You’re not supposed to root and report. Sometimes you can’t help it.
I was rooting for Mambo In Seattle.
For the simplest of reasons. I respect Neil Howard, I like the horse and after spending 20 minutes with Howard and the horse who was chiseled from stone Friday, the story was all but written. I can’t decide which one of those reasons made the result sting the most.
It was the cruelest head bob.
When Mambo In Seattle stretched, he was a head in front. When Colonel John stretched, he was the slimmest of noses in front. Live, there was no way he got beat. When it slowed down – frame by agonizing frame – I could feel the story slip away.
Colonel John got the bob. Cool horse. Looked beautiful in the paddock. Deserving connections. He earned it, nothing begrudged. Eoin Harty shipped east when he didn’t have to and took on 11 rivals on a surface Colonel John had never won over. Owner WinStar Farm pours money into this sport like Hershey’s pours chocolate. The horse’s namesake, an American hero, was at the races. Heck, Susan Casner (wife of WinStar’s Bill Casner) picked out the mare because she fell in love with her in the back ring at Keeneland. All the advisors, statistics and numbers and a woman sees tenacity and fire in a mare . . . and a man buys a mare for a woman. Sweet Damsel becomes the best mare on the farm.
But, still, I wish Mambo In Seattle would have won.
Full disclosure, I bet $100 to win on Mambo In Seattle so, sure, I was rooting from my pocket too. But mostly because of Neil Howard. If you took a poll on the backside and asked every trainer, every owner, every groom, every hotwalker, every writer if they had to pick one trainer to win the Travers, Howard would have been at the top. After the race, Barclay Tagg, who saddled seventh-place finisher Tale Of Ekati, looked at the toteboard in disgust.
“Man, Neil Howard should have won that,” Tagg said.
Again, nobody has a problem with Harty, he’s honest, down to earth and a horseman, but Howard flies in a different universe. Yes, he trains the bluest of bluebloods for Will Farish and his powerful partners, but there’s nothing easy about that. Mambo In Seattle is by Kingmambo out of Weekend in Seattle (a sister to A. P. Indy and Summer Squall).
Howard takes that responsibility with utmost respect. He’s never respected a horse or a race as much as Mambo In Seattle and the 2008 Travers. Mambo In Seattle gradually became a Travers horse. Howard worked his way through three conditions before trying a stakes and when he did try a stakes it was the restricted Henry Walton, on the Jim Dandy undercard. The Travers was his first graded stakes start. First. It was Colonel John’s sixth.
“With these well-bred expensive horses, with the money these owners put in, you’ve got to use more judgment than you’ve ever used before. We’re obligated to do it. Obligated,” Howard said Friday morning. “Mr. Farish says it perfectly, ‘Let’s analyze it, but not overanalyze it.’ I like to try and feel how you’re going to feel afterwards win, lose or draw. You want that feeling that if you had to do it over again, 99 out of 100 times you’d still want to do the same thing. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re trying to take the space shuttle somewhere and all that.”
That’s Howard. He’s got an innate sense to back off talking when he thinks he’s sounding boastful, arrogant, confident or self-important. You want to put a trainer in front of Congress? Call Neil Howard. Please.
“I think we as trainers have to remember that we represent the sport. I don’t pat myself on the back but I will in that area, when you’re at the top of your profession, there is a certain obligation to certain behavior that goes with it,” Howard said earlier this meet. “I don’t care who you are. If you’re going to go over there and win that kind of money and win those kind of races, you have to act like you’ve been there before.”
Howard probably wouldn’t want that in print. But that’s why I’m printing it.
In the Travers story that was already written, Mambo In Seattle wins the bob and the story ends with Howard marching me down to Mambo In Seattle’s stall Friday morning. The trainer ducks under the webbing and tells me touch the horse’s neck.
“He’s solid, isn’t he? It almost makes you wonder how things could go so smooth, it never does. We don’t feel like we’ve pushed him over his limits to get here,” Howard said Friday morning. “If he gets a good trip, not too far back . . . Man, what it would mean to win that race tomorrow. It would be the greatest thing in the world.”