Voodoo Song wins many races

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.    In an April 28th, 2017, story by Lenny Shulman in The BloodHorse, Bill Hirsch, a grandson of Hall of Fame trainer Max Hirsch, shared his grandfather’s training regimen with 1946 Triple Crown Champion Assault. Back then, there was only a week separating the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and after winning the Derby by eight lengths on May 4th, Assault worked three furlongs on May 8th, one mile on May 9th, then won the Preakness two days later by a neck. After shipping to Belmont Park, he worked four furlongs on May 16th; three furlongs on May 18th; four furlongs on May 20th; one mile on May 22nd; three furlongs in :35 on May 24th; a mile and a quarter in 2:05 on May 25th; four furlongs on May 28th; and, on the very next day, a mile and a half in 2:32. Three days later, he won the Belmont Stakes in 2:30 4/5. “All the top trainers conditioned their horses like that back then,” Hirsch told Shulman.           Through the years, such outstanding horses as Beldame, Black Tie Affair, Cavalcade, Challedon, Chris Evert, Triple Crown winner Count Fleet, Discovery, Exterminator, Hermis, Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox, Lady’s Secret, Stymie, Tom Fool, Track Robbery, Twilight Tear, War Admiral, Triple Crown winner Whirlaway, and Whisk Broom II all raced on less than one week’s rest. Several of those horses did it more than once. The results were mixed, though many won on short rest. All of them continued outstanding careers with no lasting effect from making more than one start in a week.    But when Hall of Fame Trainer Woody Stephens announced that his three-year-old colt Conquistador Cielo, who had just buried older horses by 7¼ lengths in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Mile on Monday, May 31st, 1982, would indeed contest the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes the following Saturday, people were wondering if the trainer had lost his mind. A mile-and-a-half Grade 1 stakes on four days’ rest? Yet Stephens remained confident in Conquistador Cielo, and a forecast of rain for Belmont Stakes Day only boosted his optimism.    In an interview I did with him several years later for my own book, Overlay, Overlay, published by Bonus Books in Chicago 1990, he explained, “I’ve spent 60 years with horses, all kinds of them, great ones, cheap ones. If I have been around a horse, I pretty much know everything about him. There are a lot of people who think they’re handicappers, but they’re not. People said I was taking a gamble with Conquistador because I’d never won a Belmont. But he was sharp enough, and I knew he loved the mud.”    All Conquistador Cielo did on a sloppy track was win by 14 lengths, the largest winning margin in the final leg of the Triple Crown since Secretariat’s 31-length tour de force in 1973. Stephens must have loved winning his first Belmont Stakes, because he added the next four with Caveat, Swale, Creme Fraiche, and Danzig Connection. His feat of winning five consecutive Belmont Stakes may never be matched, and it never would have started without him racing Conquistador Cielo on just four days of rest.    He also raced his champion fillies De La Rose and Heavenly Cause on less than one week’s rest. De La Rose won the Grade 3 Athenia Handicap at Belmont Park by 2¾ lengths on October 12th, 1981, then shipped to Canada and won the Grade 3 E.P. Taylor Stakes by 2½ lengths on October 17th. A year earlier, Heavenly Cause began her career by winning a maiden race at Belmont Park on July 23rd and finishing third in the Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes at Saratoga one week later, on six days’ rest.    Stephens bucked the trend of Thoroughbreds needing more than a week to race again, but that was in the early ‘80s. Few people noticed when trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. entered James Riccio’s three-year-old gelding Willy Beamin in the seven-furlong, $125,000 Mike Lee Stakes for New York-breds on June 24th, 2012, at Belmont Park, just four days after he’d won a one-mile New York-bred allowance by 2¼ lengths. Willy Beamin, a former claimer, won the Mike Lee by four lengths for his fourth consecutive victory.    Then Dutrow freshened Willy Beamin, bringing him back to contest the mile-and-an-eighth $150,000 Albany Stakes for New York-breds on August 22nd at Saratoga. Sent off the even-money favorite, Willy Beamin won by 6¼ lengths. Everybody at Saratoga noticed when Dutrow entered Willy Beamin in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop Stakes three days later. It would make just the second time Willy Beamin raced in open company following his 6¾ length victory in that $25,000 claimer in March when Dutrow and Riccio acquired him.    Bettors sent Willy Beamin off at 11-1 in the King’s Bishop, and the gelding won by three-quarters of a length.    