Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
Last month, two-time champion Open Mind was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame, joining Safety Kept and Sky Beauty as this year’s equine inductees. A New Jersey-bred with a Maryland sire, Open Mind first made her racing mark in the mid-Atlantic, but it was in New York that she became a star.
Speaking in the Belmont Café last Saturday morning, Kiaran McLaughlin reminisced about training the daughter of Deputy Minister and 1989 Triple Tiara winner. He was working for D. Wayne Lukas in 1988, managing the trainer’s stable at Monmouth Park, when he got a call from Lukas’s New York assistant, Randy Bradshaw. “He called me and said, ‘I have a really nice Jersey-bred filly up here. She should probably go to you.”
“OK, great,” is how McLaughlin remembered his response.
Open Mind “didn’t train like a superstar,” said McLaughlin, but she won her first start by five lengths in a New Jersey-bred maiden special weight. Impressed by the victory, he entered her next in a New Jersey-bred stakes race, which she won by a neck, defeating a filly named Ms. Gold Pole.
Deputy Minister stood in Maryland, making Open Mind eligible for the Maryland Million, so she was pointed next to the Lassie at Laurel.
“At that time,” McLaughlin remembered, “there wasn’t simulcasting. I stayed at Monmouth to run in a big race, and I sent a foreman to saddle Open Mind.”
McLaughlin called that foreman to learn that Ms. Gold Pole had turned the tables on his filly, winning the Lassie by four and a half lengths. Open Mind was second.
“What was so neat, though,” McLaughlin said this week, “is that Ms. Gold Pole was first, Open Mind was second…and a filly called Safely Kept was third.
“And now two of them are going in the Hall of Fame, and they came out of a Maryland-sired two-year-old race.”
Open Mind came home to New Jersey after that race, to prepare for a fall campaign that would include a nose loss in the Frizette at Belmont and victories in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and Demoiselle. In six starts at two, Open Mind had four wins and two seconds. She would be named champion two-year-old filly.
“When we won the Breeders’ Cup,” said McLaughlin, “we all got rings, like Super Bowl rings. And Wayne put ‘McLaughlin’ on Open Mind’s ring. I still have it. It was nice of Wayne to do that.”
Open Mind’s victory in the Juvenile Fillies marked the start of a 10-race winning streak, all of them stakes races, all but one graded. And four of those wins came in New York, as Open Mind became the third horse to win the Triple Tiara and the Alabama.
Though the Acorn is now run on Belmont day, a complement to the featured race for three-year-old colts, in 1989 it was run on May 27, two weeks before the Belmont. Open Mind won that first leg of the Triple Tiara so decisively that, according to Steven Crist in the New York Times, her connections mulled running her back against the boys in the Belmont Stakes.
“It's hard to say whether or not we'll run,'' said Jeff Lukas in the Times. ''It was not in our original plans. It's just something in the back of our minds. Absolutely, today will influence our decision. She's just an incredible filly.”
Hindsight being flawless, the Lukas camp obviously made the right decision, given Easy Goer’s dominance in the Belmont that year and the place in history that Open Mind secured with her campaign.
Crist called her Alabama “the race of the meeting” at Saratoga, and she won eight straight Grade 1 races to close out her sophomore campaign (in one, the Coaching Club American Oaks, she was put up through disqualification after finishing second by a nose), en route to being voted champion for the second consecutive year.
Twelve years later, McLaughlin puts Open Mind in some pretty impressive company, comparing her to another champion he trained. “She just came and would get there and win. Many years later, Invasor would do the same thing. I’d say, ‘She’s going to get there. She would just get there.
“She didn’t win every race, but it always felt like she was going to get there.”
So once again, we head to Belmont without a Triple Crown on the line. For a few moments in that long stretch at Pimlico, it looked like that the big, sandy oval in Elmont would host racing’s biggest party on June 11, but a determined, gutsy Shackleford held off Animal Kingdom, and so, on we go.
But there’s good news: following the Preakness, the connections of both Animal Kingdom and Shackleford indicated that they were thinking favorably of racing back in two and a half weeks; for only the fifth time in the last 20 years, we might have a race that pits the Derby winner and the Preakness winner against each other.
So what can we expect? Not that past performances will have any bearing on what happens at this year’s Belmont, and I hesitate to even consider the possibility of Animal Kingdom and Shackleford lining up against each other on June 11 (jinxes, superstition, that sort of thing), but I couldn’t resist a dip – OK, a long, deep, submersion – into the Belmont archives to see if we can hazard a few guesses about what might happen in a couple of weeks.
