The Heart of Thoroughbred Racing
By Eliza McGraw
The first thing many Thoroughbred aficionados think of with Valentine’s Day is that it’s the un-official, not always heeded, opening day of breeding season. Last year, Jay Hovdey wrote in DRF that “It is no small thing that in 2004 there were 34,797 registered American Thoroughbred foals. Some of them were champions and stakes winners, many, many more of them were entirely something else.” It’s that chance that makes the process romantic and Valentines-related, because as anyone who has spent time in the breeding shed can tell you, romance is usually pretty far from the scene at hand. . .although it does sneak in, sometimes.
In Kevin Conley’s book Stud: Adventures In Breeding, he writes about the Thoroughbred breeding industry in America. Here’s an excerpt from a section about Seattle Slew: “Ten months later, two days before Valentine’s Day, the traditional start of breeding season, Tom Wade arrived for work clean shaven. Without the scratchy gray goatee he sported over the winter, he looked younger–fresh-faced and a little impish, like Cupid, only two hundred pounds and in workboots. When people asked, he told them he’d shaved it off for Valentine’s but nobody seemed inclined to believe him.” It turns out that the shaving actually is a gesture toward Seattle Slew returning to the breeding shed after a year off. “If you were in the breeding business,” writes Conley, “it was the sort of event you might want to look your best for.”
Sometimes the (Valentiney-type) of romance of Thoroughbred racing takes place outside the actual day. Just look back toward 1970s-era Pimlico owner Ben Cohen’s story of how he acquired his first Thoroughbred. “I always got my wife Zelda a Valentine’s Day present,” he told Daily Racing Form in 1975. “She’d invariably return it. One winter, when we were in Miami, I attended a horse sale and bought my first thoroughbred. He was a grandson of Man o’ War named War Age, by War Relic. I paid $12,500 for him, when I got back to the hotel, I told her ‘this is one present you won’t return.” It’s unclear if Mrs. Cohen wouldn’t return the horse because she adored him or because her husband wouldn’t hear of it; in any case, War Age won almost $100,000, so Zelda Cohen was probably more delighted with her equine gift than she ever had been with just another piece of jewelry.
Mrs. H. R. Dulany, an avowed horsewoman, took this one further by placing her own stamp on her family’s racehorses. It was time to name the two-year-olds on her breeding farm one year, and she told Daily Racing Form that she placed her arms around the neck of one colt she especially liked. “‘This is ‘My Own,”” she said. “‘He’s my pick. I’ll keep up my interest in him, whoever buys him or wherever he goes. I want him called ‘My Own.'” Mrs. Dulany apparently loved the kinds of names found on Valentine’s Day conversation heart candies, because she named his full sister “My Dear.”
Maybe the most famous Valentine-named horse is A.P. Valentine, an A. P. Indy colt who was foaled on Febuary 14, 1998. Owned by Rick Pitino, A. P. Valentine beat Point Given in the Champagne Stakes, but had a pitiful showing at the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. He was an erratic horse, but his trainer, Nick Zito, had faith. “This is the strongest Derby field in years and Zito thinks his horse, his underachiever, may go off as low as 8-1. He’s that much in love,” wrote Vic Ziegel in the New York Daily News in 2001.
As we all now know, it didn’t work out for Zito that year. But how can you blame anyone for being head-over-heels in love with his Valentine?