It’s hard enough to train a Thoroughbred and be able to bring out their talents. But when they have a mind of their own and keep fighting you, it makes the task extremely difficult and taxing on the nerves. To borrow a line from the movie A Bronx Tale, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
The question right now with Classic Empire as the Kentucky Derby draws closer is whether his immense talent is going to be wasted. We have seen what he is capable of in the Bashford Manor Stakes, Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His classy victories in those three races earned him an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. But we also saw what he is capable of when those gremlins inside his head surface, as they did at the start of the Hopeful Stakes when he suddenly wheeled, unseating his jockey as the 8-5 favorite.
And we saw them surface again this year when he misbehaved on the van ride to Gulfstream for the Holy Bull Stakes, sweated up in the post parade, and acted up and became ornery at the gate. And we’ve seen it when he flat out refused to work on two occasions, causing him to miss valuable training. Trainer Mark Casse, who has also had to deal with the colt’s foot abscess and back problem, finally had to resort to sending him to, of all places, Winding Oaks Training Center in Ocala, where he worked five furlongs, in the hope a change of scenery would help him. Soon, he will be off to the familiar and friendly confines of Keeneland, where he spent his happiest and most productive days last year.
Meanwhile, the Twin Spires are beginning to loom over the horizon and time is running out. With so few works, can Classic Empire, even on his best behavior from now until May 6, be ready for a top effort in the Derby? Even if he gets there sharp and fit, a chore in itself, how will the colt handle the bedlam of 150,000 people and all the hoopla that surrounds the race?
Casse isn’t the first trainer to have to deal with a temperamental Thoroughbred who does things only when he wants to and wants no part of them at other times. Classic Empire’s idiosyncrasies bring to mind three other extremely talented horses who tested their trainers—Tiznow, Broad Brush, and Fusaichi Pegasus.
Tiznow began to show off his quirks as a 4-year-old, and, ironically, he also refused to work at times and also suffered from a back problem that was a lot more serious than what ailed Classic Empire. But that eventually was taken care of, and the goal with him all year was an unprecedented repeat victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Following a pair of dull efforts in the Woodward and Goodwood Stakes, trainer Jay Robbins took Tiznow off the tranquilizers he was on, and in doing so, unleashed a terror. He felt Tiznow was simply bored in the Goodwood and never fired his best shot, only showing signs of life in the final 70 yards.
The colt became obstinate and cantankerous, lashing out at his lead pony and refusing to train until he was good and ready. Other times, he’d be jogging on the outside fence and suddenly just dart across the track to the inside fence.
“I was scared to death he was going to get someone hurt,” Robbins said. “He was doing all kinds of dumb things.”
This became an ongoing occurrence, and then it was time for his all-important seven-furlong work before shipping to New York for the Breeders’ Cup. Little did anyone it would take almost 45 minutes on the track before Tiznow decided he was ready to work. Before mounting, McCarron gave the colt a pep talk and even showed him his photo on the cover of the Breeders’ Cup souvenir magazine.
McCarron let him stand for three to four minutes, and then each time he’d start out he would balk and stop on a dime, then start again and balk again. The more McCarron tried to force him and coax him the more resentful he became. So McCarron took his feet out of the stirrups and kept chirping to him and squeezing his legs and slapping him on the neck with the reins. But each time Tiznow would pin his ears and refuse to move.
Just then, out of nowhere, Tiznow began to walk, his gait getting faster and faster, as McCarron had to scramble to get his feet back in the stirrups. This could be it. Tiznow broke into a gallop, and then at the half-mile pole he just took off, flying around the track. McCarron let him go from the half to the half for a full mile work. At one point on the far turn, Tiznow pricked his ears and began looking at the gap, and all McCarron could say was, “Oh no you don’t.” Tiznow completed the mile in a sizzling 1:35 3/5. He was ready to head to New York.
All seemed good after he arrived at Belmont. New Yorkers were still in shock, trying to come to terms with the cataclysmic events of 9/11, and a pall still hung over the city and Belmont Park. Tiznow, who had been stuck in New York unable to return home after the Woodward Stakes, grazed contentedly after arriving at Shug McGaughey’s barn, then picked his head up and stared at the grandstand off in the distance after hearing the faint voice of track announcer Tom Durkin calling a race. His eyes widened and he stood like a statue, with his ears cocked. It wasn't until the race was over and all was again quiet that he returned to grazing. He then was led into his new stall, took a roll in the wood shavings, and settled in to his new home for the week. So far so good.
But this moment of bliss would be short-lived. The following morning, Robbins showed up, not knowing what to expect from his temperamental star. Much to his dismay, he would soon find out. Tiznow went out for his clockwise jog around the track just after the renovation break and immediately turned into a one-horse wrecking crew, balking, kicking, back-peddling, and side-stepping his way around the track. As he walked off, Robbins told exercise rider Ramon Arciga to bring him back on and go around again. “I’m either gonna confuse him or confuse myself,” he said. Tiznow was better the second time around, but down the backstretch, he lost it again, and scooted backwards across the width of the track. An outrider finally had to grab the colt and escort him back.
