05/01/2008 11:00PM

Carry Back put Florida in the spotlight

Email

It was about this time 50 years ago when a former Cleveland rust belt businessman and sometime bookmaker received word that his mare Joppy had foaled a colt at Ocala Stud. In a few years time the racing world would never be quite the same.

That breeder was Jack Price, and the colt was Carry Back.

Joppy, Price's only broodmare - one that he got for a few-hundred-dollar board bill - had been pregnant to the cover of Saggy, a quality sprinter who, perhaps, will be only remembered in trivia. Saggy was the first horse other than his Calumet Farm stablemate Bewitch to defeat Citation. It happened in a sprint at the old Havre de Grace racetrack; Citation, the subsequent Horse of the Year, was revving up for the 1948 Triple Crown.

Bill Leach and his wife, Dickey, developed Dickey Farm, the birthplace of Florida's first champion, Needles. Bill had worsening health problems, so they sold their Ocala farm to a consortium headed by Joe and Tom O'Farrell and Bruce Campbell. The new owners renamed it Ocala Stud. It was there that Joppy foaled her champion.

Joppy was a daughter of the well-bred but unaccomplished Star Blen. Miss Fairfax, Joppy's dam, was by Teddy Beau. The colt was from the wrong side of the pedigree tracks, as the Prices would learn when they went to stand their champion.

Carry Back was foaled in the spring of 1958.

"He was just a plain ol' brown colt," said Karl Koontz, recently retired from Ocala Stud. "He had nothing wrong with him. He wasn't a big horse, either. Jack had another mare who came in with Joppy, but Jack got rid of her when it turned out she was barren."

In these days of cautious scheduling for 2- and 3-year-olds with classic hopes, Carry Back - named for a section of the IRS code that allowed one to refigure back taxes - raced early and often for Price, who was also the trainer. The colt went postward 21 times in 11 months as a 2-year-old in 1960, and during this period his ownership name changed from Dorchester Stable to the nom de course of Jack's wife, Katherine. Starting at Hialeah, where he broke his maiden in January at three furlongs, Carry Back's first-season record shows him winning five times, including three stakes, with four seconds (three in stakes) and four thirds (three in stakes), earning the lofty sum - in those days - of $286,000. He was voted second-best 2-year-old colt of his year behind Hail to Reason. He would eventually win 13 stakes in his 62 starts, retiring with earnings of $1.2 million - a huge figure for those times.

Carry Back and Fred Hooper's bred-in-the-purple Crozier were the Affirmed and Alydar of their time. Carry Back was just a little bit better than Crozier going 1 1/16 miles. They met five times in Florida during their 3-year-old season of 1961. Crozier finished ahead of Carry Back in the Bahamas Stakes at Hialeah. Carry Back won Hialeah's Everglades Stakes with Crozier third. Carry Back won the Flamingo Stakes, with Crozier second. Moving on to Gulfstream, Crozier beat his rival in the Fountain of Youth Stakes but lost to him in the Florida Derby. Weeks later Carry Back caught him again in the Kentucky Derby and followed this by winning the Preakness with Globemaster second and Crozier third.

Jack Price liked to taunt the blue bloods of Kentucky by constantly referring to the fact that his colt was by little and out of less. The taunts would turn into haunts when the time came to enter stud. The blue bloods wanted no part of him. So, in 1963 Carry Back exited the breeding shed, where he had covered a relatively small book of 26 mares, and was put back into training.

Breeders were convinced that the Prices had gone daft - sending a stud back to the races after serving a season? Much of racing felt the same way. But, Price was convinced that his former champion could still be a force in the handicap ranks and, possibly, attract a better book for 1964.

It took Carry Back some time to find his groove in 1963, but find it he did, and it happened at Garden State Park that November in the Trenton Stakes. The brown horse had a great effort left, and he gave it that day in New Jersey when he defeated Mongo, from Montpelier Stable, and Smart, owned by Christiana Stable.

Carry Back re-entered stud the following year, but not in Kentucky. The Prices brought him back to Florida and initially to Ocala Stud, where he stood until his commercial appeal ended. Jack and Katherine Price, however, bred a few mares to him each year. Carry Back was later pensioned at Meadowbrook Farm's Jockey Club. Alas, the blue bloods were on the mark. Carry Back sired but seven stakes winners in his long service as a stallion, and he left no appreciable mark as a sire.

It is likely that Daily Racing Form columnist Joe Hirsch, who had developed a close personal relationship with the Prices, is the source of the horse's nickname "The People's Choice." The Prices were charming, funny, and cooperative with the media. Because of this, Carry Back became one of the nation's best-known and most popular athletes. He never shirked a worthy foe. Seabiscuit earned his accolades and place in history. Carry Back earned the same and more.

With Hirsch's encouragement, Carry Back, the horse, via the pen of his breeder, became the byline author for a series of diary letters for DRF detailing his trip to France and his preparation for the 1962 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. These letters were read and enjoyed by fans everywhere. The Arc was a trip too far, as were most trips past 1 1/4 miles for the son of Saggy.

Carry Back died 25 years ago, two years after the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders' and Owners' Association sponsored a joint birthday party for him and Needles. Carry Back is buried at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. He did not put Florida breeding on the map, but he made the Thoroughbred world aware of Florida's growing importance.