By Chris McGrath
Life may not be especially Good, just yet–but let's hope that it's at least getting a little better, however slowly. Certainly we must trust that's true of the wider world, as science strives to stem the pandemic. For a margin of our parish going through troubles of its own, equally, no less commitment and tenacity are proving necessary to see out a long road.
Two years ago, remember, they couldn't stage the GII San Felipe S. at all after a harrowing spate of catastrophic injuries. A racetrack many of us cherish as much as any in the world has since done exemplary work in relieving what felt uncomfortably like an existential crisis. Events at Golden Gate Fields on Thursday, however, ensured that nobody in the neighborhood can be complacent.
No doubt those depressed by the outlook will meanwhile be quick to disparage the “Wild West Bonus” as just a fistful of dollars, compared to the riches tempting maturing handicap horses to a distant desert. But let's give due credit, again, to California's premier tracks for doing what they can to fight this second front against the forces of attrition.
For even if the Californian industry can overcome the zealotry of its enemies, it still faces daunting internal challenges just to maintain a viable racing population. At a time like this, then, the staging of two races dating back to Santa Anita's foundation reminds us all of what is at stake.
It goes without saying that owners of top-class Thoroughbreds can run where and when they wish. But now that Arlington Park is being touted to developers–in the view of trainer Mike Stidham, a desecration akin to selling off a National Park–we must all remember how much our sport depends on its past for its future; and our collective responsibility as the current custodians of that heritage. As such, even bystanders are absolutely entitled, however irrelevant or impertinent our opinions overall, to applaud those who understand that some things are too precious to be reduced to dollars and cents.
An extra $1 million for sweeping three historic Grade Is (Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and the TVG Pacific Classic) may not measure up to fabulous prizemoney in Riyadh and Dubai. But if the westerns taught us anything, it was never to despair–however hopelessly outgunned–of such resources as we do retain. Remember Pale Rider? “There's nothing like a nice piece of hickory.”
Happily, Godolphin's U.S. racetrack division is on a sufficient roll to cover all bases with two of the most exciting 4-year-olds around. Stidham sends Mystic Guide (Ghostzapper) to his owner-breeder's homeland for the World Cup; while Maxfield takes his unbeaten record for Brendan Walsh out to the Big 'Cap.
Ironic that this race made its name with its purse, as “the Hundred-Grander.” Happily, there are people around today who recognize that its cumulative luster goes deeper than the mere glister of gold. Hats off to the Hronis brothers and trainer John Sadler, then, for adding three different horses to the roll of honor as 81st, 82nd and 83rd winners; and likewise, now, to the track managements that have shown pride and initiative in presenting the 84th as the first leg in a series that could bank you $1.87 million overall.
The San Felipe also goes right back to the track's beginnings but has arguably, in recent times, become a more likely race to showcase legitimate Grade I talent. If there's a top-class sophomore in California, chances are you will see him here, Authentic (Into Mischief) having last year maintained the modern resonance of a race won by the likes of California Chrome, Pioneerof The Nile, Medaglia d'Oro, Point Given, Fusaichi Pegasus, Sunday Silence and Affirmed-who came back the following year, of course, to win the Big 'Cap.
Life Is Good arrives in the hoofprints of Authentic, while I like the grounding Roman Centurian (Empire Maker) is getting before stretching out to the kind of test that will draw out his full potential. But it is the favorite's barnmate, Medina Spirit (Protonico), who threatens to become the story of the whole crop.
Because the premise on which we started–that we can't make every dream for a Thoroughbred determined by the amount of money involved–applies no less to the stakes than to the rewards.
Apart from anything else, Medina Spirit is reminding everyone that Bob Baffert's first three Kentucky Derby winners were respectively an $85,000 2-year-old, a $17,000 yearling, and a $20,000 RNA. In other words, the expensive horses we see in his care today need Baffert more than he needs them. That said, these days they do tend to fill out his shedrow. So the big surprise is that Medina Spirit managed to find lodgings there in the first place.
He actually changed hands for just $1,000 as a short yearling before being pinhooked by Christy Whitman at Ocala last July. Agent Gary Young had already spent $1.35 million on behalf of the same client, Amr Zedan, for a filly in the same ring the previous month and Princess Noor (Not This Time) proceeded to win a Grade I just a few weeks later. She had been bred by International Equities Holding, whose owner Oussama Aboughazale is a friend of Zedan from the holy city of Medina. Since Protonico had raced for Aboughazale, Zedan was curious about a colt who figures among just 17 named foals in his first crop; Young gave an encouraging report, and they landed him for $35,000.
So it was presumably his connections, first and foremost, that earned Medina Spirit a probation with Baffert's assistant Mike Marlow at Los Alamitos. Yet he kept holding his own against more expensive horses and the rest is, well, threatening to turn into history.
Medina Spirit is actually perfectly entitled to overcome the obscurity of his antecedents. Damsire Brilliant Speed, a son of Dynaformer who won the GI Blue Grass before ending up on turf, was unfortunate to be extinguished from memory by a lightning bolt aged just eight; while High Yield (Storm Cat) is not the only accomplished graduate of what is a good Rokeby family. As for Protonico, his second dam Wild Spirit (Chi) (Hussonet) was top-class in her homeland before being exported to win a Grade I for Bobby Frankel.
She's a graduate of Aboughazale's Haras Sumaya, a significant operation in Chile now complemented by an expanding Kentucky program. So this is hardly a case of David against Goliath. Nonetheless Medina Spirit reminds us that even the steepest odds can be overcome, with a nice enough piece of hickory. That's an important article of faith, in these embattled times: whether for our species, in general, or for the Californian branch of our community, in particular. If a $1,000 short yearling can become one of the Derby favorites, then we must surely persevere–through our belief, our enthusiasm and our actions–in ensuring that professionals and public alike, come 2121, will be looking forward to the 184th running of the Big 'Cap.