The final ballot is out and the task of picking the 2018 Hall of Fame class is in the hands of the voters, who will select this year’s group from the 10 finalists announced Thursday by the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame Nominating Committee.
Three jockeys, three trainers and four horses make up this year ballot of contemporary candidates, with the results announced April 16 and the induction ceremony at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion Friday, Aug. 3.
The finalists are jockeys Robby Albarado, Corey Nakatani and Craig Perret; trainers Mark Casse, John Shirreffs and David Whiteley; and racehorses Blind Luck, Gio Ponti, Havre de Grace and Heavenly Prize. Blind Luck and Havre de Grace are appearing on their first ballot.
We could reprint all the statistics, earnings, stakes races won, Eclipse Awards earned, for the finalists but everybody does that and it’s easy to find.
Instead, and keeping with a “tradition” started last year, we dug into the archives of The Saratoga Special and This Is Horse Racing to find a sampling of the nominees’ best work.
Here’s a sampling from the archives, with apologies to the finalists not included but are either limited by location or our (relatively) brief history.
Flying Blind (Blind Luck)
By Sean Clancy
Jerry Hollendorfer walked out of Saratoga Race Course and took a good long look around. Music played from Siro’s, fans funneled out and one veteran horse trainer exhaled.
“I’m glad to get it done,” Hollendorfer said simply.
Hollendorfer shipped Blind Luck from Del Mar to take on the East Coast’s best Devil May Care, on her home turf. It was an audacious move. And it worked.
Hollendorfer’s move was pragmatic – there are no main-track spots for Blind Luck at Del Mar. It was also aggressive – Eclipse Awards are won in Saratoga.
Blind Luck won for the ninth time in her career, for the fifth time this year and for the fifth time from five career starts on the dirt.
Hollendorfer looked down at his pants and shoes.
“I got mud all over me,” Hollendorfer said. “I guess it doesn’t matter.”
Blind Luck made sure nothing mattered with another patented rally to win the Grade 1 Alabama, the summer classic for 3-year-old fillies and take a white-knuckle grip of the 3-year-old filly title race.
Hollendorfer wanted the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks and the Grade 1 Alabama for Blind Luck. Those were his two goals at the beginning of the year; she won both and also took the Grade 1 Las Virgenes, Grade 2 Fantasy and Grade 2 Delaware Oaks.
Owned by Mark DeDomenico, John Carver, Peter Abruzzo and Hollendorfer, the daughter of Pollard’s Vision needed every inch of the Delaware Oaks, Kentucky Oaks and Las Virgenes, winning nose photos in the final stride. The Alabama was easy – for her – she won by a neck.
The field broke in a line and in an instant it turned into a five on one zone defense. Joel Rosario eased Blind Luck to the rail and on her own. Acting Happy stayed off the rail, squeezing Devil May Care slightly, Tizahit held her position to her outside, Connie And Michael stayed in the firing line while Jeremy Rose guided Havre de Grace to the inside, in a cozy spot in fifth.
Into the first turn, Acting Happy held the lead, well off the rail, with Tizahit to her outside and Connie And Michael widest of all in third. John Velazquez ratcheted Devil May Care into fourth while Havre de Grace found a comfortable spot in fifth. Blind Luck rated kindly in last, 2 lengths off the peloton.
Acting Happy led the packed quintet through an easy quarter of :24.03 and a half in :49.45. Longshot Tizahit stalked in second and Connie And Michael tracked to her outside. Havre de Grace sat in a pocket in fourth with Devil May Care outside in fifth. And, yes, Blind Luck trailed. Nothing changed through three quarters in 1:14.81.
And then everything changed.
In a matter of strides, Devil May Care and Havre de Grace moved, trying to get the jump on an expected rally from Blind Luck. Connie And Michael backpedaled. Tizahit followed her retreat.
In the middle of the turn, Jose Lezcano pumped Acting Happy, Rose asked Havre de Grace, Velazquez stoked Devil May Care. That’s how potent Blind Luck’s kick has proven to be over her 13-race career, Rosario sat the quietest of the four and he had 3 lengths to find.
