02/08/2010 1:00AM

Quality Road spices things up


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It is disconcerting to watch someone have a severe panic attack. It is frightening when the one panicking is a half-ton Thoroughbred whose usual controlled demeanor turns suddenly into wild agitation.

A national television audience witnessed this spectacle last fall as the field was being loaded into Santa Anita's starting gate for the Breeders' Cup Classic, America's richest race. Quality Road was being led toward his stall when he balked, hopping in the air and then backpedaling from the gate. When four members of the starting gate crew tried to shove him in, the 3-year-old kicked his hind legs back violently in resistance.

A member of the crew flicked a whip behind Quality Road, but he didn't budge. Then the handlers put a blindfold over the colt's head.

"They disorient the horse and sort of trick him into going into the gate," television analyst Jerry Bailey explained. The trick didn't work. Quality Road freaked out. In the narrow confines of the gate, he kicked and flailed wildly, prompting jockey John Velazquez to jump off. As the colt backed out of the gate, one member of the crew still had a hold on him - but barely. Quality Road was almost uncontrollable.

The attending veterinarian observed that Quality Road had scraped his leg during the ordeal and ordered him scratched. He also had suffered a bruise over an eye and nearly knocked out a tooth. Another vet, interviewed on television, described the colt as a "juvenile delinquent." Many observers wondered if Quality Road's temperament was such a problem that it would prevent him from being a top racehorse.

Three months after the Breeders' Cup, he answered that question. On Saturday at Gulfstream Park, Quality Road ran spectacularly to win the $500,000 Donn Handicap by a dozen lengths in track-record time. He ran so quickly that he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 121 - the best performance in a race at one mile or longer since Commentator won the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in 2005.

In the nine races that comprise his career, Quality Road has gone from being a budding superstar to a perceived nut case to a genuine superstar. His impressive, front-running victory in the Florida Derby last winter stamped him as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. If he had stayed healthy, he might have been the country's star 3-year-old instead of the filly Rachel Alexandra. But he was bedeviled by foot problems after his win at Gulfstream. A quarter crack - a split in his right front hoof - knocked him out of the entire Triple Crown series.

Owner Edward P. Evans took all of his horses away from trainer Jimmy Jerkens and put Quality Road in the care of Todd Pletcher, who aimed to get the colt ready for an ambitious summer and fall campaign. But nothing went right for him. He didn't have an ideal amount of preparation for the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, where Summer Bird beat him on a sloppy track. In their rematch at Belmont Park, they caught a sloppy track again, and Summer Bird won again. And then came the Breeders' Cup debacle.

Pletcher said that even though Quality Road had experienced some problems at the gate in other races, the perception of him as a crazy horse is incorrect. "He's a big, imposing horse, but he's also very kind and intelligent," the trainer said. "He's a gentle giant. You just can't fight with him. If you fight with him, he'll fight back."

Pletcher thought the starting-gate crew at Santa Anita was under pressure to load the large field for the Classic with reasonable quickness. When Quality Road balked, the handlers felt a sense of urgency to get him in the gate, and the test of wills ensued.

At first Pletcher wondered if his colt had been mentally scarred by the experience. Quality Road was scheduled to fly from California back to New York, but he was so reluctant to board the plane that Pletcher decided not to fight him. He put the colt on a van from Santa Anita to Churchill Downs and let him have a rest stop in Kentucky before he resumed the van trip to Belmont Park.

"We were worried about how much the Breeders' Cup set him back," Pletcher said.

He had Quality Road work under the supervision of Bob Duncan, the former starter at the New York Racing Association, who is an expert in dealing with horses' behavior at the gate. There were no problems. Quality Road acted like his old self, and Pletcher began mapping out a campaign for 2010 that he hoped would atone for the frustrations of 2009. The colt started his 4-year-old season by winning a Gulfstream stakes race in workmanlike fashion, giving no hint of what he was going to do Saturday. In the Grade 1 Donn, he was pressured early by the quick Past the Point, and when the colts reached the six-furlong mark in a swift 1:09.87, the pace looked like a potentially suicidal one. But instead of weakening, Quality Road proceeded to run away from the field, covering 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.49 and breaking the mark that he had set in the Florida Derby. Even Pletcher was stunned.

"It was one of those races where you feel that maybe no horse could have beaten him on that particular day," he said. "Sometimes everything comes together perfectly."

Quality Road's performance changes the outlook for the entire racing season. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were universally expected to be the sport's big stars this year as they were in 2009, when Rachel beat out her rival for the Horse of the Year title. But as great as they are, neither of the females delivered a performance as good as Quality Road's win in the Donn. The stage may have been set for a memorable battle of the sexes.

(c) 2010 The Washington Post