This Side Up: Overcrowding One Weekend, Isolation The Next

Midnight Bourbon after unseating his rider in last weekend's Haskell | Sarah Andrew


No man an island, huh? Not so sure about that, after the last year or so, when even a family household has sometimes felt like a peninsula at best. So, the very last thing anyone wanted on returning to Saratoga, after being denied its unique balm of fellowship last year, was to hear “the Q word” yet again.

A 21-day quarantine for horses stabled in Barn 86, after one of Jorge Abreu's fillies tested positive to EHV-1, must have felt like Groundhog Day for Abreu and neighbor Kenny McPeek. Here they were, yet again, reprising the role of good citizens–dutifully withdrawn from society for the greater good.

But precisely because no man is an island, their sacrifice has consequences for the rest of us too. In the absence of McPeek's two intended starters, the field for the GI Coaching Club American Oaks has dwindled to four. As a result, for the second Saturday running a big race showcases one of the besetting challenges facing our community, if we are to achieve greater engagement and confidence among the wider public.

Last week, the unseating of Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow) in the GI Haskell S. inevitably prompted furious polemics over the putative role in that incident of the riding crop's recent prohibition in New Jersey.

Now we find ourselves obliged to focus on the capacity of 21st Century Thoroughbreds and/or their trainers to sustain the elite race program. Obviously, there is a freak element in this instance, but that doesn't alter the fact that field depth is becoming a familiar problem. This very race, indeed, only mustered five runners last year.

Doubtless many different factors are involved: diminishing foal crops; “super trainers” keeping their horses apart; lucrative new races, many at a time when horses were formerly spelled and some requiring a punishing trip to the desert. And California, of course, has had its specific issues (though an exemplary reset now deserves due reward from investors).

But I suspect that much the biggest problem is either that the Thoroughbred today is not as resilient as it was, very likely because of reckless overbreeding to flimsy commercial stallions; or that trainers at least believe that to be the case. Either explanation is amply supported by contrasting the racing patterns of yesteryear and today.

Some people openly propose indulging these corrosive debilities by stretching out the Triple Crown calendar. Adopting the perspective of future generations, to whom we are answerable for our stewardship of the breed, I find that staggering. If we're going to hand over a Thoroughbred with a lesser constitution than the one we received, then we have to make that honestly apparent to those who will be left to repair the damage. It's the same logic that supports “clean” training: none of the genetic material masked, everything on open parade.

Sure, we must sometimes adapt to survive. That's exactly why they're trying these new whip rules in New Jersey. But as so often, in a society where opinion seems ever more polarized, what happened last Saturday–in a race that turned out to be rather more overcrowded than this one appears to be–has tended only to retrench established positions.

In a situation of white-knuckle, split-second judgements, nobody can sensibly pronounce that the whip could or could not have averted the collision between Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow) and Midnight Bourbon. We've all seen races where riders have caused similar problems by negligent or intimidatory whip use, and I wouldn't presume to know how far either of those adjectives might apply to the tactics of Monsieur Prat.

Nonetheless, it presumably can't have been just malign destiny, or even coincidence, that this should have happened when it did–the one moment when most eyeballs, coast-to-coast–were on this bold experiment. There were a million bucks in play, and a bunch of out-of-town dogs suddenly expected to learn new tricks. For while the new rules would surely have permitted a shoulder tap to correct Hot Rod Charlie, these guys have decades of wiring to unpick.

Yet perhaps such an extreme and abrupt change only felt necessary because of perennial failure to address the issue more temperately. As ever, no doubt, that's partly because of fragmentary regulation. In Britain, in contrast, some painful learning experiences have eventually evolved and engrained a riding ethic that is far less offensive, aesthetically, while no less effective. (And that's on turf, obviously. Arguably the whip is a far less effective propellent on dirt anyway.)

True, there wouldn't be much point obsessing over the cosmetics of the whip if the alternative is a grotesque breakdown on national primetime. Regardless of the precise causality, then, let's hear it for the vaulting athleticism of Midnight Bourbon. No horse is an island, either, and his lightning dexterity (especially as such an imposing horse) in preserving both himself and a stricken rider potentially prevented much incidental harm to the sport as a whole.

Whatever else it may be lacking, this sophomore crop is full of character. And conceivably Midnight Bourbon did as much for his prospects as a stallion, in somehow springing back off the canvas, as he might in actually winning.

He will again be shouldering a community burden when he does go to stud: his sire's legacy is looking fairly precarious, and so too the male line not just of Man o' War, but even that of the Godolphin Arabian. But, he'll be an easy stallion to support, as such a physically striking son of the mare who gave Tale Of Ekati his only domestic Grade I success (Girvin, as it happens in the Haskell), and underpinning the amazing buoyancy he showed last week with precisely the kind of old-fashioned mettle we have just been lamenting in the wider breed. Sunday, in fact, is the anniversary of his debut: and in the past year he has shown up and run his race 10 times out of 10, including with that horrible trip into sixth in the Derby.

In time, Midnight Bourbon will no doubt be marketed as a Grade I-placed juvenile, though strictly beaten nearly 14 lengths when third in the Champagne S. Mind you, Following Sea (Runhappy) is now a Haskell runner-up having been beaten a city block after retreating into fourth. But I guess you catch whatever bouquets happen to be thrown your way.

And that's why we congratulate those fielding the only three fillies against Malathaat (Curlin) at Saratoga. At least two are guaranteed a Grade I podium. And Rockpaperscissors is already a precious broodmare prospect, by the venerable Distorted Humor out of the only daughter left by the dam of Funny Cide (himself, of course, by the same sire). Despite two Grade I-placed siblings, WinStar could not find a buyer for her as a yearling, retaining her at $125,000. Instead, she was drafted by WinStar Stablemates, which achieved that amazing exacta in a photo for this race last year between Paris Lights (Curlin) (also RNA as a yearling) and Crystal Ball (Malibu Moon).

Crystal Ball was then trained by Bob Baffert, but will be saddled by Rodolphe Brisset in the GIII Shuvee S. on Sunday–the same day that another Baffert migrant, the muted “talking horse” Bezos (Empire Maker), makes his barn debut at Ellis Park. It's an exciting week for Brisset, ending with a Travers rehearsal for Classic Empire's brother Harvard (Pioneerof The Nile). And while he is perfectly aware that his filly may prove to be paper against the Malathaat scissors, there's a difference between an unbeaten filly and an invincible one.

Certainly, the GI Kentucky Oaks winner is being more sparingly campaigned than Midnight Bourbon, but both are contributing to another stellar year for breeders Stonestreet. That firm is another to have been vindicated in retaining a yearling, Beau Liam (Liam's Map)–a $385,000 RNA at Keeneland–having blown the speedfigure doors off at Saratoga last weekend. But whatever else is achieved this year by graduates of their program, for now the toast (plenty of ice please) must be Midnight Bourbon.

With his build and commitment, he could well repay a third campaign after the manner of the same connections' Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}). For now, however, he has already done us all a favor. When he buckled, it felt like we were all on his back; and when he somehow retrieved his feet, we shared a gasp of relief. In so many respects, it can feel like our sport finds itself at 10 minutes to midnight. But if it's later than we'd like, horses like this one suggest that it's not yet too late.

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