This is an unconventional way to demonstrate how special a horse Unbridled’s Song was, but it still is my main remembrance of the colt, and how brilliantly fast and courageous he was. Because of soundness problems we never got a chance to see just how great a horse he could have been, but we at least got some inclination by the number of major stakes winners he sired and how important he was to American breeding.
It was the dinner from hell. Ed Fountaine, my good friend and Daily Racing Form colleague, had been doing a diary with Jim Ryerson, trainer of the Kentucky Derby favorite Unbridled’s Song, and decided to invite him out to dinner at Pat’s Steak House to repay him on behalf of DRF for all his help. That invitation also included the colt’s owner Ernie Paragallo’s bloodstock agent Buzz Chace, who had bought Unbridled’s Song as a yearling.
Ryerson and Chace arrived an hour late, and all through dinner the tension was so thick you could have cut it with one of Pat’s steak knives. But let’s back up a little.
Unbridled’s Song, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in only his third start, had demonstrated brilliant speed at 2 and 3, as evidenced by his 114 Beyer Speed Figure in the Florida Derby. Following his victory in the Wood Memorial, a rumor began to circulate that Unbridled’s Song had come out of the race with a bruised foot, but nothing ever came of it, and the colt went about his daily training with no problems.
At Churchill, Ryerson was sharing a barn with a newcomer to the Derby trail, former Quarter-Horse trainer Bob Baffert, who was known mainly for his fast sprinters and quick, edgy sense of humor. But this year he had entered the classic picture for the first time with Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier. Although on opposite ends of the barn, Baffert naturally scrutinized over the Derby favorite’s every move, knowing he was the horse to beat.
More than a week before the Derby, Baffert had noticed that Unbridled’s Song was wearing a bar shoe, which naturally sent up a warning flare. Seeing Chace, who also was serving as Paragallo’s advisor and racing manager, standing outside the barn, I said to him rather nonchalantly, “So, Buzz, I hear Unbridled’s Song is wearing a bar shoe.”
“Bar shoe?” he responded with a quizzical look. “I don’t know anything about a bar shoe.”
In Buzz’s defense, it was Ryerson who needed to officially confirm that. When he finally came out of the office, several reporters gathered around for what was to be a standard interview. Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal, had also found out about the bar shoe, and we both looked at each other, waiting to see who would blurt out the bar shoe question. Having known Ryerson for several years, I casually asked as if it were common knowledge, “How long has he been wearing a bar shoe?”
Ryerson’s smirk broadened as he realized the word was out. He proceeded to explain that Unbridled’s Song had injured his foot in the Wood Memorial. He believed the colt hit something and taken out a chunk of the bulb of his heel. His groom, Jose Perales, had discovered it while picking out the colt’s feet after the Wood. Unbridled’s Song was given a tetanus shot, and an acrylic patch was put on to help the foot heal. Because there was some warmth in his foot, they had to drain it as well.
Ryerson said in the interview the colt had worked two days earlier at Churchill without the bar shoe and the foot was “cold as ice” afterward.
That was the way the situation stood as we prepared to have dinner with Ryerson and Chace on the Monday before the Derby. When they showed up so late, it caused some raised eyebrows, but we thought nothing more of it. But at dinner, Ryerson, not known for his verbosity, engaged in minimal conversation, while Chace, smoking one cigarette after another, stared out the window into the darkness all through dinner without saying a word. It was obvious this was the last place they wanted to be.
Ed and I were so uncomfortable we kept alternating trips to the men’s room, where the flushing of the toilet turned out to be the most stimulating sound we heard all night. Chace smoked so many cigarettes the smoke bounced off the window and began descending on my salmon. When the ordeal, mercifully, was over, Ed and I looked at each other and just shook our heads. “What the hell was that all about?” I asked.
All we could think of was that Unbridled’s Song’s foot had taken a turn for the worse that afternoon and that was why they were so late. As it turned out, it had. When Ryerson had returned to the barn that afternoon and checked the horse’s foot, he noticed tenderness in the area, so he pulled off the shoe and soaked the foot. He put the colt on antibiotics, something no trainer wants to do that close to a race, especially the Kentucky Derby.
The blacksmith, Hans Albrecht, feeling the old shoe was aggravating the heel, replaced it with a Z-bar shoe, which, with its Z-shaped extension inside the shoe, provided additional protection. It wasn’t looking good for the Derby favorite.
The following morning (Tuesday), the foot seemed better and Unbridled’s Song had a good gallop with his new shoe. At first, he was a little tentative with it but appeared to get used to it quickly. Ryerson did say that the colt would not breeze Wednesday, as originally planned, which again was not good news. If he had to miss the breeze altogether, they would be forced to come up with an alternate plan.
That night, Ryerson called Paragallo and told him he was thinking of changing plans and working Unbridled’s Song a half-mile Wednesday morning. He could have played it safe and galloped him again when the track turned wet following an early morning shower. But Ryerson felt it was time to find out once and for all just where they were with the colt. This was the Kentucky Derby. If Unbridled’s Song’s foot wasn’t able to stand up to the punishment of a half-mile work over a wet track, he had no business being in the race.
Paragallo had given him the go ahead, and when Ryerson awoke Wednesday morning, the first thing he did was call jockey Mike Smith and told him to come work the horse.
