Tribute to Unbridled's Song

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.


Leave a Comment:

Stephie Clare

Wonderful article!  Thank you Steve.

26 Jul 2013 5:45 PM

This has been such a sad week for horses. Now this news. He was a big favorite of mine and I think his legacy will go down in history not as the best on the track but the best sire of this time. His legacy reaches far an wide and goes on and on. I am so sad for his people, to loose him this way. Racing has lost a great champion and one of the most esthetically beautiful horses ever. He was perfect in every way.

RIP Unbridled Song, I am hoping that you are having many happy reunions on the other side...with your girl Eight Belles and all the other horse spirits that have gone before. Love you BIG boy!!

26 Jul 2013 6:18 PM

Another fine tribute, Steve. Unbridled's Song was truly brilliant and talented, but also extremely unlucky to have the sore hoof while racing in the Kentucky Derby. You're absolutely right in calling his Derby 'one of the greatest losing races in Derby history.'

26 Jul 2013 6:20 PM
Karen in Texas

Thanks, Steve. I was fortunate enough to have been present at his Breeders' Cup Juvenile win; he and Hennessey were slugging it out down to the wire with Mike Smith on him and Donna Barton (Brothers) on Hennessey. Now they are both gone. My condolences to the connections at Taylor Made.

26 Jul 2013 7:04 PM

What awful luck in the Derby - but what a work!!!  

I am so saddened by the loss of this wonderful horse.  Spent time with him this past spring.  He was the picture of health and a happy horse.  Thankful for the good life he had at Taylor Made Farm.

26 Jul 2013 7:23 PM

A fine remembrance for a beautiful and talented stallion. My sincere condolences to those who cared for and loved him.

26 Jul 2013 7:29 PM
Michele Stevenson

I love this article--Steve

Bob Baffert's commitment to this horse is fabulous.

So is your commitment to racing journalism.

NO wonder I know Unbridled Song's name, but never watched him.

What a horse to leave this legacy.

26 Jul 2013 7:34 PM
Paula Higgins

What a great story Steve. A very gutsy horse. One of the things I have learned over the past few years is that great races may be run by a losing horse i.e. Seattle Slew, Zenyatta. I don't know if it is Karma or what, but when I saw you mention, "Lucky," the black cat it made me smile. We just had to put down our black kitty, Chloe, today. She was one of the joys of my life. I think this means we should adopt another black cat and we will name her "Lucky."

26 Jul 2013 9:10 PM

Great story, Steve. I felt as if I was there.  Love the comment made by Bob Baffert- sounds so much like him.  His loss will be felt for a long time, but what a legacy he has left behind.  Thankfully, his owners did the right thing for him.

26 Jul 2013 10:02 PM

Boy has this been a draining week... Thank you for the great bedtime story. Sometimes the losing run is the best run.

26 Jul 2013 10:19 PM
Fran Loszynski

I think the greatest compliment I can give Unbridled's Song  is anytime I saw a horse run with Unbridled's Song in his lineage.....I played him and won. Goodbye dear champion. Very nice article Steve.

26 Jul 2013 10:20 PM

How sad that such a noble horse was owned by such a horrible person. At least New York didn't turn a blind eye to his transgressions and cruelty. If only other states would follow suit...

26 Jul 2013 11:59 PM

Steve, I think this piece is one of your finest 'hours'. You have encapsulated what many saw when Unbridled's Song entered the racing sphere - magnifique!!

27 Jul 2013 12:06 AM
Shelby's Best Pal

Wow, what a story!  I really enjoyed reading it. The Baffert comment made me laugh out loud.

27 Jul 2013 12:09 AM

And a great tribute it is indeed to him as only you can tell it Steve.  I felt like I was at that dinner and could actually feel the tension in the air between those two.  Unbridled's Song had the great fighting thoroughbred spirit in him too.  We lose another great sire.  It's so sad.  Hope his progeny give a good showing on the track to honor him.

Paula Higgins,

So sorry to hear of the loss of your beloved cat Chloe. This I know is truly sad to lose an animal, they are family members too.  I think it's a great idea to get another black cat and Lucky is a great name for it!  I'm sure it has been a tough week for you and hope things get better.  Your Chloe just entered the pealy gates and is in Paradise with Monzante and Unbridled's Song, etc.  RIP Unbridled's Song, Monzante, and Chloe.  

