Hollywood Park Race Report: Aptitude Adjustment

Published in the July 7 issue of The Blood-Horse
Standing amongst a reeling crowd, his eyes transfixed on a single television screen, Wally Dollase could only shake his head.

"No doubt about it, it's a tough one," he confessed, his mind sifting through the chaos. "It's too bad when the horse is the best horse...Oooh God, what a game."

As a concerned father, Dollase had every right to gripe and moan over the disqualification of Futural in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) on July 1. As a veteran trainer, Dollase played the realist, understanding the risks and rewards of playing at the high levels and knowing his son, Craig, was raised with them, as well.

What was left by the time the dust had settled was an utterly sour taste caused by a race that reeked of the 1994 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I). Clearly, Futural was the best horse on this day, just as The Wicked North had the Big 'Cap field at his mercy seven years ago. No honest soul who saw either race would deny that. But just as The Wicked North's fire became a dying ember in the stewards' booth, so too did that of Futural.

Of course, The Wicked North, who was dropped to fourth in the Big 'Cap, went on to be crowned a champion. It's more than likely that Futural's best days are still ahead of him.

But the disappointment for trainer Craig Dollase and the connections of Futural paled when compared to the anguish endured by one jockey. For Chris McCarron, it sure wasn't supposed to happen this way, at least not on this particular day. Not with the Bobblehead doll giveaway, when Gold Cup patrons walked away with their own mini-McCarron adorned in the silks of Tiznow. Not with McCarron's 0-for-lifelong record in Hollywood's marquee event, which included his nine agonizing runner-up finishes. And certainly not with Futural, who managed to pick the 62nd installment of the Hollywood Gold Cup to deliver the race of his life.

But in the end it was a single brief incident that rendered Futural's breakthrough performance debatable. In the end it was a few crooked steps and a collision that snatched the gelding's Gold Cup triumph and dropped it right into the lap of trainer Bobby Frankel and his Juddmonte Farms one-two punch, Aptitude and Skimming.

"That was wild. Poor Chris McCarron," one trainer offered up. "I'm glad I'm not a steward today."

What a game.

And it certainly wasn't the ending anyone expected, though astute fans did recall the Gold Cup of 20 years past, when Caterman beat Eleven Stitches only to be disqualified to second.

At least this one started like everybody thought it would.

Though Skimming shot out from the three-hole, Garrett Gomez was reluctant to drop in and engage claiming sprinter Power Wing. Instead, he kept the son of Nureyev wide, just as he had in last summer's Pacific Classic (gr. I), while McCarron angled just behind the leaders.

Power Wing continued his chimerical jaunt down the backstretch, and covered a half in :46.78 before Skimming discharged him for good, taking command as the turn approached. The move forced Gary Stevens to ask for some early run from Captain Steve, who had sidled up the rail into third. They were head and head leaving the three-eighths pole, and right behind them, three-wide and coiled to strike, was Futural.

Captain Steve and Skimming matched strides around the turn, but looking left, Gomez could see the Fly So Free colt was working hard to keep up. At the same time, Skimming was into the bit and ready for a signal.

"I thought I had Captain Steve beat," Gomez said. "The only horse I was worried about was Futural."

That challenge indeed came, as Futural, Skimming, and Captain Steve met up turning for home. And then it happened.

"All of a sudden the outside horse dropped in about two lanes," Gomez said, "and just took my room away from me completely and knocked me into Stevens."

It took only a split-second. McCarron would later say he wasn't sure how it happened, though he admits Futural is the type who's got to be pushed to switch leads. Futural did switch to his right lead, but not before his momentum had carried him left, smack into Skimming. McCarron immediately righted his horse and aimed him toward the finish. The impact, however, had knocked Skimming sideways into Captain Steve. At that point, Gomez stood up in his irons, slamming on the brakes.

With Skimming and Captain Steve out of the picture, Futural roared through the final furlong alone. Laffit Pincay and Aptitude, free from all the commotion, came with a steady chase on the outside. They ended up a length and a half apart in 2:01.79, with McCarron rejoicing at the conclusion of his first Gold Cup-winning ride.

Or so he thought.

It was an outrider's walkie-talkie that first told the Hall of Famer of an inquiry.

How badly was Skimming affected? What, if any, chance did it cost him? That was what it boiled down to. With the inquiry sign lit up, Gomez told stewards Pete Pedersen, Tom Ward, and George Slender that Skimming never got a chance to make a run.

"When he took my path away and slammed me into the other horse, it took any opportunity I had," Gomez said later in the jocks' room. "Even if he does beat me, I still think it cost me second. He had more momentum than I had, no doubt. But he killed my momentum."

McCarron, on the other hand, felt the bump didn't have near that kind of impact.

"I know it was insignificant. I know it was slight," he later said. "The contact was so minor that it really didn't make a difference at all."

For seven minutes, the entire house was on tenterhooks, the flashing numbers on the toteboard the cynosure of thousands of anxious eyes. The voice of track announcer Vic Stauffer finally stifled the murmuring, bringing everyone's heart to a simultaneous halt. It also brought the stewards' ruling. As a result of the interference near the three-sixteenths pole, Futural had been taken down to third.

The beneficiary of the whole affair was Aptitude, just an innocent bystander who had run his best race in a over a year but never truly posed a threat to Futural. The readjustment not only gave Frankel his first Gold Cup since Marquetry beat Farma Way (and McCarron) by a head a decade ago but a top-two finish to boot. Aptitude also became Pincay's eighth Gold Cup winner (his first since 1986), a mark that ties him with Bill Shoemaker.

Really, it couldn't have been any other way for Frankel, who has always held Aptitude in high regard. Perhaps the son of A.P Indy is ready to once again reach the heights that carried him to strong seconds in the 2000 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I). But Frankel acknowledges he's not quite there yet.

"No, but he's coming, he's coming. He'll get there," Frankel said, noting a discernable difference in Aptitude with the addition of blinkers. "Obviously, it put him into the bridle a little bit more. And he finished good. He ran a good race. I was proud of him. I haven't given up on him."

Futural, on the other hand, is a fresh face on an upward arc. Dollase admits it's been a rigorous campaign for the 5-year-old Future Storm gelding, and some R&R may be in store. Then again, Futural hasn't shown any signs of slowing down, and the Gold Cup outcome left him -- and his trainer -- thirsty for more.

"The horse thinks he won. He came back bouncing," Dollase reported. "He passed all the tests like I thought he would. He got the distance, he carried the weight. What else could you ask for? He did it with style, too.

"It's tough. But you gotta live with it, right?"

What a game.

Continued . . .