The Birmingham Turf Club's Lost Code and the 1987 Haskell Invitational

Courtesy of Becky Johnston

Monmouth Park’s crown jewel, the one million dollar Haskell Invitational Stakes will hold it’s renewal Sunday.  Big Brown hopes to regain his Derby winning form, but this field will be hard-pressed to put on a show like the one we saw in 1987.

Each year when the Haskell is run, it is impossible for me not to reach back to that spine-tingling race and the buildup to it.  Here’s a little history on one of the participants in that 1987 edition and how he became such a beloved underdog.

I lived in Birmingham, Alabama in 1987.  That was the year the eighty-five million dollar magnum opus of southern horseracing was built east of downtown Birmingham.  The facility was named with the desire for the exclusivity the management thought they should cater to, The Birmingham Turf Club. 

Their well-publicized poor planning to cater to the most luxurious of taste was a total and unmitigated disaster.  Behind the scenes the plan was NO REDNECKS. 

Couple of things wrong with their plans.  Let’s start with the obvious:

1) This is not Saratoga.  Alabama is a state that supports two things, college football season and college football offseason.  Basketball in Alabama is merely the office gambling pool that comes around each March.  If you want to introduce another sport you better welcome everyone.

2) In order to keep out the customer they didn’t want they made the admission fee $2.50 rather than $1.00.  Of course that should have done it.  The stereotypical southerner would not give up a pack of Lucky Strikes or a Pabst Blue Ribbon for the day.    

3) They insulted everyone with their marketing plan.  You either felt you didn’t belong or you didn’t want to belong to a group that made others feel that they weren’t welcomed.  I thought the term redneck implied that you were unrefined in your social skills.  I knew which fork to use, but I don’t use a fork to bet with.  With a little more research I learned that I was wrong.  My ancestors were Scottish immigrants to North Carolina in the 18th century therefore I might be a redneck.

My husband Ron was born in Heidelberg, Germany, where his mother was born, alas, his father was from L.A. (Lower Alabama) he too might be half-redneck.  At any rate, we stayed away for a while.

Cot Campbell tells a story in his book Rascals and Racehorses: A Sporting Man’s Life that on the second night of operation they ran out of programs and a manager suggested they just use the ones from the night before. 

The racetrack was finding that their targeted audience was attending the races, but as Chick Lang, Jr., probably one of the lone voices of reason, put into words “They come here for dinner, and every so often, they’ll turn around and say, ‘Oh look, there go the horses again’.”

During the first month of operation in March of 1987 it became apparent that the whole horse racing world were rolling their eyes at The Birmingham Turf Club.  It was hard enough to get new tracks off the ground as Canterbury Park had found.  With expected handle between $1,000,000 and $1,200,000 per card, reality awoke them with a figure closer to $500,000 and falling each week.

Shortly thereafter the billboards around town were calling it “your track” and others were blaming the fact that the track was not named Magnolia Downs as the reason it was failing. 

Shakespeare’s line from Romeo and Juliet:   What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Well, that smell works both ways and the people behind the ideal of this track were not rose gardeners.

I finally made it out to the track.  My first bet was an exacta between Fred Hooper’s Shuttle Jet and Robert Brown’s Full Focus.  It had come in the wrong order, but then there was an announcement “Hold all Tickets”.  After some period, I found that if you don’t win the stewards may make you a winner.  They reversed the order of the finish and I cashed for over $50.  Thinking what an easy game this is, I’ve been giving that $50 back for 21 years now.

While I was learning terms like “don’t eat your betting money” and “they don’t let you in the picture show for free” I was becoming a fan of the majestic animals, their desire to win, the interesting and animal-savvy people that cared for them. 

There were several people were very kind to me.  Jim Jolley would let me drop by his farm in Shelby County.  Carl Cooper and Kathleen Ballentine let me hang out at the barn whenever I wanted to.  Kathleen showed me you don’t need to be a brut to handle a strapping colt ready to bust at the seems.  

I learned to love my little track in spite of it’s flawed beginnings.  I was proud of the horses that kept running and the trainers, owners and jockeys that didn’t give up on it.  I felt for the people that had invested a lot of money in the hopes that Alabama’s thoroughbred industry would become a strong one. 

There were good things that came out of that first thoroughbred meeting in 1987.  Larry Collmus had his first full-time announcing job; graded stakes winner Queen Alexandra won the first race, the Inaugural Stakes; the 2007 George Woolf Memorial Award winner, Jon Court, won the riding title that year; a very young Steve Asmussen was just starting to train a string of horses; J. Minos Simon’s Up the Apalachee won the $12,000 Camelia Stakes on May 14, 1987 at Birmingham with Jon Court aboard and later that summer at Saratoga she would place second in the Grade 1 Test Stakes behind Very Subtle then go on to win the Grade I Alabama Stakes by a head over Without Feathers.

Far and away, the best story that came from that meet was a near black colt sired by Codex out of the Ack Ack mare Loss or Gain named Lost Code.  He would “find himself” while at The Birmingham Turf Club. 

