Hammer Time: My Wildest Assignment Ever

Watching Saturday’s Mother Goose Stakes, now relegated to grade 2 status and run at the nondescript distance of 1 1/16 miles, it got me thinking of how prestigious this race used to be when it was grade 1 and run at 1 1/8 miles and the middle leg of the NYRA Filly Triple Crown, which was the recognized Filly Triple Crown for many years.

The Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks provided tremendous excitement and showcased some of the greatest fillies of all time, including those who swept all three races --  Dark Mirage, Shuvee, Chris Evert, Ruffian, Mom’s Command, Davona Dale, Open Mind, and Sky Beauty…all Hall of Famers.

But there was one Filly Triple Crown that stands out in my mind, because it resulted in a Mother Goose finish so exciting they called it “The Mother of all Gooses,” and a Coaching Club American Oaks performance that was one of the most dominant ever, and provided me with the most unusual and riveting assignment of my career. I was also transported back to that CCA Oaks day by the musical name of this year’s winner, Unchained Melody.

To set the stage, it was 1991, my first year as a feature and news writer for the Daily Racing Form, having been rescued from the library after nearly 20 years of incarceration. I had been writing freelance for the Thoroughbred Times since 1986, covering New Jersey racing, writing features, and helping provide Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup coverage. The DRF staff, looking to strengthen its army to combat the invading Racing Times, finally revolted against an obstinate editor and pulled a coup to bring me into the editorial department as a writer.

And so it was I was assigned a variety of exciting and offbeat features, which included spending a day at the Wallkill Correctional Facility with the inmates who were assigned to take care of the horses in their new rehabilitation program in conjunction with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. When the trainer in charge went to lunch, there I was left alone on a farm with inmates convicted of murder and armed robbery. It was a magnificent and enlightening experience watching their emotional ties to the horses. I also spent a week working for trainer Sonny Hine, mucking stalls, hotwalking, and other chores, as well as vanning a horse to Atlantic City for the United Nations Handicap, for a four-art feature titled “Life on the Backstretch,” where I explored and participated in all aspects of backstretch life from 5 in the morning to 10 at night for five days.

But nothing could prepare me for the assignment I was given in July of that year. The hottest personality in racing, and arguably the biggest megastar in America, rapper/dancer M.C. Hammer, (whose real name was Stanley Burrell) and his entire family were huge racing fans and were in the process of building up a powerful stable with Northern California trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

It didn’t take the Burrells long to make a major impact on the sport when they unleashed the exciting filly Lite Light, who surged into national prominence that year by capturing in succession the Las Virgenes Stakes, Santa Anita Oaks, Fantasy Stakes, and culminating with a 10-length romp in the Kentucky Oaks.

There was only one obstacle in front of her – the previous year’s 2-year-old filly champion Meadow Star, winner of six graded stakes, including four grade Is, whose owner, Carl Icahn, was the complete antithesis of Lite Light’s ownership. Icahn, born in Far Rockaway in Queens, N.Y., was possibly the most well-known corporate magnate in America, having masterminded the hostile takeover of Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1985. In 1988, Icahn took TWA private, gaining a personal profit of $469 million.

In 1985, Icahn had established Foxfield Thoroughbreds, which was fueled by the brainpower of Rob Whiteley, a former professor and Chairman of the Doctoral programs in Counseling Psychology at Rutgers University and later president of Fasig-Tipton Appraisal Services. When I was in the library, Whiteley, who lived and breathed pedigrees and statistics while at Rutgers, used to call me periodically to check on certain facts and talk racing and pedigrees. I knew I was talking to an exceptionally brilliant person, but had no idea he would one day leave Rutgers and team up with someone like Carl Icahn to run his operation.

Their biggest move was purchasing a Meadowlake filly at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale for $90,000. Named Meadow Star, she would become Foxfield’s biggest star before they eventually became strictly a commercial breeder in 1992. When the Foxfield operation closed down in 2004, they had bred more than 140 stakes winners. Whiteley would continue his success operating his Liberation Farm.

As a 3-year-old, Meadow Star captured an overnight stakes and the Comely Stakes before trainer Leroy Jolley decided to make a bold move with her. Following in the footsteps of Genuine Risk, Jolley ran Meadow Star against the boys in the Wood Memorial, but she could do no better than a well-beaten fourth behind Unbridled’s full-brother Cahill Road. With that race behind them they focused on the Filly Triple Crown, and Meadow Star rebounded big time, scoring a six-length victory in the Acorn Stakes, setting up a much-anticipated showdown with Lite Light in the Mother Goose Stakes.

