A Fast, But Oddly Paved Road

With all the talk surrounding the Zenyatta – Blame Horse of the Year battle, the brilliant, but sometimes strange career of Quality Road has unfortunately faded from public consciousness, due in good part to the colt’s uncharacteristic last-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But Quality Road’s name resurfaced recently when his owner/breeder Edward P. (Ned) Evans passed away following a brief illness. As Diana Baker, wife of Evans’ farm manager Chris Baker, said, “Ned Evans was larger than life. We all learned a lot from him. That he died before seeing any of Quality Road’s foals hit the ground is so sad. He worked for so long to breed a horse like Quality Road. What a legacy he leaves behind.”

No one who has followed Quality Road’s career could have foreseen its ignominious conclusion. After nearly two months, it still remains a mystery, and likely always will.

Who knows what course his career would have taken had it not been for a series of bizarre twists and turns, an ill-timed series of quarter cracks, and a quirky personality as a 3-year-old that saw him wage a personal battle with the starting gate, which nearly ended in disaster. Anyone who had the distinct pleasure of being around this gentle giant with the English sheepdog forelocks covering his eyes had to be shocked and perplexed watching him throw one of the scariest fits in the history of the sport prior to the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But that incident has now become merely a footnote in what was at times a career of unmatched brilliance.

“He’s always been a gift, starting with the gift to Mr. Evans from the racing gods when this sucker was born,” Chris Baker said. “And he’s been a gift to everyone else who’s been fortunate enough to be around him.”

As a baby, Quality Road was tall and elegant, and on the lanky side. He was a kind horse who was a pleasure to be around, and most important, he was problem free. He never got hurt and never got sick, and everything came easy to him. Although he was always athletic, he was never what you would call a standout; one that you knew was destined to be something special.

He was more of a late developer and wasn’t sent to Aiken, S.C. to be broken and begin training until early December as a yearling. The only reason he was even sent to Aiken was because he failed to meet his reserve at the Keeneland September yearling sale. He wasn’t the kind of yearling buyers were looking for. He was still immature physically and was far from the heavily muscled, big-hip type of colt that was most desirable. His sire, Elusive Quality, wasn’t a commercial stallion, despite siring Smarty Jones, and his dam, Kobla, hadn’t accomplished enough for buyers to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was decided to bring him home to Evans’ Spring Hill Farm in Casanova, Va. and let him grow up.

After being sent to Ron Stevens in Aiken, Quality Road and another Evans homebred, American Dance, began showing some ability. When Baker went down to see them, he wrote that he was impressed how easily they both went and how much ground they covered, even going short distances.

“Did Ron Stevens and I look at them and say we’ve got two freaks on our hands? Baker said. “No, we looked at them and said, ‘There are two athletic colts in spite of their size and legginess’. The ingredients all seemed to be there, but we didn’t see either one of them as potential stars at that point.”

Stevens, however, did see a good number of things to like about Quality Road. “He was an extremely large yearling and I know that scares a lot of people off,” he recalled. “But he was very balanced and had a good way of moving. After he got over the pressure of the sales, he was sent to me on Dec. 4. At that time he was already over 16 hands, and I weighed him and he weighed 1,120 pounds…as a yearling! He was a great big ‘ol boy, but everything fit together. He kept growing steadily and smoothly rather than in spurts.”

When Evans sent Quality Road to Stevens he told him he wanted him to push him, because he still had intentions of selling him at the Keeneland April 2-year-old sale. The Keeneland inspectors came to the farm and liked what they saw and accepted him.

Stevens, however, felt it would be a mistake to sell him. The colt had shown class from day one and was a pleasure to break. His disposition was fabulous and he was extremely light on his feet for such a big horse.

“Chris Baker came down a couple of times in February and we agreed that we needed to advise Mr. Evans not to sell this horse,” Stevens said. “He was just too nice a colt, both physically and mentally. I told Chris, ‘This horse is gonna come back and haunt Mr. Evans if he sells him.’

“To Mr. Evans’ credit, he listened to Chris and me and dropped him out of the sale. He told me to take my time with him and do whatever I wanted to do. I brought him around slowly, like we do with all big horses. He had a few breezes and I loved what I saw. I’d be lying if I told you that I knew he’d be the kind of horse he turned into, but I felt he was a very high class, high quality horse. And I’d love to say we did a great job of breaking him, but I think my granddaughter could have broken him. He was a pussycat and nothing but class. He didn’t have a pimple on him from the day he got here.”

Quality Road left Aiken on July 13 and was sent to trainer Jimmy Jerkens in New York.

Fast forward to Nov. 29, 2008, Cigar Mile day at Aqueduct. Word was already circulating throughout the pressbox that Jimmy Jerkens had a red-hot first time starter in the fourth race that was supposed to be runner. Prior to the race, jockey Richie Migliore informed anyone who would listen that Quality Road was all but a sure thing. Migliore had been working the colt regularly since September. The Mig loved the way he glided over the ground, especially with that long, efficient stride. Despite his size and stride, he was very light on his feet and always went faster than Mig thought he was going. And on top of that he was extremely intelligent and professional for a young horse.

