7 Days, 6 Nights, 2 Classics, 1 Memorial

I don’t have much use for business travel. For one thing, there is often work involved. Or else it’s some conference, where you are teased by a flight into some nice town and a smooth ride in a black car to some grand hotel, where you put on a name tag and sit around some too-cold ballroom listening to panel discussions while everyone around you checks their email. But every once in a while you get lucky.

I’m flying to France this Friday evening so I can spend the following week working out of my company’s Paris office. I had minimal input into the work dates (“any time after Memorial Day” was my lone request), but once they were set at June 2nd through 6th, I knew I had struck gold. You see, my company allows its employees to fly in during the prior weekend on these sort of trips, so that you can be fresh as a croissant on Monday morning. And I knew that this year the Prix du Jockey Club (aka, the French Derby), will be run on Sunday June 1st.

[If you are not familiar with the dump they call the Hippodrome de Chantilly, you can get a pretty good look at the place via this video of Intello’s win in last year’s Prix du Jockey Club. He’s the one with the big blaze, carrying Peslier in blue with white cap and sleeves, prominent throughout.]

If my flight arrives on time and I can get things sorted out quickly at my hotel, there is also a Saturday card at Longchamp that may be too tempting to resist. And if all this fortunate timing was not enough, I will be making the Chantilly trip with an old college friend who has been living in Paris for more than twenty-five years and is my equal when it comes to l’amour de poulains et pouliches.

Two horseplayer at the back door to Longchamps, 1992.

Two horseplayers at the back door to Longchamp, 1992.

Obviously, going to work the day after the Prix du Jockey Club will be somewhat of a letdown, but when was a non-holiday Monday ever any good? But this first week of June figures to be rich with anticipation, as Belmont Park is prepped for what could be its biggest day ever. I return to New York on D-Day. The next day I will be out at Belmont Park, taking in a second classic race in the span of one week.

Despite all appearances to the contrary so far, this post is not just me crowing about my good fortune. I wanted to post this so that any subsequent posts about France would not seem to come out of le bleu. But also, I wanted to encourage any horseplayers out there with the means and the inclination to take a racing holiday in France. Arc weekend at Longchamp in early October gives you Paris at a splendid time in the calendar, and the best two straight days of rollicking racing this side of the Breeders’ Cup. If summertime racing is more your style, Deauville, on the Normandy coast, is a brilliant mashup of Del Mar and Saratoga.

And should you get homesick, there is a seaside property just a short drive from Deauville that is officially a part of the United States. It’s also a nice reminder that, yes, 9/11 museum, we once knew how to create a proper memorial. And on this Memorial Day, just 12 days shy of the 70th anniversary of the allied landing, this place deserves a plug as much as anywhere.


Noses hold a prominent position in the world of horse racing. Unless something has gone terribly wrong, this is the part of the horse that is first to cross the finish line, stopping the teletimer, and determining the winner. This explains why betting to win is called “putting it on the nose”.

Noses have also played an outsized role in two of the most dramatic runnings of the Belmont Stakes. The last Triple Crown winner – Affirmed in 1978 – gained his everlasting fame because after 12 furlongs around the Belmont oval, he was ahead of Alydar by the length of his nose. Twenty years later, Real Quiet was denied the Triple Crown when Victory Gallop was able to get his nose to the wire first, despite being fouled by the Derby and Preakness winner. The Belmont Park stewards, denied the opportunity to order a brave and monumental disqualification once Victory Gallop won the photo, instead, first thanked their lucky stars, and then insisted that they would have taken down Real Quiet had the photo gone the other way, by releasing a brave-sounding statement: “The judgment can’t really be interpreted because of the Triple Crown. The facts speak for themselves.” Yeah, OK. Let’s hope they bought Victory Gallop a Guiness, or at least threw him a few peppermints. It may be their job, but even stewards don’t want to be in the position of taking down an otherwise deserving Triple Crown winner.

