You never know who is going to show up in this sport to stir the memories. Last Saturday, lost on the big Wood Memorial card, which included the Carter, Bay Shore, and Gazelle, was the little-known Withgreatpleasure’s upset victory at 14-1 in the Ruffian Handicap early in the day.
Withgreatpleasure, who is based at the Overbrook Training Center in Colts Neck, N.J., is trained by the little-known David Nunn, who in his five years of training had never won a stakes until Withgreatpleasure’s victory in the Stonewall Farm Ocala Unbridled Belle Stakes at Delaware Park last August. Now, he is the winner of the grade II Ruffian in New York.
What made it even more special was that he had originally planned to run Withgreatpleasure at Charles Town April 20, but was so impressed with her three-furlong blowout several days earlier, he made the decision to go to Aqueduct.
When I saw the name David Nunn, I couldn’t help but think back 16 years to the 1997 Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park and to one of the most gut-wrenching experiences I’ve ever had on the racetrack. David was the assistant trainer and exercise rider for Bill Perry, one of the most talented and vastly underrated trainers I’ve ever seen. I can’t recall the amiable, soft-spoken Perry ever saddling a horse that wasn’t live, regardless of the class of the race.
Perry had sent David to Hollywood Park with Formal Gold, who was one of the favorites, if not the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The 4-year-old son of Black Tie Affair mirrored his trainer in regard to being underrated. He was part of an intense and continuing three-horse rivalry with Skip Away and Will’s Way, in which they kept pounding heads and beating each over the course of two years, while reaching new heights when it came to Beyer Speed figures.
In 1997, Formal Gold began the year as a boy and by late summer had grown into a man. He began the year with trips to Gulfstream (where he defeated Skip Away in the Donn Handicap in 1:47 2/5), Santa Anita, and Dubai. After getting beat a head by Skip Away in the Mass Cap, run in a near-track-record 1:47 4/5, earning both horses a 122 Beyer, Formal Gold crushed his field by almost five lengths in the Brooklyn Handicap, blazing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 1/5 in the mud. Then came a third behind Skip Away and Will’s Way in the Suburban Handicap and a nose defeat to Will’s Way in the Whitney, earning both horses a spectacular 126 Beyer.
Formal Gold, however, was getting bigger and stronger with each race. When he took on Skip Away again in the 1 1/16-mile Philip H. Iselin Handicap, he demonstrated just how far he had come. He charged to the front right out of the gate, outrunning the speedy Skip Away, while setting hot fractions of :45 2/5 and 1:09 flat. Skip Away and the classy Distorted Humor couldn’t make a dent in his lead and he rolled to 5 1/4-length victory. His time of 1:40 1/5 shattered Skipper Bill’s 41-year-old track record and earned Formal Gold a 124 Beyer.
Next came another showdown with Skip Away and Will’s Way in the 1 1/8-mile Woodward Stakes. Formal Gold and Skip Away played cat and mouse through an opening half-mile in a leisurely :47 1/5, with each rider waiting to see who made the first move. Then, in a flash, Kent Desormeaux sprung a surprise attack aboard Formal Gold, quickly bounding away to a clear lead. Skip Away tried to close in on the far turn, but Formal Gold was gone. He continued to draw off in the final furlong, winning by 5 1/2 lengths, stopping the teletimer in 1:47 2/5, earning a 125 Beyer.
Just think how rare it is these days for a horse to get a 120 Beyer, and here was
Formal Gold heading to the Breeders’ Cup having earned Beyers of 122, 126, 124, and 125.
Formal Gold arrived at Hollywood Park nearly three weeks before the Breeders’ Cup and immediately made his presence felt with his spectacular physical presence and powerful gallops. I had also arrived early, covering the Classic for the Daily Racing Form. Each morning at 7:30, all eyes would turn to this big, black locomotive barreling around the Hollywood oval. The green saddlecloth and four yellow polo bandages offered no clue to the horse’s identity. Local exercise riders and trainers could only gawk at the stranger and admire his power and long, fluid strides.
When Bill Mott found out the horse with the yellow bandages he’d been watching every morning was Formal Gold, he said, “I saw a good-looking horse, but I didn’t know that was him. I was going to ask who it was because he didn’t look like any ordinary horse.”
Mott’s assistant, Simon Bray, added, “He’s fantastic.. He’s been chewing up the track every day.”
By the Saturday before the Breeders’ Cup, David was getting antsy, wanting the race to be run already.
“We’re just counting the days,” he said after returning from a gallop. “I wish the race was now. When you get horses peaking like this, you have to keep them that way. If there’s anyone who can it’s the boss. I’ve worked for Hall of Fame trainers Leroy Jolley and Mack Miller, but there’s no better horseman than Mr. Perry. I don’t know if anyone else could have kept this horse peaking this long, especially racing all over the United States and Canada and Dubai.”
Said Perry by phone, “He’s really filled out and is much stronger than when he came out earlier for the Santa Anita Handicap. That time, we went a couple of days before the race and he had a pretty rough trip. He had to change planes and they put him in a box and forklifted him to the other plane. Those forklifts bounce around pretty good, especially with all that weight. When he arrived in California he wasn’t himself. I’m really glad we came early this time.”
The next morning, after arriving at the track, I headed over to Barn 53, where Formal Gold was stabled. What happened next can best be described as surreal. Standing outside Formal Gold’s was a man I’d never seen before. I walked over, but it was obvious he didn’t want me getting too close. I kept my distance, but was able to look into the colt’s stall, and there he was, standing in the middle of the stall with a cast almost up to his knee. My heart sunk. The man standing there was the veterinarian, but he wouldn’t give me much information.
