Archival Research: Hall of Fame finalists

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The final ballot is set and determining the 2017 Hall of Fame class is in the hands of the voters, who will pick this year’s group from 11 finalists announced Wednesday by the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame Nominating Committee.

Five jockeys, three trainers and three horses make up this year ballot of contemporary candidates, with the results announced April 24 and the induction ceremony at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion Friday, Aug. 4. The finalists are jockeys Robby Albarado, Javier Castellano, Victor Espinoza, Garrett Gomez and Craig Perret; trainers Mark Casse, John Shirreffs and David Whiteley; and racehorses Gio Ponti, Goldikova and Kona Gold.  Albarado, Castellano, Casse, Shirreffs, Gio Ponti and Goldikova are appearing on their first ballot.

We could reprint all the statistics, earnings, stakes races won, Eclipse Awards earned, for the finalists but everybody does that and it’s easy to find.

Instead we dug into the archives of The Saratoga Special and This Is Horse Racing to find a sampling of the nominees’ best work. We were tempted to dig up Tom Law’s recap of the 2005 Kentucky Derby, when he stood next to John Shirreffs along the outside rail – purely by chance – and got to see what true joy looked like when Giacomo rolled by on the outside to catch Closing Argument on the wire. That was another publication and the back issues in his basement are no doubt collecting dust.

Here’s a sampling from the archives, with apologies to the finalists not included but are either limited by location or our (relatively) brief history.

 

Cup of Coffee: Zen Ten (John Shirreffs)

By Sean Clancy

It took John Shirreffs 10 minutes. 

Ten minutes to get over the worst defeat of his life, the only defeat of Zenyatta’s life. 

Seeking her 20th win in her 20th start, in the dying light of a cold November evening at Churchill Downs, Zenyatta closed feet when she needed yards, falling a head short of Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. A tantalizing, yet agonizing head stopped a perfect ending to a perfect career. 

Shirreffs followed Zenyatta back to the test barn, where the 6-year-old mare cooled out like always, blowing off the exertion like she had run to the mailbox for a letter. Ten minutes, to be exact.

“In 10 minutes, the other horses were huffing and puffing, she had her ears pricked, looking over the fence at the people outside,” Shirreffs said. “Just seeing how unaffected she was about it, that really helped, to see that she wasn’t down. She won 19 in a row. How can you be disappointed? It’s impossible to be disappointed. Then you reflect on what great gifts she gave us along the way.”

Those gifts culminated in Zenyatta being inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Friday. A first-ballot inductee, Zenyatta added wattage to a star-studded class that included jockey Ramon Dominguez, trainer Steve Asmussen and the other great filly of the 2000s, Rachel Alexandra.

Shirreffs, who stabled here the past few summers, flew from California for the ceremony, celebrating his best horse. After the induction, Shirreffs stood in his own peaceful isolation, smiling and nodding, as fans and horsemen asked him to pose for photos, sign the brim of a Zenyatta hat and talk about the dark bay daughter of Street Cry. In front of the stage, in the middle of a bustling crowd, the 71-year-old conditioner felt at ease with what Zenyatta had accomplished in her iconic career.

“The thing is she overcame so much,” Shirreffs said. “Her races were just a mirror image of what she was, what she overcame.”

Sometimes, trainers speak in sound bites, not expecting to be asked to elaborate on those bites. When asked what Zenyatta had overcome, Shirreffs hesitated and then explained the stones that made Stonehenge.

“She overcame her fear of the gate. She overcame being physically too big, she had to overcome a lot of little things,” Shirreffs said. “She had to find a way to put it together, to be a successful racehorse, she had to find a way to lengthen her stride, she didn’t run harder at the end of the races, she just had that uncanny ability to lengthen her stride, you could see her head come down and her stride get longer. I remember one trainer told the exercise rider, ‘You know, I don’t think she’s going to be too much, she carries her head too high.’ I said, ‘Not at the end of the race.’ ”

No, never at the end of the race. 

Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta made her debut at the end of her 3-year-old season, won an allowance race in her next start and then ran in 18 consecutive graded stakes, winning the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic in 2008 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2009. 

Shirreffs and the late great exercise rider Steve Willard realized early that Zenyatta was special, that all they had to do was keep the train on the tracks. 

“Steve, we don’t have to reinvent training here,” Shirreffs said to Willard, after her first race. “We just have to follow the proven path, the path that’s been successful for generations and generations and generations.”

Willard nodded and fell easily into that routine, a semblance of commons sense and horse sense. 

“You know what the horse likes and you stick with it. You don’t get fancy at the end, ‘Oh, today, I think I need to give her a real good blowout,’ well that’s a change in routine,” Shirreffs said. “We stuck with her routine, work every eight days, train her on the training track, when we took her to the main track, we stood her in a certain place, because she had so much energy, that we had to conserve it before the race. Walking over to the paddock, she did enough, so we stood her on the racetrack and waited until all the other horses warmed up and went to the gate, just the little things we found out, then we did that.” 

