12/29/2017 3:06PM

Hovdey: Even a columnist finds a nut now and then


A writer should be held accountable for what is written. That’s only fair. In this spirit, and with the end of 2017 drawing nigh, an inventory was taken of the past season’s scribblings. I can say without hesitation that the intention was always to inform, perhaps enlighten, sometimes even amuse. Also, too, there was the paycheck.

Bill Nack, who won about 97 Eclipse Awards, once was asked who he was rooting for in a race of national significance. His answer:

“The best story.”

This is by way of explaining that the horses featured in columns are never being touted in the races being previewed. If they were, the results would only embellish my proud title of Worst Handicapper in America. And while an appearance in this space has not risen to the level of a heart-sinking jinx, it should be pointed out that they don’t call me, I call them. Sometimes, with trepidation, they answer.

It was hardly a stretch to write about California Chrome leading up to his swan song in the Pegasus World Cup, or Winx in advance of her 2017 debut in Australia, or Arrogate as he took the stage in the Dubai World Cup.

I thought Bill Mott deserved a nod for dipping his toe in the Royal Ascot experience with Long On Value. Likewise, Daddys Lil Darling and Ken McPeek deserved another chance in the Coaching Club American Oaks after her frightening day in England, when she bolted out from under her rider after being spooked by a thunderclap before the Epsom Oaks.

Stuck here in California, where a heavy dew would break the drought, the tendency is to extoll the virtues of horses heading east. The planes, in fact, fly both ways.

There was a nod to the filly Goodyearforroses and trainer Richard Baltas for trying the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland (she was fifth), to Follow Me Crev and Vladimir Cerin for taking on the Suburban Handicap (he was third), and Imperative making his fourth appearance in the Charles Town Classic, this time for Bob Hess (ca-ching!).

The Triple Crown races are always important, if not memorable. I’ll take a tiny drop of credit for featuring Jerry Hollendorfer and Battle of Midway on Kentucky Derby Day, even though his third-place finish sort of sat there, unadorned, until he won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile six months later. Baffled by the Derby, I figured Mike Smith was due in the Preakness because he’s Mike Smith, but Gunnevera could only finish fifth. As for the Belmont Stakes, a nickel if you can name the winner, and what he’s done since. I gave my pre-race keystrokes to Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley. You in the back, stop laughing.

On I stumbled, every once in a while taking the easy way out just for a breather. Writing about Unique Bella prior to the Santa Ysabel seemed like the thing to do, and the bandwagon soon would be full to overflowing. When Lady Eli came west for the Gamely we all genuflected in print. She did not disappoint. And how often can a guy call a trainer at all hours to write about the favorite for the Arc de Triomphe? Thank you, John Gosden, for Enable.

In mid-November, a column hailed the giddy mood still lingering around the Peter Miller stable at San Luis Rey Downs, after Breeders’ Cup victories in the Sprint with Roy H and the Turf Sprint with Stormy Liberal. Three weeks later, on that tragic Dec. 7, the Lilac Fire swept through the lower barns of the training center, leading to the deaths of 46 horses. Five were Miller’s.

Three days after the fire, Stormy Liberal tried hard but was no match for the local lads in the Hong Kong Sprint. Miller and his crew were just happy to have him come home in one piece, even though home was now Del Mar, which has been sanctuary for the evacuees from the fire.

All stories of 2017 pale beside the horrors of San Luis Rey. There were other losses as well, of the very human kind, including Jack Van Berg, LeRoy Jolley, Leonard Lavin, Beverly Lewis, Charles Cella, and Penny Chenery. Each of them made a run of eight decades or more and owed the game nothing. In fact, it’s the other way around.

In the end, though, it was the fire that cut to the deepest part of racing’s heart. It forever will be the fire as the first thing remembered of 2017. Those of us tasked with getting history down in print still could be writing about the fire and its traumatic impact, these three weeks after that terrible afternoon. But we get to take a break, and write about fun and games. Lucky us.

Joe Herrick, who lost six horses in the fire and suffered serious burns in a futile attempt at their rescue, doesn’t get to take a break, even though he has every right to stay in bed, away from all things racing, at least for now.

Instead, he was at Santa Anita Park on opening day, quietly celebrating a grand afternoon of sport that included a moving video tribute to the horses killed in the fire. Herrick’s explanation was simple, and spoke for the entire congregation.

“As tough as it was to see those scenes,” Herrick said, “I felt the memorial was something I ought to go to.”