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You try to come up with a fitting analogy from the world of team sports. But it doesn't really work this time.
The closest I can think of is Jim Brown or Barry Sanders, two greats who left at the top of their games. However, the horses don't talk and just about all of their decisions are made for them by people.
Brown and Sanders left of their own volition, famously, filled with ideas of better things to do. But who's to say with a Thoroughbred race horse? While bred to do what they magnificently do, they still must fulfill the agendas of their human handlers.
In the cases of Quality Road, Blame and Lookin At Lucky, Edward P. Evans, Adele B. Dilschneider/Claiborne Farm, and Mike Pegram/Watson & Weitman Performance (sealing the deal by selling Lucky to Coolmore stud), respectively, made the decisions for these three colts who have given us so much enjoyment over the last two years.
Their jobs now are to make money in the breeding shed, more than they made on the track if all goes well. They will each demand $35,000 per "cover," at least in the first year, so that future Thoroughbred owners may race a few of their progeny perhaps a dozen times, again, if all goes well, and begin the cycle anew.
There's more money in the breeding than there is in the racing. When Citation became the first million-dollar horse, he had to race to do it - 45 times. Secretariat earned more than $1.2 million on the track in 21 races, but his $6 million syndication deal dwarfed even his spectacular exploits and, unfortunately, foresaw today's racing climate.
In the case of today's horses having nice 12- or 14-month careers as two- and three-year-olds, their owners seek a "salary drive" that need only include a single Grade I victory. Or a nice second in a Grade I and a few Grade II wins. Owners would much rather close the barn door after one big splash in a name race.
Get that one Grade I win, retire him and he becomes one of the all-time greats. At least that's how it looks in the stud commercials on TVG.
As always, it is the fans who are hurt first. But the game itself also suffers when all interested parties lament the lack of stars in the game yet yank the top performers from the track in search of breeding riches. Now seven years old, Zenyatta was a rare exception at the top level of racing. Especially when you consider mares often lose interest years earlier in the desire to foal.
But you have to pick your spots when being selfish about your favorite Thoroughbred. They are complex creatures, wound up to the highest levels of performance, where there is little or no margin for error. And yet, why not let them do what they do best?
You could still get kind of angry even about the great Secretariat. Who knows what he could have done? Barbaro was taken from us by a tragic injury - he was perfect in the six races he finished. Big Brown was a monster with bad feet. I always took a liking to Merv Griffin's Stevie Wonderboy.
The delicate Ghostzapper was a monster, recording one of the fastest Beyer Speed Figures of all time with a 128 in the 2004 Iselin at Monmouth. After winning the Metropolitan in his five-year-old year, it was announced he would be retired to stud with a hairline leg fracture. People were so disappointed and angry that we all thought owner Frank Stronach was lying. 'Zapper raced only 11 times. He is still revered.
You couldn't question the honesty of two of the little people of horse ownership, Pat and Roy Chapman, when they retired Smarty Jones in August 2004, citing serious ankle bruising. But it was deflating for fans just the same. In the horse racing timeline, it came immediately after Smarty was denied the Triple Crown by Birdstone in a thrilling Belmont Stakes, the only race he lost. He ran only nine times.
We felt lucky to see Curlin run 16 times, distinguished by wins in the Arkansas Derby, Preakness and the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2007, and a beautiful win in the Dubai World Cup in Spring, 2008.
More recently, Daily Racing Form's Jay Hovdey brought up an old hurt by mentioning the retirements of Street Sense, Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday, all just three-years-old, in 2007. Among other races, Street Sense won the Kentucky Derby and the Travers Stakes that year; Hard Spun the King's Bishop; and Any Given Saturday the Haskell Invitational. They ran a combined 36 races.
We have to be careful about Quality Road and Blame.
As DRF Editor Steve Crist reported, Quality Road was a curious sort. Hoof problems dogged him his whole career, even knocking him off the Triple Crown trail in 2009. He almost certainly would have been the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. For some reason, he went ballistic at the gate in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic and had to be scratched from a huge race he most certainly had the talent to win.
"(Quality Road) was a frustration to his handlers and his fans for failing to deliver in his most important tests, but on his best days he showed as much raw brilliance as any horse in training."
