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  /  Around the Ovals   /  Da Hoss gone at age 30

Da Hoss gone at age 30

Enjoy this recap in tribute to one of the greats……

One of my all-time favorite stories.

by Dick Jerardi, Daily News Sports Writer

Posted: November 09, 1998

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After a decade-and-a-half, there have been 105 Breeders’ Cup races. After a century-and-a-half and thousands more Cup races worth millions and millions of dollars, they might never top the race at Churchill Downs Saturday.

No, it wasn’t the $5 million Classic and the duel between Skip Away and Silver Charm that never happened. It wasn’t the 2-year-olds, sprinters, girls or grass marathoners.

Everybody in the Breeders’ Cup record crowd of 80,452 or the millions more who watched on television knew the instant they saw it. It came smack in the middle of the seven-race, $13 million extravaganza.

On the far turn, the miracle horse was moving to the lead in the Mile. Da Hoss, two years and just one race after he won the Mile at Woodbine, still led at the eighth pole. Could this 6-year-old gelding, a physical wreck almost since birth, possibly beat the best milers in the world? Could any horse go 102 weeks between races, win an allowance race at minor league Colonial Downs 27 days before racing’s biggest day, and win here? Would it be possible for a horse who had overcome so much – a foot infection as a weanling, two bone spurs as a yearling and arthritis that inhibited his training as he got older – really win?

At the eighth pole, it could happen. At the 16th pole, it couldn’t. Da Hoss was passed by fellow longshot Hawksley Hill – a nose, a head, nearly a neck.

Horses don’t come back much when passed in the stretch. Horses with Da Hoss’ history aren’t supposed to come back at all.

So how do you explain it? Really, you don’t. If you love the sport and admire the people who dedicate their lives to it, you just marvel.

Da Hoss dug in and ran right back at Hawksley Hill. And put his nose and, finally, his head in front at the wire.

At that precise moment, four people at various Churchill Downs outposts shared an emotion only they will ever understand.

Da Hoss trainer Michael Dickinson, an Englishman by birth whose horses are his children, had tears in his eyes up in the owners’ boxes. When 99 percent of all trainers would have said go, Dickinson said stop. Over and over, during the last two years, Da Hoss was close to a race, but it was never perfect. When Da Hoss was ready, Dickinson would say go, and not a moment before.

Joan Wakefield, Dickinson’s companion and assistant for 18 years, had gotten lost coming out of the paddock madhouse. She ended up in the press box, standing next to Washington Post guru Andy Beyer, watching the race on television. As Da Hoss made his move, she started screaming for him, not knowing or caring about press-box decorum. Beyer looked at her and said: “Lady, we’re in the bleeping press box here.”

John Ferriday, Da Hoss’s exercise rider, and Miguel Piedra, the groom who has practically lived with the horse for four years, watched trackside from the 16th pole as Da Hoss lost the lead, figuring he was beat. And they kept watching as he took it back. Then they began to hug and to cry.

A couple of hours later, Awesome Again would complete an unbeaten season and make a claim for Horse of the Year in the Classic. Silver Charm ran great, but had to settle for second. Skip Away ran not so great and took sixth, his worst finish since the Kentucky Derby 2 1/2 years before.

All that mattered in some wider world. But, in the narrow world of horse racing, Da Hoss mattered more.

Dickinson hadn’t slept for six weeks until Tuesday. He’d be up at night walking the grass course at Tapeta Farm, his marvelous new training center in North East, Md. Finally, with Da Hoss training so well that Dickinson was convinced he would win, he was able to relax. Sort of.

Six times last week, Dickinson walked the Downs grass course, checking for the best ground. When other trainers went off to party after the races on Friday, Dickinson went onto the course, checking out nearly every inch of ground on the seven-eighths-mile course. After the third race on Saturday’s card, Dickinson was back checking the grass again.

He instructed jockey John Velazquez to avoid the rail and the softer ground. Drew him a map to show him the path to the winner’s share of the $1 million purse. Velazquez followed the plan and Da Hoss did the rest.

“The single most important thing in winning a race is to have the best horse,” Dickinson said.

Da Hoss has won 12 of 20 races at 14 race tracks from Phoenix to Toronto and purses of nearly $2 million for his owners, the Preston Brothers of Houston. He’s their horse, but really Da Hoss “belongs” to the people who spend every day with him. They don’t get the big money. They get the satisfaction.

“Joan’s first love in life is Da Hoss,” Dickinson said. “She reads him and can predict when something’s going to go wrong two days before the rest of us can. Joan’s second love of her life is her own horse, Boomer [also known as Business Is Boomin] and, in a good week, I make No. 3. But there’s many a time I don’t make the top 10.”

The sun from a brilliant fall day had long since disappeared when the Da Hoss Four gathered back at Barn 39. It was a day they’d all hoped for, a day they’d remember forever.

For horses, two years away is forever. This one horse, this Da Hoss, made time stand still.

“I just wanted to cry,” Wakefield said. “I still do. It’s just too much.”

Ferriday knew Da Hoss was training wonderfully. He could feel the power under him. The day before the race, the horse turned a mere gallop into a tour de force. Even a novice could look at the faces of the pros and understand something special was about to happen.

“I just can’t believe it,” Ferriday said. “He was beat at the 16th pole. He just dug in and he wanted to win it, you know. Nothing was going to get by him. He’s just unbelievable. I can’t describe this feeling.”

Piedra is Dickinson’s head man. He oversees all the grooms. And takes care of one horse – Da Hoss. When everybody leaves at noon, Piedra stays. He takes him out in the field, rubs the legs, massages the body, gives the horse a chance to run. Dickinson figures Piedra spends six hours a day tending to Da Hoss’s needs. Wakefield thinks 10.

Piedra always thought Da Hoss would make it back. Everybody around the horse says Piedra knows him best. He believed.

“Win again,” Piedra said, simply.

Piedra grew up near Mexico City and has been in this country 14 years. Horses are his life. And Da Hoss is his horse of a lifetime.

When the horse got passed, Piedra wavered, but only for a moment. His work with Da Hoss shone through in those final 100 yards.

“I thought the other horse beat us,” Piedra said. “Then, I saw his head [thrusting forward]. And I said, “He make it, he make it, he win.’ ”

Horse racing is a sport of little daily miracles. The animals are like fine china, so beautiful and fragile. The people around them decide their fates.

Every once in a very long while, there comes a horse with the unlikely combination of talent, courage and will to win when no obstacle is too large to overcome, a horse like Da Hoss.

“Joan and I don’t have any children because these are our kids,” Dickinson said. “No father could have been prouder of his boy than I am today. Joan is like a mother with him.”If you’re not around horses, you can’t really understand the feeling. If you are, you understand perfectly.