Haskin's Breeders' Cup Wrap: Final Thoughts

Haskin's Breeders' Cup Wrap: Final Thoughts
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Quality Road training at Santa Anita before the Breeders' Cup.
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All the comments made about Quality Road   being a rogue or crazy are way off base. Dr. Larry Bramlage called him a juvenile delinquent following his meltdown prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A juvenile, yes, in many ways, but being scared out of your wits does not make you a delinquent.

 

Quality Road was a frightened child afraid not of the dark or the boogeyman, but of a metal monster that closes in on his massive frame and constricts him. It’s called claustrophobia, and suffering from it does not make one crazy or a delinquent. Admittedly, this is not a trained medical diagnosis, but it’s pretty obvious having watched this horse all year what his problem is.

 

Anyone who has had the privilege of visiting Quality Road in his stall has found a warm, gentle soul who will come to the webbing and greet you and let you pet him as long as you like. When he gets his blood up on the racetrack (the blood of a Thoroughbred) he gets in a zone and runs with a brilliance that is unsurpassed by any of his opponents. But before he can get to those wide open spaces and is able to run free with only the wind in his face he must get past this ugly green creature that is a contradiction to everything that has been bred into him.

 

Some horses don’t mind it. Some don’t like it, but tolerate it. Others (remember another giant named Rock Hard Ten) want nothing to do with it. Still others are petrified of it.

 

It has been widely commented that putting a blindfold on Quality Road while in a frenzied state only exacerbated the situation. After only one circle they shoved him in. He knew exactly where he was from the cold metal hitting his sides. But now he was blind, a child in the dark, and even more agitated than he was when he was able to see the monster and confront it.

 

Whoever the assistant starter was who held on to the horse doggedly after he broke through the front of the gate while still blindfolded, he is the unsung hero of this year’s Breeders’ Cup. Had he let go, the disaster that likely would have ensued is something no one even wants to imagine.

 

Quality Road, who suffered several injuries, was so traumatized by the incident he would not get on the plane to take him back home to New York. Now he must van 36 hours to Churchill Downs, stay there for 48 hours and then van to Belmont Park, where one hopes starter Bobby Duncan can work his magic and perform some kind of miracle with him. If he can’t, there is a good chance Quality Road will never get in a starting gate again, depriving his connections and the sport the opportunity to witness what promises to be an exceptional 4-year-old campaign.

 

This horse has bounced back from two severe quarter cracks and has been forced to run two races in the slop, never getting the opportunity to show off his true brilliance. Here’s hoping his mental wounds heal and he is able to come to peace with the monster in his mind. Racing needs him.

 

Dr. Joe still would have been proud

 

Dr. Joe Rauch, co-owner of Capt. Candyman Can, loved the Captain as much as any owner could love a horse, and he was counting the days to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Sadly, he passed away a week before the race. Here are some of his thoughts and dreams throughout the year as he embarked on an unforgettable journey with his horse. They are a tribute, not only to a giving Thoroughbred, but to the sport.

 

February -- “I have experienced a love of racing that has extended from my first bet (Promoter's Crash), $34 to win at River Downs, to owning my first race horse (Code Blue, bought from John Galbreath in 1971), to co-breeding and racing my dream horse after almost 40 years of trying, a Candy Ride gelding named Capt. Candyman Can. Nothing can explain the pure exhilaration, the joy, the heartbreak of this game we are addicted to. As I dream of the Captain's next race, I got news of his half brother weanling by Purge fracturing a carpal bone in a paddock accident. The joy with tears, the sorrow with tears, are all what make up this labor of love we call horses. If we were to make it to the Derby, I don't know if my legs will hold me up if he is in contention coming down the stretch. The hook that Promoter's Crash set in my stomach 45 years ago may just snap and I'll fall to my seat, again with tears, be they of joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, and hopefully not sorrow.”

 

August -- “Nine more days and it will be Travers and Kings Bishop day. We are all ‘bouncing off the walls’ because we are so excited. I keep playing the race in my mind.  Big Drama up close behind ‘Carlos’ and ‘Hero,’ Vineyard Haven right there because he will be fresh, Munnings pressing a bit in front of us,   and the Captain coming up behind a wall of horses at the quarter pole. Can he go wide and get around them, or will a hole open up for him to get through?  Is he good enough?

 

That's when I wake up from my dream and wonder how it will end. That fishhook in my stomach from all those years ago has come full cycle and is still firmly attached. It just won't let go. What a wonderful addiction. My life has been full of memorable experiences, but this is as exciting as it gets.”

