Frontier Red

Frontier Red
a bay more brown than blood
when shrouded by sweat and twilight
only occasionally sparkling
when she passes under the burning floodlights

most of the time the winner trots back
easily, head held high
a quarter-mile victory stroll

she laboured back, dragging her empty rear hooves behind her
hanging her head, bobbing it up and down, searching
for any current of spare oxygen her flaring nostrils could catch
to replenish reserves run empty
by fighting to the wire to beat
six other non-winners
     of one pari-mutuel
     to be claimed for eight thousand dollars
a level that wouldn’t test so many on the grounds
but only left her with enough
to perform the herculean labours of
lifting her eyes to the winners’ circle camera
and trudging home

building Catholic Boy’s foundation

When I think of Catholic Boy, I think of the unheralded hard work that goes into building a great horse’s foundation.  I think of running in circles, measured circles, incessant circles.

In the week and a half leading up to the Breeders’ Cup last year, I spent the mornings trackside, radio clipped to my side, spotting Breeders’ Cup horses and calling their names and positions up to the camera nest.  Most of the horses wouldn’t spend much time out on the track.  They’d come out, jog a circuit or two, three at the most, then go back to the barn.

Not Catholic Boy.  He’d come out, we’d spot him, they’d show him on the camera for a while.  Then, a flurry of activity.  Horses would come in through the backstretch gap, there would be five or six other superstars of our sport to cut between.  Then, another lull.

“Anyone out here?”, the camera spotter’s voice on the radio would crackle.

I’d look up, see a familiar bay horse with a familiar maroon Bridlewood Farm saddle pad draped over a towel numbered 803.

Was it because he debuted at Gulfstream long after the geese, the cranes, and the best horses in the nation had returned north for the summer?  Was it because he skipped the traditional final round of preps, training straight from the With Anticipation in August all the way to November, around and around and away from the shouting throngs gathered along the rail on Saturday afternoons?  Was it because the name Jonathan Thomas didn’t roll off the tongue as easily, from years of repetition, as Aidan O’Brien or Chad Brown or Charlie Appleby or Graham Motion?

I’d push my button.  “Just Catholic Boy, coming past the seven furlong gap now.  Everyone else left.”

Canadian Triple Crown Trifectas

As soon as Wonder Gadot, Aheadbyacentury, and Cooler Mike crossed the wire 1-2-3 in the Prince of Wales, I wondered whether they were the first repeat trifecta in the first two races of the Canadian Triple Crown.

They are.  Never before yesterday had the trifecta repeated itself in the Queen’s Plate (or the King’s Plate, depending on who wears the British crown) and the Prince of Wales.

The only other time two races now known as parts of the Canadian Triple Crown even had the same trifecta predated the Canadian Triple Crown as we know it.

The Prince of Wales didn’t exist yet in 1921, but that was the year when the King’s Plate and the Breeders’ Stakes saw the same three horses cross the wire first in the same order. Herendesy, Royal Visitor, and Moll Cutpurse crossed the wire in the first three spots in the King’s Plate that year, and repeated that achievement in order in the Breeders’ that year.  The Prince of Wales didn’t yet exist; it would first be run in 1929 at Thorncliffe.

Those who like to box their bets got lucky a few times with Plate trifectas in later Canadian Triple Crown races.

In 1940, Willie the Kid, Curwen, and Hood finished 1-2-3 in the King’s Plate. In the Prince of Wales Hood found the wire first, but Willie the Kid and Curwen followed him home in the next two slots.

In 1942 there was another trifecta box.  Ten to Ace, Cossack Post, and Depressor filled out the top three in the King’s Plate; Ten to Ace won the Prince of Wales, but Depressor beat out Cossack Post for the place that time.

It was a few years, but there was another trifecta box in 1989.  With Approval won the Queen’s Plate, with Most Valiant and Domasca Dan next across the wire.  With Approval scored in the Prince of Wales — but that time Domasca Dan beat Most Valiant for place honours.  The trifecta box didn’t repeat again in the Breeders’ that year — after all, Domasca Dan didn’t contest the race.  But, two other familiar faces finished in familiar places: Most Valiant did chased home second behind With Approval, who clinched the Canadian Triple Crown.

A trifecta box next happened in 1994. Basqueian, Bruce’s Mill, and Parental Pressure crossed the wire in the first three spots in the Plate. Bruce’s Mill won the Prince of Wales — but the next two horses to cross the wire were Basqueian and Parental Pressure. Basqueian won the Breeders’, but neither Bruce’s Mill nor Parental Pressure contested that race.

And now, if Canadian horse racing history comes up at your next pub quiz, you know.

The Underground Man, two times two, and Justify

So said Fyodor Dostoevsky in his masterpiece “Notes from Underground“:

With the ant-heap the respectable race of ants began and with the ant- heap they will probably end, which does the greatest credit to their perseverance and good sense. But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it.

Since the horses crossed the wire in the Belmont on Saturday afternoon, since the end of the “game” that is the Triple Crown season, I felt dread over having to fill out my NTRA All Ages poll.

The three-year-old poll was obvious, of course, at least as obvious as a poll of opinions can be.  There was, as always, a lot of splitting hairs underneath…but Justify reigned supreme.  Winning a Triple Crown makes that obvious.

But, his accomplishment gave me a crisis of conscience about my All Ages poll.

And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.

Leading into the Belmont Justify was not on my All Ages ballot, and I was seriously considering not putting him on there again.  After all, one thing is positive: he hasn’t faced older horses.  To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best — and on average, “the best” are older horses.  Justify is a freak — but his only foes have been three-year-olds.  How can I rank him better than the older horses if he hasn’t been tested against them yet?

