The spotlight is gone. The warm summer has turned to cold and even snow. But, don’t worry, horses actually like—and prefer—to run in the cold weather. On Tuesday, a six furlong race was won at Finger Lakes in 1:08.98 in snow, an incredible time for that track.
Thanksgiving is here and let’s take the time to give thanks to many great things that happened in the Sport of Kings this year. We will start by giving thanks to Gary Stevens, who decided to end his seven year retirement and start riding again at the age of 50. All he did this year was win the Preakness, the Breeder’s Cup Distaff and the Breeder’s Cup Classic. Sometimes, the jockey gets too much credit, but Stevens ride in the Preakness showed his true greatness. He took Oxbow out and let him cut easy fractions and by the stretch, the race was over and as Tom Hammond correctly put it, he stole the race.
Let’s give thanks to D. Wayne Lukas, the 77 years young trainer who showed that the game hasn’t and probably never will pass him by. As Lukas said after the Preakness win, “it’s been a long time between drinks,” but Lukas came back strong this year, winning both the Preakness, and the Travers with Will Take Charge. Lukas is old school and if you’re over 40, old school means running your horses. Woody Stephens was famous for this and so is Lukas. Will Take Charge didn’t perform well in the Kentucky Derby and most trainers would have benched the colt, giving him a break over the summer. Lukas would have none of that. He ran the colt in the Preakness and once again, the colt didn’t fire. So, what did Lukas do? He ran him back in the Belmont, once again, to a disappointing result.
Lukas was still convinced that the colt would eventually mature and fire and he was right. He came back at Saratoga, finishing second in the Jim Dandy before winning a thrilling stretch duel with Moreno in the Travers. The colt kept going and won the Pennsylvania Derby before almost running down Mucho Macho Man in a Breeder’s Cup Classic Classic.
Let’s give thanks to the Breeder’s Cup. The Kentucky Derby will always be the signature event of the horse racing season because it’s the only race that brings in the casual or even the non-sports fan. But, if you love the sport, the Breeder’s Cup is simply the best. Two days, fourteen races, what more can you ask for? Horse racing has its share of problems, but the Breeder’s Cup is not one of them. It’s the true Super Bowl of the sport and that should not be forgotten.
Let’s give thanks to Shug McGaughey, the Kentucky born trainer who finally won the Kentucky Derby. McGaughey is a class act, well liked and well respected by his peers and his victory at Churchill Downs was well received. He was not a hard luck trainer, because McGaughey never rushed a horse to the Derby. He is methodical, careful and deliberate, but this year, he had a colt that was more than ready to run and Orb did his best work in the spring and it culminated with the biggest win in the trainer’s career.
Let’s give thanks to two classy ladies in Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar, who I affectionately refer to as the little baby. Royal Delta didn’t finish her career the way both she and her classy trainer Bill Mott would have wanted her to, but she doesn’t have to apologize to anybody. A classy, regal winner, here’s hoping that her children can be half as good as she was and is.
And, for Princess of Sylmar, what a run to be thankful for. Dismissed in the Kentucky Oaks at 36-1, she won and then went on a tear, winning four consecutive stakes races, which included a signature win over Royal Delta in the Beldame at Belmont. That was her peak, and what a peak it was. We also should give thanks to her owner Ed Stanco for running her in the Breeder’s Cup Distaff. Even though she finished well back, the sport needed to see her there. It would have been easy and maybe wise to sit her for the rest of the year, but Stanco gave back to the sport and sent her to Santa Anita, and he should be commended for that.
Let’s give thanks to Ron the Greek for many reasons. One, is his name, how can you not root for a horse that is simply referred to as “The Greek?” We’re thankful because the horse, at age six is still out there running, and it looked like he had seen better days until the last Saturday of September at the Jockey Club Gold Club at Belmont Park. There, he caught a flyer and dominated a very good field, breaking 2 minutes over 1 ¼ miles in the process. The Greek showed the world that his demise was indeed, exaggerated.
Let’s give thanks to an old man, ten year old Calidioscopio for winning the Brooklyn Handicap the day before the Belmont on a wet track at Belmont Park. When the race started the Argentinian didn’t appear that interested. In fact, his handlers though that he was going to be eased up after falling 25 or 30 lengths back at the six furlong mark in the 1 ½ race. But, the horse and jockey Aaron Gryder knew what they were doing and as the late Bob Prince would say, “we had them all the way.” He came to life and pulled it off, one last victory before a leg injury forced him to retire. I’m not sure it was the performance of the year, but if you watch it online and don’t get goose bumps then you’re just not human.
Let’s give thanks to the smaller tracks that provide a place for horses to start and continue their careers. Finger Lakes Race Track is a personal favorite of mine. Does it get the best horses? Of course not, but it provides a home for horses and trainers that still want to compete and still believe that they have big races in them. In addition, it provides jobs for people who love the game. I always look forward to the George W. Barker on Memorial Day and the New York Derby in July at Finger Lakes and still pine for Wadsworth Handicap to return on July 4. I may be the only one, but I have it marked on my calendar for sure.
Let’s give thanks to Fort Erie Race Track in Fort Erie, Ontario which will likely be closed and will not have a 2014 season. A beautiful track, it was simply a victim in the numbers game as people took their entertainment dollars to casinos and other avenues nearby. The track hosted the Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown, and when I think of that race and that track, I always go back to 1990 and see the great Izvestia roaring down the stretch to victory en route to winning the Triple Crown that year.
Let’s give thanks to the Triple Crown. For five weeks, horse racing gets the attention that it needs and deserves. After the Derby, the thought of having a Triple Crown winner dances through the minds of many. And, if the Derby winner wins the Preakness, then the frenzy begins in earnest. The buildup, the anticipation is simply amazing.
Let’s give thanks to Wise Dan, to me, the unquestioned Horse of the Year for the second straight year. At the age of the six, Dan was the best. The only race he lost was a race that was taken off turf and run on polytrack at Keeneland. They could have scratched him, but trainer Charlie LoPresti looked at the big crowd that came to see Wise Dan and let him run, and still, he was a game second. He ran 1:31.32 for a mile at Woodbine and then just willed his way to a win in the Breeder’s Cup Mile, a great performance by a truly great horse.
Let me give thanks to this website for allowing me to write a few words about a sport I love and have fallen deeper in love with over the years. There’s something about those horses that get me going. Maybe it’s the speed or the fact that they don’t like social media and never get arrested, but they make for great stories and great copy and for that, I am thankful for.
I must thank the Alpha Mare, Marion Altieri as well. I met her in the spring, overheard her talking horses and two hours later, we were still talking horses, and two weeks later, my column appeared here. Thank you Marion!
Happy Thanksgiving to all and don’t forget about the Clark Handicap Friday at Churchill Downs and the Cigar Mile on Saturday at Aqueduct.