Sympathy Card to a Wealthy Widow

Oscar de la Renta died on Monday at his place in Kent, Connecticut. He left behind three sisters, a son, and a wife, the former Annette Engelhard Reed. Here is where the faithful reader may wonder why the demise of a famous fashion designer has turned up in a horse racing blog, which is totally a fair question. And the short answer is, well, this is a blog. It’s personal.

The long answer starts with a chance encounter in an elevator at the old offices of The New York Times on West 43rd Street. I can’t recall the exact date, but, for reasons that will soon be apparent, it must have taken place sometime between late 2001 and early 2003.

It was at least eleven-and-a-half years ago because Howell Raines was still the Executive Editor of the paper, and Jayson Blair was still plagiarizing. And I know it was no more than thirteen years ago because I had cleared lobby security by flashing my company ID, which, post-9/11, we were required to have on continuous display via lanyards roped around our button-down collars. I stepped into an elevator, pressed six for Circulation, and was then joined by Raines and a handsome, elegant and impeccably-dressed couple. The husband looked familiar, as well he should have; he was Oscar de la Renta.

Howell Raines was a pretty sharp dresser, but, by comparison, these two made him look more like Lieutenant Columbo on a bad day (below, from a different time, via the Daily News).

CFDA latestpix linkcelebs americaYes, it was a long way back to me in fourth place. Which was why you could have knocked me over with an air kiss when Mrs. de la Renta not only turned to me as if I actually existed, but almost seemed to compliment me on the sweater I was wearing. “Ooh!” she cooed, gesturing to the white stitched logo over my heart, “the Breeders’ Cup!

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For this one time at least, I knew exactly what to say. I held out my orange-colored lanyard to show her the blue stitching that read “2001 Breeders’ Cup World Championship” and replied “AND the matching lanyard!” She smiled sweetly; I gave a gentlemanly nod; and exited as the door opened on six.

Time passed. Jayson Blair’s serial plagiarism was revealed, and Howell Raines got the axe. Lobby security got beefed up, so I was able to put away the souvenir lanyard from the day that Tiznow “won it for America”. I wear the sweater every once in a while, but hadn’t really thought much about Annette de la Renta since then, until yesterday.

People with money and great thoroughbreds tend to go together, so back then it had not struck me as odd that the wife of the famous designer was familiar with the Breeders’ Cup. Perhaps I should have realized then that her familiarity with racing preceded her marriage to de la Renta. Their 1989 wedding was a second act for both; with the designer’s first wife having died of cancer, while Annette Engelhard Reed had been divorced.

Mrs. de la Renta was born Anne France Mannheimer in 1939. Her father was a German Jewish banker who died mysteriously before she was born (his bank-financed art collection and the Nazis may have been involved). Her mother was an outcross of a Shanghai-based German Jewish industrialist and a woman named Ignatia Mary Valerie Murphy (of the San Francisco Murphys). After the war, mother and daughter moved to the United States, where mother remarried well and young Annette was adopted by her stepfather, the industrialist Charles W. Engelhard, Jr.

Horseplayers of a certain vintage might remember Engelhard as the man behind Cragwood Stable, which campaigned great horses like Halo (the sire of two Derby winners) in the states. Engelhard also had some success in England. His best horse was purchased at auction in Canada and sent across the pond to Vincent O’Brien for training. That horse’s name was Nijinsky (and I will not sully his great name by adding the “II” you often see when he is referenced stateside).

So now when I think about that elevator ride, my first thought won’t be of Oscar de la Renta or Howell Raines, but of that warm and stylish lady who noticed my Breeders’ Cup sweater, and whose father (the only one she ever knew, anyway) owned the last horse to win the British Triple Crown. Today, she has all my sympathy for what must be an inconsolable loss.

Nijinsky and Lester Piggott claiming a historic Triple Crown triumph in the 1970 St LegerNijinsky, Lester Piggott up, photo from The Guardian

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar


Photo: James Shambhu, Kentucky Horse Park

Photo: James Shambhu, Kentucky Horse Park

Cigar died last week from complications following surgery for severe osteoarthritis in his neck, which sounds like a very painful condition for a horse. There are probably not that many 24-year-old thoroughbreds who undergo neck surgery, but this was Cigar, and he more than paid his own way. He won almost $10 million on the racetrack in 1995 and 1996, and later cashed another $25 million in insurance money when he proved to be infertile; his one payout at very long odds. No bettor ever lost more on a single horse than Assicurazoni Generali S.P.A. lost on Cigar, but that’s why equine insurers are the bridgejumpers of the financial services world.

Until last Tuesday I hadn’t really thought about Cigar for a long time. Maybe that’s what happens when horses are infertile and there aren’t any cigarillos running around reminding people that none of them could hold a candle to the old man. But as I got to thinking more about him, I realized that – for several various reasons – he always left me a little cold.

It started for me with his second race in 1995, which was the fourth consecutive of his remarkable and record-tying sixteen straight wins. I was living up in Putnam County and my horseplaying was suffering from being more than two hours away from all three NYRA tracks. When races were televised I could stay home and watch them, but then I couldn’t bet. So I was spending lots of Saturday afternoons at an OTB parlor in relatively nearby Dutchess County. That’s where I was for the 1995 Donn Handicap.

