For the Love of Thoroughbred Horse Racing!!!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Haskell Memories

To many the Haskell is just one of numerous big races that dot our racing landscape. To me, it is much more. Growing up in New Jersey, I had a special connection to the race. Known to me as the Monmouth Invitational until my twelfth birthday, the Haskell was the race I identified most with in my youth. It was the best of New Jersey, and I pointed for it year in and year out. With a particularly deep Haskell Invitational set to commence at Monmouth Park in 48 hours, I decided to recap some of my favorite moments from Haskell’s past.

In 1975 and 1976 there were back-to-back family favorites in the winner’s circle, as Wajima and Majestic Light each used the Monmouth Invitational to win their first major race, and in so doing, announced themselves as horses on the rise. Wajima gutted out a hard fought victory in 1975, while Majestic Light whistled in ‘76. Each would win numerous big races after leaving Monmouth, but it was on Invitational Day where they held their coming out parties.

In 1980 it was the unheralded J-bred, Thanks to Tony, who sent shock waves through the shore oval grandstand. Let go at 23-1, Tony won by a half length, and defeated two of the best colts in training, in Superbity and Amber Pass. It was not the largest win payoff in the history of the race, but the local horse is the one that I consider to have been the biggest surprise.

The next Haskell was especially gratifying for me, as my choice took it to the champion Lord Avie. Five Star Flight was my absolute favorite horse of 1981, so I saved up my money, and had my Dad put it all on the son of Top Command to win. Win he did, as the 1-2 shot Lord Avie could never get close to him. Five Star Flight won the biggest race of his career by five lenghts, and I smiled for days.

1986 was the year of my best Haskell wager, as I was on longshot winner Wise Times. Under jockey Chris DeCarlo, he took command in the lane and coasted to a relatively easy 1 ¼ length score. I always remember my longshot winners, and at 11-1, Wise Times fit the bill. He beat a field that included Personal Flag, Danzig Connection, Broad Brush, and John‘s Treasure that day, and went on to win the Travers and Super Derby in his next two.

I believe the two greatest runnings of the Haskell occurred in consecutive years of 1987 and 1988. First it was Belmont winner Bet Twice, beating Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba, and streaking stakes winner Lost Code in a three-horse battle of wills that I will never forget. I was on Lost Code that day, but I still recognize the race as the best ever held at Monmouth Park. Then, not to be outdone, Forty Niner outfought unlucky Seeking the Gold the final half mile to win the head-to-head battle by a desperate nose. The two sons of Mr. Prospector were two of the finest that year, and would run in similar breathtaking fashion in the Travers.

In 1990 Restless Con became the second straight Northern California invader, after King Glorious, to take the big prize. Not sure who I was going to bet until seeing them in the paddock, I was taken by the beautiful gray, and even more so after seeing him claim the only grade 1 victory of his career.

The mid-nineties brought some fabulous champions to Monmouth Park and they strutted their stuff with speed and power. Holy Bull, Serena’s Song, and Skip Away were three of the greats of their era, and in 1994 - 1996 they came, they saw, and they conquered the Haskell Invitational. The outcomes were never really in doubt for each, as they rewarded their throngs of supporters with wins that helped all of them win year end honors.

2001 was all about Point Given, and the Haskell was another stop on his march to stardom. Trainer Bob Baffert will be looking for his 4th Haskell win with Lookin at Lucky on Sunday, but it is Point Given who I consider to be the best horse he has ever trained, and it was a treat to see him run at Monmouth. Six graded stakes wins in seven starts that year, if only he had run his race in the Derby.

In 2007, the Haskell attracted the big horse Curlin, but in order to win, he would need to beat two tigers in Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun. He beat neither. In one of the more impressive Haskell performances I have seen, Any Given Saturday spurted well clear of Hard Spun and Curlin down the lane to win by more than four lengths. Curlin would be named Horse of the Year the next two years, but on that day it was Any Given Saturday.

