THE GREAT DA HOSS
By Dick Jerardi
It was the early evening of Nov. 6, 1998. A few of us were
walking the entirety of the Churchill Downs Turf Course, led by
Michael Dicksinson and his constant companion/assistant Joan
Wakefield. They were looking for the best and worst parts of the course,
leaving absolutely nothing to chance.
And why would they? Two years before, they were in Toronto to
see Da Hoss win the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Woodbine. This was the eve
of the 1998 BC Mile. And Da Hoss, improbably, was back for another
Dickinson was Da Hoss’s trainer of record, but this was a
partnership in every sense of the word. Along with exercise rider John
Ferriday and groom Miguel Piedra, Dickinson and Wakefield were just
hours away from seeing if their miracle horse, now 6 years old, could
come all the way back to his very best and beat the best grass milers in
Da Hoss did not race from Oct. 26, 1996 until Oct. 11, 1998, when
he won an allowance race at Colonial Downs by three-quarters of a
length. If you just saw the past performances, you would figure no way
the horse was anywhere near his best. I remember watching it in the
press box at what was then known as Philadelphia Park. And smiling in
the final yards. Jockey Carlos Marquez was barely asking Da Hoss to
run. This was a prep race in every sense of the word.
After stopping and starting and stopping and starting with Da
Hoss because of an arthritic condition, Dickinson and his team had
timed it all up perfectly. Da Hoss, Dickinson told anybody who would
listen, was going to run the very best race of his life. And he was going
I believed. And bet accordingly.
When I heard that Da Hoss, who lived out his life at the Kentucky
Horse Park, had died on Jan. 2 a day after his 30th birthday, all the
memories from that week, that night on the grass course and the day of
that Breeders’ Cup came flooding back.
He had a good ride," Dickinson said.They looked after him
well at the Horse Park. When Joan used to take Miguel and John Boy
(Ferriday) to see him, it was very highly charged. They’d all cry.’’
Which was not unlike the aftermath of race 7 at Churchill on Nov.
7, 1998. Da Hoss, ridden by a young John Velazquez and sent off at 11-
1, was always in good position. When Da Hoss started to pass horses on
the far turn and move toward the lead, it all became very real.
At the eighth pole, Da Hoss was in front. At the sixteenth pole, he
was second, passed by Hawksley Hill. Once horses take the lead in the
stretch and are passed, they don’t come back to win much. So what were
the odds on a horse that had raced just once in two years coming again to
win the BC Mile?
Incalculable, unless, of course, the horse was Da Hoss. The horse
simply wanted to win so he came back on Hawksley Hill and put his
nose and then his head in front just as he hit the wire, the miracle
“He was our horse of a lifetime,’’ Dickinson said.
That 1998 Breeders’ Cup was Da Hoss’s final race. It was a
perfect ending for a horse that ran at Turf Paradise, Aqueduct, Garden
State Park, Sportsman’s Park, Hollywood Park, Del Mar, the
Meadowlands, Belmont Park, Saratoga, Penn National, Woodbine,
Colonial Downs and, finally, fittingly, at Churchill Downs. There were
20 starts, 12 wins, 5 seconds and nearly $2 million in earnings over 4
years of racing. On grass, Da Hoss started 11 times, with 8 wins, 1
seconds and two thirds.
Dickinson trained at Fair Hill (Md.) Training Center when he first
came to the United States from his native England. By 1998, his
operation had moved to Tapeta Farm in North East, Md. and Da Hoss
was one of the first horses to train on the revolutionary Tapeta surface.
There was never a better advertisement for a surface that is now used the
world over and was recently installed at Gulfstream Park.
It took the entire team and the surroundings to get Da Hoss ready
again. But, in the end, it was about the horse,
“The single most important thing in winning a race is to have the
best horse,’’ Dickinson said that unforgettable November day.
And Da Hoss was simply the best horse they ever had.