Friday, December 30, 2011

The Dancer: Remembering the Grey Ghost

On cold winter days such as these, I am limited to the trammels of the house and cannot resist daydreaming of the warm midsummer days at Saratoga in the 1950’s. Flipping through the pages of my favorite books allows me to journey back to a time when Native Dancer set the sport ablaze with ardor and exhilaration…

Racing fans had breakfast on Saratoga’s clubhouse porch on an August morning in 1953. Chatter of the upcoming weekend’s Travers Stakes filled the air, but all fell silent when everyone rushed to the rail. Time had frozen: Exercise riders pulled up their mounts, trainers brought their morning business to a standstill – everything came to a silent halt. With regular exercise rider, Bernie Everson aboard, Native Dancer thundered down the stretch with his colossal twenty-nine foot strides.  In this one mile work, The Dancer was greeted by a wave of ovation down Saratoga’s historic home straight. No other racehorse had received such blandishments in a meager work. James Roach of the New York Times later wrote of the spectacle, “It was a moment for a horse owner, horse trainer – and exercise rider – to remember.”

Two days later, 28,260 people gathered at Saratoga for the Travers Stakes. That Saturday broke the track’s record attendance; crowds poured into every crevice of the oldest currently-operating sports venue in the country. People overflowed into the paddocks, which had allowed the public to enter at the time. David Alexander wrote of Saratoga Race Course, “In the great paddock areas of the track, each entrant is saddled beneath a certain tree and his admirers can get close enough to tighten the girth themselves.” The Saratoga crowds were usually polite and respectful of the horses’ space, thus much security was never necessary. However, the sight of the Dancer was infectious, and the fans mobbed the grand horse. His followers walked up to the champion, stroked his neck, and talked to him.  Some were spirited enough to pluck several tail hairs. People could have easily been hurt in this situation, but the Dancer, with his gentlemanly countenance, remained calm the entire time.  Daniel Scott III, son of Dan Scott, who foaled Native Dancer, was in attendance for the Travers with his father. He said, “He had become an icon, with mobs chasing him and people shouting. It was like the scenes with the Beatles a decade later. Native Dancer had become as popular in the sports world in 1953 as the Beatles were in music in the ‘60’s.” Native Dancer’s panicked trainer, Bill Winfrey, had to shoo a fan away that was inspecting his horse’s legs, and the security guards had to push the masses back to make a path for the Dancer to get to the track.

John Eisenburg wrote in his book, Native Dancer The Grey Ghost Hero of a Golden Age, “The scene before the Travers had Biblical overtones, with thousands gathering to see and touch their idol, and linger in his presence. The Dancer was just a horse, but the public clearly saw him as more, an alluring and profound figure. He embodied all traits that humans attribute to a champion: stamina, grace, determination, beauty, ability, and charisma.”

At odds of 1-20, Native Dancer won by an astounding 5 ½ lengths, giving up to twelve pounds to his competition. Eric Guerin, who rode him in all but one race, said after the Travers. “What a pleasure it is to ride a horse like that.”

The Arlington Classic at Arlington Park, which was indubitably one of Native Dancer’s best performances, was his last race before the Travers Stakes.  Into the final turn on the Chicago track, the Dancer moved up into third after running the earlier portions of the race in sixth. It was there when Guerin asked the Dancer for his best effort. The Grey Ghost responded instantaneously, pinning his ears back, and charging for the lead. At the top of the stretch, he had the victory in hand, but he kept running away with the lead. Three lengths, four, five, six, seven lengths! Turf writers, who had gathered from across the country to cover what was heralded as “The Fourth Jewel of the Triple Crown” applauded the Dancer as he romped across the wire nine lengths in the lead. Arch Ward, then editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote, “It was one of the most devastating knock-out punches in the history of big-time racing.”

