Friday, October 7, 2011

Working Class Breeders' Cup Hero

When you get into the claiming game you get into it with your eyes wide open.  You hope to be able to move a horse up a rung or two, win some races and have some fun.  If you’re putting together a partnership – when you’re responsible for other people’s money as well as your own – you sell the fun, not the return.  We all know what a tough game this is to turn a dollar in, witness the old joke:

How do you make a small fortune in horse racing?
Start with a large one!

That being said, any owner will be lying if they say that they don’t dream about taking a horse they claimed and having it end up being a champion.  We all know that Seasbiscuit ran for a claiming price and in August Caracortado won the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile after starting life as a $40,000 maiden claimer, but one of my favorite claim stories is Furthest Land (Smart Strike- Flagrant - Rahy).

Furthest Land started his racing career in Florida in December 2007, winning in his second start in a maiden special weight at Calder.  From there he moved up to allowance/optional claiming company where he had a tough go of it and the decision was made to try and soften things up and run for a tag.  After two consecutive second place finishes in $35,000 non-winners of two races at Belmont, Furthest Land was claimed from owner/breeder Catherine Wills and trainer Christophe Clement by Michael Maker and owners Kent and Sarah Ramsey.  Then the fun began.

Right off the claim, Maker won three in a row with Furthest Land after he switched him to turf and stretched him out, marching up the allowance steps.  His first try in a stake, the Tampa Bay, appeared to bring him back to reality, finishing 7th, but he bounced right back in a $100,000 optional claiming race over Keeneland’s synthetic surface.  Emboldened, Maker took a giant step and entered him in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs and again the gelding faltered, finishing 8th of 9 behind Einstein.

Furthest Land’s first stake win came in Indiana in the off the turf Golden Bear in his next start off the Woodford as the odds on favorite and set a new mile and 70 yard track record – over a sloppy track!!  Then it was on to Canterbury Park to take on other former claimers in the 2009 $138,000 Claiming Crown Jewel.  This was the first time that I saw him live and he was impressive.   The dark bay gelding was well muscled and obviously in great condition. 

When a national trainer comes to your local track you tend to gravitate toward his or her stock.  It’s not that they necessarily do a better job shaping up their horses – we have our share of sharp horsemen at Canterbury – but the stock they start with is of such high quality it’s a real pleasure to see.  Furthest Land played the part of the odds on favorite right up until the time he crossed the wire 4th.  After the high of the Golden Bear, the Jewel was a letdown.  What it really was, though, was a bump on the dirt road.  His next two starts made him my hero and the living embodiment of what we dream of when we claim a horse.

Next up was back to polytrack and the Grade 2 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park where he stalked the early pace and ground out his first graded stakes win.  This impressive victory over the synthetic surface – he was now 2 for 2 on the surface - earned him a trip to the Breeder’s Cup Dirt Mile (run over synthetic that year at Santa Anita).  I didn’t even have him in my top three in my Breeder’s Cup preview post and I was dead wrong – as were most people as he went postward at 21-1!

"I sat on the rail right behind the leader (Midshipman). It opened up at the quarter-pole. I found room to strike, and that was it," jockey Julien Leparoux said reviewing the race. "He always runs big on synthetics. It was not an easy win to have, but he ran big."

Should I have had him?  In hindsight, on the synthetic surface, he was a tremendous overlay at 21-1 after the Kentucky Cup performance.  It was one of the few bets that I’ve been happy to lose over the years.  Let’s face it, the Ramseys and I don’t have a lot in common, but Furthest Land was like Tabby Lane and Fizzy Pop and so many others in one respect: he was a working class horse running for a tag.

The odds are strong against me ever having a Breeders' Cup winner, but watching Furthest Land fueled that dream forever.  I’m still not sure if that’s something I should be thankful for or not!

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