08/05/2009 12:00AM

Getting too caught up in the moment


DEL MAR, Calif. - Late one lazy morning, during the summer of 1991, a groom led a horse from one barn to another at Hollywood Park. There had been a trainer change. These things happen.

The horse was coming from a respectable outfit. No national headlines, but respectable, and the horse had unquestionable talent. As the groom handed him off to the crew at his new home in the Ron McAnally stable, he fired a closing shot at McAnally's assistant, Eduardo Inda.

"This is the best horse you guys gonna have," said the groom. "Take good care of him."

Inda could only smile. Behind him, snoozing in stalls along the shed row, were major stakes winners Tight Spot, Olympio, Festin, Sea Cadet, and Brought to Mind. Down at the end, champion Bayakoa stuck her buck-toothed muzzle over her webbing and gave a sniff.

"You think so?" Inda replied. "Maybe where you come from. Around here, right now he's just another horse."

This parable forced its way up from the depths of memory last Sunday afternoon as the latest chapter of the Rachel Alexandra story unfolded in the Haskell Invitational. Those of us not fortunate enough to have been on the scene with all those wet and wild fans at Monmouth Park must live with the reality that we missed something truly exciting. But then, I missed Secretariat's Belmont, too, and life somehow has gone on.

As compensation, TVG did a good job with its wall-to-wall coverage of the event. There always seemed to be the right picture on the screen, and each horse was given the due he, or She, deserved. In the end, however, the wide shot of Rachel Alexandra walking back to the winner's circle over the muddy, pock-marked battlefield, bathed in cheers and backlit by the dying August light, will linger far longer than any other image.

TVG commentators Todd Schrupp, Simon Bray, and Paul Lo Duca were properly hushed during that sequence, in the best spirit of pros like Vin Scully and Jim McKay. Words would have broken the spell. Anyway, to that point in the broadcast, all three gentlemen were thoroughly on record as having just seen the greatest Thoroughbred performance they had ever seen, or at least variations on that theme. Lo Duca even apologized for picking Munnings, which he didn't have to do.

When such sentiments of greatness are expressed, especially over a microphone or in print, context is required. On the face of it, Rachel's Haskell was fabulous. But the greatest? The audience always needs more, otherwise it's just cheerleading.

As the trio raved on, this reporter rifled his own eyewitness history for similarly transcendent moments. I came up with a handful that included Dr. Fager's 1968 Californian (but only because it was Dr. Fager), Affirmed's 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup, Spectacular Bid's 1980 Santa Anita Handicap, John Henry's first Arlington Million, and Cigar's victory in the first running of the Dubai World Cup, in 1996.

Bray, the only horseman of the three, alluded on-air to his days as Bill Mott's assistant during the Cigar era as the only time he had seen such intense fan reaction to a racehorse. As for great individual performances, two moments stood out for Bray, whose career at the track began in his native England with Henry Cecil.

"Steve Cauthen rode Slip Anchor for us in the 1985 Epsom Derby," Bray recalled. "His understanding of pace was totally in contrast to the European way of thinking. That day he opened up by 10 lengths going down the backside, and everyone thought he'd come back to the field. But he didn't."

In fact, Slip Anchor dominated England's greatest, most competitive race, beating Law Society by seven lengths and third-place Damister by another six. Modern British fans had never seen their Derby so blown apart. Bray, who watched the race back at the Cecil yard with the rest of the lads, recalls the reception Slip Anchor received upon his return.

"We're very reserved, you know," Bray said with a laugh. "It was, 'Well done. Jolly good.' "

Bray turned to Cigar for his other touchstone moment - the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic in the slop at Belmont Park. Cigar had won 11 straight races at the time, but he had never faced such difficult ground.

"I remember leading Cigar to the training track the morning of the race with Bill, because we needed to find out how he would handle the wet track," Bray said. "He galloped fine, but you never know until you run them. So it was a nerve-wracking experience. There were a lot of unknowns."

Cigar pulled Jerry Bailey three-wide around the vast Belmont course to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

No one can ever tell anyone how to feel about a horse race. One fan's "greatest race" can be another's disappointment. Besides, those who appreciate a great race are always subject to the intoxicating mix of cast, crowd, pre-event hype and setting, as well as the forces of nature, when evaluating what has just taken place.

"When you're actually there, people can get caught up in the moment, but I do get genuinely excited," Bray said.

This summer, there seems to be no relent. Bray and his colleagues will be in the TVG booth at the Del Mar walking ring this Sunday, by a whole different kind of shore, for the appearance of Zenyatta in the Clement Hirsch Stakes. She will be going for her 12th victory without a defeat. Bray was asked if there might be an emotional letdown, in the wake of just experiencing the "greatest performance" supplied by Rachel Alexandra.

"For Zenyatta?" Bray said. "No, I don't think so."