Bill Donovan had purchased the colt privately in Florida as a two-year-old for $30,000.  He had sold for just $7,300 as a yearling at the Ocala Breeder’s Sale Company.  He was bred by Mareinvest 83, Ltd. in Florida.

It was rumored then that Bill Donovan really needed a horse like Lost Code at that time.  Bill’s beautiful wife, Donna, was the in-house handicapper at the track.

Lost Code started his career on the fourth of July 1986 at Laurel Race Course in a five and a half furlong special weight event that he dominated by four lengths.  His next three starts were a mish-mash of poor showings with three different riders, never better than fifth.  The last jockey, Jesse Davidson, stayed with him and on December 11th he contested a seven-furlong-allowance race run in the slop.  Lost Code ran a much-improved race to be second by a nose to Swift Wind.

Stretching out to a mile and a sixteenth in his next start December 21st again in a Laurel allowance, he regained his winning form. 

January came around and the three-year-old raced at Aqueduct in a $35,000 allowance race at a mile and seventy yards.  Antonio Graell road him that day and Lost Code wasn’t up to beating the stakes-proven Templar Hill and ran fifth as the co-highweight.  He never again raced in New York and that will become obvious later in the story.

Lost Code took one more trip to Laurel to run in a mile allowance race with Davidson back aboard.  Cody turned in another second place performance.  He had accumulated a record of two wins, two seconds from eight starts with around $20,000 in earnings. 

He didn’t appear to be a giant-slayer, but the Donovan trainee was about to reveal the problem that would never again to hold him back. 

His first at Birmingham racecourse on March 7, 1987, a six-furlong allowance test with Chris DeCarlo onboard was a disaster, the son of Codex would run sixth, ten and a half lengths behind the winner.  That wasn’t the worst of it.  Everyone was talking about how severely Lost Code bled in the race, saturating his stall walls with his own blood.  The amount of blood seems to have gotten bigger and bigger over the years, but there was no denying Lost Code would have to run on Lasix from then on to show his potential.  But how good was he.

Birmingham presented the The Hoop Jr. Stakes on March 28.  The mile and a sixteenth race named after Fred Hooper’s Derby winner.  The Georgia native moved to Alabama at the age of 18 to work in the steel mills and become a boxing champion.  Then he moved back to Florida to be a potato and cabbage farmer, then a barber, a construction company owner, a county commissioner, a cattle farmer, and then built the largest road construction company in the southeast. 

The first yearling Hooper bought at a sale was Hoop Jr.  He won the 1945 Kentucky Derby.

Meanwhile in the Hoop Jr. Stakes Lost Code was getting the services of the 1971 Eclipse Award winning apprentice jockey Gene St. Leon.  The ebony colt put on a flashy show to win by eight lengths in 1:45 3/5 over the 2/5 favorite, stakes winner Baldski’s Star.

The first running of the Alabama Derby was exactly two weeks away.  The $350,000 race was targeted by Dogwood Stables and Angel Penna, Sr., Gene Klein and D. Wayne Lukas, Ryehill Farm and Woody Stephens.  Lost Code would have to answer a big question, could he compete with these proven stakes horses.

After the Hoop Jr. he certainly had his fans, he was still an underdog but would he become our Phoenix of the Birmingham track.  Could he rise from it?

The Derby was run on April 11, 1987 at a mile and an eighth.  Riders Randy Romero, Don Brumfeld and Russell Baze were in town to ride.  Trainer Phil Gleaves entered the race-favorite Phantom Jet, owned by Aisco Stables at 8-5.  His last start was a track-record-performance in the Tampa Bay Derby. 

“D. Wayne off the plane” was in it’s heydey and Fast Forward got the call for this engagement.  He was a son of 1981 Kentucky Derby winner Pleasant Colony and was the second choice in the betting at 5-2. 

Woody Stephens sent Ryehill Farm’s son of Mr. Prospector, Homebuilder, who ran second behind Phantom Jet in the Tampa Bay Derby.  He was 5-1.

Trainer Glenn Wismer’s Momsfurrari ran behind Cryptoclearance in the Everglades and was sent off at 35-1.

The field of twelve was sent to post in the eighth race.  Lost Code was fourth choice at almost 8-1.  He knew one way to do it and that was go to the front and improve your position.  The yellow and pink silks of Wendover Stables flashed across the line first.  He had done it.  The colt with the ridiculous pale pink and yellow yarn balls in his mane and tail made him look like a heavyweight fighter at a young girl’s pajama party. 

He bested Stephens’ Homebuilder by a little over a length.  Phantom Jet checked in a distant third six lengths back.  The time for the mile and an eighth was 1:51 3/5.

The Birmingham racing fans had seen the last of Lost Code at his adopted track. 

The Kentucky Derby was run on May 2nd of that year, but Lost Code headed to Sportsman’s Park for the May 8th running of the Thomas D. Nash Memorial Handicap at a mile and a sixteenth.  He easily put away that field by eleven lengths. 

