It was March 23, 16 days before the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes, and Chad Brown was discussing his Blue Grass Stakes starter and main Kentucky Derby hopeful Practical Joke. Brown was providing the typical upbeat obligatory comments you usually hear from a trainer of a Derby horse, providing reasons why he thinks the colt will run well in the Blue Grass and will be able to move forward off it and get the mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May.
After all, Practical Joke was already a dual grade I winner, having scored gutsy victories in the prestigious Hopeful and Champagne Stakes at 2 before finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Brown then was asked about his late-developing, lightly raced Derby hopeful Cloud Computing, a son of the blazingly fast colt, but unknown stallion prospect, Maclean's Music. Cloud Computing hardly looked experienced enough to be considered a serious Kentucky Derby contender, having run only twice in his life, breaking his maiden in impressive style going six furlongs on the Aqueduct inner track on February 11 and then stepping up big-time with an excellent second-place finish in the Gotham Stakes to J Boys Echo, finishing 7 1/2 lengths ahead of the big favorite El Areeb.
Now he was being asked to stretch out once again and meet stiffer competition in the Wood Memorial. Even if he ran a big race, he still would have to go into the Kentucky Derby off only three lifetime starts, and Brown, as a historian of the sport, had to realize that only one horse in the past 102 years had won the Derby with only three lifetime starts, and that was Big Brown, who was a freak of a racehorse, who had come along in a weak crop.
As the question regarding Cloud Computing was being asked, Brown's demeanor immediately changed and several chuckles could actually be heard from the normally stoic trainer.
"I'm glad you asked me about him," Brown said with a more upbeat voice, as if seizing the opportunity. And even though he then uttered only seven words, those words, and the enthusiasm in which they were delivered, said volumes about what Brown was feeling about the colt and the mere mention of his name.
"We're very very high on this horse," Brown said, adding, "We have been for a long time."
Now, you have to know Chad Brown to get the full impact of that comment. Brown, like most cautious trainers, normally would have had answered, "We're high on this horse." If he truly thought he was special, he might say, "We're very high on this horse." But when Chad Brown puts not one but two "verys" in front of "high," it is time to take notice that this may not be your ordinary promising racehorse.
Cloud Computing would go on to finish a solid third in the Wood Memorial, dropping back to seventh early in the eight-horse field. Although he was given too much to do behind a moderate pace against two brilliant colts in Irish War Cry and Battalion Runner, he still closed well, finishing 3 1/2 lengths clear of the fourth-place finisher.
Brown decided it was in the colt's best interests to pass the Kentucky Derby stampede and circus and wait for the Preakness Stakes, which was fine with co-owners Seth Klarman and William Lawrence, who already had Practical Joke in the Derby. Six weeks later, there was Cloud Computing draped in black-eyed susans, as Brown scored his first ever classic victory.
He wasted no time in dedicating his win to his mentor, the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, from whom he learned so much about training, how to read a horse, and how to place them in the right spot to give them the best possible shot to win. He taught him every nitty gritty aspect of the sport as seen through the eyes of a New York street kid who knew every angle there was and took advantage of every edge he could get. From claiming trainer in his early days in New York to training the powerful Juddmonte Farm horses, Frankel was a unique, enigmatic figure. Here was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn teaming up with a Saudi Arabian prince to form one of the most successful alliances in racing history.
Frankel always had his guard up around most people and he never shared his softer side with them as he did his horses and beloved Australian Shepherds. And so it was that Frankel, who was battling cancer, unbeknownst to anyone, remained home in California rather than attend the 2007 Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park, in which he had four horses running. Frankel also was aching inside for the love of his life, Happy, his Australian Shepherd and constant companion at the racetrack, who was in the hospital, being fed intravenously and receiving chemotherapy for a tumor on her stomach. Frankel, distraught and ill himself, knew Happy didn't have long to live and wanted to be with her.
The person Frankel entrusted to saddle his four horses, including the talented 4-year-old filly Ginger Punch, who was co-favorite in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, was his young assistant Chad Brown, who was only 28 at the time and managing Frankel's 20-horse stable at Monmouth Park. When Ginger Punch out-fought the hard-knocking Hystericalady in a stretch-long duel to win by a neck, Brown was thrust into the spotlight for the first time.
Frankel was well aware that Brown's departure to start up his own stable was imminent, and he could not have presented his student a more fitting farewell present than giving him this opportunity and introducing him to the racing world and the media on a national scale.
"He's been there," Frankel told the Blood Horse after the race when contacted back home in Pacific Palisades. "He tries hard, and he's going to be a success."
That was Frankel; prophetic as always. If one could believe that Frankel was looking down and watching his former assistant once again in the winner's circle 10 years later and once again addressing the media, this time as the defending Eclipse Award-winning trainer, winner of seven Breeders' Cup races, and leading trainer at Saratoga in 2016, dethroning the mighty Todd Pletcher, he no doubt would be saying, "Hey, did I teach the kid good or what?" And you can be sure there were a flurry of four-letter words being uttered in that distinctive high-pitched voice as he watched Cloud Computing run down a game Classic Empire, whose grandsire, ironically, is Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, Frankel's only classic winner.