Quality Road ran 12 times, finishing 12th and last in last month's Classic.
Blame's career was selectively fashioned, building up steam in his four-year-old season, with the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic his goal all along. He nailed it in a courageous showdown with Zenyatta on Nov. 6 and now deserves to be named Horse of the Year for 2010. Throw the Clark Handicap and the Whitney Stakes on Blame's resume, and you have a nice accounting for having run only 13 races.
It's the departure of Lookin At Lucky that hurts me the most. How could you not love this son of Smart Strike?
Lucky won his first race, always a highlight, and cruised into the 2009 Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Santa Anita's synthetic with three graded stakes wins. He really cemented his reputation in that race when, after nearly falling down in the backstretch, he got up for second in the biggest race for two-year-olds. He was clearly a horse to watch for the Run for the Roses.
Wisely, trainer Bob Baffert got Lucky off the California synthetics and went east where, after all, he would have to do his major running.
After a tuneup win in the Rebel Stakes, he suffered another horrendous trip in the Santa Anita Derby but still got up for third. There was no quit in this inspiring horse. Lucky had no chance in the Kentucky Derby after drawing the ridiculous one post three days earlier. After being mugged at least twice in the Derby chaos, he still persevered for a sixth-place finish. Lucky bounced right back with a hard-fought win in the Preakness Stakes!
Lookin At Lucky then won the Haskell and sloshed through a quagmire in the Indiana Derby to prep for the Classic. Always in the hunt, Lucky couldn't stay with Blame, was passed by Zenyatta and faded to finish fourth.
Amid all of the Zenyatta hoopla and Blame's win, I couldn't help but think, man, that Lucky is really something. I was looking forward to seeing him run next year, but you never get your heart set on such things. Horseplayers know better than that.
I don't care if a horse's name is Flicka or Fury or Dr. Fager. If he's even money or worse, you try to beat him on a win ticket. That's the cold, cruel world of playing this game.
But a horse like Lookin At Lucky? Lay low on your wiseguy play and you wouldn't mind Lucky beatin' you.
And in the latest horse racing news, Illinois' own Giant Oak won the 136th running of the Clark Handicap (Grade I) at Churchill Downs on Friday.
In a rowdy running of one of the oldest horse races in America, Giant Oak was declared the winner after stewards had to sort out the 11-horse field and declared two infractions and disqualified two horses.
The winner of the race, Successful Dan, Julien Leparoux aboard, was placed third after interfering with Redding Colliery in the stretch. Demarcation, with Kent Desormeaux up, cut off Dubious Miss and caused a serious bunch-up in the stretch. He was DQ'd to last. Leparoux and Desormeaux were each suspended for three days for the incident.
These things happen in racing, but this one is unusual as Giant Oak was not officially interfered with himself, although it sure looked to me like Successful Dan drifted out on him in the final sixteenth.
It was a sweet turn of events - and $328,700 in purse money - for trainer Chris Block, rider Shaun Bridgmohan and the owners at the Virginia H. Tarra Trust. It was Oak's first graded stakes win and his first win after 14 straight losses spanning nearly 18 months.
Oak was in decent form after tough beats in the Grade III Washington Park Handicap at Arlington and the Grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap. He was victimized by J.J. Castellano's antics in the Breeders' Cup Marathon, having to go wide to avoid the trouble in front of him in the incident that sparked the Calvin Borel-Castellano one-round fistfight in the Churchill winner's circle on Breeders' Cup Friday. He finished fifth.
The big four-year-old Giant's Causeway colt has had a curious career (21-3-5-3), as witnessed by his running on all three track surfaces at distances ranging from 1 to 1-3/4 miles and everything in between for two different trainers. He's kept some special company over the years, suffering not-so-bad losses to the likes of Blame, Musket Man, Friesan Fire and Dubious Miss.
He was progressing quite nicely on the road to the Kentucky Derby in 2009 when Block called a timeout, saying Oak had a few mental issues to address, presumably including career counseling.
Oak must have listened, at least a little. He's about $40,000 away from the million-dollar mark in earnings.
If he races next year, try to get out and see our local boy. The big galoot can run.
Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes in this space every Friday. He welcomes your comments.More from Beachwood Sports »
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