People often ask whether a racehorse knows when it wins or loses. While I’m no horseman, and can’t speak for all horses, I have been around enough good ones – and discussed that question with some of the best trainers in the game – to confidently and unequivocally say yes. The good ones, they know. It is part of what makes them so special and what makes watching their performances so awe inspiring.
In another star studded weekend of racing, with all eyes upon him, we were treated to one of those special performances that we, as fans and lovers of the game and breed, long for. While Wise Dan winning the Shadwell Turf mile was no surprise, watching it was nonetheless most enjoyable. This two time horse of the year and grand seven-year-old, coming back from life threatening colic surgery just a few months ago, strutted his stuff yet again in a one mile turf contest stamping his resume as one of the best grass milers of all time. While that, in itself, is well worth the price of admission, it is more about how he did it and the heart and tenacity he displayed that made it something noteworthy.
Love him or hate him, the fact remains this gelding from modest beginnings has built up quite a record of 22 wins out of 30 total starts. On turf that enviable record improves to 14 wins out of 15 starts, mostly in stakes company and with no shortage of Grade 1’s. With just about $7-million in earnings, this versatile race horse would have a hard time finding any race at any distance on any surface in which he would not at the least be a contender. He is as close to a war horse as we see nowadays, as the breed and game have changed and it is very rare for a horse to stay this good for so long.
Wise Dan knows how to win and knows when he does. Any trained eye could see that this past Saturday. As the horses entered the grass course at Keeneland for the 29th running of the Shadwell Turf Mile, Wise Dan put on his game face. He became noticeably more alert then he had been up to that point. He looked calm and focused like he knew what was about to happen and what he was supposed to do. When the field straightened away for the stretch run Wise Dan was swung to the outside and, as it had in his last two starts at Churchill Downs and Saratoga, it looked for a brief moment that time had caught up to the old man and he was not going to make it. But like John Henry and others before him who actually knew how to win and where the wire was, Wise Dan found that extra gear he needed to run them all down and find the finish line first. It was thrilling to watch. It was no less exciting than when he said no to Optimizer at the Spa or not today to Seek Again at Churchill Downs. Appreciate the toughness, gameness and tenacity he shows as it takes all those attributes along with his ability to keep it together this long. Yes, he knew he won, as he does every time.
Special horses, like all special animals, have those extra qualities that set them apart. Zenyatta had it. How many horses do you know or can you name that danced for the crowd prior to racing? Or that posed like she would by actually lifting and cocking her head toward the camera when photographers or fans were taking her picture. Live, it was something to behold. I feel privileged to have witnessed it. You think she didn’t know when she won and how to do it? Think again. I have been fortunate in my life to hold a shank with Slew O Gold on the other end of it, to feed Secretariat a peppermint at Saratoga, to pet Ruffian and to touch Seattle Slew in his stall the morning he broke his maiden. Those types of horses have a special air to them, you can see it in their eyes, and you can sense it and feel it.
That special something is not limited to only top stakes horses. There are horses who compete at lesser levels who possess it as well. It’s no less special in them, regardless of the purse they’re running for. This is one of the reasons we all owe the utmost in aftercare and respect to all race horses, at all class levels, and all animals for that matter. Some of you may remember Crème De La Fete. I’d bet Richard Migliore does as he piloted him to many of his victories. He was a lower level claimer but he had it. He knew where the wire was and how to win. I’ll never forget the day at Aqueduct under Donald MacBeth (RIP) he fell down at the top of the stretch and got up and still won. Yes, he did and I saw it with my own eyes. One day at Gulfstream in the Ten Palms restaurant I told that story and was called a liar, albeit in a nice way if that’s possible. Just as I was, a friend – who I knew went to the races all the time back then – passed my table. I stopped him and asked if he had ever seen a horse fall down and get up and win. He immediately blurted Crème De La Fete. My accuser sat sheepishly quiet.
How many remember Swing Rex trained by the late and great Frank “Pancho Martin”? Not too many, I’m sure, but he had it. This gutsy horse won the 9th race at Aqueduct, mostly starter handicaps back then, something like nine weeks in a row while continuing to get more and more weight. He carried up to 140 pounds while continuing to win. He had it.
On Sunday, Close Hatches showed some wear for the first time this year and didn’t fire in the Spinster at Keeneland at very short odds. As we always say on Past the Wire, they are not machines. Across the Atlantic Ocean, however, Treve bounced back from what was considered subpar form to win her second Arc. Her trainer Criquette Head was extremely confident pre-race and offered sound excuses on her recent defeats and she looked awfully smart as this super talented filly handled the boys in the stellar Arc field with ease. Too bad this was probably her last start as this filly has plenty to offer.
How can it not go to Wise Dan and his connections? Charles LoPresti continues to do a masterful job with this throw back horse. Although I suspected he might venture into the Breeders’ Cup Classic waters this year, his owner and breeder Morton Fink quickly put that speculation to rest in the post-race interview.
There were reports and complaints on both Twitter and Facebook following Treve’s gallant repeat win in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Off at odds of 18-1 or thereabouts she was apparently paid off on TVG and Twin Spires at 3-1 or so. Whether you have your own pools or whatever the reason, you can’t treat your customers that way if you intend to keep them and keep people in the game. Come on guys.
Horse to Watch
Grand Elmendorf had his share of trouble and then some in an off the turfer at Keeneland. Should pay to follow this one for now.