Once upon a time there were two young horses frolicking about in the field at Glennwood Farm in Versailles, Ky. They were both the same color, both had excellent parentage, and both were headed to the Keeneland September yearling sale. One sold for $410,000 and the other for $500,000, giving John and Tanya Gunther, who operate Glennwood Farm, a pretty hefty payday.
Unlike most cases, both grew up to be stars. But that is where the similarities ended. One of the youngsters, the bigger and stronger and more imposing of the two, grew up and made history by becoming racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner. His name was Justify.
The other, named Vino Rosso, was the more classically bred of the two. His immediate relatives included sire Curlin, grandsire Street Cry, and great-grandsire Touch Gold. Although he was able to make a name for himself on the Kentucky Derby trail by winning the Wood Memorial, he spent most of the Triple Crown futilely chasing his childhood buddy. Even after Justify was yanked off the racetrack and retired following the Belmont Stakes, Vino Rosso still was not able to crack the big time, falling short in the Jim Dandy and Travers stakes.
With our top horses being retired so early, it was refreshing to see Vino Rosso return at 4 to try to make a name for himself. He did manage to win the listed Stymie Stakes before traveling cross country and knocking off the leading older horse in California, Gift Box, in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita.
In his most recent start, he showed his gameness and versatility by going to the lead early and then digging in and holding off Travers winner Code of Honor to win the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup, only to be disqualified. So, the biggest win of his career was snatched away from him.
Now he has another chance for redemption when he heads back to Santa Anita to try to win the granddaddy of them all, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and with it a likely Eclipse Award as champion older horse.
While the colt has his fans, there will be one person you can bet will be a nervous wreck, with a faucet of tears just waiting to be turned on. It would not be the first time Tanya Gunther cried when it came to Vino Rosso. Tanya is the one who handles the matings for Glennwood Farm, and these are all her babies. But Vino Rosso has always had a special place in her heart and he knows how to get Tanya’s tears flowing.
And it has nothing to do with him as a racehorse. It is just who he is and he who has always been. And that is why Tanya wept openly when she had to bid him farewell at the yearling sale.
“I burst into tears when the hammer went down at Keeneland, shocking a few people, including myself since I thought I would hold it together a little better than that or at least wait until I got back to our consignment,” Tanya said. “I remember one guy who witnessed my small outburst exclaiming, ‘What's wrong?’ with a worried look. Maybe he thought the colt had stepped on my toe or something. But actually I had become so attached to the horse and was so proud of him that he sold well, but also sad to see him go. He was such a nice horse to be around; always relaxed as if nothing ever seemed to bother him.
“He liked to sleep a lot, a memory that stuck in my mind because my dad has always said he likes a horse that’s a good sleeper. He was easy to work with all the way through sales prep, in contrast to some colts who can become perhaps a bit too full of themselves as they become more fit and act like your arm might be their next savory meal. Then at the sale, he took it all in stride from the word go and was consistently good and well-behaved.
“After he sold and I went back to the consignment to say my goodbyes to him. Jim Martin (racing manger for Mike Repole, who purchased him with Vinnie Viola’s St. Elias Stable) came down to see him, and that is when I discovered that Repole and St Elias were partners on him. I remember thinking well that's some consolation, he will be in good hands, maybe go to Todd (Pletcher), and he'll get a great shot at making it as a racehorse. I thought, ‘Dreams start early, do I dare to hope?’
Well, it turned out that the dreams every breeder dreams manifested itself in the form of Justify and not Vino Rosso. But Vino Rosso’s racing days are not over and a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory would be an amazing coup for the Gunthers, having bred a Triple Crown winner and a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner from the same crop. So, there is a good chance that Tanya’s tears will make another appearance in a few weeks.
“Although Vino Rosso isn’t the only horse that has elicited outward emotion from me at sale time, fortunately I don’t burst into tears after every horse that we send through the public auction ring; that would just get messy and far too draining,” Tanya said. “Sometimes I have very mixed emotions about selling our babies. I put a great deal of thought and energy into them--from the mating idea and creation through raising and developing them as young horses. And while I want our horses to be appreciated by buyers, I also find it hard to part with them, especially if they have a certain character or quality that touches me somehow. I imagine it must be similar to how parents feel when they send their kids off to boarding school, except I know these kids won’t ever be coming home. Vino Rosso was such nice horse to be around, so genuine and possessing such a cool character and personality that it was hard to say goodbye.”
Tanya did pay a visit to Vino Rosso during Derby week and was thrilled to see he was still the same horse she had grown so fond of as a baby.
“I visited Vino in Todd’s barn at Churchill Downs before the Derby and it was really nice to see him again,” Tanya said. “He was still the kind, easy-going colt that I had grown attached to at our farm. He had grown into an impressive-looking young athlete, though it looked like there was a lot of developing still to do. Although I haven’t seen him in person this year, from pictures and videos that I have seen in the media, it appears as though he has really filled out and developed from 3 to 4 years of age.”
That is why it is so important to keep horses in training after their 3-year-old campaign. The vast majority of horses don’t mature mentally and physically until 4 or even 5, and we are depriving ourselves of so many additional stars and superstars. That is also why we should root for horses like Vino Rosso. Just remember, Seattle Slew and Affirmed solidified their greatness by sweeping the Triple Crown, but they accomplished little after that in their 3-year-old seasons. It was their 4-year-old campaigns that cemented their status as all-time greats. Vino Rosso would have been just another decent horse to enter stud at 3 had he been retired, but with his pedigree combined with a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory and an Eclipse Award (and with his Santa Anita Gold Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup performances), he would retire a bona fide star and red-hot stallion commodity.
“I would be ecstatic to see Vino succeed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year, especially after the DQ in the Jockey Club Gold Cup,” Tanya said. “I felt Vino showed such class and determination in the stretch duel and that he fought hard to earn the victory, so it was extremely disappointing to see him get his nose in front at the wire only to have victory technically taken away. Both horses ran their hearts out and I felt that any bumps down the stretch were just part of a great stretch battle where neither horse was impeded so it seems a shame to have Vino’s credentials permanently reduced in the record books.
“During the 2018 Triple Crown, Vino raced in the shadow of Justify and so it was also very gratifying to witness Vino's victory in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita earlier this year and his gutsy performance in a race as prestigious as the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont. To me, Justify and Vino Rosso were like brothers competing with each other, as well as against all the other top horses of their year, and you really want them both to succeed.”
Well, Justify is gone, but Vino Rosso is still around looking for his pathway to glory. This may be his last shot. So if he does emerge victorious at Santa Anita and you happen to see a young woman bawling her eyes out, don’t feel badly for her. It most likely will be Tanya Gunther overcome with emotion, just as she was three years ago when she had to say goodbye to the horse who touched her heart.