Some of the most memorable times I've spent on the backstretch were in Brown's office at Belmont and Saratoga just reminiscing about Bobby Frankel. It is apparent how much Brown still idolizes his mentor. So you know his dedication to Frankel following the Preakness was from the heart.
Brown again was concise with his words as he responded to a congratulatory text:
"Bobby would be proud."
Always and Forever
We are all aware that Cinderella stories are reserved for those rags to riches tales. But over the course of time they have become what we perceive them to be; mainly any feel-good human interest story, such as Chad Brown's meteoric rise after being given his big opportunity by his mentor and guide through the endless maze that is training Thoroughbreds.
Following the Kentucky Derby, we all celebrated the Cinderella story of two Brooklyn buddies who rose to prominence in their respective professions and eventually rejoiced together by living their lifelong dream of winning the Kentucky Derby.
Before anyone feels sorry for Anthony Bonomo and Vinnie Viola for having to witness their Kentucky Derby winner, the aptly named Always Dreaming, stagger home in eighth place in the Preakness Stakes, beaten 14 lengths, that is the last thing they would want anyone to do.
All one has to do is go back into the pages of Cinderella, who says to her Fairy Godmother as she prepares to enter the golden coach to take her to the ball, "Why it's like a dream; a wonderful dream come true."
The Fairy Godmother replies. "Yes, my child, but like all dreams, I'm afraid this can't last forever. You will have only ‘til midnight...On the stroke of twelve, the spell will be broken, and everything will be as it was before."
But that didn't dampen Cinderella's joy at all. "Oh, I understand," she said. "But it's more than I ever hoped for."
And you can bet that is what Bonomo and Viola are feeling, even more than the disappointment of the Preakness. Yes, their fairy tale came to an end at the stroke of midnight, but it is more than they ever hoped for. And the Fairy Godmother was wrong. Those moments at Churchill Downs and Gulfstream Park will indeed last forever and nothing in their lives will be as it was before.
Now comes the anticipation of new fairy tales still to be written. "When you put everything in perspective, how blessed we are to have him," Bonomo said the day after the Preakess. "That's racing, but he still will take us to places we've never been. We're so proud of him."
My Kingdom for a Horse
Another of the ironies of Thoroughbred racing and the Triple Crown involved the fact that only one horse in memory has won the Preakness Stakes having had only three lifetime starts, and that was Bernardini in 2006. The jockey who rode Bernardini was Javier Castellano, who also rode Cloud Computing.
Each winter, jockeys and agents from all over the country begin their annual search for that elusive classic winner; the quest for racing's ultimate glory.
Several months ago, following the Holy Bull Stakes, in which Gunnevera finished a solid second behind Irish War Cry, Castellano and his new agent since last September, Mike Lakow, former longtime racing secretary for the New York Racing Association, were at a crossroads. Should they stick with Gunnevera for the upcoming Kentucky Derby preps or look elsewhere? After all, one of Castellano's main clients, Todd Pletcher, had an arsenal of weapons in his stable, any one of which was capable of becoming a major Derby contender. Even with John Velazquez having first choice of the Pletcher mounts, there was plenty to go around, with none of them proving to be a standout at that point.
Castellano and Lakow decided to stay on Gunnevera for the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and the colt rewarded them with a resounding 5 3/4-length romp. They had chosen wisely and now had one of the Derby favorites. But when Gunnevera could do no better than a distant third in the Florida Derby, it was decision time, especially with Velazquez now committed to Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming. Two other talented Pletcher hopefuls, Battalion Runner and Tapwrit, were major threats for the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes, respectively, and Castellano also was the regular rider for leading Arkansas Derby contender Malagacy. But they never considered jumping off Gunnevera based on one race that they both threw out, and in which he really didn't run that badly, considering he was likely to regress off his monster speed figure in the Fountain of Youth.
Following Gunnevera's seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, possibly due to a rough start and track conditions, Lakow received a call from Chad Brown.
"Chad asked me, ‘Hey, are you a hundred percent committed to the horse you rode in the Derby?'" Lakow said. "I said, ‘No, why what's up?' Chad told me, ‘My horse is training great and we think Javier fits the horse. The owners and I think Javier is the right jockey for this race. He's won it before'" I said, ‘OK, let me speak to Javier and I'll discuss it with him,' and that's basically how it went down.
"People are saying I was forced to ride Chad's horse. That's not true at all. Chad didn't put any pressure on me; he was just asking if I was committed. I told Javier, ‘Why don't you speak to Sano (Gunnevera's trainer Antonio Sano) and ask him if he's thinking of skipping the Preakness and going for the Belmont.' So Javier called Sano and explained to him that we ride a lot for Chad, and Sano was a perfect gentleman about it and said he understood, and that was it. Look, Cloud Computing was a fresh horse and when Chad says he likes a horse and he's training good, that pretty much will persuade anyone. Chad is exceptional. But he was totally professional about it. I was certainly concerned that if Gunnevera won what we would look like, but luckily it all worked out."