With that question, the thought of putting Justify on my all-aged poll at all makes me sick to my stomach.

It makes sense to base my votes on things I know.  Twice two makes four.  Older horses are, on average, more developed, stronger, better than three-year-olds.  Justify may be the exception, may be more developed than some top-class older horses, but how do we know, if he’s only ever beaten three-year-olds?

Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, he traverses oceans, sacrifices his life in the quest, but to succeed, really to find it, dreads, I assure you. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern, then they are taken to the police-station — and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? Anyway, one can observe a certain awkwardness about him when he has attained such objects. He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all.

But, on the other hand?  My search for anything approximating mathematical certainty in the older division has eluded me.  Since “six furlongs on the turf” is a little too specific a niche to be a division (sorry, Disco Partner!), the closest thing any division has to a clear leader is the open sprint division, with Mind Your Biscuits.  His Golden Shaheen (G1) victory was a triumph.  The Met Mile (G1) was a defeat in which he lost absolutely nothing: he missed by just a nose behind lone speed, going a distance longer than his best.  He’s a superstar, but he hasn’t had an unprecedented kind of season.  Heart to Heart has emerged best in the middle-distance turf division, Accelerate is the top of the handicap division…but how far above the rest do they loom?

They’ve had good seasons so far, but none of them have done anything that, if portrayed in a work of fiction, would cause you to roll your eyes and murmur that it couldn’t happen in real life.

Justify has.

If you tried to tell me a horse would go from unraced three-year-old to Triple Crown winner in under four months, I’d have told you that would never happen.  If you handed me a book about a horse whose star rose so fast, I’d have scoffed at the implausible plot.  Yet, I’ve now seen it happen with my own two eyes because Justify did it.

But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.

Is Justify better than the older horses?  Will he beat older company later this year?  We won’t know until he tries.  In that sense, I’m still not quite happy about my choice to put Justify on my All Ages ballot at all.

But, he has changed my definition of what it’s possible for a racehorse to do, and has done that while racing a grueling Triple Crown schedule.  I’m more certain of the fact that Justify has done something truly difficult than I am about anything in the older horse landscape right now. When so little elsewhere is stable maybe it’s not such a bad thing to break my rule, surrender begrudgingly to the wisdom of the Underground Man, and let twice two be five this time around.

final NTRA poll thoughts

I voted in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll for the first time this year.  Some weeks were more difficult than others, but this week’s was the most brain-busting of all.

I had assumed all year that it would be the easiest.  After all, Breeders’ Cup is the big ending, and it’s the last poll of the year.  Though Breeders’ Cup is not the last big racing week before the Eclipse Awards — let’s not sneeze at Thanksgiving weekend, with races like the Clark and the Cigar Mile — it’s the only one of this scale, and nothing between now and the end of the year comes quite to the level of a Derby undercard, Belmont undercard, or Travers Day.

Yet?  It was the hardest.  Though Breeders’ Cup answered a lot of questions in individual divisions, the fact that the Top Thoroughbred Poll requires a voter to rank the divisions against each other makes it more difficult.  Most of my questions involved assessing not only what each horse did in their own division this year, but also how that stacks up against what horses in other divisions did.  Even with a rather sharp limitation that I’ve chosen to apply, that of not using horses who have not faced older company at least once during the year, many of the rank judgments felt uncomfortably tight.

Here’s my final ballot, with short notes on my rationale.

Continue reading “final NTRA poll thoughts”

A Day At the Races: Presque Isle Downs is the Cheers of racetracks

Of course, the sport on people’s minds was horse racing, not baseball. Deep, stained wood lined saddling stalls, not a bar. People sat in lawn chairs or at picnic tables, not stools. But, just like a cozy corner watering hole, the apron at Presque Isle Downs was where people went to catch up with friends and see the horses run after work. Whether you’ve been coming for years or for days, everyone knows your name, and they’re glad you came.

And, it’s the best kind of local haunt: close-knit, but excited to welcome new faces.

In my latest piece at Brisnet, read why Presque Isle Downs is the Cheers of racetracks!

why we watch Winx live

Last night, I stayed up to watch Winx race in the Chelmsford Stakes. She won her nineteenth straight. This morning, I’m drinking a little more coffee than usual.

The race went off at just before 1am my time. A few hours before, I was telling myself I’d go to bed and catch her race in the morning. As usual, that never happened. I stayed awake, tweeting before the race that my thoughts of going to sleep were once again empty. My laptop perched on my nightstand: Australian racing in one window, my Twitter timeline in the other.

The gates opened, and we caught our breath when Winx got out smoothly, unlike her blown start in the Warwick Stakes. We saw shades of Shining Copper, of Isabella Sings, of Presious Passion when Red Excitement opened up a yawning gap between himself and the rest of the field. We froze as the field turned for home, Red Excitement forgetting to stop, Winx with a chasm to cross. We caught our breath once more when Winx reminded us once again that no horse in the world knows where the wire is like she does. We marveled once we collected ourselves enough to realise she found the line without Hugh Bowman’s stick.

We.

I woke up this morning to some advice on Twitter: “Just DVR it.”

I could have watched the replay on my laptop, perched on my nightstand, once I wiped the sleep from my eyes. I would have appreciated Winx’s better break, Red Excitement’s strategy, Hugh Bowman’s hand ride, Winx’s will to win. I would have mused on the prowess, consistency, and racing luck it takes for a mare to win nineteen races in a row.

But, I wouldn’t have had racing Twitter in my other window, all around me, experiencing the race in real time. I love Winx partly because of her racing record. I also love that people all over the world get excited about her, that getting together to watch her race is an event.

I could watch the replay, but there’s no DVR for collective effervescence. I’d miss the we.