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Friday, October 1, 2010

Tumultuous Days of Autumn

Where to begin? To say this week has been a busy one news-wise for horse racing would be an understatement. Beginning last weekend with the death of jockey Mark Anthony Villa at Zia Park, it’s been a mostly unsettling week. The announcement of Real Quiet’s tragic accident was quickly overshadowed by Rachel Alexandra’s retirement. Kingmambo has been pensioned, Officer sent to Korea, General Quarters injured and Grand Couturier retired. Andy Beyer threw down the gauntlet regarding Zenyatta’s place in history. The hype regarding Disney’s “Secretariat” movie is ramping up, with previews seemingly everywhere. The individual stories leading up to this weekend’s bi-coastal Grade 1 extravaganza (not to mention Midwest showcase races) are enough to chuck even the most devoted horse player and fan into a tizzy. Frankly, it’s all been a bit overwhelming.

Much ink has already been spilt on Rachel Alexandra’s retirement, and, honestly, there’s not much more I can add to the discussion that I haven’t already voiced. I’m particularly drawn to the comments her former trainer Hal Wiggins conveyed in an interview with BloodHorse’s Jason Shandler on Thursday, as perhaps more than anyone else he has enough insight into the filly’s psyche to voice an intelligent opinion of the situation. I wholehearted agree that her 2010 campaign “was kind of off kilter” and respect his belief that last year’s Woodward “gutted her.” Certainly, as an adoring fan, I don’t want to believe my heroine so fallible, but there it is, and admittedly it is as plausible as any other excuse for her less-than-stellar yet perfectly fine performances this year. The never-to-be-answered question—would she beat Zenyatta—will long be argued, I suspect, even decades or more from now. And perhaps it’s best that the question will never be resolved on the track. Let’s just be satisfied that we have been blessed to live in an age of tremendous racing mares that have, I would argue, saved thoroughbred racing from total irrelevance.

I do want to address Grand Couturier’s retirement as he’s not likely to garner his just accolades elsewhere. Being a turf horse in a nation that reveres dirt (and, by default, faux dirt) racing, he never captured the hearts of fans like Einstein or Better Talk Now, but this British-born, French-raced expatriate found a beloved home on New York grass. He won back-to-back editions of the G1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga, defeating the great English Channel by three-lengths under the guidance of Calvin Borel in 2007—a year when English Channel won the G1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, G1 United Nations and G1 Breeders’ Cup Turf en route to his Eclipse award for Champion Turf Male. Unfortunately, this race isn’t available on YouTube, but in 2008, Grand Couturier beat the venerable 9-year-old Better Talk Now, also by three lengths, in a race where we witnessed a patent Presious Passion run and Grand Couturier perfectly skimming the rail around the final turn, only to be checked severely by the front-runner. Young Alan Garcia’s talents were on full display as he recovered and rallied to win impressively.

At his peak, Grand Couturier was a gutsy performer that excelled the longer the race, winning or placing near every time he ran 12 furlongs. Whether he’ll find a place at stud in the U.S. is up in the air, but I sincerely hope so. A son of sprint-miler Grand Lodge, his stamina came through his damline, with his damsire Sadler’s Wells and the presence further back of Epsom Derby winner and Arc runner-up Sir Ivor. He’s a direct damline descendent of the great champion Vagrancy as well as a host of other graded-stakes winning fillies—and his second dam Radiant is a daughter of Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Ah ha! You may say, there’s her interest in promoting Grand Couturier as a stallion, and you’d be right. With Scenic, Maudlin, Foligno and Marfa dead, and Kiri’s Clown enjoying retirement at Old Friends, there aren’t many Foolish Pleasure lines continuing to produce. There’s Blevic in Australia, and Smarty Jones, of course. Actually, there are close connections between Grand Couturier and the latter, as the dam of Smarty’s sire Elusive Quality, Touch of Greatness, is a half-sister to Grand Couturier’s second dam Radiant, in addition to Smarty's second dam Don't Worry Bout Me being a daughter of Foolish Pleasure. So, good luck to the grand old Grand Couturier, and may he have the opportunity to produce great offspring for years to come.

Finally, with autumn’s arrival with a vengeance this week, and cooler temperatures anticipated here this weekend (bordering on freezing overnight), I’m very much looking forward to curling up with Maryjean Wall’s new book How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders (The University Press of Kentucky, 2010) which is getting rave reviews. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to enjoy it as well.