The ’95 Donn was the last race in Cigar’s career where he was not the favorite, owing to the presence in the starting gate of the 1994 champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year Holy Bull. Cigar broke well, and with jockey Jerry Bailey not about to let Holy Bull get an easy lead the two of them hooked up early. As they raced in tandem down the backstretch, Holy Bull’s left foreleg made a popping sound, and Mike Smith smartly and quickly pulled up the great gray champion, while Cigar rolled to an easy victory.

There was an excited corner of the OTB parlor because a woman had keyed Cigar on top of the entire field in the trifecta for a dollar and won about two grand when two bombs filled it out. Meanwhile, the feed from Gulfstream delivered not a shred of information about the condition of Holy Bull, which seemed to me a totally unacceptable situation (it wasn’t until I read the Sunday paper that I found out he would be OK). I didn’t have a dime on the race, but the combination of the woman cashing a signer only because Holy Bull had broken down, and the seeming total lack of concern as to his condition, put me into a foul mood that lasted well into a bottle of tequila back in Putnam County. This was my introduction to Cigar.

I’m not saying that Holy Bull would have won that race without the bad step, or that Cigar would not have gone on to win his sixteen straight races. But as the year played out, I knew damn well there wasn’t another horse around that could have given Cigar the kind of test that would have been provided by a healthy, 4-year-old Holy Bull. [In the next eight races that completed Cigar’s “perfect 10 for 10” 1995, he topped exactas over Pride of Burkaan, Silver Goblin, Devil His Due, Poor But Honest, Tinner’s Way, Star Standard, Unaccounted For and L’Carriere.]

There was an inevitability to Cigar’s victories that year that made backing him the equivalent of going to the Coliseum in Rome, laying a ton of points, and rooting on the lions. Both Bill Mott and Jerry Bailey had their best years for wins in 1995 and 1996, and owner Allen Paulson won the Eclipse Award both years as top owner. And all of Cigar’s wins in 1995 were cut from the same cloth (break well, grab an easy early lead or sit just off the pacesetters before putting the thing away at the top of the stretch). If he was so good, I figured, couldn’t he at least hand the field a spot every now and then and find a way to make it interesting? But, no. Ten daylight wins, with his one-length victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup being the only one with a winning margin of less than two lengths.

While I will now give Allen Paulson a lot of credit for the way he campaigned Cigar – making him perhaps the most well-traveled champion since Seabiscuit – at the time I did not like the guy at all. Alas, I have some “acutely judgmental” coding in my DNA, and have always been disapproving of the way that certain owners make the naming of their colts and fillies more about themselves, rather than about the horses. Cigar, by Palace Music out of a Seattle Slew mare named Solar Slew, was named for an aeronautical navigational checkpoint in the Gulf of Mexico. This was how Paulson, who had once owned Gulfstream, the private jet manufacturer, came up with names like Cigar; Arazi (in the Arizona desert); and Azeri (in Azerbaijan).

These bits and fragments from the days when Cigar ruled the handicap division are in no way meant to diminish his accomplishments, but more to show how, sometimes, not everybody loves a winner. I did have a hell of a lot of respect for Cigar. Sheet players marveled at this horse who ran nothing but fast figures and never bounced. I remember being on a Belmont return train where a drunken loser was demanding to be told how Andy Beyer could have possibly had a good day at the track when his figures stunk, to which Beyer replied with a sort of beatific air “I really liked Cigar!

This past week has shown that Andy Beyer has company. A whole lot of people really liked Cigar. The folks at the Kentucky Horse Park, where Cigar spent his last years as the star attraction, will certainly miss him. Those who were lucky enough to see him as he criss-crossed the country in ’95 and ’96 know that they were witness to a special part of racing history. And since Cigar never finished out of the money after Mott put him back on the dirt, it’s a pretty safe bet that all of the bridgejumpers out there will miss him too. Well, except maybe for Assicurazoni Generali S.P.A., who must know better than anyone that Cigar was a one-of-a-kind horse, and that we won’t be seeing the likes of him again.

Silent Sundays: Japan’s Long Road to Glory in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe

The Breeders’ Cup people like to refer to their little bar-b-q as thoroughbred racing’s world championship event, which would be true if the best thoroughbreds from around the world all raced on dirt and they all showed up in Southern California nearly every late-October. But let’s get real. If there is any one event in all of horse racing that even comes close to  “world championship” status, it is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe; tomorrow’s feature at Longchamp. And – despite all the sorrow that Japanese racing fans have suffered in Paris – I’m making it odds-on that these two guys (below) will be back, whether it’s for more bitter disappointment, or, for the greatest amount of joy that can be distilled out of twelve furlongs and two-and-one-half minutes.


Perhaps you are unaware of how much of an obsession winning the Arc has become with the Japanese thoroughbred racing community. Allow me, then, some backstory.  The Japan Racing Association (JRA) inaugurated their own international event – the Japan Cup – in 1981. This was done so that the JRA would have a measuring stick on the annual progress of their fledgling thoroughbred industry.

