03/29/2013 2:51PM

Jay Hovdey: Star geldings continue to contribute in old age

Benoit & Associates
Perfect Drift, who earned $4.7 million at the racetrack, might become a pony at age 14.

In a recent development, the Kentucky Derby Museum has invited 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird to be its iconic Thoroughbred in residence this year as tourists descend upon Churchill Downs.

Since his retirement in 2010, which was marked by a farewell ceremony at Churchill, Mine That Bird has had the run of his grassy paddock in New Mexico at the Double Eagle Ranch of co-owner Mark Allen, enjoying life as a local celebrity. His return to Churchill Downs will allow fans who did not play him in the Derby at 50-1 to take a good look at him and wonder once again, “Huh?”

All well and good, but what about the guy who used to grace the Derby Museum’s showcase corral? That would be Perfect Drift, who finished third to War Emblem in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, won the 2003 Stephen Foster, and the Washington Park Handicap twice, and finished second in races like the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Pacific Classic and the Whitney on his way to earnings of $4.7 million. And he did most of it carrying a braided lock of John Henry’s tail beneath his saddlepad.

Reached at his Stonecrest Farm on the outskirts of Kansas City, Dr. William Reed was just the man to ask. Reed and wife Mary bred, raised, and raced Perfect Drift through a career of 50 starts. As Reed spoke, Perfect Drift was out back somewhere, busy doing whatever healthy, 14-year-old former world-class racehorses do.

“We’re getting him polished up for a benefit we’re doing for the Kansas City Mounted Patrol,” Reed said. “He loves to pose, and he enjoys people, especially if he hears the crackle of a cellophane wrapper on a peppermint. Then he’s really your friend.

“After that, we’re taking him down to Louisville to train him as a pony horse,” Reed added. “We start our young horses here at the farm, and they do better if you have a horse that can take them to the track. We don’t have one right now, so we’ll see if Drift can fill that role.”

If Perfect Drift makes the transition to pony horse, he’ll join a list of outstanding geldings who made that a second or third career. Retired Hall of Famer Best Pal ponied young horses at Golden Eagle Farm, his birthplace. Breeders’ Cup winner Kona Gold was on the job for Bruce Headley until his retirement to the Kentucky Horse Park. Three-time Hollywood Gold Cup winner Lava Man made headlines ponying Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another during the 2012 Triple Crown.

“He’s all calmed down from his days as a racehorse and is a real friendly guy,” Reed said. “He’s big and healthy. I think he’ll manage those young horses great.”

Kentucky-based Murray Johnson trained Perfect Drift through the meat of his career before the horse made a few starts for Richard Mandella in California during his final season in 2008. Welcoming an old warrior like Perfect Drift into the stable had a palliative effect since at the time, the Mandella barn was going through the emotional trauma of saying goodbye to The Tin Man, a freak of nature who had won the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile in 2007, at age 9.

Both Perfect Drift (shin) and The Tin Man (ankle) underwent minor surgeries in fall 2007. Drift’s went fine, but The Tin Man fractured his right knee in post-surgical recovery. In April 2008, he had recovered enough to be sent to River Edge Farm in Solvang, Calif., just as Perfect Drift went back into training.

In the years since, The Tin Man has come to accommodate his bum knee with aplomb, only these days, he is doing his old-horse frolics in another pasture as Pam and Martin Wygod phase out their River Edge Thoroughbred operation.

“He’s at my daughter’s house now in Santa Ynez,” said Ralph Todd, who bred and raced The Tin Man in partnership with wife Aury. “They have 9 1/2 acres, and their youngest daughter is very much into roping and barrel racing. The Tin Man is right there watching all that, and I can tell you he is the epitome of being happy. He’s also got a girlfriend, a Quarter Horse, that he likes to boss around.”

The Tin Man famously won the 2006 Arlington Million, then nearly won it again when beaten three-quarters of a length in 2007. At this time of year, though, thoughts turn to what may have been his finest hour, when, at age 8, he finished second to international star David Junior in the 2006 Dubai Duty Free at Nad al Sheba.

“Just wait till next year,” cracked Mandella. “He’ll be mature by then.”

It goes without saying that the racing game would be a dreary place without geldings like The Tin Man and Perfect Drift to rely upon for long, satisfying careers. They become self-contained dynasties, generating year after year of entertaining lore. Every region seems to have a folk hero to call its own, whether it is New York’s Fourstardave, Maryland’s Little Bold John, Washington’s Wasserman (who at age 11 is gearing up for another season at Emerald Downs), or Leaping Plum, the pride of Nebraska and the winner of Fonner Park’s Grasmick Handicap an eight incredible times.

“We bring him into the track every year, do his teeth, trim him up, and keep him around a week or two,” said Joe Moss, who trained Leaping Plum throughout a 12-season career of 66 races and 29 wins. “As they get older, the back muscles start to go, but he hasn’t even started to slump yet. Once in a while, I’ll even saddle him up and walk him around the barn area. I tell everybody there’s a new gallop boy in town, and I’ll take any horse over 20 for 50 cents a head. I don’t get any takers.”

Leaping Plum spends most of his time at the farm of co-owner Clyde Woods near Omaha, Neb. Upon his retirement in 2004, Leaping Plum was turned down for a spot at the Kentucky Horse Park. Their loss.

“Two years ago, they had a special day at Fonner Park when he led the post parade for that stake he won so many times, and he looked good enough to train,” Moss said. “We bred his sister, but she really never came up with anything really good. I’ve got the last one now, a 6-year-old maiden. The fact that he’s Plum’s nephew is a good enough reason to keep him for a pet as long as he’s around.”