When I originally wrote this article, Steve Asmussen was in the limelight. It was PETA and Rasmussen and a whole bunch of negativity for the horse racing world. Right now, it's Bob Baffert. I think the horse racing world needs a break from all the negativity. We need reminders of all the good in the horse racing world.
In talking about one of my favorite horse people, author Jim Squires wrote that Larry Jones “represents the qualities horse racing needs most to display…honesty and integrity.” The horse racing world is full of people like Larry Jones- honest horsepeople, who love the horses and conduct their business with integrity every single day. This article is a break from the Bob Baffert controversy. Horseracing survived losing Barbaro. Horseracing survived a 2008 Derby Winner unashamedly on steroids. Horseracing survived losing Eight Belles in front of a nationally televised audience. And horse racing will survive the Bob Baffert, Medina Spirit controversy. Jim Squires wrote, “Racing will survive because horses are an addiction with no cure.” So feed your addiction by reminding yourself of these four stories for the horse lover.
Many years ago, a horse named General Quarters burst onto the scene and became the feel-good story of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. The horse was owned and trained by a retired school principal named Tom McCarthy. General Quarters was the only horse he trained and the only horse he owned. For more than 45 years, McCarthy trained horses, but his stable was small by design. He spent 30 years as an educator in the Louisville area, first as a science teacher and then as a principal. That allowed him enough time to train one or two horses. In 1990, McCarthy retired from the school system and began to train horses full time. With limited resources and no owner behind him, he never had many horses or one that did anything too special, until General Quarters.
Tom McCarthy liked General Quarters when he first spotted him at the yearling sale. His sire, Sky Mesa, had been a perfectly balanced horse and McCarthy was a Sky Mesa fan, having seen the horse win the Futurity at Keeneland. But the bidding for General Quarters moved beyond McCarthy’s limited personal income and he had to settle for keeping an eye on the horse from afar. When owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey later entered General Quarters in a claiming race, McCarthy claimed the horse for $20,000. In 2009, Tom McCarthy and General Quarters won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and earned a spot in the Kentucky Derby. With no employees to help him and no other horses to train, McCarthy is the true definition of a one horse stable. When General Quarters made $465,000 winning the Blue Grass Stakes, McCarthy became the Derby fan favorite. “As much money as that is,” McCarthy said, “that’s not what this was about for me. I’ve seen the Kentucky Derby over and over again; I’ve been to every one since 1954. Now to think that I am going there with a horse that has a shot is overwhelming. That’s the big thing for me.”
Our second story comes from Charlie LoPresti who has since retried from the sport. Along with Larry Jones, Charlie LoPresti would be another of my all-time favorite trainers and one of the many good people in the sport. To include a story about a horse breaking down is risky. But the story is not about a breakdown but about the love that trainers and owners have for their horses. Years ago, in Saratoga, a five-year-old gelding from LoPresti’s stable, took a bad step on the Saratoga turf and had to be euthanized. LoPresti was devastated. Nothing else mattered the rest of the Saratoga meet for LoPresti, who is most famous for training Wise Dan. “It just makes you sad,” LoPresti said. “Number one, because he’s just a neat little horse if you knew him. What a nice little horse to be around….a fun little guy. He never bothered anybody. He tried.” To people that are in the industry and people that love horse racing, it’s all about the horses. And Charlie LoPresti personifies that. “It just takes the wind out of your sails,” LoPresti said. “We’ve got Successful Dan and Wise Dan, and I’d give it all up and not ever run them again if I could get that horse back. It’s not that he’s a great horse. He was a nice little horse.”
The next story came from Glenye Cain who told the story of Da Hoss and trainer Michael Dickinson in the outstanding book Home Run Horse. Do you remember Michael Dickinson? He was known as the “mad genius.” He was eccentric; his methods were unorthodox. Cain writes about the time Dickinson “made his longtime girlfriend and business partner go buy a pair of stiletto heels and walk around the turf course before a big race, to see how firm the going was.”
Dickinson trained Da Hoss to a victory in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Mile over some of Europe and Great Britain’s best runners. Da Hoss was not an impressive yearling and was plagued by significant problems from birth. He brought just $6,000 at the 1993 Keeneland September yearling sale. Yet under the watchful care of Dickinson, Da Hoss blossomed into a champion.
Michael Dickinson was a disciple of Vincent O’Brien, a god among racehorse trainers and generally regarded in England and Ireland as one of the best trainers ever seen. Cain wrote, “It wasn’t just that O’Brien got his horses to win; he got them to stay sound so they could keep winning.” In 28 years, they had only two horses break a leg. That’s why he’s the best. Likewise, Dickinson trained gently and raced lightly. He firmly believed that Da Hoss’s success was due mainly to the fact that he trained his horses over a forgiving wood-chip track instead of on a hard dirt track or a summer-baked grass course. Dickinson obsessed over track surfaces. Later he would become known for the Tapeta surface. The stiletto story is true and came from Da Hoss’s Breeders’ Cup Mile race in 1996. They found where the going was optimal and Da Hoss won by a length and a half. “But what Dickinson did two years later,” writes Cain, “was nothing short of miraculous.”
