How’s the horse? It was the standard greeting from people for more than eight months. No how’s the wife, your family or what are you working on.
Pat, our mailman, pumped me for regular updates. The good ones he passed along to his young children at night. At the grocery store on Saturday mornings, Karen quizzed me about America’s favorite patient.
When I walked my dog, Smarty, nearby neighbor Camilla would holler from her garden: “what have you heard?” She is married to Greg, a local minister, who in his younger days also called races at a track in Kentucky. Talk about the daily double.
Everyone wanted to know about Barbaro. And now he’s gone.
After the colt shattered his right hind leg in the Preakness Stakes, surgery repaired the damaged area, but because of the severity of the injury Barbaro was prone to developing laminitis. The sports world held its breath following the colt's saga for the next seven months. On January 28 the disease struck in both his front feet and the colt became clearly distressed. Without a good leg to stand on, his owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson made the decision to end the horse’s life.
Mention the name Smarty Jones and a big, broad smile spreads across the face of Mark McDermott.
Sitting in his Kennett Square office, McDermott reminisces about Smarty Jones’ run to glory during the Triple Crown series three years ago. Though denied racing immortality by coming up a length short in the Belmont Stakes, the Chester County-bred colt helped deliver an even bigger prize for Pennsylvania horse racing-- the windfall of slot machines.
“Smarty’s story helped push some of the legislators who were sitting on the fence over in favor of it,” said McDermott.
McDermott has been the executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horsemen?s Breeders Association (PHBA) for more than 30 years. Local horseman Russell Jones recruited the affable Irishman from New Orleans where he worked as the editor of Louisiana Horse. Today, his office oversees the administration, promotion and maintenance of the official registry of PA-bred racehorses and Pennsylvania stallions.
It’s sort of like a game of Whack-A-Mole. As soon as the racing industry has a couple of performance enhancing drugs issues addressed, another pops up summoning its attention.
In a search of trainer Patrick Biancone's three Kentucky barns in late June, cobra venom, a powerful painkiller forbidden by racing, was found in a refrigerator in a tack room, according to the Daily Racing Form. The cobra venom was in crystalline form.
Biancone, 55, is a third generation French trainer. The search was conducted after one of his horses tested positive for a pair of substances that are banned on race day.
Cobra venom is injected under the skin in very small quantites to deaden the nerves that lead from the horse’s source of pain to the brain. Once “blocked,” the horse can ignore a leg injury and have severe, even fatal complications. How cruel and reprehensible is that?
Ever been to Erie? Thought so. Well, plenty of talented thoroughbreds will be rolling into the northwest Pennsylvania city this month to run for some staggering purses.
Consider this: the hallowed racetracks of Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland pay out the largest prize monies of tracks in America, averaging more than $500,000 a day.
Erie’s Presque Isle Downs joined their elite ranks when it launched its inaugural season last weekend. Set hard in the Rust Belt, Erie had failed to support even a bottom-tier racetrack a decade ago. Presque’s month-long meet is paying out $500,000 a day in fat purses for a 25-night race meeting.
So how did this overnight bonanza happen? Cha-ching!
Since the racino opened in February 28, nearly $1 billion has been wagered in Presque’s 2,000 slot machines through Labor Day. Four percent, about $13 million, was earmarked as racing winnings for the horsemen, thus the lofty purses.
It’s a debate often waged at racing pubs as you wait for your Guiness to settle.
While American super horses such as Exterminator, Damascus, Dr. Fagar, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid certainly merit consideration, quite a few experts have whittled it down to these four: Man O’ War, Citation, Kelso and Secretariat.
Let’s pare it down to Man O’War and Kelso. Both have deep roots to surrounding regions.
Bruce Franklin may help you decide. He grew up in Downingtown. Today, he is the owner of Westholme Publishing in Yardley, Pa., an independent publisher of American and world history.
A long arcing shot bounces twice at midfield. Dixon Stroud collects the small, white ball as his mount Toro bursts away from a defender with short and quick strides. One, twice, Stroud swoops down and cracks the ball with powerful forehand shots from a hardwood mallet.
One hundred thirty yards down the field Dixon uncorks a slow and smooth swing and the ball sails through the goal posts.
Stroud is dressed in white breeches, brown boots, knee guards and a #4 purple jersey. He has been strapping on his polo helmet for 38 years at the Brandywine Polo Club in Toughkenamon.
Next to ice hockey, polo is the fastest sport in the world. The horses reach speeds of 30 miles an hour. They must sprint, stop, turn and sprint some more during a seven-minute period (chukker) where the horse might cover three miles. Six chukkers comprise a game.
I once asked a DEA agent what human trait stood out most when he conducted surveillance and investigations over his lengthy career?
“Greed, it’s a powerful thing,” he replied.
Last October Maren’s Meadow went off as the heavy, 9-10 favorite in an allowance race at Delaware Park. Ridden by Chester County native Mario Pino, the 2-year old filly matched strides with eventual winner Picker for the first half-mile then faded in the stretch. She finished third by 6 ¼-lengths.
When mucous began spewing from Maren’s Meadow’s nose a couple days later trainer Larry Jones shipped the horse to a top equine clinic in Kentucky. A small sponge was discovered stuffed high up in one of the nostrils of the promising 2-year old filly.
The sponge was inserted to hamper the filly’s air intake and compromise her performance. Cpl. John Whitemarsh confirmed last week that the Delaware state police and other agencies are investigating the apparent race-fixing incident.
It’s the American racing mania-- speed, speed, and more speed.
“It’s a terrible danger, they’re shortening up and shortening up all the time,” said trainer John Gosden in a phone conversation from Clarehaven Stables in Newmarket, England.
Gosden is a regular visitor to the Keeneland Sales in Kentucky where strings of yearlings are paraded before him in his quest to secure a future champion.
"Everyone there is obessed with speed, but we (the English)) don’t want to go that route,” he said. “If you're not careful that way you'll end up with a whole dimension of middle distance runners disappearing.”
Last fall the British trainer and Cochranville’s George Strawbridge captured the St. Ledgers, England’s oldest, longest and toughest English classic.