Over the weekend, I wrote about the withering of the Withers, about the loss of the historical and contemporary significance of the race: no big-name horses; a short field; an abiding lack of interest from the greater racing world. Just another minor, meaningless, low-level stakes race at a largely-empty racetrack. Ho-hum. Check, please.
And then you get to watch the winner.
“Woooooooooooo!” exulted trainer Robert Reid into his phone after his Afleet Again won the Withers on Saturday afternoon. His glee evident through the post-race interview, it didn’t matter how many horses had shown up, what the weather was, who he’d beaten, how many people had seen it. His horse had just won the Withers.
“We weren’t really thinking about the race until Wednesday of this week,” said Reid. (See? Even the eventual winning trainer wasn’t paying any attention to it.) “I love [emphasis his] the one-turn mile, he’s a big, giant horse and I love big, sweeping turns. We were concerned that this race was a little too short for him; I believe there’s no limit to the distance this horse will run. I believe that he’s a legitimate mile-and-an-eighth, mile-and-a-quarter horse.”
When you start talking about distance, and about big, sweeping turns, and you consider his pedigree—you gotta think Belmont, no?
“We thought about supplementing him to the Triple Crown with the Belmont in mind. I think he’d like the Belmont, but he’s not eligible. We gave it some thought after the Whirlaway, but then he ran so terrible in the Gotham…”
In the messiness that was the Whirlaway following Eightyfiveinafifty’s bolt on the first turn, Afleet Again finished second by a length; he sat at the back of the four-horse field, four or so lengths from the leader, and closed well for the second spot. He was tenth in the Gotham, a finish that Reid ascribed delicately to “bad racing luck.”
It is not a stretch to think that visions of the Belmont Stakes are dancing in this trainer’s head—and maybe the owners’, too? Cash is King Stable owned Afleet Alex, this horse’s sire; they won the Belmont with him, and they’d need to fork over a $100,000 supplement for Afleet Again to enter. That’s a lot of money for a horse that before this weekend had a maiden and an allowance win to his credit. But a horse that likes big turns, that likes to go long, and is the progeny of a Belmont Stakes winner…well, you can’t fault ‘em for dreaming…if they are.
On Sunday, I heard the word “karma” thrown around a lot as news broke of Eskendereya’s injury. Karma for trainer Todd Pletcher’s use of steroids on his horses; karma for the offenses of Eskendereya’s owner, Ahmed Zayat. A commenter on the Paulick Report wrote, “The Derby Gods have spoken. Last year it was IEAH and Mullins, and this year Zayat and Pletcher. The Derby Gods are the only ones in this industry who haven’t sold out. Kharma (sic), aint (sic) it a bitch.” In a surprising display of schadenfreude, various commenters seemed pleased that this Derby favorite, this accomplished horse, wouldn’t make it to the gate. No problem, as long as Zayat and Pletcher got punished.
While Zayat’s alleged offenses are well documented, what exactly has Todd Pletcher done to merit the delight that yesterday’s announcement elicited? One Twitterer wrote that “the universe works things out.” Really? Is the racing world aligned now, with Eskendereya safely out of the starting gate? I might have thought that the universe—karma, whatever—had better aim, because in taking out Zayat and Pletcher, it also wiped out John Velazquez, who, you may recall, was going to ride Quality Road in last year’s Derby…but I guess Johnny V is mighty guilty of SOMETHING, because karma—or is it the universe?–got him two years in a row.
I’m bummed that Eskendereya’s not running; he was not a particular favorite of mine, and I probably wouldn’t have bet him. But I’d have liked to see Velazquez get his first Derby win, and yeah, Pletcher, too. And the Race (if not the race) can’t possibly be improved if one of the most accomplished and exciting horses of the season isn’t running in it.
But as I watch on Saturday, my disappointment, and my musing about what might have been, will be tempered by the knowledge that the universe has taken care of things, and that only the most deserving trainer, horse, and jockey will get to wear the blanket of roses.
Full disclosure: I’ve met Pletcher on several occasions, and at one Belmont Child Care Association benefit, he and I were seated at the same table. I am fairly certain that he has no idea who I am. I’ve worked with his wife on BCCA events, and we know each other to say hello. These comments have nothing to do with affection, enmity, or indifference to the Pletcher family.