A story by Mike Watchmaker in the Daily Racing Form revealed that Dutrow watched both the Albany Stakes and the King’s Bishop from his favorite Chinese restaurant in Roslyn on Long Island. “When I saw him running like that (in the King’s Bishop), I was freaking out,” Dutrow told Watchmaker. “Everybody in the restaurant was freaking out. We got the thrill of a lifetime today, and tomorrow I’m going to get up and try to do it again.”    When Watchmaker asked him about bringing Willy Beamin back on short rest, Dutrow told him, “I can’t understand why it works, but we’ll just keep doing it until someone tells me to stop. It doesn’t work for all horses but it works for Willy.”    It didn’t keep working. After finishing second in both the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby and the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap, Willy Beamin raced on five days of rest in the Grade 3 Fall Highweight Handicap and finished fifth by 13½ lengths. He then ended his injury-shortened career with another fifth, a seventh, and a second. His last victory was in the King’s Bishop.    Rice, the top-earning woman trainer in history, is no stranger to success at Saratoga. It’s where she became the first woman to win a major racing meet title in 2009 when she edged perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher despite having 60 less starts at the meet.    Currently ranked 37th all-time in earnings with $65.3 million and counting, Rice finished 21st in 2013, 16th in both 2014 and 2015, and 17th in 2016, and 13th last year.    Voodoo Song wasn’t Rice’s first graded stakes winner with multiple victories in one Saratoga season. In 1998, Things Change helped give her trainer a national presence when she won three races at Saratoga, following up on an allowance win with victories in the Adirondack and Spinaway Stakes.    In 2000, City Zip gave Rice a piece of Saratoga history when he became just the fourth horse to win Saratoga’s three stakes for two-year-olds: the Grade 2 Saratoga Special, Grade 2 Sanford, and, in a dead-heat with Yonaguska during a savage thunderstorm with frightening lightning, the Grade 1 Hopeful. Rice was originally not going to enter City Zip in the Hopeful, but he forced the issue with the way he trained after the Sanford. “I think there’s a little bit of horses for courses,” Rice said.     Voodoo Song, a son of champion turf horse English Channel, had won his lone turf try for Hushion before posting three double-digit dirt losses in sprints.    “I think your first impression of horses is very important,” Rice said. “Sometimes, fresh eyes are good. We knew he would run long on turf like his father, and that’s what we did.”    When she entered him in an open $40,000 claimer, she noticed a New York-bred allowance race in the condition book four days later. “I felt he could run a mile and three-eighths better than a mile and a sixteenth,” Rice said. “I thought it was a great opportunity. You just don’t run a horse back on short rest unless it’s a terrific opportunity.”    Voodoo Song took advantage of that opportunity. Rice found a perfect spot for his next start exactly four weeks later in the Saratoga condition book. “That was by design,” Rice said. “I ran him back quickly. The best way to recover after that is to give him enough time.”    Of course, Rice knew that the Saranac Stakes was nine days later. “The day he won, I entered him back in the Saranac,” Rice said. “I was so happy with his performance that I entered him again. Voodoo Song would like the two turns more than one turn. Another reason was there had been very little rain, and it was very firm turf. And he ran very well on it. I had looked at the condition book, and said, ‘Let’s see. He’s not going to get to race again at Saratoga in an allowance race.’ I went ahead and put him in the Saranac. It was just three-year-olds and a good distance. Obviously, it turned out great.”    Voodoo Song wasn’t the only multiple winning three-year-old New York-bred grass horse Rice campaigned at Saratoga last year. Off an April 29th last start, Tic Stable’s homebred gelding New York’s Finest also began a winning streak in an open $40,000 claiming sprint by 2¾ lengths on July 30th. He returned on August 20th to take a New York-bred allowance race by 1¾ lengths and again on September 1st to win another state-bred allowance by 1¾ lengths.    Curiously, Jose Lezcano had never ridden either Voodoo Song or New York’s Finest before the Saratoga meet, and he went seven-for-seven with them, just like their trainer. Getting seven victories with two horses in a 40-day meet at Saratoga is as old-school as it gets. “Whatever they love, go with their strength,” Rice said. She did, and she’s still smiling.    
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.

Voodoo Song matched Native Dancer's 1952 record of winning four races in a single Saratoga meet

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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