Meyer On Fire...Again

(Originally published in the November 12, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

People often take different paths to reach the same destination, but once there the celebration is universal. At Churchill Downs Nov. 5, everyone watched Elliott Walden, president, CEO, and racing manager of WinStar Farm; trainer Bill Mott; and jockey Mike Smith celebrate Drosselmeyer’s upset victory at 14-1 in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Miles away, WinStar’s newly hired general manager Chris Baker and his wife, Diana, celebrated in a much quieter manner.

Walden is a deeply religious person, to the extent that he attributes a good part of the success of WinStar to a higher source as well as to a dedicated management team.

Earlier in the day Walden was visited in his suite by evangelist Regis Andrews, who is a horse owner from Florida. Andrews was determined to give Walden an important chore to perform later that afternoon.

“He came up to the suite to pray for us and Drosselmeyer and Sidney’s Candy (a starter in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile, gr. IT). He told me, ‘Elliott, before their races make sure you touch the horses and say, “The glory of God.” ’ I was hesitant to do it. So, with Sidney’s Candy I forgot (the horse would finish sixth). Then, I’m in the paddock before the Classic and I’m waiting there and I thought, ‘You know, I can’t believe this would make that much difference, but I better go do that because I’m a God-fearing man.’ So I went over and touched Drosselmeyer just before he went out and said ‘The glory of God.’ Sure enough, you saw what happened.

“We (WinStar) have been blessed. I really believe it’s a blessing from God. We have a great management team, where every manager we have is very committed to succeed. They work hard to be successful and that makes a big difference. Yes, we had some changes last year (the departures of co-owner Bill Casner and president Doug Cauthen), but Bill and Doug are still very close to the farm, and Doug consults with us on our foals and on our maidens.”

It was Walden who convinced WinStar owner Kenny Troutt, who was unable to attend the Breeders’ Cup, to put up the $150,000 entry fee for the Classic.

“I have to give Elliott credit,” Mott said. “A lot of it was his choice. I was concerned about the entry fee, but they were willing to take a gamble and Kenny had to make the final decision.”

“It’s a bad bet, so you have to believe,” added Walden, who spoke to Troutt on the phone after the race and said, “Congratulations; do you believe now?”

For Mott, 2011 started off with failure and frustration, and it began to wear on the Hall of Fame trainer, who had such great expectations going into the year, especially with his exciting Triple Crown hopeful To Honor and Serve and his top 4-year-old Drosselmeyer, who hadn’t run since his victory in the 2010 Belmont Stakes 
(gr. I).

Following the Classic, Mott discussed the nature of the business and how it translates to life with Walden, reflecting on the sport’s many twists and turns.

“Maybe it’s all about life and we just think it’s our business,” Mott said to Walden. He then thought back to those winter months and said, “Early in the year we couldn’t win. The horses were running poorly in Florida, and Elliott called one day and asked me, ‘Are you OK?’ He was concerned because I’m sure he knew we were trying, but things just weren’t going well; everything was going wrong, like To Honor and Serve running two disappointing races and then having to be put on the shelf. But, again, this business, like life, just turns around and here we are winning two of biggest races of the year (the Classic and the grade I Ladies’ Classic with Royal Delta) in the same weekend.”

One year ago Mike Smith sat on the same podium where he was now sitting following Drosselmeyer’s victory, but for different reasons. He had attempted then to control his emotions when discussing Zenyatta’s heartbreaking defeat in the Classic, her only loss in 20 career starts. This time there were no tears of regret and the agony of what might have been, just amazement at how he came to return to this same spot to celebrate a Classic victory aboard a horse he had only ridden once before, in the Belmont Stakes—two rides and two victories in two of the country’s most prestigious events.

And by winning the Classic, he had equaled Jerry Bailey’s record of 15 Breeders’ Cup victories.

