Smile Politely

Horse Racing Loses Heroic Figure in Wanderin Boy

The old saying, “God giveth and He taketh away,” echoed in the minds of horsemen all last weekend, where three days of big races was marked by both brilliance and tragedy. While we witnessed the rising star of the Larry Jones-trained Old Fashioned with his runaway victory in the Remsen Stakes, a dazzling performance by Einstein to upset Commentator in the Clark, and the raw talent of Cocoa Beach easily winning the Matriarch on turf, at least two other stars winked out, never to grace us again.

First, the juvenile filly Springside, who commanded attention with her
9 ½-length victory in the Demoiselle Handicap, was an instant superstar and favorite in next year’s Kentucky Oaks; but she didn’t even have time to enjoy the winner’s circle, as she fractured her right front pastern when pulling up after the race. After a successful operation, it seems the filly was saved, and will be able to retire as a broodmare. But another did not turn out so fortunate.

Horse racing lost its modern-day version of Seabiscuit on Saturday. In the Grade I Cigar Mile Handicap at Aqueduct, in a field of nine, the seven-year-old Wanderin Boy entered the race as the 2nd-choice favorite over Tale of Ekati, Harlem Rocker and Kodiak Kowboy; it was about time he deserved some respect. The winner of four graded stakes races and over $1 million in earnings, Wanderin Boy spent most of his life running second-place to some of the best horses of his generation, including Invasor, Lawyer Ron, Bernardini and Curlin. He was a horse with veritable bad racing luck, yet he always gave each race his all. When he wasn’t going head-to-head with a Horse of the Year, he was battling back from injuries.

When Wanderin Boy was only a month old, he fractured a sesamoid while at pasture and a veterinarian took one look at him and said it was doubtful the colt would ever see a race track. Unable to sell him because of his injury, his owner and breeder, Arthur Hancock III, gave Wanderin Boy a chance, let him recover on his own terms and, eventually, raced him himself. The colt proved he had some talent and was given the absolute best shot at a career, trained by Hall-of-Famer Nick Zito; but before he could enter his first race, Wanderin Boy fractured his cannon bone and was operated on (having several screws put into his leg) and rested for eight weeks. Steven Haskin of Blood-Horse reported that when the veterinarian examined Wanderin Boy’s leg post-surgery, he was said to marvel, “I can’t believe this horse has healed so well. This is unbelievable, but he looks great.”

On his second attempt to the track, the colt bucked his shins and was sent back to the farm again, where he was hand-walked and pinfired. The third time proved to be the charm. In his maiden race, Wanderin Boy gave his owner the ultimate vindication he had done the right thing, winning by 2 ® lengths. He went on to win the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap, the Ben Ali Handicap, and Brooklyn Handicap, with a few hiccups here and there. His shocking seventh-place finish in the New Orleans Handicap proved something was wrong, and Wanderin Boy was found to have fractured another cannon bone in his leg, which was also fixed with screws. Again, the veterinarian couldn’t believe the colt’s healing progress afterwards. Haskin quoted the vet, “This horse must be an alien. I’ve never seen a horse heal like this in all my life.”

Believe it or not, that was still not the end of Wanderin Boy’s injuries. But the remarkable thing about him was how, after an injury would put him out for months, the spirited horse always came back in fighting fashion. Many times, after a horse is injured and sidelined, he never returns to form. Not so for Wanderin Boy.

Perhaps his most brilliant race was the last one he ever finished, his runner-up performance to the reigning Horse of the Year, Curlin, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Leading the entire course of the race, Wanderin Boy wouldn’t go down without a fight. And though Curlin won the race under a hand ride by Robby Albarado, Wanderin Boy dug in to finish ® lengths behind Curlin, closer than any other horse could come to the champ on dirt this year. Never a headlining horse like Curlin, Wanderin Boy was the quintessential underdog to the champions, fighting so much more than horseflesh in his journey to the wire.

The Grade I Cigar Mile Handicap on November 30, 2008, was scheduled to be Wanderin Boy’s last race before retirement. The seven-year-old horse was entering the turn well off the pace, unlike his normal front-running style, when the rest of the field began to swallow him up from behind. For anybody who knew this horse, something was visibly wrong. And then Wanderin Boy began to bobble, and it was clear he was hurt. Jockey John Velazquez pulled him up, but the damage had already been done. Wanderin Boy shattered the sesamoids in his left front ankle, and the injury was too catastrophic to save him this time.

Trainer Nick Zito is taking the loss of Wanderin Boy hard: “Everybody that was around this horse said he couldn’t be doing any better — they were all raving about him. It’s going to take a long time getting over this. … I lost [a] good friend.”

One more thing: To write off Wanderin Boy’s breakdown as a footnote in the Cigar Mile is a slap in the face to this courageous horse. Shame on HRTV for not speaking a word about the obvious horse in distress when the race was over. Without the horses, there is no game; and without horses like Wanderin Boy, there is no reason to follow the sport. We lost a hero in Wanderin Boy, a spirit that reminded us all of just what great things can be achieved when the odds are against you.

Eclipse-winning turfwriter Steve Haskin made Wanderin Boy the subject of his column in Blood-Horse a week after the Jockey Club Gold Cup, relaying his remarkable story. I want to thank him for bringing to light the spirit and courage of this remarkable horse.

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