 

The day before the King’s Bishop, Joe leaned up against a railing outside trainer Ian Wilkes’ barn and stood there almost all morning just staring at the Captain grazing. After the colt’s victory in the King’s Bishop, his first grade I score, Joe, his faced flushed with excitement, gave everyone a huge hug, not knowing where to turn next. It was a surreal and scintillating moment he would always cherish. 

 

Joe could not sleep in the weeks leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, he was so excited. Capt. Candyman Can unfortunately did not take to the Pro-Ride and was never a factor in the Sprint, the first time in his career he failed to fire. Joe would have been proud of him anyway and would have been overwhelmed just to be a part of the experience. The Captain will live to fight another day. In many ways, so will Joe.

 

Sacred cloth

 

Outside a top restaurant in Pasadena the night of the Breeders’ Cup, three men eyed a woman carrying a yellow Breeders’ Cup saddlecloth.

 

“Whose saddlecloth is that?” one of them asked.

 

“Zenyatta’s,” the woman replied.

 

“No way,” one said, pausing to ponder this audacious reply. “That’s not real is it?”

 

Someone then told them that the woman was John Shirreffs’ wife, Dottie, who also was the racing manager for owners Jerry and Ann Moss.

 

From the exclamations uttered by all three men, you would have thought they had just laid eyes on the Shroud of Turin.

 

Actually, judging by the euphoria that had erupted several hours earlier, perhaps they had.

 

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In winning the Classic, Zenyatta likely defeated at least three future champions – Summer Bird (champion 3-year-old male), Gio Ponti   (champion male grass horse), and Rip Van Winkle (champion miler in England). With champion older male in North America still up for grabs, that award could go to Einstein   if he should win the Clark Handicap, and it’s even possible Gio Ponti can take home both awards. Either scenario would make it four champions Zenyatta defeated.

 

Hard luck horses – Lookin at Lucky ran a super race in defeat in the Juvenile after breaking from the 13 post and getting hung wide the whole way. He looked spectacular physically and proved in defeat he is one top-class colt with an unlimited future. Biofuel got absolutely creamed by Negligee in the stretch of the Juvenile Fillies and was literally turned sideways. She still recovered and closed fast to finish fourth, beaten 1 1/2 lengths. Gotta Have Her most certainly would have been closer to California Flag at the finish of the Turf Sprint, and might even have won, with a clear run. Despite getting stopped in traffic and having to wait for an opening, she still closed from seventh at the eighth pole to finish second, beaten 1 3/4 lengths. Ready’s Echo, who’s last good trip was his van ride from the farm to Todd Pletcher’s barn as a 2-year-old, once again had his share of trouble, getting knocked off stride while making his move in the Dirt Mile. After lugging in he came flying late as usual to finish second, beaten three-quarters of a length at 24-1.

 

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Speaking of fillies, cheers to Goldikova on a memorable, historic victory of her own, and to the well-deserved triumph of Life is Sweet, who emerged from Zenyatta’s massive shadow as if stepping out into the sunlight for the first time in months.

 

Speaking of which, throw out statistics when trying to come up with the Eclipse Award-winning trainer this year. Either John Shirreffs or Jonathan Sheppard deserve the honor. There, I just did all the work for you. Kudos to Sheppard for finishing first, second, and third with his three Breeders’ Cup starters, not to mention his other major scores over the course of the year. Shirreffs’ job with Zenyatta has been, well, perfect, and saddling the winners of the Classic and Ladies Classic put the finishing touch on a terrific year.

 

Bill Mott should be delighted with the second-place finishes of Mushka (16-1) in the Ladies Classic and Courageous Cat (22-1) in the Mile. Finally, a great job by Kenny McPeek with his two seconds and two thirds in the four juvenile races.

 

Hail the old warriors

 

There is nothing that can be said here that hasn’t already been said about the amazing performance of Presious Passion in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, in what very well may have been the greatest losing performance in Breeders’ Cup history, and one of the greatest losing efforts ever. Just consider: a mile and a half race, a 10-length lead, mind-blowing fractions of 45 flat and 1:09 1/5 -- unheard of.

 

The lead, of course, disintegrates in a matter of seconds as three of Europe’s finest – Conduit, Dar Re Mi, and Spanish Moon -- all move in for the kill. Presious Passion is cooked, lucky to stagger home within eyesight of the Euros. That’s the way it’s supposed to go.

 

Not so fast. This is Presious Passion – The Thing That Wouldn’t Die. Time and again he has pulled the same routine only to spill his guts on the track when it looked like he had no more to give. That’s when his overconfident opponents, thinking they’re going to cruise on by him, realize they’re in big trouble. Dar Re Mi, the leading older filly in Europe, realized it fast enough, as did the group I-winning Spanish Moon. Even Conduit, last year’s Turf winner and this year’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth winner, had to struggle mightily to get past him. Presious Passion once again battled back, only this time against some of the best horses in the world.

