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Updated on 10/05/2011 7:30PM
Keeping the losses in perspective
By Jay Hovdey
Mike Pegram did not have the look of a man who’d just watched his two best colts come up light in the two of the high-powered races run at Santa Anita last Saturday. Coil, winner of the Haskell Invitational, finished third to the older Game On Dude and Awesome Gem in the Goodwood Stakes not long after Drill, the Del Mar Futurity hero, was beaten by Creative Cause in the Norfolk Stakes.
“What right do I have to be anything but happy to have a couple colts like that?” Pegram said.
No one in earshot argued.
“Sure, it would’ve been nice to’ve won,” he added. “But you know what? They both look like they come back fine and we know that doesn’t always happen.”
Nothing tests the tensile strength of an owner’s heart or a trainer’s soul like the Rorschach of an unforgiving X-ray or the grim countenance of a vet bearing bad news. Reminders were rampant over the weekend, touching the broadest spectrum of the emotional scale.
Pegram’s colts lost a couple of races. Big deal. Earlier that same afternoon the champion filly Blind Luck also lost a race, but lost in a way that sent shivvers of dread throughout the game. Her last-place finish in the Lady’s Secret Stakes was a man-bites-dog headline. After 2 1/2 years in steady training and 21 starts, she had never been out of the money.
An hour later, Jerry Hollendorfer slumped in a chair in the saddling barn and allowed a few thoughts to slip through his protective trainer’s shell.
“That’s why I like to own a piece of my horses,” said Hollendorfer, whose partners in Blind Luck are Mark DeDomenico, John Carver and Peter Abruzzo. “I’ve always got to answer to myself.”
To that end Hollendorfer was not jumping to any conclusions until Blind Luck had undergone a series of diagnostic tests. Sometimes the good ones are so tough they hide the truth – Lost in the Fog was growing a fatal spinal tumor the day he won the Aristides at Churchill Downs – and Hollendorfer wanted to know the whole story: blood, bone and soft tissue.
On the other side of the country, a few hours before Blind Luck phoned it in, Cape Blanco and Dean’s Kitten played an equine version of “Survivor” in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. The Belmont course was so deep the 1 1/2 miles was run in 2:36.61, prompting a first reaction of, “Wow, what brave animals,” followed quickly by, “Hope they come out all right.”
Cape Blanco did not, according to the Aidan O’Brien stable, which reported the next day he fractured a knee winning the Hirsch and would be retired. It is of some small consolation that Cape Blanco has a very good chance to be voted champion North American male turf horse for 2011, after earlier wins in the Man o’ War and Arlington Million.
There was no escape, however, from the wave of sadness brought by the news Saturday afternoon that Banned, winner of the Del Mar Derby, had been euthanized to spare the colt the horrors of founder, a result of his struggle to recover from fractured sesamoids in his right front ankle. The injury occurred in a workout at Santa Anita on Sept. 22.
Four days earlier Banned was being a model patient. The surgery to repair the ankle had gone well, and he was looking as good as a horse could look wearing a rigid cast. He was putting some weight on the damaged leg, which was a good thing, and he was getting up and down in the stall like a champ. Even though this visitor knew better than to harbor great hopes, he let himself think Banned could be the exception to the unforgiving rules applied to such injuries. So did Tom Proctor, his trainer.
“You know going in you don’t have much of a shot,” Proctor said. “But he kept doing so good you couldn’t help but think he might make it. And I give a lot of credit to my assistant, Karen Valko. What chance he had he owed a lot to her, all the time she spent with him.”
Owned by Glen Hill Farm, Banned also won the Jefferson Cup and American Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs this year.
“You get to a point like that and you’re not thinking of him as a colt who won the Del Mar Derby, or any other thing,” Proctor said. “Good one or otherwise, it’s all the same. You hate to see any horse in your care get sick or hurt, so you’re just trying to save the life of a horse you like a whole lot. But that last morning he started to go south pretty fast, and I wasn’t about to let him suffer.”
Racetrackers take happy endings when they can, few and far between as they are. Arnold Zetcher was in the stands last Saturday, watching Blind Luck’s baffling performance and hearing of Banned’s death, sitting not far from the same spot where he witnessed the breakdown of his 4-year-old filly Always a Princess in the Santa Margarita last March. After beating Blind Luck in her two previous starts she, too, fractured sesamoids and underwent surgery.
“The fact that it happened in a big race, right in front of the stands, you would not believe how many people have stopped me at the track since that day to ask how she was doing,” Zetcher said. “But I understand how they would feel. That day, after everyone had left my wife and I just walked around the empty grandstand, kind of in shock.
“The truth is, she had about the same chance as Banned,” Zetcher said. “But she made it. And now she is flying to Kentucky this week. The ankle isn’t too pretty, but when I asked our vet if she could be bred and safely carry a foal, he said absolutely. It’s a miracle.”
One of the few.
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