Last night, millions of dollars bandied around the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion. A million here, a million there. Buyers gulped. Consignors sang. Fans clapped. Tonight brings more of the same at the annual selected sale of yearlings.
But that star power couldn’t top Monday morning when Walter Blum, Pat Day, Richard Mandella, Jacinto Vasquez, Angel Cordero, Earlie Fires, Jorge Velasquez, Leroy Jolley, Wayne Lukas, Shug McGaughey, Allen Jerkens, Kent Desormeaux, Jerry Bailey, Bill Mott, Jonathan Sheppard, Laffit Pincay, Bobby Frankel and Chris McCarron returned for the Hall of Fame induction.
Stop and think about those men and their accomplishments. Fires rode through nine (soon to be 10) presidents. Jerkens was inducted at age 45 and then got better. Cordero collected Saratoga riding titles like Saratoga tourists collect hangovers.
Eighteen Hall of Famers in the house. Add the most recent honorees – Edgar Prado, Carl Nafzger, Milo Valenzuela, Ancient Title, Manila and Inside Information – and it was Big Monday at the corner of George Street and East Avenue.
We are so lucky.
Nafzger and Prado topped the bill and they didn’t disappoint.
Prado accepted a standing ovation before he spoke. It got louder. The 41-year-old Peruvian asked trainer Bob Klesaris to present his Hall of Fame plaque to him. Klesaris remembered Prado from his early days at Calder.
“I need a yob,” Prado said to Klesaris on the first morning he came to his barn. “Just give me a chance. I will prove you right. ”
He got the job, the chance and proved it to everybody – from Klesaris to agent Steve Rushing to John Kimmel, who enrolled Prado at Saratoga in 1999. Klesaris, a lifelong confidant, jump-started Prado’s career at Suffolk Downs, and again in Maryland.
“He is a quiet gentleman and keg of dynamite when he’s on a horse,” Klesaris said.
Prado, wearing a gray suit and reading glasses, waited through another resounding applause and then began his speech.
He spoke as precisely as he rides a race. His heavy Peruvian accent hid some of his words and stifled some of his emotion, but he spoke like he rides: deliberate, calculating and steady. He called race riding a great chess match. He’s Garry Kasparov in white pants. He thanked his agents, owners, grooms, exercise riders, trainers, horses and his family.
“Bob Klesaris, who got me started. Vinnie Blengs, always there for me. The late John Tamarro, who taught me the difference between a good rider and a bad one. Manny Azpurua, who gave me my first job in America,” Prado said. “The late Scotty Schulhofer, for putting me on Lemon Drop Kid. John Kimmel who gave me a chance here at Saratoga. My man Dutrow for always believing me no matter what. Bobby Frankel for always finding one for me. Graham Motion, Shug McGaughey, Nick Zito, Kenny McPeek for putting me on my first Triple Crown winner and of course Todd Pletcher.”
Prado sucked in a deep breath when it came to his mother, who passed away shortly before he won his first Kentucky Derby with Barbaro.
“I thank my mother who from the moment I left home pushed me forward and told me to follow my dreams,” Prado said. “I owe a debt to her for making me 5-foot-3 and 114 pounds.”
The gentleman and the keg of dynamite finished where he started, speaking in Spanish.
Mike Shannon, owner of Manila, hit the crowd with a humble acceptance for the turf champion.
“I thank my family who put up with a lot, because during my career with Manila I was more or less an amateur handicapper and I was a professional drinker in that period of time,” Shannon said. “This award and acceptance into the Hall of Fame is not about me, it’s not about Leroy Jolley – it’s about Eduardo Cojuangco, his breeder, our dear friend, he is deserving to be in the Hall of Fame. He might be the best geneticist in the world, including animals, plants, racehorses, cattle, coconut trees and such.”
Like always, the Hall of Fame nailed the lineup, saving Carl Nafzger for last. Introduced by longtime owner Jim Tafel, Nafzger spoke eloquently and intently. He spoke about his life, his horses, his owners, his fans, but most importantly, about our sport.
“To thank everybody in my life would take three days,” Nafzger said. “We had jockeys take call on our horses when they were 15-, 20-1 longshots, because they thought we were trying our best. We’ve had fans supporting us; a crew, Robert, Trish, Carlos, Clint . . . Ian and Tracey Wilkes. We’ve had family that backed us for years.”
Then he got to the point. He said it for all of us to hear, but it needs to be written down.
Cut it out, put in on your desk, your dashboard, your MySpace homepage.
“We have to get back to the horse. The horse. None of us would be here without the horse. Horses have taken me to the Hall of Fame. The horse is easy to train, it’s just hard to be patient. The horse is the reason we’re all here today. The horse brought us all together. Horses never lie. We might lie, we might kid ourselves, but the horses never lie,” Nafzger said. “You take horses like Unbridled, we called him the Gentle Giant. Banshee Breeze, she would run on anything. You take Lady Joanne, named after a nice lady, you take Street Sense, he said ‘I’ll do my thing and I might change if Calvin asks me to.’ For all those horses that could and would and did give us so much of themselves, I could finish here, but I’ve still got to give you one guy that taught me so much about the Thoroughbred horse. He gave me the key to the racehorse. He said, ‘Keep them fat, keep ’em happy, work’ em a half-a-mile and they’ll win races for you.’ John Nerud. We’ve got to protect the horse, we’ve got to get back to the horse and we’ve got to make racing once again about the horse.”