(Editor’s Note: This piece was written prior to the tragic death on December 6th of 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit following a workout at Santa Anita Park.)
The 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships concluded at Del Mar a couple of weeks ago, and my thoughts on these fabulous races can’t help but start with the somewhat shocking fact that two of the biggest favorites, the Bob Baffert-trained Gamine and the Steve Asmussen-trained Jackie’s Warrior, both failed not only to win, but even to place. Baffert and Asmussen, of course, are two of the top trainers in the world. It just serves to show us once again that horses are not machines, and no matter their past races, any horse can get beat on any given day. That fact was abundantly evident when the Japanese-bred Marche Lorraine won the Breeders’ Cup Longines Distaff, a race for fillies & mares, and paid $101.80 for a two-dollar wager. Several favorites did win – Life is Good in the Dirt Mile, Space Blues in the Turf Mile, Golden Pal in the Turf Sprint, and Echo Zulu in the Juvenile Fillies, a race exclusively for two-year-olds.
To my eye, the most interesting favorite to win at the Breeders’ Cup was Corniche in the Juvenile. The winner of the Juvenile usually becomes the early favorite for next year’s Kentucky Derby, but since Juvenile is trained by Bob Baffert, he is not, at this writing, eligible to run in the 2022 Derby. And so another controversy looms. Remember that Baffert’s Medina Spirit won last year’s Run for the Roses, a result that has been in litigation ever since because of a bad drug test. Following that test, Churchill Downs – though it has yet to disqualify Medina Spirit – ruled that no Baffert horses can earn points to run in the 2022 edition of the Derby, making Corniche ineligible to run, at least until courts rule otherwise.
Added to that, it was announced last week that court-ordered testing will resume on Medina Spirit’s sample, and a ruling that we have waited for since May might finally be coming soon. None of this had any impact on Baffert’s ability to enter mounts in the Breeders’ Cup, since those races are run in California, not Kentucky. As I mentioned earlier, Gamine ran poorly, but Corniche was great, and Medina Spirit did run in the Classic and finished second at 8-1. The Baffert-Derby saga looks likely to continue into 2022.
Keeneland holds a huge sale right after the Breeders’ Cup, and it’s interesting to note that two former Grade I-winning mares were sold, Swiss Skydiver for $4 million and Shedaresthedevil for $5 million. (Please note that this is not a game for the faint of heart, or pocketbook.) One of the major players on today’s racing scene are owner/breeders Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Ken is now 86 and has understandably started to scale back his operation somewhat; he sold 94 horses at this year’s November Keeneland sale. He currently has about twenty or so young horses and mares on his 1,200-acre farm, plus another forty in training to race. Three or four years ago, the Ramsey operation had over 750 horses, a number that the casual racing observer might find astounding (those of us who’ve been around a bit find it pretty extraordinary, as well.)
My breeding operation, as it happens, was slightly smaller. I’ve written before about my exploits with our favorite
mare, Martha D. and her first foal, All For Andy. As is the norm with breeding, a month or so after delivering a healthy filly, we bred Martha back, this time to a local Ohio stallion. Pregnant again, Martha was turning out to be a wonderful mother, caring for little Andy and looking fabulous while doing so. It appeared that motherhood suited her well. By that summer, all was going along as planned: little Andy was playing and running through the pastures, enjoying life as a yearling. She’d been weaned off feeding by Martha and was now eating grass, hay, and a regular feed mix consisting of oats, molasses, and vitamin supplements. Things were golden, and the future looked full of promise.
I was on vacation in the Outer Banks when the phone rang early one morning. It was the call no one ever wants: the voice of one of the people at the farm telling me that they’d found Martha dead in the pasture. Her unborn foal also was lost. We ended our vacation early and raced back to the farm in shock, stunned and heartbroken. Based on her condition when she was found, and the vet’s preliminary inspection, the cause appeared to be anaphylactic shock. This is a severe allergic reaction – to what, we never determined – which is potentially life-threatening, much like humans with bee sting or peanut allergies. To that point in my short racing career, I had never lost a horse to any injury or disease. Martha was the first. And, though we all know that this is part of the game, there is only so much you can do to prepare yourself for the possibility. Like life in general, the thoroughbred game can be cruel. Fortunately, little Andy was alright, but the death of any animal that one has loved – a cat, a dog, a horse, whatever the species – hurts one’s soul. The impact these creatures have on their owners is incalculable, almost immeasurable.
If you have ever experienced such a loss, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend reading the very short book Dog Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant. Her writing will likely make you both smile and cry, and will definitely leave you thankful for having had such a friend in your life. Allow me a quick quote from the book: “If you have ever been lucky enough to have a special dog in your life, then you know there is a place called Dog Heaven… Dogs in Dog Heaven have almost always belonged to somebody on Earth and, of course, the dogs remember this… Heaven is full of memories.” I find this sentiment quite beautiful, and I’m pretty sure there is a horse heaven, too.
When my friends and I used to go to Thistledown, we usually sat in the near empty grandstands with a group of other regulars. It was an eclectic lot, ten or so people, most of them older than us. They soon became track friends, and we shared information and stories of our families. There was one elderly man, George, who came regularly, usually sitting at a slight distance from our crew. George was quiet and a bit reserved, but very friendly, and often joined in our conversations. He always was dressed impeccably, particularly by track standards, and reminded me of an English gentleman. Over time, in his quiet, unassuming way, we began to see less of him, and finally he stopped coming altogether. As can be the case in such situations, what with all of the distractions of the track and the inherently casual nature of such a group, it took a while for the rest of us to realize that George was, seemingly, not just taking a few weeks’ break from the track. Once we did, we naturally wondered if he was all right, but we had no real way of knowing – for as many family stories as we’d shared, and as track-friendly as we were, we were track friends. The relationships didn’t really extend any further than that.
So it happened, a few months after Martha’s passing, I received a call from a woman asking if I was the same guy who raced horses at Thistledown. I said I was. It turned out that the woman on the phone was a relative of George’s. His not coming to the track, sadly, wasn’t coincidental, or a product of his having better things to do – he had, in fact, moved to a nursing home, where he’d, sadly, recently passed. She told me that George had particularly enjoyed watching Martha run and had admired her determination and heart, and that watching her run had made him happy enough that, apparently, he’d only had one picture in his room at the home: a photo of Martha D in the winner’s circle. It’s a memory I dial up whenever I need a reminder of grace and nobility, and it makes me feel sure that George and Trainer Andy, among others, are now in heaven, wrapped in glory and watching Martha run.