When thoroughbred racing’s top honors were announced at the Eclipse Awards ceremonies Monday, few of the winners inspired enthusiasm. The year 2011 was a poor one for the sport, and its outstanding performer, the filly Havre de Grace, may be the weakest runner to win the horse of the year title in modern times.
Yet one American racehorse did generate interest and attention — so much, in fact, that the leaders of the industry felt they had to recognize him with a special Eclipse Award. Rapid Redux never competed at the level where championships are earned; he wouldn’t have a chance in competition against high-class horses. But he won all 19 of his starts during the calendar year, and when he captured a race at Laurel Park earlier this month, he extended his winning streak to 22 races, a modern U.S. record.
Experts in the sport may debate the significance of the 6-year-old gelding’s achievements, but the public is certainly impressed. Rapid Redux won the Vox Populi Award (“voice of the people”) created by Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery to honor the country’s most popular horse. He finished second behind Havre de Grace in fans’ voting for horse of the year conducted by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
Such celebrity status would have been unimaginable in the summer of 2010 when Rapid Redux was running in a $5,000 claiming race. Owner Robert Cole Jr. and trainer David Wells claimed him later that year for $6,250, hoping that he might be useful in lower-class races at the mid-Atlantic tracks. A high-volume wheeler-dealer with claiming horses, Cole likes old geldings because he believes they are heavier and more durable than their counterparts. Cole appreciated the animal’s high early speed and liked the fact that Rapid Redux would be eligible for certain races open to horses who had started for a claiming price of $5,000 or less. The claim, he said, “was a no-brainer.”
Rapid Redux won a few sprints for his new outfit before Cole and Wells discovered that shorter races weren’t his best game. In sprints, he was always battling at a hot pace. But at a mile or more, he could often get a comfortable early lead. And when he did, Cole said, “he’d make it a one-horse race.” Rapid Redux became better than a low-level claimer. He frequently earned Beyer Speed Figures around 88, which happens to be the average winning figure for a $50,000 claiming race at Aqueduct.
Of course, there are plenty of tough $50,000 claimers at Aqueduct who don’t run up long winning streaks because they take turns beating each other. That’s the nature of the racing game — usually.
Years ago, most tracks offered a type of race called a starter handicap, open to horses who had started for a certain claiming price. (The eligibility conditions might read: for horses who have started for a claiming price of $5,000 or less in the last 12 months.). Because the races were true handicaps — with weights assigned by the racing secretary — successful horses would be penalized by carrying higher weights, sometimes weights in the mid-130s, so they couldn’t dominate their competition week after week.