April 25, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: In tribute to Up an Octave

News item: Kentucky legislature fails to pass insurance plan for thoroughbred jockeys who have suffered catastrophic injuries.LEXINGTON, Ky. — In the walking ring at Keeneland, on a gray and drizzly Thursday afternoon, the big colt looked sleek and robust as his groom led him around in tight little circles. His name was Up an Octave, and the Vinery Stables was sending him out to the Forerunner Stakes, a grass race over the distance of a mile and an eighth.From its inception in 1950 through 1985, the Forerunner was an overnight allowance race that was popular with trainers who were getting horses ready for the Kentucky Derby. The great trainer Woody Stephens loved the Forerunner. He used it often when he was training for Capt. Harry Guggenheim’s Cain Hoy Stable, and, later, for Claiborne Farm.Ironically, the Forerunner has receded in importance after becoming a stakes. But that’s because whims and trends have forced the realignment of the racing calendar. Now, instead of drawing serious Derby contenders, the Forerunner mainly gets 3-year-olds who are slow developers or who haven’t justified their nomination to the Triple Crown winners.“How’s the turf course?”His shoulders hunched against the drizzle, Tom Ludt, the manager of the vast Vinery operation, looked quizzically at John Velasquez, the superb jockey whom trainer Todd Pletcher had retained to ride Up an Octave in the Forerunner.Velasquez shrugged, shook his head and smiled wanly. He crossed his arms, stretching Vinery’s green and white silks tight across his back.“OK, I guess,” he said. “Getting pretty soft.”For Ludt, this was not good news.“We were hoping the course would be firm,” he said, watching as Pletcher gave Velasquez his final instructions and boosted him into the saddle.A son of Brahms out of the Time for a Change mare Afleet Change, Up an Octave was just beginning to find his niche on the grass. In his previous start, with Velasquez riding him for the first time, he finished second by a neck in the $100,000 Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream.He was the sort of colt that gladdened a trainer’s heart at this time of the year, and so savvy bettors in the Keeneland crowd of 10,642 sent him off as the 4-to-5 favorite in the field of eight.Instead of watching from the clubhouse, Ludt and Vinery’s Ben Mackelroy went into the winner’s circle and stood in the mud at the rail. Neither said much until the field turned for home. Up an Octave was in the middle of the track, fighting Tahoe Warrior for the lead.Down the stretch and through the mist they came, their hooves digging up divots of turf and clods of mud. Up an Octave had every chance to quit. Instead, with Velasquez skillfully nursing every last bit of courage from him, he stuck his head in front as the field pounded past Ludt and Mackelroy, who now were in full voice.“Get him home, John. Get him home!”At the wire, Up an Octave was a clear winner. Ludy and Mackelroy hugged and exchanged high fives. But, then, suddenly the crowd gasped and became preternaturally silent. Smiles frozen, Ludt and Mackelroy whirled to look at the jumbo infield TV, which showed Velasquez on the ground and the colt falling on him.Ludt knew immediately.“He snapped a leg,” he said numbly.Despite the great technological strides in equine medicine, it’s still impossible to repair a foreleg that has been snapped in two. The only solution is to put the horse out of its misery immediately.Only a couple of minutes after the race of his young life, Up and Octave was dead.The crumpled body of Velasquez had not moved.The silence was so profound that you could hear the raindrops.When the jockey finally was placed into an ambulance and carried away, there was a smattering of applause. Keeneland president Nick Nicholson told Ludt that Velasquez had some broken bones, but was otherwise OK.The injury apparently knocked Velasquez out of the Kentucky Derby on May 6. Even at that, he was lucky. It could have been much worse. As a turf writer once observed, riding a race horse is the only job in the world where an ambulance follows you to work.There was no trophy presentation or winner’s circle photograph. The victory toast in the VIP area was canceled.The rain continued to fall as the crowd slowly came out of shock and began studying the field for the last race of the ruined day. Contact the writer at billyr@leoweekly.com