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.
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.
Still, Cap'n Johnny's infernal hope abides, commingled with anxiety. "I have mixed feelings just looking at him," he said the other day, his hand filled with carrots for the attentive mother. "He's so fragile, and I know that things will go wrong in the next three or four years of his life. It's inevitable. I just hope they'll be minor. But I can't help but view him with apprehension. This is not an uncomplicated joy. Because there's always a potential for heartbreak."
Witness the little colt's mother, who was zero-for-five at Arapahoe before a bowed tendon ended her racing career at the tender age of three. Witness his father, who won his first two races at Santa Anita before popping a sesamoid bone while finishing third in the 1995 Remington Park Derby. He never ran again. Worst of all, consider Straight Joke, a powerful Louisiana-bred Kaskela once owned with another Denverite, Alan "Scooter" McGregor. In the summer of 1979, a lot of the knowledgeable horse folk around Covington, Louisiana, started dropping by Cranberry Hill Farm, owned by McGregor's late father, Armin "Binks" McGregor, to get a glimpse of the beautiful two-year-old. "He was such a good one," Kaskela remembers. "An uber-horse. He was well-bred, and he would have been no surprise [as a Derby runner]."
But on one fateful afternoon halfway through his third year, the colt romped into a pasture for his usual run, apparently took a bad step and fell. His back was broken. Talk about heartbreak. Workers loaded the crippled horse onto a flatbed truck, where a vet administered the lethal injection that dashed all hopes. For his part, McGregor the Younger never again invested in a racehorse. "I lost interest," he says. "We had undue expectations and then a crushing blow."
For close to twenty years, Kaskela stayed away, too, for one reason or another. Then, with disappointment and the scent of tragedy fading on the trail behind him, he dreamed up TFADAI Stables.
Like most of the great ideas that shape Western civilization, this one was born in a saloon, late at night. Back in 1999, Cap'n Johnny and some guys were sitting around a table in Rodney's, the windowless Cherry Creek hangout where frazzled stockbrokers and their divorce lawyers lie to each other about golf, when the Cap'n slyly suggested that it might be nice to own a racehorse. One thing led to another, and that led to the incorporation of the present venture. Let it come as no surprise that TFADAI is an acronym aptly describing the original partners: "Two Fools, a Doctor and an Idiot." Or that the only property held by TFADAI Stables for several years thereafter was the aforementioned Stutz Little Lady. She never won a race. For that matter, neither has the stable's other filly, Shooting Range.
Ah, but let us not forget that tug of infernal hope.
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In 2002, the little shoestring stable (whose three silent partners have changed over the years) acquired a huge, long-legged colt named Ascendant. A son of Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Risen Star (and the grandson of Secretariat), he looked good on paper and, at more than seventeen hands tall, imposing in the paddock. But when it came to racing, he trailed every field out of the gate and only occasionally bothered to rally in the final furlongs. He was claimed away by Japanese connections last summer at Turf Paradise. Wouldn't you know it? Now he's hurt.
Thus do the dreams of John Kaskela and his long-suffering trio of partners come to rest this April on a big-eyed, splay-legged baby who's more interested at the moment in Mom's milk than the blanket of roses they give away every May in Louisville. "Who knows?" Cap'n Johnny asks himself. "Right now, he's just this cute little baby, and we have no idea how he'll progress or what the expenses will be. But as I said, you gotta have hope."
The same kind of hope, perhaps, that once characterized John Kaskela's nascent acting career. Back in 1959, the trim, athletic young lifeguard landed a bit in Alfred Hitchcock's classic-in-the-making, North by Northwest, as a passenger standing in line at Manhattan's Grand Central Station while Cary Grant cruised by. He even had a line of dialogue, which he still remembers: "Two tickets to Crestwood, please." Alas, that utterance landed on the cutting-room floor, and in all these years, Kaskela has never even seen the movie all the way through. That was then. This is now. The first Saturday in May, 2007, is not that far off. In three years, Paris Hilton may be a nun. The Omaha suburbs could be prime beachfront property. Horses may speak Latin. And John Kaskela might find himself wearing a big grin in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.
Anyway, let's hope so with all of our hearts, lest they be broken.