I write horses’ stories, watch them race, see them train, maybe get to say hello in the barn or feed them a mint. Some, I’ve forgotten about. Others, I can’t help but remember.
And I remember Change Of Command.
Owner/breeder Juanita Morris called him the biggest horse she’d ever seen and he was in training with Mike Trombetta at Fair Hill. I saw Mike one day and asked about the horse. Mike called him The Giant or some other nickname and I laughed.
“How tall is he?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Mike replied. “Pretty tall.”
So I asked if I could measure him. Though I’m not sure I would have, Mike agreed and I showed up at the barn with a wooden “stick” from the 1950s probably and photographer Maggie Kimmitt. Outside in the barn courtyard, we found a level spot and I stepped in with the folding contraption. Think cross between a praying mantis and a yardstick. The Giant looked at me like I was mad, but stood still long enough to slide the cross piece across his withers at 17 hands, 2 1/2 inches. Pretty tall was right.
And he could run. Despite not making his debut until age 4 and getting loose in the post parade for what was supposed to be his first start, Change Of Command won nine races for his breeders Juanita and Wayne Morris. The bay gelding finished second in the 2012 Maryland Million Turf, won Monmouth Park’s Elkwood Stakes (in a record 1:33.33 for a mile) in 2013 and generally gave the best performance he could every time he could.
“He’s just a killer, a racehorse,” Trombetta said one day. “He’s cool. I love him. He goes out there and trains as forward as he can be every day.”
All that training made him some racehorse. He won twice as a 4-year-old, and put together a 5-year-old season with three wins, four seconds and three thirds (and $146,640) from a dozen starts. That mark included a second, to Fair Hill neighbor Roadhog, in the Maryland Million Turf. Change Of Command won three of nine the next year, including a stakes, and looked set to make some more noise on Maryland Million Day before the turf came up soft. He finished eighth as Roadhog edged Ben’s Cat. Soft turf did not agree with The Giant (Trombetta said the horse was so big he sunk).
Like many racing careers, Change Of Command’s took a different turn when he was claimed away in January 2015. The pricetag was $35,000, and the Morrises felt like they’d let him down. They’d bred their mare Doctor Campbell to the stallion Gators N Bears, gotten this cool horse and found success with him. They loved to watch him run, were his biggest fans. They bragged about him. Then they no longer owned him.
“It’s more of a dilemma than people think,” said Juanita. “The problem is there’s nowhere to run these horses after they get a certain age and are out of conditions. I know a lot of breeders, it breaks their heart when their horses are claimed.”
And so it was with The Giant and the Morrises. He won the race he was claimed from, which meant a check for $60,200. About a month after he was claimed, by trainer Jorge Navarro and owner Ron Hendrickson, Change Of Command finished third in the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida Stakes. Two races later, he finished last in a $40,000 claimer. At Monmouth last September, he won for $30,000.
In January back at Gulfstream, a year and seven days after he was claimed the first time, Change Of Command got claimed again – this time for $16,000 – by trainer Mike Maker. The new barn would only get to run the horse three times – a second at the same level March 3, a 10th in the Grade 2 Muniz Memorial at Fair Grounds 23 days later. He made the last start of his career, sixth in a starter allowance, at Churchill Downs May 13.
Maker called Trombetta. And Trombetta called Wayne Morris.
“I’ve got some wonderful news,” the trainer said. “We’ve got Change Of Command coming back. We’ll keep this as a surprise for your wife. We’ll have him shipped into Fair Hill and then make arrangements to get him down to you.”
And The Giant arrived at the Morrises’ farm in Quantico, Md., where he was born, May 25.
“He looks absolutely fantastic and you could tell that he knew he was home,” said Wayne Morris. “My wife saw him through teary eyes, she was tickled to death to see him. He really looks great.”
Juanita Morris loved the surprise, even if she just thought it was another horse van rolling up the driveway.
“The van driver was walking off and when I saw who it was I just started crying,” she said. “The guy looked at me like ‘Oh my God what’s wrong?’ “
Nothing. Change Of Command was home, that’s all. After 43 starts at 13 racetracks, 10 wins, eight seconds, seven thirds and $428,725 in earnings, the big horse was home.
The 9-year-old Maryland-bred will do pretty much nothing for as long as he wants. His daily routine includes rolling, eating, sleeping and – hopefully – staying in the field. Juanita peppers her Facebook account with photos. My favorite is where the young horses are all straining for a glimpse over the fence. Long-range, he may get a chance at a second career but it won’t be far from the Morrises.
“Right now we just want to enjoy him and let him enjoy us,” said Wayne. “We really haven’t made any plans. He may just want to stay home and keep us company.”
I can’t wait to visit. I’ll leave the measuring stick at home.
The Giant is home, with some small friends (Juanita Morris photo).
Change of Command baby photo (Juanita Morris photo).
The day I measured The Giant (Maggie Kimmitt photo).