Victory Gallop and his trainer, Elliot Walden.

Victory Gallop and his trainer, Elliot Walden.

Now, sixteen years later, the Belmont Park stewards are looking down a long face, and once again finding a thoroughbred’s nose standing in the way of a potential Triple Crown winner. Only this time, the nose in question is the one belonging to California Chrome, this year’s Derby and Preakness winner. California Chrome would seem to have little use for his nose of late, having won his last six races by open lengths, but as an obligate nasal breather, his honker is in fact a physiological requirement. Therein lies the rub.

California Chrome wears nasal strips when he races. In the occasionally Kafkaesque world of the New York Racing Association, racing with nasal strips is not banned, but neither is it permitted. Falling under the broad category of “equipment”, it is up to the NYRA stewards to decide whether or not California Chrome gets to wear that big, old band-aid across his nose.

According to a statement issued via the NYSGC’s Twitter account, “If (a) request to use nasal strips is made, (a) decision on whether to permit or not will be evaluated and determined by the Stewards. NYSGC TB Rule 4033.8: ‘Only equipment specifically approved by stewards shall be worn or carried by jockey or horse in a race.’ “

So, what’s the hangup? Let California Chrome wear his nasal strip and let us find out if he is good enough to become the 12th American Triple Crown winner. But the hangup is that two years ago, with the same rule (above) presumably in effect, trainer Doug O’Neill was told that his Triple Crown aspirant I’ll Have Another could not wear a nasal strip if he ran in the Belmont (which he subsequently scratched out of, because of an injury). This recent history puts the stewards in a pickle: stay consistent, and deny California Chrome the use of his nasal strip, and risk that his connections are not bluffing about running him in the Los Alamitos Derby instead of the Belmont Stakes; or, do an about face and risk being deemed craven flip-floppers, ready to trade their remaining credibility in order to guarantee that the big day does not fall apart over a breathing aid.

Regular followers of American thoroughbred racing will admit that, on occasion (say, once a month), the industry suffers from bad relations with the general public. Now, on the brink of the completion of a Cinderella story with glass slippers that actually fit, racing is once more on the verge of shooting itself in the foot. At the risk of sounding realistic and competent, the NYRA stewards should say something like “We believe that it is in racing’s best interests to have not only uniform medication policies, but also, as much as is possible, uniform equipment policies. In light of there being no provision against the use of nasal strips at Belmont Park, and out of a sense of fairness to horses who have used them legally in other states, we will allow any horse to use such equipment on NYRA tracks, and we strongly support the goal of uniform medication and equipment rules going forward.”

This would allow California Chrome to wear his nasal strip in the Belmont, and Doug O’Neill’s Goldencents to wear his in the Metropolitan Handicap earlier in the race card. Management at Los Alamitos might be a little disappointed, but you can’t please everyone.

The NYRA stewards are expected to issue their ruling early this week. Last year’s Belmont winner was treated with Bute and Banamine in the days leading up to the race, and got Lasix on race day. We don’t yet know what California Chrome’s Belmont RX will look like, but, given what is already allowable, it’s hard to believe anyone would begrudge him a nasal strip and a little more oxygen, as he tries to do something so difficult that it has not been accomplished for nearly thirty-six years.

The Drama King

It’s not an easy job to run a racetrack these days, and for the New York Racing Association, it just got even more difficult. They now have to figure out how they are going to replace the irreplaceable: Tom Durkin announced his retirement yesterday.

Stories about Tom Durkin inevitably note that he studied Drama at Saint Norbert’s College in De Pere, Wisconsin. It’s uncertain whether this is done to make some larger point, or to just revel in the notion that among this world’s many charms there resides a Saint Norbert’s College in De Pere, Wisconsin (Durkin is the school’s most notable alumnus, by a few furlongs). But we bring it up here for a reason.

