Derby 2012: Your Handy Dandy Guide: Part 1

This year’s edition of the Run for the Roses is both a tale of two horses and an endless array of potential victors. Here, in part one, we shall discuss the Hansen and Union Rags, tent pole horses the both of them.

Hansen as a two-year-old, just before the BC Juvenile. He's even whiter now.

1.) We will start with Hansen. Last year’s two-year-old Eclipse Award winning champion, Hansen did a most unusual thing – he moved on from two to three, proving himself to be a fast, classy, and consistent colt. It is exceedingly rare these days for the two year champion to make anything of himself as a three year old, but Hansen has done so, through raw heart and determination if nothing else. He has finished second twice and won the Gotham in fine style, actually laying off the pace before making a move. This is the only time Hansen has successfully relaxed in a race, for his modus operandi is to go to the front and go as fast as he can for as long as he can, hoping to hit the wire first. The horse is all heart, and he gets little respect from the experts. The feeling is, Hansen won’t last the mile and a quarter, and with other speed horses in the race, he won’t get an easy lead, either.

The lack of respect for Hansen goes deeper than that, though. His two-year-old season started out at Turfway Park, running against less than awesome competition. When he beat the favorite, Union Rags, in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile, people were quick to say it was because of the poor trip Union Rags had. There is also the fact that Hansen, though almost white and therefore quite flashy, isn’t a big or handsome colt. And last of all, there is the fact that Hansen is owned by a world class moron named Dr. Hansen. Dr. Hansen insists on having a cadre of Hooter-esque women, dressed in the stable’s colors, lead the horse out to the paddock. Moreover, he has repeatedly tried to dye the horse’s white tail blue. In short, the man is completely devoid of good sense and decency, and is always looking to make a spectacle of his colt. Hansen the horse is an animal with a lot of dignity. He tries his heart out every time. I take a lot of umbrage at the way his owner treats him as a self-promotional tool.

In conclusion, Hansen undefeated as a two-year-old, stakes placed and stakes winning this year, will enter the Derby as the Rodney Dangerfield of the field. He is small, short-necked, too intent on the lead, might have distance limitations, and is owned by an idiot. But I have nothing but respect for this determined competitor.  

As a side note, Hansen is ridden by world class jockey Ramon Dominguez. However, Ramon is coming off an injury, and this concerns me. Hansen will be 100% coming into the race, but will Ramon? He rode in the Wood Memorial, and his performance on second placed Alpha left a lot to be desired. Luckily, the injury was minor, a separated collarbone, and likely Ramon will be ready to give it his best shot on the first Saturday in May.

Union Rags is a big, handsome boy.

2.) Secondly, we have Union Rags. Union Rags is everything that Hansen is not. He is an enormous, gorgeous horse, with bold bay coloring and striking white markings. He looks like a Derby winner, he is trained by Michael Matz, who brought Barbaro to the Derby in 2006, and he is owned by normal people. They’re so normal I don’t even know who they are. He is ridden by the Frenchman Julien Leparoux – sometimes well, sometimes poorly.

As a two-year-old, Union Rags won the Champagne and the Saratoga Special in New York, stamping himself as the establishment favorite. In the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile, he came up just short, losing to Hansen. As a three-year-old, he devastated the Fountain of Youth field. He then entered the Florida Derby, everybody’s favorite to win. Unfortunately, Julien ran into some serious “race riding.” Which is to say, other jocks conspired to keep him pinned down at the rail with the favorite. Then, on the turn for home, Julien did that awkward dance thing. Should I go inside? Outside? Inside? Outside? Union Rags is a big horse, and none too handy. After Julien finally committed, it took the bay colt too long to get rolling, and he wound up third. Was it a bad third? No. Does it mean he won’t win the Derby? No. But it does reveal some weaknesses. Although one could say the Florida Derby was a good learning experience. Just ask Michael Matz, who said, “The good part is I hope that Julien learned about the horse a little bit more…The good thing about it is Julien will put himself in a better position where he won’t let that happen again…I’m sure Julien is harder on himself than everyone else is and that he should have got him running a little bit more at the beginning.” Heh heh heh. For a guy as diplomatic and nice as Matz, that level of criticism is like a string of curse words.

Additionally, it could be argued that it is Union Rags who might be a little short on stamina for the mile and a quarter. His pedigree doesn’t say he can’t do it, but it doesn’t scream that he can, either. In conclusion, in Union Rags you have a similar situation as in Hansen – a talented, consistent colt, but one with some question marks.

