Updated on 09/16/2011 8:51AM

Borislow's unorthodox move a real gamble


WASHINGTON - Dan Borislow, owner of the Maryland-based 2-year-old Toccet, has bought a series of full-page ads in the Daily Racing Form to make an announcement and issue a challenge.

He declared that he will ship Toccet across the country for the Dec. 21 Hollywood Futurity - Toccet's fifth important stakes race in a span of 11 weeks - in a bid to earn the Eclipse Award as the champion 2-year-old. He encouraged the owner of Vindication, the pro-tem leader of the generation, to enter the race, too. And he offered to bet $200,000, against $100,000 from the Vindication camp, that Toccet would win.

An outsider might assume that Borislow would be regarded as a gutsy sportsman for his actions. But Borislow knows the way most people in the racing world are likely to regard his handling of Toccet, and he shrugs off the probable reaction. "I've been called a jackass before," he said.

Skeptics question the plans of Borislow and trainer John Scanlan because they are thumbing their noses at the conventional wisdom about handling a youngster with Kentucky Derby potential:

* Run a 2-year-old enough to give him a foundation of experience, but don't over-race him.

* Give him a breather before he launches his 3-year-old campaign.

* Race him only two or three times as a 3-year-old before the Derby so he will be "fresh" when he goes to Churchill Downs.

Bob Baffert, the most successful Derby trainer of the last decade, has heeded these precepts in his management of Vindication. The high-priced youngster made four starts this season, winning three easy races before capturing the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to establish himself as the long-range Derby favorite. The colt hasn't done any serious training since that victory, and he will not race again until February or March at Santa Anita. The majority of owners and trainers would have handled Toccet in a similar fashion. The colt won two races in Maryland before scoring an upset in the prestigious Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. He looked like a solid contender in the Breeders' Cup, but he was doomed when he had to break from post 13 on a speed-favoring, rail-favoring track at Arlington Park. While Vindication was scoring his front-running victory, Toccet never got into contention.

The conventional wisdom held that Toccet should rest and wait till 2003 to redeem himself. But Borislow and Scanlan knew their colt's poor showing at Arlington was a fluke, and they didn't want to wait to prove it. Three weeks after the Breeders' Cup, Toccet ran in the Laurel Futurity and won it in a romp. Two weeks later he went to Aqueduct and captured the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes. The Hollywood Futurity is next. And they have indicated that they may keep Toccet in competition throughout the winter.

Is this a logical course of action? Certainly, Borislow's quest for the Eclipse Award is not. Even if Toccet wins in California, his chances of earning the championship are nil. Vindication is undefeated and he won the Breeders' Cup. Case closed. Since there has never been even a remote chance that Vindication would run at Hollywood, Borislow's offer of a $200,000 bet is disingenuous.

Campaigning for an Eclipse Award is a harmless exercise and Borislow has injected some needed excitement and controversy into the final weeks of the racing season. But is the owner so eager to prove a point that he is compromising Toccet's future by running him so aggressively?

Borislow insists he is not. Toccet is pursuing this ambitious schedule, he said, because he is an extraordinary individual. "I've never had a horse with so much energy," Borislow said. "He seems to be a Thoroughbred on a supercharger."

When he is questioned about flouting the conventional wisdom regarding the management of Derby candidates, Borislow responded: "The conventional wisdom of the last 10 years or the last 30? The greatest horses of all time - like Spectacular Bid and Secretariat - all raced more at 2 than I've raced my horse."

Borislow knows racing history and he observed that horses of the 1970's raced extensively at 2 and managed to run well in the next year's Derby. (Secretariat, Riva Ridge and Affirmed, for example, each made nine starts as 2-year-olds and went on to earn a blanket of roses.) As owners and trainers have raced their youngsters sparingly to keep them "fresh," the new conventional wisdom has hardly paid off. No 2-year-old champion since Spectacular Bid in 1979 has gone on to win the Derby.

The reason for the change in training styles is surely the fact that American Thoroughbreds are less robust than they used to be. They can't withstand the hard racing that their forebear seemed to thrive upon. As top horses run less frequently, resting for weeks or even months between races, the sport has suffered. There are fewer confrontations among the leading Thoroughbred stars to generate public interest.

The game would be helped by the presence of a few iron horses, who might show that it is still possible for a modern Thoroughbred to undertake an ambitious campaign. As a result, racing fans ought to root for Borislow and Toccet to succeed. But if the owner has miscalculated, if his horse gets hurt or his Derby chances are otherwise compromised, the same fans will surely engage in some intense second-guessing.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post