Rosy Dreams

Derby fantasies stand on the spindly legs of a colt at CSU.

Welcome to sweet April, when anything is possible. The Colorado Rockies can still win the National League pennant this year and beat the Yankees in five hard-fought games in the World Series. Donald Trump might propose to Omarosa. Topeka could get Italian food. And, if a thousand things go perfectly and nothing goes wrong, an as-yet-unnamed, four-week-old colt nursing at his mother's side in Fort Collins will show up in the post-parade at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May in the year 2007.

"That's the ultimate hope and desire," his Denver owner, John Kaskela, says. "To run in the Kentucky Derby. But I think it's all tempered with reality. In the end, only twenty of them, at most, can run, and your awareness of the pitfalls is constant. But you gotta have hope." He takes a reflective puff on his cigar and smiles. "The hope that springs infernal within the human breast."

Kaskela knows all about that, too. For one thing, he doesn't wear handmade suits and hang out in the turf club like legendary horse owner Ogden Phipps. In reality, he's a 71-year-old bartender who works three days a week at Legends on Milwaukee Street. He's not made of money, like Nelson Bunker Hunt, but a failed ex-actor from Grosse Point, Michigan, who once was the racetrack pal of an alleged Detroit wiseguy named Mike "The Enforcer" Rubino. He did some TV commercials back in the '70s for Chevrolet and Oldsmobile, among other products, and appeared briefly in a few movies. He's not a titan of industry, but a former Florida lifeguard and charter-boat skipper who once converted the main floor of his house at Third and Clayton into an after-hours joint called Cap'n Johnny's Hong Kong Bar and Club Ritz. The happy customers, who paid for their drinks more or less on the honor system, included assorted Denver police captains, at least one defrocked Florida governor and singer Patti Page, who dropped in one night with her hairdresser in tow.

John Kaskela looks on as the hope of the future 
stands on wobbly legs.
Brett Amole
John Kaskela looks on as the hope of the future stands on wobbly legs.

During his indifferent, oft-interrupted career as a Michigan college student back in the '50s, Kaskela swam sprints and the butterfly on the varsity team and excelled at all three classical languages: Greek, Latin and Coed Seduction. These days he absorbs lessons from the Daily Racing Form with equal fervor. Before we forget, the horse-racing operation he heads up is not named Calumet Farm or Three Chimneys. It's called TFADAI Stables, and this spring it consists of exactly three animals with a total of twelve legs.

Care to compute the odds against Cap'n Johnny and his nursing colt? Consider this. The three-year-olds who will run in this year's Derby on May 1 are well-bred, talented and impeccably trained -- and they are exceptionally lucky. Of the approximately 40,000 thoroughbred foals born each year in the United States, only one in four ever sets hoof on a racetrack, and only one in seven ever wins a race. Many are slow. Some are unwilling. And the list of perils these beautiful, fragile creatures are subject to reads like a history of medieval torture. A quarter crack in a hoof can put a runner out of action for weeks; a bowed tendon can mean months on the shelf. Should a horse come down with cough, croup or virus, survival itself can be touch-and-go. Two decades into his career as a sire, the celebrated Triple Crown winner Secretariat became afflicted with a painful, incurable hoof disease called laminitis and had to be euthanized. Horses break their legs. Their intestines tangle up. In Kentucky, an entire crop of newborns was recently devastated by some mysterious poison in the local bluegrass.

Despite all that gloom, Kaskela's no-name colt has a shot. His great-grandfather, after all, was the great Seattle Slew, who won racing's elusive Triple Crown in 1977, and his grandfather is Capote, a fine racehorse who has already sired 46 stakes winners. Born on the night of March 11 in a foaling stall at Colorado State University's renowned College of Veterinary Medicine, the little guy and his mother, TFADAI's lone brood mare, Stutz Little Lady, enjoy some of the most advanced and dedicated animal care on the planet. CSU's horse programs are world-famous, and Dr. Patrick McCue, a specialist who has taught at CSU and overseen the births of horses at its Equine Reproduction Laboratory for ten years, reports that the birth was normal, and the colt is robust and good-looking. There's no reason he shouldn't grow up to be a healthy, happy citizen of horsedom. For now, McCue points out, "just look at the smile on the owner's face. He's happy with the situation, and that just makes me thrilled, too."

The negatives? The colt's sire, who stands at CSU and commands a bargain stud fee of just $600 (up from last year's $450), is a thirteen-year-old named Capote's Promise. He has a nice pedigree, and his discount dating service is available to any Colorado owner, because McCue and company are intent on improving the breed in our state. But the threats of injury, illness and just plain mediocrity are never far off. Neither is the cold, hard fact that no Colorado-bred horse has ever made it to the Kentucky Derby; the local progeny, for that matter, don't often reach the Thursday allowance race at Oaklawn Park or Golden Gate. Success was hard enough for a New York-bred like Funny Cide -- last year's feel-good Derby story, who came decorated with no fewer than 22 small-time owners from rural upstate New York. In the less fantastic regions of Cap'n Johnny's mind, the good-looking, wobbly legged bay colt in Fort Collins is more likely to start his racing career at Arapahoe Park, that poor orphan of a racetrack plunked down in the sunflower fields 25 miles east of Denver. He might even get sold as a yearling or a two-year-old. "After all, this is a business," he says.

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