To demonstrate the dominance of these two extraordinary fillies, only two others showed up, with Lite Light and Meadow Star both going off at odds-on (1-2 and 4-5, respectively). The other two fillies were 32-1 and 40-1.

Meadow Star, with Jerry Bailey up, had no trouble nursing an easy lead in fractions of :24 4/5, :49 2/5, and 1:13 2/5. Lite Light, racing in fourth, cut into the lead and pulled on even terms with Meadow Star at the three-eighths pole, as track announcer Tom Durkin said “Here’s the race we’ve been waiting for,”. The battle everyone was hoping for was on. Bailey floated Lite Light wide turning for home, and the pair charged down the stretch eyeball to eyeball every step of the way, with Durkin calling Lite Light a head in front in midstretch. But Meadow Star dug in gamely and battled back. As they hit the wire virtually on even terms, more than 15 lengths ahead of the third horse, Durkin bellowed, “Absolutely sensational!”

It was one of the most thrilling stretch runs anyone had ever seen. After what seemed an eternity, the placing judges finally put Meadow Star’s number up. But there were no losers, and, as much as racing fans had looked forward to the showdown between the two fillies, they were looking forward even more to their rematch in the CCA Oaks. You know M.C. Hammer and his family were. They couldn’t wait to get revenge on Meadow Star going 1 1/4 miles, which definitely would favor Lite Light.

I had struck up a relationship with Hammer’s father, Lewis Sr., who could be found almost every day at his club playing cards. He was a big racing fan and was always accommodating and forthright and gave me a great deal of insight into his son and the phenomenon he had become in the entertainment world. After a while we had become pretty friendly, and I just enjoyed talking to him. On the other hand, Racing Times reporter Mike Watchmaker had struck up a relationship with Hammer’s brother, Louis Jr., (spelled differently from his father), who handled many of his affairs, so we had sort of a little rivalry going, trying to get inside scoops regarding Hammer and Lite Light.

The week of the CCA Oaks, our news editor Greg Gallo and managing editor Joe Rosen approached me with an assignment. I was to make arrangements with the Borrells to hang with them on race day, most of the time in the Trustees Room, and follow them around, chronicling a day with M.C. Hammer. That was easily accomplished through Lewis Sr.

Needless to say, spending a day with Hammer, his family, and his entourage was like watching Fourth of July fireworks while riding the Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island. You couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement. There was no denying that Hammer and the Borrell family had added a raw energy to the Sport of Kings not seen before. Just watching them at the betting windows was a scene out of a Marx Brothers movie.

In the Mother Goose, the Borrells drove Lite Light’s odds down to 1-5 with a single bet. She would eventually go off at 1-2. On Oaks day, I asked Louis Jr. how large a bet would send a horse’s odds plummeting that low. He gave a sly laugh and said bluntly, “A hundred and twenty-five thousand.”

When I asked Hammer how much his family likes betting, “he said, “See those two roaches on the wall? I’ll take the brown one.”

Louis Jr. said he and Hammer had discussed it and they decided they were cutting down on their betting.

“Hammer and I talked about it and we decided for the sake of the bettors we won’t bet the top of the money anymore. Although we have the right to bet our own horse, we’re very conscious about other people, so we’ve cut down and bet place and show so we don’t affect the win price like we did in the Mother Goose.”

Now that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t play for high stakes. Also in the Trustees Room was Carl Icahn. In the Mother Goose, Hammer and Icahn had made a friendly $35,000 bet, horse vs. horse, and the Borrells were looking to win their money back.

Between the sixth and seventh races, they finally came head to head. Suddenly, we were on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and the wheeling and dealing was about to begin. The Borrells certainly were not intimidated by Icahn’s reputation.

Louis Jr. and Icahn went over some of the preliminaries, after which Louis came over to his family and reported, “He only wants to bet a marginal amount, but we’re trying to get him up to six digits. He’s a wise man and I think the added distance today is making him wiser.”

The kicker to this bet was that the loser would have to donate the money to the charity decided upon by the winner.