Norbert was born into a prosperous 11th century German family, where, perhaps unsurprisingly, he proceeded to have things pretty much his own way. Set up with a cushy job in the local church, Norbert soon subcontracted it out at a lower rate, which allowed him to network into a better-paying gig providing religious counsel to the emperor Henry V, in nearby Cologne. This double income allowed him to live in the high style to which it can be all too easy to become accustomed.

After years of putting off ordination (and all those pesky sermons and confessions that went with it), and even turning down the chance to wear a bishop’s miter, Norbert’s days of bling came to a crashing halt. One day, while riding into town, a presumably well-aimed bolt of lightning sparked at his horse’s hooves, tossing callow Norbert to the ground and into an hour of unconsciousness; leading to a period of reflection; followed then by a life of penance, asceticism and other things that tend to show up on a saintly resume. So, while Tom Durkin no doubt learned set design and lighting while at Saint Norbert’s, he also learned that some pretty dramatic things could happen when you sit astride a horse.

This is Durkin’s greatest gift. To see the lightning in the instant that it flashes, and to express it with a mix of awe and wonder perfectly calibrated to the moment. This quicksilver recognition – the kind that any improv actor would kill for – appears beautifully here in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, as Durkin excitedly anticipates the coming duel between Bertrando and Arazi, and then shows his outright shock when Arazi will have none of it.

You don’t need to be a college boy to make it as a top-notch race caller. Trevor Denman and Larry Collmus both started calling races as 18-year-olds, and who knows what they might have come up with if they were given some of the opportunities that Durkin has had. But it doesn’t work that way. Big race calls are arias written by horses that only one diva gets to sing. The race caller gets to handicap the race, of course, which provides the opportunity to plan for possible embellishments, and Durkin has no equal here. Such as in the 1994 Travers, where he notes a “cause for Concern” at the top of a thrilling stretch drive.

It’s hard to imagine any five-horse race (with only four betting interests) being better than the 1994 Travers, and it’s impossible to imagine a better call. Holy Bull puts away a dual-classic winner’s rabbit halfway through a ten-furlong race; gallops away from the dual-classic winner; then holds off, through a grueling stretch drive, a stone-cold closer that had benefitted from a perfect setup. The “cause for Concern” line may have been scripted, but the closing “what a hero!” was still more pure Durkin improv that perfectly captured the moment.

Considering how many big races Tom Durkin has called, it’s remarkable how few he screwed up. His biggest gaffe, of course, was in the 2009 Derby, where he failed to identify Mine That Bird until the gelding had nearly crossed the wire. But while the racing public was largely forgiving – they didn’t count on Mine That Bird either – Durkin, apparently, would not let himself off so easy. With twenty-horse Derby fields showing no signs of abating, Durkin retired himself from America’s biggest race call, a precursor to yesterday’s announcement of a more comprehensive retirement.

Along with that cognac and honey voice, Durkin will be missed for his easy charm, his astute readings of pace factors and jockey decisions, his eagerness to please, and his on-call humanity. That last one was on full display in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff: a race that was a sixteenth of a mile away from being the best race I ever saw, when terrible lightning struck, and it became instead the worst thing I ever saw. No pictures here. Durkin’s voice tells you everything you need to know.

Labor Day falls early this year: on the first of the month, like a bill that must be paid. Durkin’s last day will be Sunday the 31st. So this particular Labor Day doesn’t just fall early. It falls way too early. Even Saratoga will somehow never feel the same again.




Around 2 Turns

Around2turns is the online home of me: Bob Barry. It’s a one-horse stable. A cat taking a long, lazy look at the sport of kings.

A New York-bred, I live a few furlongs from the Hudson River and work as an analyst at a newspaper on Manhattan’s west side. I’ve written very occasionally about thoroughbred racing since 1998.

Why around2turns? The focus is on racing. Sometimes I may take the turns a little wide, but the scenic route offers its own rewards. Mainly, it’s because I like two-turn races. Everyone ends up where they started. It’s the running of the race that matters.