The routine produced 19 wins, a second, four Eclipse Awards, $7.3 million in earnings and a plaque on Union Avenue. Along the way, Zenyatta made fans and friends as Shirreffs always made her accessible.

“You get so close to the horses that you’re training, and Zenyatta, you get even closer because she’s so special,” Shirreffs said. “It’s just great to see everybody appreciate her the way we did. It’s like, ‘Sharing is caring,’ it’s that kind of feeling, where everybody cared and we were all sharing.”

 

The Champ (Javier Castellano)

By Joe Clancy

The question was simple. Javier Castellano had just won three races in a day to take a commanding lead in the Saratoga jockey standings the day after the Travers. His nearest rival was out with an injury. With seven days to go, he was well clear so he must have tasted that championship at least a little, right?

He heard the question and stopped.

His eyes got wide. He looked shocked, like somebody told him his car had been stolen.

“Oh no, I cannot say that; I want to wait,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go. Come to see me two days before the meet is over.”

OK, how about now?

Though he backpedaled about discussing it the day after the Travers and has not officially clinched (he leads John Velazquez 58-44 with two days to go), Castellano will win his first Saratoga Race Course jockey championship. And it’s about time. Castellano weathered three consecutive runner-up finishes before claiming his first crown at the country’s top Thoroughbred meet.

“It feels great, a dream come true,” he said late in Saturday’s card. “Every jockey in the country wants to win this title. I’ve won at other tracks, but this one, this one took me a little while. I don’t know the reason. I guess it’s because I’m competing with the best jockeys in the world. They made me wait for it.”

Castellano will savor the championship, which erases a few painful losses.

In 2010, Castellano lost by three, 57-54, to Velazquez. In 2011, it was even tighter, 54-52, with Velazquez again getting the nod. Last year was no contest as Ramon Dominguez rung up 68 wins to run away with the crown, though Castellano settled for second, again, with 51.

Agent Matt Muzikar called 2013 sweet because of the near-misses, but also wished for a little more competition.

While eight wins behind, Rosario was injured with two weeks to go in the season – costing Saratoga fans a chance at a true jockeys’ race though Castellano would have been difficult to catch.

“I’m not happy we won it with him being hurt,” said Muzikar. “It kind of takes the fun out of it a little. Would we have won it? I don’t know. Maybe. We were eight in front, we won three the day (Rosario) was supposed to be out of town anyway and we were going to be tough to catch, but anything can happen. We’re happy, but it would have been nice to win it with everybody being healthy.”

Don’t let Muzikar fool you, he’s thrilled for his jockey and himself – especially since the crown takes the agent off the hook for 2011. Locked in a tight battle with Velazquez that season, Castellano left town to ride at Parx Racing on the season’s final day.

The decision made sense at the time, Bridgetown would have been heavily favored in the Turf Monster Stakes and was headed to the Breeders’ Cup. Then, after entries closed, the Todd Pletcher trainee was injured and didn’t make the trip. Castellano shipped anyway, rode Heros Reward, Turbo Compressor and Rose Catherine. Velazquez clinched the crown. Muzikar still frets.

“That’s the one I want back,” he said. “We lost by two. It was three in 2010, which was close and it was a battle, but I could have changed the one in 2011. That’s the game.”

And so is closing in on 60 winners, Muzikar’s pre-meet goal, this year.

Fueled by horses from Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown first, Castellano has steadily won races all meet – stakes, maidens, turf, dirt, long, short, whatever. Stakes victories came aboard Imagining, Balance The Books, Granny Mc’s Kitten, Bashart, Escapefromreality, Dayatthespa, Frosty Bay and of course dual Grade 1 winner Princess Of Sylmar.

“To win consistently over the course of this meet is a tribute to how well he’s riding and how well he rides,” said Pletcher. “You’ve got to be a complete rider to do well here. You’ve got to ride the grass well, you’ve got to ride babies well, you’ve got to ride claiming horses, stakes horses. It’s a significant accomplishment.”

Pletcher paid credit to Saratoga legend Angel Cordero for making the Saratoga jockey championship matter to the men and women who ride, to horsemen and to fans.

Jockeys want to win titles at every track.

This one, though, really counts.

“It’s going to mean the world to him,” said Velazquez, a five-time Saratoga champion and the track’s all-time win leader. “It means a lot for your career, it really opens doors for the rest of the year. People start looking at you differently. I’m proud of him. He’s done a really good job. I come here to beat him, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a friendly competition. I’m happy for him. We thought we were going to tie two years ago but I had to say ‘Sorry buddy, sorry,’ when I beat him at the end.

“This year, I told him I was changing my name to Castellano because he is winning everything.”

Castellano passed the compliment right back, and spread it around.

