01/09/2013 4:08PM

Jay Hovdey: Coil closes out stellar career by giving his all one last time

Benoit & Associates
Coil (left) rebounded from two sub-par performances to beat Ultimate Eagle by a head in last Saturday's San Pasqual.

Imagine being the guest of honor at a farewell party and then being asked to provide the entertainment and clean up the mess.

Coil, that resplendent chestnut son of Point Given, had done enough in a lifetime of 13 races to have deserved a cherry-picked cakewalk for the final start of his career. Instead, the hero of the 2011 Haskell and 2012 Santa Anita Sprint Championship was asked to empty the tank one more time last Saturday at Santa Anita Park in the San Pasqual Stakes when Ultimate Eagle, unimpressed by his accomplished elder, put up a noble fight that was too good to lose.

The margin at the end of 1 1/16 miles was a head, but that hardly tells the tale of what transpired from the eighth pole to the wire when Coil and Martin Garcia finally confronted Ultimate Eagle and Martin Pedroza after stalking them closely for nearly a mile.

Coil looked as if he might glide on by, but then Ultimate Eagle caught full sight of his challenger out of his partially blinkered right eye and found a little more where, by that point, there should have been nothing left but fumes. For several jumps the race became a head-nodding blur of black and red whirlygigs until Coil’s blue Bob Baffert shadow roll prevailed.

“That’s probably the most I’ve been excited at a horse race in a long time,” said Mike Pegram, who owns the biggest hunk of Coil with partners Paul Weitman and Karl Watson. “He’s been such a good horse, and you knew it was a risk. He was either going to get ten more mares or ten less. But the old man showed up.”

Coil entered the San Pasqual off a seventh-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and a third in the Cigar Mile, behind Stay Thirsty and Groupie Doll.

“I was disappointed to close out on two losses like that,” Pegram said. “When Bobby was willing to lead him over there I was in.”

As pre-ordained good-byes go, Coil’s San Pasqual hardly ranks with Dr. Fager’s farewell in the 1968 Vosburgh Handicap, when he carried 139 pounds to a six-length victory in an Aqueduct record for the seven furlongs. Or with Secretariat’s swan song in the 1973 Canadian International, when he made mincemeat of fine older grass horses at chilly Woodbine.

More often than not, when it is announced that a headline horse is making the final start of his or her career, chances are the result will be something less than a storybook ending. Still, the nature of the beast – both human and equine – is to try and defy the merciless odds. All Along, Cigar, Zenyatta, Paradise Creek, Serena’s Song, Ouija Board – all of them lost what was advertised as their final start, but it was not for lack of trying as hard as they had ever tried before.

The only fly in the otherwise soothing ointment of Coil’s final appearance was the fact that he carried 118 pounds compared with 120 pounds on Ultimate Eagle. There are those who hold to the theory that two pounds would make the difference in the margin of only a head, and there is no well-founded argument to be offered here. The problem is in the weighting itself, which in the case of the San Pasqual – and many other races in California these days – is determined by success in graded races as defined by distance.

This, of course, makes the racing secretary’s job that much easier, a noble ambition given their crushing work load. And weights assigned in such a manner (such as the San Pasqual’s “nonwinners of a Grade 1 or Grade 2 race at one mile or over since July 7, 2012, allowed 3 pounds” etc.) will more often than not approximate the results of the good old days when three racing officials sat down and compared notes for a handicap.

Does it make sense, however, that in a Grade 2 race at 1 1/16 miles a certain horse (let’s call him Coil) who just carried 120 in a Grade 1 handicap at a mile in which he gave – yes gave – weight to the winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup should carry less than a horse like Ultimate Eagle (although there are very few horses like Ultimate Eagle) who had yet to win a graded stakes event outside his own age division? I will end the suspense. The answer is no.

This nitpicking aside, Coil enters stud now in California at Rich and Gaby Sulpizio‘s Magali Farm in Santa Ynez with a record of 7 wins in 14 races and a time-tested Mr. Prospector male line (through Gulch, Thunder Gulch and Point Given), leavened by a solid female family courtesy of his breeder, Leonard Lavin’s Glen Hill Farm. If Coil can make a few more in his image, no one will complain.

“That big boy took care of us so now we’re going to take care of him,” Pegram said. “I’m too old to chase the girls so now it’s his turn.”

Lin Wheeler kept his promise

The death of retired trainer Lin Wheeler last Saturday at his home in California’s Central Valley town of Coarsegold turned the clock back to last summer when his late father, Robert L. Wheeler, finally was elected to the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.

This was a big deal for Lin, since he learned all he needed to know about horses from his famous father, who at one time trained for three different branches of the Whitney family. Lin Wheeler also had enough success under his own name to be remembered with respect among those of his peers still in the game.

But his last few years were spent in chronic health battles, so it was no real shock that Lin did not make the trip to New York with his sister, Sidney Wheeler, for the Hall of Fame celebration. Turns out, though, he had some place else to be.

“Since his divorce some time ago he hadn’t been that close to his kids,” Sidney said. “I think he felt real bad about that for years. Well, his daughter was getting married in Idaho, and he promised her he would be there. Then dad was voted in the Hall of Fame. Dad’s deal was on Aug. 10, the day before the wedding. Lin was sick then, but he went to Idaho like he promised.”

Robert Wheeler was 71 when he died of heart failure in 1992. Lin Wheeler, who also died of heart failure, was 70.