After winning the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Mile, the injury-prone Da Hoss missed the entire 1997 season with three successive injuries. Dickinson and his team nursed him back to health in the spring of 1998, and they were hoping for another shot at the Breeders’ Cup Mile in the fall of 1998. In April, just a couple weeks before he was scheduled to make his first start since the 1996 Breeders’ Cup, Da Hoss tore a tendon in his left front leg. Dickinson and the team were devastated. Over the next six months, they devoted themselves to healing Da Hoss and bringing him back to the races. The program started with one walk around the Tapeta Farm training center for an hour a day. By last June, the horse eventually worked up to a gallop. But then another setback. Da Hoss showed signs of muscle atrophy in the hind leg and his hocks got stiff, having developed some arthritis due to old bone spurs. The farm manager spent hours daily massaging and stretching the horse. By mid-September he had had seven of his 10 planned breezes, and he was showing signs of his old competitive self. Three weeks before the Breeders’ Cup, Da Hoss made his first start since 1996, winning a grass race in Virginia by just under a length. It would be his only start before the Breeders’ Cup.
The day before the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile, Dickinson and his crew walked the Churchill Downs turf course with a pair of high-heeled boots. They circled the course six times, meticulously plotting out Da Hoss’s ideal path. On November 7, 1998, Da Hoss went off at odds just under 12-1. When Da Hoss won the Breeders’ Cup Mile by just a head, Dickinson dissolved into tears. As Cain tells the story, he hadn’t even put money on his horse. “I’d already gambled so much on him,” Dickinson said. “I had my whole life wrapped up in him.”
My final story comes from May of 1982 and Arthur Hancock III, who won the Kentucky Derby with a horse named Gato de Sol. Hancock was never made for the cut-throat commercialism of the thoroughbred business, but he was a Hancock, of the Claiborne Farm Hancocks. Arthur went into the horse business in 1970 when he took over Stone Farm, a 100-acre parcel of land that his father Bull Hancock leased to him. While Bull Hancock’s other son Seth is synonymous with blue-blood clients and Claiborne Farm, Arthur made a name for himself at Stone Farm- both in the auction ring and with the Derby winner Gato del Sol.
While the Gato del Sol story is told in detail in Cain’s book Home Run Horse, his life after racing shows us the heart-warming part of the thoroughbred industry. Gato del Sol retired to Stone Farm where Arthur Hancock tried to make a stallion out of him. Not many mares were booked to the Derby winner and Hancock decided to take his own mares and breed to him. But the negative predictions about Gato del Sol eventually came true and he never found success as a stallion. With a weakening thoroughbred market in 1993, Hancock sold Gato del Sol for $100,000. The horse went to stud in Germany. “It was a good sale, and that’s part of it,” Hancock said. “You’re not supposed to fall in love with a horse, because they can break you.”
On July 20, 1997, Arthur and Staci Hancock picked up the Daily Racing Form and read about former racing great Exceller. Mike Mullaney was working on a series of columns called “Whatever Happened To,” when he began researching Exceller, the only horse ever to beat two Triple Crown winners- Seattle Slew and Affirmed. In the story, the Hancocks read the following: “Shortly after Exceller came to me last year, the owner called and told me to kill the horse, because he couldn’t pay for him. He said that since we weren’t breeding Exceller, there was nothing else to do with him. He told me to take him to the slaughterhouse.” The great racehorse Exceller was slaughtered on April 27, 1997.
When Staci Hancock put down the story, she immediately thought of Gato del Sol, now a failed and worthless stallion in Germany. She began to prod Arthur every week, asking him "What about Gato?" In 1999, the Hancocks made a private offer for Gato del Sol, who was now 20 years old. In the end, they bought him for $5,000, but quarantine fees and the flight home cost nearly four times that much. “As you get in this business, you do learn that it is a business,” Hancock said. “But it doesn’t have to totally push out the love of the horse. It has to go hand in hand. You read about how some of these horses are sent for meat. My dad had a saying: One of the worst things in the world is the dog that bites the hand that feeds him. When you do that, to horses that have tried to do well, that have run for you and tried to make it as a broodmare and failed and aren’t worth anything, if you do that, that’s kind of the dog that bites the hand that feeds it. They’ve tried. It’s not their fault.
“You know, I come over here sometimes and just stop by the fence,” Hancock said as Gato del Sol stood on a grassy paddock back home at Stone Farm. “He never bites or kicks or anything, he’s just that way. It’s him and me together, and I can reminisce. I’m glad to have him back. The money thing to do isn’t always the right thing to do, but the right thing to do is always the right thing to do. With Gato, bringing him back, it’s like taking $25,000 and tearing it up, if you want to put it that way. But it was the right thing to do. And what’s life for if you can’t do that? If you take care of your horses, your horses will take care of you.” Hancock went on, “I think somewhere, when you do the right thing by them, it comes back to you for the good. He won the Derby for us. I owed him.”
Jim Squires wrote, “The unexplainable addiction of people to life around a horse is why horse racing has survived all these years and how it will survive.” Horse racing has no shortage of inspiring stories. I am thankful for the articles and books that have entertained me with stories of horse racing heroes. The Home Run Horse by Glenye Cain is a great read that contains many entertaining stories beyond the story of Da Hoss and Gato del Sol. Those stories are told in much greater detail in the book. I didn’t feel I could do justice to those stories without using many of the great quotes from Cain’s book. I highly recommend the book. The story about Charlie LoPresti came from an article I read in Esquire and the Tom McCarthy story came from my recollection of the 2009 Derby trail and a NY Times article about McCarthy and General Quarters. Thanks for reading.