06/29/2017 2:26PM

Hovdey: Better Talk Now did it the old-fashioned way

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Among the many top stakes on Better Talk Now's resume is the Grade 1 Sword Dancer, which the gelding won in 2004.

The death of Better Talk Now this week at age 18 inspired a visit to a corner of racing statistics rarely considered these days. There, amid the dust, cobwebs, and a few loitering insects, was the list of the top 10 money-winning geldings in the history of North American racing.

Not surprisingly, the leader is two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, at $7.5 million. Wise Dan did his running from 2010-14, as opposed to John Henry, second on the list with just shy of $6.6 million accumulated from 1977-84.

The next three top geldings made their money the hard way, without winning a Breeders’ Cup race, although Game On Dude came close when he finished second to Drosselmeyer in the 2011 Classic. The other two – Best Pal and Lava Man – each ran 47 times, mainly in their birthplace of California.

The second tier is led by Well Armed, the pride of the Bill Casner family and the winner of the 2009 Dubai World Cup by 14 lengths. The $3.6 million first prize made up most of his $5.1 million in earnings.

Perfect Drift, on the other hand, scraped together $4.7 million over 50 starts with a record of dogged persistence. He won 11 races, including the Stephen Foster Handicap, but it was his 21 seconds and thirds in races like the Kentucky Derby, Pacific Classic, Whitney, and Breeders’ Cup Classic that ran up his total.

Perfect Drift, who carried a lock of John Henry’s mane beneath his saddle pad, is the only horse to have run in the BC Classic five times. Better Talk Now, eighth on the list, is the only horse to have appeared in five runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Turf. He won the race in 2004 and finished second in 2006, efforts contributing mightily to his final earnings of $4,374,624.

The British gelding Collier Hill is No. 9. He began life as a jumper in northern England before developing into a world-class distance horse, winning major stakes in Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong, Germany, and Sweden. Creme Fraiche, an all-American foal of 1982, rounds out the list at No. 10 and is best known for being the first gelding to win the Belmont Stakes.

In many racing countries, geldings are viewed as second-class citizens, even a threat to the reputation of the breed. The Belmont did not even admit geldings until 1957. Cirrus des Aigles, the great French-trained gelding who won $8 million competing everywhere but North America, was never allowed to run in the Arc de Triomphe. As recently as 2012, the gelding Goldoni won the Epsom Derby Trial but was ineligible to run in the Epsom Derby itself.

Even in egalitarian America, geldings are looked upon slightly askew. When they become great – Armed, Kelso, Native Diver, Forego – their people take pains to explain that castration was necessary to achieve that greatness, as if apologizing for the fact that the champion will never enter the procreative stew.

As a result, the great geldings become objects of curiosity in retirement, sometimes on display but more often forgotten once their impact subsides. Wise Dan is happily munching grass at the farm of his trainer, Charlie LoPresti. John Henry lived for 21 years as the main Thoroughbred attraction at the Kentucky Horse Park. Best Pal was only 8 when he died of a massive coronary, within a year of his retirement at the farm of his owner, John C. Mabee.

Game On Dude is at Old Friends in Kentucky. Lava Man became a stable pony at the Doug O’Neill barn, while Perfect Drift enjoyed a second career as a lead pony at Churchill Downs before entering final retirement at the Missouri farm of owner William Reed. That was 15-year-old Perfect Drift taking the victorious California Chrome to the post in the 2014 Kentucky Derby, possibly the best curtain call in the history of the game.

Better Talk Now, a black horse with a small white star, takes a lot of history to the grave. His victories speak for themselves – the Sword Dancer, Man o’ War, Manhattan, the Breeders’ Cup Turf against the likes of Kitten’s Joy and Powerscourt – and included the 2005 United Nations, which will be run again at Monmouth Park on Saturday.

He kick-started the career of trainer Graham Motion and put Ramon Dominguez squarely on the map. His ownership, Bushwood Stable, bore a name inspired by “Caddyshack,” which was nice. Among his many riders over his 51 races were Rene Douglas and Eibar Coa, both respected journeyman whose riding days ended with paralyzing injuries.

Motion has been astounded by the outpouring on social media at the news of Better Talk Now’s death by euthanasia at the end of a struggle with colic. Like most horses of substance, he would not admit to his own dire condition.

“He was probably a lot sicker than he let on,” Motion said from his Fair Hill stable in Maryland. “Dean Richardson, who performed the colic surgery, said he should have died on the operating table, his blood pressure dropped so low, and there was so much toxicity from the infected intestine. He was an incredibly courageous horse.”

Better Talk Now was cremated.

“The plan is to plant a tree here at Fair Hill and bury his ashes beneath it, with a plaque in commemoration,” Motion said. “It seems appropriate. This was his home.”