THE 2020 PREAKNESS IS AN INSPIRING UNDERDOG STORY FOR MULTIPLE REASONS

At the 2018 Keeneland September yearling sale, the average selling price was just over $128,000.  The then-unnamed Swiss Skydiver sold for $35,000, or 27% of the average.  Fast forward to October 2020 at Pimlico Race Course.  The largely overlooked filly at the Keeneland sale became the sixth filly in history to win the Preakness Stakes.  She beat 10 colts in the process, including the 2020 Kentucky Derby winner Authentic. Thousand Words, who was purchased for $1 million at the 2018 Keeneland yearling sale, trailed far behind Swiss Skydiver in eighth place.

The underdog story gets even better.  Robby Albarado, Swiss Skydiver’s jockey, got the mount because her regular jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, elected to ride at Keeneland and Mike Smith then also turned down the mount.  In fact, Albarado reportedly was told by Kenny McPeek, Swiss Skydiver’s trainer, to be on stand-by in case Smith said no to his offer.  Albarado was like the lucky guy who got to escort a Cinderella to the high school prom only after supposedly cooler choices for escorts were too busy.

Then there is Swiss Skydiver’s purportedly unfashionable family connections.  Her sire, Daredevil, was held in such low esteem by American breeders that he was exported to stand at stud at the Jockey Club of Turkey Stud Farm for a fee of “private treaty.”  Daredevil is also the sire of Shedaresthedevil, the filly who beat her half sister Swiss Skydiver in the prestigious Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs in September.  Shedaresthedevil received a bid of $20,000 at the 2018 Keeneland September yearling sale, which was refused by her consignor. 

Hope springs eternal in horse racing…and with good reason.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business

A TALE OF A HOF HORSE, HIS HOF TRAINER, AND A MARIJUANA-SELLING GROOM

Horse racing has a long history, with enduring traditions and customs and interesting anecdotes about the often-eccentric characters who have been part of the sport. This week’s Horse Racing Business brings you one such anecdote about Hall of Fame Trainer Charlie Whittingham, Hall of Fame horse Ack Ack, and the horse’s groom Jim (not his actual name).

The narrative comes from Bill Hirsch, a former trainer and the son and grandson of Hall of Fame trainers, William “Buddy” Hirsch and Max Hirsch.  The Hirsch and Whittingham families were close friends.

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“I want to tell you a true story about the great Ack Ack in 1971.  When Churchill Downs ran the Ack Ack Stakes [on September 26, 2020], it made me think of this story.  

Charlie Whittingham had Ack Ack and was getting him ready to run in the Santa Anita Handicap.  He was the odds-on favorite with Bill Shoemaker riding.  His groom was a likable fellow named Jim.   He was Charlie’s best groom and rubbed his best horses.  Jim lived in a tack room at the end of Charlie’s barn about four stalls away from Ack Ack’s stall.  

Jim dealt in marijuana on the backstretch and kept his stash in his tack room.  Many people knew this and some would break into his room and steal.   

Ack Ack was a real mean horse and very powerful.  Whittingham’s crew had to put up a yoke screen in front of his stall because he would try to savage people as they walked by or came to visit him. They also couldn’t hang a hay rack in the front of his stall because of this danger to people. So they put his hay in a chain hay rack in one of the back corners of his stall.  Jim thought to hide his pot stash in the very back of the chain hay rack wrapped in plastic and paper bags.  No one would dare get into Ack Ack’s stall even if they knew the pot stash was there.  

On the night before The Big Cap something stirred up Ack Ack and he was on a rampage in his stall.  Jim could hear the goings on and went out to try and calm him down and was somewhat successful.  The next morning Jim got up and went to work and first checked on Ack Ack.  After all, it was Big Cap day and Ack Ack was the heavy favorite. Jim immediately noticed that during Ack Ack’s rampage the night before he had ripped the chain rack out from the wall and had gotten into the pot stash and tore into it and ate a lot of the pot.

Surely, Charlie would have scratched Ack Ack if he had known what transpired, thinking Ack Ack would test positive for the pot and get disqualified and get Charlie fined or ruled off or both. After fretting about his decision all morning, Jim decided not to tell Charlie. Then, later that afternoon, Ack Ack went out and won The Big Cap, setting a track record for the 1 ¼ mile distance. 

I was at the barn that morning walking hots for my father and other trainers trying to earn some money to bet with on that Saturday.  I walked up to Charlie’s barn that morning to wish the crew and specifically Jim good luck.  Then Jim told me what had happened.  He didn’t know what to do.  He wondered, ‘Should I tell Charlie that Ack Ack ate some pot or not?’

After the race, Jim was a nervous wreck as he walked Ack Ack to the test barn.  The rest is history as Ack Ack did not test positive for any prohibited substances.  

About 30 years later during a night drinking with Charlie in New York, I told him what had happened.  He shrugged his shoulders and exclaimed, ‘He would have won and set the track record without that shit!’

Until now, not many people knew this story. 

In 1971, Ack Ack was named champion sprinter and Horse of the Year.  In 1975, he was enshrined into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.”

Horse Racing Business 2020

AN INTRIGUING STANDARDBRED-TO-THOROUGHBRED RACING TRANSITION

Two of the most renowned racehorse trainers of all time are Bob Baffert and Wayne Lukas.  Both started out running Quarter Horses and then transitioned to Thoroughbreds, where each had immediate and lasting success.  Now an eminent name from Standardbred racing is aiming to make his mark in Thoroughbred racing.

According to Bill Finley in Harness Racing Update, retired Standardbred Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter has partnered with Philip Antonacci to purchase and race Thoroughbreds.  Antonacci already owns some Thoroughbreds, trained by Wesley Ward, but the Antonacci/Takter venture will be a separate operation, beginning with 15 horses stabled at Payson Park in Florida, with Antonacci as the trainer of record.

The Swedish-born Takter had an amazing record of accomplishment.  When he retired in 2018 at age 58, he had trained the winners of four Hambletonians, six Hambletonian Oaks, and 34 Breeders Crowns.

Antonacci was a student in the prestigious Godolphin Flying Start program.  His program bio reads:

“Philip Antonacci comes from Somersville, Connecticut and graduated in 2017 from the University of Pennsylvania, with a BA in History. Before commencing the Godolphin Flying Start program he worked as an intern with Gai Waterhouse Racing and with Lindy Farms as a sales intern. Philip completed his USA phase externship with Todd Pletcher and his Australian phase externship with Boomer Bloodstock.

On completing the Godolphin Flying Start in 2019, Antonacci was hired by Dave Reid at Preferred Equine to fill the role of Director of Sales for its Thoroughbred division.”

It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how the skill set of one of the very best Standardbred trainers of all time transfers to flat racing. Seemingly, the path of Baffert and Lukas was easier, in that Quarter Horse racing is a form of flat racing with jockeys aboard, and Takter will have a much steeper learning curve in terms of bloodlines, conformation, and training methods. Then too, Antonacci is an unknown quantity as a Thoroughbred trainer.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business