Sporting Gestures - by Lenny Shulman

It can’t be a very old adage because it only applies to the commercial era of horse racing, not to the time when it was the Sport of Kings. “Keep your best horses in the worst company,” the saying goes. Loosely translated the theory means that owners and trainers can better pad their bottom lines by racking up victories while not overexerting their horses by making them run against the best of their foes.

It is a practice all too prevalent today. With even remote racetracks offering large purses and with radically downsized foal crops, horsemen can avoid tough match-ups as easily as putting a horse on a van or a charter flight. Why try and tackle a monster in a prep race when you can wait until the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup?

It’s a logical plan of action, collecting paychecks while preserving a horse’s energy. After all, people make huge investments in these Thoroughbreds and require some sort of return if they are to enjoy, or even remain in this enterprise. But the rise of commercialism comes with a corresponding ebbing of another tent pole of the game—sportsmanship. After all, who would have taken notice had Saint George killed a dragonfly instead of a dragon?

Happily the racing world is still populated by at least some whom we can term true Sportsmen. And they have been in full effect this season.

First, consider Robert Masterson, an owner with a 35-year résumé. He has had the good fortune of landing Tepin, a $140,000 purchase who came good at the beginning of her 4-year-old season last year, landing the Longines Just a Game and First Lady stakes (both gr. IT) before Masterson and trainer Mark Casse decided to run Tepin against the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT), a race she dominated by 21⁄4 lengths.

This season Masterson, a longtime visitor to top European venues, sent Tepin into the lion’s den to face the best European milers in the Queen Anne Stakes (Eng-I) at Royal Ascot. The mare was being asked to travel to Europe, run uphill and on a straightaway for the first time, with no Lasix, no nasal strip, and off a foreign training regimen. She responded with a stirring victory over 12 opponents, becoming the second queen of Royal Ascot and getting Masterson a personal meeting with the first one, Queen Elizabeth. Risk and reward. By embracing the former, Masterson has earned himself thrills and memories for a lifetime.

“Taking Tepin over there to face the best in Europe showed what a great sportsman Robert is,” said R.D. Hubbard, with whom Masterson has partnered in horses and other business ventures. Casse used the same adjective in describing his client.

That brings us to the case of Rick Porter, who has parlayed a love of Thoroughbreds and successful car dealerships into overseeing his distinguished stable, Fox Hill Farms. Porter always seems to have a good horse, campaigning Hard Spun, Havre de Grace, Jostle, Joyful Victory, Round Pond, Rockport Harbor, Kodiak Kowboy, and his current star, undefeated champion Songbird. Porter could choose to run her anywhere, including easier races against boys, but selected the July 24 Coaching Club American Oaks Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga for her, where she tussled with grade I winner Carina Mia, widely regarded as the second-best 3-year-old filly in the country.

“We’re not afraid of competition,” Porter stated in the days leading up to the race. “We’d like to see who’s best. With her following, I don’t think there’ll be an empty seat in the house. When you get that kind of crowd and that kind of spirit…I love Saratoga, I love Songbird, and that’s why I’m going there.”

So Songbird traveled cross-country, to the Graveyard of Champions, to tackle Carina Mia on a deep surface potentially unkind to speed horses. And then she drew the 1 post, inside her main competition. When the real running started and Carina Mia looked Songbird in the eye, Porter’s champion bounded away to remain perfect, providing the signature moment to Saratoga’s opening weekend. Porter holding the impressive Coaching Club trophy, his smile cutting through physical problems he’s battling, was all you needed to see to know the rewards of tackling the highest mountain.

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