They say that some poker players have a “tell,” a change in their behavior that can give away how they feel about their chances of winning a particular hand. Hall of Fame rider Victor Espinoza says that the 2021 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner, Ce Ce (Elusive Quality) is no different.
“Most of the times I ride her, I know before I get to the gate what kind of a race she's going to run,” he said.
“So, did you know in the Breeders' Cup?” I asked eagerly.
“Oh yes, most definitely,” he replied. “The minute she walked onto the track I was like, 'oh yes,' and I looked at the rest of the horses and thought, `oh, I feel sorry for you guys!'”
The rest, of course is history. Ce Ce took down the Breeders' Cup and was crowned champion female sprinter at Santa Anita's Eclipse Award ceremony Feb. 10, but not before tasting defeat at the hands of Merneith (American Pharoah) in the GII Santa Monica S. just days before she was crowned.
I had interviewed CeCe's owner-breeder Bo Hirsch prior to the Santa Monica and asked him, “win lose or draw, what has she left to prove in her 6-year-old year?”
Hirsch was effusive and simply said, “She has nothing to prove and she owes us nothing. I'm getting old and I love to watch my horses run. You know, I may not live long enough to watch her foals run so why not enjoy her another year now?”
This is something the 72-year-old Hirsch echoed in his Eclipse Award speech, where he said, “I love this business. This is the greatest sport in the world.”
So, to find the key to Ce Ce's longevity, I set off to the Mike McCarthy barn.
Horses love routine, and in that, champion Ce Ce is no different. Training every morning with the sunrise at 6:30, she sets out not to Santa Anita's main track, but to the six-furlong training track nestled inside the turf course.
It's something McCarthy started a couple of years ago and it has stuck.
“It's a good walk to and fro, from the training track. It's something she enjoys and we let her take her time.”
So, off we went with her. I followed Ce Ce down into the tunnel, walking as fast as my oh-too-short legs could to try and keep up.
Once on the training track, Ce Ce took up her customary position next to the outrider Camacho and his pony Justin, enjoying cuddles from her rider Lydio as the early morning sun cast a long shadow across the track.
I'm pretty sure she would have stood there all day!
“Jog one, gallop two.” These were the instructions handed out by McCarthy.
Off she went–nothing flashy, just doing her job, three times around before pulling up with a pat. “She's a trainer's dream,” explained McCarthy, later that morning. It has been a huge deal to train a mare like her. She shows up every time, she's all business, she's all racehorse, from breaking her maiden first time out, something the stats say shouldn't happen,” said a deadpan McCarthy, “to winning the GI Beholder.”
“We got a little sidetracked later in the year,” he added. “We had a hard time finding racetracks she likes. She seems to like it a little harder and faster. We've kind of gotten away from that a little bit out here in California, so she's struggled with that a little bit.”
McCarthy went on to elaborate that Ce Ce has got a little picky in her old age, preferring the more glib race tracks of times gone by. When pressed about her Breeders' Cup performance, the ever-reserved trainer perked up.
“Got a perfect set up with Gamine and Bella Sofia in there. Victor asked the question and she responded. I believe that was probably as good a Breeders' Cup performance as you would see on Breeders' Cup day,” he said, with just a bit of pride.
As for what happened in the Santa Monica, McCarthy conceded Baffert led a very good horse over that ran her eyeballs out. Plus, Ce Ce was coming off a brief layoff, with the track against her.
“But I saw what I needed to see and we will go from there,” he added.
McCarthy did his best dodge-the-question dance, with the usual `keep our options open,' followed by a list of logical choices befitting a champion. “Oaklawn. Keeneland. Could show up in another country. Could stay here.”
“Hold on,” I said. “Another country?”
“Well, we are not the only place that holds racing,” quipped a now-smiling McCarthy. “There are races like the Golden Shaheen in Dubai, or she could even try the grass. We know her likes and dislikes and will try to play to those for the rest of the year.”
Is there added pressure training a six-year-old with seemingly nothing left to prove, I asked?
“There is a little bit of pressure because we want to do right by her, always. I feel like we are responsible for the effort, not the outcome. Sometimes, that's beyond our control.”