Fire and Nice: Two Sides of Racing's New Knave

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Firenze Fire taking a swipe at Yaupon | Sarah Andrew

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He has spread nine graded stakes wins across five seasons, and banked over $2.6 million. And he's a homebred, don't forget: out of a mare claimed for $16,000, topped up by the $6,500 fee for a Poseidon's Warrior cover. An absolute model, you would say, for the kind of blue-collar honesty and hardiness that gives everyone in this business a chance of competing even with those who could afford to do their recruitment in Book I at Keeneland this week.

And yet here is Firenze Fire, suddenly notorious the world over. As a savage, almost a cannibal. No longer an exemplar for soundness and resilience, but a reminder of how thin is the veneer of compliance we have introduced into the Thoroughbred's unregistered ancestry, extending through countless generations in the wilderness.

Firenze Fire's assault on Yaupon (Uncle Mo), at the height of their duel for the GI Forego S. at Saratoga a couple of weeks ago, was a moment of such abrupt and vivid drama that it transcended our parish to amaze laymen everywhere. And if its brevity was ideally tailored to the kind of fitful attention span typically served by social media, then it's not as though the deepest reflection of lifelong horsemen makes them any more eligible to explain quite what happened.

“I can play horse whisperer every so often,” says his trainer Kelly Breen. “But I can't get into his mind! Because what he did was, by far, unique of anything I've seen.”

When Firenze Fire suddenly twisted his neck towards Yaupon and opened his fangs, causing Jose Ortiz to divert all his energy into yanking back, Breen was as dumbfounded as anyone else.

“I was standing on the rail, just to the right of the wire, so it wasn't the easiest to see,” Breen recalls. “But when he kept on, carrying on, and you knew something was going on, I went to watching on the big screen in the infield–and knowing that what I think I saw is what I saw. It was quite shocking. He was quite the entertainment for the day, that's for sure.”

The immediate curiosity was that Firenze Fire had himself been similarly attacked by a rival, albeit not quite so determinedly, when winning a similarly close battle for the GIII Gallant Bob S. at Parx in 2018.

Firenze Fire #10 (R) with Irad Ortiz, Jr. is savaged by 2nd place finisher Whereshetoldmetogo (L) in the GIII Gallant Bob Stakes at Parx in 2018. Photo By Taylor Ejdys/EQUI-PHOTO

“He was on the receiving end that time, and who knows if he's kept that in back of his mind for three years?” says Breen. “But I don't think anybody can come up with proper diagnosis as to what he's thinking–if they could, they're good! I wish I could talk to him, try to figure out what he's thinking. But, he's been the same [as usual] before and he's been the same after.”

It's certainly a striking coincidence, given how rarely this kind of thing happens. In Britain, we remember only a few incidents. In the 1970s Vincent O'Brien trained Marinsky, a Northern Dancer half-brother to Special (dam of Nureyev/second dam of Sadler's Wells) who tried to savage a rival challenging on his inside at Epsom one day. Soccer fans, meanwhile, will remember Arcadian Heights (GB) (Shirley Heights {GB}) as the equine Luis Suarez. Castrated and muzzled, after twice taking a bite at rivals, he eventually channeled his energies to win the

G1 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot in 1994. Moonax (Ire) (Careleon) was another gifted stayer, indeed he won the G1 St Leger that same year, but a venomous creature overall: his rap sheet later including an attempt to savage the rival who beat him narrowly in the G1 Prix du Cadran.

There have been a few other episodes in more recent times, none more intriguing than that of Anticipation (Ire) (Fastnet Rock {Aus}), an import from Ballydoyle to Hong Kong who attacked the same horse on two separate occasions at Sha Tin. In the U.S., the image that most people recall is exactly that, a picture, trackside photographer Bob Coglianese having won an Eclipse Award for capturing a Dracula lunge by Golden Prospector (Mr. Prospector) in the 1980 Tremont S.

The Savage | Bob Coglianese photo

In almost all these cases, as at Saratoga the other day, the malefactor has tended to be narrowly beaten. On the one hand, that might suggest them to be reaching the end of their reserves; that they can only hang in there by hitting “below the belt.” On the other hand, it is surely a credit to Firenze Fire that he should only have been thwarted so narrowly when his energies (and duly those of his rider) were wildly distracted for four strides deep in the stretch.

“I think it possibly cost him the win,” Breen says. “It stopped his momentum and he still nearly got there after he was straightened out by his jockey. So yeah, that's the other part about it all: this was a Grade I, racing at the most competitive level, and he was in there and running. Maybe it's like Michael Phelps, toying with people a little bit while you're winning. I don't know if this horse thought he was winning and was just wanting to mess with the guy running next to him?”

Some horse folk are surprised that this kind of thing doesn't happen more often, being routinely observed as a reflex engagement in herd situations. In a paddock environment, it may seem an attempt to assert dominant status, but that looks like anthropomorphism. Who can say whether such behavior is vicious, or merely playful? (It is apparently not observed in earnest combat between stallions.)

Regardless, we have to wonder whether the fact that the same animal should have been both “biter” and “bit” suggests a particular personality or attitude he exudes in competition. After all, as we said at the outset, this guy's commitment is there for all to see in his resumé.

