A Day at the Races

Singletary takes the Breeders' Cup Mile with rider David Flores.

A Day at the Races
The first Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park belonged to the Anti-Smarties

The racing magnate stands there in silence, arms folded. His horse is well on its way to winning a $100,000 race at Lone Star Park, but the man can summon only the tiniest hint of a smile. Maybe you get that way when winning is your routine, when, in fact, your company owns the track where the race is run, and another of your horses has just taken the biggest prize in American racing, the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

Frank Stronach watches his second-stringer, Royal Regalia, win on a TV in the media tent, then walks away. And that is that.

The scene is altogether different across the street from Lone Star at Nokia Theatre, where the winning connections from Saturday's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships have gathered for the official post-race party. Billy Koch is mesmerized by replays of the Breeders' Cup Mile. He can't believe that the same horse--his horse--wins every time. He's so enthralled by the minute-37 race that he and his buddies, a bunch of rowdy young guys in sharp suits, take to shushing the crowd as Singletary charges home in the dirt one more time. One grabs a stick and points at the bobbing bay horse, whose rider is dressed in silks stamped with the Chicago Bears "C." They're rubbing shoulders with people like Stronach and England's Lord Derby, the man whose family provided the name for the Kentucky Derby and every other Derby run in England, Ireland, France, America, wherever.

Koch will stay there and watch the replays for hours, then go back to his hotel room and view his race again and again online. He'll sleep an hour and arrive for Sunday's media breakfast unshaven, wearing a Singletary cap, sweatshirt and faded jeans, still in disbelief.

By the end of Breeders' Cup weekend, everybody would know the Singletary guys. A bunch of us near winner's circle wheeled around during the post parade for the Mile when we heard hollers and whoops coming from somewhere above. In a corner of the grandstand balcony, 10 or so young guys--and one woman--were squished up against the railing, hooting, waving and chanting: SINGLE-TARY, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap, SINGLE-TARY...carrying on like anything but a Lord Derby.

When Singletary hurtled past the finish line, with jockey David Flores standing in the stirrups and waving his whip, the men started jumping and screaming. Some of them got so excited they ran down the upstairs escalator to get to winner's circle.

These guys, 13 of them, pitched in as little as $3,000 apiece to buy a $30,000 horse that had just bagged $873,600, winning the most prestigious one-mile race in the world. Some of them, like 35-year-old Joe Rosen, knew Koch, the managing partner of their modest syndicate, Little Red Feather Racing, from high school in Beverly Hills. They were all fans of Mike Singletary, the legendary Chicago Bears linebacker for whom the horse is named. "We live and die with this horse," Rosen explained later. "We all love this horse. When he crossed the finish line, the party began."

Singletary's trainer, Don Chatlos Jr., was elated--and relieved. Winner of only 10 races before this year's Cup, the young horseman, who grew up on Chicago's South Side, would wake up the next morning as The Celebrated Trainer Don Chatlos. He looked around his hotel room, surprised to see that the winner's flowers were still there. "I thought maybe I'd walked off with them or stole them," he said.

Things didn't start out so promising for this year's Breeders' Cup. Smarty Jones, the enormously popular winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, retired from racing after getting soundly beaten in the third leg of the Triple Crown. The official reason was injury, but this wasn't some dangerous, catastrophic thing. No, the group that had syndicated Smarty to stand at stud simply wanted to cash in now instead of waiting for their horse to heal, race again and perhaps demonstrate further that he wasn't the superhorse he was cracked up to be. It was a dollar decision, the kind of shortsighted choice that's taken over the sport to its detriment.

Deprived of their biggest star, Cup organizers came up with other reasons to worry about the single most important day of the year in Thoroughbred racing. Lone Star Park was staging the eight-race event for the first time, and the Grand Prairie track was surely the smallest, least prestigious place to host a Cup. There was hand-wringing about whether the Europeans would ship their multimillion-dollar horses to Texas, which didn't even have real Thoroughbred racing 10 years ago.

When the day was over and the ground was littered with losing tickets, Lone Star had carried the whole thing off brilliantly, a few clueless temporary mutuel clerks notwithstanding. Even the horse-poop scooper assigned to winner's circle handled his job with flair. The track, in fact, appears to have set a Cup record for worldwide handle. And two British horses, Wilko and Ouija Board, took winning trophies, earning more than $1.5 million. "The Europeans are kicking themselves that they didn't send more horses over here," said H. Wayne Hanks, one of the men who helped bring the Cup to Grand Prairie.  

The day, in fact, belonged to the men and women who dared--guys like Billy Koch; Corey Johnsen, president of Lone Star Park, who had envisioned a Cup in Grand Prairie from the track's earliest days; trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who passed up easier competition to race his great mare Azeri against boys in the Breeders' Cup Classic. (She finished a decent fifth in the best Classic field ever, beating Birdstone and Funny Cide, among others.) Even Lord Derby, who ignored Osama bin Laden's scowling face on every television screen and shipped his world-beating filly Ouija Board to Texas to win the $1.3 million Filly & Mare Turf.

Call them the Anti-Smarty Joneses. They're all about the challenge.

You knew the Anti-Smarties were taking risks if you got a chance to watch the British, Irish and French Thoroughbreds arrive at Lone Star on a soggy October 25. Horses are precarious things: They have muscles and tendons and tiny bones you never knew existed, and those long, spindly legs support an unwieldy mass of flesh. All kinds of things can go wrong on a charter plane across the Atlantic, let alone a slipping, sliding, bumpy race on a mushy wet turf course.

