12/16/2011 1:58PM

Hovdey: Kentucky Derby winners worthy of special place

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Four-Footed Fotos
Strike the Gold, with Chris Antley riding, wins the 1991 Kentucky Derby.

The news that Strike the Gold was euthanized after falling and fracturing a leg this week was sad enough to cast at least a brief shadow over any racing fan’s holiday spirit. He was an admirable little horse, possessed of a grinding finish that earned him victories in the 1991 Kentucky Derby and the 1992 Pimlico Special, along with placings in seven major stakes and earning of $3.4 million. Sometimes he got there, sometimes he didn’t, but he always showed up.

At the time of his death Strike the Gold was a national treasure. The nation, in his case, was Turkey, where he had stood at stud since 1999, reigning as a champion stallion and even leading the 2011 Turkish sire rankings at the time of his death. If that sounds like he was a big fish in a small pond, maybe, but so what. How many horses end up champion of anything at all?

Back home in the U.S., Strike the Gold had become little more than a fleeting chestnut memory, summoned more often when the conversation turned to his operatic trainer, Nick Zito, or to the tragic story of his Derby-winning jockey, the late Chris Antley. There will be those who claim Strike the Gold was revered as the oldest of only 17 living Kentucky Derby winners, but if he was such an American icon what was he doing living in Turkey? As Zito once said, “That’s business.”

Of the 16 Derby winners still drawing breath, the oldest now is Sea Hero, who is about to turn 22 and is still standing where Strike the Gold stood, at the Turkish Jockey Club’s Karacabey Pension Stud Farm near the town of Izmit. For those who do not have an atlas handy, Izmit is just down the O-4 from Istanbul, near the Gulf of Izmit at the eastern end of the Sea of Marmara. The southern shore of the Black Sea is about 45 kilometers due north, while ancient Troy, for those who care, is a healthy drive to the southwest, over there where the modern city of Canakkale sits on the Dardanelles Strait, across from the peninsula known as Gallipoli.

Or you could just ask Michael Blowen, who has been for the last several years in steady communication with the Turkish Thoroughbred industry regarding both Strike the Gold and Sea Hero. As proprietor of the Lexington-based Old Friends Equine, Blowen has made it known in the right diplomatic circles that the Derby winners would have a welcome home back in Kentucky once their Turkish stallion careers had ended.

Ever since it was learned that Derby winner Ferdinand was slaughtered in Japan and Hall of Famer Exceller met a similar fate in Sweden, awareness of the end-use fate of exported American racing stars has heightened. On occasion, such concerns tend to betray a xenophobic streak. But in the case of Sea Hero, Blowen is quick to allay any unjustified fears.

“The Turkish Jockey Club has been very good about sending us pictures of Sea Hero and keeping us up to date on his career and his condition, as they were with Strike the Gold,” Blowen said. “They are aware that there is a home for Sea Hero with us the minute his stud career is over.”

The Old Friends farm in Kentucky is currently home to about 30 retirees, including champion Sunshine Forever and major stakes winners Kudos, Afternoon Deelites, Awad, Affirmed Success, Wallenda, and Will’s Way.

“We would love to have a Derby winner here,” Blowen said. “I’d start raising funds for his trip back home the second it happened, and I’m ready to hang a Turkish flag on a paddock for him right now.”

Big horse will be back

So much for the oldest living Derby winner. How about the youngest?

“He’s doing great,” said Graham Motion Friday from Maryland‘s Fair Hill Training Center. “I plan to breeze him if not this week, next week, before he ships to Florida at the end of the month.”

“He” is Animal Kingdom, who stood at the top of the racing world this past May at Churchill Downs after an emphatic victory in the 137th Derby. Animal Kingdom’s second-place finish to Shackleford in the subsequent Preakness did nothing to dim his luster, nor did his troubled sixth in the Belmont, especially after an injury to his left hind leg was diagnosed. A screw was inserted to repair what was described as a slab fracture.

“We still hope to be able to run him in the World Cup,” Motion said, referring to the $10 million Dubai extravaganza.

This is very good news. There has not been a Derby winner with testicles attached answer the bell for a 4-year-old season since Giacomo, in 2006. Barbaro had an excuse, but it was only economics that kept Super Saver, Street Sense, and Big Brown from continuing their racing careers past their Derby year.

“He’s taking a little bit longer than I expected,” Motion noted. “But it’s just because he’s such a big horse.”

How big?

“On Oct. 30 he weighed 1,314 pounds,” Motion said, consulting his charts. “He’s the biggest horse I’ve ever weighed in my barn.”

The holidays are a tough time of year to be trying to slim down, especially for a growing boy like Animal Kingdom. Officially 4 after Jan. 1, he will not celebrate his true fourth birthday until March 20, 2012, which is 11 days before the running of the World Cup.

“We did try not to spoil him during those months he was off,” Motion said. “But he tends to eat everything.

“In an ideal world you’d like to get a race for him sort of around the first of February,” Motion added. “It’s a feasible schedule if things go smoothly. Right now, though, we’re just trying to get the weight off him.”