This Side Up: Whitmore Seeks Fresh Honors For Class of 2013

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Whitmore | Coady

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The seven-year itch, in the current racing herd, represents the best kind of mid-life crisis: reinventing yourself as a champion.

An Eclipse Award would certainly be a credible aspiration for Whitmore (Pleasantly Perfect) should he derail the Volatile (Violence) express in the GI Alfred G. Vanderbilt H. at Saratoga Saturday. Next weekend, another flourishing 7-year-old, Tom's d'Etat (Smart Strike), will seek to consolidate his ascent to the top of his own division in the GI Whitney S. Over the past two weeks, meanwhile, their contemporaries Zulu Alpha (Street Cry {Ire}) and Aquaphobia (Giant's Causeway) have won the GII Elkhorn S. and the GI United Nations S., respectively.

All four, remember, belong to the same 2013 crop as Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}) and the lamented Arrogate (Unbridled's Song). Whitmore, with his feasible pedigree, actually rolled the dice in the GI Kentucky Derby won by Nyquist (Uncle Mo). All praise, then, to the patient horsemanship of their connections, in coaxing off a chrysalis that many others might long ago have mistaken as confining, not the wings of a butterfly, but simply a limited talent.

Mike Maker, Ron Moquett and Al Stall Jr. would have the breed's lasting gratitude if their endeavors help us think afresh about the proper span of a Thoroughbred's development. A decade ago, researchers analysed 274 American racehorses and concluded that the typical age for peak performance was 4.45 years. Moreover they found that the rate of improvement to that point exceeded the rate of decline thereafter.

The fact is that even the Classic racehorse remains an adolescent. And we have ample evidence, whenever we are prepared to seek it, of the continued progress available through maturity. Without the same commercial prospects at stud, turf horses are often permitted to keep strengthening for years after their dirt cousins. The ultimate evergreen was John Henry, as a 9-year-old Horse of the Year; and, since the turn of the century, the only division to award championships to horses as old as seven is the one that features Miesque's Approval (With Approval), Big Blue Kitten (Kitten's Joy) and Flintshire (GB) (Dansili {GB}).

A healthy breeding industry should surely prefer the foundations laid after the manner of Whitmore–a gelding, unfortunately, but averaging $92,540 for the 34 occasions he has left the gate–instead of pretending that every colt that can add a narrow success in one of the Derby trials to a juvenile Grade III is going to end up like Tapit.

Albeit Tom's d'Etat was held up by one or two issues earlier in his career, as a rule perseverance is about proving soundness as well as class. Some farms, no doubt, would worry about starting a stallion at eight. Well, they might have a point if only they didn't banish so many horses of that kind of age to Oklahoma or Turkey. If they're only going to get a narrow window to establish themselves, then what's the rush? Why not let them build up a resume that genuinely substantiates the kind of genetic assets a breeder should be looking to replicate?

Hats off to WinStar, then, for landing Tom's d'Etat for their roster. As Elliott Walden remarked, they welcomed Speightstown at seven and Distorted Humor at six. And there won't be many sires starting out next spring who can match his pedigree: his graded stakes-placed dam is by Giant's Causeway out of a full-sister to none other than Candy Ride (Arg). And the way he is thriving promises that he can contribute to the legacy of their sire in much the same way as Curlin, Lookin At Lucky and English Channel, all notable for stock that progresses with maturity.

As for Whitmore, his ineligibility for a stud career at least means that fans can continue to enjoy his terrific speed and character. In the process, his trainer is maximizing what remains too rare an opportunity for those barns, across the nation, where skill, industry and honesty are somehow inadequate to tempt enough patrons from either the super-trainers or the pharmacists.

Never mind the small field, this is a wonderfully poised showdown with a much less seasoned but terribly charismatic rival in Volatile. Not that Firenze Fire (Poseidon's Warrior) can be taken lightly. The way he bounced back for his new barn last time, incidentally, is an encouraging template for the most celebrated refugee from the care of their former trainer. But it's hard to know where to start with Maximum Security (New Year's Day), the day he makes his debut for Bob Baffert at Del Mar. So we won't.

Returning to Whitmore, at least we know he's at home on the track. Though last seen sealing his status as an Oaklawn legend, his only previous start at Saratoga brought his only Grade I success to date–at the expense of the wonderful City Of Light (Quality Road)–in the Forego two years ago. Forego! At seven, he won the GI Woodward for a fourth year running; and, though finally surrendering his Horse of the Year trophy to Seattle Slew, was named champion older male for the fourth time running. He was another gelding, of course, but the fact is that his sheer bulk warranted plenty of time.

“Prematurity” means exactly what it says. Among our brethren in the steeplechasing world, the foals of 2013 are still viewed as relative youngsters. Yet in Europe a number of precocious juveniles have in recent years been retired, completely sound, to cut to the chase at stud. What is flattered, over there, as “commercial speed and precocity” is storing up a terrible harvest for that particular gene pool. In contrast, as I'm always trying to tell them, North American breeders generally want a chance of carrying speed through a second turn.

One of the things that should aid that process is maturity, both physical and mental. So, however Whitmore fares against the prodigy in this one-turn spectacular, let's celebrate the whole class of 2013. Let's remind ourselves that there is no inherent virtue in always trying to get ahead of time.

Remember the psychiatrist in The Seven-Year Itch? “My three o'clock patient jumped out of the window in the middle of his session,” he said. “I have been running 15 minutes ahead of schedule ever since.”

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