Frankie Accardo, the philosopher, used to say that the greatest feeling in the world is when your horse wins.
The second greatest feeling, he added, is when your horse doesn't win.
Frankie would know. In his customary perch just inside the eighth pole at Jamaica or Aqueduct, he experienced the world's second greatest feeling thousands of times. And that, one suspects, is what fueled his brassbound optimism about life. He may have looked like the Hundred Years' War, and his cigar stub always needed relighting, but the man was a fountain of hope, a cascade of cheer. Right up to the day he died, they say.
Now, this may come as a surprise to people who don't own binoculars, but all horseplayers believe in magic, and they all ride hope. You may hear some of the planet's most profound cursing at the track, as the mud and dung and bad luck fly around the railbirds' ears. But don't take it too seriously. Despite those blistering threats to use this jockey or that as a tack hammer, and the eternal mantra of how the impoverished victim of fate would have, could have and should have scored big if only he had applied his superior intelligence and perspicacity to the task for just ten seconds longer--despite all that, the heart of a gentle dreamer beats within every horseplayer's breast. And every eye out there is as refined as Rembrandt's.
This brings us to a filly named Flanders.
If, in the course of her brief career (or your considerably longer one), you have had the privilege of watching this beauty run, you know what I am about to say. Frankie Accardo in heaven knows. So do all the tattered losers ripping up their tickets in disgust, then sticking their pounding heads between the comforting folds of the Daily Racing Form at racetracks all over the country.
Flanders is the real thing.
In the understated parlance of the barn, she is a "good horse"--meaning an excellent, even transcendent, horse--and at the age of two (yes, two!), she quickens the pulse just to look at her, in motion or at rest.
Everybody will have a chance to look at her Saturday afternoon. And if you haven't already done so, you will probably fall head over heels. Flanders is the odds-on favorite to win the Juvenile Fillies event at the eleventh annual Breeders' Cup, racing's World Series and Super Bowl rolled into seven races on one scintillating day. If she doesn't win it, some of us will sit down and cry.
Let me tell you about my true love.
On October 8, at Belmont Park, this striking chestnut daughter of Seeking the Gold and Starlet Storm burst from the gate in the Grade 1 Frizette Stakes. She took the others through the first quarter-mile in :23 1/5, then simply ran away. With Pat Day as her passenger, Flanders led by 10 lengths at the mile, then swept under the wire 21 lengths ahead of Change Fora Dollar.
On the way back to the winner's circle, she turned her head to the crowd and grinned. No kidding. Big grin.
Flanders ran the Frizette's one-and-one-sixteenth mile (the length of Saturday's big race) in 1:43 4/5, good enough to post a Beyer Speed Figure of 102. If you don't know what a Beyer Speed Figure is, it doesn't matter: Suffice it to say that there are only two other babies scheduled to run in the Juvenile Fillies who have ever scored a 90.
That's not all. A glimpse at the record reveals that Flanders has won all four of her starts--by a total of 36 1/2 lengths. In the Matron, on September 17, she put Stormy Blues away by 3 1/2 but was disqualified from purse money after a medication controversy. That doesn't mean they caught her. Before that, on August 29, she toyed with the Spinaway Stakes field up at Saratoga, winning by almost five lengths. At age two, Flanders has already won three Grade 1 stakes--a feat some great thoroughbreds take an entire career to achieve. She has led almost every inch of all four races she has run and won.
Well, then, that makes things easy for her Saturday, right?
Not exactly. Doubt and argument are two reasons they actually load the horses into the gate. So while this lovely creature is likely to dominate a very tough field once again, a couple of things are standing in her path to greatness--and perhaps a trip to the Triple Crown.
First, Flanders has scored her last two wins at Belmont. A mile-and-one-sixteenth route on that oversized, mile-and-a-half racing oval requires negotiating just one gentle turn--not two sharp ones--and this has favored Flanders's explosive, front-running style. The Breeders' Cup races are being run this year at Churchill Downs in Louisville, a narrow, one-mile circuit mined all the way around with such mystery and treachery that no favorite has won its Kentucky Derby in seventeen years.
Flanders's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, may not be Mr. Popularity among his peers, but he's as savvy as they come, and he's won more Breeders' Cup events than anyone else--ten. Pat Day knows the drill, too: He's scored six BC wins in eleven years, just one short of the totals of leading Cup riders Eddie Delahoussaye and Laffit Pincay. But Lukas and Day may have to revamp their filly's racing style to win in Louisville. Tactical speed, that could be the ticket. Tactical speed and a little patience.
Moreover, while the Frizette is considered a key prep race for the Juvenile Fillies, the results over time are mixed. Half a dozen fillies, including Open Mind in 1988 and the great, ill-fated Go for Wand a year later, performed superbly in both races. But four Frizette winners have failed at the Breeders' Cup. And when it was last held at Churchill, in 1991, Frizette winner Preach went off as the favorite in the Juvenile Fillies, then was promptly blown off the track by 5-1 shot Pleasant Stage.
But enough of theory and records and rationality. Flanders is the real thing. She's good enough to overcome all the trends and problems Saturday, good enough to overpower Serena's Song and Call Now in the $1 million Juvenile Fillies. She might pay a paltry $2.60 to win, but that's not the point. This is not about profit. Not this time.
If she does it, which will be glory enough, look for history to be rewritten next spring. Since 1875 only three fillies have ever won the Kentucky Derby--Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980 and Winning Colors in 1988. Trainers are loath even to test their female charges against the boys in that race. But if Lukas wins this Juvenile Fillies with Flanders, watch him bring her back to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May to run for the roses. That's a long way off, of course, and even the most hardened railbird swilling Old Crow in the bar will relate, in sorrowful detail, how injury and bad luck and worse have brought many a brilliant equine performer low.
But I've got a special feeling about Seeking the Gold's beautiful baby girl--a lot of people do. It's a feeling I haven't had since Sunday Silence ran to glory in 1989. This brave filly looks like she can do anything they ask of her, and I don't expect to be crying Saturday.
Are you listening, Frankie? The greatest feeling in the world is not when your horse wins--it's when your horse wins and you're in love with her. I don't know about you, but on Saturday afternoon I'm sending flowers to Flanders. Red roses.
Saturday's Buffalo slaughter in Lincoln didn't do anything to help Kordell Stewart's Heisman Trophy chances: When a guy completes two passes for seven yards in the first half, the voters aren't about to flip cartwheels, and Stewart's 12-completion, 150-yard, 0-TD day won't get him to New York any faster, either.
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Once the CU option got shut down, Archbishop McCartney's passing strategy kicked in too late to threaten the Huskers. But then, this is the same coach who kicked to the Rocket in the Orange Bowl.
Meanwhile, the other Heisman twin in Boulder, Rashaan Salaam, didn't hurt himself. The A-Man ran for 134 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries--no match for those 200-yard games of his--but his totals are now 1,390 yards and 19 TDs, pretty strong stuff.
Of course, all Alcorn State's Steve McNair did in Saturday's 45-45 tie with Samford was to pass for 563 more yards and 4 touchdowns, taking his season marks up to 3,855 yards and 36 scores.
Who cares where he plays or what division it's in? Air McNair is the man--so long as Salaam doesn't have a couple of 300-yard afternoons in the sun against punching bags like Okie State and Iowa State. He might--if they'll let him stick around for the fourth quarter once in awhile.