Humans and animals overcoming physical handicaps and going
on to achieve great things has always been a sure way to bring out the
sentimental side of people, who admire grit and resolve in the face of
adversity. It most certainly sparks
tremendous fan interest and inspires heartrending features in all forms of
In today's animal-conscious society, where such stories
trend daily on YouTube with millions of views, even the hardest of hearts have
been known to soften whenever there are stories or videos of animals overcoming
their afflictions to perform Lassie and Rin Tin Tin-like deeds of heroism.
In the world of Thoroughbred racing, the mighty steeds who
run their hearts out often do so while overcoming aches and pains that go
unnoticed. These magnificent athletes are born to run and compete, and many
times they grow up asserting their superiority in the fields whether they are
nicked up or not.
But when they become racehorses there are times when
physical handicaps are so visible they grab the public's attention. And nothing
is more visible than a Thoroughbred with only one eye, and even more so where
there is nothing but a crater-like socket, as in the case of the aptly named
Patch. And if that horse should be running in the Kentucky Derby, he becomes a
hero on a national scale.
There were been more photos taken of the cavity where
Patch's left eye used to be than any of the big-name horses in this year's
That is why Patch, despite having only three career starts
and drawing the far outside in post 20, still was bet down to 14-1, making him
the sixth choice of the 20 starters. What makes those odds bordering on insane
is the fact that only one horse in the past 102 years had won the Derby with as
few as three starts, and only one horse in the 143-year history of the race had
won from post 20. And in both cases that one horse was the freakishly talented
Big Brown, who totally dominated that year's crop of 3-year-olds. To add to
that, Patch never raced as a 2-year-old, and it had been 135 years since a
horse won the Derby without having started at 2. Also, by breaking from post
20, Patch likely would be unable to see most or any of the other horses, who
were all inside him.
But the American public had fallen in love with Patch and
his story, which appeared in publications and websites all over the country. The
money came pouring in on him as soon as the wagering opened. They read how the
horse lost his eye due to an ulcer and infection and how he actually was named
Patch before the eye was surgically removed. Although his trainer Todd Pletcher
felt badly for the horse and would always make noise before nearing his stall
so not to startle him, the colt not only recovered quickly from the traumatic
experience, he never seemed fazed by it and went about his business as a normal
horse would do, endearing himself to all those around him.
Photographers would flock to Pletcher's barn at Churchill
Downs to get photos of the horse and his now familiar empty eye socket.
Patch had already defied the odds in many ways, finishing
second in his career debut and then winning by nearly two lengths going a flat
mile. Pletcher wasted no time moving him up in class. He not only put him in a
stakes race, he put him in one of the major Kentucky Derby preps, the Louisiana
Derby. All Patch did was overcome a bump at the break, split horses in the
stretch, cut to the inside, and finish a strong second to the local hero
Girvin, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths. He showed that his handicap would not affect
his broken field running ability.
The one-eyed horse was now headed to the Kentucky Derby,
having to cope with a 20-horse field, heavy traffic, and the good possibility
he would get banged around from either or both sides. But nothing mattered. He
was the big human interest story. The horse everyone had fallen in love with.
The horse who had captured the hearts of a nation. The horse on whom the money
kept pouring in.
In the Derby, run in the slop, Patch, as horses on the far
outside often do, broke to the outside, which left him hanging well out in the
middle of the track all by himself. He actually was able to establish a good
position in midpack, but had to cope with the wet kickback with only eye, which
had to hamper him. He then got bumped around briefly between the
five-sixteenths pole and quarter pole and just slogged home in 14th. Like many
others in the field, this was considered a throw-out race by his connections.
The Derby often is.
Pletcher and owner Calumet Farm decided to run him back in
the Belmont Stakes, and despite his poor finish in the Derby, he still was sent
off at only 12-1. Once again, this was despite drawing the No. 11 far outside
post, which in some ways can be more detrimental to a horse than post 20 in the
Derby, because of Belmont's big sweeping turns where being hung wide usually
proves disastrous. What Patch had in his favor was that his sire, Union Rags,
and broodmare sire, A.P. Indy, were both Belmont winners.
As it turned out, the Belmont Stakes was where the Patch
finally separated sentiment from reality. One eye or not, the public love
affair or not, being a human interest gold mine or not, Patch, by finishing
third in The Test of the Champion, established himself as something that people
previously had ignored or couldn't even care about - an extremely talented
racehorse with an unlimited future, who is now heading toward the upper echelon
of the 3-year-old class. The Louisiana Derby had been just the tip of the
iceberg, and the Belmont Stakes brought the rest of the iceberg above the
surface for all to finally see - this time objectively.
Unlike the Derby, the outside post in the Belmont proved
much more of a hardship to overcome, and Patch did indeed get hung almost
five-wide on the first turn and he remained wide throughout the mile and a
half. That was a recipe for disaster. By racing so much wider than the
ground-saving Tapwrit, he lost touch with the winner and runner-up Irish War
Cry. But Patch never stopped trying; never stopped running, and in fact was matching
strides with Tapwrit from the eighth pole home. To show how much he had to
overcome, according to Trakus, Patch ran 73 feet farther than the winner, which
actually brings them much closer together when compensating for the ground
In addition, Patch not only was able to pass Santa Anita
Derby winner Gormley in the final furlong, he opened up on him, finishing 4 1/4
lengths ahead of him. Gormley in turn finished 7 3/4 lengths ahead of the fifth
horse, who was eight lengths ahead of the sixth horse.
Now we can shout it from the rooftops. The Triple Crown is
over! The hype is over! It is back to the real world. His hardcore fans will
still flock to him and he will still have a number of visitors and curiosity
seekers, especially at Saratoga. But the fact is, we have ourselves a future
star in the 3-year-old division and his name is Patch.
It doesn't take a sharp eye to see that.