Sylvia Heft poses with jockey Sheldon Russell and her husband Arnold Heft in the winner’s circle. (Photo credit: Karl Merton Ferron)
Craig Brownstein of PuckBuddys writes for Russian Machine Never Breaks.
Next to the Preakness Stakes, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, the biggest day on the Free State’s racing calendar is a championship series for horses who claim a pedigree connected to Maryland stallion.
In its 26th renewal Saturday, the feature race, the Maryland Million Classic, was won by a runner who claims Russian ancestry. Eighttofasttocatch, a four-year-old chestnut gelding, was named after Caps Captain Alex Ovechkin. “Catcher” is a well-regarded race horse campaigned by Arnold Heft (an NBA ref back in the day), former co-owner of the Bullets who purchased the team along with Abe Pollin in 1964.
According to the official chart of the race, he dragged his feet a little bit in the early going, only to thunder down the stretch to win by nearly two lengths. He “gathered momentum leaving the half mile marker, moved to collar the leader approaching the stretch, kicked clear in upper stretch, responded to solid right hand pressure (a.k.a. the whip) leaving the eighth pole, drifted out slightly near the sixteenth pole and held sway.” That sounds an awful lot like the last half of the Caps 2010-2011 regular season and playoff run, all except for the holding sway part, of course.
“Though I owned the Bullets and the Capitals with Mr. Abe Pollin, we never really had a champion,” Arnold Heft told The Baltimore Sun. “This has to be the biggest thing for my wife and me. This is my first real champion, and I’m 92 years old.”
Sylvia Heft also chimed in. “We’ve been in horseracing and sports a long time,” she said. “This has to be the best day we’ve ever had.”
As the betting public’s choice, Catcher was hammered at the windows and went off as the post time favorite at 4-5. He rewarded his backers $3.60 for the win, topped a $20.80 exacta and a downright paltry $41.20 trifecta. “Chalk,” as they say around the ovals.
And like Ovechkin, who claims Olympians in his pedigree, Catcher’s bloodlines read like a who’s who of some of the turf’s greatest champions: Count Fleet (1943 Triple Crown winner), Turn-to, Nearctic, Native Dancer, Northern Dancer, Nashua, Swaps, Bold Ruler (Secretariat’s sire), and Mr. Prospector, the most successful stallion ever led into the breeding shed.
There’s a heartwarming back story to Catcher’s success on the track. Top Thoroughbreds are often known to be mercurial and enigmatic. Sound familiar? In the preview of the race in today’s Washington Post, noted turf writer Sanda McKee tells us about what keeps Catcher’s nerves in check, a pet pygmy goat named Gigi. For centuries race horses have companion animals, often goats, which keep them calm — a four-legged horse whisperer if you will. In the old days, to gain an advantage on race day, unscrupulous trainers would kidnap a top horse’s pet or get one’s goat. We think back to last season when there was talk of a Sasha Whisperer, Jason Arnott, who kept that other Russian focused and on his game, too. Since trading Arnott, we think GMGM might want to consider if he can shrewdly pick up Gigi before the trade deadline.
This week’s Horse Hockey news involves more than just Eighttofasttocatch. Word just came down that another horse named after a notable hockey player suffered an injury. Sean Avery the horse was sidelined again with a bowed tendon.
The five-year-old gelding pulled up lame after his most recent win at Saratoga in the Vanderbilt Stakes. The horse, who we assume to be every bit as obnoxious as his namesake, will be rested over the winter and with luck, put back into training next spring.
We wish the equine Avery the best of luck and for a speedy recovery. For the hockey fans who happen to be railbirds, there may be no better contest next spring than a match race between Eighttofasttocatch and Sean Avery. Caps vs. Rangers? We know how that one will turn out.