04/25/2014 2:21PM

Hovdey: Farewell to Flatterer, Safely Kept

Barbara D. Livingston
Flatterer, 35, was euthanized this week. The steeplechase star was the oldest living equine member of the Hall of Fame.

In “Flatterer: The Story of a Steeplechase Champion,” author Peter Wynants asked trainer Jonathan Sheppard what set Flatterer apart as one of the greats.

“He was one of those rare horses who gave his best under any circumstance,” Sheppard said. “Although some of Flatterer’s races were more spectacular than others, he never threw in a bad race. He never said, ‘That’s enough.’ ”

As a racehorse on flat surfaces, Flatterer was nothing special. He won just 4 of 18 starts before Sheppard and Pape introduced him to a fence and said “Jump!” Flatterer’s reaction: “Where has this been all my life?”

Fortunately he was only 4, so there was a lot of life left to live. Flatterer won the Colonial Cup in Camden four straight years, comparable to Kelso’s five straight Jockey Club Gold Cups. He won the Temple Gwathmey twice in front of an appreciative Belmont Park crowd. He won the 1986 National Hunt Cup under 176 pounds, 28 pounds more than the second horse.

Even with a spirit so willing, Flatterer’s body finally said “enough” on Thursday at the Pennsylvania farm of his owner, William Pape. At 35, the infirmities of a very old age for a Thoroughbred were beginning to mount, and so Flatterer was mercifully euthanized to spare him both the agonies he would have undoubtedly suffered and the ignobility of a bad end to a brilliant life. He went out like a king, sent peacefully on to whatever comes next for an animal who meant so much to so many people.

And Safely Kept went out like a queen. At 28, she also was euthanized this week, at Burleson Farms in Kentucky, where she had spent the last 15 years basking in the glow of a career that, by today’s standards, is intimidating from all angles.

Safely Kept was a stone cold sprinting freak, probably the best American female sprinter since the days of Affectionately and Ta Wee. In 30 sprint starts between June 1988 and October 1991 she won 24 times. She came within a neck of winning back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Sprints. In her final two starts, both victories, she carried 130 and 128 pounds.

There’s even a trophy around here somewhere with Safely Kept’s name on it. Yep, there it is, one of those cut-glass punch bowls they gave to the winners of a Maryland Million race. This one says “Safely Kept – 1990 Maryland Million Distaff – Jockey Julie Krone.”

“She was so big and deep, it looked like her shoulders went straight up to the back of her ears,” said Krone, the lady of this house, who was 2 for 2 on Safely Kept. “She had a heavy, strong way of moving, but at the same time she had an engine that was as fast as a horse could go.

“I came to understand that a lot of her power came from the fact that she was very centered, very straight in her running,” Krone added. “When she turned into the stretch you could shoot a line from three hairs in the middle of her forelock and that’s where she’d be at the finish.”

Flatterer was by far the oldest living equine member of the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, while Safely Kept was the second oldest. Their place in Hall of Fame seniority is now taken by A.P. Indy, the 1992 Horse of the Year who is a pensioned stallion at Lane’s End Farm, and Lure, the two-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner who is living the life of Reilly at Claiborne Farm. They are both 25.

In the meantime, new blood has entered the Hall. Two-time Horse of the Year Curlin was a slam dunk to be elected in his first year of eligibility, and he was. Not even the PETA backlash surrounding his trainer, Steve Asmussen, could dull the glow of Curlin’s record. He remains the only winner of an American classic—the 2008 Preakness Stakes—to later take both the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup.

Ashado, like Flatterer, never gave less than full value. Okay, maybe once, in a mystifying performance at Saratoga in the 2005 Personal Ensign when she finished a distant fourth. Ashado won all the right races, including the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Beldame, and represents the first Hall of Famer trained by Todd Pletcher, who figures to have a few more.

Pletcher will not be eligible for the Hall of Fame until 2021, and Asmussen was bounced from the ballot because of the reaction of the PETA video, which left a wide hole on the rail for Gary Jones to bust through and finally received long-deserved recognition, along with jockey Alex Solis.

Jones gets high marks for his record as a trainer of stakes horses whose owners included Allen Paulson, Sheikh Mohammed, the Preston brothers, Mike Rutherford, Corbin Robertson, John Mabee, and Jack Kent Cooke. He was also a tightly wrapped heavy smoker who wore his emotions on his sleeve and could find stress in the color of the dawn.

When he figured out he would die if he didn’t change his life, Jones retired in 1996, just short of his 52nd birthday, which for a trainer is barely street legal. But because he stepped away, leaving the profession he loved, Jones will be alive to accept his Hall of Fame plaque in August of his 70th year.