THE OUTSIDE RAIL | by Joe Clancy

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The early 1990s were heady times for American steeplechasing, and Dr. John K. Griggs was right in the middle of it with a chestnut flash named Warm Spell. The Kentucky-bred son of Northern Baby challenged the bigger names from the barns of Jonathan Sheppard, Janet Elliot, Bruce Miller and company – and frequently beat them.

Purchased privately by Griggs at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 1989, after a French bloodstock agent had second thoughts about some potential issues in the young horse, Warm Spell won his first five starts over jumps in 1991 and 1992, captured the two most important jump races at Saratoga in 1993 and won an Eclipse Award in 1994. He was big, bright, fast and gone too soon after suffering a fatal injury in the Colonial Cup during his championship season.

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A racing fan watched the post-race interviews conclude after the Cotillion at Parx Racing Saturday and called to me from the far side of the winner’s circle. “Joe, hey Joe, Joey, hey Joey, come here. What did Jerry say? What does Rick want to do? Which Breeders’ Cup race are they going to run in? They have to run in the Classic, don’t they? They have to test her. If she’s a great one, she’s got to be tested. It’s the Classic, right?”

Wrong. It was never the Classic. It was always the Distaff.

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Fast, slow, friendly, mean, large, small, English, Irish, American, filly, mare, gelding or stallion, the horses always mattered to Betty Merck. She grew up riding ponies, graduated to fox hunters and point-to-pointers, became a racehorse owner at 75 and led the National Steeplechase Association owners’ list at 89.

“I love to spend time with horses,” she said simply in 2009, when asked to explain why she was involved as an owner. Merck backed up that statement by retiring her horses, frequently to her farm in Bedminster, N.J., and giving them as much care and respect in retirement as they received while racing.

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It might have been the best track record in Thoroughbred history – an easy time to remember, in a historic race, at a historic venue and in bold/daring fashion. And now it’s gone.


But that doesn’t mean it will be forgotten.

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Thirty feet in the air on a lift fixing a gutter on the barn, Jack Fisher heard Connor Hankin call out, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

The trainer looked down and said, “Why, what’s going on?” It could have been anything, really. A loose shoe on a horse, some broken tack, a stuck tractor, Roscoe the donkey was lost, maybe Hankin had an exam to study for and would have to miss the next week’s jump races. But Fisher had a gutter to fix.

“You might want to come down from the lift for this,” Hankin said.