At the quarter pole, Acting Happy clung to her knitting on the rail. Havre de Grace split horses and was rallying. Devil May Care circled in the three lane but was under more pressure than expected.
All the while, the hawk circled. Blind Luck roared past Connie And Michael and Tizahit and had the passing lane to herself, if she could pass. Acting Happy and Havre de Grace, trained by brothers Rick and Tony Dutrow, kicked clear of favorite Devil May Care who found nothing.
Passing the eighth pole, Devil May Care was finished, Havre de Grace finally got the measure of Acting Happy – and Blind Luck had them all. She devoured ground to collar Havre de Grace and win by a neck. She galloped out with her ears pricked, finishing 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.89.
Rosario remained undefeated on the filly; he won a starter allowance on her all the way back in July 2009 and the Delaware Oaks this summer. This made three.
“On the first turn, she was going really easily so I knew they were going slowly, I let her do whatever she wants. Turning for home, I said, ‘I’m going to get them for sure.’ I hadn’t asked until the quarter pole,” Rosario said. “She picks it up, picks it up, picks it up. She travels to every track and keeps going. She’s easy to ride, you have to know the pace, then it’s easy.”
For DeDomenico, Blind Luck is the culmination of more than 40 years in the business. The retired heart surgeon owns Pegasus Training and Equine Rehabilitation Center in Redmond, Washington.
“It’s the same feeling every time, you always worry that she’s not going to fire and then she does. When she got beat in California, it was a slow pace, she was closing but she couldn’t close that fast. She’s never had a bad day, you only get one,” DeDomenico said. “I’ve been in the business for over 40 years, we had Bwana Bull in the Derby but we knew he wasn’t going to win. This horse has a chance every time the gate opens, she’s going to try. It’s a tough business. They are very few. Very few. Every time, she comes to run. I know you only get one.”
Hollendorfer helped engineer the purchase of Blind Luck after the $11,000 yearling won her 2-year-old debut at Calder by 13 1/4 lengths for Juvenal Diaz and trainer James Hatchett. Hollendorfer said that his group beat another group by 15 minutes to get the deal done. She’s now 9-for-13, with two second and two thirds for over $1.8 million.
“We gave quite a bit more money than the maiden 40 she ran in, we weren’t the only ones in there trying to give money for her, we got lucky to get her in the first place,” Hollendorfer said. “We always liked her, the way she trained. It hasn’t surprised me she’s been this consistent.”
Hollendorfer made his living dominating northern California racing and has gradually carved a foothold in southern California racing. He hired former Bobby Frankel assistant Dan Ward, and things have begun to come together. Blind Luck can only help.
“We’re doing lots of traveling, it’s worth trying to build the stable in southern California, it’s been working out pretty good. I used to be able to run all my horses in Northern California, they had a lot of stakes but the deterioration of racing forced me to do something else,” Hollendorfer said. “This filly makes a big difference. There’s usually plenty of races in California but not for 3-year-old fillies on the dirt, there’s no dirt races, there’s no synthetic races. Del Mar is all turf for 3-year-old fillies and 3-year-old colts. She’s just one of those horses that can do it every time. There’s no explanation to it. I just let it be.”
He’s had good fillies before – Lite Light, Hystericalady, Pike Place Dancer – but refuses to put a burden on Blind Luck.
“I’ve had a lot of stakes-winning fillies, each horse is different,” Hollendorfer said. “I don’t like to compare them that much. Each horse has their own way of doing things.”
Hollendorfer wants to win the Eclipse Award with Blind Luck and knew he had to topple Devil May Care in the Alabama at Saratoga.
“Everything looks good now, it’s a relief,” Hollendorfer said. “I was pretty relaxed today, when you see her laying that close on a slow pace, you don’t know if she can close it down but at least she had a chance, the boy rode a really smart race.”
After traveling to Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs, Delaware Park and now Saratoga, Blind Luck will get a short freshening before perhaps taking another trip to Philadelphia Park for the Fitz Dixon Cotillion Oct. 2. If she wins that, then it’s on to the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs.
In the Trustees’ Room after the Alabama, Hollendorfer joked with breeder Dr. Bill Baker.
“I’ll try to get some weight on her to make you feel better, we know she’s a little bit light,” Hollendorfer said.