If you have a few spare minutes, catch yourself up to date on their signature races:

Union Rags’ Fountain of Youth

Hansen’s Kentucky Cup Juvenile

The Breeder’s Cup Juvenile – This is the race that decided the two-year-old championship. The third place horse, Creative Cause, will be discussed in Part II, and the fourth place horse, Dullahan, will be discussed in Part III.

Why Horse People Are Crazy

It should also be noted that rational people don't do things like this.

I found myself on Behind the Bit today, and discovered this post. I was reminded of the fact that horse people are crazy, and I decided to share with all y’all my three point theory as to why this is.

1.) Horse people weigh, on average, somewhere between 100 and 200 pounds. And yet when they look upon a four-legged, 1,200 lb. beast, they say to themselves, “I should be in charge of this creature. I should get onto its back and steer it about with nothing but my legs and seat and two flopsy bits of leather. This makes perfect sense to me. If this beast becomes aggressive with me, I will not back down, but instead make the beast back up vigorously, whilst yelling, HEY! or NO! or DON’T YOU DARE! The 1,200 lb beast will respond to this by actually backing down. This also will make perfect sense to me, because I know I should be in charge of this creature.”

2.) Horse people prefer the company of horses to the company of people. This can be quite instructive, if we simply examine the nature of the horse. Horses, unlike cats and especially dogs, are mostly silent creatures. They do not meow or purr or bark or growl. Yes, they do communicate vocally, but their stock in trade is the world of silent gestures, of body language.  The pinned ear, the snaking neck, the raised hind hoof, the chewing gesture of a two-year-old. Horse people know this language intuitively. When outsiders say horses aren’t expressive, they can’t believe it. Horses never stop expressing themselves, and horse people never stop listening. Horse people get in trouble not when communicating with their horses, but when they have to open their mouths, speak, and try to communicate with other humans. It tends to not go so well. Horse people are blunt, rude, coarse, frank, assertive, and generally unbearable. It goes beyond a lack of social graces, and really runs into something like Aspergers. Quite possibly all horse people are actually on the autism spectrum, going about undiagnosed and unknowing.

3.) Every single individual horse person knows the way it should be done. Every single individual horse person does it a different way. Barns are collaborative environments. And chaos ensues. This fact actually ties back into points one and two. Horse people believe they should be in charge. They are lone wolves.  They have come up with a wide variety of opinions based on personal experience, and like the natural leaders that they are, they know they are right.

Now, of course there are horse people who are gregarious and easy going. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule, and dare I say that the crazier the horse person is, the more horsey they actually are.

Change

Found this image of a banner for a Victorian flea circus, and I had to redo Fanfreakingtastic in its image.

Fanfreakingtastic! It’s had a makeover. I’ll never forget, when Fanfreakingtastic first debuted, more than a year ago, and my beloved BOTASTIC said, “Really? Pink? Orange? Little stars?” I replied, “Yeah! Little stars!” Botastic said, “Huh.” So I was like, “What’s wrong with little stars?!?” And Botastic was all, “I just figured you go with, you know, autumn colors or something.”

Botastic had a point. I’d put together the original Fanfreakintastic whilst in a particularly happy mood, whilst particularly enraptured with a pair of pink and orange sandles I’d bought. True story.

So, I present to you something reflective of the Victorian dark grunge freak show that is more reflective of my usual mindset? Question mark because, not sure if it’s ACTUALLY more reflective of my normative state, but it’s definitely a state I visit at least somewhat frequently. Rather like Georgia or North Carolina.

Also new to the Fanfreakingtastic site – the Equus category, where one can find all horse-related links. A friend recently made the point that there was no one place to go for all horsiness. Now there is.

Hope you like the new look! If you don’t, I’m sorry. I’m done fighting with WordPress for the time being. I’m sure I’ll get back in the ring again eventually. Change is good for soul, after all.

Preakness Recap, or, The Story of How Carrie Met Mr. Cotter

My niece, Courtney, on Robin Hood.

This last weekend was my niece Courtney’s 18th birthday, as well as her last event on the Irish Sporthorse gelding, Robin Hood. And so it was that I traveled north, to a state I’ve never been to, Virginia. Prior to setting off, I told my mom I was sure our hotel would be nice. She asked why I was so sure, and I said, “It’s in Virginia.” And verily has it been so in my imagination, that Virginia was a land of beauty, wealth and resources. I wasn’t wrong. As far as I could tell, Virginia was prettier, nicer, and altogether more perfect than the Carolinas. That said, I’ve always believed that imperfections are where one finds the most compelling sorts of beauty. This is why I love South Carolina. (How about that complisult, South Carolina? South Carolina does not deign to reply.)