And speaking of impressive performances, in 2009 it was Rachel Alexandra who continued the trend of horses I love winning the Haskell. In the race I still consider her greatest to date, Rachel dominated a fine field of colts by a whopping margin. Her win was one of the fastest Haskell’s ever, one of the largest winning margins, and came at the direct expense of soon to be male champion, Summer Bird.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Remembering … Swale

I followed him from the very beginning. I still remember those early maiden races and the horses he battled, Capital South and Shuttle Jet. These would be the same colts that he would contend with in many of New York’s prestigious juvenile stakes, and more often than not, it would be Swale who came out on top. Swale was always good, right from the beginning, and he was a horse who would battle his competition to the finish on almost every occasion. Reported to have never needed a single aspirin, never off his feed, and clearly a fighter on the track, it was all the more shocking to hear of Swale’s demise less than one year after his career began.

It was an early Sunday morning in June of 1984, and Swale, the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes hero, went out for a routine gallop around the Belmont Park oval. Not scheduled to race again until the Fall, the maintenance gallop went smoothly as planned. Not even thirty minutes later, Swale would be gone.

After the gallop, Swale returned to the backstretch, to receive his cooling hose bath. Following the bath, and without warning, the big bay reared and fell over backward. Believed to be dead before he even hit the ground, Swale twitched a few times, then lay still. It was an unfathomable shock to me, I can not possibly imagine what his handlers went through at that fateful moment.

Swale's death occurred only eight days after proving that he was the best sophomore in the nation. His decisive four-length victory in the 116th running of the Belmont Stakes took care of that. I was in the stands that day and I had never been so impressed with the son of Seattle Slew. He reminded me of his sire that day, and that is an enormous compliment. Swale, with rider Laffit Pincay in tow, skipped over the 1 ½ mile distance in 2:27 and 1/5 which was at the time, the fourth fastest Belmont in history. Many had doubted Swale after his disappointing seventh in the Preakness which, of course, prevented him from becoming a Triple Crown winner. But in the Belmont, he left no doubt. Swale took over the race early on and set moderate fractions. His top competition, Preakness winner Gate Dancer, and Withers winner Play On, mounted their challenge to Swale on the far turn to no avail. Swale had more them one unused gear to smoothly accelerate away from the other favorites. Pine Circle rallied up for a strong second, but on this day, and once again, it was all Swale.

If the Belmont proved his superiority, it was the Kentucky Derby that first made him a star. Despite his excellent record as a juvenile, including four graded stakes wins, Swale was not the juvenile champion. In fact, he was considered only the second stringer of trainer Woody Stephens’ barn. The toast of the 1983 racing season was his barnmate, and fellow juvenile colt, Devil’s Bag. While the fleet Devil’s Bag dominated all the headlines, Swale was the one who was still around for the first Saturday in May. Because he had yet to break free of the Devil’s Bag stigma within his own barn, and because he was coming off a loss in the sloppy Lexington Stakes, Derby bettors made the speedy filly Althea the post time favorite for the Run for the Roses. That was a mistake. Swale, carrying the familiar gold silks of Claiborne, dominated the Derby like few horses have. Stalking from the outside, he took over the race on the far turn. As the other horses bunched up behind him looking for the opportunity to launch their bid in the large field, it was the dark bay who was leaving the field behind with every stride. Near the eighth pole, Swale had opened up a five or six length lead, and from there he coasted home on cruise control 3 ¼ lengths clear of Coax Me Chad.

Slightly disrespected until he forced his greatness upon us, Swale was a winner. His stakes wins were all of the graded variety and included the Saratoga Special, Futurity, Breeders’ Futurity, Young America, Hutcheson, Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Belmont. That win in the grade 1 Young America was the first time I saw Swale in person. It was easy for me to like Swale leaving the races that night, as under Eddie Maple, he was much farther off the pace than usual in the 16 horse field. He made his will to win quite evident, as his rally was relentless and irresistible and carried him to victory at the wire, winning by a nose over a talented colt named Disastrous Night. The Belmont, unfortunately would be the last time I saw Swale in person. Those two races, one, the last race of his juvenile season, and the other, the final of his life, spoke volumes as to what kind of horse Swale was. He had the heart and determination it took to stick his nose in front, and the speed and talent to dominate classics. In many ways, he was the closest thing to his great sire I ever saw.

His death was not only shocking, but it was also mysterious. A massive heart attack was believed to have ended Swale's life, but an autopsy performed that same afternoon failed to reveal any damage to the heart. Pathologists weren't sure what had caused the death of the superior athlete. No evidence was found to suggest foul play. Further study remained inconclusive, but many now believe he died from Colitis X, the same disease that claimed the life of another Seattle Slew superstar, Landaluce. Swale was buried where he was born, at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. At the time of his death, it is believed that the well bred champion had a syndication value of $40 million.

