This Side Up: Oasis or Mirage?

Arlington Park | Horsephotos


In this instance, you really can't say that the grass is any greener on the other side of the fence. Take your dystopian pick: the floods of Kentucky, or the desiccation of Europe, where I've just returned from a vacation that seamlessly united the city parks of England and Italy in the same wasteland, with just a few bleached spikes still protruding from the baked, ashen earth.

However illusory, then, it's a relief to find enough recognizable vegetation salvaged Stateside at least to host all three of Saturday's Grade I races. True, it evidently hasn't been at all straightforward doing so at Churchill, where they have resuscitated the Arlington Million and Beverly D. on an oasis card otherwise contested entirely on the main track.

After breaking so many hearts by closing its cherished Chicago home, Churchill have not only restored the Million but also a commensurate prize. It would be interesting to learn the duration of this commitment; and indeed to have some update about the funds generated in Arlington's final year, exceeding $750,000, in principle reserved for its 2022 purses. The last I heard, Illinois horsemen were pretty vexed about the idea that Churchill could sit on that dough pending some “successor” investment.

Even if Churchill might this time be credited with vaguely altruistic intentions, this feels like a pretty uncomfortable sanctuary for the races evicted from Chicago: a turf track that has evidently been a nightmare to bed down, and can't accommodate a 10th furlong anyway. That certainly seems to have been the conclusion of most European stables. Even domestically, the races appear to have fallen somewhat between stools: on the one hand, their abbreviation has put off the stayers; on the other, they've now had to compete with the GI Fourstardave H.

The true refugees, of course, aren't the races themselves, but those Illinois horsemen who for so long worked at one of the jewels of the American Turf. That's why there will be plenty of horsemen at Colonial Downs and elsewhere raising a glass, this weekend, to the memory of Noel Hickey.

Hickey's loss could not have been more poignantly timed–evoking, as it did, memories of a heyday (above all in grass racing) that Irish Acres shared with Arlington itself. Never mind the big guy, Buck's Boy, how about Bucks Nephew, another son of Hickey's beloved stallion Bucksplasher, who was still winning stakes at eight? And some of the other stalwarts, at a lower level, were still more indefatigable: Plate Dancer (16-for-69) and Classic Fit (23-for-76), for instance, both kept going to 11.

Their breeder resolved to buy Bucksplasher, despite a mediocre race record, after discovering that only eight Northern Dancer mares were ever bred to Buckpasser. Hickey was a colorful character, a gifted athlete himself in his youth before building up a payroll of 940 employees as a broker. But he does now seem to belong to another era, which makes it all the more remarkable that a near-contemporary should be extending such an exhilarating rejuvenation.

Wayne Lukas will be 87 a couple of days before the GI Spinaway S., where he now hopes to saddle Naughty Gal for a captivating showdown with another daughter of Into Mischief, Prank–herself yet another credit to the extraordinary work of the Lyster family at Ashview Farm. Having found a potential heir to Secret Oath (Arrogate) in last weekend's GIII Adirondack S. winner, Lukas has meanwhile eagerly commenced the next turn of the carousel by crossing the road to Fasig-Tipton and spending nearly $2.7 million on five yearlings, half of it devoted to a single Medaglia d'Oro colt.

Lukas apparently predicated this spree on a theory he has developed, over the years, “on angles and skeletons [and] the way they're put together.” If he wants to cover his costs, he could just jot the details down on a piece of paper and offer it to the highest bidder.

I am always bewildered by the way owners stampede to fashionable young trainers, especially in Europe where neglect of seasoned operators tends to be even more bovine. With horses, you would have thought that all the enthusiasm and energy in the world will never measure up to sheer experience. If you owned the Kentucky Derby favorite, and he came up with a problem on the eve of the race, would you rather the decisions were being made by someone dealing with the issue for the first time, or someone who has done so hundreds of times over several decades?

We associate youth with audacity, but we're really talking about a form of naivete. It's experience that truly fortifies your nerve. And that can also be true of jockeys. (At least, that is, until the poignant parting of the ways after they suddenly figure that there must be jobs out there where you don't have to be followed all day by an ambulance.) It took an insight and assurance years in the making, for instance, for Mike Smith to show such glaring restraint with Life Is Good (Into Mischief) at Saratoga last summer that the Equibase comment baldly states: “overconfident handling.”

Never mind that running Jackie's Warrior (Maclean's Music) to a neck over seven furlongs shows the kind of generosity that simply doesn't require coercion. This was one of those occasions–returning from a six-month lay-off, and for a new barn–when the jockey's top three priorities were: the best interests of the horse, the best interests of the horse, and the best interests of the horse.

People seldom dare to say so, because so much of the sport's funding comes through the windows, but there are times when even the wagering dollar has to step in line. After all, the kind of handicapper who thinks he or she deserves the homage of horsemen should reciprocate with a little respect the other way; should understand (and be reconciled to) the possibility that a prudent jockey, in these quite particular circumstances, might want to avoid giving his mount an experience that could cause him to regress.

They can cope with that idea when a horse makes its debut, and here was another case that blatantly called for their absolution. Whether or not connections share this view–and the fact is they have named other jockeys ever since–I feel pretty certain that Life Is Good is only as good as he is because Smith rode him that day with such length of perspective.

You very rarely see a horse break with quite the gusto that suffused Life Is Good last weekend. He was practically airborne, so eager has he remained for his vocation. And, however innate his competitive instinct, Smith certainly made sure that it was not soured.

If only more American jockeys could show corresponding conviction when riding a route on grass. On the same card last weekend, War Like Goddess (English Channel) won the GII Glen Falls S. off a halfway split of 1:17.51. And this was scalding, compared with her previous win at the Keeneland spring meet, where they had staggered along in 1:19.88.

These numbers condemn American horsemen just as instructively as the dismal averages of most turf stallions at the yearling sales. A mile and a half of grass gives these guys a nosebleed. War Like Goddess is by a wonderful stallion–and all this ties in pretty obviously with our lament a couple of weeks ago, over the crisis in Kentucky turf breeding now that Kitten's Joy is also gone–but these glacial splits show a community that cannot come to terms with the perplexing combination of grass and distance.

The fact is that hardly anybody takes these horses seriously. That's nearly always the case at the sales ring, while jockeys ride them as though indulging some kind of niche, semi-humorous weirdness. But do you remember Highland Reel (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), under a proper Irish horseman, being rushed into a clear lead to win the GI Breeders' Cup Turf? He reached halfway in 1:12.7. That's over seven seconds faster than in that Keeneland race! And they couldn't lay a glove on him.

As I'm always saying, there's no less of a cultural logjam on the other side of what should always be a two-way street, with Europe's disastrous detachment from dirt blood. But all you guys who have flown from Saratoga to Deauville, if you want to import serious grass blood, then please get your teams to wake up and import some serious grass attitude, as well.

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