Robbins went out later that day to buy a bottle of vodka to give to Tiznow to help calm him down. It was a practice that had been used by some trainers in the past. But it was Sunday and all the liquor stores were closed, so Robbins was on his own.
He decided to change the colt's schedule, sending him out before the break, when there was much less traffic, and having him go counterclockwise for a change. It seemed to work. Accompanied by McGaughey’s exercise rider Pam York and her pony, Andy, Tiznow improved each day. Robbins, watching from the trainer's stand one morning, crossed both his fingers as Tiznow ambled calmly around the track. His gallops got stronger, and by late week, he was tearing over the track with the same power and authority as he had the year before at Churchill Downs. We all know what happened after that, as Tiznow won the Classic “for America,” as Durkin called it, battling back from certain defeat to nose out Godolphin’s runaway Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Sakhee. Robbins had pulled off one of the great training jobs, as Tiznow made history by becoming the first two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
With Broad Brush, there was no refusing to train. In fact, it was just the opposite. He also was easily bored, but in his case he needed and demanded to train every day, and trainer Dickie Small had to find ways to appease him, even when conditions were against him. And who can explain his wild and wacky antics in the Pennsylvania Derby, which we’ll get to later.
To get to know something about Broad Brush, let’s go back the Meadowlands following the colt’s victory in the Meadowlands Cup.
It was past midnight, about an hour and a half after Broad Brush's resounding victory over older horses in the $500,000 Meadowlands Cup. It was the colt’s 14th start of the year, all stakes, at 11 different racetracks.
In Barn 4E, Small had just finished fixing the colt an early breakfast (or late dinner) of oats and bran before chauffeuring him back home to Pimlico, as he always did. Small brought the feed bucket over to Broad Brush's stall and said to me, “Put your hand in this feed tub; I bet you can’t touch it.” The feed was so hot, I could barely hold my hand over it, never mind touch it.
“Watch this; you're not going to believe it,” Small said. As soon as he walked into Broad Brush’s stall, the colt came charging at the tub and buried his head in it before Small could hang it on the wall. He then proceeded to devour the scalding mixture without even flinching.
“He’s incredible,” Small said. “Half the horses in this race wouldn’t eat anything right after a race, but he doesn’t even wait for it to cool off. He’s so tough and durable. He’s made of the right stuff. I’ve never been around a horse like this.”
It was funny listening to Small describe a horse as being tough and durable and made of the right stuff. This is someone who used to go out on suicide missions in Vietnam while serving with the Green Berets.
Broad Brush was unlike any horse I have ever been around. When it came to sheer toughness, he was in a class by himself. He thrived on work and could not get enough of it. Small said the horse knew exactly when the track opened in the morning, and if he wasn't the first one out there “you couldn't deal with him.” The day after the 1987 Preakness, the Pimlico track was closed for clean-up and Small had to van the then 4-year-old Broad Brush to Laurel just to gallop. In the winter of 1986, prior to the General George Stakes at Pimlico, all the Maryland tracks were frozen on the day Broad Brush was scheduled to work. Small put the colt on a van and drove him to his father’s farm, where he worked him up a snow bank. Three days later, Broad Brush won the General George.
The horse had such incredible recuperative powers, no ailment ever kept him out of training. He ran down badly in the ‘86 Travers, but two days later, to the amazement of Small, the injury was completely healed.
He loved riding in vans and Small would often just take him for rides around the Maryland countryside to alleviate any boredom. In his 14 starts at 3, Broad Brush raced at Pimlico, Laurel, Latonia, Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, Thistledown, Canterbury Downs, Monmouth, Saratoga, Philadelphia Park, and Meadowlands, and vanned to every race but one, logging 5,000 miles on the road.
The only problem Broad Brush caused Small in the mornings was his unwillingness to gallop or work long distances by himself. He thrived on competition and loved running alongside other horses. If Small sent him out by himself he would get bored and start playing around. Unfortunately, Small had no colts who could gallop with Broad Brush without getting knocked out for a week. Small said he just “overpowered and intimidated them. It was like they went through the wringer.”
Fortunately, Small had a claiming filly named Flow and Flux who had no speed, but was so tough and had so much stamina, she could gallop with Broad Brush and stand up to the pressure. Small had gone through a number of horses until he lucked out finding her. She became Broad Brush's galloping companion and traveled with him everywhere, including California in 1987, when he made three separate trips there, culminating with a heart-pounding nose victory over Ferdinand in the Santa Anita Handicap. Flow and Flux became so valuable to Small he couldn't even run her for fear of losing her. This is a filly who won one of 14 starts, a $14,000 maiden claiming race at Philadelphia Park. Of those 14 starts, she was out of the money in nine of them.
