Waiting For Arazi

With the recent passing of trainer Lyn Whiting and this year marking the 25th anniversary of Lil E. Tee’s victory in the Kentucky Derby, it brought back a flood of memories. Lil E. Tee’s stunning score at 16-1 over that year’s Cinderella horse Casual Lies was extremely popular in Kentucky because of the always amiable Whiting, a longtime fixture in the Bluegrass, and the legendary Pat Day finally winning his first Derby. But the 1992 Run for the Roses will always be remembered for the phenomenon known as Arazimania.

Never before had the Sport of Kings seen anything like the French wonder horse Arazi, a pocket-sized chestnut colt with a crooked blaze who shocked the racing world the year before by turning in one of the most electrifying moves ever seen on an American racetrack, decimating our best 2-year-olds in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. His spectacular last to first charge overshadowed all the other Breeders’ Cup races and made Tom Durkin’s frantic call an everlasting piece of racing lore, as he bellowed, as if shocked by what he was witnessing, “And Arazi runs right by him! Bertrando stunned on the inside with the move of Arazi…here indeed is a superstar.”

No one had ever seen a move like that before and were left stunned by the spectacular acceleration of Arazi.

French trainer John Hammond, who won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe with Suave Dancer, thought he had seen it all. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I have to admit I was a doubter before the race, but this horse must have some incredible engine.”

Geoffrey Gibbs, senior handicapper for the British Jockey Club, added, “That was the best 2-year-old performance I have seen and am ever likely to see. I have never witnessed such acceleration.”

Alex Scott, trainer of Sheikh Albadou, who won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint earlier in the day, said, “That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. But it did happen. It was like something out of National Velvet.”

Immediately after the Breeders’ Cup, owner Allen Paulson sold half-interest in Arazi to Sheikh Mohammed for a reported $9 million prior to the colt undergoing arthroscopic surgery to clear up an arthritic condition. There was some controversy regarding the necessity of the surgery, as trainer Francois Boutin said the following spring that Arazi’s knees were more problematic after the surgery than before, adding, “One minute they are hot and the next minute they are cold.”

But in any event, Arazi returned to the races on March 28 to easily win the 1,600-meter (about one-mile) Prix Omnium at Saint-Cloud. Boutin wanted to get two preps into the colt, but the late flat racing schedule in France prevented it, so Arazi had to go into the Derby off one easy victory and having undergone surgery. The last horse to win the Run for the Roses with less than two starts as a 3-year-old was Morvich in 1922, and Arazi won with such ridiculous ease, he could not have gotten much out of the race. He also was going into the Derby never having raced farther than 1 1/16 miles.

Despite all the warning signs that he might not be ready for a mile and a quarter race and having to perform his magic this time in an 18-horse field, Arazi’s reputation took on legendary proportions, as America awaited the return of this freak of a racehorse.

Writing for the Daily Racing Form, I tracked Arazi’s every move and provided as many reports as possible to quench the insatiable thirst of the American pubic for any information coming from Boutin’s yard in Chantilly. Allen Paulson would provide updates on occasion. I even had our cartoonist, Pierre Bellocq (Peb) make inquiries through his connections in France and even call Boutin himself. Meanwhile, Boutin was feeling overwhelmed by all the questions regarding Arazi that were being hurled at him daily and he became more and more standoffish.

As the Derby grew closer, the Arazi phenomenon began to grow. Never before did racing fans and the media have to wait for the Kentucky Derby favorite to arrive from France.

And so it was that my colleague Ed Fountaine and I were assigned to write a daily “Work Patrol” from Churchill Downs, along with handling news stories and writing features, and I also did a daily diary with Casual Lies’ trainer Shelley Riley and wrote “Tracking the Derby” profiles on every Derby starter, listing their strengths, weaknesses, strategy, and bettability.