As trainer Dale Romans discussed Shackleford’s chances in a 12-furlong race, he quoted racing legend Woody Stephens, who trained five straight Belmont winners. “You know, Woody Stephens said a long time ago, Belmont is a speed horse's race,” said Romans. He better hope so, and he’s got at least a little history on his side: Eight horses in the last 20 years - Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, Hansel, Touch Gold, Commendable, Point Given, Empire Maker, and A.P. Indy - all won the race by sitting close to the pace. But Animal Kingdom’s connections might be heartened, too, as five of the last 20 winners – Editor’s Note, Jazil, Afleet Alex, Lemon Drop Kid, and Victory Gallop – all came off the pace…though only a few of them from quite so far off as Animal Kingdom seems to like.
If Shackleford wants to take the Test of the Champion, he better be ready to sit back a little and hope that someone else goes for it…in the last 20 years, only one winner has led wire to wire.
That’s right, Da’ Tara, 2008.
We might anticipate some decent payouts. In non-Triple Crown years since 1991, the Belmont winner has paid an average of $15.30. The shortest-priced horse to win was A.P. Indy in 1992, paying $4.20; the biggest payout was Commendable’s $39.60 in 2000. Only three – A.P. Indy, Point Given, and Afleet Alex – paid less than $10.
As for attendance…in non-Triple Crown years, an average of 52, 082 have turned out for New York’s biggest racing day. When the winners of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness show up, so do an average of an additional 3,000 fans.
And in strict head-to-head competition, the Preakness beats the Kentucky Derby hands down (which is a racing term…any thoughts on its meaning?). The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners have met in the Belmont five times since 1991: 1991, Strike the Gold and Hansel; 1993, Sea Hero and Prairie Bayou; 1994, Go for Gin and Tabasco Cat; 2001, Monarchos and Point Given; 2005, Giacomo and Afleet Alex.
In four of those five meetings, the Preakness winner – Hansel, Tabasco Cat, Point Given, and Afleet Alex – defeated the Derby winner. The one Preakness winner who lost, Prairie Bayou, sadly broke down during the race.
Twice – in 1991 and 1994 – the Kentucky Derby winner filled out the exacta: Hansel/Strike the Gold paid $39.20; Tabasco Cat/Go For Gin paid $19.20. Sea Hero finished seventh, Monarchos third, and Giacomo seventh. The Point Given/A P Valentine/Monarchos triple paid $76.
So let’s hope that Animal Kingdom and Shackleford both show up, and let’s hope that a live longshot joins the crowd to fill out a juicy trifecta…mutuel clerk, make mine a $1 triple box…
“I guess it's meant to be that way. If it's not, it's not.”
A week after winning the Kentucky Derby, John Velazquez sits in the jockeys' room at Belmont Park, reflecting on winning his second Triple Crown race, on what it's like to win, for the second time, one of racing's premier events aboard a horse he barely knew.
In 2007, Velazquez won the Belmont Stakes aboard Rags to Riches; he picked up the mount after her regular jockey, Garrett Gomez, had committed to riding Hard Spun. Last week, following an injury to Robby Albarado that resulted in his being removed from Animal Kingdom, Velazquez got on the horse for the first time and won his first Kentucky Derby.
He downplays the difficulty of riding horses for the first time in such high-profile races.
“We ride a lot of horses that we've never seen before, so we get used to it. It's not unusual,” he says, talking between races. “We get on two-year-olds we've never seen before; a horse that's run a few times is a lot easier to ride.”
He points out that it's not as if he hadn't prepared for the race; until the day before, he expected to be on Uncle Mo, who was scratched on Friday morning. “I was already prepared for the race,” he said. “I just had to look into the horse and study him a little. He's a totally different horse from the one I was going to ride; their running styles are different, and I had to adjust to that.”
Unlike front-runner Uncle Mo, Animal Kingdom comes off the pace, not an easy task in a 20-horse field. Said Velazquez, “Graham [Motion, Animal Kingdom's trainer], said that he thought that the post position  was a great one, and that the goal was to try to save ground and keep him out of trouble.
“It worked out that way. The horse was perfect and reacted to everything I asked him to. When we got to the quarter pole and he got to the clear, his ears went up, and I said to myself, 'I think he's full of run.' I couldn't have asked for a better trip, couldn't ask for a better horse. It was like riding in a car: he just did it very easily.”
The Belmont, which Rags to Riches won by a head over Curlin, was a different story.
