Updated on 09/15/2011 12:47PM

Young at heart and on the track

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
John's Call wears a mask and eye shades to protect him from the sun.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - First of all, John's Call doesn't know he's 10 years old.

As far as he's concerned, time passes in big chunks, alternating between the good life on the farm and such competitive diversions as the Breeders' Cup Turf, the Japan Cup, and the Sword Dancer Handicap, which will bear his stamp again on Saturday at Saratoga.

While at rest, John's Call is a feisty old gent, a bit shy of the sun but hardly content to sit on the porch and play canasta with the other senior citizens. When not in residence at his familiar Saratoga barn, he rules the roost at the Maryland farm of trainer Tom Voss, bossing around the younger horses by day and grazing after sunset.

In his younger days, John's Call was so sensitive to sunlight that his coat broke out into spots. Voss was concerned enough to alert the track identifier about the horse's change in appearance. Whenever John's Call walks or grazes - or kills time in one of the roomy Saratoga paddocks - he wears a protective mask and very cool, customized eye shades.

"I gave up trying to find a pair of those joke sunglasses, with the big lenses," Voss said. "I ended up using pieces of the stuff they use for tinting car windows."

Voss has been the keeper of John's Call, who is owned by Douglas Joyce, since his purchase as a jumping prospect. The trainer points out that the gelding has raced only 37 times, beginning with his maiden voyage on Oct. 14, 1994, at Belmont Park, and therefore might feel right at home against horses half his age in terms of wear and tear.

There was a two-year gap in the record along the way, from August of 1995 to July of 1997, when a small lesion on a tendon appeared and then recurred, both times at Saratoga. Since the summer of 1997, the racing career of John's Call has been interrupted only by the seven months he spends on the farm, from the late fall to the following summer each year. And each year has been better than the last.

At the age of 8, in 1999, John's Call improved enough to win the Laurel Turf Cup and two other small mid-Atlantic stakes. Then, at 9, he became a star, winning the Sword Dancer and the Turf Classic at Belmont.

"What he really needed was a mile and a half," Voss said. "That's his game. But there are not that many of those races around for him."

A stone-cold stayer who could gallop opponents to death, John's Call is a throwback to the kind of horse once raised and raced regularly in North America. The record bears Voss out. In 10 starts at 11 or 12 furlongs, John's Call has won five races and most of his $1.5 million in purses. It is revealing to note that Voss describes two of those losses as two of the best races of his career.

"The Breeders' Cup was the thrill of a lifetime," Voss said, referring to last year's running at Churchill Downs. John's Call had to be supplemented to the Turf at a cost of $240,000.

"I wasn't crazy about putting up the money," Voss went on. "But the walk over, and the way he ran, made it all worthwhile. I was never prouder of a horse in all my life. He kept fighting to beat the horse on the inside, and then along came that horse on the outside, and he tried to beat him, too."

At the end of the Turf, John's Call was beaten a half-length by victorious Kalanisi and a nose by Quiet Resolve. He made good on his supplemental fee, taking down $327,360 including nominator awards, and earned his yearly holiday. But first, he went to Japan.

The lure of the Japan Cup is understandable. Candidates are courted for months. Once there they are treated like royalty. The experience is unforgettable, and the money isn't bad, either. Unfortunately, not all horses deal with the trip as smoothly as their people.

John's Call had never been on an airplane in his life. It was a fretful journey. Once there, he was faced with a quarantine facility, which wasn't bad. Problem was, they also quarantined his food.

"He went for a week eating what they had over there," Voss said. "He'd eat a little, pick at it, but you're not going to have much luck changing the diet of a 9-year-old horse."

Good point. When's the last time anyone saw Grandpa try something new.

"He finally got his feed," Voss said. "But then he had a slow work, and the course was hard, and a lot seemed to be going against him. It was amazing that he was beaten only about six lengths. He never stopped trying."

Voss put John's Call on the same comeback pattern for 2001 that worked in 2000, with a win in the 1 1/2-mile Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park on July 22. He won the same race last year before taking the Sword Dancer.

"Don't confuse his Delaware race this year with the way he ran here last year," Voss warned. "He wasn't beating much, and horses like King Cugat and With Anticipation look pretty tough in the Sword Dancer."

And never forget that 10 means 10, an unprecedented age for a horse to be winning, or even competitive, in top-ranked stakes. Voss remains ready to pull the curtain on the career of John's Call the moment he shows signs of his age.

"He's so competitive, though," Voss added. "You'd never know his age to watch him run."

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