By Chris McGrath
They keep telling us not to get ahead of ourselves, with all the promising news on vaccines. But however tough the winter still to come, we can surely now glimpse some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. And perhaps it's not too ambitious even to start envisaging times and places when we might finally be able to pause, and look around, and savor anew those rituals of teeming color and vitality we now understand to be so integral to human fulfilment. Like, maybe–whisper it–the first Saturday in May?
Never mind whether that sacrosanct date should ever have been dragged into the Covid backwash. Granted a following wind, we hope to have the immemorial landmark back where it should be on the 2021 horizon. And, in contemplating the six-month odyssey ahead, we could not set a more logical course than from the Twin Spires themselves.
True, a reconnaissance on Thanksgiving weekend has in recent times tended not to yield the kind of dividends that first established the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. through the 1920s. By 1930, a race that established the competence of a maturing 2-year-old to go two turns round Churchill was volunteering the GI Kentucky Derby winner for a third time in four years. In the Breeders' Cup era, however, the prospect of a juvenile championship (and the associated stud baubles) has diverted much traffic. Albeit Saturday's field does include three taking in both races, coming here as an alternative is typically the work either of a horse that needs time; or of a horseman who takes time.
In the old days, mind you, even the slower-maturing juvenile was given a foundation on the track. Reigh Count took seven attempts to break his maiden and, prematurely sold to John D. Hertz, ended up announcing his Derby candidacy in the 1927 running. He had already given a scare to his new barnmate, Anita Peabody, in a famous running of the Futurity at Belmont. His deference, in narrowly yielding, she later rewarded with the audiences that produced two of only three foals she delivered before her death. (They proceeded to make 200 starts between them.)
His Kentucky Derby success set up Reigh Count not only as the dominant American Thoroughbred of 1928, but for an audacious migration the following year, when he won the Coronation Cup at Epsom and finished second in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot. Rumoured to have turned down a seven-figure bid for a horse he bought for $12,500, Hertz remarked: “I think a fellow who would pay $1 million for a horse ought to have his head examined. And the fellow who turned it down must be absolutely unbalanced.” Plus ca change…
As it was, Hertz retired the horse to Stoner Creek–the farm he had established on land recommended by Arthur B. Hancock Sr.–where he sired Count Fleet.
Stoner Creek was where Gus Koch acquired the lore he would eventually devote to three decades in the service of Hancock's grandson Seth Hancock at Claiborne. In fact, he was giving up a Sunday afternoon to nurse the 31-year-old Count Fleet through a bout of colic when a bunch of girls drove up from Lexington to see the Triple Crown winner–one of whom, Theresa, would provide him with 10 children who have meanwhile maintained their surname as a Bluegrass byword for diligence and integrity.
Times change, but horses don't, and nor, accordingly, does the essence of horsemanship. But the habits and strategies of horsemen do evolve. Since 1931, only three Kentucky Derby winners have emerged from the Kentucky Jockey Club S.: Cannonade (1973-74) and Super Saver (2009-10) won both, while the throwback Real Quiet–who, just like Reigh Count, had taken seven attempts to win a maiden–was third in the 1997 running before coming of age on his return to Louisville.
The old school remains reliably represented today by Barclay Tagg, who spurned an automatic berth in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year to come here with Tiz The Law (Constitution). Things didn't work out on the day, in a messy race on the slop, but then one of the principal purposes of a patient education is learning to cope with adversity. Sure enough, that proved to be Tiz The Law's only defeat until the Derby was finally staged in September; and very possibly he might have won that, too, on its customary date.
The next generation has a clear leader now in Brad Cox, whose barn has become so powerful that he can take a twin-track approach to the race that defines his native city. With the Breeders' Cup laurels already secured, here he introduces two maiden winners to stakes company.
Mind you, for a horse just getting started, Swill (Munnings) has been talked about for quite a while already: not least since he was nearly brought down at Saratoga in the summer, coasting past the rest in the gallop-out. He sheds the blinkers as he prepares for that second turn, where he can hopefully draw upon the stamina definitely loaded behind his third dam. But we already know he likes this surface: sharp in his maiden, his :59.8 breeze a couple of weeks ago was the fastest of 57 that morning.
One step at a time. Placing your horses in the right company is one of the critical attributes of a trainer, and Cox has yet to have a Derby starter. But whichever horse graduates from this race will have one fewer query if able to make it all the way through, and return here in May.
Essential Quality (Tapit), meanwhile, is himself ticking over at Churchill before moving down to New Orleans. The Fair Grounds, of course, is where Cox has laid much of the groundwork for the stardom he sealed with those four winners at the Breeders' Cup. He will be seeking his fourth straight training title, and it would doubtless sit well with him to launch Essential Quality in the GII Risen Star S., or maybe in the GII Southwest S. up at Oaklawn–another track where he has excelled.
The people at Oaklawn did much to sustain morale for the entire industry as the pandemic nightmare took hold. Conceivably they may bring the whole dismal saga full circle. But wherever and whenever it can happen, what a swell party that will be. And who knows? In the meantime, the Swill party could start here and now.