Baker wasn’t worried.
“Well, she keeps firing them off,” Baker said. “I’ve been following her around the country, doesn’t have a pimple on her, doesn’t wear bandages. I breed four to six a year, that’s a high percentage rate.”
Hollendorfer has been doing that his whole life.
Moments after Hollendorfer had won his first race at Saratoga, NYRA’s Charlie Hayward made a suggestion to the fourth all-time winningest trainer in history.
“Now we’ve got to get you in that little building across the street.”
Hollendorfer took a sip of his Diet Coke.
“The Hall of Fame.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Hollendorfer said.
Blind Luck is a lock.
(Editor’s note: Hollendorfer was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011)
Havre de Grace beats the boys
By Joe Clancy
Larry Jones picked up a shank, shook jockey Ramon Dominguez’s hand and walked toward Havre de Grace as the field began to assemble for riders up in the paddock.
“The only thing I can tell you, Ramon, is when you turn for home, light out, don’t let these boys think they have a shot.”
Dominguez nodded, went out, and did exactly that.
And, indeed, the boys didn’t have a shot.
Fox Hill Farm’s Havre de Grace won the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths over Flat Out and Rule.
Jones watched the race from the same clubhouse TV he watched Proud Spell win the 2008 Alabama, bracing on a trash can for the first part and bouncing off his feet for the second.
At the three-eighths pole, as Havre de Grace began to rev up, Jones basically said the same thing he said before the race, just with a little more inflection and emotion.
“Come on baby girl. Come on baby girl. Take it to him, Flat Out’s right on you, light out Ramon, don’t be waiting, don’t be waiting. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. Keep going baby. Come on girl. Come on girl. Don’t wait on ‘em. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.”
Havre de Grace kept going, all the way to her fourth tally of the year, seventh in her career and first against the boys. Jones’ confidence was vindicated.
“I ain’t never seen where boys are good at something and there wasn’t some smart ass girl that thinks she can do it better,” Jones cackled.
Havre de Grace followed Rachel Alexandra’s lead, giving fillies victories in two of the past three runnings of the 58-year-old stakes. Havre de Grace broke alertly from the 6 stall, Dominguez pressed her lightly to get a position early in the 9-furlong stakes as Rule shot to the lead. Convocation stayed close in second with Rule’s stablemate Mission Impazible third and Havre de Grace outside in fourth.
After a quarter mile in :23.93, Rule enjoyed a clear lead as Mission Impazible and Convocation switched spots and Havre de Grace still lobbed along in the clear in fourth. Mambo Meister came next on the outside with Flat Out and Giant Oak inside, completing the compact field of seven. Ice Box trailed.
Rule posted a half in :48.09 as Mission Impazible tracked in second and Havre de Grace stalked menacingly on the outside. Flat Out made up ground quickly to get on the heels of Havre de Grace – and provoke Jones’ plea to Dominguez. After three quarters in 1:11.95, Rule still led but Havre de Grace rolled to him as Mission Impazible came under pressure and Flat Out entered the fray.
Turning for home, Rule clung to his lead as Dominguez quickly switched his whip to his left hand and gave the filly a quick call, collaring Rule in a flash. Passing the eighth pole, Havre de Grace gained the lead for good as Flat Out stayed to the task, getting past Rule late to complete his second game second at Saratoga. Havre de Grace finished 9 furlongs in 1:49.18.
“She really did it the right way, she showed she’s the real deal,” Dominguez said. “I wanted to be very forwardly placed, that’s what Larry and I talked about, I knew Rule would go and I wasn’t too happy to be wide around the turn but at the same time I wasn’t going to give up my position. She settled so nicely and covered so much ground, I was able to track them and she relaxed so much for me. It was a good feeling turning for home, she just keeps giving when you ask her.”
In 13 career starts, the daughter of Saint Liam has never finished worse than third. She’s won the Woodward, Cotillion, Azeri, Apple Blossom, Obeah and finished second in the Go For Wand, Delaware Oaks, Alabama and Delaware Handicap.