Not only was Ed one of the many on the Arazi bandwagon, he was his main cheerleader. One night after dinner on the way back to our hotel, Ed went out of his way to drive to the old J.J. Carter Moving and Storage building across the street from Churchill Downs’ main entrance on Central Avenue that had been turned into a makeshift quarantine facility that would house Arazi upon his arrival.

“Just think, this is where Arazi is going to be in a couple of days,” he said, sounding as if he were awaiting the arrival of Elvis.

“You have to stop being so starstruck,” I told him.

Personally, I was rooting for Arazi, as I would any horse who seemingly had taken on mythical qualities and would boost racing on a national scale. But I just couldn’t see a horse with Arazi’s small physical stature who had undergone surgery and was coming off only one workout of a race since the Breeders’ Cup winning the Derby. I hoped I was wrong.

Prior to Arazi’s arrival, most of the focus was on Santa Anita Derby winner A.P. Indy and third-place finisher Casual Lies, who shared the same barn. Few were paying much attention to Lil E. Tee, even though Lyn Whiting’s barn was a stone’s throw from the backstretch media center.

Arazi was scheduled to arrive in Louisville on the Sunday afternoon before the Derby. Everyone was well aware that once he had arrived and cleared quarantine, bedlam would rule at his barn and on the racetrack whenever he appeared.

I arranged with Bob Bailey, head of Churchill Downs security, to shadow him all day and record all the events leading up to and including Arazi’s arrival.

On a cold, blustery afternoon, with biting winds that sent a chill through the bone, Arazi was scheduled to arrive at Butler Field in Louisville at 2 o’clock. All of Louisville was abuzz waiting for the much-anticipated arrival of the French wonder horse.

At 1:30, Bailey looked out his office window across the street at the J.J. Carter building and called stall superintendent Mike Hargrove to check on Arazi’s whereabouts and was informed that the plane was on time. Bailey would be responsible for Arazi once the colt arrived at Churchill Downs, and the waiting made him all the more anxious, and he nervously began to clip his fingernails.

About 15 minutes later, Bailey was still antsy, so he tried contacting Louisville police officer Boone Pike, who was in charge of coordinating traffic and blocking off nearby Rodman Avenue. There was still no word on Arazi.

Trying to keep occupied, Bailey called Lieutenant Don Burbrink and Officer Tom Coin  of the Louisville Police Department, who were on special assignment for Churchill Downs. Bailey went over last-minute instructions with them on how the barricades would be set up outside the quarantine facility.

With that taken care of, Bailey called out to his associate Ron Gnagie in the next room. “What are we forgetting, Ron?” he asked. “I’m sure we’re forgetting to do something. I’ve been going over and over everything in my mind.”

At 2:40 Bailey learned that the plane had landed, but the van had not yet left the airport. “Let’s get that horse here already,” he said to no one in particular. At 3 o’clock the phone rang. Bailey quickly picked it up and said nothing, just listened. After hanging up, he called out to the main communications room: “Call dispatch. Tell Boone they’re on their way.” He then grabbed his coat and headed across the street.

A crowd had begun to form outside the J.J. Carter building.  Some 75 chilled-to-the-bone reporters and photographers, many dressed in heavy coats and sweaters, paced back and forth, trying to keep warm. Among them was Ed, equipped with his disposable camera to record the historic moment.

Two uniformed Murray guards from the private security firm hired by Churchill Downs guarded the building’s entrance. Soon the crowd swelled to well over a hundred. People driving down Central Avenue looked quizzically at this unusual gathering. Bailey stood by the curb, peering up the street. He then received word that the van had just exited the Watterson Expressway. At 3:35 Bailey announced what everyone had been waiting hours to hear: “They’re here.”

Finally, the van was in sight. It stopped in front of the quarantine facility and as the doors slid open, there, staring down at the large crowd, was the one and only Arazi, with that familiar crooked blazed face, appearing puzzled by the huge throng gathered, many taking his picture. Arazi was quickly led off the van, as security officers and Churchill Downs employees kept everyone at bay.

