In the fall of 1987, I took a road trip up Interstate 75 from the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., to Lexington, Ky., to see the pro-tem champion of his division race for the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. This was a chestnut colt named Forty Niner that Claiborne Farm had bred and raced in the all-gold silks.
Already a victor in the Sanford, Futurity, and Champagne Stakes, Forty Niner had won four of his five starts previous to the Breeders’ Futurity, and hopes were high that he could add Keeneland’s premium event for juvenile colts to his ledger.
Before going to Keeneland for the races, I had an early afternoon tour of Claiborne on a cool fall day that had brought no other visitors to the farm. The creek water was burbling as I walked out the door of the office to the gate where the stallion groom begins the show, and the leaves on the sycamores were gold and thinning with the season.
“Having Forty Niner win the Breeders’ Futurity would mean a lot to the farm,” my guide told me when I mentioned my destination for later that afternoon. In addition to breeding Forty Niner, Claiborne also had bred and raced the dam line, going back to the Hyperion mare Highway Code that A.B. ‘Bull’ Hancock had imported in 1950. Claiborne also stood the colt’s sire, Mr. Prospector.
Most of the stallions were out for the sunshine on a Kentucky afternoon with deep blue skies and just enough breeze to keep the enraptured tourist cool. Mr. Prospector was in his paddock near the Claiborne farm office, and he was quietly grazing and only raised his head to peer at us when we walked past.
If I hadn’t known who Mr. Prospector was, we wouldn’t have commented on him unduly. He looked like a nice horse, but he was just an average nice horse at stud until his young horses began racing and made him the leading freshman sire. On the racetrack, Mr. Prospector’s results were anything but average. Already standing at Claiborne was the stallion’s champion son Conquistador Cielo, winner of the Saratoga Special at two, then of seven races in a row at three, including the Metropolitan Handicap and Belmont Stakes, that made him Horse of the Year in 1982.
Mr. Prospector had moved to Claiborne in 1980 and entered stud there in 1981; so having a homebred son of the highest caliber “would mean a lot to the farm.”
The highlight of the tour at Claiborne wasn’t Mr. Prospector, however, nor his handsome son Conquistador Cielo. The star of the show was Secretariat.
The big red horse came trotting to the gate of his paddock when we approached, arching his neck, moving his feet with the precision of a show horse, and snorting softly as Secretariat stretched his handsome head over the gate.
“You ham,” my guide chuckled, “this one is ready to go back in and get fed.”
Secretariat, always the most curious and serene of animals, had been on a diet of sorts after feasting on summer grass and apparently was feeling a mite peckish.
I could have stayed at the corner paddock that Secretariat had inherited from his sire Bold Ruler and spent the rest of the afternoon in gentle adoration, but there were others concerned here besides my monotheistic idea of devotion.
Grooms need to go racing, too.
So, we finished up our tour with a walk past Spectacular Bid and Tom Rolfe. We chatted about their classic victories, and ever attentive to his fellow horse people, the groom showing me around told me a story about one of the past tours that hadn’t ended too happily.
This was a big group, and the groom had repeatedly warned the visitors to stay on the paved walk. One rebellious fellow, however, backed up against the fence to Tom Rolfe’s paddock for someone to get a photo.
And before the groom for that group could intervene, Tom Rolfe got him.
“Tom Rolfe picked that man up,” my groom said, “grabbed him by the shoulder, lifted him off his feet, shook him like a rat, and threw him. Tom Rolfe is a little horse, but he is a stallion,” and shockingly strong.
Tom Rolfe was of particular interest that afternoon in October because he was the broodmare sire of Forty Niner, who was out of the stakes-winning mare File and from the same female family as Claiborne’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Swale, who had died tragically in 1984.
Like Swale, Forty Niner also was trained by the legendary Woody Stephens, and when I got to the Keeneland saddling paddock that afternoon, Forty Niner looked alert but calm. Ready to race. The athletic chestnut was primed to win, and he was the heavy favorite at 2-to-5.
Racing 8 1/2 furlongs for the Breeders’ Futurity, Forty Niner pressed the pace through quick fractions, looked good on the turn, and yet just managed to peg back Hey Pat by a nose at the finish. That wasn’t the textbook way to close a campaign, but with a record of five wins from six starts, Forty Niner was the 2-year-old champion.
Racing with Forty Niner, as the next season proved again and again, was a game of inches. The brave chestnut won the Haskell and Travers from Seeking the Gold by a nose each time. And each of those sons of Mr. Prospector was second to Alysheba in championship-deciding races: the Woodward (Forty Niner) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Seeking the Gold).
But those were days to come, and on a fall afternoon in Kentucky with weather made for racing at Keeneland, the day belonged to the chestnut champion who ended his season in the Futurity.