The news that hurts

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Slowly but surely getting adjusted to LAS – Life After Saratoga – and the news this morning brought me back to a couple mornings spent at the Oklahoma Training Track and other mornings and afternoons from years gone by that seem a lot more recent than they are.

The news was that Mentor Cane broke down in a workout and was euthanized at Belmont Park. This is the kind of news that hurts. Bad.

The mornings were spent with John Shirreffs, a man I respect and a man I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know a little through the years. The first meetings were back in 2005, when Shirreffs sent Giacomo to a 50-1 upset of the Kentucky Derby.

The story about that year’s Derby fell into my lap. It started with less than 10 minutes to post when I noticed Shirreffs was standing right next to me down on the outside rail just past the tunnel from the paddock to the racetrack at Churchill Downs. We exchanged greetings, I wished him luck and didn’t think much of it.

Minutes later I saw what real joy looks like.

As Giacomo and Mike Smith picked off rivals on the outside, Shirreffs and exercise rider Frankie Herrarte were right in the moment. They jumped up and down. They rooted. They jumped some more. Finally, they embraced as Giacomo got up to beat Closing Argument by a half.

Real joy, right there, front and center.

Like I said, the story fell into my lap.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rooting at least a little for a similar outcome two years later when Shirreffs brought Giacomo’s full brother Tiago to the Derby.

After watching Tiago train one morning at Churchill before the Derby I suddenly found myself on one end of a lead shank holding Shirreffs’ pony as he headed to his temporary barn office to attend to some business. He returned five or 10 minutes later, asked if the pony gave me any trouble (he didn’t) and we did what reporters and trainers do on mornings like that, we talked about the Derby.

There weren’t many opportunities for any one-on-one interactions or interviews with Shirreffs during the Zenyatta years, aside from a spur of the moment multimedia interview I did with former co-worker Greg Charkoudian prior to the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale.

Shirreffs moved his horses to New York earlier this year. One of the first stories I wrote in my first year for The Saratoga Special was on Eblouissante, Zenyatta’s full sister who ran in the Grade 3 Shuvee the second day and first Saturday of the meet. Toward the end of our morning we wound up chatting about Mentor Cane, a 3-year-old Mizzen Mast colt who broke his maiden about two weeks earlier.

Shirreffs was high on the colt, said he was one they always liked. He laughed a bit when the conversation wound around to the colt’s post-race antics that included dumping Edgar Prado on the way back to be unsaddled. Mentor Cane started next in the Grade 2 Amsterdam, led early and veered out around the far turn and at the top of the stretch before finishing fourth.

Shirreffs said afterwards that while he was disappointed Mentor Cane finished fourth, but not unhappy with the colt. Then the trainer – who will wind up in the Hall of Fame for his handling of the great Zenyatta but probably deserving of the honor for what he’s done on scores of other top-tier stakes winners – went to work.

One of my last mornings for the 2013 Saratoga meet was spent with Shirreffs, his crew and Mentor Cane. The focus of our preview for the Grade 1 King’s Bishop on the Travers undercard was Mentor Cane and what Shirreffs did with him between the Amsterdam and King’s Bishop to prepare him for the challenge of taking on 13 other fast 3-year-olds in the 7-furlong race.

Shirreffs galloped Mentor Cane behind the pony, something he did several times before and after the King’s Bishop, and not something you see everyday at racetracks in North America. Again, one of the reasons why Shirreffs deserves to be in the Hall of Fame sooner than later.

Whether the training was the key or Mentor Cane just put it together a bit better may never been known What is known is that Mentor Cane rated off the pace, ran well, and finished second after getting caught late by Capo Bastone close to the finish.

I saw him one more time after that King’s Bishop, again training behind the pony, that time on the Oklahoma Training Track. He looked a little more relaxed that morning, not ready to climb over his workmate “like King Kong,” the way Sean Clancy described it before the King’s Bishop.

Mentor Cane was a colt with a great future. The Grade 1 Vosburgh was mentioned as his next start, against older horses, sprinting again at Belmont. His injury ended that future right there in the present. Mentor Cane’s past, officially a record of one win in five starts with two seconds and a third, will eventually be forgotten by most, lost in the minutia of the everyday news of racing, high-dollar horses at Keeneland, winners and losers of inconsequential weekday races.

Fortunately I’ve got a job that puts me in position to see great things and to remember even better ones for years to come.

I’m thankful for that. And I’m thankful for people like John Shirreffs and thankful for horses like Mentor Cane.