So, there was Lakow, sitting alone in his second-floor apartment in Floral Park, watching Cloud Computing and Castellano charge down the stretch and nail Classic Empire, screaming over the phone at his wife Tracy, who was back home in Florida.
"I'm always so quiet, and the people downstairs must have thought something was going on up here," Lakow said.
In yet another bit of irony, not only was Lakow thrilled over the Preakness result because of Castellano, but also because Cloud Computing was bred by Hill N Dale Farm, where Lakow worked for five years as general manager.
"They bred the horse, they foaled the horse, and they stand Maclean's Music, so it was great for John Sikura and the team," Lakow said. "They're really good people."
So, for Lakow, the Preakness was about the ties that bind; in his case, from the breeding shed all the way to the saddle.
The Rebuilding of an Empire
While fairy tales were being played out this winter and early spring in the camps of Always Dreaming and Gunnevera and several other Kentucky Derby contenders, Mark and Norman Casse were trying their best to cope with reality. How do you remove a constant black cloud hovering over the head of your 2-year-old champion and early favorite for the Kentucky Derby?
From erratic behavior, agitation, a foot abscess, a back ailment, and refusal to train at inopportune times, the father and son team had precious little time to alleviate the physical problems and get inside their horse's head to alleviate the mental ones.
For weeks, Classic Empire stood on the precipice of Derby elimination, as time was running out and there seemed little chance of putting enough foundation in the colt to prepare him for the rigors of the Derby and the Triple Crown.
What made it all the more frustrating was the fact that Classic Empire would often tease them by becoming the perfect gentleman, and people began to perceive the colt as some equine Sybil. You never knew which personality would emerge. March was coming to an end and that meant after almost two months of standing in his stall at Palm Meadows training center on big race days, it was nearly time for the major final Derby preps and one last chance to somehow make it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. If Classic Empire was to have any chance of getting in a prep race, desperate measures had to be taken.
That desperate measure was returning to where it all began; where Classic Empire got his early training; where perhaps he would find happiness and serenity back in the quiet and familiar surroundings of Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala and the people who cared for him as a youngster. This was the former Tartan Farms, where John Nerud had built a dynasty, and where the graves of immortals like Dr. Fager and Ta Wee and Aspidistra and Cequillo and Intentionally lie in neat rows, nestled in beds of ivy, just a quarter of a mile from the training track where Classic Empire used to train and where he would now attempt to regain his championship form.
And so Norman Casse decided to make the ultimate sacrifice. "We had no other recourse but to send him back to the people who first had him and who would now try to get him right again," Norman said. "It's an incredible story to be honest. It was a humbling experience for me. I had to tell my father, ‘Dad, I'm done. This horse will not train for us here. We have to try something else.' Do you know what it's like to send the Derby favorite away, saying I don't want to train the Derby favorite here; I think he needs to leave? You just have to do what's best for the horse. It takes a lot of humility, but we had no choice but to send him back to where it all started."
Classic Empire's transformation was nothing short of remarkable, as he rattled off a series of exceptional works and was the consummate professional throughout his stay at Winding Oaks.
Amazingly, he would make the Arkansas Derby, but still needed a huge effort to go on to Kentucky. As an ultimate testament to both Mark and Norman Casse and their entire crew at the track and at the farm, Classic Empire won the Arkansas Derby with a stirring stretch run. As unlikely as it seemed, the champ was back. A great chapter in Triple Crown history was about to be written.
So, why were the racing gods so cruel as to deny the horse and his connections a victory in either the Derby or Preakness? Why did they burden him with such a rough, wide trip at Churchill Downs, in which he was forced to drop back to the rear of the field, and then in the Preakness have him run the Kentucky Derby winner into the ground after a virtual match race for almost a mile, open up a clear lead in what looked to be sure winning move, only to snatch victory away in the final stride? Surely, the horse and the Casses deserved a better fate after all they had been through. This was the story that was meant to be told.
But who knows, perhaps the story still will be told in three weeks in the Belmont Stakes; the race in which his sire's son, American Pharoah, wrote his chapter in history in 2015 and where his grandsire, Empire Maker, dashed the hopes of Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide in 2003.
It will take only one more brick to rebuild this empire and provide a well deserved happy ending for the Casses and the colt who has taken them on a journey they'll never forget.
And so Chapter Two of the 2017 Triple Crown has come to an end. Some may feel this year's Triple Crown has been disappointing, with so many unfulfilled promises and inexplicably poor performances along the way by its major players. But every Triple Crown is an entity all its own, feeding off the energy it emits and the passion it stirs.
John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley: "A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it."
As Anthony Bonomo and Vinnie Viola and the other owners of Always Dreaming, and Mark and Norman Casse, and Chad Brown, and Javier Castellano and John Velazquez can attest, you are never in control on the Triple Crown journey. You just thank your good fortune you were able to embark on it.