Jack Clancy, everybody’s right-hand man during his summers in Saratoga, rolled up on his golf cart to the Morning Line kitchen one morning early in the 2016 meeting with a suggestion.
He’d finished distribution of The Saratoga Special in the grandstand and clubhouse, the barns and paper racks in the stable area on the main track and the several small, tucked-away outposts on the grounds where trainers bed down their strings. It’s the latter places where some of the best stories can be had and Jack knew he’d found a good one.
“Have you done a Stable Tour on Ron Moquett yet?” Jack asked, undoubtedly noshing on an English muffin, butter and grape jelly, and maybe sipping on a cup of hot tea or coffee light and sweet. “You need to. He’s in the stakes barn. I see him every day; great guy.”
Moquett was on our radar. We knew of him, while not actually knowing him.
He sent a small string to Saratoga in 2013, ran the good sprinters Gentlemen’s Bet and Den’s Legacy there, saddled horses in the 2015 and 2016 Kentucky Derby and won plenty of races at Oaklawn Park, on the Kentucky circuit and beyond. Ryan Martin, a member of The Special’s editorial team in 2013, wrote a pre-meet story about him bringing that string for the first time that summer.
The Stable Tour hadn’t started at that point, it wouldn’t come around until 2015 thanks to daily sponsorship from Fasig-Tipton and with it the chance to spend extra time with horsemen, horses and glean tidbits about their training methods, career highlights and goals and sometimes even professional and personal philosophies.
Moquett offered a little bit of that and more during that first Stable Tour, which started that same day after Jack’s introduction in the grass courtyard and continued stall-by-stall of the northern side of the stakes barn.
We talked about a dozen horses for that Stable Tour, which appeared in the first Saturday edition of that year’s Special and the same day Songbird won the Coaching Club American Oaks. The last horse mentioned was one who ran in that’s year’s Kentucky Derby and finished last of 19. He wasn't going to run at Saratoga, but he was worth talking about.
And it's been some ride since. The horse was, of course, Whitmore. He blossomed into a sprint star and won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint more than four years after being introduced to The Special.
“He won’t run here,” Moquett said of the then 3-year-old gelding by Pleasantly Perfect. “I told him if he made it to the Derby that I wouldn’t run him until the fall. I saw him the day before I drove up here. He’s chestnut with a white blaze and when I saw him he was brown. He had no white nowhere, completely brown (with dirt). I keep him at a friend’s, an old horseman’s place. I told him to just be a horse. He had a tough campaign.”
Moquett kept his word and Whitmore didn’t return until early that December, when he won an allowance race at Aqueduct to start a five-race win streak that stretched into the spring and included the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint at Oaklawn and Grade 3 Maryland Sprint at Pimlico.
Moquett reveres races like the Count Fleet, which he calls a “name race.” He said in the 2018 Stable Tour – he’s appeared every year he’s sent a string to Saratoga and even led off 2020 by phone from Hot Springs when we rolled out The 2020 Special in time for the May 2 Arkansas Derby – that “I tell everybody I’ve never been asked if I won a title. Everybody wants to know what races I’ve won. ‘Have you won this race, the Rebel, the Forego.’ That’s what I’m focusing on, winning races with names. I want to do the best with every horse that I can. I’d like to get the most out of them for the pedigree and for the owner. I want, when it’s all said and done, to say, ‘Remember when we won this race?’ Most of all I’m a huge fan of horse racing. I love these horses. I appreciate what they do.”
He keeps a list of those name races on a door in his office in Arkansas. He uses it for motivation, to keep score and to keep dreaming. Most of the races on the list are sprints, “ones people who I thought were good trainers were winning with good, fast horses.”
The Forego made the list years ago and Moquett checked that off after Whitmore won it for his first Grade 1 victory in 2018.
The race at the top of the list has always been the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and Moquett can check that one off, too, after Whitmore made like a slingshot from outside the quarter pole into the stretch of the 6-furlong fixture at Keeneland. Now 7, Whitmore and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. stayed down inside most of the way in the Sprint to win by 3 1/4 lengths in 1:08.61.
The victory improved Whitmore to 3-for-7, with two seconds, in 2020 and might have secured another first for Moquett if he lands the Eclipse Award for North America’s champion male sprinter.
“I was brought up, where I’m from, the border of Arkansas-Oklahoma, there’s a Quarter Horse track called Blue Ribbon Downs,” said Moquett, who deals with the autoimmune disease atypical sarcoidosis – a condition that affects the lungs, makes breathing difficult and makes him especially at risk for the coronavirus and seasonal flu. “And to be the fastest in the world you have to beat the fastest in the world. And today, today we’re the fastest. Now there’s others going to run faster times and going to get more accolades, but today this is the fastest horse in the world.”
