03/13/2013 2:39PM

Jay Hovdey: Running footloose and jockey-free


As Starrer rounded the wide final turn into the Belmont stretch, reins flapping and riderless, David Hofmans stood near the finish line watching his filly with a sickening mixture of frustration and fear. A few moments later she flashed past Hofmans, alone in front of the field at the end of the Coaching Club American Oaks just as her trainer had envisioned. Only not.

That was a dozen years ago, nowhere nearly enough time for Hofmans to have forgotten the disappointment of the day. Starrer had won the Princess Stakes at Hollywood Park on June 16, and for the ensuing month everything the trainer did with the daughter of Dynaformer was done with the CCA Oaks in mind, which included shipping her to New York the week before the race in order to get in a workout over the track. As a result she was favored at 90 cents on the dollar to join a glittering list of 84 previous Oaks winners that included Lamb Chop, Summer Guest, Chris Evert, and Ruffian.

Then, a few steps from the gate, Starrer stumbled, tossed Chris McCarron and kicked the jockey in the backside before regaining her stride and setting off after her opposition.

“When a horse leaves the gate their adrenaline’s pumped up,” Hofmans said. “They want to run, because that’s what they’re trained to do.”

So she did, for two and a half interminable minutes, as Hofmans rushed to the track from his box in the stands.

“There’s no more helpless feeling,” Hofmans said. “You work all that time, then in five seconds it’s all down the drain. You’re totally panicked that something will happen to the horse, but at the same time it’s surreal, unbelievable, while it’s happening.”

The 2001 CCA Oaks came to mind last Saturday almost immediately after Fort Larned stumbled and dumped Brian Hernandez at the start of the Gulfstream Park Handicap. As season debuts go, Fort Larned’s was among the most highly anticipated of the major players from the 2012 campaign. His victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita iced his status among the elite Thoroughbreds in the land, and yet fans were left wanting to see more. Owner Jan Whitham and trainer Ian Wilkes were determined to give Fort Larned the chance.

Whitham, who lives in the west Kansas town of Leoti, decided to stay put for the Gulfstream race and hook up with Fort Larned in Kentucky in the spring, when he would be training at Churchill Downs and she could visit her mares and their foals. Her son Clay Whitham came by to enjoy the show.

“I was berating myself because I didn’t go to Florida, but we made a big production of watching the race,” Whitham said. “We were thinking how Brian was going to get him behind horses, sit in a good spot, then go on with it. And then the thing you never think about just happens.”

Free from restraint, Fort Larned bulled his way to front of the field and soon was long gone, upstaging his mounted opposition. When they finally caught him he was pulling up on his own, having completed the mile course as efficiently as if he had been remotely controlled.

Luckily, Fort Larned seemed to survive with only a minor cut on his leg, although Wilkes reserved the right to watch his star closely for a while before deciding on his next move.

“Ian told me the cut wasn’t infected,” Whitham said. “He was pretty sore in the neck and the head, but he was walking fine. And he’d been doing so well. Ian’s been on top of the world over how he’d been training. I guess we were very fortunate that he didn’t tear that shoe off, or lose any hoof, or cut the bulb of the hoof.”

Neither Fort Larned nor Starrer significantly affected the running of their major events with their vivid displays of the runaway Thoroughbred, other than to remove the horse to beat from competition. Eddie Delahoussaye, a Hall of Famer who has seen it all, notes it usually does not work like that.

“They’re herd animals, and more often than not they’ll follow along with the pack,” Delahoussaye said. “When that happens, depending on where the loose horse is at, you end up clocking him more than riding your own race. You’ve got an animal out there who might do anything.”

In the summer of 1967, Delahoussaye was a Louisiana teenager less than a year away from riding his first official race when California’s richest event was decisively altered by a loose horse named O’Hara. The $162,100 Hollywood Gold Cup figured to be a showdown between local hero Native Diver and his nemesis Pretense. The two had been banging heads all year long. But when O’Hara stumbled and tossed Milo Valenzuela at the start of the mile and a quarter event, everything changed.

Incident at the 1967 Hollywood Gold Cup. Youtube via cf1970.

It goes without saying that not even a loose horse could stay with the incendiary Native Diver early. Instead, O’Hara found comfort in dogging Pretense nearly every step of the way. Johnny Sellers, who rode Pretense, tried to shrug off his shadow, but to no avail. This prevented Pretense from attacking Native Diver on the far turn, which he had been doing with consistent success. Instead, Native Diver went unchallenged, got his breather, and opened up at the head of the stretch.

From there Pretense had no shot to close the gap, especially since he was carrying 131 pounds to Native Diver’s 123. Adding insult to tactical injury, O’Hara grew tired of Pretense’s company and went after Native Diver in the final furlong, finishing three-quarters a length in front at the wire.

Such displays make the mischievous among us wonder if riders are needed at all if, once set free, horses are going to perform like O’Hara, Starrer, and Fort Larned. Delahoussaye summoned a childhood memory.

“When I was a kid we ran horses in match races without any riders,” he began. “They were separated on a straight track with rails, to keep them focused. They tied a surcingle on them then hung a can full of rocks on the surcingle from a wire so when the horses would break from the gate the rocks would start rattling and scare the hell out of them. They only ran about 200 yards. Then once they’d hit the end of the track they’s stop, creatures of habit.”

At this point, racetrack operators everywhere are going, “Hmmm . . . .” Delahoussaye stepped up to emphasize the difference between a Fort Larned and most of the rest of the breed.

“The really good horses who are true athletes, who really love to run. They’ll go ahead and run their race,” he said. “The rest of them, no. It’s just trouble, out there without a rider on a wide-open track. You’re always lucky when nothing really bad happens.”