss sends John's Call into a field on vacation. Twice, when the horse showed signs of a tendon strain, Voss gave him extended time off.

One of the nation's most respected horsemen and one of steeplechasing's most accomplished, Voss attends to John's Call's every whim. Last year, Voss fitted the horse with a training mask that blocks sunlight. John's Call had begun reacting adversely to the sun's rays. Voss waits until dark, 9 or 10 p.m., before grazing John's Call.

The gelding's achievement is certainly not drug-aided. Voss has not run John's Call on drugs, even Lasix.

"We had no expectations for what he did last year," Voss said. "This year, we're playing it by ear. He looks as good as he did last year. He's training as good. He might even be ahead of where he was last year at this time. But we really won't know until we run him."

If John's Call runs well at Delaware Park, he will follow roughly the same path as last year, Voss said. The Sword Dancer Handicap (gr. IT) on Aug. 11 at Saratoga would be next. The Breeders' Cup Turf on World Thoroughbred Championship Day Oct. 27 at Belmont Park would be the ultimate goal.

"We're aware it's going to end sometime," Voss said. "It's not his competitive edge that will stop him. It's his age that will stop him at some point...It's got to happen sometime. He's 10 years old for chrissakes."