And then it began, with Louis Jr. doing most of the negotiating and Hammer looking on to confirm all decisions.

Louis started things off. “Okay, from the kindness of my heart, I’ll put up 150 (thousand) to your 120.”

Icahn wanted no part of that. “Oh, come on, that’s worse than you originally said. Your 200 to my 120.”

“No way,” Louis replied. “You might as well scratch the horse. I think 200 to 165 is a fair bet.”

Icahn responded, “You were giving 1-5 last time. The best I’ll do for you is your 200 to my 135.”

“Oh, man, no way,” Louis insisted.

Icahn was bewildered by their stubbornness. “I don’t get it. You’re out there betting her to 1-5 last time and you won’t bet with me.”

Just then, negotiations broke off, as the Borrells had to bet the seventh race.

Icahn, now away from the Borrells, confided, “Actually, those aren’t bad odds they’re giving. It’s a 50-50 thing and they’re giving me 200 to 165. It’s a good bet now, but I’ll get it lower. I’ll tell you, these guys are shrewd negotiators. As long as it goes to charity I don’t care.”

The Burrells returned, and Icahn gave his final offer. “Okay, here’s the bet and I’m not kidding you (he said with a laugh in his voice). Your 200 to my 150. That’s it.”

All of a sudden, Hammer jumped into the fray: “160.” (as everyone laughed).

Icahn stood firm. “Look, I went up from 135 because it’s for the kids. I’m not going any higher.”

“Okay, you got it,” Louis Jr. said. “It’s a deal.”

Icahn confirmed, “Let’s get it straight. I lose 150 to your charity and you lose 200 to my charity.”

“Deal!” said Louis.

The Burrells were intent on giving as much to charity as they could. Through all of Hammer’s fame and fortune, they hadn’t forgotten their origins.

“We evolved from a very poor background,” Louis Jr. said of their upbringing in Oakland, California. “I still remember welfare and food stamps, and the housing authority. I’m not ashamed that we’ve been fortunate enough to have success in life. We got out by the sheer determination of Hammer and myself. We made up our mind we were going to make it.”

They had been interested in racing for as long as they could remember. “I’ve been coming out to the track since I was five years old,” Hammer recalled. “Now that we have more horses I’ll be coming out more often. When I’m on tour I get daily reports about what’s going on with the horses. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s good relaxation. Racing is great for me, and hopefully we can do something for racing.”

Finally, it was time for the Oaks. With only a few minutes to post time, there was no sign of the Burrells, as I waited for them in their front row box. It had taken them that long to make their bets. Then they came, walking single file, with one minute to post, all of them singing. The Borrells and their bodyguards formed a long time of blazing colors, adorned with jewelry and shades. It looked more like they were heading to the stage for one of Hammer’s concerts.

Louis Jr. said all he wanted was Lite Light to be in a position to win. “If she’s more than two or three lengths behind Meadow Star, this will be the first time in racing history you’re gonna see an owner run out there and chase after his jockey.”

This time, Meadow Star sat off the pace set by Shared Interest’s stablemate Car Gal, with Lite Light, under Corey Nakatani, about two lengths behind her. As many figured, the mile and a quarter played to Lite Light’s advantage. She moved to the front along the rail, with Meadow Star right alongside, but Lite Light was always going the better of the two, and she began to draw away, opening a two-length lead at the eighth pole. She kept increasing her lead with every stride, cruising to an emphatic seven-length victory in a sharp 2:00 2/5.

The Borrells, with about 12 people jammed in their box, stood and watched quietly and intently for most of the race. Then, just as Tom Durkin called, “That’s Lite Light coming through on the inside,” the box erupted. As Lite Light began drawing away, the noise was deafening.

“Yes! Yes! Yes! We’re gonna win the bet! We’re gonna win the bet!”

“Where’s my glasses?” Hammer yelled. “I dropped my glasses.”

After the finish, Hammer whipped off his blue leather top and stood on a chair, naked from the waste up, flexing his muscles to the screaming crowd on the apron below. It was in a word, pandemonium. What made the scene even more surreal was the look on the face of Ogden Phipps, sitting in the next box. In the following day’s New York Daily News, there was Hammer on the back page, standing bare chested flexing his muscles. In the photo, among all the shades and chains and cool-looking duds was this one nerdy-looking white guy with a beard wearing a sport jacket and tie. My mother had that photo hanging in her bedroom for years.