The latter was tough to swallow as Havre de Grace finished behind 3-year-old filly champion Blind Luck for the fourth time, third time in a photo. Blind Luck beat her by a nose in the Delaware Oaks, a neck in the Alabama and a nose in the Delaware Handicap where Havre de Grace battled Blind Luck the length of the stretch and lost a heartbreaker. After the loss, Jones and Porter watched Blind Luck’s every move, if she came back for the Personal Ensign, that’s where they would go. If she stayed away from Saratoga, they would try the Woodward.
After getting beat in the Delaware Handicap, we had to start thinking we need to get back in front of the division,” Jones said. “We were afraid Blind Luck was going to come run in the Personal Ensign. If she got on a plane to come here, I wanted Jerry (Hollendorfer) to know, ‘I’m loading and going because we’re ready, don’t think you’re coming 3,000 miles and hook it easy.’ Apparently he decided he ought to rest her and get ready for the Breeders’ Cup.”
Jones and Fox Hill’s Rick Porter put together a tour schedule at the beginning of the year, culminating in the Breeders’ Cup. An easy first step in the Azeri at Oaklawn Park, check. The Grade 1 Apple Blossom, check. The Grade 3 Obeah back at home, check. Then the Delaware Handicap. Ouch. Once Blind Luck decided to say in California, Jones and Porter went on a mission.
“Early in the year, we went over a gameplan of what Rick wanted to accomplish. We wanted the Apple Blossom, we wanted the Delaware Handicap and we wanted to take on the boys somewhere,” Jones said. “He wanted to put her in a situation where she could not only win a championship for the fillies but could be considered for Horse of the Year. We knew we had to beat the boys for that to be a consideration. I said let’s look toward the Woodward. Early, this was our number one spot to attempt it and it all came together.”
Havre de Grace is a nose away from being 5-for-5 on the year. The Woodward represented a big task – coming off a seven-week layoff and taking on seven rivals who had combined to win 35 races.
“It is relief,” Jones said on his way to pick up his papers and silks after the race. “This was the race I was a little concerned with, the seven weeks, we counted backwards from the Breeders’ Cup on what we wanted to do. If I had an iffy race, I was hoping she could overcome this, I’m tickled, relieved, it took off a lot of pressure, now it’s just not goofing it up.”
Jones left with a check for $450,000 and an established plan to get to the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup. First the Beldame at Belmont Park Oct. 1, then ship to Keeneland to prepare for the clash of the year with Blind Luck or the boys or perhaps both.
Jones won’t hesitate.
“Nobody, I’ll be honest with you,” Jones said when asked which one of his horses compared to Havre de Grace. “Maybe Eight Belles would have gotten to this level, she wasn’t at the time. Hard Spun was fast but he really had to start to work after a mile. Proud Spell just didn’t have the size to her. You can ship (Havre de Grace), she doesn’t care. She’s easy to gallop, she just lopes around, if you want it, you’ve got it, if you don’t want it, they’re happy not to. I’ve never had one like this, seriously, I just haven’t.”
Dominguez knew that long ago.
“He told me that three races back,” he said. “She’s the whole package.”
True Turf (Mark Casse)
By Sean Clancy
Mark Casse sat with Charlotte Weber in her clubhouse box before the Fourstardave Stakes and told World Approval’s owner the truth.
“Charlotte, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Casse said. “But I’m going to tell you this, he’s never been better in his life.”
After the Fourstardave, Weber had a question for Casse.
“Can we run again?” Weber asked. “Like tomorrow?”
Yes, World Approval was that good, dominating five rivals in the Grade 1 stakes run over a yielding inner turf course after an afternoon storm pummeled Saratoga. It wasn’t the Birdstone storm. Certainly not Little Current/Holding Pattern. And nothing close to Hurricane Irene when they cancelled the races. But, Saturday’s afternoon storm wreaked havoc on the best-laid plans of trainers who had all their bases covered except for Mother Nature’s wrath.
For the front-running filly Sassy Little Lila and the 6-furlong world record holder Disco Partner, the mile became a mountain. For six-time winner Time Test and millionaire World Approval, both coming out of the 10-furlong Manhattan, the mile slid straight into their wheelhouse.
“I looked at it and said, ‘It’s not going to hurt us.’ I thought it would hurt Disco Partner and for us, we were cutting back,” Casse said. “Let’s just say, it didn’t hurt my feelings.”