“It was a battle,” he says. “She was running against the colts, she fell on her face at the start. We got caught wide, six wide the whole way around, although that's where they wanted her: they didn't want her to get covered up and get into trouble, to get all the dirt.
“Not only that,” he recalls, “but then she had to run for a quarter of a mile with probably the best horse there was at the time.”
“She was very game,” he says, admiration infusing the memory. “She was not going to let that horse come by her, and I was very proud of the way she responded.
“It was a really tough race, one of those really salty races, with a lot of good horses. She had to be really special to do what she did.”
Unsurprisingly, Velazquez won't characterize one win as more special than the other. “Both are great, both are memorable, both are special in their own way. I could never place one of them above the other.”
If racing success is a combination of skill and good luck, Velazquez is its poster child. Hard work and talent have brought him more than 4,500 wins and nearly $250,000,000 in earnings; he was a finalist on this year's Hall of Fame ballot.
But for the second time, luck – or perhaps good fortune – brought him to the winner's circle in an American classic, as he picked up a mount on a horse he never expected to ride.
“That's the only way I can think of it,” he says. “When it's meant to be for you, it's meant to be for you.”
Wagner is an Academy Award-winning documentarian who grew up in Louisville. “My father grew up,” he said recently by phone from Virginia, “on Southern Parkway, about a block from the backside of Churchill Downs. He used to tell me stories about when he was a little boy, back probably in the 1930’s, 40’s; he and his buddies would go over to the track, and the people who worked on the backside would cut a hole in the fence and charge them a nickel to get in.”
Filmmaker Paul Wagner has a particular fondness for the Wood Memorial. In his documentary,Thoroughbred: Born to Run, the road to the 2009 Kentucky Derby begins at Aqueduct.
Wagner grew up in Louisville and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia now, and after decades as a filmmaker, he finally got around to making the movie that he’s been thinking about for decades. “I always thought that horseracing would make a terrific film,” he said.
Thoroughbred: Born To Run is about more than the Kentucky Derby; it offers viewers glimpses into many aspects of the racing business, including breeding, sales, and history. But Wagner does follow several horses on the road to Louisville, among them I Want Revenge and Imperial Council, both of whom prepped for the Kentucky Derby in the 2009 Wood Memorial.
“I feel a real connection to the Wood,” Wagner offered enthusiastically. “It’s an incredible race. I love the Wood as a prep; I think its timing is good in relation to the Derby, and I was pleased that we could get up there and film it that year. I loved that we could contrast Imperial Council’s group and David Lanzman.”
Imperial Council was trained by Shug McGaughey and owned by Sequoia Racing, a partnership based in Lexington and run by Reynolds Bell, whose Bluegrass roots run deep. I Want Revenge was trained by Jeff Mullins, a California trainer with a reputation as a maverick; the colt was owned by Lanzman, a former rock and roll singer based in Los Angeles.
The 2009 Wood lends itself to dramatic re-telling: I Want Revenge, the odds-on favorite, broke badly, got stuck between horses, went five wide and won going away.
Shortly after the race, the news broke that the scratch earlier on the card of another Mullins starter, Gato Go Win, had been due to a detention barn violation. Imperial Council, the second choice in the race, finished fifth, ending his Derby dreams. A month later, I Want Revenge, Derby favorite, was scratched on the morning of the race.
Asked about a pick for this year’s race, Wagner evinces Derby disappointment. Early in the film, Arthur Hancock ventures out to a paddock and hears from an employee, Everett “Powell” Charles, about the tenacity of a young colt who, in the middle of a storm, reared up, trying, apparently, to fight the elements. “He was pawing at the rain, like a boxer,” said Charles, awed. “This one’s a man among men,” observed Hancock, looking at the horse who was not more than a few months old. That colt was Arthur’s Tale, second by a neck in this year’s Wood. Arthur’s Tale is bred by Stone Farm and owned by Darley Stable; he was purchased for $750,000 at the 2009 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale.
“I thought that he was going to qualify for the Derby, but he came up a little bit lame. I was so excited,” lamented Wagner. “He’s named after Arthur Hancock.” So with his sentimental favorite off the Derby trail, who is Wagner’s pick in this year’s race? He goes back to the Wood, to the horse that beat the colt featured in his movie.
Wagner’s pick in the 2011 Derby? “Toby’s Corner,” he said.
Thoroughbred: Born To Run is airing this week on PBS. In the New York area, it airs on WNET (channel 13) on Wednesday, May 4 at 10 pm. Check local listings for your area.
Photos courtesy of NYRA, Adam Coglianese