Welcome back to the Twelve Days of Curlin Babies, where we celebrate the twelve most memorable races from Curlin’s progeny through 2019. Among all the hundreds of races in which they ran this year, these are the ones to which my mind keeps wandering back.
#11: A Pleasant Surprise, Volgograd
Working at the racetrack is a different experience from going to the racetrack. The end goal of both is the same, of course: watch horses run. In the increasingly rare moments when I go to the races just for sport, my mind can wander where it wants. I can skim the past performances, let my eyes rest on someone in the paddock, take any moment I want to watch a race at another track, or to sing the praises of a certain bloodline to anyone on the rail who will listen.
Working? Sometimes I get so focused on completing the work from the last race chart and moving on to what’s about to happen on the track that there isn’t any room for things I would otherwise be obsessing over, like the names of the runners lining up next.
And, so it was on September 13 at Arlington, when we stepped out to watch the race and call the chart for the Arlington 7th. One of us had binoculars; the other, the pen and paper. We both had our jobs to focus on. We knew the race was at a mile and a sixteenth on the Polytrack, seven horses, so the gate was as close as the crew could put it to the clubhouse turn, but the poles were normal and the finish line was the usual one. (Nine or more, and everything — even the finish line — gets pushed back a sixteenth of a mile, in a courteous yet often futile effort to stop those outside few horses from being hung out to dry.)
It was a Friday afternoon, enough clouds in the sky to shade the summer sun, temperatures in the upper seventies, and late enough in the day that even without the special 3:15pm post times, some of the after-work crowd had swung by to begin their weekends with a frosty brew and a punt on the horses. There was enough chatter in the air that only the cadence of John Dooley’s race call pierced through the air, not the words.
A bay in black silks with a large white flower set the pace. The darker bay goaded keenly to his outside, bearing a yellow standard with black and yellow sleeves. He got less keen through the far turn, and found enough to overtake.
Meanwhile, a bay with rider Mitchell Murrill, clad in black, arms encircled by golden bars, more gold in streaks along his back, had begun to improve along the inside around the turn. He witched three wide in upper stretch, and was responding smartly to a drive. Splitting horses approaching the furlong mark, he descended, and in the blink of an eye had opened up. I couldn’t remember whose silks those were. I couldn’t remember the name of the horse. I couldn’t parse the race call, only bassy triplets that overlaid the chaos of hooves as the winner drew three lengths clear. I knew I had to look at the program when I stepped inside; I needed to know who had won with such authority.
Volgograd. That explained the cadence of the call, the triplets. Volgograd. It’s Volgograd.
Volgograd (Magnetic Miss, by Artax). The son of Curlin, out of the Illinois-bred stakes winner, the one I had made a note of in my mind when he was a foal, who finally stepped foot on the the track at age four. Volgograd, who had made his way from Hugo Rodriguez, to Scott Becker, to Leonard Slager, to Doug Matthews, where he has been since May for owner Tom Michalczewski. It was Volgograd’s fourth win, and even given the modest level of his company — beaten $16,000 claiming company, washed off the grass — it was his most impressive win to date.
And, it was a fresh reminder that the glee and surprise of watching the horses run can pierce through the hectic pace of a workday.