Playing favorites

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Whitmore is my favorite horse.

There it is, in print, typed almost 48 hours after Whitmore finished fifth in the Grade 1 Forego and needed a ride back to the stakes barn in a horse ambulance. 

It’s been written on these pages before, notably in Sean Clancy’s column titled “Law of 50” commemorating my birthday. In the 50 reasons Sean said, “we like our friend, our rock, Tom Law” he pegged it at No. 28: “His favorite horse is Whitmore.”

Apologies if this is getting redundant, but real journalists aren’t supposed to play favorites so maybe it’s getting carried away. It’s refreshing to put it out there, even if it’s well known. 

Chance Moquett saw the column and stopped me in the paddock before the Grade 1 Vanderbilt July 31 – which happens to be my birthday and the same day Whitmore appeared on the cover of The Special; coincidence? – and joked “people were taunting us on the walk over here, saying ‘Tom Law’s favorite horse, Tom Law’s favorite horse.’ ” Somehow that felt like a mini arrival, the fans taking note, of a column and a sentiment.

Ron Moquett, Chance’s father and Whitmore’s trainer, compatriot, caregiver and cheerleader, saw it, too. About two weeks after the Vanderbilt, where Whitmore finished third to be either 1-2-3 in a Grade 1 for the eighth time in 14 attempts, Moquett walked back to the stakes barn with his wife Laura aboard on his trainees. 

“Hey, stop by the barn later, I have something for you,” Moquett said, spotting me helping Olivia Johnson deliver copies of The Special to a grandstand paper rack. After finishing some work in the barn area, I made my way to the stakes barn to see what Moquett meant, but by the time I made it he’d already finished for the day and was nowhere to be found. 

Somehow – well that’s not a stretch given it was Fourstardave Day and just before the start of the New York-bred yearling sale at the end of a long stretch when our minds are mush – I forgot to go back the next day and the day after that. Thankfully Sean stopped by the stakes barn to check on his jumpers for that Thursday’s Johnathan Sheppard, ran into Moquett and retrieved what was waiting for me. 

“Right off his head,” Sean said as I stood dumbfounded, leather halter with the shiny brass nameplate Whitmore, in my hands in the middle of our office here on East Avenue. 

Floored, I immediately called Moquett. 

“Hey Ron, it’s Tom Law,” I said, before he could finish saying hello. “Do you remember  that time you asked me, ‘who’s your favorite trainer?’ Well, now I have an answer.”

We laughed, remembering the conversation from 2017 when I stopped by the stakes barn for a Stable Tour and learned about everything from developing racehorses to why owners are so wrongly obsessed with win percentage. We hit it off from that day, even if I didn’t have an answer to the favorite trainer question. Remember, real journalists aren’t supposed to play favorites. Although if you ask any of the interns through the years, they’d be quick to identify a long list of trainers I’d say is “my man.”

Whitmore had just returned to Kentucky that 2017 morning, after coming to Saratoga for the Vanderbilt but going home after being troublesome in the van from Albany. He could be like that, Moquett said, and by the time he went to the gate last Saturday just about everyone knew about Whitmore’s idiosyncrasies. 

Covering his Forego win in 2018 stands out as a favorite, walking through the grandstand with Moquett and hanging out just outside the test barn with Whitmore and City Of Light. A few months later brought me to Churchill Downs and Moquett’s office above his barn where he showed me his peep holes, one about 4 feet from the floor “for jockeys” and another at the standard height. He finished second in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint, a race he ran in four times and won last year. 

Races are one thing; moments are another. The best and worst – but maybe not so bad in the end – came this year.

The best Friday, when Moquett welcomed Declan Molloy to the barn, introduced him to Whitmore and talked Secretariat with a 9-year-old horse-crazy kid. The worst Saturday, when I stepped through the walkway of the stakes barn not knowing what to expect after the Forego. Thankfully the mood was light, even with two veterinarians X-raying last year’s champion sprinter. 

Whitmore stood still during the quick procedure, while Ron Moquette stood in the stall and Laura Moquett did everything from adjusting a fan to packing ice boots. 

“It’s not career ending but it is for him,” Ron Moquett said a few minutes after the vets told him about a minor fracture. “It’s something a young horse could come back from but I’m not going to take a shot. He has too much class and he’s done too much for us. Thankfully he’s walking sound. He walked off the van and on the van sound. But we will double check and if we see something we’ll do what we need to do. But right now I’m tickled to death. He’s in there being a jerk and that’s my boy.”

Thanks for being a jerk Whitmore, for being yourself and for benig my favorite horse.