Kentucky Derby 2011: A Guide, Part 1

Toby’s Corner won’t be there, but the show must go on, and I wanted to present a handful of horses worth rooting for. Two of these horses, Mucho Macho Man and Archarcharch, I almost included with Toby’s story. Hopefully, you’ll find a horse here you like!

Archarcharch trains for the Kentucky Derby.

THE LITTLE GUY: Archarcharch comes into the Derby having followed exactly the same path as Toby. He won his first prep, was third in his second, and won his last, the million dollar Arkansas Derby. His trainer, Jinks Fires, is 70 years old. This will be his first Kentucky Derby. Fires’ daughter married a jockey, Jon Court. Jon wanted to make it to the Derby, and moved his family out of Arkansas to Southern California. They had a deal. If Jon didn’t find a Derby horse within so many years, they’d move back home to Arkansas. Jon never found his Derby horse. They moved back to Arkansas. Jon, now 50, is still a jockey. And he’ll be on the back of Archarcharch, who he has ridden in all of the horse’s races. He found his Derby horse in his father-in-law’s backyard.

So, you might be wondering, how down home is Archarcharch? THIS down home:

While the stress might be getting to Archarcharch’s owner, Yagos said because of unique circumstances he is quite confident his colt will handle the excitement and media crush awaiting him at Churchill Downs.

Jon Court celebrates his Arkansas Derby win with Archarcharch.

“Just before we sent him to be broken, he lived with us on the farm, and that’s right next to the salvage yard,” said Yagos. “He’s been used to forklifts and trucks and equipment since he was a baby. And we are also right in the flight path for an Air Force base. We get those big C-130s coming and going all the time. He’s sure going to be used to all the noise.”

Archarcharch himself is an attractive horse with a near-black coat. He’s not particularly big, but he is bred to run a distance of ground. His people love him, and report that he is a very kind, easy horse to deal with. He’s a quiet horse. Jinks Fires is the same way. This is an old school crew, think John Wayne and his trusty mount.

BABY HUEY: Mucho Macho Man is from a very different kind of group of people. From Suwanee, Georgia, MMM’s owners have put up billboards along the I-85 corrider telling Georgians that MMM is their hometown horse. They’ve also campaigned the Georgia legislature to find a place for horse racing in Georgia. Quiet cowboys they are not. But they are also good people. The day before MMM’s best Derby prep, the Risen Star, his longtime jockey, Eibar Coa, suffered a devastating fall. He watched, paralyzed from the neck down, as Rajiv Maragh won the race on his horse. The next day, Mucho Macho Man’s owners visted Eibar in the hospital, and gave him a check for $18,000 as though he’d made the winning ride himself.

Much Macho Man trains for the Kentucky Derby.

Eibar Coa went on to shock his doctors by regaining movement in his limbs. Less than two months after his cataclysmic injury, Eibar walked out of the hospital. How unbelievable was Coa’s recovery? This unbelievable:

“In all my years of neurosurgery never have I seen a case, an event, this impressive and this miraculous,” said Dr. Scott Berta, the attending surgeon at Memorial Regional Hospital South. “To have a man who’s completely paralyzed from the neck down — a complete quadriplegic — and then be able to get up and walk is an extremely rare event. And do to it so quickly on top of it is pretty much unheard of.”

Coa will be at the Kentucky Derby to root on the big horse, Mucho Macho Man. And when I say “big horse” I mean that literally. MMM is over seventeen hands tall, and he’s not yet three years old. He will not turn three until June 15th. Most thoroughbreds are bred to be born as close to the January 1st cut-off date as possible. MMM’s dam, Ponche de Leona, was bred late, but her owners expected her to foal at the first of May. Still late, but not obscenely late. Ponche de Leona had other ideas, holding onto her baby for another six weeks.

