Bob Burton kept fiddling with his cell phone until he found what he was looking for. There was something he had stored away that was very special to him and he wanted to share it.
When he finally found it, he turned on his speaker phone and played back the message he had received in September, 2010 from his longtime buddy Jack Wolf, who was calling him from the Keeneland September yearling sale.
The message was brief and to the point: “Shanghai Bobby, we got this horse named after you.”
Back up several weeks. Burton, a pilot for Delta Airlines for the past 34 years, flying strictly 747s, was scheduled to fly to Shanghai when he was notified the flight had been canceled. Rather than tell his wife about the cancellation, he decided to take advantage of his unscheduled vacation by spending time with Wolf at Saratoga, attending the races and sales. When he expressed interest in one particular yearling, it got Wolf to thinking about naming a horse for his former college football teammate.
That horse turned out to be a son of Harlan’s Holiday, who Wolf and his partner Don Lucarelli purchased for $105,000 for their Starlight Partners. He immediately called and left his message notifying Burton that a horse had been named after him, just as he had done several years earlier with Burton’s father, Sam, who was known as Sam P. That colt, named Sam P, became a solid stakes performer who made it to the Kentucky Derby. But more on him later.
So began the tale of Shanghai Bobby.
Fast forward to Oct. 6, 2012. Burton was scheduled to depart JFK on a nonstop flight to Tel Aviv the following day, but left his ranch in Martinsville, Ind., just outside Indianapolis, a day early in order to attend the Champagne Stakes at Belmont.
From that brief phone message left by Wolf had come a very special horse, who was attempting to remain undefeated in the Champagne, and there was no way Burton was going to miss seeing his namesake run, especially after his job prevented him from being at Saratoga for his rousing victory in the Hopeful Stakes on Sept. 3. A victory in the Champagne would crown him the leading 2-year-old in America.
Despite his spotless record of 3-for-3, Shanghai Bobby was not even made the morning line favorite for the Champagne, an honor that went to his stablemate, Archwarrior, who had made only one start, a 3 1/4-length maiden victory that came with as much pre-race hype as any 2-year-old race in memory.
Then, when the betting began, it was the California invader, Goldencents, with only a 7 1/4-length maiden score at 5 1/2 furlongs on his resume, who was getting hammered down to 3-2 favorite. Trained by Doug O’Neill, he was said to be a freak, and as a result, the money came pouring in from California.
Finally, when the Californians concluded their wagering onslaught, the betting shifted to Shanghai Bobby, by far the most accomplished horse in the race, who eventually would go off as the 8-5 favorite in the field of six.
When it was over, Shanghai Bobby had emerged as the best 2-year-old in the country by crushing all the hyped horses and everyone else in the field, winning by an emphatic five-lengths. After stalking Goldencents the whole way through fractions of :23 2/5 and :47 2/5 under Rosie Napravnik, he took over the lead and drew off at will, and his time of 1:35 2/5 for the flat mile was a full second and three-fifths faster than his brilliant stablemate Dreaming of Julia in the Frizette Stakes (gr. I) the race before. Dreaming of Julia had looked like the next coming of Ruffian, winning both her starts by nearly 27 lengths. In the Frizette, she ran into another tiger, My Happy Face, who was coming off a 21 1/4-length maiden score. The pair charged home eyeball to eyeball, with Dreaming of Julia prevailing by a head in 1:37.
What made Shanghai Bobby’s victory all the more impressive was that he came home his final half in a brilliant :47 4/5 (:23 3/5 and :24 1/5). He has now won four races at three different tracks and four different distances from 4 1/2 furlongs to one mile.
Ironically, Shanghai Bobby originally was scheduled to run in the Saratoga Special, but was withdrawn due to a fever.
“Because he spiked that fever and missed the Saratoga Special, the timing has turned out perfectly,” said Wolf, who also was proud of the fact that Shanghai Bobby’s sire, Harlan’s Holiday, was his first big horse and that the runner-up was by a son of Harlan’s Holiday.
Trainer Todd Pletcher feels Shanghai Bobby has all the attributes of a top-class horse.
“He’s shown the adaptability to stalk, and yet he has tactical speed to keep pressure on someone, keeping them from getting loose,” Pletcher said. “He’s tenacious. He has all of the tools.”
Napravnik added, “Bobby was on his game today. He broke real sharp and we sat real comfortable outside of the horse that was on the lead (Goldencents). He was taking me to the lead before I wanted to go, but he was full of it and did it as easy as could be. He’s just gotten better and more mature with every start and I think he’s just going to continue to grow and exceed our expectations.”
