You Can Teach an Old Horse New Tricks
Del Mar - Well, it was a slam dunk for Free House, a "Where is everybody?" win.
The Bridesmaid finally caught the bouquet. The best friend got the girl in the Warner Bros. Movie for a change. The sidekick saves the fort.
Free House just won't fold the hand. Three times last year, in the most publicized races in the sport, he chased his competition across the finish line in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. In the money in all of them, in the photo in one of them, he was the hard-luck champion of horse racing.
He was expected to go quietly into the sunset. A game effort but no cigar.
He got a measure of revenge Saturday in the Pacific Classic here. He ran away from Touch Gold, who beat him in the Belmont. The horse who beat him in all three Triple Crown races, Silver Charm, didn't make the dance or he might have gotten a different view of Free House, too.
The Pacific Classic is not your Run for the Roses. No bands play Stephen Foster as the horses come on the track. But it's not your basic overnight allowance, either. It's a $1-million race, major on the schedule. It's a very big win for Free House. He's not What's-His-Name anymore. He's Who's Who.
You know, in most sports, the athlete gets a generation to prove himself. A Jack Nicklaus wins his first major at 22 and his last at 46. A George Foreman wins Olympic boxing gold in 1968, and 30 years later he's still fighting. Babe Ruth hits his first home run in 1915 and his last in 1935.
But a racehorse has to act like he's double-parked. He gets only months to prove he has been here.
And if his prime coincides with that of Man O'War, Citation, Secretariat or even Count Fleet, he might as well have been born a plow horse.
What did Free House do that turned him into a star? Well, he got older.
You know, it's the public's notion that the racing begins and ends with the Kentucky Derby and its Triple Crown satellites. Everything else is New Haven.
Trainers know better. Every real horseman knows a colt's (or a filly's 3-year-old season is not indicative of real prowess. I mean, a Kentucky Derby is not only too early in the career, it's too early in the year.
It has been won by a lot of horses who are just better than claiming horses. It has been lost by a lot of horses who were too good to have that fate. Native Dancer comes to mind. Gallant Man. Damascus. Bold Ruler.
Of course, a horse doesn't know whether he won the Kentucky Derby or not. But his owner does. His rider does. History does.
But trainers as a class manage to hold back their enthusiasm. There's even evidence a trainer resents a Triple Crown race.
That's where a Pacific Classic comes in. It's a trainer's race. A real test of his skill in bringing a horse up to a race. The real business of racing.
A Kentucky Derby can be a crapshoot. Not a Pacific Classic. You win a Pacific Classic because you're at the top of your game, not because eight other horses were still wet behind the ears. Many a Derby has been blown by an immature runner jumping shadows, spitting bits, lugging out, horsing around.
Not a Pacific Classic. Here, the horses are all grown up, professional. These are the true class of the sport, older horses. Dependable, crafty. Consistent. They don't beat themselves.
There probably has never been a good older horse who couldn't beat a good 3-year-old. It's so taken for granted, they have to give the kids weight. Handicap horses used to be the glamour stars of the track anyway. They made a movie about Seabiscuit, who never ran in the Triple Crown and never got good till he got middle-aged. They wrote poems about John Henry, who never did either, even though he ran in 83 other races. They used to Equipoise "The Chocolate Soldier." Exterminator, called "Old Bones," ran 100 races.
They were the heart and soul of racing.
Free House bid fair to join them Saturday. He won so easily, jockey Chris McCarron should have brought a book. He rode him like the Wilshire bus. "You could have ridden him today!" he called out to Free House's co-owner Trudy McCaffery.
McCarron rode such a confident race, he remembers thinking, "If I were a cocky individual, I would have turned to the other riders and said "Shame on you!"
Added McCarron, "This horse is so generous with his speed, I knew if he ran the way he trained, these guys were beat."
He has one holdover from his misspent youth: He tends to kick out sideways and decelerate in the stretch, almost start to tap-dance. "He gets to wondering where everybody went and to want to slow down and wait for them," McCarron explained. McCarron hustled him across the finish line four lengths ahead of second-place Gentlemen on Saturday and about 16 lengths ahead of Touch Gold.
Ironically, McCarron rode Touch Gold to victory in the Belmont.
So, is he glad the order was reversed Saturday? Is yesterday's jinx horse today's king of the handicap division?
"Arguably," said McCarron, "a case could be made."
Anyway, it's nice to know getting older has its flip side.