Horse racing fans and the people who handle the horses are truly resilient. Not war-torn resilient or refugee resilient, as current events in Europe are displaying in horrific detail. But resilient in the ability to survive the whiplash between the endorphin highs of Thoroughbreds at their best and the helpless funk when things go wrong.
The victory of Express Train , Victor Espinoza, and John Shirreffs in the Santa Anita Handicap Presented by Yaamava’ Resort & Casino (G1) on March 5 was one of those moments when the stars align to rain good vibes all around. The fact that the big horse had to work hard to edge the dead-game invader Warrant made the moment that much more satisfying. Espinoza is a medical miracle who should not be walking, let alone belly down and winning a major horse race. And Shirreffs, the Alan Turing of trainers, reminded the sport once again that he always has been more than a one-trick pony, even if that pony’s name was Zenyatta .
The program leading up to the Santa Anita Handicap was awash in cracking good contests, including the Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1T), named for the executive who kept the sport in California on the high-class radar during his long tenure as racing empresario . let’s hear it for Count Again a gelded son of Awesome Again trained by Phil D’Amato and ridden by Flavien Prat, who became a grade 1 winner at the ripe old age of 7 with his last-second lunge in the Kilroe to beat Space Traveler and Jamie Spencer on the money.
Richard Mandella was wearing a grin well into the evening after watching his 3-year-old prospect Forbidden Kingdom run away and hide from the opposition in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) at a mile and one-sixteenth. The last time Mandella knocked on the door of the Kentucky Derby (G1) was in 2019 when he had to scratch favored Omaha Beach with a throat problem, three days before the race. Karma has been on hold since then.
The only sour note of the day, believe it or not, came in the singing of the national anthem by a recording artist named Will Champlin, who once finished third on NBC’s “The Voice” competition. There was nothing wrong with Champlin’s straight-forward presentation of a tune that sometimes can inspire flights of inappropriate fancy. Champlin, however, brought a significant amount of divisive baggage to the task.
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Champlin’s twitter account, largely used to promote his music, includes virulent anti-vax messages, referrals to the White House medical advisor Anthony Fauci as “Dr. Death” and talk show host Stephen Colbert as a “sick pedophile,” and vigorous promotion of a non-fungible token called “Let’s Go Brandon” (look it up and hold your nose).
Call this old-fashioned reporter, but shouldn’t the national anthem sung at a public event attended by people from across the political spectrum provide a unifying moment, especially in these fractious times? Certainly, there were people in the stands on Santa Anita Handicap day who would agree with Champlin’s brand of speech. They even might have caught his act earlier this year at a “Freedom Rally” in San Diego, attracting the kind of demographic that would warm to Champlin’s act.
Whether Champlin’s participation came from NBC, which aired part of the card, or was okayed by Santa Anita management, someone should have done a deeper dive into his profile. Strict adherence to COVID protocols during the height of the pandemic—protocols scorned by Champlin—kept the track in business. Santa Anita and its 1/ST Racing parent company have traditionally supported unifying movements in the LGBTQ community, as well as communities of color, and just this week sent forth a dedication to International Women’s Day. Champlin, on the other hand, promotes on his Twitter feed a song called “Fukamala.” He also sang “God Bless America” at the track.
Highs and lows. That’s what the game is all about. For those who can’t take it, there’s always curling. On a week that celebrated the birth of Baby Bisou to champion Midnight Kiss and Little Elate to the towering grade 1 pond Elate , the sport lost Go for Gin, who had reigned as the oldest Kentucky Derby winner, and Saratoga Oaks Invitational Stakes (G3T) winner Con Lima, the pride of Texas and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. Go for Gin just turned 31, in residence at the Kentucky Horse Park, while Con Lima, only 4, was fatally injured in a stall accident.
Then there was the death of Strike the Tiger and two other horses in a barn fire caused by a flash of lightning at Keeneland. The 15-year-old son of Tiger Ridge (a half brother to AP Indy) made history in 2009 when he became the first American-trained horse to win a race at Royal Ascot in the listed Windsor Castle Stakes, at 33-to- 1. That trainer was Wesley Ward, who has gone on to win another 11 Royal Ascot races.
Strike the Tiger was bred in California by Ward and partners. Since he called it a career in 2014, the gelding had been the Ward stable’s lead pony, accompanying their horses each year to England for the Royal Ascot meet. Reached at home in Kentucky, Ward still was feeling numbered by the tragedy.
“I was there 11 minutes after I got the call,” Ward said. “My boys had just left for lunch, so it happened in just that little window of time. Bruce Flowers, who works in the next barn over, is the real hero. As soon as he saw smoke he ran in and opened all the stall Six of the nine horses ran out, but the other three wouldn’t come out.
“By the time I got there the barn was gone. On top of that it was raining. A windy, rainy day. You’d never think there’d be a fire on a day like that. The fire investigators determined that the lightning hit the power service pole next to the barn. The charge shot right down the line into my barn and blew out all the outlets, starting multiple fires at the same time.”
According to Ward, Strike the Tiger would spend nine months of the year in a pasture and three months at the track, which would include his annual trip with Ward’s horses to Royal Ascot, where he was welcomed as a returning hero. He was in the Keeneland barn recovering from a minor surgical procedure.
Ward’s heartbreaking week also included a home invasion theft of the dozen silver trophies he won at Royal Ascot, including Strike the Tiger’s breakthrough victory. Seven of the trophies were recovered.
“Yeah, we got his,” said a disconsolate Ward. “But I’d trade a thousand wins to get the horse back.”