on tanks, and racing coming full circle

Buzzy won the nightcap at Hawthorne yesterday.

My love for the greys is well documented; my love for the progeny of Fort Prado is as well.  Buzzy is both of these things.  However, one other characteristic made Buzzy stand out to me even among the herd of beautiful, grey Fort Prado babies we see at Arlington and Hawthorne: he is a big tank of a horse.  He is so large that I am always surprised to see him entering in routes, since there is nothing lithe about his build.  The past performances tell the story; Buzzy does best at two turns.

However, this story does not begin with Buzzy.  This story begins with another horse who caught my eye because he was just so big: Hurta.

Hurta, in the paddock before his race at Arlington on September 13, 2014.
Hurta, in the paddock before his race at Arlington on September 13, 2014.

Hurta was one of my favourite horses on the Chicago racing circuit, a big, bay son of Silver Deputy.  His size always made him stand out in the paddock and the post parade, but it was not the only remarkable thing about Hurta.  He was an old warrior.  Unraced until age five, he won a lot of races over a career that spanned over six years.  So many horses do not even start twenty times.  Hurta won twenty times.  His last win, the only one of his eleven-year-old year, was a thrilling nose triumph after a tough stretch drive, the sort of race that even after multiple watchings, you are never quite sure whether he is going to get there.  The huge horse motoring in on the outside, the one who looks almost like a draft horse among ponies…that is Hurta, and he hits the wire first every time I watch the replay.

We lost Hurta last December 4.  Going into the race, the last one on that day’s card at Hawthorne, I was bouncing off the wall with excitement.  Hurta was running, as was Prince Neff, another horse who struck my eye due to his sheer size.  Jockey Maria Thornton had Hurta in a great spot, stalking off a pace battle…until he wasn’t.  He fell, taking Spectacular Act down with him.

Spectacular Act got up; the outriders caught him.  He has raced a few times since, even one more time during that fall meet.  Seeing the – – – for the last few calls in his race line from that day has been enough on several occasions to make me set the past performances aside for a while.  Those dashes serve as reminders that Hurta was not so lucky.  He was fatally injured in the fall; his 71st start was his last.  Not seeing him in the race draws, the paddock, the races anymore?  It stings.  He was eleven last year, and I knew his racing days would be coming to a close soon.  I still grieve over how it happened, that his racing career ended only when his life did.  I miss him.

Also hurt in that fall, though nowhere near so badly, were both of the riders involved.  Maria Thornton, who rode Hurta, broke a bone in her wrist; Carlos Montalvo, on Spectacular Act, broke his collarbone.  Both riders were out for the meet, though both have returned in this spring.

Two days after that happened, I was out at Hawthorne.  It was Saturday.  From a practical standpoint, I had to cover a pair of stakes races on the card.  But, that wasn’t the whole of it: I knew it, and anyone who has been bitten by the racing bug knows it just as well.  Walking past the far turn on the way to the clubhouse that morning made me sad, but not going to the races was not going to bring Hurta back.  It was only going to keep me away from all of the other horses I loved and wanted to see.  I needed to get back on the horse, so to speak, even if the “horse” in question was Chicago Transit Authority bus route 54B.

The third race on the card that Saturday was a $17,500 maiden claiming race for juvenile fillies.  There weren’t any tanks who caught my eye in the paddock, though there was a slate grey Fort Prado baby in the field named Fort Suprise.  Maria Thornton had been originally named to ride Fort Suprise that day.  After her injury she had to give up the mount.  Her brother, perennial Hawthorne riding champion Tim Thornton, picked it up.  He bided his time with Fort Suprise as Miz Valencia sent, made a move approaching the stretch, and outfinished the stalking Fearless Bypass to prevail by a length and a half.

Fort Suprise, in the Hawthorne winners' circle on December 6, 2014.  Tim Thornton is aboard; Maria Thornton stands in the foreground.
Fort Suprise, in the Hawthorne winners’ circle on December 6, 2014. Tim Thornton is aboard; Maria Thornton stands in the foreground.

This seems a digression, since Fort Suprise is not a large horse.  She is not a tiny filly either, but rather average-sized.  This Illinois-bred daughter of Fort Prado is out of a Silver Charm mare named Silver Suprise, giving her impeccable credentials for growing up gorgeous and grey.   This also made her a full sister to a big, grey tank: Buzzy.  Buzzy had raced earlier in that day’s card, finishing fourth against fellow non-winners of two lifetime, and raced twice more during the fall meet.

Buzzy, a little feisty after his fourth-place finish on December 6, 2014.
Buzzy, a little feisty after his fourth-place finish on December 6, 2014.

After a six-week winter hiatus, racing resumed at Hawthorne this month.  Buzzy was slated to make his first start of the meet on February 28, in the final race on that day’s card.  Buzzy had shown himself to be an off-pace type.  In all of his races before Sunday, he had only ever been in the lead before the stretch call once.  In his third race ever, a maiden special weight going nine furlongs over the Arlington poly, he sent clear early.  By the half-mile mark he got company from fellow Fort Prado baby Dewey Lake.  Buzzy tried to stay on as long as he could, but faded to finish a well-beaten sixth.  Since then, he has run exclusively a midpack-to-closing style, and had hit the board four times doing so.

The rail was the place to be yesterday, and speed became better as the day got colder.  Leading into Buzzy’s race, two straight longshots had prevailed with frontrunning trips along the golden rail.  The rail draw could not hurt one bit, but Buzzy just was not a speed horse…right?

I watched the race from upstairs.  Buzzy broke sharply, with Affirmed Once More and Document right with him early.   As the field proceeded into the clubhouse turn, I could not believe what I was seeing: Buzzy sent clear.  Document tried to stalk, getting up to his flank in early backstretch, but Buzzy cleared again.  He pulled ahead by three lengths, four, five.  Show’em Pop and Affirmed Once More made runs nearing the wire, but the hulking slate grey had enough to motor home a length and three quarters in front.

Buzzy crossed the wire, and I was elated to see one of my favourite big greys win…though both impressed and baffled that he did so on the front end.  I went back to my table to make sure I was not missing anything about the pace lines.  I wasn’t missing anything there.  However, it was then that I was reminded of who was riding: Maria Thornton.

Horse racing is a story.  The closer you watch it, the more you follow the details, the more coherent a story it becomes.  Seeing that she was riding Buzzy knocked the wind out of me, because I immediately thought of Hurta.  My mind drew a straight line going three months back in time, from this improbable win from one of my favourite big horses back to the crushing loss of another I loved.  Maria Thornton’s fall meet had ended when she broke her wrist falling from Hurta, which caused her to miss riding in the race in which Fort Suprise broke her maiden.  Less than three months later, with her wrist healed up, she got Fort Suprise’s full brother Buzzy home.  The link would have hit me even if I only knew Fort Suprise and Buzzy for both being offspring of Fort Prado.

But, the fact that this link goes from one favourite tank to another?  I will never forget yesterday’s ninth race at Hawthorne, both because I got to see one of my favourite big tanks in training win…and because it reminded me of how much I love another who we lost too soon.



    1. thank you for reading. i wish there were more people who supported horse racing in Illinois, too…i try to promote it and show people what is good about it (particularly here in Illinois!). i would love to see even more people doing so too, be it through their words, their pictures, or just telling people about it.

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