27 Jul 2013 12:33 AM

Brilliant tribute for Unbridled's Song Steve. Would love to read an in depth tribute/column from the best racing writer(Steve Haskin) on Easy Goer.

27 Jul 2013 1:34 AM

Well done as usual Steve...I'm sure this article would bring a tear to Francis Genter's face and I'm sure Carl Nafzger will appreciate the memories of Unbridled Songs most famous son, Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled.

27 Jul 2013 7:49 AM

Great article, Steve.  I'd always heard that Unbridled's Song was a serious flop in the Derby.  Clearly, not the case.  Considering his issues going into the race, a good 5th, particularly considering how the race was run, was an impressive outcome.  

As a stud, he certainly sired some brilliant horses but I've always been a bit suspect of their durability, understandable considering Unbridled's Song was somewhat fragile as well.

Derbyboy; it's the other way around; Unbridled is the sire of Unbridled's Song.

27 Jul 2013 11:26 AM
Pedigree Ann

Unbridled's Song was a seriously mismanaged horse, perhaps not on the level of Toccet, but not far down. I felt this way at the time and have not changed my opinion since. You have a horse with a sore foot; instead of letting it heal, you pitch him into the toughest race of his life. Because you always wanted to have a Derby horse and your ego is more important than the horse's well-being. Pathetic.

Then Doug O'Neill gets bad press because he scratches a favorite with an injury he tried but failed to cure in time.

27 Jul 2013 12:19 PM
Linda in Texas

This has been a roller coaster week, beginning with hearing Monzante 'took a bad step.' Then his unfortunate euthanization. Then St. Nicholas Abbey fracturing his pastern while training. Then the sudden death of Unbridled's Song at the age of 20, such a beautiful specimen and my favorite, a gray, as was Monzante. Then to hear from Paula that her special and dear pet Chloe had to leave her. And in between this news, St Nicholas Abbey then developed Colic and had additional surgery. He is such a fine racehorse. Let's hope he makes it. So thoughts of hope for him and thoughts of sympathy for the losses. Reports here on say he is doing better.  Great news.

And to Paynter and The Zayat Family and Baffert good luck in his race. I wish for St Nicholas Abbey the same i had for Paynter this week end a year ago as he won The Haskell and then fell ill with his own issues. Hopefully the heart that beats inside St Nicholas is as strong and has as much fight as the one inside Paynter that with patience from so many brought him back from what was a tough fight. Paynter and St Nicholas Abbey to me resemble each other.  

And Expoise and KY VET, if i sound like a "bambihugger," so be it. We all cannot and thank God aren't as insensitive as you both. I wonder when i read your comments what the hell you are doing following anything having to do with the sport of horse racing. There are other sports that would be a better fit to your intelligence.

Paynter, Oxbow and all Good Luck in your racing this week end and everyone come home safely.

Thanks Steve for your article on Unbridled's Song. The Taylor Made Farm has to be a wonderful breeding establishment. After all one of my favorites and she isn't gray, is Pepper's Pride who at 10 is a broodmare with the Taylor's.

I wondered how she was and i read about her just today. I drove to New Mexico to watch Pepper's Pride race her last. She and Mine That Bird are 2 fine winners who brought great publicity to New Mexico and i am fond of both.

Be safe. Linda  

27 Jul 2013 2:44 PM
Nancy Specht

I saw him run a scorching race in one of the juvenile preps in only his second race; led by a huge amount and then held on gamely to finish second.  Then for his next race, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, I watched  him gamely hold off Hennessy.  Always freakishly fast and never able to fulfill his potential.  Loved that gorgeous gray and his very talented offspring!  Rest in peace, beautiful Unbridled's Song!

27 Jul 2013 4:17 PM

It's a blessing to have writers such as  you Mr. H that can still bring tears to my eyes in this time of cynicism and greed in the world. Unbridled Song brought pleasure to so many such as myself who are not big bettors or owners, but just enjoy looking at his picture! Very sad to loose him, but thankful we had him for so long.

27 Jul 2013 6:38 PM
ceil rock

Bob Baffert at least got to train Zensational, one of Unbridled Song's best colts. I know he was crushed when Mr. Zayat decided to retire him to stud instead of racing him at four. One of my personal favorites was Thorn Song, whose story is so similar to Paynter's. It's a miracle he's alive today & standing at stud in California. Zensational, Thorn Song & Paynter all owned by Zayat Stables.

