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Real Writing on Racing 💯
For just a fleeting moment right before the field for yesterday’s Test (Gr. I) began to be loaded into the starting gate I felt anxious, a feeling that rarely hits during that last second timeframe before a race these days. What trainers instinctively do inside their heads as their charges walk into the gate is question themselves… “Did I do enough…Did I do too much…should I have worked her one more time…Is this the right spot…should I have schooled him one more time…”. Sure there are occasions when you feel supremely confident or on the other hand you felt deflated knowing that you were in over your head but most of the time there were questions.
These days my ‘trainer brain’ doesn’t often shift into that mode as the only ownership I can claim to any horses is linked to a wager I may have included them on. One of the fallacies that exists in racing is that a trainer with an ownership stake in a horse “tries harder” with them. The reality is every trainer worth a damn feels that all the horses in their care are “theirs” and spends an inordinate amount of time considering their training and racing plans. Having favorites is, of course, human nature as we sometimes can’t help but gravitate towards certain individuals for a wide variety of reasons, some known and others instinctual. As a trainer that is something that you do your best to avoid as the nature of the profession requires you to remain as neutral as possible as horses coming and going out of your stable is function of the game itself.
Where I am going with this is that I rarely find myself as a ‘fan’ of a horse these days. Not that I don’t enjoy or root for certain horses for their talent or sheer will or because I like their connections or for some other intangible reason that I can’t explain. Plus as a bettor I don’t want to let personal feelings cloud my wagering choices, one of the attractions of gambling on horses is the math required (if you want to win) that requires a more clinical, not emotional approach.
Yet I will admit that I was a fan of Maple Leaf Mel. I saw her break her maiden at this very same track last summer and she just struck me as something special. She had that ‘easy speed’ that you just don’t see often, that’s when a horse looks like they are just galloping along yet they are going really fast. After she broke her maiden as easily as she did, wheeling back in 16 days into a New York bred stakes seemed like a foregone conclusion as were the results of that race. When she returned this spring over a slow Aqueduct surface in the East View stakes it was apparent that she wouldn’t be staying in state bred company too much longer, especially when all the fillies she crushed that day came back to win next time out.
I really looked forward to where she was going to show up next…and I hadn’t ever even placed a wager on her as she was always a huge favorite. The Black Eyed Susan undercard is where she landed, in the Ms. Preakness (Gr III) a grade three sprint that had attracted a solid field of shippers for top outfits like Brad Cox and Steve Asmussen. This is what I had to say that day :
Prophetic words I’m saddened to say as the epic nature of the Test wasn’t the matchup of a host of great female sprinters that it might have been…but of ugliness and sorrow and pain and grief….
When Maple Leaf Mel dusted that field, again showing that high easy speed right from the gate, I thought that she had separated herself (at least in my mind) from the really strong group of three year old filly sprinters that had shown up this season. I was looking forward to her matchup with Red Carpet Ready, who with wins in the Forward Gal (Gr III) and Eight Belles (Gr II), was something of a standard bearer in the division. That showdown materialized in the July 8 Victory Ride (Gr III) at Belmont where Red Carpet Ready actually went off the favorite with Maple Leaf Mel now listed as being trained by her namesake, rookie conditioner Melanie Giddings. I was shocked that she was sitting at 5-2 as they approached the gate and bet every single penny that I had on me on her to win, far more concerned about a potential annoying late odds shift downward than her ability to win the race. As per usual, she bolted to the lead, cruised down the backside and around the sweeping Belmont turn with Rosario just perched above her… little more than a passenger. Red Carpet Ready had futilely chased and gone into retreat mode as the field turned for home and Rosario just shook the reins at her once, never really threatened by Cox’s Dazzling Blue, who finished second. It was a tour de force performance and reestablished (at least to me) that she was the best three year old female sprinter in the land and by Fall…maybe the best period.
Yet it all seems so long ago now.
I remember thinking how incredibly fortunate Mel Giddings was to have a rare talent as good as Maple Leaf Mel under her shedrow and wondered if she even realized just how good she was. Trainers with 3 wins lifetime don’t get a chance to train horses like this…pretty much ever. The closest comparison I can think of is Spend a Buck being trained by Cam Gambolati, though he had two years of modest success prior to that freak of nature landing in his barn. I wondered what her thought process was going into the Test as she had worked her a couple half’s coming back on shorter rest than the 7 week gap between the Ms Preakness and Victory Ride. I wondered where they’d point after this race, how they might proceed to get to the Breeders Cup Filly Sprint.
As this week progressed I was more looking forward to the Test than this years odd Whitney which seemed to be a coronation of a very good horse being asked to do something that he hadn’t done, yet most had already engraved his name on trophy. It was also this week that I found out that my longtime friend Robbie Medina had actually played a huge role in the selection of Maple Leaf Mel, just adding to the allure.
Yesterday because of media commitments and a hectic afternoon schedule plus racing to get a late lunch at our unclaimed table at the 1863 Club before they stopped serving food, I didn’t get a chance to get to the paddock to see the big filly prior to the Test. I figured I would get a look at her as she made her way to the track on the horse path leading past the 1863 Club and snap a couple pictures for posterity and use for this Digest today. I have to say that I am relieved in an odd way that I didn’t get a chance to see her and her crew in that last minute of glory, a tiny bit of distance seeming larger than it should.
Truthfully I was a fair bit annoyed that the NYRA Bets website was down and I had zero dollars cash on me as the field paraded for the Test and Maple Leaf Mel’s odds were drifting up as flashbacks to the Victory Ride resonated in my head, but this time I was helpless to get down a solid wager. I resigned myself to just being a spectator and jockey’ed for position to watch the race on the closest TV monitor to the track so that I could switch back and forth. Then that anxious moment hit me right before they sprang the gate….
The worst sort of people are those that in the face of a tragedy want to offer up inane theories and agendas. I’m quite sure that this unspeakably awful situation will give birth to talk about more regulation or more rules or more surfaces handwringing and it’s all bunch of soulless rhetoric from bumbling simps.
I was there for A Phenomenon. I was 30 yards away from where Go for Wand went down on a freezing day at Belmont. I was at Churchill when Eight Belles broke down galloping out after the Derby. I have held a broken limb in my own hands, seen the grisly aftermath of a fragile creature literally coming undone because God made horses fast…but He didn’t make them sturdy…
It’s never been easy but in the same breath I can also say that it’s never been harder. The scenes that we witnessed yesterday won’t soon or ever be forgotten. What a life in racing teaches you is that the sun is coming up the next day, the horses are going to be hungry and need feeding and life is will continue to march on for those who were fortunate enough to wake up on the right side of the ground this morning. Ironically I saw Bill Badgett (trainer of Go For Wand) Friday afternoon in the paddock as he was visiting from South Florida and we spoke briefly as I hadn’t seen him since I left Florida last spring. Of all the scrambled things that went through my mind yesterday while numbly sitting by myself trying to make sense what I had just witnessed…again, I thought of Bill and felt bad that he of all people had to relive that awful experience in real-time. No one knows better than him that for Melanie Giddings and Bill Parcells and everyone who loved or has been touched by Maple Leaf Mel, that life will never again be the same.
*I apologize for no race reviews or stakes previews today as I just couldn’t get in the proper frame of mind to do them justice. We will do a full recap tomorrow.