 

Conduit, the 4-5 favorite, finally got the better of him by a scant half-length. But Presious Passion came out a winner in his own right, because he showed the world just what courage and tenacity, and the will to win, was all about. That is a true Thoroughbred. It was easy to see why his trainer, Mary Hartmann, was all smiles after the race, with no regrets about getting beat. All she could say was how happy she was and how proud she was of her horse. She has known for a long time just how fortunate she’s been to possess such a rare gift, and no half-length defeat was going to change that. The only difference is that now the entire racing world knows how rare that gift is.

 

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Another war horse that must be mentioned is the 9-year-old Cloudy’s Knight, who returned from a one-year layoff due to a soft tissue injury to win two graded stakes and then put up the fight of his life in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon, only to be beaten a nose by a European invader six years younger than him.

 

When Jonathan Sheppard agreed to take over the training of Cloudy’s Knight this year, he was told to take his time with him and see if the horse was able to make it back to the races, and if he still had to desire to be a racehorse. The last time he came back off a year’s layoff due to injury he returned a far better horse, eventually winning the Canadian International Championship at odds of 18-1. But now he was 9-years-old, with a lot of wear and tear behind him.

 

If “Cloudy” was unable to make it back, then perhaps Sheppard could try to make a jumper out of him. Who better than Sheppard? The reason the horse was sent to him was so that he could be placed in a tranquil atmosphere and train over the rolling hills and open fields at Sheppard’s facility in Pennsylvania.

 

As it turned out, Cloudy still was all racehorse, and if he could emerge victorious from the 1 1/2-mile Sycamore Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland on Oct. 22, Sheppard would wheel him right back in two weeks in the Marathon.

 

Around the far turn of the Marathon, his jockey, Rosemary Homeister, saw an opportunity to bust the 1 3/4-mile race wide open nearing the top of the stretch and she gunned Cloudy to the front after having him back in sixth for most of the race. The old boy turned back the challenge of Godolphin’s St. Leger (Eng-I) winner and 7-5 favorite Mastery, but Coolmore’s 3-year-old, Man of Iron, was able to slip through along the rail, quite possibly catching Cloudy but surprise. He dug in and fought back after seeing him, but Man of Iron was able to stick his nose in front right at the wire.

 

Once again, it was a heartbreaking defeat for the old warriors, but how can you not stand up and cheer for a horse like this and the performance he turned in at the age of 9?

 

There has been talk of possibly doing away with the Marathon, but how else are we going to infuse stamina back in the blood of our horses? Instead, they should boost the purse, give it grade I status, and have the tracks devise a schedule of lucrative races at 1 1/2 miles and longer. We need the Marathon. It is our last hope to preserve a way of life that has been an integral part of the Thoroughbred and the sport for hundreds of years.

 

Horses of the Year

 

It has been suggested in several publications to either get rid of the Horse of the Year category on the Eclipse ballot this year only and give the award to both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra or at least give the voters a choice and allow them to write in both horses if they so desire. It does not have to set a precedent, because you can be sure there will never again be two horses this remarkable, this popular, and of this epic nature come along in the same year. We’ll no doubt get two top horses who probably both deserve the award, and a tough decision will have to be made, but in this case we’re talking about two of the greatest fillies of all time who have performed feats so extraordinary they will never be duplicated. If I’m wrong, then I look forward to the day when they are.

 

I realize that voting is voting, and you accept the outcome, even though popularity, human connections, and geography may play a part in the result. I can only go by the way I feel. In my way of thinking, whether warped or not, I can see voting for the filly of your choice, but I cannot see NOT voting for the other one. What that means in simple terms is I cannot imagine one of these fillies not being rewarded for her accomplishments this year. But if voting goes on as usual, whoever does come up on the short end of the voting, I say this to her connections: you don’t need a statue to secure your place in the history books.

 

I realize I’m talking from the heart and not being analytical or realistic at all, but the campaigns of 5-year-old Zenyatta and 3-year-old Rachel Alexandra are so far removed from each other, and orchestrated with such different goals in mind, they cannot be compared, despite all the analysis and statistics. Therefore, the Horse of the Year award in this case should be voted on with the heart, and the heck with all the meaningless statistical comparisons. That means there is only one course of action: give it to both of them and make everyone happy. Why not? Who is it going to hurt?

