Friday, January 21, 2011

Are There Sugar Cubes in Heaven?

Thoroughbred Times editor Mark Simon knew of my fascination with all things Nureyev when I interned at the newsmagazine for a summer in 1994. It was kind of hard not to know; I had photos of his progeny taped to the wall behind my desk, including one of a foal, captioned, “Nureyev’s newest stakes winner.” That one raised a few eyebrows in the office, as the filly in question was only a couple of months old. (She never fulfilled my prophecy but she did place second in a Group 3 race in France and is the dam of a stakes winner.)

One day Mark said, matter-of-factly, “I can arrange for you to meet Miesque, if you want.”

Miesque. Did I want to meet Miesque? That was like asking an actor if he wanted to meet Brando.

I recalled an article published during Miesque’s racing days that said something to the effect of: there was no superlative adequate enough to describe her, that the word “miesque” would have to be added to the dictionary for that purpose. That is to say, that the filly was not merely magnificent, she was miesque. Mark called Lane’s End - Oak Tree division manager Callan Strouss and scheduled my appointment while I held my breath.

Miesque and her Mr. Prospector filly were turned out in a small paddock. She was initially interested in me before changing her mind and wandering off to graze. The foal was more attentive than her dam had been, in that curious, in-your-face way that made it hard to get photos. I was disappointed in the pictures but...I had met Miesque, what else mattered beyond that, really?!
Miesque on July 23, 1994.
Later I came to know Callan through my association with Nureyev at Walmac Int’l. He appreciated my fondness for the great mare, and I was fortunate enough to get to visit Miesque a few times throughout the years. I soon learned that her quick dismissal of me at our first meeting was because I had made the very amateur mistake of not bringing her a sugary gift, which she would have been expecting.

Miesque was a fiend for sugar cubes. When she’d see or hear her sugar tin, shed spring to life and follow you around, attacking you with her tongue until she got what she wanted. And then she wanted more. It was hard to say no to Miesque, and even after bidding farewell with the gate closed behind me I always caved in to give her “just one more!” between the fence boards, while secretly thinking I really ought to make an escape before the sugar rush kicked in.

Miesque, my favorite racehorse (along with select few others), was small and slight; if you hadn’t seen her turn of foot for yourself (or in my case on TV) you’d never believe how powerful she was. She was a homebred for Stavros Niarchos’ Flaxman Holdings, which is now managed by the Niarchos Family. Niarchos had raced both Nureyev and the Listed-winning Prove Out mare Pasadoble, who often acted as pacemaker for the French Classic winner River Lady. Foaled on March 14, 1984, Miesque was the first of six foals by Nureyev out of Pasadoble: there was also Listed winner/stakes producer Massaraat, Group 1-placed Siam, and the unraced stakes producer Bravemie. (As a sidenote, Pasadoble’s 1993 Riverman filly Yogya produced 2003 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Six Perfections.)

Here is a link to Miesque’s pedigree and race details. North American readers know her primarily for her consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile victories, but Francois Boutin also trained her to two Classic wins in Europe, and she beat males in the Prix Jacques le Marois (twice), Prix de la Salamandre (at two), and the Prix du Moulin in addition to her Breeders’ Cups. The opening lines of her race record read like this: 1986 - champion 2-year-old in France; 1987 - champion 3-year-old filly in France, champion 3-year-old filly in England, champion miler in France, champion miler in England, champion turf mare (in U.S.); 1988 - champion older mare in France, co-champion miler in France, champion turf mare (in U.S.).

Surprisingly for a racemare of her caliber, Miesque was an outstanding broodmare. Her first four foals were stakes winners: French Classic winner Kingmambo (by Mr. Prospector), a leading international sire; French Classic winner and highweight East of the Moon (by Private Account), a graded stakes producer; Group 3 winner Miesque’s Son (by Mr. Prospector); and Moon is Up (by Woodman). Her fifth foal was Monevassia, the filly I met in 1994. She is the dam of European champion Rumplestiltskin. Also among Miesque’s 14 foals are Group 3 winner and sire Mingun (by A.P. Indy) and stakes-placed Inventing Paradise (by Mr. Prospector).

