The last time I saw him, in November, he was sitting in a rehab facility, reading the newspaper, looking out the window. He was a little frail but recovering well, and happy for visitors. Shortly after that visit, he left for Florida, and I kept up with him only through entries and results.
Now it’s the end of March, and we’re on the backstretch at Gulfstream Park. He is, of course, on horseback as I approach, a pale visitor from the north, while he is ruddy from the Florida sunshine. We talk after the workouts, and again later in the day, after he’s run three horses. They finish fourth, second, and first. Back at the barn, he’s relaxed, telling stories.
“You know what the best day ever was?”
“The day Sky Beauty won the Alabama. After we went back to that room at Saratoga—you know, where they give you the champagne…”
(He says this as if it were his first time there, as if he doesn’t know it’s called the Trustees’ Room, as if he hadn’t earned his way in there any number of times before.)
“…after we had the champagne, and we went back to the barn…they all applauded.”
All these years later—sixteen—his voice is as humble, as awed, as if it had just happened. And the achievement was awesome: Sky Beauty had become only the third filly to win the Triple Tiara (the Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks) and the Alabama. She joined Open Mind and Shuvee.
I ask if he’s interested in the Kentucky Derby. He chuckles. “Well, I will be if my son’s got a horse in it.” (A few days later, Quality Road wins the Florida Derby.) Then he adds, “But winning the Travers would be as good as winning the Derby.”
Shortly after this visit, I head back north; he’ll be on his way in a few weeks.
Last Saturday, Derby day, I walked out of the Belmont clubhouse and headed back towards the stillness of the barns. It was quiet in the way that only an afternoon on the backside can be, and as I walk towards Barn 30, I see a man grazing a horse in the sunshine. I get closer and it’s the Chief; closer still, and I see that he’s with Any Limit, who last year won the First Flight at Belmont and the Honorable Miss at Saratoga. She was supposed to run in the Ballerina, but an injury kept her out of it. At the end of last summer, the Chief wistfully observed, “We won’t have our name on one of the jockeys this year,” the jockeys whose signs celebrate the
graded stakes Grade I winners at Saratoga each summer, near the Wright Street entrance.
Over the winter, Any Limit won the Hurricane Bertie and finished a good second in the Inside Information; she’s expected to go next in the Vagrancy on May 24th.
She’s happy grazing, but inquisitive, too, and as soon as my hand goes in my bag, her head is up, she’s pushing me back against the fence, she knows that a peppermint is coming. Her head is under my shoulder, against my hip, insistent but never aggressive.
I ask the Chief how he feels, and he says, “All right,” but acknowledges that a year ago, he couldn’t take a horse out like this. And I realize that, in the relatively short time I’ve known him, this is the first time that I’ve seen him grazing a horse—he’s always been in the golf cart, on Circus, the pony, or sitting in the barn.
And there, in the afternoon sun on the Belmont backstretch, with the Chief and his stakes-winning filly, a few hours before the Kentucky Derby, which was run, unfortunately, without his son’s horse, all seems right, at least for a little while, in the racing world.
Here’s Sky Beauty’s win in the Coaching Club American Oaks, the closest of her three Triple Tiara wins.