Remembering Wanderin Boy: A Fighter to the End

Nick Zito has trained many special horses in his Hall of Fame career, having won all three legs of the Triple Crown, having orchestrated two of the biggest upsets in the history of the Belmont Stakes, and having run 1,2 in the Travers Stakes. He trained Bellamy Road and Commentator, who scored some of the most spectacular victories ever witnessed. He also was on the losing end of some of the most heartbreaking defeats – in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Travers, Breeders Cup Classic, Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and Florida Derby, just to name a few.

In short, Zito has trained classic winners, Breeders’ Cup winners, and champions. But there is one horse who didn’t win any of the above that must not be forgotten, for he exemplified all that the Thoroughbred stands for.

It has been 10 years since Wanderin Boy suffered a fatal injury in the Cigar Mile at the age of 7, in what was to be the final start of his career. A fighter from the time he was born, he deserved to live a long life enjoying his later years at a place like Old Friends.

Despite racing until he was 7 and being a complete horse, Wanderin Boy made only 24 career starts, winning nine, with six seconds and three thirds for earnings of $1.2 million. He was unfortunate to run into several sensational horses or his earnings and stakes wins would have been much greater. But even in defeat he always kept them honest. He finished second in grade I stakes to Curlin (Jockey Club Gold Cup), Invasor (Pimlico Special), Bernardini (Jockey Club Gold Cup), and Lawyer Ron (Whitney). He was also third to Curlin in the Woodward Stakes. He did, however, managed to win the grade II Brooklyn Handicap and the grade III Ben Ali, Alysheba, and Mineshaft.

In his 24 starts, he competed at 10 different racetracks and was ridden by nine different jockeys.

Like all Zito horses, he spent most of his career stabled at Saratoga in the far regions of the Oklahoma training track, with nothing but beautiful vistas looking out from the barn. It is one of the more heavenly spots on the Saratoga backstretch.

But there often is much more to a horse than his record. In Wanderin Boy’s case, this is a horse who should be appreciated by all those fortunate enough to have seen him run his heart out race after race.

His owner and breeder, Arthur Hancock III of Stone Farm, had bought a season in Seeking the Gold, to whom he would breed his Pleasant Colony mare Vid Kid, a stakes winner of almost $300,000.

Vid Kid produced a beautiful foal on April 4, 2001, but on May 3, the one-month-old colt somehow fractured his sesamoid while out in the field.

Hancock had a small portable pen that could be moved around. He placed it outside the barn, so the colt and his mother would have grass and sunshine while the injury healed. They were in the pen for six weeks, after which the vet examined the colt’s leg and told Hancock to keep him in there for another eight weeks.

Dr. Bob Hunt told Hancock he definitely would not be able to sell the horse and gave him about a 5% chance of ever running. But Hancock believes in always giving a horse every chance to make it to the races, so he allowed the colt to progress like any other horse. After the 14 weeks in the pen the colt was put out in a small paddock for three or four weeks and then turned out with the rest of the herd in one of the spacious 100-acre fields.

He was broken with the other horses and managed to come around and show some ability. Not being able to sell him, Hancock sent him to the racetrack with Nick Zito. But soon after arriving, he fractured his cannon bone and was sent back to the farm, where he was stall-rested for six weeks and then hand-walked for two weeks. Dr. Hunt operated on him, putting several screws in his leg. After performing the surgery, Dr. Hunt told Hancock, “I cant believe this horse has healed so well. This is unbelievable, but he looks great.”

Wanderin Boy returned to the racetrack, but a short while later he bucked his shins and it was back to the farm once again, where he was hand-walked for two weeks and pinfired. He was sent back to Zito for the third time at Keeneland and finally made it to the races, winning his debut by 2 3/4 lengths on Oct. 22, 2004.

Following a second in a one-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs, he won a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream and then went to Fair Grounds, where he captured the grade III Mineshaft Handicap, beating graded stakes winner Pollard’s Vision by 1 3/4 lengths. It was obvious this was going to be a major star for Zito.

Then came a shocking seventh-place finish in the New Orleans Handicap, but something apparently was brewing. Shortly after that race, he fractured his other cannon bone and had to have screws put in that leg, too. He was kept in his stall for eight weeks and then hand-walked.

Hancock and Zito have always had a reputation for doing what’s best for their horses. Both are true horsemen and sportsmen whose love of the horse supersedes all else. Normally, they would have retired Wanderin Boy right then. But this horse was different. He wanted to be a racehorse and always managed to convince them to continue on by showing extraordinary recuperative powers.

When Dr. Hunt came by and took X-rays of the leg, he said to Hancock, “This horse must be an alien. I’ve never seen a horse heal like this in all my life.”

When he was sent back to the track for the fourth time, track veterinarian Mark Cheney also couldn’t believe how quickly the horse had healed.

It didn’t take Wanderin Boy long to pick up where he had left off. After being sent to Keeneland following a pair of good efforts at Gulfstream, he won an allowance race by 10 lengths and the Ben Ali Handicap by 5 1/4 lengths. Sent off as the 3-5 favorite in the Pimlico Special, he appeared to have the race won, but was run down late by an unknown Uruguayan import named Invasor, whom Wanderin Boy had apparently put away on the far turn. Zito couldn’t believe he had gotten beat by this horse, but little did he know who it was at the time; that the winner was destined for the Hall of Fame.

Wanderin Boy went on to win the Brooklyn Handicap in a sprightly 1:47 4/5 and finish second to Bernardini in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. A series of good races and bad races followed, including a victory in the Alysheba Stakes and a second to Lawyer Ron in the Whitney, run in a track-record 1:46 3/5. Then came a well-beaten fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Unfortunately, Wanderin Boy came out of that race dead-lame with an abscess in his foot. You guessed it, he was sent back to the farm yet again, where they had to pack his foot and let it grow out.

While he was getting ready for the 2008 Pimlico Special, Zito called Hancock at 7:30 one night and said, “I’m really worried about this horse. We need to send him to New Bolton (Medical Center). After being sent to New Bolton it was discovered the horse had a large stomach ulcer. He spent a while there being treated and then was shipped up to Saratoga, where he won first time back, capturing a seven-furlong allowance race by 3 1/4 lengths in 1:21 4/5. That was followed by a third in the Woodward to Curlin, breaking from the far outside post, and a second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, beaten only three-quarters of a length by the defending Horse of the Year.

Here was a 7-year-old horse, who has gone through more ordeals than any horse in memory, still at the top of his game and running toe-to-toe with the mighty Curlin.

As Hancock said, “Isn’t that amazing? He just keeps coming back. I hope one of these races his day will come.”

Sadly, it never did. Chasing a fast pace in the Cigar Mile and struggling to keep up, Wanderin Boy’s fragile legs finally gave out for good. He was vanned off, but his injuries were too catastrophic to attempt to save him.

Hancock and Zito were devastated. In today’s era of social media, many would have questioned bringing him back so many times. But here was an extraordinary horse who always bounced back from his injuries better than ever and ran some of his best races at age 7. In short, he was a horse who simply did not want to be retired.

After 10 years, he has been forgotten by many, but should be remembered by all those who love and admire the Thoroughbred.

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