Sometimes, being third feels like winning the Kentucky Derby.
Or so it seemed to me, as I watched the connections of Above All Odds exult when he crossed the wire a nose in front of Crafty CJ, six lengths behind the winner.
The people around us (all twelve of them, at Belmont on a Wednesday afternoon) thought the fans of Above All Odds were celebrating a win; I’m not sure that they disabused anyone of that notion, so intent were they on celebrating their colt’s game run to the wire.
And really—how could anyone be disappointed in his performance? This three-year-old colt was kicked in the face by his dam as a foal, resulting in the loss of his eye, and his first few months up at the big track were not exactly inspiring; he turned in a series of slow works, and he didn’t seem all that interested in beating other horses in the morning.
Within the last week, trainer Allen Jerkens decided to put Jorge Chavez, one of his regular jocks, on Above All Odds in the morning…and on Monday he went three furlongs in: 36.42, by far his most promising work.
I got to Belmont just as the horses were coming into the paddock for the fifth race, and Above All Odds, who can have a hard time adjusting to new situations because he can’t see them, was spirited in the paddock, on his toes, though he didn’t seem nervous. Jan Rushton talked at length about him and his injury, ending her commentary by hoping “that he’s got his mind on racing.”
That’s because Above All Odds went beyond spirited to excited. Really excited. So excited, in fact, that a few turns around the paddock and a strategically aimed bucket of water did nothing to, um, diminish his excitement. I’ve never seen a horse in quite that state, for that period of time, in the paddock, and our guy was definitely the talk of the paddock crowd. No, I won’t repeat the comments, and yes, I have pictures, but hey, this is a PG site.
By the time he got the track he had calmed down, and he seemed pretty relaxed coming out of the gate—again, a good sign, because he drew post 1 and couldn’t see anything to the right of him. He hung at the back of the pack, at least ten lengths off the lead, and in a five and a half furlong race, it was hard to be hopeful as they came around the turn. I got a little nervous watching Chavez (yes, I know “Chop Chop”) go to the stick as they entered the stretch. Oh, no—is he done?
But he wasn’t. He wanted to run in the stretch—and let me tell you, his stretch run makes Afleet Alex’s in the Hopeful look like a direct route. He was on the rail midway down the stretch, then came out seven wide, then ducked back in, but when he finally got settled again, he was still running, and running hard, charging up to get third and galloping out well after the wire. Because the favorite ran out, he paid $11.60 to show, so many of our number made some money.
Following the race, we went back to the barn, where The Chief was waiting, pleasantly surprised at the horse’s willingness to run. Comfortably ensconced back in his stall, Above All Odds ate well and enjoyed the company of admirers; while they paid tribute to him, I got to visit with the Duchess of Rokeby and the Chief, who offered me a beer as he told me stories about racing history and his opinion on the state of the game, and shared with me titles of some of his favorite books on racing. It was late afternoon; the roosters and hens were running around the exposed interior part of the Jerkens barn, the horses were eating, and the sun was lazily golden in the quiet of the backstretch. I told Allen that I loved Society Selection, and his face lit up, talking about her win in the 2004 Alabama; later at dinner, he and his wife regaled us with stories about Sky Beauty, who in 1993 won the Triple Tiara (then the Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks) and the Alabama.
It was easy to be a racing romantic yesterday; the underdog horse ran well, the venerable trainer told stories, at least one new race fan was born. In the news today, we’ll read about lawsuits and medication positives and closing racetracks and possible sabotage. It was nice to spend an afternoon in the pure pleasure of the racetrack, to leave cynicism aside for a while, and to be around people who have been in the game for a long time and who really love it. It’s been easy lately to be disheartened by racing, but fortunately, a day at the track with people who know and love their horses, who of course see racing as an investment but also as a labor of love, is generally enough to bring me back. And yesterday was one of those days.