In its first decade, what was then the richest race in the world served mainly as an easy payday for superior “gaijin” runners, with Japanese-bred horses winning only two of the first eleven runnings. But as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the Japanese horses started getting faster, and the better American and European horses started declining invitations to travel to the other side of the world to compete in an actual horse race. Japanese-bred horses have now won fifteen of the last twenty-two runnings of the Japan Cup, including the last eight in a row. Roughly ten years ago it became clear that if Japan wanted to continue measuring their horses against the best in the world, they would need to start playing some away games. Enter the Arc.

The first taste of near-triumph came in 2006, when the Japanese Triple Crown winner Deep Impact – perhaps the best horse ever sired by Sunday Silence – took a narrow lead in the Arc with about 100 meters to go before tiring and finishing a length back in third. [Two weeks later it was announced that Deep Impact had tested positive for a banned substance. For his fans, this probably made his loss a little easier to take, as being disqualified from an historic win would have been brutal for a country that – rare for these days – continues to recognize shame as a valid and even admirable quality sometimes found in humans.]

Four years later bitter disappointment returned, as Nakayama Festa (a grandson of Sunday Silence) fell just a head short of beating Epsom Derby winner Workforce for Arc glory. But there is disappointment, and then there is the most agonizing and excruciating loss in the history of horse racing, for which “disappointment” is simply too small a word: Orfevre, and the 2012 Arc that got away.

How many times have you heard a race caller say with a furlong to go that a horse is going to win a big race, and then it doesn’t? Yeah, me neither. “Orfevre, now for Japan! They’re going to do it!”  Only, he didn’t. It was interesting to hear the announcer say they’re going to do it, as if all the hopes and dreams of that small island nation hopped on Orfevre’s back with a furlong to go. Some may not think that hopes and dreams weigh all that much. This is from the Horse Racing in Japan website:

After the race, trainer Yasutoshi Ikee bowed his head saying, “I apologize to all Japan’s fans. He had enough to win. He is a top-level horse and I think we proved that a Japanese Triple Crown champion is on a par with the world’s best. He finished far ahead of the French and English Derby winners, but as this is a matter of win or lose we have to win.

“He was able to run smoothly from the back as we had planned, but he got left out in front, and was then marked and overtaken,” Ikee said, then turned the criticism on himself. “For that to have happened, shows that my own skills are not yet on a par with the world’s best. I think that in order to win this race, Japan’s trainers are going to need to improve their skills a great deal. From tomorrow, I am going to reassess things and I want to come back to win this race.”

Well, as gallant as it was for trainer Ikee to take the blame upon himself (Does he not watch American racing? Hasn’t he heard of blaming the ground or the jockey?), he did not improve himself enough to make any difference a year later, when Orfevre once again landed the second spot in the exacta to the runaway filly Treve.

Perhaps tomorrow will be the day that the rising sun finally shines at Longchamp. Last year they had the second (Orfevre) and fourth spots (Kizuna) with two grandsons of Sunday Silence, and the sharpies at TimeForm seem to think they have a great chance tomorrow with three more of the dual-classic winner’s grandkids: Just a Way, Gold Ship, and the 3-year-old filly Harp Star. [An aside to Arthur Hancock: Oh, what might have been, had Sunday Silence stayed at home.]

Treve does not now seem to be the same freaky filly that ran away with last year’s Arc (she strained her back over the hard summer turf at Ascot in June and finished an uninspiring fourth in her only race since then). The early favorite for the Arc – the German Derby winner Sea the Moon – was injured in his prep race and was subsequently retired. This year’s French and English Derby winners are both taking a pass on the big race. And Taghrooda, the ante post favorite for the last couple of weeks, drew an outside post position and was quickly demoted to second-favorite by the bookmakers in her native England. Germany sends out Ivanhowe, a longshot; and Ireland (dba Aidan O’Brien) sends out a trio (Ruler of the World, Tapestry, and Chicquita) that are all double-digit odds to win. So who will step forward to claim the Arc and keep the Japanese faithful saying “wait until next year”?

The bookmakers and Around2Turns think the most likely winner is a 3-year-old French colt named Ectot. He has won six of seven lifetime. His win in the Prix Niel was deemed the best of the three “course and distance” Arc preps that ran on September 14th. He gets weight from the older horses and seems to run on any ground (he won the Niel on the good-to-firm turf that is expected tomorrow). If you are among those who believe that jockeys make lousy handicappers, perhaps your angle should be that Gregory Benoist had the choice between Ectot and the unbeaten 3-year-old French filly Avenir Certain and opted for the former. At about nine or ten to one, she’s probably not a bad bet, given the recent success that 3-year-old fillies have had in this race.

Whatever the result, as with any race our main hope is that they all come home safely. And, if  the Japanese horses once again fail to hit the wire first, we hope that they will lose in an honorable yet non-heartbreaking way. The last few years have already provided Japanese racing fans with enough pain and disappointment to last a lifetime.


Around2Turns selections: Ectot, Harp Star, Prince Gibraltar

Photo of Japanese race fans: Reuters