Thursday, April 23, 2009
There are now 182 horses in the Thoroughbred racing Hall of Fame. Every decade or two, California is acknowledged for producing one of them. Any more often would be pushing it.
In 1966, California's Kentucky Derby winner and 1956 Horse of the Year Swaps was elevated to the Hall. The fact that he entered the Hall of Fame one year after Nashua was not lost on the cowpokes and ruffians out West. But they had no right to complain. After all, indoor plumbing and electricity had only recently crossed the Rockies.
Anyway, it made perfect sense that Kentucky's blue-blooded Nashua should have preceded his California rival into such exalted company. Any sensible judge of their relative merits would conclude that Swaps defeating Nashua in the 1955 Derby was an absolute fluke, in spite of the fact that they both enjoyed flawless trips, and that Nashua was a length off Swaps with half a mile left to run . . . and lost ground. Instead, it was clear that history would zero in on Nashua's victory over Swaps and his bad foot in their subsequent Washington Park match race as the only true bill.
Bitter? Nah, it was a long time ago. Besides, any toss of the California-Kentucky coin always comes up bluegrass.
In 1978, Hall of Fame honors befell Native Diver, confused by Easterners as Native Dancer, who was already in the Hall but certainly good enough to be named twice. The Native of California was a homegrown, near black gelding who ran 81 times from 1961 through 1967, and won three straight Hollywood Gold Cups and 31 other stakes. In his final race before colic killed him at age 8, he equaled a track record at Del Mar.
In 1988, 100 years after his last race, the California-bred colt Emperor of Norfolk made it to the Hall of Fame in the category of Horses of Yesteryear. Since yesteryear is a very long time, it is hard to quarrel with the 33 years it took the Hall of Fame, instituted in 1955, to catch up with the good Emperor. Still, all things considered, his record was hard to miss.
Emperor of Norfolk was bred by Theodore Winters in Yolo County, just west of Sacramento, and sold to Elias "Lucky" Baldwin for $2,525. For Baldwin, who built the original Santa Anita in 1907, Emperor of Norfolk won 12 of 18 starts as a 2-year-old and 9 of 11 races at age 3, winning major events in Kentucky, New York, and Chicago.
Stallion careers are not supposed to count when it comes to the "racing" Hall of Fame, but Emperor of Norfolk's is hard to overlook. Among his direct descendants was his great-granddaughter Mumtaz Mahal, the granddam of Nasrullah, who was . . . well, let's just note that without the California-bred Emperor of Norfolk there would be no Bold Ruler, no Secretariat, no Seattle Slew, Mill Reef, Storm Cat, A.P. Indy or, for that matter, no Nashua.
You can add both Giant's Causeway and Sakhee to that list, as well. And because of them, in large part, California has its fourth member of the Hall of Fame.
Tiznow, bless his big white blaze, this week joined Swaps, Native Diver, and Emperor of Norfolk as products of California breeding to reach such heights.
Tiznow's operatic victories in the 2000 and 2001 runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic over European champions Giant's Causeway and Sakhee probably were enough to put him in the Hall of Fame. Still, the big boy had the good taste to add races like the Santa Anita Handicap, Super Derby, Swaps Stakes, and Goodwood Handicap for ballast. He raced two seasons for Cecelia Straub-Rubens and Michael Cooper, while trained every step of the way by Jay Robbins.
Asked to recall Tiznow's overriding personality trait, the taciturn Robbins replied, "He was one very intelligent individual . . . for a horse."
This speaks volumes, for to know Tiznow in training was to behold a creature for whom conventional rules did not apply. Horses, by nature, are wary, even fearful. As prey animals, they act upon their fears by lashing out, or going numb. Tiznow was that rare beast who, in equine terms, intellectualized those instinctive fears and rose above them. As a result, with 1,200 pounds of leverage, it was hard to argue. To his credit, Robbins figured it out and let Tiznow be Tiznow.
"Do you remember his work before the 2001 Breeders' Cup, when he wouldn't work?" Cooper recalled this week. "They did everything they could think of. Even took a set of blinkers out to him. After almost an hour he finally worked a mile in 1:35, from the half-mile pole to the half-mile pole. His message to everyone was, 'I'm me, and I'm running this show.' "
The remains of Emperor of Norfolk are buried beneath a Maltese Cross in the Santa Anita paddock gardens. Native Diver's are interred beneath a monument in the Hollywood Park walking ring, and Swaps found his final resting place by the Kentucky Derby Museum, at Churchill Downs. As for Tiznow, he is the pack leader at WinStar Farms, near Lexington, where Cooper visits him a couple times a year.
"He's now very large and very manly," Cooper said. "He is all stallion. And he still has that sheen, that fullness that a young horse has, even though he's 12 now.
"I think the bruise from the bite he gave me on his 10th birthday is just beginning to heal," Cooper added with a laugh. "But it was my fault. I was holding the cake."