The Dancer was a celebrity wherever he went during his racing career, particularly during his three year old year.  Early on a spring weekday morning at a Cincinnati train stop, a station mechanic making a customary check discovered the Dancer on his way to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby when he slid open the car door.  Stunned by unearthing this national hero, he asked the groom who stood beside the majestic beast, “Is that – is that the Grey Ghost himself?”  The Dancer’s groom, Les Murray, confirmed the station mechanic’s sighting.  The station mechanic stood awestricken with his jaw hanging by its hinges, and called the surrounding people, “Hey everyone!  Over here!  You can’t miss this!”  Almost immediately, wayfarers were jockeying for a position to see their champion.  The Dancer’s stop, which lasted a mere five minutes, was featured in the local paper the next day.

Native Dancer was the first racehorse to spark the fire within me to love horseracing.  When I initially became interested in racing, he was the driving force behind learning more about the sport, being the great-great grandsire of my thirty-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, Polka.  The Dancer represented everything that a great racehorse should be in my adolescent mind.  Native Dancer had an endearing, kind personality despite being described as a horse which made grooms “walk in fear of the biting, kicking, rearing…”  The Dancer and his groom were inseparable, he loved his stall mate, a black cat named “Mom”, he was a gentleman when his owner’s children raced about his stall, and he allowed fans to pluck his tailhair in the paddock, bustling with activity.  His grey color set him apart from the competition in his time, and he won almost every race in which he competed in heroic fashion.  The Dancer is a true legend who should always be revered and remembered. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Looking Forward to 2012

It has not been uncommon to hear the words “lackluster” or “dull” when describing horse racing in 2011.  While it was not the glorious year of 2009 with the presence of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, I argue that it has been a strong year for racing.  We saw Animal Kingdom give a wonderful performance in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and we watched him overcome an injury in the Belmont Stakes.  Shackelford, who won the Preakness, maintained a consistent racing record despite an aggressive campaign.  Although he had a short year, Uncle Mo proved he could carry his two-year-old form to three, and raced outstandingly in the starts he did make.  Royal Delta showed her ability during the New York’s Triple Crown event for fillies, and ended her year with an astounding victory in the Ladies’ Classic.

Caleb’s Posse came on strong at the end of the year, first defeating Uncle Mo in his comeback race, and then denying Shackelford a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.  Euroears finished second behind Rocket Man in the Dubai Golden Shaheen, and came back to win the Bing Crosby in track record time with a performance that was nothing short of amazing.

On the turf, we watched Acclamation romp to the wire with two GI wins, and five straight wins while the versatile Gio Ponti maintained his form, despite seeing the heels of Cape Blanco in three starts.  Cape Blanco devoured the American turf with a historical campaign that is worthy of Horse of the Year honors.

Though he did not challenge Goldikova at the Breeders’ Cup, we witnessed the superhorse, Frankel, dominate the world.  This three-year-old is an once-in-a-lifetime racehorse – genuinely, a horse for the ages.  Despite having only two wins, Goldikova maintained her legendary status through 2011, ending her career with a third place effort in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.  So You Think was spectacular in his eight starts during 2011.  Rapid Redux maintained a 21 race win streak.  Nineteen of those victories were in 2011 alone. Havre de Grace and Blind Luck carried on the sensation of girl power in North America by renewing their 2010 rivalry. 

As for the juveniles, we witnessed Union Rags win all but one start in stunning fashion, and we saw Stonestreet’s My Miss Aurelia go undefeated with a combined winning margin of 9 ½ lengths. 

With 2011 in the record books, I can only eagerly anticipate what racing is to be gifted with next year.  Despite the retirements of Uncle Mo, Gio Ponti, Cape Blanco, and Goldikova, many of this year’s top racehorses remain in training to tackle 2012.  Animal Kingdom and Royal Delta are pointing for the Dubai World Cup, Frankel’s connections hope that he can stretch his abilities out for the Classics, and So You Think’s connections hope to take his place as the top miler.

