By John Piesen
The big buzz at Oaklawn Park in the spring of 2007 was the arrival of a 3-year-old named Curlin. He had won his belated debut by a pole at Gulfstream Park for trainer Helen Pitts, days later was sold for six figures to wine magnate Jess Jackson, turned over to Steve Asmussen, and vanned to Oaklawn to prepare for the Arkansas Derby.
When I walked into the Asmussen barn on a sunny Monday morning, there was Curlin in the first stall, next to Asmussen's office. Thankfully, Steve wasn't around. In those days he was not a people person, especially when it came to the media.
So I had plenty of time to admire Curlin in his stall. He was huge, one of the biggest horses I'd ever seen, a bright chestnut, strong and powerful.
Curlin right away reminded me of Groovy, one of the most popular and accomplished sprinters of the '80s. And if Curlin looks like Groovy, it figures he has to run like Groovy. A six-furlong horse for sure. Seven tops.
What the hell did I know?
Curlin never did win at six furlongs. But he won among others the Arkansas Derby, the Preakness, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai Cup, was twice voted Horse of the Year, and was retired with record earnings of $10.6 million.
This morning Curlin was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame during ceremonies at the Hall directly across Union Avenue from Saratoga Race Track. He should have been elected unanimously. The only reason he wasn't was because of an anti-Asmussen bias among the media. And you wonder why people hate the media.
As much as Curlin was a personal favorite, Fourstardave wasn't far beyond.
Unlike Assmussen, Rich Bomze and Leo O'Brien, the owner and trainer of Fourstardave, respectively. would welcome one and all to their barn, even the media. Especially the media. In all of his King of Saratoga years, Fourstardave— "Dave" to his many friends— was quartered in the obscure O'Brien barn on the wrong side of Union Avenue.
Fourstardave now is buried on the Saratoga backstretch, a five-iron from Nelson Avenue, and owner Bomze sadly passed this spring at age 76.
But a street outside Saratoga was re-named Fourstardave Way, and trainer O'Brien is still kicking, as is John Henderson, the Jersey-based founder and president of the thriving Fourstardave Fan Club.
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And on Saturday at the Spa, they will run the $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap, a Grade 2 for 3-year-olds and up at a flat mile on the inner turf.
Wise Dan, a two-time Horse of the Year himself, won the last two runnings of the Fourstardave, but his people decided to pass this year, leaving a field of six, for sure no future Hall of Famers among them, in race 10 on the 11-race card.
It seems most of the major races this summer have been won on the front end— see Bayern and Moreno— and it will be no shock if Silver Max maintains the trend in the Fourstardave.
A winner of 12 of 24 starts, and pennies short of two million in earnings, Silver Max, a one-dimensional speed horse, no doubt will break running from the one-hole under regular rider Robby Albarado, and dare his five rivals to catch him.
Max is 9-5 on the morning line, but you'll be lucky to get 4-5 at post, which is 6:12 p.m.
If you're stll packin', race 11 goes at 6:43, giving racegoers you think plenty of time to make their 8 p.m. dinner reservations.
Unlike Silver Max, an eight-time graded-stakes winner, Sayaad has yet to win a graded stake, but he's a speed horse who will give Max all he wants on the front end. The 4-year-old enters the Foustardave on a three-race winning streak for top turf trainer Kieran McLaughlin; he's getting seven pounds and one year from Silver Max, jockey Irid Ortiz does his best work at the Spa on the lead, and the Arabs will be out there cheering him on.
At 5-1 on the line, Sayaad is worth a play.
Speaking of Wise Dan, can you believe that WD,a winner of all of one race this year,
resides in first place in the current NTRA poll, with California Chrome and
Palace Malice, both coming off losses, two and three.
Speaking of Bayern, trainer Bob Baffert made it official Thursday when he announed that he will ship the Haskell winner from Del Mar to Saratoga for the Travers Aug. 23, a race which will be considerably tougher (and longer) than the Haskell.
But if Bayern does manage to knock off Tonalist and Wicked Strong in the Travers, he's right up there in Eclipse consideration.
And how would Mike Francesa feel about all this?
You'll recall that Francesa, the host of a populat New York sports-talk program, was the underbidder on Bayern at a yearling sale.
Proving once again that the racing nabobs just don't get it, last Saturday, the Whitney and the West Virginia Derby, the biggest races of the day, went off precisely at the same time— 5:42 p.m. eastern.
In case, you missed the West Virginia race, try to find it on-line. You'll see the Ride of the Year from Rosie Napravnik.
Sitting third on Tapiture (for Asmussen) on the rail in the upper stretch, Rosie tried to navigate inside dueling leaders Vicar's In Trouble and Candy Boy, but was shut off, leaving her chances the proverbial slim and none.
But Rosie maneuvered Tapiture out and around without breaking stride, and nailed Candy Boy on the wire— pending a five-minute photo.
A half-hour later, Joe Bravo performed similar magic on Big Blue Kitten in the Lure Stakes at Saratoga.
At the quarter-pole of the grass stake, Big Blue Kitten was dead last in the field of 11, looking hopelessly beaten. But Jersey Joe somehow split horses on BBK, then split a second group, found room at the sixteenth pole, and won going away.
Bravo certainly deserves Xmas cards from the folks who cashed 11K Pick Six tickets on Big Blue Kitten. Or even better E-Z passes for Atlantic City.
Finally, the racing media lost one of its icons this week when Don Grisham passed at 86. Don was a DRF columnist for years, based mostly in Chicago, and then a long-time PR man at Oaklawn in his native Hot Springs, Ark.
Don actually lived on borrowed time since 1998 when he was struck by a truck leaving Oaklawn hours after Victory Gallop won the Arkansas Derby, sustained massive injuries but somehow survived.
Our condolences to the Grisham family and his many friends.
Better news from Chicago.
Trainer Wayne Catalano seems well on his way to recovery after suffering a potentially fatal bout with pneumonia. Proof indeed that "the Cat" has nine lives.
Thanks for tuning in, see you back here next Friday for a look at the Alabama, go Bucs, and feel free to check out my selections online at www.johnpiesen.com and on the John Piesen Hot Line 1-888-612-2283.