A newly acquired member of Carole Rio’s broodmare band, she did not yet know the mare’s unusual foaling behavior. Which is, essentially, no behavior whatsoever. When Ponche de Leona is about to have a foal, you’d never know it. She just stands there, grazes, acts totally normal. Then she lays down, has a foal. Gets up, continuous to act as though has happened. And so it was with Mucho Macho Man, who was foaled in a field, thanks to his dam’s unusual behavior. The weirdness didn’t stop there.

Rajiv Maragh celebrates with Mucho Macho Man after the Risen Star Stakes.

Everyone thought MMM was stillborn. He lay, lifeless, in the field, while people worked over him, rubbing him, trying to get him to breathe. Just as they gave up, the colt leapt to his feet and took off. There were no struggling first steps, no awkward attempts to get up. Bizarre as this scene was, it has since been repeated by MMM’s younger siblings. Ponche de Leona is a strange mare, indeed.

MMM might have been born too late, but his mind was always two steps ahead. Super easy to train, MMM made up for his physical immaturity with his kindness and intelligence. He eventually found his way to the barn of trainer Kathy Ritvo, a heart transplant survivor. For Kathy and Mucho Macho Man, it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Kathy and MMM have a deep affinity for one another. (As a side note, if he were to win the Kentucky Derby, Kathy would become the first female trainer of a Derby winner.) MMM is too tall, too gangly, his ears are too big and his legs are too long, but despite all that baby huey awkwardness, he finds a way to win. MMM has heart. Just like his jockey, his owners, and his trainer.

How My Brain Works when I’m Not Awake

A grouse, sans mink stole.

The setting – a train station with a 1940’s feel, but the place is amorphous, unimportant.

Striding ahead of me, a chicken-like bird, the color of a blonde-ish Rhonde Island Red. She is fluffy, too fluffy and too large, to be a chicken, although she reminds me of those Polish ones with the puffy heads. Ultimately, I decide she is a grouse.

She is wearing a mink stole similar in color to her own plummage. Feeling my presence, she turns around. A glittering brooch keeps her stole wrapped securely in place.

We engage in quick, Oscar Wilde-ean banter. I admire her wit, her polish, her assertive air. I immediately note the obvious – she speaks with a Russian accent.

“You are from Russia?” I ask.

She doesn’t deign to reply, the question is too stupid. Of course she is Russian.

Our conversation devolves, and the grouse makes the observation that American men are not real men. Russian men are real men, but not American men are not. Although I’ve respected the grouse so far, this comment rankles. “That is not true,” I tell her. “My dad is a real man, and he is an American.”

The Russian grouse scoffs. She thinks my comment is aburd and sentimental. I can tell there will be no changing her mind. This conversation is dying on the vine and I am ready to be done with her.

And that’s when Pumpkin pulls the covers away from my face, insisting that he be fed. I recall the dream I just had and think, “Thanks for the entertainments, Brain!”

Squarely in Toby’s Corner

Toby's Corner

Every year, I do a Kentucky Derby promo here at Fanfreakingtastic, once all the prep races are run, and the Derby picture clears. Usually, I feature several horses of interest. This year is different. This year, I have one big, giant, huge, sentimental favorite for the first time since Smarty Jones won in 2004.

His name is Toby’s Corner. Here is the story of how I fell in love with him.

It was early February, cold and dreary, when I found the name Toby’s Corner in the entries for the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct. I laughed out loud and sent an email to my mother-in-law, telling her I’d found her Derby horse. My mother-in-law has a cat named Toby. I have written about him, and his struggle with demonic possession, here.

Encouraged by what I read in his past performances (he was riding a two race win streak), I was eager to see what Toby’s Corner looked like. Once I saw him, I fell for him. He was long, leggy and lithe, just the way a racehorse should be. He was well put together, but very upright for a thoroughbred, and also a little unusual in some of his other angles. Toby’s Corner is a classically beautiful horse, but different enough to be interesting. I was a smitten kitten.

