Headmaster's Thoughts: July 2023

I am going to tell a story about a horse. Most people who know my private life, know that Jayme introduced me to riding when we moved to the States, and that we owned a breeding farm in North Salem. For 26 years, we rode almost every day. In a much earlier essay in this “Thoughts” series, I wrote about Jayme’s favorite horse, CB.  Coffee Bean, CB’s Jockey Club name, was a racehorse who never won a race. He was a lovely gray thoroughbred who Jayme competed on, and adored, for many years.

Being that this is one of my last pieces, I shall write about a horse that I did not ride, but is a racehorse called Mommasgottarun. 
 
About 40 years ago, Jayme and I were involved with the first successful software program that used a database of the genealogy of every American thoroughbred to run at an established track in order to align the pedigree family a mare should be mated to and produce the most likely chance of having a successful racehorse as offspring. Since all thoroughbreds descend from three foundation sires, and the fact that there is no artificial insemination in the thoroughbred business, this task was not impossible for a large IBM computer. To prove the effectiveness of this program, we worked with a brilliant horseman in Kentucky. He gave us some mares in foal so that we could deliver their young in our farm for the New York racing program. This program meant that a foal born in New York could win money in races restricted only to New York breds and were therefore easier than open races. Our mares were not expensive, but their foals were reasonably successful not only in New York State but also around the country. In fact, our first trainer was a very young man called Brian Rice at the Penn National racecourse, and he charged us less to train a racehorse than it would cost to park a car in a garage in Manhattan. I well remember the first horse he trained, Aunt Ruth’s Song, who did well at the track.
 
So, 40 years later, when I knew that I would no longer be Head of York and needed a hobby, I turned to Brian, a well-known trainer of young horses. We met last summer at the Saratoga Sales of yearling thoroughbreds, and both agreed on two horses that we liked. We bid, acquired them, and arranged for them to go to Brian’s farm in Ocala, Florida, to be trained by him to run out of a gate on a racecourse (he has his own track at his farm). At lunch on the day of the auction, I met the rest of the Rice family, all children of or nephews and nieces of his father, Clyde Rice, who was a renowned trainer in his time. Brian knew that I was looking to enjoy the sport, and he wisely observed that leaving the two young ones at his farm would not be that much fun for me. He introduced me to his sister, Linda Rice, one of the most successful trainers in New York. He suggested that she and I claim a few “cheap” horses, then she would train them, and I would have fun watching them run. So Linda and I agreed to work together, and look at claiming races. A claiming race is the lowest form of thoroughbred racing because every horse in the race can be bought for the claiming “price” by anyone with a horse in that season at that track. After claiming, the next rank of races are allowance races where the purse is much higher. The Stakes races, with the top purses, follow. Stakes races can be “listed” stakes races, or, higher still, “graded” stakes races. The Kentucky Derby is, obviously, a Grade 1 race.
 
We claimed two horses, and both of them won some races and returned the cost of buying them. One of them was a 3-year-old filly called Mommasgottarun. She had good breeding, but had not been very successful in the sprint claiming races she had been running in. Linda looked at her pedigree and decided that she would be more successful at longer distances. And so she was as a 4 year old (all racehorses have an artificial birthday of January 1st).  She won quite a few allowance races, always preferring to run on the outside of the others in the race. She was not an easy filly. She tossed her head when anyone tried to put a halter over her head. She kicked out when a saddle was put on her. She could be difficult to lead on a line. But, put her in a starting gate and run her, and she was all business and, most importantly, liked to win.  Winning at the longer races clearly gave her the confidence to try even harder. It was exciting to watch her mature into a fine racehorse. 
 
Finally, Linda decided to put her into a Stakes race. There were two coming up. One was a listed Stakes race, and five days after that was a Grade 3 Stakes race. Linda entered her in both. In the first race, she started in the middle of the field and was not comfortable being inside other horses. I think she finished seventh. Normally, it would be extremely unusual to run a horse five days later in a more difficult race. But, and this was a factor, in a field of seven (one was scratched) in the graded stakes race, she was randomly drawn as number eight. In other words, she was the outside horse. And Linda looked at her on the morning of the race, watched her jog, saw that she seemed happy to move, and left her in the race. A graded stakes race (at Aqueduct racetrack) comes with a handsome trophy. Jayme had just had her left knee totally replaced and could not go and watch her. But, since there was a chance of getting a trophy, I wanted to be there to receive it. The race is called the Distaff and it was the Stakes race of the day at Aqueduct. I watched the race from the Horseman’s Room at Aqueduct. 
 