“He's got a lot of heart, that's for sure,” Breen remarks. “He's the epitome of competitive. When he's a happy horse, he's nice to be around. He can have a little bit of a mean streak about him, can give you a little attitude. Every so often around the barn, if somebody irritates him, he will raise a leg to try and figure out what he can do to get back at somebody. But he's generally fun to be around, you can give him carrots, he's playful.”

Most 6-year-old males of this caliber will either have been retired to stud or castrated, but Firenze Fire has helped Breen to prove his mastery at maintaining both enthusiasm and tractability in a fully mature, entire horse.

“One of my most renowned horses was Pants On Fire (Jump Start), that I ran in the Derby,” he notes. “He won stakes races at three, four, five, six and seven. He stayed sound, and stayed at a nice level. So, we just try to keep horses going on. We try to be kind to our horses, and they perform for us.”

Unhappily, there's an extra reason for admirers of Firenze Fire to feel defensive on his behalf. Through no fault of his own, he has a shadow over his early career as he was then under the care of Jason Servis, whose reputation has been so gravely challenged by an ongoing prosecution.

Breen is very much aware that Ron Lombardi, who bred Firenze Fire and races him as Mr. Amore Stable, was anxious for the horse to confirm his merit as inherent, not artificial, after the Servis scandal broke early last year. In choosing his new trainer, then, Lombardi could scarcely have done better than a horseman who learned the ropes under the old school regimes of Ben Perkins Sr. and John Forbes. Breen references that education succinctly.

Breen and Lombardi with Firenze Fire after the True North | Sarah Andrew photo

“They didn't know much in the way of chemistry,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to try and learn off these guys that I believe were top-of-the-line horsemen, and did well with what they had without abusing any horses.”

(Lombardi, incidentally, deserves credit for an astute claim–apparently against all the counsel he received at the time–in Firenze Fire's dam My Every Wish (Langfuhr), even if she duly proved unable to race again. She was out of a full-sister to the prolific broodmare Oatsee (Unbridled) so Firenze Fire, a Grade I winner at two, certainly deserves a chance at stud someday.)

Breen admits that it took time to become acquainted with Firenze Fire, who had three campaigns behind him before entering his barn. To that extent, the simultaneous intrusion of the pandemic had its silver lining, allowing him to start over as a fresh horse–and this time round he was given a similar break by design.

“You're handed this horse that's very, very muscular, very good-looking, and obviously a tremendous athlete,” recalls Breen. “So, we tried to figure on how to keep him happy, how to get a median in training him, not drilling him to be the fastest horse in every workout. Maybe that has something to do with his longevity? We're not putting him on tilt, not pushing him to the extreme. We're just keeping him a happy horse and he's been performing well for us.”

With a proven affinity for Belmont Park, Firenze Fire will try to repeat last year's success in the GII Vosburgh S. Oct. 9 before making his fifth start at the Breeders' Cup. He achieved his first podium in the Sprint last year, where another evergreen campaigner in Whitmore (Pleasantly Perfect) gave his team every right to hope that he might yet engrave his name on the trophy.

That would be a fitting climax to what is already shaping up to be Breen's most fertile campaign: with earnings already exceeding $3.7 million, he is closing on a personal best of $4.1 million in 2011–the year he saddled Ruler On ice (Roman Ruler) to a shock success in the GI Belmont S.

“Yeah, things are good–I'm an overnight sensation at 52!” says Breen with a chuckle.

The way he earned his stripes, as a former steamfitting apprentice, is a cherished tale on the New Jersey circuit, albeit it doesn't seem to have reached too many of the big spenders at Keeneland this week.

“You know, I would love to go to the sales,” Breen muses. “I've done it in the past, picking my own horses. And I've been outbid by certain people, and you're standing there and you say, 'You know, I'd love to train that horse.' And not too many times have I been handed horses like that. Maybe I was a little secluded for a time; eight years of my life, I was a private trainer. I enjoyed it for a while, but you're working for one person. If you can manage to work for 10 top owners, like some of these top outfits do, it would be awesome to have some of the well-bred horses out of there. I think I do pretty good with what I get: we 'ham-and-egg it' pretty good, they say!”

Not, he stresses, that he's complaining.

“There are two things that make my world go 'round–and that's the owners that give you the horses, and the help that works for you,” he says. “I've been doing this my whole life and I think I have a pretty good engagement of partners, between owners and help. I'm very happy, we all work hard and there's a lot of money invested. I couldn't be more pleased with what's been going on the last couple of years. In my career I've been surrounded by some nice people, and fortunate in my help. It's a lot of hard work, but it does pay off.”

He does concede that the lifestyle can be hard on family. “But the horses have taken me to Japan, California, Canada, New York, Kentucky, Louisiana, East Coast, West Coast,” he acknowledges. “I don't know I ever would have had any of that, working in construction in Manhattan, except on vacation. Sometimes it's the fun part of the job, sometimes it's the job part of the job.”

And a lot of sacrifices would feel justified if Firenze Fire can turn round his sudden infamy at Del Mar in November.

“There'll be more people looking out for his next run than his last one, I think!” he says. “Let's hope we can make the bad boy into a good boy.”

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