11/25/2014 12:07PM

Hovdey: Still plenty to feast on in bountiful year

Benoit & Associates
We get to see Caliornia Chrome one more time this year, in Saturday's Hollywood Derby.

Thanks. A useful word, although it depends on how it’s delivered. For instance ...

With gratitude: “Of course I’ll help you move and drive you to the airport.”


With surprise: “Here’s that hundred bucks I owe you.”


With a touch of sarcasm: “I believe you lie five, not four.”


With conflicted emotions: “You’ll be glad to hear not everybody got sick from that mushroom fondue we ate last night.”

Um, thanks, I think.

Which brings matters to Thursday, better known as Thanksgiving, the national day of appreciation for the bounty bestowed upon those of us lucky enough to be plugged into the best this particular nation has to offer. The U.S. comes laden with a buffet of choices in the world of sports, and if there are not at least a few things to be grateful for in the world of horse racing, then somebody’s not looking hard enough.

Thank goodness the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club stepped up to fill part of the void left by the closure of Hollywood Park. Business has been good by modern measures, and now a lot more fans know what autumn in coastal San Diego County looks like.

This was not an automatic move. The people who run Del Mar are passionately protective of their turf. For years they steered well clear of any dates expansion, leery of diluting their cherished summertime brand. In fact, the opposite has occurred, and now the West has a viable late-season product to offer horsemen and horseplayers, presented in a prime setting run by an outfit that’s in the game for keeps.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

Horse racing fans probably should be grateful that there is any racing left at all, after the beating the game took last spring at the hands of PETA and its media enablers. Then again, give ample thanks for the attention span of those enablers, as the story quick-twitched away from Steve Asmussen et al. to suddenly focus on trainer Art Sherman, who was setting sail at the same time with California Chrome.

Thanksgiving is stuffed full of action already, what with the Bears and Lions for an early appetizer, the Eagles and Cowboys as a main course, and the Seahawks and 49ers as digestive backdrop for that second round of pie. Racing’s feast is spiced not only by the $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill on Friday – the National Day of Violent Shopping – but most impressively on Saturday with California Chrome in the $300,000 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar and a stimulating mix of talent in the $500,000 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, including Private Zone, Itsmyluckyday, and Secret Circle.

For that matter, who do we thank for this year’s 3-year-old crop? Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist won the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Former juvenile champ Shared Belief grew up to win the Pacific Classic. Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable took the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Bayern (Haskell Invitational), Toast of New York (UAE Derby), and California Chrome (Derby and Preakness) ran 1-2-3 in a photo at the end of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and every last one of them is alive and well and will be back for more next year. Not since the dawn of 1998, when Silver Charm, Free House, and Awesome Again turned 4, has there been such sustained quality in a generation still willing to serve.

And while we’re at it, how about a round of thanks to Old Friends Equine in Kentucky and the people who support the ongoing efforts of the organization to preserve and protect the most important players in the game? You know who’s there now? Silver Charm himself, now 20 years gray, back from his wound-down stud career in Japan and probably happy to be back.

This reporter remains eternally grateful that horse racing continues to be a satisfying brew of the old and the new, a heady mashup of immediate gratification and the eternal flame.

John Nerud, who turns 102 in February, is still a phone call away and will give you a lot more than just the time of day. Ron McAnally and Allen Jerkens, both in their 80s, are on the job every morning, living for that next good horse in the barn. Then there is Cot Campbell, owning to 87, who is hunkered down in Aiken, S.C., for the winter, watching a colt named Palace Malice get ready for the season to come.

Be thankful that when Campbell and his Dogwood Stable partners sent Palace Malice to market as a stallion, they picked Three Chimneys, because part of the deal was that the son of Curlin would be trained to race at age 5 in 2015. The 2014 season ended for Palace Malice with his poor race in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga.

“I’m convinced that’s when my shingles flared up, when he hit the quarter pole,” Campbell said, only half joking, since the painful affliction can be related to stress.

Palace Malice was campaigned in early 2014 like a horse out of the past. He won the Gulfstream Park Handicap, New Orleans Handicap, Westchester Handicap, and the Met Mile in a 90-day span, took a little break, then came out of the Whitney with a bone bruise on a hind cannon bone. For those who still think racing on dirt counts, Palace Malice would be the leading candidate in his category for an Eclipse Award.

“He’s out every morning at 8:30 and draws a pretty good crowd of visitors,” Campbell said. “It’s fun but stressful to have him here, in a wonderful kind of way. I’m just grateful to have him in the twilight of my career, though I admit it’s been a pretty long twilight.”