For Starlight Partners, they now prepare to embark on another Triple Crown trail, as they did this year with the undefeated Algorithms, winner of the Holy Bull Stakes, who has been sidelined with a fractured splint bone. But they have decided first to head to California for the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
“Good horses will find a way to win, and this guy just finds a way to win,” Lucarelli said of Shanghai Bobby. “Listening to all the prognosticators, no one seemed to be picking him. I love that, but you have to go out and earn it. And he definitely earned it.”
Pletcher’s other starters, Archwarrior and Micromanage, finished fourth and fifth, respectively, and never threatened Shanghai Bobby at any point.
Goldencents hung on for second and ran a solid race for his second career start and stretching out from 5 1/2 furlongs. Godolphin Racing’s Fortify, runner-up in the Hopeful, ran an even race to finish third.
Getting back to the two-legged Shanghai Bobby, Burton’s family history reads like a novel, with its heroes a cross between Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, Sky King, and Snoopy all rolled up in one.
Burton’s father, Sam, who died this past February, 18 days shy of his 93rd birthday, had already experienced the thrill being honored with a horse’s name.
Wolf recalled, “When we bought this horse at the Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale, Bob was with us, and he jumped up and shouted, ‘He has the same birthday as my father; you have to buy this horse.’ So, we wound up spending $200,000 for a Cat Thief.”
Wolf has always had a great deal of admiration for Bob’s father, who was what was known as a Hump pilot, an elite group of pilots known for their death-defying missions during the 1930s and ‘40s.
As part of the China National Aviation Corporation, Hump pilots played a significant role in the history of modern China, establishing the first air routes in China, connecting the commercial center of Shanghai (hmm, another Shanghai connection) with Canton, Peking, and the cities along the Yangtze River.
Through the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 and World War II, Hump pilots flew C-47 and C-46 transport planes over the Himalayas, carrying supplies, fuel, and soldiers between Burma, India, and China. Because of the lack of navigational technology back then, many planes never made it because of severe weather conditions, such as ice and turbulence. Operating conditions were extremely hazardous because the airline was forced to fly under the worst possible circumstances to avoid Japanese attack. As a result, the mortality rate of Hump pilots was extremely high.
Sam Burton, who was a Hump pilot in 1943 and ’44, said in 2007: “We lost thousands of planes. One time, they sent out 95 planes and lost 89 of them. The jet stream could be as strong as 150 miles an hour and there were no radio aids, so you didn’t know where you were. I was lucky. One night, we hit a bad thunderstorm, and the only thing that saved us was the fact that the plane was empty. We had already made our delivery and were returning. If we had been carrying a load we never would have made it.”
From April 1942, when the Burma Road was lost, to April 1945, CNAC made more than 35,000 trips over the Hump. In 1944 it flew almost 9,000 round trips, or 10 million miles, over this route, transporting approximately 35,000 tons of lend-lease, as well as strategic materials.
So appreciative were the Chinese that they invited all the remaining Hump pilots to China for a reunion, where they honored them for their heroism. Sam P earned several individual air medals, including the Bronze Star. He eventually opened a flight school, flew for the Atomic Energy Commission, and commercially with Eastern Airlines until his retirement in 1979.
His son Bob, one of four children, also became a commercial pilot, and like his father, managed to escape death.
“Jack and I go back to 1968,” Burton said. “I had been trying to decide whether to go to Marshall University or Murray State University for a walk-on football tryout. It came down to coin toss with my mom and dad. I visited both schools and had a really tough time choosing one. I was on the front steps of my parents’ porch and I told them about my conflict, and my dad said. ‘Well, I got a quarter in my pocket. We’ll just flip the quarter.’ So I flipped and it came up Murray State. If it had come up Marshall and I had gone there I would have died in 1970 in a plane crash that killed the entire Marshall University football team. As it turned out, it was at Murray State that I met Jack, who was also on the football team. We’ve been close friends ever since. So, I’ve been blessed beyond belief in my life.”
So, the equine adventures of the Burton family will continue at Santa Anita, where a victory would crown Shanghai Bobby the 2-year-old champion and prohibitive favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Not even his father could top that.
