10/04/2012 4:05PM

Hovdey: After a stall, Hoosier gets in gear

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Hoosier Park is back in the national news again on Saturday, and this time for all the right reasons.

An attractive bunch of 3-year-olds has hit town in search of first prize in the $500,000 Indiana Derby, with the $200,000 Indiana Oaks and eight other stakes fleshing out the marquee program of the meet.

For a relatively young event, the Indiana Derby, at a mile and one-sixteenth, has a compelling list of winners. Among them have been sprint champ Orientate, multi-millionaire Perfect Drift, and the popular Kentucky gelding Brass Hat. More recently, Bob Baffert discovered Indiana’s hunting ground in 2009 with Misremembered (who went on to win a Santa Anita Handicap) and 2010 with Lookin At Lucky, the best colt of his generation.

Baffert will be back this year with Fed Biz, a colt of high promise who missed the classics but returned at Del Mar to win the El Cajon Stakes. He will face Super Derby winner Bourbon Courage, Ontario Derby winner Stealcase, British Columbia Derby winner Second City and O’Prado Again, who makes his first start wince winning the 2011 Remsen Stakes.

“We put a lot of effort into the day, and we give away a lot of money,” said Hoosier general manager Brian Moore. “But you hope it elevates your racing program, and not just for Hoosier, but all of Indiana.”

The anticipation for Saturday’s card is a far cry from the most recent headlines earned by handsome little Hoosier, located on a fine piece of Indiana farmland just northeast of Indianapolis. It was on a damp Thursday evening of Sept. 27 when a routine race suddenly turned diabolical, as a field of eight unsuspecting older claimers reached the top of the stretch of a mile and one-sixteenth event only to find the starting gate still parked across the track.

What came next looked like a madcap commingling of the Calgary Stampede and the battle of Agincourt. The video of the race has been preserved on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=897_4lqMMGE), with possibilities of an Xbox version to follow. As for the historical record, Equibase charts published from that evening’s program leave a gap between the seventh and ninth races – much like some hotels do not have a 13th floor – and do not account for the missing eighth at all. Fortunately, the draft comments of a clearly traumatized chartcaller were recovered from a discarded data spool found behind the old pressbox Coke machine:

“HARD LUCK MONK, in command from the start, reached the top of the stretch to discover his worst nightmare, angled right to avoid imminent doom, then veered left toward the inside rail, where his jockey abruptly dismounted allowing his horse to flee unharmed. NORTHERN CANDYRIDE, four wide into the stretch, somehow found his way around the outside of both worthless tractors and trotted to safety, only to be confronted by a wayward pickup truck. DREAMIN BIG, second into the stretch, angled outward but continued on bravely to collide with the starting gate, now for some reason beginning to lurch, while unseating his rider before leaving the scene. HOOSIER KINGDOM, forwardly placed early, began lugging in around the final turn in anticipation of horrors looming ahead, squeezed HOOSIER HONEY (no relation) on his inside and made a beeline for the gap between the gate and the inside rail. HOOSIER HONEY, enraged at the interference, hit the inside rail, shed his rider, and beat HOOSIER KINGDOM to the gap before disappearing into the Indiana night. BRICKYARD lagged far back early, commenced his run on the outside following the escape route of NORTHERN CANDYRIDE but was not nearly as smart as that one and darted back toward the inner rail where he applied the brakes, prompting his jockey to do a Frankie Dettori dismount into a growing pile of riders. SLEW CITY BOY, closing well from the back of the pack, acted as if he’d seen it all before while angling safely left and stopping at the inside rail, where his rider had a good view of BRICKYARD’s jockey in flight. SAHMMY DAVIS JR., between horses, pulled up shy of the gate and trotted calmly to a stop, having warned the others that something like this could happen and don’t be surprised when it does.”

Moore noted that it was the transmission of a brand new John Deere tractor that seized up, and that the “snatch” tractor was not able to jump into action quickly enough. He was also concerned that word was not relayed to the riders of the danger ahead.

“We’ve done additional training with all the tractor operators,” Moore said. “We’ve got a new tug system in place to get a quicker coupling on that gate tractor in the event something happens. And now the starter will radio the stewards in any race of two turns once the starting gate is clear. Usually that happens within 20 seconds of the horses being dispatched.”

Hoosier’s Starting Gate–gate followed on the heels of the near disaster in the ninth race at Arlington Park on Sept. 15, when several sections of PVC railing lining the inside of the turf course went flying helter-skelter from a mere brush by the horse on the lead. Thoroughbreds, being nimble beasts, responded by jumping and skipping through the barrage to finish the race, which was declared no contest. The horses would argue.

There is always the temptation, when there is so much racing product at so many tracks for so many days a year, to let the shoulders sag briefly and allow some little thing to slip. Horse racing, being a blood sport with lives on the line, provides no such room to blink.

“We’re just so thankful that no jockeys were hurt, and only one horse was reported that suffered an injury, although it’s yet to be determined how serious,” Moore said. “It’s from situations like that you always want to learn. I think we’ve done that here.”

Through Wednesday, there had been four days without the Hooiser starting gate getting stuck, and before last week’s incident the track had gone 18 years without such an odd occurrence, since its opening in 1994. So let’s call it a fluke, and figure they’ll get around there on Saturday in the Indiana Derby just fine.