Racing symphony hits high and low notes

Horse racing fans and people who handle the horses are really tough. Not war resistant or refugee resistant, as current events in Europe show in horrific detail. But resilient in the ability to survive the whiplash between the endorphin highs of Thoroughbreds at their best and the helpless fear when things go wrong.

the victory of express train , Victor Espinoza and John Shirreffs at the Santa Anita Handicap presented by Yaamava’ Resort & Casino (G1) on March 5 was one of those moments when the stars align to shower good vibes everywhere. The fact that the great horse had to work hard to beat the dead game invader. Order It made the moment so much more satisfying. Espinoza is a medical miracle who shouldn’t be walking around, let alone upside down and winning a major horse race. And Shirreffs, the Alan Turing of trainers, reminded the sport once again that he has always been more than a one-trick pony, even if that pony’s name was Zenyatta .

The schedule leading up to the Santa Anita Handicap was packed with excellent contests, including the Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1T), named for the executive who kept the sport in California on the upper-class radar during his long tenure as a racing impresario. . Let’s hear it for account again an Awesome Again gelding trained by Phil D’Amato and ridden by Flavien Prat, who became a Grade 1 winner at the ripe age of 7 with his last-second lunge on the Kilroe to win space traveler and Jamie Spencer on the money.

Richard Mandella wore a smile well into the night after seeing his 3-year-old prospect. forbidden kingdom run away and hide from the opposition in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) at one mile and one sixteenth. The last time Mandela knocked on the door of the Kentucky Derby (G1) was in 2019 when he had to scratch as a favorite omaha beach with a throat problem, three days before the race. Karma has been on hold ever since.

The only sour note of the day, believe it or not, came when the national anthem was sung by an artist named Will Champlin, who once finished third on NBC’s “The Voice” competition. There was nothing wrong with Champlin’s straightforward presentation of a melody that can sometimes inspire flights of inappropriate fantasy. Champlin, however, brought a significant amount of divisive baggage to the task.

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Champlin’s Twitter account, which is used largely to promote his music, includes scathing anti-vaccine messages, references to White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci as “Dr. Death,” and talk show host , Stephen Colbert as a “sick pedophile,” and vigorous promotion of a non-fungible token called “Let’s Go Brandon” (find it and hold your nose).

Call this reporter old-fashioned, but shouldn’t the national anthem sung at a public event attended by people from across the political spectrum provide a unifying moment, especially in these troubled times? Certainly there were people in the stands on the day of the Santa Anita Handicap who would agree with Champlin’s kind of speech. They might even have caught his act earlier this year at a “Freedom Rally” in San Diego, drawing the kind of population that would rave about Champlin’s act.

If Champlin’s involvement came from NBC, which carried part of the card, or was approved by Santa Anita admin, someone should have done a deeper dive into your profile. Strict adherence to COVID protocols during the height of the pandemic, protocols despised by Champlin, kept the business on course. Santa Anita and its parent company 1/ST Racing have traditionally supported unifying movements in the LGBTQ community, as well as communities of color, and this week they sent out a dedication to International Women’s Day. Champlin, on the other hand, promotes a song called “Fukamala” on his Twitter account. He also sang “God Bless America” ​​on the track.

Ups and downs. That’s what the game is about. For those who can’t stand it, there’s always curling. In a week that celebrated the birth of Baby Bisou to champion midnight bye and Little Elate to the imposing grade 1 mare Exhilarated , the sport lost Go for Gin, who had reigned as the oldest winner of the Kentucky Derby, and the winner of the Saratoga Oaks Invitational Stakes (G3T) with Lima, the Pride of Texas and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. Go for Gin just turned 31, in residence at the Kentucky Horse Park, while Con Lima, just 4 years old, was fatally injured in a stable accident.

Wesley Ward's horses at Keeneland on April 17, 2019 in Lexington, Ky.  NOTE: 2 year old horses wear blinders, older horses do not.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

Wesley Ward

Then there was the death of Strike the Tiger and two other horses in a barn fire caused by lightning in keeneland. The 15-year-old son of Tiger Ridge (half-brother to AP Indy) made history in 2009 when he became the first US-trained horse to win a race at Royal Ascot in the Windsor Castle Stakes, 33-1. That trainer it was Wesley Ward, who won a further 11 races at Royal Ascot.

Strike the Tiger was raised in California by Ward and his associates. Since his career ended in 2014, the gelding had been the leading pony in Ward’s stable, accompanying his horses each year to England for Royal Ascot competition. Caught up at his home in Kentucky, Ward was still reeling from the tragedy.

“I was there 11 minutes after I got the call,” Ward said. “My kids had just left for lunch, so it happened in that little bit of time. Bruce Flowers, who works in the barn next door, is the real hero. As soon as he saw smoke, he ran in and ripped open the whole barn.” . Six of the nine horses ran away, but the other three did not.

“By the time I got there, the barn was gone. Also, it was raining. A windy, rainy day. You would never think there would be a fire on a day like that. Fire investigators determined that lightning struck the utility pole next door. the barn. The charge shot straight into my barn and blew out all the plugs, starting multiple fires at the same time.”

According to Ward, Strike the Tiger spent nine months of the year on a pasture and three months on the track, which included his annual trip with Ward’s horses to Royal Ascot, where he was greeted as a returning hero. He was in the Keeneland barn recovering from a minor surgical procedure.

Ward’s harrowing week also included stealing a dozen silver trophies he won at Royal Ascot, including the big Strike the Tiger win. Seven of the trophies were recovered.

“Yes, we have yours,” Ward said disconsolately. “But I’d trade a thousand wins to get the horse back.”