I came to see Six Perfections, the sensational French filly who charged from behind to win last year's Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park in California. She steps off the van encased in protective gear: knee pads, hoof guards, a mesh coat and some kind of leather carapace strapped to the top of her skull. She's an incredibly striking creature, a shimmering black with a white blaze and wild eyes, a little more delicate than the boys. Last year, she refused to enter the starting gate for the Mile. Had a giant snit, in fact, rearing several times and forcing her rider to bail out. The track handlers locked arms across her rump and literally shoved her into the gate. The amazing thing is that she still managed to come from behind and win--against males.

She was back on Saturday for her final race. On the way to the gate, she did a little bit of the sideways-walking thing, but she was otherwise composed.

The Mile is a tough race; there's little time to recover from errors or mishaps, and Six Perfections had to check her stride when she was boxed in by other horses on the final turn. She turned on the afterburners deep in the stretch and closed fast, but it was too late to catch Singletary. She finished a more-than-respectable third, earning $184,800. Now it's off to Kentucky, where she has a date with the stallion Storm Cat.

The most impressive performances of the day came from Sweet Catomine in the Juvenile Fillies division--she ran faster than the juvenile males--and Ghostzapper in the Classic. (D. Wayne Lukas, who's had more success running fillies against males than any trainer in history, speculated that Sweet Catomine might be "the next Azeri.") Ghostzapper led all the way in stakes-record time, establishing himself as the best horse in America, probably in the world.

Sometime afterward, his 27-year-old jockey, Javier Castellano, sat in near-silence in the media tent, seemingly in awe of the animal he'd just ridden. When it was Castellano's turn to speak to the press, he was hushed and humble. And pretty darn near incomprehensible. He kept referring to Ghostzapper as "De Whore." He meant "the horse," but that's not how it came out. Turns out Castellano grew up in Maracaibo, Venezuela, where the S's are often dropped in the local Spanish dialect.

We didn't learn much from Castellano, only that De Whore won and won big. Ghostzapper's trainer, Bobby Frankel, described Castellano as an "up and coming" rider who gained the mount on Ghostzapper when Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey decided the colt wasn't quite good enough for him. But Frankel had it wrong; when Castellano won the Classic, he'd arrived. --Julie Lyons

D-Day at the DMN

Even if it's not a surprise, it's always a shock. That was the sentiment from the newsroom Wednesday after The Dallas Morning News let go 60 some-odd reporters, editors and designers. They knew it was coming. (Belo announced a month ago that it would lay off 250 companywide.) But because a newspaper enjoys status as a government watchdog and public-policy setter, they thought it shouldn't act like any other gray corporation that is slave to its stock price. They were wrong.  

Some stories from the day left untold:

··· The entire horse racing community was dumbfounded that longtime DMN beat writer Gary West was let go four days before the biggest horse racing event ever in North Texas, the running of the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Lone Star Park. To protest this, Bob Sambol, owner of Bob's Steak & Chop House, notified the paper that, beginning next week, he was pulling all advertising.

"The racing community is outraged," Sambol said via cell phone from Lone Star Park three days before the big race. "They will never get another dime from me. It's not that much money to them, but I'm trying to make a point. What they did was despicable."

··· One staffer who was let go mentioned the thing that really stuck in his craw was that, the day before, his supervisor had called him into his office and demanded that he sign a United Way pledge. "So I gave them three dollars," he said. "And now I want it back."

··· One writer carefully looked over his severance check when he arrived home. He realized it didn't quite add up. Then it hit him: "Under the Lousy Kick in the Ass category," he wrote via e-mail, "they deducted for home newspaper delivery for the entire severance period if you signed up for payroll deduction as encouraged." That smarts.

··· The science community (read: smart people) was aghast that Tom Siegfried, the whip-smart science writer, was let go. He was the reason many on the Discoveries staff came to the paper. Now, they will work for Texas Living. (No, that smarts.) --Eric Celeste

Dirty Deed

The Dallas Morning News likes to give Congressman Joe Barton, Republican of Ennis, an editorial-page spanking every once in a while for failing to live up to the News' high standards on clean air. But don't ask the News about its own behavior on the issue.

Recently the News wagged its long editorial finger in Barton's face again for leading a fight to protect Ellis County from regional clean air standards. The editorial page said Barton had "positioned himself not just against the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency, but also against a coalition of business, environmental and GOP elected officials."

While the News knocks Barton for going against clean air groups, it appears to be a member of a very different kind of group itself--the Texas Motor Transportation Association. The TMTA is in court right now trying to knock down clean air measures in a number of cities in Southern Dallas County.

The News is listed as a member of the TMTA on the TMTA Web page. TMTA President and CEO Bill Webb confirmed to the Dallas Observer that the News is a member.

The News itself was less helpful on the question. Belo spokesman Carey P. Hendrickson, responding to a long message from the Observer detailing the issue, said: "I really have no comment whatsoever on that. I have no knowledge of any facts related to that, absolutely no factual knowledge. I'm just not aware of any of this. I don't think even if I was that I would want to comment on it. I just have no comment. I have no idea if we're a member of the Texas Motor Transportation Association. We just don't have any comment on that."

So we can assume it's fair now for Barton, next time he gets spanked by the News, to respond the same way. --Jim Schutze

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