This Side Up: Veterans’ Day at Oaklawn

When it comes to ageing, as the wiseguys remind us, it’s when you’re over the hill that you begin to pick up speed. And it’s true: the magnolia trees where I live are coming into blossom, and I swear that each passing year compresses both the duration of those brief candles and, above all, the intervals in between. The inference is a dismal one: time flies when you’ve had your fun.

So on a weekend when we temporarily suspend our search for the adolescent Thoroughbred maturing sufficiently to beat his peers on the first Saturday in May, let’s celebrate the fulfilments that remain available later in life–whether on two legs or four.

The GIII Essex H. is the kind of race that warms the cockles of my heart. Last year it retrieved graded status, and deservedly so after increasing its purse fivefold between 2016 and 2021–a telling snapshot of the thriving Oaklawn program. And this time round it throws together a couple of evergreen veterans who show that whether age turns us into vinegar or vintage wine is largely up to us.

In the case of D. Wayne Lukas, it actually stands to reason that he should still maintain the standards of his heyday even with a much smaller barn. True, he does seem as blessed in indefatigability as in the genius he always brought to his vocation, and harnessing one to the other has simply given a fresh dimension to his unique status in our community. A wider application, however, surely applies to the principle that any decline in the physical powers even of lesser mortals is compensated, and amply so, by experience.

It’s not as though anyone sends an expensive Thoroughbred to a given trainer because he might otherwise have made a cage-fighter or lumberjack. I’ve never understood why “ageing” trainers (an alarmingly elastic concept) should have become unfashionable as they certainly are in my homeland. Some of the biggest yards in Newmarket these days seem to be supervised as a perk accompanying appointment as head boy at various prep schools. As I have frequently remarked, if I owned the Derby favourite, and he had a foot in a bucket of ice the evening before the race, I would rather my trainer was dealing with the problem for an umpteenth time, and not the first.

It would be nice to think that a few people pondered this after the longest-serving trainer in Newmarket won the Arc last autumn, and I was delighted to learn that Sir Mark Prescott will be training for the new monarch this year. On the other side of the water, meanwhile, Lukas himself offered a similar prompt to reflection with Secret Oath (Arrogate) in the GI Kentucky Oaks last year. Though he was now closer to 90 than 80, perhaps one or two people recognized that the guy might finally be getting the hang of the game.

Admittedly it was hard, after Rich Strike (Keen Ice) emerged from nowhere (both figuratively and literally) the next day, to resist a wistful sense that Secret Oath in that form might well have cut down the boys in the Derby after all. While her form then tapered off, last weekend she looked as rejuvenated as her trainer when resurfacing at the track where she first made her name.

That was a gratifying sight, after her breeders had resisted all blandishments to keep her in the Briland family. And Last Samurai, who represents Lukas in the Essex, similarly looked better than ever when taking his earnings past $1.6 million in the GIII Razorback H. Even in his fourth campaign, however, he remains a relative greenhorn compared to the horse who closed for fourth that day.

Rated R Superstar (Kodiak Kowboy) won this race last year, as he had back in 2019 when a callow 6-year-old, and now bids to retain the trophy on his 68th career start. Here’s a horse, then, to renew the perennial question: who do we blame for the fact that the modern Thoroughbred is treated like porcelain? Is it the trainers themselves? Or do they only treat horses this way because of the raw materials they’re nowadays given by breeders?

One trainer who sets himself apart in that respect is Kenny McPeek, who actually trained Rated R Superstar through his first 30 starts, including when third in the GI Breeders’ Futurity. And on Saturday McPeek takes on his old buddy with another who exactly matched that effort as a juvenile, in Classic Causeway.

This time last year, this horse had just won the GII Tampa Bay Derby and was sketching out an apt memorial as one of just three colts in the final crop of Giant’s Causeway. True to that legacy of toughness and versatility, in the summer Classic Causeway reinvented himself in startling fashion, winning a Grade I on turf just two weeks after finishing third in the GIII Ohio Derby. Few American trainers today would dare attempt anything like that, so who can presume to anticipate what he might yet achieve back on dirt?

This week McPeek has already dusted off another of last year’s sophomores to make a really heartening return. It certainly seems a long time since Smile Happy (Runhappy) beat Classic Causeway (then in another barn) in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S., not having been seen since his midfield finish in the Derby. But his rehearsals last spring had confirmed him among the best of the crop, and it’s very wholesome to be reminded that there is life after the Triple Crown trail. Three years ago, after all, Last Samurai himself trailed in a distant fifth of six in the GI Arkansas Derby; while his rivals Saturday also include Silver Prospector (Declaration Of War), who had bombed out in the previous running of that race.

So let’s hope that Litigate (Blame) can likewise return to build a career commensurate with his talent and potential after the hugely disappointing news that he’s out of the Derby. All of us have some kind of stake in this horse doing enough to earn a place at stud, given that he has Numbered Account (Buckpasser) facing Thong (Nantallah) on either side of his pedigree. As that indicates, he has been in the best of hands throughout and hopefully his time will still come.

Even without him, the GII Louisiana Derby next week looks deep enough for horses to show that they could have a legitimate shot at Churchill but without banking enough points to prise open a gate. If that happens, however, nobody should despair. You might yet end up with a millionaire contesting the Essex H. in 2025. There are worse fates. Because what they say of people is probably just as true of many a horse: youth is wasted on the young.

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