“Something would happen that would spook 90% of the horses, and he would just stop and look at it quizzically, then drop his head and go on about his business,” Migliore said. “That’s something you can’t teach; it’s something the good horses seem to possess. From the first time I got on him I thought he was the complete package.”

Unfortunately for Migliore, he had been booked to ride Desert Code in California the same day and was disappointed he couldn’t ride Quality Road after putting in so much time with him. As it turned out, Desert Code was withdrawn from his race with a fever, but by then, Evans had decided to use another rider, and Jerkens reluctantly gave the mount to Alan Garcia, as Migliore was forced to watch the race from the rail.

Even after Quality Road turned in a super effort to win by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:16 for the six and a half furlongs, earning a lofty 101 Beyer figure, Jerkens was upset that Migliore wasn’t able to ride the colt. “I felt bad for Richie because he had worked him all the way up to the race,” Jerkens said. “Mr. Evans likes to know who’s riding his horses, so once it looked like Richie was gone I had to nail down another good jock.”

After being beaten in an allowance race at Gulfstream at 7-10 after having suffered from a lung infection, Quality Road catapulted to the head of the 3-year-old division with impressive victories in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and Florida Derby (gr. I), the latter in a track record 1:47 3/5.

“He’s such a dream to train, it’s unbelievable,” Jerkens said. “He’s done everything so perfectly.”

One trainer who was in awe of Quality Road was Bob Baffert, who is always on the lookout for Derby horses, either to train or just scouting out the competition. “That horse is a serious bastard,” Baffert said after the Florida Derby. “If they gave me a free shot and handed me a halter and a shank and said to take whatever horse I wanted, I’d go get Quality Road. He’s a big, imposing horse, with a lot of flesh and a great mind. That’s what you want. That’s a Derby horse.”

Quality Road’s role as Kentucky Derby favorite, however, lasted only a short while, as he suffered a pair of nasty quarter cracks back at Belmont Park that would sideline him for over four months. During his absence, Evans decided to switch trainers and gave the colt to Todd Pletcher, a move that was devastating to Jerkens.

“Mr. Evans just felt it was time to go in a different direction,” Baker said. “Periodically, Mr. Evans does some expanding and consolidating of his stable in regard to the trainers, and he felt a change was necessary at this time.”

As brilliant as Quality Road was at Gulfstream, his return in the 6 1/2-furlong Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga was jaw-dropping, as he drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths in a blazing 1:13 4/5, shattering the track record.

As Chris Baker said after the race, “He’s had five starts in his life and has two track records, one at 6 1/2 furlongs and one at 1 1/8 miles. What’s going to happen when he figures out how to run?”

Also on the Quality Road bandwagon was veterinarian Steve Allday. “He’s a monster,” he said. “As big and strong as he is, he’s a gentle giant. He is so physically gifted he can reach up with a hind leg and actually tattoo you if you’re standing next to his elbow, so I’m real careful when I examine him. If he ever figured out he’s the beast that he is, believe me, he could hurt you, but he’s just too nice and classy a horse.”

The Amsterdam, however, turned out to be Quality Road’s final victory of 2009. It was too much to ask of the colt running him back in the 1 1/4-mile Travers Stakes off one sprint following a layoff. And the track for the Travers came up a sea of slop, which further hurt his chances. He still ran a solid third to Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird after getting bogged down on the inside.

Quality Road didn’t get any breaks in the Jockey Club Gold Cup either, as that race also came up sloppy. This time, Quality Road ran his heart out to finish second to Summer Bird, giving way grudgingly to be beaten a length.

Then came the infamous Breeders’ Cup Classic. Quality Road had been exhibiting an aversion to the starting gate in his previous starts, and it took some prodding to get him to go in for the Gold Cup. He had always shown a dual personality on and off the track. On the track, he could exhibit a competitive fire, but in his stall he was a kind horse who loved people, especially when they had a carrot for him.

“How many colts who have that kind of energy can you walk in their stall and put your 9-year-old daughter underneath him and they won’t do a thing?” Chris Baker said. “I remember at Saratoga, there were about 10 people standing right outside his stall looking at him. He just lied down and took a little nap for a few minutes, then got up, yawned, and stuck his head out the door. On the track, he gets that adrenalin going and gets so pumped  up, but once he gets back to the barn he switches it right off.”

Prior to the Gold Cup, Pletcher had attempted to work on the colt’s gate problems in the morning. He did everything possible to get him to exhibit the same reluctance to go in the gate he had showed in the afternoon, but Quality Road apparently knew the difference between morning and afternoon and would walk in with no problem. Even following the Gold Cup, in which he balked badly going into the gate, he was perfect in the morning, giving Pletcher no opportunity to correct the problem.