Despite his sudden death, Swale was still able to compile quite a resume. He earned more than 1.5 million dollars in his tragically shortened racing career. Swale won 9 times, and eight stakes, in only 14 starts. He finished out of the money but once, the Preakness. To nobody’s surprise, Swale was posthumously named the outstanding three-year-old male of 1984. I was in the passenger seat of my Mom’s car on the way to the Rockaway Mall when the shocking news of Swale’s death came over the radio. I was speechless. He had looked invincible when I saw him pass The Test of Champions only days before. I remember you Swale.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Gelding Greats

They may have never known the pleasures of amore, but they made up for it with extended excellence on the racetrack. These are the best of the best, the greatest geldings of the past century. I only selected one top gelding for each decade, so some stars had to be left off when multiple great non-breeders roamed the racetracks with grace and power. Without further adieu, here are my selections of the gelding greats:

10’s - Old Rosebud (80-40-13-8) The top juvenile of 1913 and a smashing winner of the Kentucky Derby the following Spring, Old Rosebud bowed his tendon and did not race again for nearly three years. Recovered fully, he came back to become a champion again, this time as a six-year-old, winning 15 for 19 in 1917.

20’s - Exterminator (100-50-17-17) Moderate success as a two-year-old and early as a sophomore, did not stop Exterminator from winning the Kentucky Derby at long odds. The timeless runner was never better though than his five-year-old season when he started beating the best at any distance. His success lasted to nine-years-old, eventually winning exactly half of his 100 career starts, including 33 stakes.

30’s - Phar Lap (51-37-3-2) Considered the greatest horse ever to run in the Southern Hemisphere, Phar Lap was a national treasure in both Australia and New Zealand. The dominant horse in the world in the beginning of the 1930’s, Phar Lap came to America with great fanfare. Sadly his time was short lived as he was poisoned to death after one impressive victory across the border in Mexico.

40’s - Armed (81-41-20-10) One of the greats for sire Bull Lea and owner Calumet Farm, Armed got better every year until he was the best handicap horse in the nation in 1946 and 1947. In these championship seasons, Armed won 21 of 35 races despite carrying consistently 130 pounds or more. His greatest of his seven years of successful racing, was his Horse of the Year season as a six-year-old.

50’s - Rising Fast (68-24-17-2) Americans may not have been strong as geldings go in the 50’s, but this New Zealander had no problems in dominating racing down under. Highlighting his career was a sweep of the Melbourne Cup, Cox Plate, and Caulfield Cup of 1954, the first horse ever to sweep the trifecta of important races.

60’s - Kelso (63-39-12-2) The 60’s was a strong decade for geldings, but still top spot was no contest. Five time Horse of the Year, Kelso is the gelding of all times. Kelly was simply top notch year after year, on turf or dirt, and at a variety of distances, which carried him to become America’s longtime earnings leader.

70’s - Forego (57-34-9-7) Heavy imposts and balky ankles could not keep this big boy from rolling down the lane in all the big handicap races of the mid 70’s and striking fear in the hearts of all his competitors. Three times Horse of the Year, and four consecutive wins in the Woodward cement Forego’s lofty stature in American racing lore.

80’s - John Henry (83-39-15-9) Best on turf, but good enough to beat the best on dirt, John Henry was able to collect seven Eclipse Awards during a four-year stretch. The quintessential rags to riches story, he came from nowhere to win the hearts of American racing fans and was twice named our Horse of the Year.

90’s - Best Pal
(47-18-11-4) Somehow never named a champion, all Best Pal did was race against the best and win often. A graded stakes winner in six consecutive years, the California bred amassed more than 5.6 million dollars in earnings. Best Pal was 2nd in voting for Eclipse honors in three straight years to begin the 90’s and was a recent Hall of Fame inductee.

00’s - Lava Man (47-17-8-5) Another great rags to riches story, Lava Man went from claimer to superstar. Three consecutive wins in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and back-to-back wins in the Santa Anita Handicap were but five of his numerous major stakes wins. A winner of more than 5 million, he holds the distinction as the only horse to win grade 1’s on three different surfaces.