“Last year I sat here just devastated,” Smith said. “I thought my life was over. Just to come back and have a day like I did today and to win the race that I got beat by a head in last year is amazing. Thank God. Last year will always hurt, but this sure helps; it really does. As soon as I found out I was riding Drosselmeyer in the Classic, I kept praying about it and thinking, ‘Wow, this could really help take the sting away.’ And it did.”

For Chris and Diana Baker, WinStar has provided them and their daughter, Emma, with a new life, following the unexpected death this year of Edward P. Evans, owner of Spring Hill Farm, where Chris Baker was farm manager since 1999. Now, they are in the process of selling and saying goodbye to all the horses that have been a major part of their lives for so many years.

“It’s nice to have somebody to root for in the Classic,” Baker said before the Breeders’ Cup. “Of course it can’t compare to the depth of attachment to the Spring Hill horses, but it’s a lot of fun just the same. I’ll be highly involved in the matings and to support Elliott on the farm and to back up Elliott in a supporting role at the races and sales. From what I hear from Elliott, Mott says Drosselmeyer is as good as can be, and Mott doesn’t run them for practice.”

Diana added, “We’re looking forward to the next chapter in our lives and thrilled that Chris will be joining the WinStar team. We have both known Elliott for a long time, and I actually worked on Distorted Humor (Drosselmeyer’s sire) for Elliott one summer in Saratoga. It will be very hard to say goodbye to Spring Hill Farm.

“I think we’re all ready for a change after a really difficult 18 months. I am dreading the November sale. Selling the Spring Hill horses will be like selling my family members. Our new life will be good, but different, and right now it would be very exciting if one of the WinStar horses won a Breeders’ Cup race.”

So, a wide variety of emotions accompanied Drosselmeyer to the post in the Classic. But from the public’s standpoint, Drosselmeyer was not much more than an afterthought, a horse who for the better part of the summer and fall was being pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Marathon (gr. III) after a disappointing 4-year-old campaign that saw him win only an overnight stakes at Belmont in six starts. But when the colt, who is out of the Moscow Ballet mare Golden Ballet, finished a fast-closing second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), it was decided to change course and point for the Classic.

Most of the focus surrounding the Classic was on Uncle Mo and the filly Havre de Grace. The big concern with Uncle Mo was whether he’d be able to get the mile and a quarter off only seven-furlong and one-mile races, especially having been sidelined for four months with a serious liver ailment that caused him to lose 150 pounds. Havre de Grace had already beaten the boys in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) and was one victory away from becoming the third consecutive female Horse of the Year.
Havre de Grace had been turned over to Larry Jones this year, and Jones realized that by running a filly a mile and an quarter against the boys he would have to relive the nightmare of Eight Belles, who had to be euthanized after breaking down while pulling up after the 2008 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

“I know I’m never going to escape that and I’m OK with it, because of all the changes for the good that came out of it, such as padded whips and medication rules, including steroids,” Jones said. “We’ve survived it and we’re looking forward to running Havre de Grace in the Classic.”

Also adding interest to the Classic was Flat Out, who had provided his 70-year-old trainer, Charles “Scooter” Dickey, with the first graded stakes winner of his career in the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) and first grade I victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Receiving the most public and media attention among the personalities was jockey Chantal Sutherland, rider of Game On Dude, on whom she had won the grade I Santa Anita Handicap and Goodwood Stakes this year. Sutherland has been a recognizable figure through her modeling and her past engagement to Smith, which was a main storyline on the Animal Planet television series “Jockeys.” Sutherland was attempting to become the first female rider to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and had her legion of fans throughout the grandstand.

The Classic field also included a pair of Belmont Stakes winners (Ruler On Ice and Drosselmeyer) and a Travers Stakes (gr. I) winner (Stay Thirsty), as well as the Irish-trained So You Think, who had been purchased by Coolmore following a legendary career in Australia, where he became the first horse in history to win the prestigious Cox Plate as a 3-year-old and 4-year-old. At Ballydoyle, he was known simply as “The Big Black,” while the word most often-used to describe him by the British media was “beast.”