Upon arrival at the Virginia Horse Park, we found my niece at the Bent Tree barn. A lot of showgrounds have chintzy, impermanent stabling. Because we were in Virginia, the barn was gorgeous, bright and airy, with its own indoor schooling ring (!!!).

Now, my sister Becky had told me that Hillary Irwin and her mother Carrie Cotter Irwin would be there. To refresh y’all’s memory – Carrie’s parents own my beloved Toby’s Corner, the chestnut piece of awesome that won the Wood Memorial, vanquishing Uncle Mo. Hillary Irwin is a top eventer who owned the original Toby, a pony who had the corner stall. Becky said she’d introduce me to Carrie, and I was all twitterpated. For me, meeting the Cotters is akin to, say, meeting Rihanna, or Kristen Stewart, or Fill-in-the-blank-celebrity-of-your-choice.

So imagine my surprise when upon meeting Carrie I discovered she was sitting with her father, Mr. Julian Cotter, owner and breeder of Toby’s Corner. Did I have a complete and total fan girl freak out? Yes, yes I did, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I believe there might have been some ranting. “I was never afraid of Uncle Mo!” There was some gushing. “You’ve bred TWO Wood Memorial winners!” There was probably some blathering. Luckily, I don’t remember the details of that.

Best of all, Mr. Cotter was even cooler than I expected him to be. He was very classy, and didn’t say anything untoward, but he definitely had some great lines, too. For example: “At the Wood Memorial, they’d declared it Uncle Mo Day. When we walked in, they tried to give us an Uncle Mo bracelet. We politely declined.”

He also proudly declared, “When I looked at Toby’s Corner, I said, ‘This is going to be the one.'” At which point his daughter said, “You’ve been saying that for forty years.” Mr. Cotter replied, “And I’ve been right twice!”

As you all can imagine, I was in horse girl nerd heaven.

The classy speed, Shackleford. Look how happy Jesus Castanon is.

Mr. Cotter also said he’s been traveling to Saratoga religiously for years. Now that Toby’s on the mend, and according to trainer Graham Motion, pointed toward the Travers Stakes, one can only imagine how much a Travers win would mean to the Cotter family. If Toby were to win the Travers, you can rest assured I’d once again scare my cats with my over-the-top celebration.

On a somewhat related note – my mom and I have been attending horse events for years. We are small, small fry in the big world of equestrian sport, and we’re pretty used to being treated like the very, very small fry that we are. (One notable exception – Bobby Costello. He’s always nice. And funny.) In any case, on the second day of the show, my mom and I found ourselves sitting at a picnic bench, waiting for results. (We would eventually find out that Courtney finished 7th out of a big and competitive field.) As we sat there, sipping our coffee, a nice looking horse and rider came our way, obviously exiting a cross country go. “Good morning!” said the rider. My mom and I looked at each other, wondering if we were the ones being addressed. And then I realized it was Hillary Irwin. “Hello!” we called back. After she passed by, my mom said, “Holy cats. A friendly top class rider? Who’da thunk it?” Soon enough, Hillary passed us again, headed back to cross country, now on a grey. “Good luck!” I said, and she said, “Thanks!”

Now, this probably seems like a paltry small deal, and maybe it is. But both my mom and I found it a remarkable one. Perhaps a sad reflection on a lot of top riders, but it’s also just the truth. And it’s one more reason why I’d be so thrilled with any future success Toby’s Corner might have – his people are good people, and that’s all too rare in this day and age.

****

Finally – the Preakness. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to say. “Beware the classy speed!” I said several times during the post parade, while referring to Shackleford, not Flashpoint. The classy speed is always dangerous, and Shackleford is classy speed. But he wants no part of a mile and a half. The day after the race, Carrie Cotter Irwin asked if I thought they’d send Shackleford to the Belmont. “No way!” I said. “They’d be crazy to think he’d get the distance!” Well, as of now, they’re sending him. And I officially think they’re crazy. He’s a good horse. Why burn him up going that far around Big Sandy? (Big Sandy being the nickname of the track at Belmont. It is a mile and a half, one trip around, and the footing is sandy, and therefore tiring.)

I do think Animal Kingdom would relish the added ground. If he’d had a few more yards in the Preakness he would have overtaken Shackleford and won. I hope they send him, but I can see where Graham Motion might want to save him for the second half of the season.

