This article first appeared in Blood Horse magazine on September 9, 2000.
Let's make a horse racing movie. You know, the kind they used to make in the 1940s and ‘50s. It doesn't matter if the plot is implausible. People love this kind of stuff.
First we need a girl. There's always a girl, one who loves horses, having been around them all her life. What better choice than Linda Rice, who comes from one of the country's great racing families. Next we need the veteran horseman with the "good old boy" charm of Walter Brennan in the movie Kentucky. That part goes to Carl Bowling, who defies all the rules and picks out flawed horses at bargain prices and then develops them into runners and sells most of them at a nice profit.
More importantly, we need a horse the public can fall in love with. You know the kind. As a youngster he is unwanted because of physical imperfections, but he has a great personality, a sharp mind, and a ton of talent., and eventually emerges as a star. Fitting the bill is City Zip, who sold for a meager $9,000 to Bowling as yearling because he had undergone ligament surgery as a baby. He then failed to meet his reserve at the Ocala 2-year-old sale and was bought back for $80,000, with the owner vowing to race him and give everyone "a chance to look and see what they missed."
Finally, we need the establishment horse to serve as the foil. The big, grand-looking expensive horse owned and trained by the sport's powerhouses. Look no further than D. Wayne Lukas, the Coolmore partnership of Michael Tabor and John Magnier, and a $1.95 million 2-year-old purchase named Yonaguska.
We set their big dramatic showdown at where else but Saratoga Race Course in the grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, one of the most historic races in the country. But the magic of the Spa is not enough for today's movie audience, so we add a power failure minutes before post time and a thunderstorm that sends bolts of lightning slashing through the ominous black clouds during the running of the race.
With sheets of heavy rain pouring down, Yonaguska's saddles slips and begins to ride up his neck. A flash of lightning startles City Zip. He throws his ears up and suddenly drops off the pace. Bowling believes he has broken down. Another exciting colt, Macho Uno, owned by Frank Stronach, is running a huge race, passing horses on the far turn. He had reared in the gate, slamming the back of his head against jockey Edgar Prado's face, giving the rider a bloody nose. To ad to the movie script, it was Stronach who bred City Zip, then put him up for sale. Now the bargain basement chestnut had come back to haunt him.
In the stands, Lukas is not happy to see Yonaguska hit the front so soon. He feels that's what cost him the Sanford Stakes, in which he finished second to City Zip. This was to be his chance for revenge. Lukas firmly believes the son of Cherokee Run is a superior horse to City Zip.
In the stretch, Yonaguska is still on the lead. Jerry Bailey knows he's at a disadvantage with a slipped saddle beneath him, and he goes to the whip. City Zip has dropped back and is now behind a wall of horses. His jockey Jose Santos, who said the colt was "startled" by the lightning, has no choice but to swing him seven-wide.
Down the stretch, City Zip is flying out in the middle of the track, chopping into Yonaguska's lead with every stride. Linda Rice is screaming from her box, urging him on. Macho Uno is moving up with a strong run, but begins to race greenly after turning for home.
Of course, we have to end the drama with a close heart-pounding finish. But who will emerge victorious? You know the people's horse, City Zip can't lose. It just doesn't work that way in the movies. But Yonaguska also is running his heart out and doesn't deserve to lose.
The finish line is nearing. Yonaguska is giving his all, barely hanging on. City Zip is relentless and is about to engulf him. They hit the wire. Too close to call. Rice seems in a daze as she makes her way down the stairs into the pouring rain. She appears to be oblivious to the elements. She can only stare at the blank tote board.
"Did you get it?" someone asks her. "I don't know," she replies, still staring off into the infield as if transfixed. Lukas remains in his box. In his mind, his horse should have won by daylight.
Then comes the result. From the blackness of the tote board, the numbers of City Zip and Yonaguska emerge, with a bright vertical line next to them, signifying a dead-heat. Macho Uno is a neck away in third. The rest are nowhere.
The music builds to a rousing crescendo. No one knows yet if this is the end of the movie or if there are other scenes to follow. All that matters for now is that there are enough heroes to satisfy everyone. Happy Hollywood ending complete.
In the Saratoga trustees room after the race, Rice and Bowling watch the replay over and over. Neither care that it was a dead-heat. They are both glad to share in the glory. All they know is that City Zip is a grade 1 winner, becoming only the fourth horse in Saratoga's long history to sweep all three 2-year-old stakes - the Sanford, Saratoga Special, and Hopeful.
As they watch the replay they can't help by marvel at their horse, especially considering all he had to overcome in the race. "Look at him," Bowling says. "He can't get in. Look how wide we are. Look at this; will you look at this."
Rice is just as amazed as she watches City Zip bear down and unload through the stretch in pursuit of Yonaguska. "Is that unreal?" she asks. "Look at him. What a nightmare trip this horse has."
Bowling says it was as if the horse had "lost his mind" after the lightning struck. Rice says he looked to be "disoriented."
After buying City Zip, Bowling knew he had himself a bargain when the colt began knocking off track records at will at his owner's 260-acre farm south of Ocala in Oxford. "I've had my mile track for over year," Bowling said, "and I clock and record every ork over it. Even being taken hold of, he broke every record, from an eighth of a mile to five-eighths of a mile." Bowling knows a good horse having raised Favorite Trick, Birdonthewire, and Forever Silver.
He put City Zip in the Ocala February 2-year-olds in training sale with a $100,000 reserve on him. The colt had a "little rough edge in the upper knee and upper joint," according to Bowling, who wound up taking him home, then selling half-interest to his friend Charles Thompson. He was confident he would one day show everyone just what they passed up and what they missed out on.
The morning after the Hopeful, Lukas was still a bit disappointed in the outcome. "We should have won it outright," he said. "But we'll move on to the next one."
Yonaguska was on his toes walking the shed, then was loaded on a van and headed to Belmont Park. Somewhere, down the line he is expected to hook up with City Zip again, and also Macho Uno.
That's when the theater lights will once again dim, and we can all dig into our popcorn and enjoy another great show.
Note: Both colts would meet again in the Hutcheson Stakes. City Zip again closed furiously down the stretch, but this time failed by a half-length of catching Yonaguska, who would also win the Fall Highweight and Sport Page Handicaps and place in the Champagne, Swale, and Lafayette Stakes. He eventually was retired to stud and sent to Turkey. City Zip would go on to win the Amsterdam, Jersey Shore, and Hirsch Jacobs Stakes and place in the Futurity, Fountain of Youth, Hutcheson, King's Bishop, Kelso Hamdicap, and Kentucky Cup Sprint. The half-brother to eventual Horse of the Year Ghostzapper would become one of the leading stallions in America after moving to Lane's End Farm, siring four Breeders' Cup winners and three Eclipse champions in the past three years before his death this week at age 19.