SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was the Case of Deja Shoe.
Five years after Gun Runner won the Whitney with a horseshoe tangled up in his long chestnut tail, we had another horseshoe incident — and mystery — in Saturday’s Whitney at Saratoga Race Course.
Our trusty and intrepid photographer Erica Miller reported to me right after Knicks Go demolished the field that one of the horses had lost a shoe at the start (not that unusual), and that the shoe had also come to rest on top of the inside rail (highly unusual), as if placed there by some mischievous leprechaun.
She had photos confirming the dislodged footwear as well as its final resting place, a smudge of gray on the silver rail at the bottom of a frame when Knicks Go was hitting the wire (the nine-furlong Whitney is one full lap around the main track, so the start and finish are almost in the same place).
I had a pretty good guess who had suffered the equipment malfunction, since By My Standards had stumbled out of the starting gate from post No. 1, closest to the rail in question.
But you need to confirm these vital details, and since Hercule Poirot, Columbo, Nancy Drew and Sam Spade weren’t available, this gumshoe laced up the Oboz hiking boots and hit the mean streets of the Saratoga backstretch to work some angles Sunday morning (if you’ve ever stepped in the wrong spot where over 1,000 horses live, you know that “mean” is not an exaggeration).
As easy as Sunday’s mystery was to solve, it still served to put the person who believes they’ve seen it all on notice as a delusional fool.
That’s the beauty of a race like this Whitney, which should elevate Knicks Go to the top of the national rankings after his stunning performance, but, as a bonus, also reminded us not to get too self-assured in the breadth of our own experience, because there’s always room for more.
There was an extra never-saw-that-before component to supplement a championship-worthy performance by a horse in winning one of the biggest and most important races on the Saratoga stakes schedule.
And the fact that it echoed so quickly back to Gun Runner’s Whitney made it all the more intriguing.
“You think you’ve seen everything,” By My Standards’ trainer Bret Calhoun said.
We’ll get to Bret.
My first stop on the Oklahoma Training Track was Steve Asmussen’s barn. On Saturday he enjoyed the 9,446th victory of his Hall of Fame career as a trainer, breaking the all-time record in North America, but his Whitney horse, Silver State, wasn’t the one who delivered it. But besides By My Standards, Silver State seemed to be the only other candidate to have lost the shoe, since, as the head-on replay shows, he was the only other horse who got anywhere near the inside rail right after the starting gate opened.
Plus, Asmussen was Gun Runner’s trainer, so his perspective promised to be interesting no matter what.
“No, we did not [lose a shoe]. We have all four horseshoes,” Asmussen reported with a grin.
“We picked up one in Gun Runner’s Whitney; we did not give one back yesterday.”
Remember that, in 2017?
Cautious Giant, given no chance to win by the betting public at odds of 62-1, was in there to serve as a rabbit for another one of owner Ron Paolucci’s horses, War Story. Heading into the second turn Cautious Giant threw a shoe, and after it flipped straight up perhaps … I don’t know, 30 feet? … it came down in the middle of the pack and magically got knotted up in Gun Runner’s long tail.
Jockey Florent Geroux, a native of France, had no idea his horse had carried that with him to the finish line. It wasn’t any kind of hindrance, but added a dash of absurdity to Gun Runner’s terrific Whitney victory, and he went on to be Horse of the Year. Erica took a photo of me and Geroux in the winner’s circle, as I showed him a photo on my phone of the shoe swishing away in his horse’s tail, and Geroux has a “Mon Dieux!” expression of disbelief.
As the legend goes, assistant trainer Scott Blasi took the shoe from the groom who pulled it out and flipped it toward the inside rail to get it away from the track, just a piece of junk, not knowing its significance, and a fan plucked it off the ground. Shortly thereafter, Blasi got up to speed on the details and hustled back to retrieve the shoe, and the fan walked away with the easiest 100 bucks he’ll ever pocket at Saratoga.
Asmussen still has that horseshoe, which one of his sons cleverly called “a rabbit’s foot” that helped Gun Runner win, displayed in a shadowbox.
Calhoun’s one stall at Joe Sharp’s barn — he shipped By My Standards in from Kentucky just for the Whitney — is not far from Asmussen’s on the Oklahoma.
When I got there, they were still talking about the stumble and the lost shoe, and the echo to Gun Runner and 2017. Nobody was going to catch Knicks Go, who “ran everybody else off their feet,” Calhoun said, but he still wanted to see what his horse could have done without the compromised start. By My Standards finished last of five, 15 1/2 lengths back.
“He stumbled twice, and he’s not going to do too well [in the race] with that issue,” he said. “He’ll be a little tender. For everything he went through, he’s better than expected. That [left front] foot’s a little sore, but we got lucky that it didn’t tear any of the hoof up. I think we’ll get a shoe right back on and he’ll be alright. Just a little bruised up, that’s all.”
Yes, of course, Calhoun was familiar with the Gun Runner story, because everybody around here is.
No, he didn’t know that his horse’s shoe wound up on top of the rail.
If this had happened two years ago, before NYRA renovated the main track, including installation of a new safety rail that is wider than the previous, there’s no way the shoe stays on top of the rail. Still, for a metal shoe to flip off a horse accelerating to speed, landing on a three-feet-wide strip of metal and not bouncing off, or sliding off the curved, sloped part on the infield side … I’m confidently betting a pile of money (a small pile, it’s Saratoga) on that shoe ending up on the ground, instead.
“It was loud,” Erica said.
The photogs gathered at the line all thought that someone’s remote camera had fallen and smashed to the ground.
“I came to the barn one morning years ago, my assistant’s waiting at the door for me and says, ‘Come see this,’ ” Calhoun said. “You think you’ve seen everything. I don’t have any idea how this could’ve happened. You could give 10 surgeons four hours, they could never get this done.
“This horse had the round edge of a horseshoe stuck through the bottom of his foot, all the way through it, and came out the top, at the coronet band. I wonder if they have a picture of that somewhere still, it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. How he could’ve possibly done that, I’ve got no idea. Drove a rounded-edge shoe all the way through the bottom of his foot and came all the way through the top.
“He jerked it off in the middle of a workout or got spooked or something and somehow grabbed it and shoved it through his foot. I mean, there’s no way this stuff could happen. And it did.
“A horse can get a shoe tied in his tail while he’s running around in a race. How can it get in his tail and stick?”
That’s the beauty.
We don’t know.
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