The wins kept coming.  The Grade 3 Illinois Derby at Sportsman’s Park, Grade 2 Ohio Derby at Thistledown, the Grade 3 St. Paul Derby at Canterbury, and the Grade 1 Arlington Classic on July 11, 1987.

1987 Ohio Derby

After beating the likes of Gem Master, Avies Copy and Proudest Duke it was time to step up and take on the big boys.  There was one place to do that on the first Saturday in August and that was at the Jersey Shore.  Lost Code would face Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba owned by Dorothy and Pamela Scharbauer and trained by Jack Van Berg and Belmont Stakes winner Bet Twice owned by Cisley Stable and Blanche P. Levy trained by Warren “Jimmy” Croll, Jr.

The three colts had three distinctively different running styles.  Lost Code had a brazen style.  He was all out from gate to wire.  Then he could still put in a fast final quarter-mile at the end of a race that would repel most challengers. 

Then there was the very tractable horse Bet Twice.  He could come from off the pace or lead if necessary.  These horses win most of the races on dirt tracks.

Alysheba, up to this point, had shown that he was best following behind the pacesetters and putting in a fast three-eights or quarter-mile charge to the finish. These are usually the most popular runners at the track, like the happy-go-lucky guy that gets to the party at just the right time.   

The difference between Lost Code and Alysheba’s styles were like a rollercoaster, going up the hill, the anticipation of the rest of the ride with Lost Code.  With Alysheba you’re coming down the other side of the hill so fast you’re not sure how you got there, but you’re glad you took the ride.

The race was carried by ABC with Jim McKay, Charlsie Cantey and Dave Johnson as the hosts.

There were two other horses in this race, Clever Secret (2) and Born to Shop (1), but this was a three-horse-race and by the top of the stretch the three had put fifteen lengths between themselves and the other two. 

Gene St. Leon and Lost Code would break from the three post and there seemed to be no obstacle to keep him from running his race and getting an uncontested lead.  It would have been suicidal to go up beside him and press. 

The most disadvantaged in this race would be Chris McCarron on Alysheba.  He would be coming out of the four post position.  There didn’t seem to be a chance of a hotly contested speed duel so Alysheba would have to lay somewhat close and that might put him at the mercy of Bet Twice in the fifth post position. 

Bet Twice with Craig Perret aboard, would have to ride smart and the race would be his for the taking.  He could sit off Lost Code’s pace but not too far as to let him get away.  He would have Alysheba to the inside of him and could work to keep him there until he decided to move.  Lost Code was 2-1, Alysheba 8-5 and Bet Twice was the favorite at 6-5. 

Here’s how it played out.  Forgive the quality, but listen to the crowd and just imagine how the Alabama racing fans were pulling for what they considered their very own.

1987 Haskell Stakes

The trio would meet again, but not for almost a year.

Lost Code did not win again in 1987.  He reappeared March 5, 1988 as a four-year-old. He looked bigger and stronger and every bit the monster when he won a non-conditioned allowance race by fifteen lengths over stakes horses.  He clocked the seven furlongs in 1:21 1/5.  Craig Perret had taken over the mount on Lost Code by this time.

The Grade 2 Razorback at Oaklawn Park was up next.  Lost Code took that race easily under Perret going the mile and a sixteenth in 1:40 2/5.  The Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap was next and Lost Code would face pressure from Gulch early, but at the half- mile-pole he had shaken of the pressure and only needed to hold off Cryptoclearance.

1988 Oaklawn Handicap

He won the race by a length in 1:47 flat.

In May of 1988, the rematch of the Haskell was upon us.  Lost Code, Alysheba, Bet Twice and the now threatening Cryptoclearance would meet in the Pimlico Special on May 14th, the Saturday between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.

Jockey Craig Perret had to make the call which horse to ride, but Craig Perret and Jimmy Croll had a long relationship and Bet Twice was the easy choice.  Pat Day took over the reins on Lost Code.  The first renewal after a thirty-year hiatus lived up to the billing.

1988 Pimlico Special

Alysheba was taken out of his game in this race and with Craig Perret taking advantage of Lost Code’s tendency to open the rail, Bet Twice snuck by Lost Code and you can see the surprise the colt shows that someone would come up inside of him.  He certainly didn’t lose any respect in this effort.

Craig Perret got back on Lost Code and they went out winners in the Grade 3 National Jockey Club Handicap at Sportsman’s Park, the Grade 2 Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs over Waquoit and Afleet.

His last race he won in a gallop, the Grade 2 Michigan Mile (and One-Eighth) at Detroit Race Course.

1988 Michigan Mile

Lost Code finished his career 27 starts, 15 wins (12 stakes), five places and two thirds and earnings of $2,085,396.  He took his fans on a ride that they will long remember. 

He suffered through colic surgery, bone chip removals early in his life, but in 2001 he would be taken swiftly.  He succumbed to a ruptured aorta in the breeding shed. 

In some crazy way it seems fitting that his heart didn’t stop, it simply burst.

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