 

ESPN shines in California sun

 

As one who tends to nitpick when it comes to TV telecasts of major races, I must congratulate ESPN/ABC for a great job on this year’s Breeders’ Cup telecast. I even didn't mind their camera cuts, which usually drive me nuts, but they actually were revealing for the most part. I still like to see the start from a normal angle and see how wide a horse is going into the first turn, and I prefer to watch a race the standard way, but it is understandable that they want to try to put more excitement into the races. Normally, they fail, but this time it worked, especially the moving backstretch camera, where you could see how far off the rail the horses were. The only major flaw was having the shot of the finish way too far back and not zooming in on the horses, which actually made the finish the least exciting part of the race.  In the Marathon, for instance, you had no idea who had won, because the horses were simply  too small. But all in all, it was easier to follow the races and the horses’ moves from the back of the pack. The pre-race look at the downhill turf course and the camera angles during the race made the Turf Sprint all the more exciting to watch.

 

The features were well done, informative, and humorous, highlighted by revealing and emotion-packed interviews with Kent Desormeaux and Bob Baffert. The latter seemed to be in a cathedral when looking around at the hallowed walls of the barn where his father taught him about horses. You could see he was struggling to keep his emotions in check. And Desormeaux had to reach deep into his gut to answer the hard, thought-provoking questions asked of him by Chris Connelly, who showed he is a top-notch interviewer.

 

Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey were extremely informative throughout, with Joe Tessitore doing a great job keeping the show moving at a crisp pace, never missing a beat. And I loved Moss’ betting screen. I can’t name everyone involved, but Jeannine Edwards and Jay Privman were right on top of everything all day, providing timely interviews and updates, and pertinent and interesting information. Nick Luck did an excellent job with the European perspective. Caton Bredar, on horseback, gave the viewer an up-close and revealing look at the horses on the track. Rick Reilly’s racecalling feature was great fun, and Bailey provided an informative, in-depth analysis of Summer Bird.

 

Two humorous highlights were Moss, Bailey, and Tessitore talking about the names of the first three horses in the post parade of the Juvenile. There was Alfred Nobel in post 1 and Beethoven in post 3, and in between was Piscitelli, named after the owner’s barber. And then Piscitelli goes out and finishes fourth in four-horse blanket photo at 50-1.

 

And the line of the day went to jockey Ahmed Ajtebi, a former camel jockey, who won the Juvenile aboard Vale of York. When asked if there were any similarities between riding horses and camels, Ajtebi replied: “They all have four legs.”

 

A great job by all involved.

 

As a side note, if you can't get enough of Zenyatta and want to follow her through her Classic triumph, then make sure you watch TVG's "Instant Classic," which focuses solely on the great mare from the time she enters the paddock before the race to the time she exits through the paddock after the race. The camera rarely leaves her. The commentary is all about her, and the emotions from the entire on-sight crew pour out with pure exultation and adulation after the race. It's a great remembrance of one of the most unforgettable races anyone has ever seen. You'll want to record this one and save it to watch over and over.

 

Santa Anita and synthetic tracks

 

No, I’m still not a fan of synthetic tracks, but as far as the Breeders’ Cup goes, this was the second year all the horses emerged unscathed as far as major injuries go. Lillie Langtry apparently was the only horse to have come of a race with an injury, but it was not life-threatening and she should be OK. To feel confident going into a race and not be thinking about injuries makes the event that much more enjoyable.

 

Once again, I can’t say enough about the beauty of Santa Anita, the friendliness of the employees and security people, and the absolute joy of being out there in the coolness of the early morning, watching the sun come up and illuminating the tops of the mountains, creating an amber glow around the track. Clocker’s Corner is a phenomenon unto itself and you won’t find a better breakfast anywhere. No matter who you want to see, he or she will be at Clocker’s Corner at some point. Although they serve breakfast to hundreds of people every morning, when I went up to the window to order on Friday, the remarkable Rosie, asked me, “Scrambled eggs on English muffin?” I had ordered that on two occasions during the week and she remembered – amazing.

 

So, what to do for future Breeders’ Cups? Simple, put a state-of-the art, safe, well-maintained dirt track in, so the leading dirt horses won’t be compromised and embarrassed and will actually show up, and I’d say run the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita every other year, alternating with Belmont and Churchill Downs. An occasional foray back to one of other successful venues from the past is fine as well. When you’re at Santa Anita in late October and early November that is the place you want to be.

 

One final comment about Zenyatta running 13 of her races on a synthetic surface: Zenyatta transcends synthetic surfaces, pure and simple. According to Shirreffs, she merely tolerates it and is much better on dirt. This is one horse who will run on anything they put under her. Greatness is greatness no matter how you look at it.

 

Oh, yes, I forgot. Saeed bin Suroor came over to me immediately after the Juvenile and said Vale of York will return for the Kentucky Derby. OK, get the thermometer out. Derby fever has begun.

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