For myself, with no Triple Crown on the line, my focus shifts to the year end Eclipse Awards. Who’ll win top 3 year old colt? Toby’s still in it, and my money’s with him, wherever he goes.

Animal Kingdom and the Triple Crown: A History Lesson

 
Animal Kingdom at Fair Hill, training for the Preakness.

Usually there is a lot of buzz exiting the Kentucky Derby, with speculation about the possibility of a  Triple Crown. This year, not so much. Particularly amongst my horse friends, most of whom are very disappointed in this year’s Kentucky Derby. If you ask them why, they say, “Well, we won’t have a Triple Crown winner this year.” And if you ask them why they think that, they say, “Because when a horse is going to be great, you know it coming into the Derby.”

This is poppycock. Now, there is some truth to the idea that a Horse for the Ages usually is recognized as such relatively early in his/her career. But with our most recent Triple Crown winners being Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat, we have forgotten that not every Triple Crown winner is a legend from the get go. (Horses for the Ages being somewhat rarer than Triple Crown Winners.)

Assault, after winning the Derby. Damn, that little horse looks tired.

Omaha was a son of Gallant Fox, an extremely popular Triple Crown winner. Omaha carried with him his sire’s mystique, which is probably why he was second choice in the betting at the Derby. He’d won only once as a two-year-old, with a whole bunch of runner-up finishes as a three-year-old. He was also a physically impressive horse, standing seventeen hands high, which no doubt encouraged the bettors. (For non-horse people, this translates to 5’6″ at the shoulder.) Omaha proceeded to win the Derby, the Preakness, lose the Withers, and then win the Belmont. So he won the 1935 Triple Crown, albeit with a loss thrown into that series of races.

Assault, who won the Triple Crown in 1946, took four tries to break his maiden, finishing his two-year-old year with two wins out of nine races. On Derby day, he was fourth choice in the betting, and won in slow time. The Preakness was the first race wherein Assault found himself the favorite. He won the Preakness, but not impressively, and it was Lord Boswell who was made the favorite for the Belmont. That race, however, proved to be one of Assault’s best, and he was a decisive winner of the final jewel of the Triple Crown. Assault was a plain, small chestnut with one deformed hoof, and maybe this fed into the general lack of respect for him. But over a 42 race career, he proved he was no fluke, winning 18 times and placing 13 times.

Sir Barton, who won the crown in 1919, had never even won a race when he entered the Derby. The only reason he was in the race at all was to act as a rabbit for his stablemate, Billy Kelly. (For non-horse people, a rabbit is a horse who sets a hot pace, knowing the pace will wear him down and leave him unable to win. However, the hot pace ensures a good set-up for a closing stablemate.) Apparently, nobody told Sir Barton he wasn’t supposed to win. He went on a streak, and by the time he won the Belmont in American record time, he no longer played second fiddle to Billy Kelly.

The "billy goat" Exterminator wears the blanket of roses.

Finally, I want to mention a horse who is not a Triple Crown winner, but is relevant for another reason. One of the many records or streaks broken by Animal Kingdom in his Kentucky Derby win was this one – “No horse since Exterminator in 1918 has won the Derby off of four starts.” At 30-1, Exterminator was a far longer shot than Animal Kingdom when he won the Derby. In fact, he wasn’t going to be started at all, but then his star stablemate, Sun Briar, turned up lame. Exterminator had been purchased not as a racehorse, but as a workmate for Sun Briar. When the trainer suggested they enter Exterminator instead, the owner of both horses was appalled that an unattractive nag like Exterminator would carry his colors. He actually called Exterminator “the billy goat.” But the trainer was persistent, and ultimately the horse was entered.

After his surprise Derby win, Exterminator did not go on to win the Triple Crown. But he did go on to win 50 out of 100 races and become a living legend, beloved by legions of fans.

My point is, the paths to greatness are many and varied. Over the 33 years since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, racing fans and the general public have become increasingly locked into what I’d call Secretariat Syndrome. We want a horse to come along and defy reality. I don’t know if Animal Kingdom will win the Triple Crown, but I can give you one guarantee – there will never be another Secretariat.

 But there might be a magical story unique to Graham Motion’s bright chestnut colt with the perfect star on his forehead, and I can tell you this – he’s better than a lot of people think. He covered the last half mile of the Derby in 47 seconds. Only one horse has ever closed faster – and that horse was Secretariat.