When I saw David, he said Formal Gold had galloped strongly and was sound walking back to the barn. But following his bath, he walked back to his stall and was dead lame. X-rays were taken and they revealed a condylar fracture of the right hind leg. The horse was scheduled to undergo surgery in the next day or two.
I called Bill at Aqueduct, and all he could say was “I’m blown away. This is the most bitter pill I’ve ever had to swallow. I’m still numb. I’m not sure I’ll even be able to watch the race on TV.”
But for David, the most difficult part was still to come. Formal Gold’s owners, John and Theresa Murphy, had been traveling to California and were scheduled to come to the barn that morning. David had no idea if they even knew about the injury. The Murphys were deeply religious. Theresa would bring back Lourdes water from a sacred spring in France that was believed to have healing powers, and John (or Jack as he was known) would always sprinkle some of it on his horses’ legs while they were being saddled.
The Murphys’ great joy in life was Formal Gold and feeding their horses carrots and peppermints. All Jack Murphy wanted was for Formal Gold to have the opportunity to show the world what a great horse he was.
At 9 a.m., the Murphys arrived, but had gone to the opposite end of the barn and were talking to Chris McCarron. David could only hope McCarron was aware of the injury and was telling them about, saving him the anguish.
After a brief conversation, the Murphys headed toward us. When David saw they were all smiles and had a bag of carrots, he braced for what was to come.
“Oh, my God, they don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. How do you tell a man his dream just died?”
Jack spotted his colt’s head over the webbing and his face lit up. “There’s the big guy with his head out there,” John bellowed with enthusiasm.
As they went over to the horse, the Murphys’ joy turned to shock when they heard the words every owner dreads.
“I’ve got bad news,” David said.
When he told them what had happened, Theresa broke into tears and kissed her husband. She then went over to her horse and stroked his forehead.
“You’re still a champ,” she told him, as tears streamed down her cheek. “You have so much heart. You’ll be back.”
Jack, visibly shaken, tried hard to hold back his tears. He then reached into his bag of carrots and began feeding them to Formal Gold.
“God, I could cry,” he said. “All I wanted was this one day for the horse.”
Formal Gold underwent successful surgery the following day at the Equine Medical Center in Cypress. Dr. Wayne McIlwraith inserted two screws in the colt’s leg. David stayed with the horse all night. Normally, it takes a horse about 30 to 40 minutes to get up after surgery, but Formal Gold was up in 15 minutes.
“He was a little shaky at first, but he started looking for his peppermints, apples, and carrots from Mr. Murphy,” David said after bringing the horse back to Hollywood Park.
Formal Gold never raced again. He stood at stud at Rancho San Miguel in San Miguel, Cal., siring several graded stakes winners, such as grade II winner Adore the Gold. In 2010, he was relocated to Pierre Esquirol’s Esquirol Farms in Alberta, Canada for a fee of $2,500 Canadian dollars.
Bill Perry and David would return to the Breeders’ Cup three years later with the hard-knocking North East Bound in the Mile. Breaking from the disadvantageous post 14, North East Bound shot to the lead and set the pace at odds of 42-1. He turned back the challenge of Affirmed Success in the stretch and kept digging in as three horses came charging at him in the final yards. In a four-horse photo, it was the late-closing War Chant under Gary Stevens who just got up to win by neck over North East Bound, who finished a nose in front of the Andre Fabre-trained Dansili, who in turn had a nose on Affirmed Success.
“The post position beat us,” David recalled. “Having to use him to get over from the outside post beat us. I really believe he was the best horse.”
David, whose parents and siblings all trained horses, remained with Perry until his retirement about five years ago due to the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. David opened a public stable and currently trains 14 horses, which is a bit more than he would like.
He is grateful to be able to train a horse as honest and consistent as Withgreatpleasure.
“She has taken me to places I have never been,” he said. “I cannot say enough about her. What an honor to win a race named after Ruffian, the greatest filly of all time in my opinion.
“I got congratulations from Bill, who’s still out there playing golf. What a great guy. The best horseman in the world; I don’t care what anybody says.”
Looking back at that day at Hollywood Park, David recalled how Formal Gold’s injury nearly drove him out of the sport.
“What a tragedy that was,” he said. “That was the low point of my life. I almost gave up horses in general. If it wasn’t for Bill I probably would have left the game at that point in my career. I was never so devastated. But Bill, being the kind of man he was, kept telling me, ‘We have to go on.’
“I truly believe Formal Gold was the best horse in the world. People may not agree with me, but that track record he set at Monmouth will never be broken, and those Beyer numbers still are unheard of.”
The memory of Formal Gold and his epic rivalry with Skip Away and Will’s Way and that ill-fated morning at Hollywood Park had remained dormant for 16 years until a little-known trainer showed up at Aqueduct one April afternoon to win a major stakes with his 5-year-old mare, who had been hopping all over the Mid-Atlantic.
On Monday morning, David was still experiencing the aftermath of his victory. “I was on the Steve Byk show this morning,” he said. “They called me and put me on the show. They had Nick Zito on. Here I am on Steve Byk’s show. You have no idea how often my phone has been ringing. I feel like a celebrity.
“It’s just like back in the Formal Gold days when people used to come to the barn and interview me and take pictures of him galloping. I feel like I’m back in those days. And it’s a wonderful feeling.”
As for me, I’m thankful to David for rekindling these memories of a very special horse and his adoring owners and dedicated trainer, and for serving as a reminder of just how precious every joyful moment is in a sport that can strip away that joy in a heartbeat.