Ricky Hendriks hesitated. The two-time champion jockey and trainer of a champion finally relented and delved back. Way back. All the way back to 1982.
“Probably Zaccio, he was the best horse I ever rode. This is the best horse I’ve ever trained,” Hendriks said, when asked to compare Optimus Prime to anything he had ridden.
Optimus Prime had just decimated an overmatched field in the Grade 2 David Semmes Memorial at the Virginia Gold Cup May 4. Owned by George Mahoney’s Rosbrian Farm and ridden by Ross Geraghty, the French-bred 7-year-old drew off to win by 8 ¾ lengths over Sempre Medici and Invocation, earning a third stakes score from four starts since leaving Dan Skelton’s yard in England.
For Hendriks, it was easy and difficult to compare Optimus Prime to Zaccio. Hendriks picked up the ride on the future Hall of Famer when Gregg Morris broke his arm four races before the 1982 New York Turf Writers Cup at Saratoga. Hendriks and Zaccio beat Give A Whirl by a neck. They tacked on the Temple Gwathmey, run at Belmont Park in October back then, and the Colonial Cup to earn Zaccio’s third consecutive Eclipse Award. Trained by Burley Cocks, Zaccio won 18 races for $286,299 and joined his trainer in the Hall of Fame in 1990.
So, yeah, Optimus Prime is in heady company.
“They jump a little bit the same, Optimus Prime never loses much ground, Zaccio was a very consistent jumper,” Hendriks said. “I was a kid, I was 18 years old, I didn’t know what I was riding, right, I had ridden some but I had never ridden anything like that. Probably better I didn’t know, just pull him out and he would just take off, I thought, ‘This is cool. Why don’t the rest of them run like that?’ ”
Hendriks saw Optimus Prime’s pull-out-take-off for the first time when he breezed at Fair Hill Training Center for his American debut in the New York Turf Writers Cup last summer.
“He gave Surprising Soul 20 lengths, when they turned up the stretch, he was 20 down, Optimus Prime passed him before the wire,” Hendriks said. “Tom Proctor was there, he was like, ‘Holy ****. What is that?’ I said, ‘A jumper.’ He said ‘I’ve watched a lot of horses work, I’ve never seen a horse work like that.’ ”
Surprising Soul won the Mickey Walsh Novice Stakes at Saratoga and his workmate (loose term) duly won the Grade 1 at Saratoga.
“He’s some animal. When you pull him out, he’s gone, doesn’t matter if it’s here or Fair Hill,” Hendriks said. “He’s just better, better than the rest of them. Everything he does. He gallops faster. He does everything better every day. We don’t have anything that can work with him, we have to let the other horse 10, 15, 20 lengths and he runs them down.”
Sempe Medici opened up 5, maybe more, in the Semmes and Optimus Primed made it look like a blowout at Fair Hill.
Optimus Prime won the Grade 1 Turf Writers 50 days after arriving in America. A month later, he finished a stuck-in-traffic third behind eventual champion and stablemate Zanjabeel in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park and followed that with a rout in the Grade 2 Ferguson over the same course as the Semmes.
While Zanjabeel recovers from an injury, Hendriks circled the Semmes for Optimus Prime’s target this spring.
“One spot. I didn’t want to run him at Middleburg going 2 ½ miles the first time out and the Iroquois…I don’t know. He’s so talented, but I don’t know. As he gets a little older, he could develop into a horse who will go longer, I’m not sure, though,” Hendriks said. “George is wonderful to train for, he’s very patient. He says, ‘Pick out the race and work backwards.’ If it doesn’t work, you go to plan B, that happens a lot. It makes you train them methodically.”
Hendriks runs Surprising Soul in the only Grade 1 stakes of the spring, this weekend’s Iroquois, and will methodically aim at three targets – the A.P. Smithwick, Turf Writers and Lonesome Glory for Optimus Prime. After those three, perhaps, he would entertain the Grand National at Far Hills. But, only perhaps.
“He’ll get 2 5/8 on firm ground, but it’s a lot to ask on soft ground to go up that hill three times, it’s tough on a horse,” Hendriks said. “He’s kind of keen all the time, Ross said he never took a breath today.”
And in Hendriks’ quest, he might not need the Grand National.
“I got a taste of that Eclipse Award, I like that. That was good. It’s like a chess match, we have five opportunities. There are five races, you have to win two of the five,” Hendriks said, referring to the five Grade I stakes (champion Zanjabeel won two last season). “We’ve won one of the key races today. If we can knock out two of the next four. Nothing he does surprises me, he’s that good. He’s unbelievable.”
Just like Zaccio.