“She’s worth a fortune to me,” Small said in 1987. “There is no way we could have gotten Broad Brush to this level without her. I put her in a couple of allowance races this year, but I don’t dare run her at her own level because I can’t afford to lose her.”
The day before the ‘87 Preakness, Broad Brush went out for his 6 a.m. gallop, as usual accompanied by Flow and Flux. As important as Broad Brush’s works were, his gallops were even more important, which was the reason Flow and Flux was so valuable. As Small explained, the works were for wind exercise and the gallops were for muscle exercise.
Small leaned over the rail and again said, “Watch this, you’re not going to believe it.” In a few minutes, two figures came bounding out of the turn, so close together they seemed to be joined at the hip. Technically, they were in a gallop, but it was so vigorous it gave the illusion they were going much faster. Here was this big, dark bay colt on the inside, striding out powerfully, trying to keep up with the smaller light bay filly alongside him.
“She’s actually above him in the pecking order,” Small said as they charged past us. “She sets the pace of the gallop. He’ll slow down or go faster depending on what she does. Sometimes, she’ll just say to him, ‘What’s the matter, can’t you keep up?’”
Moments later, the pair came rolling by once again, still at a strong gallop and still eyeball to eyeball. Any other horse in Small’s barn would take several days to recover from such a gallop, but Flow and Flux did it every day for a year and a half.
“She’s got so much guts and heart, damned if I know where she gets it,” Small said. “She has one lick but she can carry it five miles. They’ve become real buddies. It’s like a human runner who likes to have a friend along to talk to.”
Finally we come to Broad Brush's most infamous moment -- his you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it victory in the Pennsylvania Derby, in which he not only bolted all the way to the outside fence nearing the quarter pole over a very sloppy track, he headed directly toward it at full speed, looking as if he were going to either crash into it or jump over it. It was only the frantic waving by the track veterinarian standing at the rail that prevented Broad Brush from winding up in the picnic area and jockey Angel Cordero from bailing out, which he was ready to do. Broad Brush quickly straightened himself out, angled back in, and miraculously came charging down the middle of the track to win the race.
All through the years we have seen horses with minds of their own. Another such a horse was Fusaichi Pegasus. Here was an amazingly talented horse who had sold for $4 million as a yearling. But he had his mental issues. He was high strung and unpredictable, doing what was asked of him only when he felt like it and rearing without warning or provocation.
Right before the Wood Memorial, as the horses circled behind the gate preparing to load, one horse was missing. Binoculars scoured the entire Aqueduct stretch in search of the bright red and yellow silks of Fusaichi Pegasus’ owner Fusao Sekiguchi. But they were nowhere to be found.
Finally, off in the distance, near the five-sixteenths pole, the colt was spotted standing like the proverbial statue, his feet planted firmly on the ground. “Come on, big boy, we gotta go,” jockey Kentucky Desormeaux pleaded to no avail. The Wood Memorial at that moment was the furthest thing from Fusaichi Pegasus’ mind. His only interest seemed to be checking out all the buses and cars in the parking lot.
In an attempt to get the colt’s mind back on the race, one of the members of the gate crew ran up the stretch, grabbed hold of the bridle, and tried to coax him into going by running alongside him. That worked until the colt decided to stop near the eighth pole and gawk at the crowd. By the time the outrider showed up to lend his assistance, Fusaichi Pegasus was ready for action, and obligingly jogged alongside the pony right to the gate, where he proceeded to walk in as if nothing had happened. About a minute and 47 seconds later, he was coasting past the finish line an easy winner.
But following the race, once again there was no sign of the horse, as trainer Neil Drysdale stood patiently on the track waiting for him. He was taking so much time to get back, just stopping to look around, they had to hold up the post parade for the following race.
And of course there was his incident at Churchill Downs a week before the Derby. Drysdale had to take him out under the cover of darkness every morning when there was little activity. Following a gallop, he was walking back along the rail when out of nowhere he reared straight up. Instead of coming down on all fours as any other horse would do, he went straight down on his rear end and basically sat on the track in an upright position. With no way to stay on top of the horse, his exercise rider slid right off the colt’s back. Now riderless, Fusaichi Pegasus scrambled to his feet, and before he even had a chance to think about running off, Drysdale raced onto the track and grabbed the reins and quickly put the lead shank on him. No damage done.
Each morning, Drysdale would put Fusaichi Pegasus in the round pen he had constructed behind the barn, and the colt would run wildly around, bucking and kicking. That Saturday he easily won the Kentucky Derby.
So, Mark Casse, yes, it is frustrating to have a horse who only does what he wants, when he wants, and is totally unpredictable. You certainly have your work cut out for you, playing trainer and psychiatrist. But if Classic Empire turns out to be anywhere near as good as Tiznow, Broad Brush, and Fusaichi Pegasus it will be worth all the trouble.