Whitmore delivered in the Sprint in his fourth start in the race. He finished eighth in the 2017 edition at Del Mar, about a month after winning the Grade 2 Phoenix at Keeneland. Whitmore finished second to Roy H in the 2018 running at Churchill Downs at the end of perhaps his best season, when he won the Forego and placed first or second in six of seven starts. Moquett, assisted by his wife Laura and ex-jockey and assistant Greta Kuntzweiler, tried again in 2019 and Whitmore finished third behind champion Mitole and Shancelot at Santa Anita.
Whitmore went to the post against 13 others Saturday at 18-1 – his longest odds since being 20-1 in his first Sprint attempt. Keeneland’s main track played extremely fast – and kind to front-runners in the opinion of those who obsess over such things – in the races leading up to the Sprint. Track records fell for 6, 6 1/2, 7 and 8 furlongs, with each set by a winner on or just off the lead.
The deck seemed stacked against Whitmore, who does his best running from the middle or sometimes even toward the back in a larger field. Ortiz, in the hunt for another Eclipse Award himself and riding Whitmore for the first time, helped flip the script a bit by keeping his mount on the inside before giving him a cue toward the end of the far turn. Ortiz tipped Whitmore out a bit into the lane, passed the leader Empire Of Gold, opened up and held C Z Rocket and the late-running Firenze Fire at bay for what looked like the easiest win on the card.
“I said in the prerace interview that whenever there are this many track records, it’s almost impossible to think a closer is going to do well,” said Moquett. “For him to run against the bias the way he did and the patience of the rider, the willingness to listen, it all worked out. I’m so proud of the horse, proud for the connections. I’m proud for everyone out there that’s thinking when you run last in the Kentucky Derby, kick them out, do right by the horse come back, and you have a shot to reach other dreams. You don’t discard them. You just do right by the horse and it keeps working out.
“I’m just grateful. Grateful for the horse. Grateful to everyone that sends me well wishes and congratulations after the race. Just grateful.”
Ron’s greatest hits
Since we’ve written about Moquett and Whitmore regularly since 2016, here are his takes on a few topics.
Racing’s obsession with winning percentage: “Win percentage means absolutely nothing to me. That’s for novice gamblers and owners that don’t know what horsemanship is. I tell my guys, my owners, that my thing is I’ve had the years when I had the high and gaudy win percentages, but those years didn’t coincide with the right column. The right column is the money earned. It doesn’t matter, you can’t eat a win percentage so you better develop the horse and try to get the most out of them.
“People that have them, not claiming trainers, they either wait for everything to be absolutely perfect, which you can’t control, or they’re entering only whenever they think they can’t lose. Either way, with the gaudy win percentage, when you have 25 that means you’ve got your butt kicked three times you thought you were supposed to win. Three out of four. So why don’t you give them a race instead of five breezes and let them come running late and then beat them the next time?”
What it means to train a horse like Whitmore: “I’m so humbled. I try to allow him to go to the forefront and keep us in the back. I give him all the credit. I am so honored. I’m taken aback by how many people love him. I tell everybody Hot Springs claims him, different towns claim him. I snuck in on a conversation the other day that was on social media, everybody was talking about whose horse he was. I never commented I just read it. That is so cool that people like him like that. And he deserves it. I know I’m biased but I think he deserves all of it. He’s happy and we’re tickled to death with how he’s doing. We’re just going from the Breeders’ Cup backward. I would rather have a definite plan but we have to be very liquid.
“…The historical significance (of being Oaklawn’s all-time winningest stakes horse) means the world to me. Maybe one day somebody will break his record but it means something to me. If I get run over tomorrow, my kids, my grandkids will be able to say my grandpa had the baddest horse, the most consistent, whatever they want to say. They could just say, ‘my grandpa had Whitmore.’ You wake up every day in this game wanting one of those. You thank the racing gods that he chose me.”
On Whitmore’s ability, and personality: “When you watch him work it’s so funny to watch his stride. It’s an unfair advantage. He’s a fast, fast horse.
“He’s a good boy, and a bad ass.”
Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic: “With my condition I’m one of those people that has to be very careful and that’s just a part of it. Anything that could turn into pneumonia is not good for someone that’s got an immune disorder and chronic lung problems.
“There are times that all the people stay put up and I go to the barn. I’m never around any people. We leave the bandages open and I get to go in, touch the horses, do all that stuff. Then I come back whenever training happens and everybody gets back in there cleaning stalls, giving baths and I go to the front of my house and watch training there. I get leg reports and depend a lot on my cameras set up around the barn that let me watch horses cool out, get baths, all that stuff.”