John Langemeier always knew Twilight Eclipse would be a good one. The Kentucky-based horseman, who owns and operates Spooky Hollow Farm in Georgetown with his wife Dr. Clara Fenger, also knew the Purim colt needed a bit more ground to show his true abilities.
Twilight Eclipse is in the midst of proving his former owner and trainer correct on both counts. He started late last November by winning the Grade 2 W. L. McKnight Handicap at Calder Race Course going 12 furlongs, only to follow that up two starts later with a world-record setting victory at the same distance in the Grade 2 Pan American Handicap at Gulfstream Park Saturday.
The 4-year-old Purim colt needed just 2:22.63 to win the Pan American, besting the previous mark of 2:22.72 set just seven days earlier by Bright Thought winning the Grade 2 San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
Before anyone thinks that it must not be too difficult a mark to set if it falls in a week's time, consider that Hawkster held the previous record of 2:22.80 for nearly 14 years. And before anyone believes the exaggerated tales spreading on the Internet thanks about Twilight Eclipse being too sickly to bring top dollar as a short yearling in 2010 one only needs to listen to the man who was with the colt from the beginning.
"The story is overtrumped a bit, he didn't look like death warmed over. He was a very good foal, kind of a standout actually in the crop that we had," said Langemeier, who also carves out a living training a small string of 14 at the Thoroughbred Center on Paris Pike in north Lexington.
Bred in Kentucky by Epona Thoroughbreds and produced by the Twilight Agenda mare My Twilight Dancer, Twilight Eclipse wound up in the 2010 Keeneland January horses of all ages sale when his breeder declared bankruptcy. The young colt did suffer from a bout of diarrhea and some other typical foal maladies at about two months, but recovered well after treatment at Spooky Hollow, which can offer services like a clinic thanks to the expertise and availability of Fenger.
The real trouble with Twilight Eclipse was he simply wasn't ready for the sale like so many other members of his generation.
"He was not sale prepped and didn't look like the rest of the short yearlings," said Langemeier, who bought the colt for $1,000. "Conformationally he was very good. But a lot of people, when they buy horses at the sale, they want them to look like they can put the tack on them that day. They don't want to wait.
With Dynaformer [Purim's sire] in his pedigree, he doesn't inspire too much from people who want an instant return."
Langemeier didn't get an instant return, either, but he did well with the colt. Twilight Eclipse won his first two starts for Langemeier, a one-mile maiden special weight and a 1 1/16-mile allowance, both at Indiana Downs in the span of 17 days in June of his 3-year-old season. Bloodstock agents came calling after the second win, including Kempton Bloodstock's Steve Castagnola, who helped negotiate a sale to West Point Thoroughbreds.
Langemeier was sad to see such a talented colt leave his care, but at 54 and with a long background in racing to understand the economics of the game he knew it was a smart move.
"Sure you have a little remorse when you sell them," Langemeier said. "It's hard because we're in a business where a good trainer loses 80% of the time. Now you're cutting loose one of your nicer horses and you're back to square one. But I knew the horse needed longer grass races and we don't have them here. Sometimes I think a mile and 70 yards is a marathon in the Midwest. It's amazing, they'll write a race going a mile and 70 and it won't fill, then they'll re-write it at a mile and you can't get in.
"And I just don't have the ability to go on the road with a horse like that, like go to Florida. If I keep a horse like him I probably have to send him to somebody else. That might not work either. It's worked out this way, obviously. [Trainer Tom] Albertrani has done a fantastic job with the horse. His progression is good and really it was a little bit scary what he did the other day."
Scary, yes, but not all that surprising to Langemeier, who can speak from experience.
A native of Cincinnati who went to the University of Kentucky, Langemeier counts stints working for Frank and David Whiteley and Mack Miller and preparing horses for Bert and Diana Firestone and Bill Mott among his credentials. He's been around good ones, including Highland Blade, Rivalero, Musical Lark, and Theatrical. He also looked after Spring House for a time, before he went on to become a multiple graded stakes winner and eventual earner of more than $1 million.
"The horse I remember telling Erin Finley [of West Point Thoroughbreds] about was Spring House, before he went to [Julio] Canani," Langemeier said. "He was a nice long-distance grass horse. I told her at the time, 'Spring House was nice but this horse is light years different.'
"The really neat thing about Twilight Eclipse is mentally he's just really really good. He's a very generous kind of horse. A good cool customer, very relaxed. I wouldn't be surprised to see the horse run long on the dirt, too."