So You Think was trainer Aidan O’Brien’s biggest hope in the Breeders’ Cup, for which he pre-entered 12 horses, topping all other trainers. But by the time the Classic rolled around, O’Brien still was sky high from the emotional victory of St Nicholas Abbey in the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT), in which the colt was ridden by O’Brien’s 18-year-old son, Joseph, who became the youngest jockey ever to ride a Breeders’ Cup winner.

The bettors made Flat Out the lukewarm favorite at 7-2, followed by Havre de Grace at 4-1 and Uncle Mo and So You Think at 5-1.

Ignored at odds of 14-1 when he won the Belmont Stakes, Drosselmeyer went into the Classic as Mott’s supposed second stringer behind To Honor and Serve, who had been highly regarded at 2 when he won the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) and then bounced back into form at 3 with a record-equaling performance in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II). Most of the questions directed at Mott prior to the Classic were about To Honor and Serve.

What made the son of Bernardini so unique to those around him early on was the fact that his dam, Pilfer, gave birth to him standing up.

“The mare was young and didn’t know what was going on,” said co-breeder Randy Gullatt of Twin Creeks Farm. “She just stood there and started pushing, and once the foal started coming out, you had to just stand there and wait to catch him. It’s very unusual. You don’t see those things very often.”

Before the race, Bob Baffert and co-owner Bernie Schiappa assured that Game On Dude would be on the lead. This hard-nosed 4-year-old gelding was a tenacious fighter who wanted to go fast and get in a skirmish with any horse who had the audacity to try to run with him.

As expected, Game On Dude went to the front over a sticky track labeled fast but which still had a good deal of moisture in it from nearly an inch of rain that fell two days earlier. Uncle Mo, breaking from post 11, went right up to challenge and got to within a half-length after an opening quarter in :23.61. Stay Thirsty was in the hunt, along with To Honor and Serve, as So You Think settled in fourth along the rail. Havre de Grace was being leaned on by longshot Headache but also was in contention in sixth, only three lengths off the lead. Smith, meanwhile, had Drosselmeyer in ninth, about 10 lengths back.

As they headed down the backstretch, Game On Dude opened his lead to a length, the half in :47.84. Uncle Mo was still giving chase but didn’t seem to be moving comfortably, exhibiting a good deal of head movement. To Honor and Serve was moving strongly and ranged up alongside So You Think, who was looking for an escape route, which he likely would need once the real running began. Flat Out was down on the inside in eighth, but only five lengths from the lead, and Havre de Grace also had every chance, with only three lengths to make up.

After three-quarters in 1:12.82, Game On Dude began to get pressure from Uncle Mo. “Johnny (Velazquez on Uncle Mo) was pushing on us; he really gave us a run,” Sutherland said. But the real danger looked to come from To Honor and Serve, who had moved into third and seemed ready to pounce on the top two. So You Think still was right there and waiting for a hole to open up along the inside.

Game On Dude turned back the challenge of Uncle Mo, who began a steady retreat and then turned aside To Honor and Serve. He still led by a length at the eighth pole, as So You Think tried to close in through a narrow opening on the rail, but had gotten stuck on his left lead and wasn’t able to make up any ground on Game On Dude. Just when it appeared Game On Dude had everyone measured, here came Drosselmeyer from way out in the middle of the track. Game On Dude was tiring from his earlier efforts but was still digging in gamely. Havre de Grace, So You Think, and Flat Out were still right there, but no longer a danger to Game On Dude.

Just when Sutherland thought she was home free she saw a flash of white (the WinStar silks) way on the outside. “I thought, ‘(Smith) sure is smart; he didn’t come near me,’ ” she said. “This horse fights so hard.”