Whenever I ran into Callan I’d ask how “she” was doing. I never had to specify who “she” was, not just because he knew me but because, who else? I tried to see her at least once a year. If I was having a bad week, there was nothing that would cheer me up faster than being drooled on by Miesque and laughing with my friend Shana (Callan’s executive assistant) at how the mare would paw impatiently then knock us over to get to her sugar, with such an expression on her face. Now, every time I see a cube of sugar, I think of Miesque.

Her last foal was born in 2005, after which Miesque contentedly lived out her final years in a field with other pensioned broodmares, lovingly looked after by her longtime groom Wayne. She greeted her human visitors in a cozy winter blanket or fly mask, depending on the season, but always with pricked ears and wagging tongue diving after the treats she knew she deserved. And so it was until the day Miesque died peacefully, aged 27, on January 20th, 2011.

I know my friends at Oak Tree, in particular, will feel her loss.

But more importantly, since I heard the news of her passing I’ve been wondering: are there sugar cubes in heaven?

August, 2010. One of the last photos I took of Miesque...and her beloved sugar tin.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Before He Was "Uncle Mo"

And here he is, in February of 2009, a month shy of his first actual birthday: the newly crowned champion 2-year-old colt of 2010, Uncle Mo.

Uncle Mo at the Greathouse Family's Glencrest Farm as a yearling, with John Greathouse III.
Then, he was known as the ’08 Playa Maya, and he had clearly been having fun being a horse and rolling around in his paddock at Glencrest Farm in Midway, Kentucky.

Now, he will be one of the most closely-watched horses in 2011, as this undefeated son of Indian Charlie embarks on a Classic campaign off one of the most brilliant, though brief, juvenile campaigns in recent history. He will be coiffed and polished to perfection in all his appearances from here on out.

But I love that I knew him when his coat was fuzzy and his mane in knots, when he was a young horse staring straight into the camera, full of unfulfilled promise.

Congratulations to Four Star Sales, who sold him as a Keeneland September yearling on behalf of Glencrest and partners for $220,000, and to owner Repole Stable, trainer Todd Pletcher, and bloodstock agent J.J. Crupi.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Some Thoughts On the Eclipse Awards, and My Votes

When I became a member of the National Turf Writers Association (now the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, or NTWAB) in 2009, there was a delicious thrill at the prospect of participating in the voting for the Eclipse Awards. Having been in love with horseracing for almost as far back as I can remember, it was a personal achievement to have ‘made it,’ if you will.

My excitement last year quickly fizzled in the ensuing ugliness that erupted in the Rachel Alexandra vs. Zenyatta debate. I use the word “debate” out of politeness; my experience was not pleasant, and the verbal attacks I received and witnessed against both sides is not something I want to go through again, ever. My philosophy is this: I respect your right to have an opinion within reason, and in return I ask that you respect my right to have an opinion within reason. I couldn’t tell anyone who argued for either Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta as 2009 Horse of the Year that their opinion was “wrong,” just as I wouldn’t do that to anyone who opts for Blame or Zenyatta this year. I stand behind and wholly support my candidate, which means that I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence by hitting them over the head with my opinion. Ive learned that that approach has a counterproductive effect, and being respectful of each others opinion should not be too much to ask.

There are those who think the Eclipse Awards are meaningless, a dinosaur, that their chief purpose is to enhance stud fee values or the like. Me, well, I believe it is an honor to have one’s achievements recognized in an industry where we have bred pure-blooded horses for hundreds of years in the quest for a superior animal. Claiborne Farm imported Rough Shod (for whom this blog is named) to the United States circa 1951, and from her the Hancock family nursery bred Thong, Thong’s daughter Special, Special’s daughter Bound, Bound’s daughter Liable, and Liable’s son Blame. You can bet that breeding a horse such as Blame from a mare purchased 60 years and five equine generations ago is a pretty big deal to Claiborne – for whom I voted, along with Blame’s co-breeder/co-owner Adele B. Dilschneider, as leading breeder. They have invested 60 years into cultivating the Rough Shod family; do you honestly think an Eclipse Award is meaningless to them?