And then I watched the Whirlaway. (You can see it here, although you need to scroll through all the prep races to reach it.) I was extremely impressed with his win. He made a brilliant move on the turn for home, and then started to gawk at the stands. His jockey, Eddie Castro, tactfully suggested Toby look where he was going, and once he straightened out he opened up on the field, with a beautifully long, sweeping stride. Galloping out, he had his ears pricked, a sign of a happy horse who likes his job.

All atwitter, I tried to find out all about my new love. I read interviews with his owner, Dianne Cotter, who also bred and raised Toby. I learned that he is trained by my beloved Graham Motion, an Englishman who treats racehorses like horses, training out of the Maryland facility Fair Hill. (Fellow horse people – the racehorses there get TURN OUT. Non horse people, turn out means they get time to be loose in a pasture and hang out like a regular horse. Most racehorses spend 23 hours a day in a stall.) I googled his name, and learned that Toby’s Corner is the oldest house in New Orleans’ Garden District. I love New Orleans, and chalked it up as one more reason to love Toby. I also told a lot of people about the meaning of his name.

The Gotham Stakes, Toby’s next prep, fell on my dad’s birthday. I informed the family that we would be taking a time out from the celebration to watch Toby. He finished third that day, but I wasn’t overly disappointed. He was due to bounce coming out of his huge effort in the Whirlaway. Better to bounce now, than later.

My sister Becky and my niece Courtney were there, watching Toby with me. Courtney is an eventer, and trains with a competitor named Hillary Irwin. I hear a lot about Hillary. I’ve never met her, but I feel as though I have, given the number of Hillary stories I have heard. I knew she evented ex-racehorses she got from her grandmother, who bred them, I knew she has a deep loyalty and love for her horses, I knew she was a wonderful mentor to Courtney and gave her excellent advice.

Next up – the Wood Memorial, where my Toby was set to do battle with Uncle Mo, the golden boy of the class of 2011. Undefeated, Uncle Mo was the champion 2 yo colt of 2010, and as I watched the coverage of the race on TVG I felt my blood pressure rise. The commentators were touting Uncle Mo as though he were the next coming of Secretariat, and made no mention of Toby at all.

I couldn’t understand it. Didn’t these people see what I saw in the Whirlaway? Didn’t they know that Toby was built to go a distance? Didn’t they see Uncle Mo’s short, bulky muscles, designed for mile long races? Didn’t they realize that his trainer, Todd Pletcher, had wrapped the horse up in bubble wrap? Giving him one joke of a race to prep for the Wood? To me, the entire thing reeked of injustice. As Toby loaded into the gate, I prayed, “Please God, please let Toby make all these people eat their words. All these rude, rude, rude, incredibly stupid people, please force them to see what I see.”

And this is what happened.

Now, I love Tom Durkin, the race caller, but he, along with everyone else, forgot Toby was in the race. He is number 2, and is along the rail, in the back. His jockey wears a bright red cap and forest green and red silks. Turning for home, Toby is last, and still on the rail. You can then watch that red cap weave through traffic until Toby bursts into first place, sticking that long, lean, liver chestnut neck out in front of Uncle Mo.

And there was much rejoicing.

After the race, I eagerly awaited the recaps from the experts. I knew they’d come along with their tail between their legs, forced to acknowledge Toby’s excellence. But no! All the stories were about Uncle Mo’s loss, not Toby’s victory. More injustice, more gnashing of teeth.

On the plus side, there were some human interest stories about Dianne Cotter, Toby’s owner. I learned I was wrong about his name. Dianne purchased a pony named Toby for her granddaughter many, many years ago, and the pony had the corner stall. They called it Toby’s Corner. The name was sentimental and nostalgic, and it made me like Dianne Cotter all the more. I also learned that she only bred about two foals a year, and had bred Toby’s sire, Bellamy Road, who also won the Wood Memorial. To have bred two Wood winners from such a small operation is truly a feat. This win was even sweeter than Bellamy’s, however, as Dianne still owned Toby at the time of his win. (As a side note – Bellamy Road is Toby’s sire.)