Looking forward to 2012…

Barry Irwin of Team Valor International chose to keep this year's outstanding Kentucky Derby winner, and Preakness second place finisher in training for 2012. Unfortunately, Animal Kingdom had a short racing career at three due to a small fissure on the tip of his left cannon bone which was caused by a poor start on a sloppy track in the Belmont Stakes. Despite his injury at the start, Animal Kingdom finished sixth in the field of twelve behind the less-than-impressive Ruler on Ice.

In 2012, Animal Kingdom will be pointed towards the Dubai World Cup, held in late March. Though Animal Kingdom is a very special racehorse, I have reservations to say that he is the next winner of the world’s richest race. Although Animal Kingdom has had three starts on synthetic and one on turf, he will likely be going into the Dubai World Cup as a very fresh horse without as much racing experience as necessary.

In 2011, this three year old son of Posse won four GI events, and another ungraded stake. He concluded his thee year old campaign with an astounding victory in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, finishing four lengths ahead of 2011 Preakness Stakes winner, Shackelford. Caleb’s Posse put himself into contention for the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three-Year-Old Male by nosing out last year’s champion two year old colt, Uncle Mo, in his comeback race.  This colt, who is the leading candidate for the three year old male division, will certainly dominate over one mile on a dirt course in 2012.

In the Qipco Champion Stakes, his last start of 2011, this five-year-old gelding got the edge on So You Think, and held off the late rush of Snow Fairy. The French-bred Cirrus Des Aigles won four of his nine starts in 2011 with a combined winning margin of 19 ½ lengths, and never finished worse than third. The legendary miler, Goldikova, nosed this fine racehorse out for the win in Longchamp’s GI D’Ispahan.

He has proven that he is a horse that must not go overlooked, even when competing amongst the top racehorses. I eagerly anticipate seeing what Cirrus Des Aigles has in store for the racing world next year.

Kitten’s Joy has shown to by an astounding sire of turf horses in 2011, having a group of top horses including a Breeders’ Cup winner to his credit.  Racing in the same colors as his sire, Coalport is one of the strong representatives of Kitten’s Joy.  After an eleventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, Coalport came back with a strong fourth place effort behind Summer Front in the Dania Beach Stakes.  It took just over 1 ½ lengths to beat him to the finish.  Coming up with a finishing kick from eight with Julien Leparoux aboard, Coalport went three wide around the turn, and did not make his bid for the lead early enough.  

Obviously, Coalport is a talented juvenile, and should be considered as a factor in next year’s turf events.  When I saw Coalport at the Breeders’ Cup, he stood out to me in particular as a strong, impressive horse with the potential to be a force.

A large grey colt by ‘iron horse’ Giant’s Causeway, Creative Cause never finished out of the top three in all five starts as a juvenile. He crossed the wire third in the Del Mar Futurity, but was moved up to second through the disqualification of second place finisher, Majestic City. In the closing stages of the race, Creative Cause was squeezed between Drill, the eventual winner, and Majestic City on the inside. Majestic City bore out on Creative Cause under left-handed urging. Creative Cause won the Norfolk with ease, which was his final start before a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

This auspicious racehorse has the makings of a top three year old. His greatest quality is his massive, efficient stride which propels him ahead of his adversaries. I feel that he is only second best to Union Rags in the two year old colt division despite the strong performance Hansen gave in the Juvenile.

This Coolmore-owned son of Scat Daddy was an unfortunate seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf due to a poor ride by John Velazquez. Leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, Finale was coming off three straight wins, concluding with Woodbine’s GIII Summer Stakes. Finale showed outstanding form at Churchill Downs the week leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, keeping up with Sidney’s Candy when working in partnership on the turf course.  Last time out, he fell short to Summer Front in the Dania Beach at Gulfstream Park, giving a fair performance. Indubitably, Finale will be a force as a turf horse next year.

Remaining an unbeaten nine for nine, last year’s Cartier Horse of the Year, Frankel, continues on his quest for perfection as a four year old.  Over his two year racing career, this miler worthy of legendary status has won his races by a combined 45 ½ lengths.  Frankel has shown thus far to be untouchable in one mile contests, and will challenge the seasoned older horses in the classic-distanced races next year.  If he proves to be as talented in the Classics as he is at one mile, he will stand as one of the greatest racehorses that ever looked through a bridle.