Just like that it was over. Arazi was in Kentucky, safe and sound in his new temporary home. Joining him was the English colt Dr. Devious, owned by Jenny and Sid Craig and trained by Ron McAnally. Ironically, the Craigs bought the colt in Europe to run in the Kentucky Derby, and although he would only finish seventh, he would return to England and win the Epsom Derby.

Arazi was tucked away for the next 24 to 36 hours. The crowd dispersed, as reporters returned to the press box to write their stories. One of the wildest and wackiest Kentucky Derbys had officially begun.

As hectic as Arazi’s arrival had been, it couldn’t compare to his first visit to the racetrack. No horse in memory had ever made such an entrance. Hordes of people followed him from the barn to the track, looking like the Hebrews following Moses out of Egypt. By the time he arrived on the track, the crowds were five and six deep along the rail. Wherever Arazi went, the crowds followed, whether he was heading to track or being bathed.

As I made my way back from the track following Arazi’s grand entrance, I went to Barn 41 and walked past A.P. Indy’s trainer Neil Drysdale’s office and told him he missed all the excitement.

“Oh, I missed it?” he said with a straight face. “I was too busy doing the crossword puzzle.”

Over the next several mornings, Arazi began to lose his composure, wheeling toward the crowds, sweating, and throwing his head sharply in the air. He even dumped jockey Pat Valenzuela.

As everyone knows, A.P. Indy was scratched from the Derby the morning of the race after suffering a bruise on the inside of his left front hoof. As Drysdale made the announcement in the rec room in front of a smattering of media, his wife Inger tried to hide her tears behind her sunglasses, but the pain became too much to bear. She removed her glasses and wept openly.

“This business is so…it’s cruel,” she said. “For Neil to come this close. But I guess it’s part of life.”

Later that day, I watched the Derby from the Daily Racing Form porch high atop the grandstand, and when Arazi made his move, as spectacular, if not more so, than the Breeders’ Cup, the grandstand beneath me started shaking so much I couldn’t hold my binoculars still enough to focus in on the race. Arazi once again had launched a missile of move from the back of the pack, this time racing some 10-wide outside the entire field. In a flash, he had gone from 17th to third at the five-sixteenths pole, and I remember blurting out a “Holy (expletive deleted)” in disbelief. He was doing it again. He was indeed a freak of a racehorse. He was going to win by 10 lengths. But just then, his breathtaking move came to an abrupt halt. It had all caught up to him – the surgery, the lack of seasoning, the lack of training up to the race, the trip from France, the mile and a quarter – and he collided head on with reality.

Suddenly, Arazi hit the proverbial brick wall and no longer was gaining on the leaders. Pat Day, following behind him on Lil E. Tee, charged past him and collared Casual Lies inside the eighth pole to win by a length, as a weary-legged Arazi dropped back, finishing eighth.

It took weeks for Boutin to talk about the race. It eventually came out that Arazi had swallowed his tongue. Sheikh Mohammed’s racing manager Anthony Stroud said the day after the race that Boutin told him that Arazi came back after the race with his tongue down his throat. He also said in hindsight it was an error not to have used a tongue-tie. Valenzuela had initially thought the horse had bled, but he scoped clean after the race. Boutin added that he simply did not have enough time to prepare Arazi properly, but it was a team effort to take the chance.

And so the amazing saga of Arazi and the Kentucky Derby was over. He would return to America later that year to run in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, but no longer was the horse that had electrified the racing world on two continents and made no impact on the race.

His son Congaree did run a sensational race in the 2001 Kentucky Derby, just getting nosed for second after tracking a brutal pace in the second fastest Derby ever run.

Now 28, Arazi, after standing at stud in England, the United States, Japan, and Switzerland, is, at last report, living the life of a pensioner in Victoria, Australia. There have been many tales of the Turf that have appeared in this space, but nothing quite like the story of that surreal afternoon in 1992 when the racing world was waiting for Arazi.

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