One constant theme in the “Jockeys” series was Smith constantly getting the better of Sutherland on the racetrack. If there was any animosity that existed between them following their breakup, it was exacerbated by an incident in this year’s Los Angeles Handicap (gr. III), in which Smith blamed Sutherland, aboard M One Rifle, for causing the disqualification from first of his mount Amazombie. Smith was incensed and no doubt gained a good deal of satisfaction beating Sutherland again in their widely publicized match race at Del Mar, dubbed “The Battle of the Exes.” Now, he gained the ultimate revenge by costing Sutherland a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory, a place in the history books, and possible Horse of the Year honors for Game On Dude.

When pressed on several occasions after the race about beating Sutherland, Smith said, “I turned that page a long time ago. I wish everyone else would. I congratulated her walking back. She should hold her head up. She did a great job and finished second in the Classic the first time riding in it. I think it’s incredible and she should be proud.”

A disappointed Baffert paid tribute to his horse and to Sutherland. “He never got to see Drosselmeyer,” he said. “He thought he had everybody beat. My horses didn’t pick up their feet today, but he ran great. (Chantal) rode a great race and the horse thinks he won. I’m proud of her and the way the horse ran. What are you going to do? The track has been really heavy.”

Ruler On Ice, who rallied along the inside, kept coming in the final furlong and got up for third over Havre de Grace, with Flat Out fifth, So You Think sixth, To Honor and Serve seventh, and Ice Box eighth. The third- to eighth-place finishers were separated by only 11⁄2 lengths. Although they came home slowly, Drosselmeyer did close his final quarter in a solid :243⁄5.

“He just felt confident the whole way,” Smith said. “He was in a great rhythm and doing everything I asked him to do. Going into the far turn he took a deep breath and I knew he was loaded again. Like Bill said, he likes to run a mile and a half, so I went ahead and went wide so he thought it was a mile and a half.”

It has been an odd journey for Drosselmeyer, who was bred in Kentucky by Aaron and Marie Jones and purchased by WinStar for $600,000 at the 2008 Keene-land September yearling sale. It has taken him most of the year to get back to this level of competition.

“There was a lot of luck involved,” Mott said. “We backed off after the Belmont last year and gave him a lot of time. When we brought him back at the beginning of the year, he was fat and didn’t get in any kind of rhythm the first two or three races. As the year progressed, he seemed to keep getting a little better with each race. After we ran him in the Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes (gr. IT), it was like somebody had flipped a switch and he just turned around.”

Mott sent him to Churchill Downs early and was able to get three works in him, all of which indicated his sharpness and affinity for the surface.

Mott has always been a dedicated family man and very close to his sons, Brady and Riley, and daughter, Olivia. Riley and Olivia were there to share in the celebration.

“I can’t even describe what I’m feeling right now,” Riley said. “My dad was in his prime in the ’90s and I wasn’t really into the horses, so I don’t recall much from that time. Since I’ve gotten into the horses, I’ve always dreamed of what it would be like to win a Breeders’ Cup Classic or even be in contention in the stretch, and for that to happen is just indescribable. With Royal Delta’s win it’s been a dream weekend, and I’m just so proud of my dad. If anyone deserves this, it’s him. His hard work paid off. People kind of shut this horse out this year and didn’t think much of him, but he’s been training superbly on this track.”

Olivia was brief, but said all there is to say about her father: “I’m really proud of my dad,” she said. “He works really hard, he’s a really good guy and a really good trainer, and I respect him a lot.”

Troutt wasn’t present for Drosselmeyer’s Belmont victory or his Classic triumph, but was represented on both occasions by his wife, Lisa.

“We’re beyond thankful and kind of surprised,” she said. “But I shouldn’t say that, because I know a lot of people are not surprised. We’re just very sad that Kenny is not here for this one.”

It would be an understatement to say Mott’s fortunes have improved dramatically from the early part of the year.

“You can never rule anybody out if he’s shown good races in the past,” Mott said. “That’s the exciting part of this game.”

He was talking about Drosselmeyer in the Classic, but could have just as easily been talking about himself.

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