World Approval broke accurately from the outside stall as Manny Franco, aboard for the first time, allowed his natural speed to stake a prominent spot in third, outside Sassy Little Lila and Ballagh Rocks as the field ripped into the first turn. Tyler Gaffalione tapped the brakes of Disco Partner, conserving his speed, in fourth. Favorite Time Test found an inside spot even with Disco Partner. American Patriot broke awkwardly and galloped awkwardly into the first turn, lagging well off the peloton.
Sassy Little Lila cleared Ballagh Rocks to post the first quarter in :24.64 and a half in :49.86. Leaving the backside, Sassy Little Lila led by a length as Ballagh Rocks moved into a lane outside the filly and Franco guided World Approval into a stalking spot three wide. Time Test, under restraint, tracked those three and Disco Partner waited outside Time Test. Turning for home, Franco asked World Approval to engage the leaders, which didn’t take long. Sassy Little Lila wilted first, Ballagh Rocks second as Franco switched his whip to his left hand, smacked World Approval and powered to the lead. Time Test continued to gallop but couldn’t make up ground, Disco Partner flattened out and World Approval kept rolling, widening to a 2 1/4-length win over Time Test and Ballagh Rocks as Franco switched his whip back to his right hand, turned it down and then stood tall, pumping his whip in exultation of his third Grade 1 triumph.
The Live Oak homebred finished the mile in 1:37.65, earning his second Grade 1 stakes score and ninth career victory. Casse was not surprised.
“We wanted to run him so bad, he’s so good right now, we were having trouble keeping him in his stall all afternoon, he was so fired up,” Casse said. “I told Mrs. Weber, this horse has never been better, this horse has never been better. We told Manny, ‘Just give him a target, believe me, ride him with confidence.’ To win the way he did and with such authority…”
World Approval has spent most of his life as an authority. Vicious in the morning, the son of Northern Afleet is voracious in the afternoon. He didn’t finish worse than fourth in 13 consecutive starts from March 2015, when he broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park to when he won Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth Park in July 2016. This year, he won the Turf Classic at Tampa Bay Downs and the Grade 2 Dixie at Pimlico before finishing fifth in the Grade 1 Manhattan at Belmont Park June 10.
Casse was impressed from the first day.
“When he won his first race for us, I called Mrs. Weber and said I think we have a special horse,” Casse said.
World Approval proved Casse right not long after that call with a victory in a restricted stakes at Tampa Bay in his next start. He added the American Derby and Saranac later that summer. After he finished fourth in the Hill Prince in October of his 3-year-old season, Casse called Weber again. A call that he credits to part of World Approval’s longevity.
“When he was a 3-year-old, I told Mrs. Weber, ‘His numbers say he can’t play with the big boys, the older horses. We should send him home for the winter.’ She said, ‘Sure.’ We sent him home,” Casse said. “I like to give them time off and send them back to the farm and Mrs. Weber thinks the same way.”
World Approval has never made a start in December, January or February and he’s won his seasonal debut each year he’s raced. This year, Casse was worried about that sequence as World Approval dawdled through his early training.
“He struggled all winter, we just couldn’t get him happy, just physically, he wasn’t doing good, we were struggling. You know, every horse struggles at some point, Tepin struggled, we contemplated giving him a little more time off but he worked himself through it and now he’s good, same thing with Classic Empire, they’re not machines. We kept going and it worked out well. He shows up, though, he was so good today.”
At the end of the day, Weber and Casse celebrated World Approval’s win with a champagne toast among friends and family.
“She and I have been in Ocala since I was a little boy, all along, I wanted to train for them and I never did, her and my dad were friends, I started training for them about four years ago and my dad passed away, so this is special. She’s been a part of my life for 40 some years.”
Cup of Coffee: Zen Ten (John Shirreffs)
By Sean Clancy
It took John Shirreffs 10 minutes.
Ten minutes to get over the worst defeat of his life, the only defeat of Zenyatta’s life.
Seeking her 20th win in her 20th start, in the dying light of a cold November evening at Churchill Downs, Zenyatta closed feet when she needed yards, falling a head short of Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. A tantalizing, yet agonizing head stopped a perfect ending to a perfect career.