As the Borrells marched triumphantly down to the winner’s circle to a rousing ovation, who was leading the cheers? Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery.

Back in the Trustees Room after the race, Louis Jr. offered a toast: “To all glory God.”

Elated and drained, Louis wiped the sweat off his forehead and said, “Man, this is like a heavyweight fight.” Most important was the fact that the Burrells’ Help the Children Foundation, an Oakland-based charity, was $150,000 richer.

Before heading to the backstretch to see their filly, Hammer took a quick look at the past performances and quickly dashed to the window and bet $2,000 on a gelding named Gin Member in a $30,000 claiming race. He won by 9 1/2 lengths.

The Borrells then headed to trainer John Parisella’s barn, where Lite Light was stabled.

“Way to go, baby, you’re the greatest,” Hammer said to her as she walked the shedrow. This was the first quiet moment Hammer had all day after constantly being asked for autographs and photos wherever he went.

Parisella said to the Burrells, “You people are the greatest thing to happen to racing.”

Fans eventually came filtering in as news of M.C. Hammer’s arrival at the barn spread through the backstretch. Many fathers brought their daughters, hoping to introduce them and possibly have a picture taken. Hammer did not refuse a single autograph all day.

They finally left to catch a plane to Los Angeles where they were to watch their first-time starter by Seattle Slew named Aunt Pearl (named for their Great Aunt) make her debut the following day at Hollywood Park.

“Aunt Pearl is the one who first took us to the racetrack,” Louis Jr. said. “She’s our favorite aunt and she’s close to passing away. My mother doesn’t get involved in all this, but she told us if we ever got a filly who we thought was going to be special, to name her after Aunt Pearl.”

Aunt Pearl never was special, winning only two of her 17 starts, but she did produce a Nureyev colt named Social Charter, who won the graded Fayette and Eclipse Stakes and placed in the Suburban Handicap and Kentucky Cup Classic.

M.C. Hammer’s Oaktown Stable had success the following year, finishing third in the Kentucky Derby with 33-1 shot Dance Floor. But Hammer’s fast living, reckless spending, and his financial support of family and friends eventually caught up with him and he found himself $13 million in debt. With album sales dwindling, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

He later admitted in Ebony magazine, “My priorities were out of order. My priorities should have always been God, family, community, and then business. Instead they had been business, business, and business.”

Today, at age 55, after years in virtual obscurity and all but forgotten, Hammer is involved in numerous ventures as an entrepreneur, producer, spokesman for various organizations and causes, and as an ordained minister. He also is heavily involved with a number of the top rap artists and released several songs of his own over the past few years.

To date, he has sold more than 50 million records worldwide, won three Grammy Awards, eight American Music Awards, a People’s Choice Award, an NAACP Image Award, and became the first hip hop artist to win the Billboard Diamond Award.

As for Lite Light, she inexplicably lost her form, failing to win another race at 3, 4 and 5, while placing in three stakes.

She did, however, produce Gaily Egret, a $1.7 million earner in Japan, as well as Nite Light, a winner of four stakes and placed in eight other stakes, including the grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap and Hawthorne Gold Cup. She also produced Saddad, a group 2 winner in England. In all, she produced five horses who earned six figures. She was euthanized in 2007 at age 19 after delivering a Mineshaft filly at Edward P. Evans’ Spring Hill Farm in Virginia.

Meadow Star also never won another race. Ironically, she and Lite Light would face each other again in the 1992 Spinster. A shell of their former selves, Meadow Star finished a well-beaten third with Lite Light fourth. They met again in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, this time with Lite Light finishing sixth, one length ahead of Meadow Star in seventh. How far these two stars had fallen in one year.

Meadow Star only produced five foals, none of which amounted to much. She died in 2002 at age 14 giving birth to a Fusaichi Pegasus foal, who also died. However, one of her daughters, Grechelle, would produce Bubbler, the dam of the sensational Arrogate.

July 6, 1991 may be a lifetime ago for M.C. Hammer and has long faded from memory, as have the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks and the brief, but stirring, rivalry between Lite Light and Meadow Star. But on that one amazing day at Belmont Park, I had the privilege to enter a portal into a new world so different from anything I had ever experienced or ever will. The same could be said for Thoroughbred racing.

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