For once, nobody was mad at Sean Avery.
Well, not that one.
The New York Rangers agent provocateur put a burr under the saddle of the Los Angeles Police Department on Friday when they responded to a noise complaint at his house and ended up charging him with battery of an officer.
And anyone who follows hockey naturally may have thought, “That figures.”
But, just . . . never mind that.
No, the Sean Avery who produced one of the most heart-stopping finishes and most heartwarming stories of this young Saratoga Race Course meet two days later is a 5-year-old bay gelding who shares a name and nothing else with the most reviled player in the NHL.
The equine Sean Avery desperately held off odds-on favorite Trappe Shot in the A.G. Vanderbilt on Sunday to give trainer Allen Iwinski the first Grade I victory of a career that was interrupted temporarily and a life that was almost interrupted permanently by hepatitis C.
“It’s overwhelming, it really is,” said Iwinski, who occasionally betrayed just the shadow of quaver during the postrace interview. “The race itself was just so exciting, there’s just not enough words to say it. Going right down to the wire, head and head, are we going to get there, are we beat? And the horse just hung in there.”
As did Iwinski, now 59.
His condition and its treatment were so debilitating that he announced his retirement from training seven years ago, days before finishing 10th in the Grade I Test at Saratoga with Humor Me Molly.
He disbanded his 100-horse stable, and settled down on a small farm in Ocala, Fla.
“I didn’t even think I’d be around today,” Iwinski said. “I thought I was going to be, you know . . .”
Iwinski was out of training for two years, then a second treatment worked and he was able to get a modest training operation off the ground.
Black Swan Stables’ Sean
Avery, managed by Rangers fan John DeStefano, came back to Iwinski from Michael Hushion’s barn this spring, and has now won at four different tracks since April.
After Sunday’s monumental win, at 17-1 odds against a horse who is considered a leading candidate for the sprint championship, DeStefano smooched Sean Avery on the nose several times as he helped lead the Cherokee Run gelding back for the winner’s photo.
“We were at a function in Manhattan, and we were kidding Sean that we were going to name a horse after him,” DeStefano said. “Because he was saying how fast his legs are. He said, ‘You know, I’m one of the fastest skaters on the ice,’ so I said, ‘I’m going to name a racehorse after you. He’ll be fast, too.’ He said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ So that’s how we did it.”
Avery’s concept of a good idea doesn’t quite jibe with that of NHL rulesmakers. Known for tactics devised to agitate and distract opposing players, he drew two-thirds of the votes cast for most hated player in a poll of NHL players in 2007.
Anyway, Sean Avery the horse has fast legs.
And he needed every ounce of that speed to hold off Trappe Shot in the final stride of the Vanderbilt.
Jockey Joe Bravo typically would have chosen a stalking position for Sean Avery, but on a day when the track was speed- and rail-favoring, he decided to hustle Sean Avery to the lead.
Coming off the turn, Trappe Shot and jockey John Velazquez went around a tiring Apriority, with Calibrachoa nestled against the rail just inside of Sean Avery.
Calibrachoa hung tough all the way to stay in close for third, but it was a two-horse race in the final five strides, with Trappe Shot, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, exploding on the right flank of Sean Avery. Sean Avery won by the smallest of diminishing noses.
“He had to use him hard and ask him twice,” McLaughlin said. “The jump before and the jump after, we were a winner, so it’s tough luck. But we ran well.”
“He finished, he didn’t stop, but that other horse never stopped,
either,” Velazquez said. “Everything was against him today. Speed inside, and me out in the middle of the track. He ran good, though.”
“We knew before we walked in the paddock that speed was just holding up tremendously,” Iwinski said. “Joe came out, and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I want to put him on the lead
today.’ Every race that he’s ridden, he’s never wanted to do that. He’s always wanted to put him in a position where he could strike whenever he felt like the horse was ready to make his move. Today, he came right out and said, ‘I want to put him on the lead.’ We were all for that, we were happy that he felt that way.
“You win 30, 40 stakes and you never win a Grade I, and it just seems like it’s elusive. Today, we almost didn’t do it again. In retrospect, he got there, and . . . it’s done. It’s history.”