Shirreffs followed Zenyatta back to the test barn, where the 6-year-old mare cooled out like always, blowing off the exertion like she had run to the mailbox for a letter. Ten minutes, to be exact.
“In 10 minutes, the other horses were huffing and puffing, she had her ears pricked, looking over the fence at the people outside,” Shirreffs said. “Just seeing how unaffected she was about it, that really helped, to see that she wasn’t down. She won 19 in a row. How can you be disappointed? It’s impossible to be disappointed. Then you reflect on what great gifts she gave us along the way.”
Those gifts culminated in Zenyatta being inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame Friday. A first-ballot inductee, Zenyatta added wattage to a star-studded class that included jockey Ramon Dominguez, trainer Steve Asmussen and the other great filly of the 2000s, Rachel Alexandra.
Shirreffs, who stabled here the past few summers, flew from California for the ceremony, celebrating his best horse. After the induction, Shirreffs stood in his own peaceful isolation, smiling and nodding, as fans and horsemen asked him to pose for photos, sign the brim of a Zenyatta hat and talk about the dark bay daughter of Street Cry. In front of the stage, in the middle of a bustling crowd, the 71-year-old conditioner felt at ease with what Zenyatta had accomplished in her iconic career.
“The thing is she overcame so much,” Shirreffs said. “Her races were just a mirror image of what she was, what she overcame.”
Sometimes, trainers speak in sound bites, not expecting to be asked to elaborate on those bites. When asked what Zenyatta had overcome, Shirreffs hesitated and then explained the stones that made Stonehenge.
“She overcame her fear of the gate. She overcame being physically too big, she had to overcome a lot of little things,” Shirreffs said. “She had to find a way to put it together, to be a successful racehorse, she had to find a way to lengthen her stride, she didn’t run harder at the end of the races, she just had that uncanny ability to lengthen her stride, you could see her head come down and her stride get longer. I remember one trainer told the exercise rider, ‘You know, I don’t think she’s going to be too much, she carries her head too high.’ I said, ‘Not at the end of the race.’ ”
No, never at the end of the race.
Owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta made her debut at the end of her 3-year-old season, won an allowance race in her next start and then ran in 18 consecutive graded stakes, winning the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic in 2008 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2009.
Shirreffs and the late great exercise rider Steve Willard realized early that Zenyatta was special, that all they had to do was keep the train on the tracks.
“Steve, we don’t have to reinvent training here,” Shirreffs said to Willard, after her first race. “We just have to follow the proven path, the path that’s been successful for generations and generations and generations.”
Willard nodded and fell easily into that routine, a semblance of commons sense and horse sense.
“You know what the horse likes and you stick with it. You don’t get fancy at the end, ‘Oh, today, I think I need to give her a real good blowout,’ well that’s a change in routine,” Shirreffs said. “We stuck with her routine, work every eight days, train her on the training track, when we took her to the main track, we stood her in a certain place, because she had so much energy, that we had to conserve it before the race. Walking over to the paddock, she did enough, so we stood her on the racetrack and waited until all the other horses warmed up and went to the gate, just the little things we found out, then we did that.”
The routine produced 19 wins, a second, four Eclipse Awards, $7.3 million in earnings and a plaque on Union Avenue. Along the way, Zenyatta made fans and friends as Shirreffs always made her accessible.
“You get so close to the horses that you’re training, and Zenyatta, you get even closer because she’s so special,” Shirreffs said. “It’s just great to see everybody appreciate her the way we did. It’s like, ‘Sharing is caring,’ it’s that kind of feeling, where everybody cared and we were all sharing.”
Their way: Gio Ponti and Winchester (Gio Ponti)
The agony of an inch (Robby Albarado)
Note: Hall of Fame voters may select as many candidates as they believe are worthy of induction to the Hall of Fame. All candidates that receive majority approval (50.1 percent or higher) of the voting panel will be elected to the Hall of Fame. The former rule capping the number of inductees at four has been eliminated by the Museum’s Executive Committee. All the finalists were required to support from two-thirds of the Nominating Committee to qualify for the ballot.