 Undefeated in his three career starts, Hansen is the only horse to have beaten the spectacular Union Rags.  This son of Tapit wasn’t a fluke in his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory, having won his two previous races, both at Turfway Park, by a combined twenty-six lengths.  Despite his formidable record as a juvenile, I feel that Hansen is past his prime.  Tapit’s progeny has had a record of performing remarkably at two, but failing to match up in their three year old seasons.  In addition, Hansen’s pacemaking running style may negatively affect him in Classic-distanced races.

his daughter of Medaglia d’Oro won three of her nine starts in 2011, and ranks tenth on this year’s North American earnings list.  Plum Pretty, who won this year’s installment of the Kentucky Oaks, has consistently demonstrated her talent around the one mile distance, most recently with her 7 ½ length victory in the 1 1/16 mile Cotillion.  In the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, she seemed as if she was about to pull away at the top of the stretch, but faltered to finish fifth behind Royal Delta.  If she is restricted to relatively shorter races in 2012, Plum Pretty could be a leading distaffer next year.

 Last time out in the CashCall Futurity, this California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit finished second behind Bob Baffert’s Liaison.  Coming up from tenth in the thirteen horse field, Rousing Sermon traveled six paths wide into the home straight at Hollywood Park, and fell short a neck at the finish.  The CashCall Futurity was his first Graded Stakes performance, though he raced in four ungraded stakes prior.  In his last start before the CashCall, Liaison denied him the victory in the Real Quiet Stakes by ½ lengths.  The third place finisher, Senor Rain, trailed by 3 ¾ lengths.  Mr. and Mrs. Larry Williams’ homebred had his sole stakes win in the 1 1/16 mile Bob Benoit California Cup Juvenile Stakes against a nine horse field.

Rousing Sermon’s assets lie in his running style.  He has a fluid, efficient stride, and shows that he will likely have the ability to handle additional distance well due to his finishing kick.  He seems to present the chance of a strong three-year-old campaign in 2012, and has yet to reach the acme of his career.

Despite having only one win to her credit in 2011, Snow Fairy was a top class racehorse throughout the year.  She gave horses such as Cirrus Des Aigles, Midday, and So You Think a run for their money.  Her race record boasts a third place finish in this year’s renewal of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, and she ended her year with a victory in the Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup over Japan’s Kyoto racetrack.  She suffered an injury in preparation for the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Vase which will require quite some time to recover from, but “Mrs. Patino (owner) has sportingly decided that she is prepared to give her every chance to return to the racecourse next year.” Trainer Ed Dunlop stated.

 This dark bay son of High Chaparral won half of his eight starts in 2011 by a combined 15 ½ lengths, and placed in two other starts.  His two other races landed him out of the top three, but not out of contention.  It took 5 ¾ lengths accompanied by a track record time to beat Ballydoyle’s latest star to the wire in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.  In that fourth place effort, he carried a considerable amount of weight greater than what the three year old German filly, Danedream, carried to victory.  In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, his final start of the year, So You Think finished sixth only 3 ½ lengths behind Drosselmeyer. So You Think gave a strong effort, considering that it was his first time on conventional dirt (he had previously worked on a woodchip surface, and had an out of the top three finish on synthetics). The New Zealand-bred five year old appeared to get over the track well.

Though I do believe So You Think will run well at a mile, I am slightly disappointed that he will be brought back in distance for 2012 based on his success at the Classic distance this year.  I cannot resist thinking of the impressive performance he would give in the Dubai World Cup, despite having reservations to consider him a contender.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

An Inspiration On and Off the Track: Chris McCarron

The racing industry is constantly searching for positive signs for what lies ahead.  One encouraging indication is Chris McCarron’s North American Racing Academy, which gives horse racing’s future jockeys, trainers, and industry workers an in-depth, hands-on, high-quality education in the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing.  It is inspiring to see someone such as the highly acclaimed Hall of Fame rider, Chris McCarron, continue to work passionately to improve the sport.

