By Craig Harzman
Flame Thrower rested near the back of his stall, oblivious to the small crowd milling about in the shedrow. Crouching beneath him, Rudy Silva gracefully applied the final touches of poultice, working his hands up and down the colt's front legs. Gary Garber stood a few steps away and admired the scene, still suffused with the glow of an unforgettable afternoon. Presently he pointed out a wooden sign, stenciled '12A' with black paint, nailed above the stall doorway. This was no ordinary spot. "That's the same stall as Silver Charm," Garber indicated, inviting the imagination to draw a host of parallels. For Flame Thrower, however, there are countless miles still to train, many wars to be waged, and much honor to be sought before he ever stacks up with Silver Charm, who is considered no less than a god around the Bob Baffert barn, the benchmark against whom all potential heirs are measured. What set apart Silver Charm from the rest were the intangibles, attributes buried deep within that surged forth during the throes of battle. Heart, drive, and determination. Tenacity and an intrinsic distaste for losing, with a dash of hubris tossed in for personality.
In the wake of the final electrifying yards of Oak Tree's $200,000 Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) on Oct. 7, however, the best illustration of guts and glory these days comes hued in deep chestnut and gold and equipped with a die-cast heart. He's unbeaten. He's got speed to burn. He's showered with talent. But one thing separates Flame Thrower from all the others. He wants to beat you. "Man, he's got guts," marveled Baffert. "I'd like to see the heart scan on that son of a gun." By day's end, most were still left in awe. "Can you believe that you run a mile in 1:34 with a 2-year-old and get beat?" wondered trainer Eoin Harty, shaking his head after Godolphin's Street Cry was scotched yet again by Garber's colt. "Unbelievable." They had collided for the first time in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II) on Sept. 13, when Street Cry had Flame Thrower against the ropes but couldn't put him away. The son of Saint Ballado had set a fiery pace that day, and turning for home, Street Cry looked ready to swallow him whole. Flame Thrower instead found something more. He won by a head.
But that was going seven-eighths. Despite Flame Thrower's impeccable ledger, some deemed the Norfolk's extra furlong a slant in the favor of his long-striding opponent. Either way, the rematch figured to be a beauty. It was an epic. As usual, Flame Thrower scudded off to the lead, this time under new rider Victor Espinoza, with Mr. Freckles sticking close early on. The Meadowlake colt remained a thorn long enough to push Flame Thrower through six furlongs in 1:10.31. David Flores, meanwhile, had kept Street Cry in striking distance throughout, and when he finally produced the Machiavellian colt at the head of the lane, it was a Del Mar déjà vu. Mr. Freckles bowed out near the eighth pole, leaving Street Cry to once again reckon with Flame Thrower. The stretch run was one for the ages. Street Cry gave him all he could take, but Flame Thrower, his blonde mane and tail ablaze, would not give in. This time, the margin was a neck. Together, they covered the mile in 1:34.86, smashing the stakes mark by nearly a full second. Mr. Freckles ran hard to keep third. "He silenced a lot of critics today," Baffert said back at the barn, to which Garber chimed in, "A lot. 'Cause they all thought that he'd get beat today going a mile." "You're always concerned. Always," Baffert went on, reflecting on the inevitable challenge of two turns. "I thought down deep he's gonna get it because he gave me :44 1/5 (at Del Mar) and kept going. I've never had a horse do that." The experience is equally as exciting for Garber and his wife, Diane. Their runners tend to be more like family members than athletes of entertainment. In return, their care has been rewarded with tremendous success over the last decade. Quintana, once a $50,000 claim, gave the Garbers a rush when he finished sixth in the 1991 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), as did homebred Diane's Halo, who ran third in the '94 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). Classic Cat was a leading 3-year-old two years ago before retiring to stud a millionaire. But Garber is continually amazed by Flame Thrower, whose mettle is reaching mythic proportions. Without a doubt, he's having the time of his life. "Oh yeah," he said, watching Flame Thrower plunge into his hayrack. "I mean, Classic Cat gave me a lot of thrills, but this is completely different. It's a whole different scenario because he's undefeated, won four races in a row. I've never had a horse that won four races in a row...three stakes in a row. It's a whole different thing. He just won't let anybody go by him." Get ready, Kentucky. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) will be full-scale war. Nothing Quiet About Yellow Ribbon
Three races after the Norfolk, Pam and Marty Wygod's Tranquility Lake pulled an East-West version of John's Call and flat-out stole the $500,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes (gr. IT). After a pair of facile efforts this summer, the daughter of Rahy got knocked out of the Ramona Handicap (gr. IT) at Del Mar, a protracted interruption trainer Julio Canani imputes to a spider bite. With a berth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) on the line, Tranquility Lake reappeared for the 1 1/4-mile Yellow Ribbon off just a pair of serious works. Canani conceded she might be short, then simply watched as the competition somehow let Tranquility Lake saunter alone through splits of :25.76 and :51.36. But after three-quarters in 1:16.62, the others finally took their shots. Alexine and defending champ Spanish Fern began to attack leaving the three-eighths pole. When Tranquility Lake finally felt the pressure, the game was on. "She digs, man. She digs," jockey Eddie Delahoussaye later said. "She knows she's in the race, but she does it the right way. Some horses, you challenge 'em and they'll grind it out quickly and then they spit it. She paces herself." Delahoussaye hardly budged as Tranquility Lake hugged the rail and sprinted for home. Spanish Fern put up a strong fight, but it was too late. The damage had been done. With a final quarter in a swift :22.63, Tranquility Lake hit the wire a length clear and ready for Louisville. "When she's right," Delahoussaye said, "she's probably as good a mare in the country as anybody." On Nov. 4, she'll finally get the chance to prove it.Continued...