I worked at Walmac Int’l in 1997, when 2-year-old Favorite Trick was named Horse of the Year. Walmac stood Favorite Trick’s sire Phone Trick and had bought an interest in Favorite Trick early in his juvenile season, so it was doubly meaningful. When that gold statuette – a duplicate of the original, which principal owner Joe LaCombe kept – arrived at the farm, it was…wow!…beautiful. To pick it up and hold it gave me a tangible understanding of what it’s all about. That Horse of the Year statue was placed in the office of Walmac owner and general manager Johnny T.L. Jones Jr. (Sid Fernando has a post on Johnny here.) Amid the smell of cigars, a collection of Western saddles, and a Remington bronze, paintings of Nureyev and Alleged hung over the fireplace and a portrait of Phone Trick was on another one of the cushioned dark green-paneled walls. A small, framed note handwritten in cursive was displayed so inconspicuously on a narrow strip of wall that one might have missed its importance: a thank you letter from Breeders’ Cup founder John Gaines to Johnny for having broken the ice between disagreeing parties and making the Breeders’ Cup a reality. Favorite Trick’s Horse of the Year award sat on the shelf behind Johnny’s desk, where he and any visitor could easily see it, in front of the window overlooking the mares and foals in the front field on Paris Pike. I don’t know if through the years Johnny still noticed the statuette every single time he went into his office, but I know that I did. Perhaps the memory of how it felt in my hands is why the Eclipse Awards are still important to me; if they werent, I couldn’t use my vote.

Horse of the Year Favorite Trick at Walmac in 1998.

I do have some quibbles with the voting process. I question why we are required to list three horses per category – if we fail to do so, our vote will not be counted. The vote is not set up to award, say, five points for a first place vote, three for a second, one for a third; there are no “points” at all, so the only name that counts for anything is in the first field. In many cases, choosing the top horse is simple, and agonizing over who was second- and third-best is not. The killer is that it essentially makes zero difference if I type in Quality Road’s name as second best older male, or if I go with Mine That Bird. If only first place votes are tallied, why the need to rate others? (I am joking about using Mine That Bird, whose best effort this season was a fifth-place finish, to make a point here.)

Another quibble: an award for the sake of an award. The male turf horse category was exceptionally difficult for me this year, not because there was more than one excellent horse, but because there is no clear-cut, truly deserving winner of the 2010 Eclipse. I went back and forth between Gio Ponti and Winchester, and then Paddy O’Prado, and out of frustration very nearly opted for Champ Pegasus. I considered abstaining from the category. In the end I didn’t abstain because someone is going to get the award and I felt like it was my duty to choose; if I had had an option for “no award” I would have taken it.

(I did abstain from the apprentice category; I simply don’t feel I know enough about those young riders to make a qualified decision.)

I would also like to see some of the information on leading owners and breeders laid out differently – not just their totals, but for starters, how many horses did they race or breed that started in the year in question? Obviously, breeding or owning four graded stakes winners from 40 starters is more impressive than eight graded stakes winners from 200 starters.

That there are no guidelines for choosing the best horse is a common complaint against the system, but not for me. I prefer it this way; it gives me a freedom to choose based on whatever criteria in which a horse excelled. Look, I was never into My Little Pony and I promise not to vote for a horse just because it has the prettiest forelock, okay? If the guidelines were “the horse who won the most open Grade 1 races” or “the horse who faced and defeated more Grade 1 winners” or whatever, then a computer may as well calculate the winner. Instead, I get to vote as a person, and as a person who knows what a rush it is to have met the likes of Secretariat, Alleged, Miesque, Affirmed, Forego, Seattle Slew, Nijinsky, Dubai Millennium, John Henry…

And Zenyatta.

Thus, after the long prelude, I arrive at my votes in the equine categories:

2-year-old male:  Uncle Mo
2-year-old female:  Awesome Feather
3-year-old male:  Lookin At Lucky
3-year-old female:  Blind Luck
Older male:  Blame
Older female:  Zenyatta
Sprint male:  Big Drama
Sprint female:  Dubai Majesty
Turf male:  Gio Ponti
Turf female:  Goldikova (this was not as clear-cut for me as one might suppose)
Steeplechase:  Slip Away (this would have been another no vote category)
Horse of the Year:  Zenyatta

You are welcome to a different opinion but please – this is not a forum to be hateful or to argue your case (as I myself have refrained from doing).