“Give credit to John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, all the other good jockeys here,” he said. “It’s not easy. Matt Muzikar, my agent, give him credit too. He knows what he’s doing. He’s very competitive and he works hard to find the right horses. Javier Castellano wins a race, it’s because of a lot of people.”

Castellano started to name names, but stopped. It’s a long list and he’s thankful for everybody’s role. The 36-year-old won eight Grade 1 races in 2012. He’s won the Travers three times. He rode Ghostzapper, Bernardini and plenty of other stars. His American career began in 1997 and has powered to the sport’s upper reaches – with more than 3,500 wins and nearly $180 million in purses. He’s second behind Rosario in wins this year with 236. He leads the country in mounts with 1,114. Muzikar has been Castellano’s agent for four years and has seen a maturation process.

“He’s a smart kid and he always wants to learn,” Muzikar said. “Some people think they have it all figured out. Nobody has it all figured out. He’s willing to educate himself, do the work, handicap, get on horses. He works the crowd well, meaning the owners and the people. His personality, his willingness to get better. Those are the keys.”

 

‘Awesome’ in the Jenny Wiley (Mark Casse)

By Tom Law

Remember back in late August, not all that long ago in the grand scheme of life, and some rued the bad luck being sent in the direction of Tepin and her connections. Who could forget really, after the daughter of Bernstein was dealt back-to-back losses by the combined margin about the length of a school kid’s foot-long ruler in graded stakes at Saratoga Race Course.

Those days seem so far gone now, after a validating Grade 1 win last fall at Keeneland before a world-conquering victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile four weeks later.

They seem especially distant after Tepin’s latest tour de force in Saturday’s Grade 1 Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes before a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at Keeneland Race Course in a race that sent another top-tier female grass filly running for cover in an unlikely spot.

Tepin is simply that good. How good? Consider that the connections of Miss Temple City opted to run that filly against males, in a Grade 1 stakes no less, instead of trying last year’s champion turf female in the Jenny Wiley. The move was a good one for Miss Temple City, who beat the boys in the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile Friday at Keeneland to conjure more thoughts of a second run at Royal Ascot.

You see, the connections of Miss Temple City are not put off by a big challenge, it’s just that Tepin is, well, Tepin.

The eight opponents that did remain in the Jenny Wiley field and the 38,863 on hand in summerlike conditions found out just how good Tepin is these days when the 9 furlongs of the day’s feature were complete. Tepin and jockey Julien Leparoux won by 5 lengths over French import Wakeela with Southern California shipper Illuminant another 1 1/2 lengths back in third. Tepin set a stakes record – and nearly a course record – winning in 1:40.53 on the firm ground.

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens got the closest view of Tepin, coming from California himself to ride Wakeela for trainer Chad Brown and owner Martin Schwartz in his only mount of the day. Walking back in the shade of the tunnel after the Jenny Wiley, Stevens praised his French-bred mount, and the winner.

“She’s awesome, we knew that,” Stevens said of Tepin, now the winner of five straight since a head loss in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa in late August at Saratoga. “But my filly put in an awesome performance being second, in her first race in America in a Group 1. She missed the break completely. My plan was to be right on Julian’s rear and that went out the window the very first jump. She was clueing me into it in the starting gate, kind of nonchalant like most of the French horses. She’s beautiful, she’ll win a Group 1.”

Wekeela was Group 3 winner and Group 1 placed in France with trainer Jean-Claude Rouget before joining Brown’s string at Palm Meadows this winter. Brown thought the Hurricane Run filly would run big in her U.S. debut.

“She ran terrific, I expected her to or I wouldn’t have entered her,” he said. “Tepin is a remarkable horse though. She ran terrific and the way it turned out everybody was running for second.”

Michael McCarthy knew it was a tall order for Illuminant to ship from his Santa Anita base to take on Tepin, but was thoroughly satisfied after the filly who could only manage two fourths in her prior to graded stakes tries finished a game third.

“Pretty tough to ship across the country and hook a horse like that,” McCarthy said. “This filly was doing well, the spacing worked out nicely, there was nothing in California right now and we thought this filly would go ahead and find herself in a nice position either on the lead or very close to it. We thought it was worth taking a shot and it worked out.

“What can you say about Tepin though, she’s just awesome. She really is amazing. At the same time for us to have only run nine times and run third to a champion, and still have conditions left, we’re very pleased.”

Owned by Robert Masterson and trained by Mark Casse, Tepin is now 10-for-18 with a bankroll approaching $3 million at $2,895,973.

Tepin is also headed for Royal Ascot, having been invited to the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes June 14. That race is at 1 mile, probably her optimum distance, and is against males.

 

Well-earned Crown (Victor Espinoza)

The agony of an inch (Robby Albarado)

Goodbye, Go Go (Garrett Gomez)

Their way: Gio Ponti and Winchester (Gio Ponti)