Guest Column: Go in Peace

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On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10924, “to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps …” In the spring of 1962, a steeplechase corral, yes a steeplechase corral, was installed at Belmont Park inside the pony track and adjacent to Plainfield Avenue.

And on May 16, 1966, a roan colt by Restless Native from the Rosemont mare Rosy Prospect was foaled. The foal was born at the historic Sagamore Farm, owned by the venerable racing man Alfred G. Vanderbilt. He named the foal Peace Corps.

As a 2-year-old in 1968, Peace Corps would race nine times, compiling a record of one win, two seconds and two thirds. He was purchased privately at the end of 1968 by Allen Jerkens, on behalf of Jack Dreyfus’ Hobeau Farm. His 3-year-old campaign never materialized due to injury, but in 1970 he returned to the track.

The steeplechase corral was an extraordinarily useful technique to teach neophyte steeplechasers the art of jumping and measuring a stride, unencumbered by a rider. It was utilized by the most prominent steeplechase horsemen of the day, at a time when steeplechase racing was as integral a part of the New York racing landscape as the New York Football Giants were to the old Polo Grounds.

There was another unique horseman on the backstretch of Belmont Park at that time and Jerkens ruminated that the corral could be advantageous to some of his flat runners.

Jerkens envisioned the corral as a means of changing a horse’s outlook on training and racing on the flat. A fresh perspective for a horse can, at times, turn a sour curmudgeon into a willing and successful partner. And so, the Chief employed the corral to give some of his horses a renewed attitude by challenging them in new ways; jumping fences within the corral.

One such racehorse was Peace Corps.

In 1970, Peace Corps performed admirably, won four of his 16 starts and earned $49,737. The following year would bring a new perspective.

Peace Corps handled his corral training with such aplomb that the Chief began to entertain the prospect of racing him over hurdles. As a result, he found a steeplechase jockey based in New York to begin schooling him over fences in the Belmont infield.

The jockey was Leo O’Brien, who had come to these shores in 1964 to ride for Raymond Guest’s Powhatan Farm. Peace Corps was athletic and jumped with precision and courage. Suffice to say, Leo was salivating at the prospect of riding Peace Corps in a 1 1/2-mile maiden hurdle!

When the racing scene shifted to Saratoga in 1971, Peace Corps was training in spectacular fashion, jumping fences with Leo or galloping and breezing on the main track. The Chief settled on a plan to run Peace Corps over hurdles when racing returned to Belmont in September 1971. He decided to give him one more race on the flat, the $100,000 Hobson Handicap at the now defunct Liberty Bell Racetrack in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Peace Corps won the Hobson, setting a track record for 1 1/4 miles in 2:01. The breathtaking victory marked a new beginning for a flat horse, and the end of a potentially spectacular steeplechase career. Leo O’Brien was left to rue what might have been, and the Chief contemplated who else might benefit from a little “jumping.”

As jump racing’s popularity waned in New York, the corral remained and there was one trainer who continued to see possibilities.

In conversations with the Chief, he constantly espoused the notion that as a horseman, on each and every day, there was much to be learned.

Horsemanship is a skill to be cultivated over a lifetime, gleaned from mistakes and successes but never truly perfected.

The Chief was never one to proclaim his skill as a horseman with arrogant avidity. Rather his credibility emanated from a disarming humbleness, in spite of decades of training success. It is within perceived imperfections and unorthodox methods that humanity can sometimes merge with horseflesh and create magic.

Rest in peace, Chief.

Keith O’Brien was born into horse racing. His father, Leo was a successful steeplechase jockey and is currently a trainer on the New York circuit. Keith earned his Bachelors or Arts in Political Science from Holy Cross and for a short time rode steeplechase races and later trained. An accredited racing steward, he currently works alongside his father at Belmont Park, training in the morning and in the afternoon plies his trade as a voice actor.