The Horseman’s Room is a cozy place overlooking the finish line, and it is where the trainers, horse professionals, and a few owners and friends, hang out as though it were a club. It is not the fancy restaurant upstairs. The Room provides free coffee, tea, and snacks, and there are betting machines for the horsemen to use so that they do not have to line up at a window.
 
I noticed that the gentlemen there were large, and no one there was English. In this friendly atmosphere, I talked to some of these gentlemen. One of the conversations went this way:
Large Gentleman to me; “Youse not from around here from the way you talks.”
Me; “You are right, I am originally from England.”
Large Gentleman; “What youse doing here?”
“I have a horse running.”
“Which race?”
“The Seventh.”
“The big race!” To some other large gentleman. “Hey, Vinny! The man here has a horse running in the big race.”
Vinny; ‘What’s its name?”
Me; “Mommasgottarun.”
Vinny; “I like that name. Hey Sol, Gino! This guy’s got a horse in the big race called Mommasgottarun.”
General murmur among the group of large gentlemen: “Good name, good name.”
General agreement among this group of Damon Runyonyesque gentlemen to “put some money on Mommasgottarun.” They went to the machines and bet. I never ever bet but I was fascinated how they all agreed that my being there, with a horse whose name they liked, was a propitious omen, and every one of them bet on her. She was an outsider at odds of eight to one. None of the media pundits expected her to do well.
 
Before the race, I went down to the saddling area to meet Linda and the Jockey, Eric. Eric had ridden Mommasgottarun every time for us, and knew her well.  Linda and I returned together to the Horseman’s Lounge to watch the race from the window and on the TV screens that were all around. Linda even had a pair of binoculars. The “Group” gathered together and watched the race intently.
 
You can watch this very race on YouTube today. Search for “Mommasgottarun-2023-the Distaff”. You will see that my horse, number 8 with Eric wearing a blue and yellow helmet cover, starts off trailing at the back for the first half, and then begins making her move at the top of the curve leading to the straight. She edges up to third, and looks very promising. In the Horseman’s Lounge there was a chant beginning from the group of large gentlemen. “Go Momma, go Momma!” Mommasgottarun moved up to second, the chant grew louder. I thought I was in a surreal world but I started chanting with them (as did Linda, who was clearly caught up in the moment). Momma took the lead. The shouts of “Go Momma!” were now very loud and the men were jumping up and down. If you listen to the YouTube commentary, you will notice that the track announcer clearly liked the name because he keeps repeating “Mommasgottarun” as she races around.
 
She hung on to the lead and won. My new friends were ecstatic. I was hugged. I went down with Linda to the winner’s circle where I was interviewed (and my son saw me on a sports channel) and presented with the trophy (which is a very handsome, large silver tray). An outrider on a horse, went out to the track to take Mommasgottarun in to the winner’s circle by her bridle. Eric told her that this might not be a good idea since Mommagottarun would try to bite her horse. She, intelligently, stayed a respectful distance.
 
We try to take a “win” photograph of Linda, Eric the jockey sitting on Momma, the trophy, myself and, suddenly appeared, Eric’s family. Mommasgottarun did not want to have her photograph taken. She swerved and dodged. Eventually, after three attempts and walking her around, she stood still just long enough for the official photograph to be snapped.
 
That, dear reader, was a fun day at the races for me.
 
So what happened to Mommasgottarun? She had given her all for that race. There were a number of articles, in horse magazines in the U.S. and even around the world, about the horse that won a stakes race five days after running in another. She had earned back her price many times, and I was approached by the farm where she was foaled. They offered a lot of money for her to join their band of broodmares. It was time to retire her while she was sound, happy, and not burned out. With nostalgia, Linda put her on a truck for Kentucky, where she would be bred to an outstanding stallion. True to form, it was not easy to get Mommasgottarun on the horse van. She refused several times to get on. She kicked her back hooves up as she entered. She was going to be a mother, and would, surely, produce lovely foals. I hope they are as feisty and run as well as she did.
 
And that is my horse story. Jayme had CB who she rode and loved. I had Mommasgottarun, who gave me a wonderful experience (and a trophy, and a beautiful win photograph with me grinning from ear to ear). I will not forget her.
 
  
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