12/27/2012 12:58PM

Hovdey: Summarizing the 2012 season – in horsemen's parlance

Barbara D. Livingston
Sean Clancy shot for the moon in April's San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita but fell a nose short.

I have no idea why people talk to me. During telephone conversations I am curt, ill-humored, and interrupt frequently, then hang up without saying thank you or goodbye. On those rare occasions I descend from this ivory tower (executive columnist – never forget that) I engage with racetrackers on the level of a highway patrolman who’s just pulled you over for a bad tail light.

Still, I try to quote people with a reasonable amount of accuracy, if for no other reason than it helps fill up the column space and cuts down on angry emails. Here are some of the things said to me in 2012, a season that will be remembered at least until 2013.

One of my first calls every year is to John Nerud, like the one I made not long before his 99th birthday. He talked about a colt he’d bought with partners a few months earlier, but somehow the conversation drifted to the best horse Nerud ever trained:

“Got asked not long ago about racing records that will never be broken,” Nerud said. “Of course, there’ll never be another horse voted champion sprinter, older horse, grass horse, and Horse of the Year, like Dr. Fager was in 1968. But another record won’t be broke is a man 98 years old buying a yearling.”

Nerud turns 100 on Feb. 9, 2013. Oh yes he will.

Lewis Cenicola never got to train a horse like Dr. Fager. For five years, though, he sat on John Henry every morning for Ron McAnally, and that’s closer to greatness than most of us will ever get. Cenicola got real sick real fast at the end of 2011 and died on Jan. 9, 2012, but not before he was paid a visit at home by a host of grateful friends:

“The doctor told me to get some blood work done again next week,” said Cenicola, who was reclined on a couch, positioned to watch the races on a big-screen TV. “If the blood’s OK, I can start chemotherapy again. When I asked him what my chances were of beating this he said, ‘A thousand to one, but you’ve got a strong will. You may be the one.’ I’ll take those odds.”

Sometimes you go ahead and shoot for the moon, like my favorite horseman/journalist Sean Clancy did taking his long-winded Eagle Poise to Santa Anita for the 2012 San Juan Capistrano at 1 3/4 miles. His thinking?

“He could have run in the Elkhorn at Keeneland going a mile and a half,” Clancy said, “but that’s too short for him.”

Eagle Poise lost by the narrowest nose this side of a dead heat.

A few days later Hollywood Park opened, rebranded with the Betfair label. Betfair CEO Stephen Burn was asked why:

“We know that when the economy becomes favorable there’s every expectation that the track’s property will be turned into office space and housing,” Burn said. “But until that day, what’s wrong with having a few good years and some fun in the bargain?”

Fun, however, was not what Gary Stevens had in mind when the Hall of Famer agreed to testify before a Congressional committee looking into racehorse medication. Among other things he planned to tell them:

“My career ended much earlier than it should have had I given myself the proper amount of time to heal up every time I was hurt. I didn’t know how bad I was hurting myself sometimes, and racehorses for damn sure don’t know. I would still be riding today, and a lot of good horses would still be running today, if medications weren’t used the way they are.”

On they chattered, glib to a fault, like Nina Kaiser as she neared completion of her monumental Zenyatta bronze, now installed at Santa Anita:

“She’s my ‘War and Peace.’ It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, and the most important.”

Or Roger Attfield, when asked what he planned to say upon induction into the Hall of Fame:

“I could always give the Allen Jerkens speech − ‘Thank you very much.’ ”

Or former trainer Bill Currin on his current trainer Julio Canani, after winning a division of the Oceanside with his homebred My Best Brother:

“I told Julio, ‘I’m 75 and you’re 75. Between us we’re a 150-year-old trainer, and if we can’t win a damn race we ought to quit.’ ”

Eddie Delahoussaye had his own take on the race to be named for him at Santa Anita:

“Imagine that, naming a race after someone while they’re still around to enjoy it. I hope that’s not a sign I’m going, though. Maybe they know something I don’t.”

While Dr. Rich Arthur, California’s Equine Medical Director, weighed in on the issue of tightening rules on the bleeder medication Lasix:

“There is reasonable justification to administer Lasix on race day. There’s no question Lasix reduces EIPH. It doesn’t eliminate it, since 60 percent of horses still bleed after being administered Lasix. But it does reduce the amount of hemorrhage.”

