Horse racing: Breaker of dreams strikes again

There’s a line in the song “Moon River” that goes, “O dream maker, you heart breaker…” It was written about the river but could just as easily refer to that grand old institution of horse racing, the Kentucky Derby. And over the decades, it has spawned and broken plenty of dreams.

But perhaps never more shockingly than what happened on Saturday, May 7.

All the hype had been building for weeks—and in at least one case appeared to be justified. Twenty horses had gained a slot in the prestigious “Run for the Roses” and, as everyone knows, the outcome is up for grabs. But Bellamy Road’s 17-1/2-length win in the Wood Memorial was nothing to be dismissed lightly. And previous Derby winners had come from the Wood.

Plus, this horse had five victories and four second-place finishes in his résumé and that incredible Beyer figure of 120. And a trainer who had built up a distinguished reputation and a respected record in his own right. Nick Zito walked toward the paddock area, acknowledging the cheers and waves of his admiring fans. Just which of his horses were they cheering for? It was hard to tell. This unflappable veteran had five horses running, each with a different owner, and he had vowed to saddle each of them himself. He also gave separate instructions to each jockey on how each individual horse might best realize its potential in the race. Of course, the star of the lot was Bellamy Road—who, before the race, seemed well on his way down the road to fame and fortune to join the other illustrious Derby winners.

Only something happened. He didn’t stumble out of the gate. No one bumped him. The jockey even said he ran well. He just didn’t win. And neither did any of the other Nick Zito-trained horses. In fact, they didn’t even finish in the money—not even Bellamy Road, who was the best of the bunch, finishing seventh.

Seventh? What happened here?

Two of the things that happened were a couple of way-out long shots named Giacomo and Closing Argument, that no self-respecting handicapper would give a second glance. They came flying up from behind to take over the lead at the finish, although by that time Bellamy Road had gotten himself tired out. But what are we to make of a horse with only one solid victory to his credit—about whom one handicapper said, “After that good showing in the Hollywood Futurity, he almost seems to have stalled in his progress?” This was Giacomo, the 50-1 winner.

And there was no appeal from Closing Argument’s (71-1) strong second-place finish, either. There was some question about whether his breeding was up to the distance at Churchill Downs, an argument the colt won going away.

Maybe we need to start picking winners the way some people have picked the best-performing stocks on Wall Street. You get an intelligent-looking chimpanzee, lay out the possible selections in front of him, and ask, “OK, Bonzo. What looks good to you?”

Preakness Note: A salute of honor to Afleet Alex and jockey Jeremy Rose, who overcame what could have been a disaster.

The awkward bumping incident with Scrappy T could have resulted in injury to both horse and rider, let alone costing the race. But the courageous horse, though brought to his knees, never went down completely.

While the jockey desperately hung onto his mane, the brave colt struggled back to his feet, regained his stride and won going away. Jeremy Rose, asked whether he believed in guardian angels, replied with a strong “Yes!”

A portion of the proceeds from the win will go to Alex’s Lemonade Stand, named for the little girl who raised several thousand dollars for pediatric cancer research before dying of the disease. Hats off to these folks as well.

From the May 25-31, 2005, issue

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