It Ain't All Flowers - by Evan Hammonds

Top-level horses and horsemen on the comeback trail were among the big stories the last full week of August, and they found entry to the winner’s circle a little harder than it used to be. While the fairy tales didn’t have happy beginnings, their returns to the spotlight are just the opening pages of the tale. There are plenty of chapters to go to make their own special happily-ever-afters.

It takes months for summer’s toil to ripen into fall’s bounty.

At Saratoga Race Course Aug. 27, unbeaten Lady Eli’s miraculous return from stepping on a nail, contracting laminitis, and fighting back to fitness fell three-quarters of a length short in the Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa Stakes (gr. IIT). It was an ambitious spot for Lady Eli, facing a grade I-quality field off a 13-month layoff that included intensive therapy to overcome perhaps the most dreaded disease in Thoroughbred racehorses.

Cocking her head to the right in the lane and later lugging in as she neared the wire, it was clear she tired late but remained gallant in defeat. By the way, it took a stakes-record effort by Don Adam’s Strike Charmer to beat her.

Trainer Chad Brown was succinct the day after: “Hopefully, she will get a lot out of that and move forward.”

The same afternoon, Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel returned to race riding at Ellis Park after abruptly announcing his retirement in March. With support from trainer Buff Bradley and hooking up with agent Frank Bernis, Borel had a pair of mounts at the Western Kentucky track that were preceded by an autograph and picture-taking session. He had a shot aboard 2-year-old Kiss My Note, but the filly faded to finish third. His other mount ran fourth. In his lone mount the following day Borel hugged the rail aboard Numbers Game in his patented style, but the maiden tired to a sixth-place finish.

Borel readily admits personal issues led to his calling it quits when he “just needed to get away.”

Riding maidens at Ellis Park is fine for a comeback, but Borel certainly has higher aspirations for the second stage of his riding career. More lucrative mounts at Churchill Downs and Keeneland in the fall beckon. From there who knows, as Bernis winters in New Orleans and Borel has historically starred at the Oaklawn stand in Arkansas.

In any direction, it’s hard to imagine the three-time Kentucky Derby (gr. I)-winning rider won’t get his shot at a fourth before too long.

On Aug. 25 James McIngvale’s Runhappy returned to the work tab, shipping from the Kentucky Training Center to Keeneland for his first recorded work since last December. Last year’s champion sprint male has recovered from a bone bruise and is being pointed toward an early October return in Churchill’s Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III) with the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) the main target.

The popular Runhappy is the horse people love with a trainer people love to vilify. As a testament the online story of his work has been viewed more than 12,000 times. More than 380 comments have been posted at about his return, the majority being unfavorable to conditioner Laura Wohlers. With skin as thick as boot leather, Wohlers continues to train in her own style and deserves better than the online trash talk thrown her way.

Perhaps the first hurdles are the hardest. Kentucky Americana musician Sturgill Simpson sings: “It ain’t all flowers; sometimes you’ve got to feel the thorns.”

Here’s hoping the fall’s harvest bears the fruit our returning heroes have tasted in the past.


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