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Updated on 01/05/2011 5:55PM
Van Zuylen's passing brings a flood of memories
ARCADIA, Calif. – Like the taste of the crumbs from a tea-soaked madeleine cake that sent Proust’s narrator on an involuntary journey of some million and a half words in “Remembrance of Things Past,” the death of Baron Thierry van Zuylen last Sunday tripped similar chords for this reporter.
Luckily for the reader, the word count for this space is around 950. Still, the memory must be served, and if there was a more memorable stretch of Throughbred racing over the past 30 years than took place during the season of 1982, in terms of high drama in nearly every corner of the sport, I remain skeptically open to nominations.
It was a year during which institutional memories became hopelessly interwoven with the personal, when events on the racetrack echoed in the head and heart long after the day’s news was done.
A flash, and there is the tangled web of the 1982 Triple Crown, with Hostage and Timely Writer relegated to the sidelines, leaving my California plodder Gato Del Sol the Kentucky Derby spoils and putting the elegant Eddies, Gregson, and Delahoussaye, in the national spotlight.
As a California homer, I rose automatically to Gregson’s defense when he passed on the Preakness to concentrate on the Belmont. No one in Gato Del Sol’s circle was allowed the pleasure of savoring victory in what was supposed to be the nation’s greatest race, and it was hard watching them suffer the arrows slung from a hidebound establishment. Never mind that with each passing year Gregson’s decision to just say no places the trainer in the rarest of company, having considered the well-being of the horse before the artifice of a Triple Crown. What a concept.
I was later accused of naming my first born child in protest. Not true. Ed Hovdey, born in October of 1982, was named for his uncle and his grandfather, and not the trainer and jockey of the Derby winner, although there would have been nothing wrong with that at all.
The tale of Gato Del Sol faded quickly in the backwash of Conquistador Cielo’s wet and wild Belmont, hard on the heels of his win in the Metropolitan Mile. In essence, the colt won his Horse of the Year title with that week’s worth of work, for much of the rest of the CC story was tied up in his delicate shins, his $36 million syndication, and his embarrassing, front-wrapped failure in the Travers, when he should have stayed in the barn.
There seemed to be no glory in 1982 that did not come without melodrama. Timely Writer survived colic surgery in the spring to return in late summer, only to go down ugly in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Landaluce had us spinning comparisons to Ruffian with her sudden and exciting emergence, but that too ended badly in a darkened stall, wasted from disease, on a cold November morning. By the time I arrived, she was covered with a dark tarp.
Towering over these tales were the rousing exploits of three older pros. John Henry was first among them as reigning Horse of the Year. Lemhi Gold commenced 1982 long on promise but short on accomplishment after an inury-plagued 1981, while Perrault, owned by Serge Fradkoff and Thierry van Zuylen, emerged a virtual unknown, having only a decent French record to go along with a single failed American start the year before. By the end of the season, each of them had made better by the others.
John Henry and Perrault threw down fiercely in the Santa Anita Handicap. Perrault’s nose was on the wire first, but his jockey, Laffit Pincay, was cited for interference. Decision John Henry.
In their rematch, Perrault defeated John Henry on the grass in the San Luis Rey, a race that sent ’ol John to the sidelines with a minor injury. Lemhi Gold stepped in with a heroic effort to beat Perrault in the San Juan Capistrano, after which Perrault went back to the dirt to win the Hollywood Gold Cup.
In the second running of the Arlington Million, Perrault unleashed a track-record performance in the face of Lemhi Gold’s troubled fourth. Lemhi Gold shook that off to win both the Marlboro Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. But then, in an attempt to add one more layer to his growing reputation, Lemhi Gold was beaten by a fresh John Henry in the Oak Tree Invitational.
Both Lemhi Gold and Perrault were accorded Eclipse Awards, one essentially for dirt, the other for turf, even though they both proved their superiority over any kind of ground. Aficionados ended up splitting their votes for Horse of the Year between the two older stars, allowing the younger, far less accomplished Conquistador Cielo to take home the gold.
Perrault got my vote, cast without a second thought. He was a beast of a horse, a dark chestnut, heavy-headed, angular, and tough enough to require the services of Charlie Whittingham’s most formidable groom, Oswaldo Vargas. The idea that his career ended in Lemhi Gold’s Marlboro Cup because of something sounding as insignificant as a “check ligament” made me think of Parnelli Jones, losing the 1967 Indy 500 when his STP turbine supercar broke down on the lead because of a $6 ball bearing.
To this day, it is Perrault’s Arlington Million that burns brightest in the memory, and not because Teddy van Zuylen kept pouring the champagne during an interview in his suite the night of the race. It was because of a glint of sunlight bouncing off an object twirling through the air as the Million field rounded the first turn earlier that day.
I’d never actually seen a shoe thrown before, certainly not in a race the caliber of the Million, and as Perrault circled the shed row in the wake of his win I remarked as much to Whittingham.
“It was him,” Charlie said, nodding at Perrault. “Didn’t bother him a bit.”
The next morning, only modestly impaired from the baron’s bubbly, I wandered out onto the Arlington turf to where I thought Perrault’s shoe might have fallen. It was there, damp and innocent, nestled in the grass. At that point, the only thing I could do was give it a good home.