Another special Bluegrass Warrior?

| January 6, 2011

An interesting name popped up a few days back as I was reading a piece on young horses with promising pedigrees that have yet to score their first, or maiden victory.

I stopped cold when I saw the name Bluegrass Warrior.

Now this Bluegrass Warrior is an unraced 3-year-old homebred owned by WinStar Farm and trained by Richard Budge. He has a very solid, purely Winstar pedigree: he’s by their Kentucky Derby runner-up Bluegrass Cat out of the Distorted Humor mare Awesome Humor.

Could be good

With that pedigree, he could turn out to be a very nice colt and I’m anxious to see what happens when he hits the track. But I’m not sure he could ever have the heart and determination of another Bluegrass Warrior that I remember very fondly from his long career at Kentucky and Ohio tracks.

Bluegrass Warrior was not fast and was never a threat to run in the Kentucky Derby or a Breeders’ Cup race, but he was sound and, as we love to say in racing, he could run all day. Trained by Joanie Cook, Bluegrass Warrior was a claiming horse that specialized in long distance races.

Distance Runner

The bread-and-butter race for Cook’s veteran was the long distance starter allowance race. Those events attracted horses that had generally run for a low-level claiming price in the $6,250-$10,000 range, but could run in starter allowances without the threat of being claimed by another stable. His preferred distance was the Kentucky Derby’s mile and a quarter and beyond, and he was a frequent competitor in the once-common two-mile starter allowance races at Churchill Downs – which would often run a race at two-miles on the closing day of its twice-annual meets – and at Turfway Park and Ellis Park, which used to run a race called The Twice Around at two miles on the closing day of the Henderson track’s annual meet.

The long-winded Bluegrass Warrior hit the ground as a foal in 1985. The gelded son of Navajo raced into his 13th year before Cook sent him to a gentle retirement on the farm.

Raced 125 times

During that long career, the 1985 model Bluegrass Warrior ran 125 times and compiled a record of 21-15-10 in those races. He earned $231,533 in that long career in which his average winning distance was 13.65 furlongs. As a point of reference, the Derby’s 1 1/4 miles is a 12-furlong distance.

Bluegrass Warrior’s last career win cam on Nov. 10, 1996 at Churchill Downs, when he rallied to win by a nose at 1 1/2 miles. His last race came in 1998, and Tom LaMarra of the industry trade publication The Blood-Horse reported Bluegrass Warrior died in 2008 at the age of 23. He had suffered an aneurysm while galloping in a field and Cook, his longtime trainer, was at his side when he passed.

Have to be special

While the Bluegrass Warrior that awaits his racing debut could turn out to be a very good horse, he would have to be extraordinarily special to supplant the long-distance specialist of that name in my heart.

All who love racing have favorite horses. My first favorite thoroughbred was Dike, who finished third behind unbeaten Majestic Prince and eventual Horse of the Year Arts and Letters in the 1969 Kentucky Derby. Another favorite was Ferdinand, who won the 1986 Derby for the legendary “Sunshine Boys” duo of trainer Charlie Whittingham, who won his first Derby, and Bill Shoemaker, who won won his third and final Run for the Roses that day.

Other favorites of high accomplishment over the years have included horses like 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, Kentucky Oaks winner Blushing K.D. and local multi-millionaire Perfect Drift. But for fans who follow the sport year-round, horses like Bluegrass Warrior of 1985 can mean must as much. Prairie Bayou, the runner-up in the 1993 Derby and winner of that year’s Preakness, remains an all-time personal favorite.

I have a long list of those in my mind and heart. Sir Lightning, also born in 1985, started his career with promise at Hollywood Park for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. A half-brother to champion filly Life’s Magic, Sir Lightning’s body ultimately betrayed him, but he kept running for years after being claimed from the Lukas barn and spent most of his life running in claiming races in Kentucky and Ohio.

Met at Keeneland

In fact, he and Bluegrass Warrior had an early meeting in Oct. 1988 at Keeneland, with Sir Lightning edging that rival by four lengths in a match of horses that would become fixtures in lower level races on the Kentucky circult.

Although his physical tools did not allow him to enjoy the success enjoyed by his champion sister, I don’t know if I ever saw a horse with more heart. If he got his head in front in the stretch, he rarely let another horse pass him.

Sir Lightning ended his career in 1996 with a record of 18-11-10 in 96 races and earnings of $163,275. He generated lots of smiles from fans who backed him through those years.

I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only racing fan with horses like Bluegrass Warrior and Sir Lightning in prominent spots in our respective personal Halls of Fame. Mine includes names like Country Hick, Play Turn, Patpong Queen, R Junior and DeMito, the latter a horse that won the feature race on the day of my first visit to Churchill Downs.

You don’t have to be Zenyatta to have a prominent place in our hearts, and it’s our affection and respect for horses like those low-level stars that separate our sport from casinos and slots parlors. You can find special horses at every level of our game and that’s a beautiful thing.

The new Bluegrass Warrior could turn out to be a special talent, but I think Joanie Cook would join me in agreeing that, no matter what the latest model achieves, this unraced 3-year-old will have much to accomplish if he’s to a horse as special as the Bluegrass Warrior that we admired.

A quick note regarding last week’s Eclipse Award selections: I omitted a choice for top Sprinter of 2010. I would cast a vote, if I had one, for Majesticperfection, who displayed brilliance before an injury knocked him out of the Breeders’ Cup picture.

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