Yes, despite everything, life really is good.
I know that the industry press is currently saturated with the contention of attorneys, rather than racehorses. And I know that our sport, in the process, is squandering much of the cultural capital that should instead have been invested in the two compelling talents squaring up at Gulfstream Saturday. Yet perhaps one of the protagonists will not just put all these tawdry sagas aside, however briefly, but also pay a timely tribute to a mare who could get anyone interested in the game.
Her dam was once claimed for $5,000, and she herself made only $8,000 as a youngster. Her sire ended up standing for $2,500 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But she did win a stake at Hoosier Park, elevating her value to $100,000 in the poignant dispersal of half a dozen fillies and mares owned by the late James T. Hines Jr.-who had died with shocking prematurity earlier in the year, in a swimming accident just four days before his best ever horse, Lawyer Ron, confirmed his Derby credentials in the Southwest S. at Oaklawn.
By that stage, at the Keeneland November Sale of 2006, this mare was 10 years old. Her catalog page listed a slipped first foal and two runners who had brought little to the party: her 3-year-old Marquetry filly would break her maiden, at the 10th attempt and under a $10,000 tag at Charles Town, two days after the sale; while her 2-year-old by Orientate had just won a couple of modest races, but only after publication of the catalog. There was also a yearling colt by Harlan's Holiday, who had been bought as a pinhook across town at Fasig-Tipton the previous month; and a weanling filly by Yankee Victor, who not only followed her directly into the ring but also accompanied her, for $11,000, to her new home at Clarkland Farm.
The following spring, the Mitchells of Clarkland sent their new mare to Rockport Harbor–and then watched with delight as her Harlan's Holiday colt, meanwhile named Into Mischief, won the GI Futurity at Hollywood Park.
The rest, of course, is quite literally Turf history. And while we had to close her own chapter this week, the sequel plainly has a long way to go-starting Saturday, when Into Mischief's latest champion, Life Is Good, squares up to Knicks Go (Paynter) in a showdown of unusual purity, with both horses sharing the same domineering style.
There are many reasons to celebrate the fact that Leslie's Lady–with a sire like Tricky Creek, and a dam by Stop The Music out of a One For All mare–should have become one of the great modern producers. For me, however, the principal lesson is how genetic flames can always still be kindled from what we take to be ashes, but are in fact embers.
Though a commercial failure, with no more than 18 stakes winners, a study late in his career placed Tricky Creek fifth among active national sires by percentage starters-to-foals; and seventh, by starts-per-starter. Leslie's Lady herself contributed with nine, 12 and seven starts across her three seasons, and surely her sire deserves some credit for the way that Beholder (Henny Hughes) managed to win Grade Is five seasons running.
So who can say what genetic strands have been revived through Leslie's Lady? Tricky Creek shared a damsire (His Majesty) with Danehill, while his third dam was the Darby Dan foundation mare Soaring (Swaps). At one stage Sheikh Mohammed gave $5.3 million for his yearling half-brother by Kingmambo.
Doubtless many will persevere in the touching notion that the three outstanding foals of Leslie's Lady shared some kind of magic trigger in the Storm Cat line. Personally, however, I will never be persuaded that Mendelssohn (Scat Daddy), for instance, should owe everything to the alchemy of Storm Cat and nothing to the byzantine interplay of 15 others with an identical genetic stake.
If you visit the equivalent generation in the pedigree of Leslie's Lady, the eight mares include several (Soaring as mentioned, but also Flower Bowl, Quill, Shenanigans etc) who corroborated their distinction in more ways than one, either as elite runners themselves; as multiple stakes producers; or both. When you look at the virtually seamless quality of stallions seeding that generation, in an era when books remained confined to three dozen or so, then it stands to reason that these mares had earned their access.
I don't know why their combined prowess should have lain dormant, or quite what has ignited it now. But I do know that I can't know, which puts me one step ahead of the guys who purport to have a system or formula. It is the mystery, after all, that captivates us all; and it is also the mystery that gives us all a chance.
Besides the big duel in Florida, Saturday also renews the Derby trial won by Lawyer Ron, when suddenly carrying estate silks for a grieving family; and another, the GII San Vicente S., in which Into Mischief was so disappointing on his reappearance that he disappeared until the fall.
In the Oaklawn race, the man who last year lost the services of Life Is Good runs a rising star of the next crop, even though ineligible for the Derby starting points available to the rest of the field.
Unlike Corniche (Quality Road), whose status is opaque in his continued absence from the worktab, Newgrange (Violence) is owned by a remarkably extensive syndicate. If Bob Baffert's stalemate with Churchill doesn't get resolved in time, then you have to wonder whether so many disparate interests, so many wealthy people accustomed to calling the shots, could contrive both the opportunity and the unanimity to move a Derby colt into another barn.
As I've suggested before, if Baffert wants to introduce a bit of class to a dismal situation for the whole industry, he might perhaps himself insist that his friends and patrons are not left to choose between a chance in a lifetime, at the Derby, and a perceived obligation of fidelity to a guy who has–at least for now–won the thing seven times already. But he's only human, and maybe the spectacle of last year's GIII Sham S. winner running for $3 million out of another barn will be just too maddening for Baffert to evict Newgrange in his wake.
I'm intrigued by a couple of closers in this field, not least one saddled by a promising young trainer name of D. Wayne Lukas, and here's another race where the stars could easily align for Kenny “King Midas” McPeek. But I guess we will probably end up with the usual, collective meekness when it comes to contesting control of the race with a Baffert speed horse.
With no McPeek to worry about in his backyard, Baffert fields three of the five in the San Vicente, a race he has harvested 11 times already. If Doppelganger can put the record straight for his sire in this race, then, we could be looking at an apt day of coast-to-coast achievement for Into Mischief.
In saluting his dam, who was at least granted her full span of years and a peaceful retirement, let's not forget her breeder, who was not. What a legacy they share! The three busiest American stallions of 2021, with 690 mares between them, were Practical Joke, Goldencents and Authentic, all sons of Into Mischief. The Spendthrift champion himself covered 216 elite mares at his monster fee; while his half-brother Mendelssohn, after staggering books of 252 and 242 in his first two years, idled at 197.
So you never know how things will turn out, with horses. Lawyer Ron, launched with much more fanfare than Into Mischief, was in only his second season at stud when lost to colic.
He, of course, was a horse named for a human. These days, conversely, it sometimes feels as though horses are only competing as elegant proxies for humans. Long after the dust has settled on a race, the lawyers will tell us the real finishing order. But there is, thank goodness, a limit to human ingenuity. And in celebrating Leslie's Lady, we celebrate the enigmas we can never unravel. That being so, our quest will always retain its romance; and life will continue to be good.