It was still dark, with a light rain falling when Smith showed up at the barn. The tension actually was thicker than at Pat’s if that was possible. There was a foreboding atmosphere knowing that the Derby favorite with a nagging foot bruise and wearing bar shoes was about to work over a wet track to determine whether or not he was going to run.
Unbridled’s Song was under tack by 6 a.m., and the Z-bar shoes had been replaced with two egg-bar shoes, which are full egg-shaped shoes that cover the entire foot and provide better balance and support. While some vets believe they don’t hinder a horse’s performance, many horsemen equate the transition to going from running shoes to combat boots. They certainly are not desirable, especially in a race like the Kentucky Derby.
Ryerson had been up most of the night worrying about the work. As Unbridled’s Song made his way on to the track, Ryerson went up to the clocker’s stand, located midway down the backstretch, and waited nervously.
“We’ll know in a few minutes,” he said. The time wasn’t important. Ryerson just wanted to see how the colt went with the egg-bars, which he no doubt would have to wear in the Derby, and how the foot stood up to the pressure.
In the clocker’s stand were trainers Phil Thomas and Gary “Red Dog” Hartlage, who had their clocks ready to time Unbridled’s Song’s work. Because it was still dark, all anyone could see of the work were the split seconds when the colt passed under lights situated at the poles.
Unbridled’s Song broke off at the half-mile pole. It was near-impossible to catch the opening split from their vantage point in the dark, so Thomas and Hartlage just timed his final three-eighths. As they checked their splits, they couldn’t believe what they saw and were convinced they had blown the time or were clocking the wrong horse.
“No, that’s him,” Ryerson assured them. As Unbridled’s Song passed the finish line, Thomas looked at his watch first and said, “Good God, I got his last three-eighths in :33 4/5; that can’t be right.”
“I got the same time,” Hartlage said. Ryerson then checked with the clockers, who told him they had caught the colt in :46 flat for the half-mile, galloping out five furlongs in :59 1/5. It was a spectacular work for any horse, but for one wearing two egg-bar shoes and nursing a sore foot it was unheard of. One independent clocker caught him pulling up six furlongs in 1:11 and change, with Smith finally able to rein him in after a mile in 1:37 and change.
Everyone was buzzing about the final time of the work and the way he galloped out, but Ryerson remained apprehensive. The most important part was still to come.
“The time means nothing,” he said. “It’s all how he comes back,”
Then, out of the fading darkness, a gray figure appeared bouncing along next to his lead pony Leo. “He looks alright…he looks alright!” Ryerson said, his voice rising with renewed enthusiasm. When Smith gave him a big thumbs up leaving the track, it put the finishing touches on an emotion-packed morning and one of the greatest Derby works anyone had ever seen.
Unbridled’s Song cooled out beautifully and veterinarian Foster Northrup said the colt came out of the work in excellent shape. Ryerson now had an idea how much the egg-bar shoes would affect the horse in the Derby. But the Derby is a far cry from a half-mile work.
Unfortunately, Unbridled’s Song’s woes were not over. At the post position draw, the colt drew post 20 as a final indignity. Baffert couldn’t believe it. As he walked out of the Sports Spectrum, where the draw was held, he could only shake his head and say, “How can any horse in my barn have such bad karma?”
Baffert had become smitten with the brilliant gray, and felt he was in a different stratosphere than the other horses. After watching him work six furlongs before all his troubles began, Baffert stated emphatically what he would do in order to get a horse like this. “I’d swim across a river of gasoline with a torch up my (butt),” he said.
Because of the injury and having to wear egg-bar shoes, Unbridled’s Song was sent off as the 7-2 favorite in the Derby. Breaking from post 19, following one late scratch, he came out running and pressed the brutal early pace set by Honour and Glory and Matty G. through fractions of :22 1/5, :46 flat, and 1:10 flat. While both those top-class stakes horses stopped to walk, finishing 17th and 18th, Unbridled’s Song made a quick, spectacular move outside horses to take command and open a clear lead on the far turn. It was shaping up to be one of the great performances ever in the Derby, as he turned for home still well out in front.
But as soon as he went to change leads, you could tell there was little left. Cavonnier charged past him on the inside, but he continued to battle on, and was still only a head back at the eighth pole. Then came the late closers -- eventual winner Grindstone, and Prince of Thieves -- and Halo Sunshine, who also was close to the pace and ran huge. Between the blazing fractions, the egg bar shoes, that big early move, and running farther than he probably wanted to go, Unbridled’s Song had little left, but never stopped trying. At the end, he finished fifth, beaten only 3 3/4 lengths, and a neck and a nose for third. It was one of the greatest losing races in Derby history.
The Derby experience had left Ryerson emotionally drained. Churchill Downs, in an unprecedented move, had set up a podium outside his barn, where the trainer would address the media daily on the latest condition of his horse.
Now, finally, it was over. All that remained from the previous week’s soap opera was the familiar podium that had become a meeting place each morning for every reporter, photographer, and TV cameraman. Curled up inside the podium, fast asleep, was Ryerson’s black cat, Lucky, whose conflicting color and name served as a final reminder of one of the most bizarre weeks in the history of the Kentucky Derby and one of the most courageous performances ever witnessed in the Run for the Roses.