The sport of kings is just that…royalty. With that in mind, let’s take a look in the rearview at the 2023 racing year and dish out a few accolades. Because we are a card-carrying Southern boy, we will put a little Tennessee twist on some awards that we want to pass out in recognition of a job well done. The envelope please….
THE MULTIPLE CHOICE POP QUIZ
Remember when your teacher would throw a pop quiz at you to see how smart you were? Of course, I always wanted it to be multiple choice so I could at least maybe guess right. It was 4th grade and we were just coming off a heavy ciphering lesson when old Teach put it to us. I didn’t want to copy off Bubba beside me as he was in his second go round in 4th grade. Faced with the challenge and nearly clueless, I answered’em all. Low and behold, I aced the test and Mrs. Wigginbottom thought of me as a scholar.
Fast forward to May 5, 2023 and here I am still guessing. This test came in the form of the grade 2 Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks day. A solid six horse field was lined with an odds on favorite in West Will Power. This time I was sitting beside some of my buds from Kentucky and I don’t think any of them had to repeat 4th grade. Put on the spot and asked who I liked, it was Mrs. Wigginbottom’s class all over again. Reaching way back… I said “Smile Happy”.
The gates opened and there was Smile Happy stalking a very moderate early pace. As the heavily favored West Will Power took them past the half mile pole there was Smile Happy rolling along. As the horses turned for home there was the Ken McPeek trained son of Runhappy looming large. Assuming command and coasting to the wire two lengths to the good, Smile Happy was both on four legs and two as I was cheesing it up. So for the second time in my life I was thought of as intelligent. Congratulations Smile Happy, our Multiple Choice Pop Quiz winner for 2023.
THE SATELLITE SEBRING
Back when we were young and not real smart, one of my best buddies had a 1974 Satellite Sebring. Sporting a 360 V8 motor, it was a running son of a gun. Surviving a few mishaps, it lived to white smoke the tires and surprise more than a few that thought this old Plymouth was past its running prime. If somebody wanted to race for a six pack of Falls City the strategy was simple, floor it and don’t look back.
Ceiling Crusher is a fantastic three-year old filly that had made a name for herself early in 2023 with a couple of eye-popping wins in restricted Stakes races. Having won the Evening Jewel Stakes (April 8) and Melair Stakes (May 28) by a combined 32 ½ lengths, this California-bred daughter of Mr. Big was breath-taking. But, she is a Cal-Bred and question was how would she fair in open company?
So, along came the big test in the Torrey Pines Stakes at old Del Mar. Running against a decorated field of three-year old fillies, this would be an accurate barometer for the real horsepower of this granddaughter of Indian Charlie. Beautifully prepared by trainer Doug O’Neill, Ceiling Crusher broke like a shot and immediately assumed complete command of the race. Rolling through a swift opening quarter mile (22.14), the question was did she have the muscle to maintain against open company. Leading with authority to the top of the stretch, this is where the Satellite Sebring set sail. Stomping the gas again, Ceiling Crusher opened up and turned the Torrey Pines into a route. Winning by a widening 6 lengths, the horsepower questions were answered.
For good measure, O’Neill took his filly across country to Pennsylvania on September 23 for the grade 1 Cotillion. This time, the folks on the East Coast saw the smoke show. Different state, more accomplished field, same gameplan. Included in those eating the Ceiling Crusher exhaust was Kentucky Oaks and Acorn champ Pretty Mischievous. Two consecutive graded stakes wins with authority told everyone Ceiling Crusher had plenty in the tank…kinda like the old Satellite Sebring.
THE PORK BUTT SANDWICH
The Boston butt is a delectable piece of pork when cooked right. Now, the key to this mouth-watrering, juicy, piece of pig is patience. It cannot be rushed. The fire needs to be kept low and you just have to cook it slow. As the fat renders and the smoke rolls over it, the smell can be intoxicating. You have to wait for the right time and as the meat matures and the butt gets tender, suddenly its BAM !!! Porky goodness is unveiled with a little butt sauce, cole slaw and a bunch of dill pickles.
Du Jour is a talented turf running son of Temple City. Trained by Bob Baffert, like most good grass runners he has an explosive turn of foot. As he strode into the gate for the grade 2 Del Mar Mile on September 2 at the Seaside Oval, it was clear he would need a big run in this talented ten horse field.
Breaking from the rail. Du Jour rolled around the first turn and onto the back stretch saving ground while running mid-pack. Appearing to be relaxed under jockey Flavien Prat, this grandson of Bernardini was moving behind a wall of others at the top of the stretch. Needing a place to run, it was obvious he had plenty in the tank. As the runners moved down the stretch, Du Jour was still inside with no place to go. Patiently guiding his pony, Prat suddenly saw a hole open. Moving off the rail, Du Jour suddenly lengthened his stride and with a grass-gobbling gait rocketed past the frontrunners and into the lead. Inside the sixteenth pole, his pulsating power left no doubt as to who was best on this day.
Du Jour won by a widening 2 ¼ lengths and displayed a big burst down the lane that is synonymous with success. In the Del Mar Mile the key here was patience. He just had to be willing to wait for the right time to put on the pickles…kinda like that Pork Butt Sandwich.
THE OLD BEAGLE HOUND
During the fall and early winter, rabbit hunting was an every Saturday morning ritual. Loading up the pack of Beagle dogs and heading to the woods was a part of life. One of them old hounds was absolutely a fooler. Sunday through Friday old Joe looked like he could barely walk and mostly just laid in the shade. Once he got to the woods and was in his element, a completely different story. Once he struck the smell of a bunny the joker was a beast. Leading the pack and running like a machine, he was a rabbit’s nightmare.
Gear Jockey is a veteran runner that proudly sports the Calumet Farm colors. A turf sprint specialist, he has run against top company on many occasions. Back in 2021, this Rusty Arnold trained son of Twirling Candy ran one of the best races of his life in winning the $1 million Turf Sprint at Kentucky Downs. Over the next two years and eight races, Gear Jockey was still looking for another win. Perhaps considered past his prime and with only one start in 2023. he came into the Turf Sprint at Kentucky Downs almost completely dismissed by the speculating public.
As the gates opened and the runners broke in this Breeders’ Cup win and you are in race, Gear Jockey looked like anything but a horse in an eight-race drought. Stalking the pace with authority, this Kentucky-bred was in the midst of a six horse battle for the lead. As the wire drew ever closer, there was Gear Jockey fighting like a champ. Hot on the trail and refusing to lose, he got up by a head and hauled home the winner’s share of a $1 million purse ($589,680).
The 2023 Turf Sprint at Kentucky Downs gave Gear Jockey his second win in two lifetime starts at the only European style course in the United States. In other places, Gear Jockey may not look like a winner, but when he toes the turf at Kentucky Downs he is an unbeaten beast, sorta like that old Beagle hound when he hits the woods.