27 Jul 2013 8:18 PM


28 Jul 2013 10:03 AM
Bill Two

Thanks for writing this account of Unbridled Song's struggle to make the Derby.  Of course, the horse should have never ran in the race with the condition he was in. I distinctly remember the egg barshoes and the controversy that arose over them.  It seems we should have had an inkling of what was to come with Ernie Paragallo and his abuse of horses under his command.  As the article makes clear, we'll never know just how good this poor horse could have been.

28 Jul 2013 3:46 PM

Thank you for your wonderful tribute to Unbridled's Song.  I saw him win the BC Juvenile at Belmont Park.  He was a magnificent specimen of a horse who stood out among the other 2-year-olds in the paddock.  Unbridled's Song was an amazing athlete with great heart and courage, so it is regrettable that his medical issues compromised his racing career.  The horse will be remembered not for the races that he won, but for the most important one that he lost--The Kentucky Derby--and just how he lost it.  While Unbridled's Song had an uneven racing career, he more than made up for it as a successful sire, and thankfully, his legacy will continue on through his offspring.

28 Jul 2013 5:24 PM

Unbridled Unbridled's Song sire won the derby in 1990 my mom and I became big racing fans after that race. Both these horses were our favorites I am crying writing this blog because so many racing memories I have are because of this two special horses. I lost my Mom in 2011 she was my best friend and we had so many good times at Monmouth Park This horse meant so much to both of us R.I.P you very special gray horse I loved you

28 Jul 2013 7:56 PM
El Kabong

What a story. Thanks for sharing this gritty story about a great horse. That Derby is so hard on everyone in pursuit and this was just a peak into the struggle most will never know unless they come here. Summer time is busy, but I'm glad I didn't miss this one.

29 Jul 2013 12:40 AM
steve from st louis

Steve, how many great stories like this are you sitting on? Come clean, and horse lovers and race fans will beat a path to your publisher's door.  

29 Jul 2013 4:19 PM

There are accidents and "accidents." There is no fragility or unsoundness known to man that causes half a horse's heel to fall off in the middle of the race. This was a genuine accident, not a fault in the horse.

Actually, it is an extreme test of soundness that the horse ran anyway and didn't break down in the opposite leg, which they overload because of the pain.

03 Aug 2013 3:21 AM
Linda in Texas

Very Fitting to mention here that UNBRIDLED'S SONG was euthanized on July 26, 2013. 7 days later on August 2,2013 his son ROCKPORT HARBOR was euthanized due to Laminitis. And one day after Rockport Harbor was euthanized CROSS TRAFFIC at the greatest racetrack of all, in my opinion because if nothing else for the long history aspect, Unbridled's Song's son Cross Traffic won the Whitney wire to wire on August 3, 2013 all in an 8 day span from the day Unbridled's Song left us.

That to me is a very nice tribute

to Unbridled's Song by his son Cross Traffic. And i also note how very much Cross Traffic resembles EIGHT BELLES sired by Unbridled's Song and Rockport Harbor especially in the formation of their heads and their particular style of running. And not to forget another sired by Unbridled's Song OLD FASHIONED, who was well on his way to further success in 2008 and 2009 when at Oaklawn he suffered a slab injury and was retired to stud at Taylor Made Stallions after winning 4 firsts and 2 seconds in 6 starts and winning a combined total for his 2 and 3 year old races of $583,000. He looks like his half brothers and his half sister, though all have different dams. Cannot forget DUNKIRK another son of Unbridled's Song, no blaze on his head but a beautiful grey standing at Ashord Stud because of a condylar fracture he suffered in his last race during The Belmont Stakes when he set the pace was caught and overtaken by Summer Bird to win, Dunkirk came in second ahead of Mine That Bird the Kentucky Derby winner who was third. (Dunkirk has a Seattle Slew/Alydar cross on his dam's side) and then there is GRAYDAR, and i could go on and on. I say Rest in Peace Unbridled's Song.

I won't forget you, and neither will many more, you big beautiful gray stallion to the end.

Thanks Steve.

04 Aug 2013 3:32 PM

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