From the February Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred
When the calendar clicked over to Jan. 1 and the great steeplechaser Flatterer turned 34, I had to go see him. To say hello, to say thanks, to honor him, to apologize. I took care of all four.
Hello was easy. In response, I got a nice rub from his fuzzy dark bay head. In a field in the back corner of a farm in Unionville, Pa., he lives on with a grace, a warmth, an appreciation few Thoroughbreds get to experience.
Thanking was simple too. I told him how much I appreciated the memories, the performances from Belmont to Camden, Cheltenham to Auteuil, Keystone to the inner dirt at Aqueduct. Any Thoroughbred aficionado should take the time to thank the athletes, especially one that did as much as he did for the sport.
Honor was a privilege. He’s a Hall of Famer, a four-time champion, an American record-holder for winning with a 176-pound impost at Radnor in 1986 and now-with the passing of Lord Avie in late December-the world’s oldest Eclipse Award winner. It felt a little like visiting the pope or the Dalai Lama.
The apology came a little harder. Back in 1987, I led Gogong to the paddock for the $25,000 Sport Council Handicap at the Middleburg Spring meet in Virginia. Fresh off a Carolina Cup win three weeks earlier, the gray New Zealand import was a decided underdog against Flatterer, the best in the game. Gogong, trained by my father for Augustin Stable, went to the front and never looked back-downing the American champion, one of the best of all time.
I was 22, about to graduate from college, just dating my wife. I’m sure I whooped, shrieked and ran up the stretch to high-five jockey Gregg Morris, who hatched the concept of going to the front after coming from well off the pace in the Carolina Cup. We were so happy, so proud, so blown away by it all. We beat Flatterer, who gave English great See You Then all he could handle in the Champion Hurdle a month earlier at Cheltenham. We knocked off the champ which – even for a day – made us feel like champs.
Looking back, it all seems a bit hollow. Flatterer carried 178 pounds that day, 28 more than Gogong, and finished third going 2 1/8 miles. Twenty-eight pounds. Two stone to the English. Three-and-a-half gallons of milk. Imagine. And trainers today complain about a pound or two one way or the other.
I didn’t think about the weight then, and I’m not even sure I knew it at the time. Now, it feels like some sort of mistake. Really? They let that happen? Gogong was a good horse; there’s no way he should have gotten that much weight.
But Flatterer was different. Sheppard and owner Bill Pape challenged their horse. They let him carry weight, took him to France and England to tangle with the world’s best, didn’t avoid handicaps. As a 3-year-old in 1982, he started 18 times. He began the following year as a steeplechase maiden and finished as a champion with three season-ending open stakes triumphs. In 1985, Flatterer ran in the New York Turf Writers Cup on the flat – after the jump race was canceled because nobody wanted to run against the sport’s star. He finished third. His 1986 campaign might be one of the best ever-with stakes wins at Atlanta (carrying 173 pounds) and Radnor (176) in the spring, a second in the French Champion Hurdle at Auteuil in late June and a 17-length filleting of the Colonial Cup in November. His final season, 1987, started with a second in the English Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival (heady stuff for a Yank). Flatterer avenged the loss to Gogong in the $100,000 Iroquois to earn a summer vacation. Brought back for a try at the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase at Fair Hill in October, he bowed a tendon in the race and never started again.
Flatterer finished with a record $421,146 in American steeplechase earnings. The Pennsylvania-bred (by Mo Bay out of a Nade mare) did some dressage for a while, kept busy, even made a ceremonial appearance or two at the races. He doesn’t do much these days other than share his field with a retired broodmare 10 years his junior. He’s dirty, hairy, loved. And appreciated.
Thanks champ, and I’m sorry.