Throughout modern day racing history, there have been top-class grass horses who could run big on dirt, like John Henry, and there have been top-class dirt horses who could run big on grass, like Secretariat.
But there is a third kind of horse that is extremely rare. That is the horse who is so gifted on both you can’t tell which is which. These are the switch hitters of horse racing. Is he left-handed who can hit right-handed or right-handed who can hit left-handed? Or is he simply ambidextrous and doesn’t favor one or the other, but is equally proficient hitting both ways?
Secretariat was on his way to becoming one of those rare horses, but was retired at the end of his 3-year-old campaign following a pair of spectacular victories on the grass. As great as he might have been on grass, Big Red will forever be considered a dirt horse, who may well have been the greatest of all time. Another is Big Brown, who also was retired as a 3-year-old. But his biggest wins came on dirt.
When grass racing was in its infancy, trainers were not afraid to run their big dirt horses in major turf races, mainly due to the prestige of the Washington D.C. International, which attracted top-class dirt horses such as Kelso, Damascus, Carry Back, Gun Bow, Roman Brother, and champion filly Desert Vixen. The unique accomplishment came in 1968, when Dr. Fager, off one gutsy victory in the United Nations Handicap, was named grass champion, along with Horse of the Year, Handicap Horse, and sprint champion, a feat that likely will never be duplicated.
The horse who first broke through the dirt/grass barrier was Round Table, who ran 66 times in the 1950s, the vast majority of those on the dirt, where he faced such talented horses as Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Hillsdale, Iron Leige, Porterhouse, and Clem. But he also raced on grass 16 times, winning 14, with one second, while carrying 130 pounds or more eight times and breaking four course records, equaling another, and missing two others by a fifth of a second.
Then in the late ‘50s, we had a different kind of horse in Bald Eagle, who was a major stakes winner on grass in England early in his 3-year-old campaign, then came to the United States, where he excelled on dirt, being named champion Handicap Horse of 1960, but who also captured back-to-back runnings of the Washington D.C. International in 1959 and ’60.
Immediately following Bald Eagle, we had T V Lark, a confirmed dirt horse at 2, 3, and 4 until he found a home on the grass, closing out his career running 14 of his final 22 starts on turf and winning the 1961 Washington D.C. International.
These were the pioneers of the crossover horse. But their kind did not last much longer.
As grass racing grew in popularity in the United States, with big-money purses and the emergence of stakes such as the Man o’ War and Turf Classic, and then the Arlington Million, more and more horses turned to the grass and became strictly turf specialists, especially when the early grass horses started siring sons and daughters who excelled on the turf. Soon was born the expression “bred for the grass.”
The reason for this history lesson is to focus in one of those rare horses mentioned earlier – the kind where you can’t tell whether they are a grass horse who loves the dirt or a dirt horse who loves the grass. And that is why we should all embrace a horse like Catholic Boy, as we haven’t any horse come along quite like him in a number of years. No one is putting him in a class with Round Table quite yet, but he definitely is one of those seldom seen switch hitters with equal hitting prowess and power whether batting left-handed or right-handed. He is Mickey Mantle, slugging tape measure home runs from both sides of the plate.
I am not going to go over the story of Catholic Boy and his many virtues, having chronicled both in an earlier blog and in my comments and high ranking of him every week on the Derby Dozen. What is important now is appreciating his uncanny versatility and his rapidly growing charisma and popularity, which is desperately needed to at least partially fill the void left by the departure of Justify.
We saw him make the transition from grass to dirt with his dominating victory in the Remsen Stakes last year, and we saw it again on Saturday with his equally dominating score in the Travers Stakes. To win back-to-back $1 million stakes at a mile and a quarter on grass and dirt is pretty extraordinary. What he did was win the biggest race for 3-year-olds on grass, the Belmont Derby, and biggest post Triple Crown race for 3-year-olds on the dirt, the Midsummer Derby, and he won them in totally opposite ways – courageously battling back from certain defeat in the stretch after being passed and then blowing away one of the deepest and most competitive Travers fields in years.
In nine career starts, five on grass and four on dirt, and competing at six different racetracks on both coasts from 7 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, Catholic Boy has never been worse than fourth, and in his two fourth-place finishes, he bled badly in the Florida Derby and had a horrendous trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, yet still was beaten only 1 1/2 lengths for all the money and a head for third and a half-length for second.
To demonstrate where he gets his versatility and stamina, his progression of stallions in his female family reads like this: Bernardini, then Seeking the Gold (both dirt influences), then Europeans Nijinsky (the last Triple Crown winner) and the top-class English stayer Court Harwell. His second dam, grade 3 winner Winner’s Edge, is a half-sister to Park Hill Stakes winner and Lancashire Oaks runner-up Lucky Song, high-weighted filly at 1 3/4 miles and longer on the European Handicap, and his fourth dam, La Sevillana, was the 2-year-old and 3-year-old champion in Argentina and winner of the Argentine Oaks and 2,000 Guineas.
As I wrote in my first Derby Dozen on January 23, “I have to admit I fell in love with this colt in the paddock before the Remsen; he had an elegant, chiseled look about him, very alert and intelligent, and just looked like a classic racehorse. And he ran like it, gliding over the ground and leaving a very classy horse in Avery Island nearly 5 lengths behind over a deep track. And galloping out, he looked like he was just getting started. He seems very responsive, tossing his ears around, waiting for a command. He showed in the Remsen, his dirt debut, he, like many More Than Readys, can handle grass and dirt equally well.”
In summation, he is all racehorse and the quintessential pro who possesses the looks and the mind, as well as the courage and explosiveness, to be a special horse, which is something he has already proven himself to be. His piston-like strides generate a great deal of power, which enables him to possess that high cruising speed than can place him anywhere.
We don’t have horses like this come around very often, so we should embrace Catholic Boy, as we should any gifted horse who brings a distinctive flair to the sport, on one hand specializing in nothing, and on the other hand specializing in everything.
We had only one inductee into the Hall of Fame this year and that was the filly Heavenly Prize. In Catholic Boy, we have our own heavenly prize. No, he can’t walk on water, but he can sure run on everything else.