Heartbeats & Hoofbeats, A tribute to those who tried

Heartbeats & Hoofbeats, A tribute to those who tried

By By Susan Johnson

He marched down the track to the starting gate like a king on parade, amid the rousing cheers of his multitude of fans. It was a record crowd at Belmont Park last Saturday. They had come to see their hero and to see history made. Thousands more watched just as transfixed via TV.

War Emblem seemed relaxed and confident as he walked into the starting gate, and if jockey Victor Espinoza was nervous, you couldn’t tell. There was no indication of trouble until the gate clanged open, and War Emblem suddenly stumbled to his knees, bumping into Magic Weisner. Gamely, the courageous horse struggled to his feet and tried to catch up, but the race was lost from that point on. The stage was set for the greatest upset in Belmont Stakes history.

Sarava, a 70-1 longshot dismissed by the handicappers as having no chance at all, charged to the lead and suddenly found himself in the limelight. To his credit, Bob Baffert, though heartbroken, displayed no ill will toward the eventual winner. He even had some kind words for Ken McPeek, the trainer whose previous horse, Harlan’s Holiday, was taken from him by the owners and switched to another trainer. “He deserves it,” Baffert said.”He had the favorite in the Derby and didn’t get it done. It was fate. Ken loses Harlan’s Holiday and then wins this race.”

Fate, indeed, seems to hold all the cards in this unpredictable sport of horse racing. Sometimes you can find a place to lay blame; other times, accidents just happen. But no one is exempt from failure; it happens to the best of them. War Emblem has no reason to hang his head because, to his credit, he didn’t give up. Even the great Secretariat was beaten a few times, and a look back into history reveals even more.

In 1943, Count Fleet won the Triple Crown, but he didn’t emerge unscathed from the effort. Soon after he came out of the gate, he actually ripped a hoof, and somehow found the determination to gallop on and win. But he stepped into the winner’s circle bleeding and never raced again.

Bill Shoemaker, in his book Shoemaker: America’s Greatest Jockey (co-authored with Barney Nagler), admits to a moment of ignominy that, for a while, it seemed he’d never live down. In 1957, he was scheduled to ride a horse named Gallant Man in the Kentucky Derby. Shoemaker said he came to Louisville hoping to get a feel of the track the day of the Derby, but he didn’t get the chance. He explained, “the finish line at Churchill Downs was a sixteenth of a mile farther toward the first turn than it was at other tracks in the country. And I hadn’t had a ride over a track like that in a year… In the early stretch, I got close to Iron Liege. Then at the end, I stood up in the irons. Hartack was digging into his horse and Iron Liege was charging… I couldn’t catch them. I knew I had made a big booboo… It wasn’t the first time a jock had misjudged the finish line, but this was the Kentucky Derby, and there I was looking like a fool in front of a national television audience and maybe a hundred thousand fans in the stands. I didn’t make any excuses.”

After the race, the stewards questioned Shoemaker and understood that it was an honest mistake. But he was suspended from racing for 15 days. Shoemaker recalls being razzed by some of the fans when, five weeks after his “blooper,” he rode Gallant Man in the Belmont Stakes. This time he won by eight lengths. Shoemaker went on to a long and distinguished career, winning his fourth Kentucky Derby in 1986 at age 55 with Ferdinand, an unheralded colt from California.

It’s quite possible that another jockey lost us another Triple Crown in the 1970s. In 1979, Spectacular Bid was performing impressively as a three-year-old. His greatest handicap may have been jockey Ron Franklin. As Shoemaker tells it, “Even before the Triple Crown races, Ron Franklin was knocked in the papers for a ride he gave Spectacular Bid in the Florida Derby. He took the gray colt all over the track, but the colt overcame the bad ride and won. Only great horses can do that.” The horse won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but Shoemaker commented, “The horse’s ability again overcame the ride he got from Franklin.”

Before the Belmont, there was some question about a safety pin stuck into Spectacular Bid’s foot. Trainer Bud Delp said there was an infection in one hoof. Shoemaker summed up what happened: “In the race, Franklin used the horse early. With a half mile to go, he asked Spectacular Bid for more, but the colt just couldn’t respond. He had nothing left and finished third. Coastal was the winner.”

The horse’s owners were greatly disappointed, and after +conferring with the trainer, finally decided to get a new rider. Who got the job? Shoemaker, who won several races with him after that. He recalls that the horse “broke seven track records at six different tracks. He ran everywhere under all conditions and won.” One can only wonder–what if he’d had the horse all along? Would we now have 12 Triple Crown winners?

Let’s give the last word to Russell Reineman, War Emblem’s former owner, who was rooting for the colt to win, but admits to having a bad feeling before the race. He said, “I just hope he keeps on winning so he’ll be a very excellent sire worth a lot of money.”

That’s the silver lining in this whole scenario. War Emblem will live to run on other days. It could have been much worse.

Remember Ruffian.

Susan Johnson is The Rock River Times copy editor.

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