I called my sister, Becky, to tell her of the glories of Toby’s win, the injustices surrounding him and all the neat things I’d learned about his connections. Before I could get anywhere with my story, she said, “Oh, yeah, that’s Hillary Irwin’s grandmother’s horse.”

This is what a thoroughbred is supposed to look like.


“Yeah, Hillary Irwin. She’s the one who owned Toby the pony when she was a little girl.”


Becky said, “Yeah, you know. She gets her thoroughbreds from her grandmother, that Hillary, well, her grandmother is Dianne Cotter. Hillary’s mom, Carrie, is my good friend.”

And my brain exploded with joy, and I wrote the biggest 12 year old fan girl letter to Carrie Cotter Irwin on Facebook, telling her all about how I am Toby’s BIGGEST FAN IN THE WORLD!

The kind woman wrote back, told me that they are all over the moon about it, about how Toby’s Wood was the greatest day of their lives. She was gracious and lovely, and said not a thing about the nasty TVG commentators, or Tom Durkin’s call of the race. She was simply filled with gratitude that her mother is getting to see her dreams come true.

And this, my friends, is the wonderful thing about horse racing. It is the ultimate meritocracy. Toby didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to win the race, he didn’t know about the lack of respect he’d been given, he didn’t know that he was from a small operation in Florida, he didn’t know the odds were against him. All he knew was that he was there to run his best, let the chips fall where they may.

More Beautiful Things!

Book cover for Buglette, The Messy Sleeper

Yesterday, I found beautiful things on my friend’s blog and shared them with you. Today, I checked in with another writer, and found some more beautiful things I had to share. Now, at the heart of all of these beautiful things is a picture book, Buglette, The Messy Sleeper. I’ve known about this book for awhile. It was written by Bethanie Murguia, who is another client of Mary Kole’s. I love Bethanie’s beautiful illustrations, and have been meaning to bring all y’all’s attention to this book for awhile.

But what I didn’t realize is how busy Bethanie’s been making beautiful things to go along with Buglette. In preparation for readings, Bethanie has made a stuffed Buglette to share the stage with her, along with leaf pads for the children to sit on. Look at how adorable this is! THE ADORABLENESS BLOWS MY MIND.

But she didn’t stop there. She also made rubber stamps. Look at this, people. SO CUTE. Nor did the woman even stop there. She is a machine of adorableness, churning out adorable with reckless abandon. I will stop posting links. I will simply say, go to her blog and look at all of the cute, and feel your face melt.

Speaking of your face melting off from awesomeness, check out this book trailer! Okay, I know this post has about four thousand links in it. If you click on only one, click on the trailer. How gorgeous is that?! Now, I think the trailer for Truth Be Told is pretty rad (if you’ve never seen it, you can find it here), but the Buglette trailer definitely gives it a run for its money.

In conclusion, fanfreakingtastic readers, buy this book. Why? Because it’s awesome, that’s why.

Beautiful Things

Jack's friend, the moon.

I would like to bring all y’all’s attention to my friend’s blog. She prefers to remain anonymous, so I won’t say her name.

I just want to say that she’s been writing especially beautiful things as of late. I tend not to write beautiful things, it’s not so much my bag, but I do appreciate beautiful things, think all y’all should have beautiful things, and if I can’t provide them directly, I shall provide them indirectly.

And so, here it is. A truly fanfreakingtastic blog, The Reluctant Grownup.

And here is a sample tidbit, to whet your appetite:

It was dusk, the moon was three quarters full and bright bright bright. We walked in a 5 block square around our house, and the entire way, Jack conversed with the moon, playing both sides of the dialogue.

Jack as Jack: Hewwo moon! I get you! Chomp!

Jack as Moon: Hewwo, how you doing down there?

Jack as Jack: I doing good, how you doing?

Jack as Moon: I come see you, ok?