By Frank Vespe
When Frankie Dettori flyingly dismounted from Raven's Pass
last Saturday, it marked, in a sense, the end of a decade-long journey for the
It also marked, from my perspective, another link in the
chain of interconnectedness that is one of racing's signal charms.
Ten years ago, Dettori had the mount on European invader
Swain in the Breeders' Cup Classic, held that year at Churchill Downs. Turning for home, Dettori had Swain in the
perfect spot, and as he steered the bay outside the leaders, it seemed the
money was there for the taking.
What happened next, however, has dogged the jock ever
since. The Independent put it this way: "Dettori beat Swain across the
track in the Classic with a whipping frenzy."
By the time they hit the wire, Swain was probably about 15 paths
outside, closer to the grandstand than the rail, and just about a length behind
winner Awesome Again.
It took Dettori another decade to find his way to the
winners' circle after a Breeders' Cup Classic, ten long years to recover his
good name (at least to American punters) after what Ray Kerrison, in the New York Post, called "the worst race of
any jockey in the history of the Cup."
Swain, meanwhile, is enjoying a placid and fruitful life as
a stallion at Shadwell Farm in Kentucky,
which is where my wife Erin and I saw him just a couple of weeks ago. Earlier in the year, we'd sent another
"family member" to visit with Swain, and The Big Four Oh, our unraced mare,
returned in foal.
Racing is a small and in many ways exceptionally
class-conscious world. Even in
handicapping, "class" is considered a powerful tool. And woe be to the commoner who tries to enter
Yet for all that, the lines between classes are extraordinarily
permeable. A good horse can kick down
the doors; all the royal breeding in the world can't save a bad one. The Green Monkey may have been the most
expensive auction purchase ever, but on the racetrack he was simply a lifetime
More than that, it is the very slippery-ness of the classes
that allows inter-mingling on such a grand scale. Swain, for example, was true horse royalty:
regally bred, good-looking, exceptionally successful at the highest levels of
the game. The Big Four Oh, on the other
hand, was a commoner in every way: modestly bred (Parker's Storm Cat-Nora
Dancer, by Runaway Groom), unraced, and, as a youngster, all lumps and sharp
angles. Their offspring? We'll see.
It is this sort of injected democratic sensibility that
allows the "sport of kings" to capture our imagination. We at That's Amore Stable haven't run in the
best races, but we've had the best jockeys: stars like Dominguez, Velasquez,
Garcia, Elliott, Pino. We haven't spent
a lot of money on horses, as these things go.
But we've nevertheless had offspring of Elusive Quality, Distorted
Humor, Mr. Greeley, and others.
The interplay works both ways, of course. Plenty of recent stars - Big Brown, for
example, or Funny Cide - didn't exactly leap off the catalog page as
stars-in-waiting. Once they hit the
racetrack, however, they ran exactly that way.
It's no surprise that the pursuit of the dream is what
animates horse-racing. After all, the
most recent major movie about the game was called "Dreamer." But dreams, to have power, must begin with
some foundation in reality. It's the
day-to-day interaction of "high" and "low" that makes the racing dream
tangible, that gives it shape and heft, that allows you to pick it up, turn it
over, hold it close.
I used to own a horse named Skeleton Crew, a successful
claim of ours, if brief; we owned him for only two starts. There were stakes performances in his past
when we got him. Kim's Dixie Tune, a
horse we own now, spent the early part of his career chasing the likes of Cowboy Cal
Those horses might never get to (or back to) that sort of
top-of-the-heap level. But then again,
they might. It's there on the page, in
black-and-white in the company line: Atoned,
Arcaro, Kim's Dixie Tune. Sure, it's a dream, but it's more than a
dream, too; it's a realistic (if remote) possibility supported by tangible
Lava Man, famously, was a claimer-made-great; Funny Cide was
a New York-bred gelding who outran the odds.
What inspires racing dreams is not that something like that might happen
again, but that it inevitably will
happen again. So we all say, "Why not
In victory, Dettori achieved a vindication of sorts; he'll
not have to explain away his ride on Swain again. He also, in a sense, re-connected Swain to
the Classic and in so doing, linked (in a small way) the sport's best and
brightest to The Big Four Oh and That's Amore Stable.
As a fan, I'd hoped to see Curlin win. But in truth, I can't say that I'm unhappy
with this outcome. And, anyway, maybe we
can get Dettori for when The Big Four Oh's foal... oh, never mind...