Breeders’ Cup random thoughts
-- Dale Romans said he and Donegal Racing’s Jerry Crawford will decide whether to run Dullahan in the Turf, Mile, or Classic. It is our opinion that there is no decision to make. Can Dullahan be expected to handle Point of Entry and a solid group of Europeans going a mile and a half on grass after running so poorly in the Jamaica at a mile and an eighth? With his running style, has he given any indication he can run with Wise Dan and the top-class Euros going a mile, especially with post position so important? The truth is, none of these races play to Dullahan’s strength, which is nine and 10 furlongs on synthetic or at least over a track with no moisture in it. He clearly has shown he likes a fast and dry surface. Yes, he is finicky about his footing, but, as for dirt, he did finish a fast-closing third in the Kentucky Derby, which at least fits his best distance and shows he can handle the right kind of dirt track. Whether that equates to Santa Anita no one knows. Santa Anita, you know will be tight and firm on Breeders’ Cup day, which should suit him, and when you get down to it, he has already defeated the Classic favorite at the Classic distance. So, if you’re going to be at a disadvantage wherever you go, you might as well try to minimize those disadvantages as much as possible and go for the big one.
-- Has any horse in memory improved as dramatically with blinkers as Groupie Doll, who is now four-for-four since adding blinkers, and has won those four races, including three grade I’s, by an average margin of five lengths, with three of them earning triple-digit Beyer speed figures? By contrast, prior to the equipment change, Groupie Doll had won four of 11 starts, no grade I’s, and had earned only one triple-digit Beyer.
-- Although Coil’s past performances seem to indicate the Dirt Mile would a perfect spot for him, Bob Baffert has said he’s definitely staying at one turn and pointing for the Sprint. No one spots horses any better than Baffert, so he will be represented in the Sprint by a horse who came from last to win the Haskell Invitational, finish second by a head in the Swaps Stakes, win the 1 1/16-mile Affirmed Handicap, and finish third, beaten only two lengths, by Classic favorite Game on Dude in the Goodwood Stakes. He no doubt has found a new niche this year and could be the most versatile BC Sprint winner since Suburban Handicap (then 1 1/4 miles) winner Dancing Spree won the race back in 1989.
-- So what was Mr. Commons doing running second, a length or so off a :45 4/5 and 1:08 4/5 pace in the Arroyo Seco Mile? In his previous eight starts, he was either 6th, 7th, or 8th early and was able to use his powerful closing kick. Despite this odd change in tactics, he still finished third, beaten only one length, coming home his final quarter in :22 4/5. He could be pretty live in the BC Mile with a return to his normal running style.
-- While everyone was watching Shanghai Bobby draw off in the Champagne Stakes, they might have missed Goldencents, coming off only one 5 1/2-furlong maiden race, holding off the Hopeful Stakes runner-up Fortify the entire length of stretch for second. Although he may be a one-turn horse, if he runs in the Juvenile, he could bear watching. Another who bears watching is his stablemate Know More, who should also return to his normal off-the-pace style of running now that he has his first two-turn race under him. He was well-beaten by Power Broker, but like Mr. Commons was much closer to the pace than normal, and like Goldencents, he hung tough in the stretch, turning back a pair of challenges for second.
-- Check the replays of the Haskell and the Awesome Again and watch the similarity between the performances of Nonios, who ran the identical race in each one, right down to the path along the inside, swinging out at the exact same time, angling into the stretch in the same manner, and being unable to match strides with the horse in front (Paynter and Game On Dude), while drawing well clear of the rest of the field. If you toss his inexplicably dull effort in the Travers, he is bred to run all day and his sire won the Classic at Santa Anita.
-- Finally we come to Wise Dan. While it certainly does appear that the BC Mile is the logical spot for him, especially the way he dominated his field in his last three starts at a mile on the grass, it is worth noting that he will be facing far better horses than he’s been facing, including some top-class invaders from Europe. Yes, he still should win if he runs the same way he did in his three big mile scores, but if you’re looking for a reason to consider the Classic, it should be pointed out that in the Shadwell Turf Mile, the second- and third-place finishers were 48-1 and 100-1, respectively; in the Woodbine Mile, the second-place finisher had never run on grass before; and in the Fourstardave, the runner-up came back and was up the track in the Shadwell Turf Mile.
That’s not to say the Classic is the best spot for him, as he didn’t seem as sharp as usual in his second-place finish in the Stephen Foster, and he’d be venturing into new territory going a mile and a quarter for the first time. Trainer Charlie Lopresti said the Santa Anita surface has been playing on the loose side, but the meet just opened, and there is no way it will be loose on Breeders’ Cup weekend. So although he likely will stay at a mile on the grass, and rightly so, it is at least something to think about.