The Inside Rail

The Iroquois. It came across our radar back in 1978 when Dad was told to win it for George Strawbridge Jr. It was his goal, his grail. Owhata Chief duly did.

Dad ventured to New Zealand to buy the stone-cold runner. He won a hurdle race over natural fences at Strawberry Hill, then took the Iroquois, rattled off three more before falling at the first fence in the Colonial Cup. I had never been and have never been so crushed.

The Iroquois was a $5,000 race back then, a bunch of amateurs, a bunch of friends, a bunch of sportsmen. Sloans and Lamptons checkered the program. Joey, out of school for the week, rode in the back of the horse van from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, Dad driving, one stop, that’s it. Dad bought Owhata Chief in the calcutta the night before, let’s just say he made more in the calcutta, then he did in the percentage. Owhata Chief came back and won it again in 1979.

My first foray to the Iroquois was in 1984, when Red Raven won the large pony race, earning a $500 check. I thought I was rich. I was the only jockey in silks, hell, I was the only jockey riding English. Western saddles, cowboy hats and Quarter Horses against a Thoroughbred twin who could run a hole in the wind. My father and I went to the Grand Ole Opry to listen to Boxcar Willie and Roy Acuff. We ate Cracker Barrel, I thought it was the best food I ever ate (should have bought the stock, it was $1.62 in 1984, split 11 times and closed at $169.53 yesterday).

Owhata Chief and Red Raven eventually turned into To Ridley and Pinkie Swear, my two winners in the Iroquois. To Ridley was the first good horse I rode, Jack Fisher giving me an opportunity when no one else would. Pinkie Swear was the last one, a hard-charging bull of a horse who made up his mind to go up the inside and lunge at the last. The race changed by then, $100,000 purse, for professionals, the course went from a once-a-year afterthought to once-a-year phenomenon.

Now, here we are again, 41 years after Owhata Chief. Gibralfaro carrying the flame lit by Owhata Chief and kept flickering by To Ridley and Pinkie Swear.