Whatever the reason for his gate antics (some believed he was claustrophobic due to his size), the tantrum he threw prior to the Classic will be a subject for discussion for many years. The situation was exacerbated when one of the assistant starters used a buggy whip to get him in. Because all the other horses were already in the gate, they had to resort to a blindfold and that really set the colt off. He threw a fit after being pushed into the gate, banging hard against the sides of the gate. He became so agitated, he lunged forward and broke through the front doors. With the blindfold still on, he panicked and was totally out of control. Had he gotten loose from the assistant starter, who held on tenaciously, it certainly would have been disastrous. One had to shudder trying to imagine a panicked, blindfolded horse running loose, and with hundreds of people lined up behind the rail right near the gate.

Quality Road, who finally settled down when the blindfold and saddle were removed, naturally was scratched, but that was only the beginning of his problems. He was immediately labeled as a “juvenile delinquent” by veterinarian Larry Bramlage, a comment that was so totally off base it was a huge injustice to the horse, who was more frightened than anything else.

His problems continued prior to his return flight to New York. The colt, who suffered several injuries thrashing about in the gate, was so traumatized by the incident he would not get on the plane to take him back home to New York, and instead had to van 36 hours to Churchill Downs, stay there for 48 hours and then van to Belmont Park, where former NYRA starter Bobby Duncan would work with the colt at the gate on a regular basis. If he failed to rid him of his demons and the mental trauma he suffered, there was a good chance Quality Road would never get in a starting gate again.

When the colt finally returned to New York, Duncan proceeded to work his magic.

“I had never seen the horse before, and like everyone else I watched it on television and saw everything spin out of control,” Duncan said.

Duncan began working with him and found him to be “a sweetheart without a mean bone in his body.” He deduced that Quality Road was a dominant type of horse who wants to be the leader and be right at the top of the pecking order. Because he was always allowed to do what he wanted, that reinforced his dominance and let him know he was the one making all the decisions. Duncan felt the Breeders’ Cup incident became a battle of wills between the colt and the gate crew, especially after they used the buggy whip on him.

“The night before I started schooling him at the gate I took him to the paddock with Todd and just asked him to move around in different ways using certain signals I was consistent with. I would ask him to back up for me, to come forward, to move left and right. I kept repeating it until he began to learn from subtle movements. If I pointed my finger at his hip he knew he needed to move his hip to the left. The more subtle it became the more calm he was with it. You just have to be consistent the way you ask and get him to understand the language between the two of you.”

Quality Road was immediately responsive. A few days later Duncan took him to the training track gate to have the starter work with him. He made sure it would be quiet to see what kind of reaction he would get. Pletcher even brought another horse over as company. Quality Road was a little hesitant to walk in at first, so Duncan opened the front gate and let him walk halfway in and then backed him out. He wanted to do a little bit more each time looking for that point where the colt showed resistance. As it turned out, there was no point of resistance, as Quality Road did everything he was asked.

The next step was to bring him to Aqueduct, and that was done in stages. On the second day they did van schooling as well, loading him on the van at the barn and vanning him over to the grandstand with another horse. They led him off the van and brought him to the paddock with other horses around. They even saddled him and put a rider on his back before walking him around the paddock and on to the main track and then to the training track and back to the barn. This was as close as they could come to simulating real race conditions.

On the fourth day they did a full dress rehearsal. They loaded him in the gate with horses on either side of him and closed the front gate. Then they vanned him over to Aqueduct again and had him spend the whole morning in the receiving barn as if he were in the race-day detention barn. They then took him to the paddock in the afternoon, put a saddle and rider on him, and had the pony boy bring him to the gate.

Quality Road adjusted so well, he never again caused a problem at the gate and was a totally different horse as a 4-year-old.

Thanks to Duncan’s work, Quality Road was able to have a brilliant 4-year-old campaign, winning the Hal’s Hope and Donn Handicap at Gulfstream. In the latter, he won by 12 3/4 lengths and broke his own track record, earning a spectacular 121 Beyer figure. He returned after a 3 1/2-month layoff to win the prestigious Met Mile in a sizzling 1:33 flat, giving seven pounds to the classy Musket Man.

He suffered a surprising defeat in the Whitney, getting nailed right on the wire by Blame, but came back to win the Woodward (gr. I) by 4 3/4 lengths.

It was ironic seeing him in the gate prior to the Whitney, calmly standing there watching Haynesfield break through the gate unseating his rider. Quality Road never turned a hair. Those nightmare days were officially behind him.

Much was expected in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but for reasons still unknown, he dropped out of contention after three-quarters, finishing dead last. It was odd, to say the least, to have that kind of performance follow on the heels of the Life At Ten incident; certainly one of the most bizarre occurrences ever seen before and during a major race. The bottom line is that we likely will never know the reasons why two classy, consistent horses both turned in such horrible performances.

Despite its disappointing conclusion and controversial moments, Quality Road’s career will be remembered more for its amazing flashes of brilliance. And the horse himself will be remembered fondly by those close to him for his endearing personality and overwhelming presence. One thing you can say about Quality Road: he was never boring.

There have been few horses quite like Quality Road, and as Diana Baker said, he will always be the crowning legacy to Ned Evans and the empire he built out of nothing.

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