By Bill Heller
Once upon a time, Thoroughbreds raced on little rest: on consecutive days, twice in three days, three times in eight days. Those days are long gone, but every now and then one Thoroughbred reminds us that it can be done; that while such quick-recovering horses may be an endangered species, they are not yet extinct. Of course, it only happens if a horse’s trainer believes that particular Thoroughbred can do so and can live with the result, positive or negative, for thinking outside the box.
Last summer at Saratoga, trainer Linda Rice sent out Barry Schwartz’s three-year-old colt Voodoo Song to compete in a mile-and-three-eighth New York-bred grass allowance four days after he won an open mile-and-a-sixteenth $40,000 claimer by 5¼ lengths gate-to-wire. Voodoo Song, who had been with Mike Hushion until the trainer’s retirement in July, opened a 16-length lead in that allowance and held on to win by three-quarters of a length.
“If you’re afraid to take chances or afraid to be wrong, you’re going to be paralyzed,” Rice said. “Some people are too afraid to make mistakes or be proven wrong. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”
Boy did it work with Voodoo Song. “The more latitude the owner gives you, the better,” she said. “Barry was fine with the direction we took. If the horse is doing well, run him.”
According to the Daily Racing Form, Voodoo Song’s victory made Rice seven-for-her-last-eight starts with a horse returning within seven days.
But Rice wasn’t done with Voodoo Song at Saratoga. With ample time to recover from the two races, Voodoo Song won another mile-and-a-sixteenth New York-bred allowance by one length four weeks later. Nine days after that, the colt made his stakes debut in the $300,000 Grade 3 Saranac, and he won again on the front end, by a neck over a field which included previously undefeated Bricks and Mortar. Those four victories in a single Saratoga meet, all under Jose Lezcano, matched Native Dancer’s four-race Saratoga spree in 1952 when the meet, now 40 days long, was just 24. All four of Native Dancer’s victories were in stakes.
To match the feat of four Saratoga wins is nothing short of amazing in 2017 because Thoroughbreds have never seemed more fragile.
According to The Jockey Club, average number of starts per Thoroughbred has plummeted from 11.5 in 1960 to 9.8 in 1975 when the diuretic Lasix and analgesic butazolidin first began showing up on backsides of racetracks. By 1990, the average number of starts was 9.0. It dropped to 6.8 in 2005 and 6.2 in 2016. Accordingly, average field size was 9.0 in 1960, 8.6 in 1975, 8.0 in 1990 and in 2005 and 7.6 in 2016.
Go further back in time and Thoroughbred racing was a different universe. Trainers raced and worked healthy horses constantly, even when they were two-year-olds. And they kept racing for years.
Imp (during the 1896 season), Princess Doreen (1923), and Zev (1924) ran on consecutive days. Imp finished first and third, Princess Doreen was first twice, and Zev won twice. Zev won his following start on one day’s rest, completing three victories in four days. Later in her career, Imp raced six times in 15 days, posting three wins, two seconds, and a fourth.
More famously, Maskette (1908) won her career debut in an allowance race against males and then the Spinaway Stakes two days later.
In 1918, a year before he became the first horse to win the races that later came to be recognized as the Triple Crown, Sir Barton began his career with a fifth, a ninth, another ninth on one day’s rest, and a seventh, all in stakes.
Man o’ War (1919) won two stakes in three days.
Seabiscuit began his career on January 19th, 1935, finishing fourth in an allowance race at Hialeah. Just three days later, he finished second in a $2,500 claimer. Did returning quickly affect his career? Not even close. Seabiscuit made three more starts with two days of rest and then raced on one day’s rest, finishing sixth in a stakes and third in an allowance race at Aqueduct Sept. 2nd and 4th. He went on to make 35 starts as a two-year-old, posting five wins, seven seconds, and five thirds. He would make 54 more starts and achieve stardom.
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