Then there was Mario Gutierrez, an overnight sensation because of I’ll Have Another. Gutierrez is a breath of fresh quotes, like this one answering doubts about him riding in the Belmont Stakes for the first time with the Triple Crown on the line:

“Everybody else had to do something for the first time,” Gutierrez said. “But you don’t have to do it wrong. It’s still a racetrack. It’s dirt. We still have to turn left and go in a circle.”

I’ll Have Another never made the Belmont, but at least his wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness let everyone get to know Ivan Puhich, Gutierrez’s agent, who was a Marine of 17 when the 6th Division landed on Okinawa in 1945:

“The Marines went to the north part of the island and the Army went to the south,” Puhich said. “The north was where the worst fighting was, then the Army got bogged down in the south. So they sent the Marines to help ’em out. But that’s enough about the war. Let’s talk about horse racing.”

Good idea. Here’s Corey Nakatani, still riding hard at 42, on his early years:

“The guys that I learned how to ride from, most of them you knew what you could do to get them to do something wrong. Then there were the guys you knew you couldn’t. Laffit you couldn’t faze. He’d just knuckle them. You knew he always had something extra, so you’d better get to him sooner than you think you should. Shoemaker, he was always loaded, just playing with you. You learned patience from him.”

And Chantal Sutherland, now retired, on her racy magazine spread:

“I think that’s over for me,” she said. “My father’s real proud of me, but he wasn’t too happy about that. I just wanted to show how strong we are, how much we work at it, and how beautiful horses and horse racing can be.”

And John Velazquez, whose 2012 season included a fractured collarbone, a lacerated kidney, a regular partnership with Horse of the Year contender Wise Dan, and induction into the Hall of Fame:

“I love this business, but the dark side is very dark,” Velazquez said. “There is nothing more important than the safety of the horses and riders − and the industry is getting a black eye right now for cutting corners.”

Some of those corners were exposed during the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, Calif., when the unsung journeyman Jorge Herrera, 33, was killed not long after the start of a five-furlong race for $5,000 claimers. Former jockey Frank Garza had been Herrara’s mentor at his school for riders.

“I started him on an old racehorse named Uncle Bob,” Garza said. “He never showed any fear. We had racing mules at the time – everybody falls off mules – and when he would fall I would ask him, ‘You sure you want to ride?’ He would answer, very serious, ‘Yes, I do.’ I saw him the last time on closing day at Hollywood Park. He told me he was driving to Pleasanton that night after the races to ride at the fair. I asked him if he was going to ride any mules. He smiled and said, ‘Oh no. Way too dangerous.’ ”

The day after Herrera was killed, former jockey Darrell Haire, a Jockeys’ Guild field representative, was asked about the often recited line that riders would rather be dead than paralyzed:

“I felt that way too,” Haire said. “You’re an active athlete looking at being a vegetable, and you think you don’t want to live. Then it happens, and that fight in a jockey comes out. I’ve seen a lot of riders physically destroyed, but not too many of them ever give up. All they need is the chance.”

A lot of energy was directed abroad in 2012, whether following the grand Australian sprint star Black Caviar or England’s imposing Frankel, named for the legendary American Hall of Fame trainer called Bobby. Both were undefeated, but Frankel was doing all his work at eight and 10 furlongs against the finest Europe had to offer. Journalist Brough Scott said it best:

“No one’s ever done it like Frankel. That might be enough, and moreover that should be enough. Anyone asking for more is asking the impossible.”

Janis Whitham and her family asked only that their Fort Larned be the horse they thought he’d be when thrown into the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. He rewarded their faith with a tenacious win over Mucho Macho Man.

“We’re so proud of that horse,” Whitham said. “It’s just something you didn’t really want to think might happen. I know there were a lot of people didn’t think he’d come to the party like he did. But he did.”

Then the party was over, like it is every year when the tyranny of the calendar renders the previous season to the heap of ancient history. Teddy Grimthorpe, racing manager for Juddmonte Farms, was asked before Frankel’s last race in October what life would be like without their remarkable colt on the track:

“I’m sure it will hit us eventually,” Grimthorpe said. “The attention alone he’s brought to the sport has been unbelievable, as it has been for all of us lucky enough to have been along for the ride. The Racing Post runs a feature called ‘Where Are They Now?’ Come December I fully expect my name will be listed.”