Chris McCarron followed his older brother, Gregg, into jockeying and began riding professionally in 1974. McCarron had immediate success on the east coast, and won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey.  Three years later, he won the first of his three Kentucky Oaks, and began riding on the Californian racing circuit. 

When he retired in June of 2002, McCarron ranked as Thoroughbred racing’s all-time leader in purse earnings exceeding $264 million.  He rode nine Breeders’ Cup winners to victory, five of which were in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  He won each of the Triple Crown races two times, and piloted champions such as Alysheba, Go for Gin, John Henry, Lady’s Secret, Sunday Silence, Tiznow, and Touch Gold. 
Still active as a professional jockey, Chris McCarron first envisioned starting a riding academy in America after addressing a school for riders in Japan.  In July of 2005, seven months after resigning from his position as Vice President and General Manager of Santa Anita Park in California, he announced his plans to open North America’s first riding academy that would “provide students with the education, training, and experience needed to become skilled in the art of race-riding, proficient in the care and management of racehorses, and knowledgeable about the workings of the racing industry as a whole,” as the mission statement says. 

The North American Racing Academy (N.A.R.A) also includes a horsemen’s program for those who look towards a future in working jobs at the racetrack that does not involve riding.  The two year program for both riding and horsemen ends with an internship at a racetrack, and the students earn an Associate Degree in Equine Science from the Kentucky Community and Technical College.

Though N.A.R.A is not the first school geared towards horse racing, it is the first and only school for those aspiring to become professional jockeys in North America.  For years, schools for jockeys in Panama, Venezuela, and Ireland have existed, and all have proven to be successful.  Indubitably, each of these schools, including N.A.R.A, is improving the quality of horse racing by producing a solid foundation for future industry leaders.

The trackwork takes place at The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington.  Owned by Keeneland Association, The Thoroughbred Center is a racehorse training facility that sits on 240 acres, and stables up to 1,000 horses.  The Thoroughbred Center is in the heart of the Bluegrass, surrounded by breeding farms and located only fifteen minutes away from Keeneland Racecourse, which celebrated its 75th anniversary this year.  The horses used for the trackwork are retired racehorses which have been donated to N.A.R.A.

At Keeneland’s September yearling sale, I had the good fortune of being introduced to Chris McCarron, who invited me to visit his barn at The Thoroughbred Center.  Teaching by example, McCarron arrives at the barn before dawn to instruct the students on every aspect of the multifaceted horse racing industry. 

Upon my arrival at the facility, his barn was in full swing, bustling with the morning’s activities.  Students were riding to and from the track, horses were being saddled and unsaddled as Chris McCarron and his assistants remained attentive to the students needs.  As I walked through the barn, I noticed an assistant was teaching a student to bridle a reluctant horse with the utmost patience and care. 

Later in the morning, I accompanied McCarron and a group of beginner students on horseback to an outside riding ring.  He taught the students the essential basics in riding at a walk, trot, and canter.  Nineteen year old Jesse Sauder, a first semester N.A.R.A. student is a prime example of dedication you will find at the school.  He was not able to ride that morning due to a car accident earlier this year.  In the accident, he suffered life threatening injuries in which he fractured his C1, C2 vertebrae, which typically results in being paralyzed.  His surgery on June 14th   left him in a halo brace for three months.  The determined Sauder refused to miss his scheduled admissions interview with McCarron only one short week following his surgery. 

All of the students’ drive and determination to be successful in the Thoroughbred horse racing industry is fueled by McCarron’s dedication to the N.A.R.A. in hopes to provide not just well prepared jockeys but also good horsemen into a constantly evolving industry.

Chris McCarron's legacy will reach far beyond his monumental achievements as a jockey. Throughout the North American Thoroughbred horse racing industry he is providing a solid foundation and improving the odds for success, for impassioned horse racing enthusiasts to embark on a difficult and exciting career.