While analyzing a race a year ago, I offhandedly dismissed one of the noncontenders as "a dog," an assessment that came back to haunt me.
The horse in question managed to overcome his canine qualities well enough to be voted the champion of his generation and to earn more money in a single year than any thoroughbred in history. During the course of that remarkable season, owner Jon Ed Anthony publicly presented me with a T-shirt that proclaimed, "Temperence Hill Is Not a Dog."
I remain unconvinced. Implausible though it may seem, Temperence Hill has managed to win $1,398,822 without running fast or beating good horses. But now that he has returned to Belmont Park after an unsuccessful trip to the West Coast, he will soon start competing against horses of measurable quality. And his dogginess is going to be exposed.
I would be tempted to predict that he will never win another stakes race in New York, except for one consideration: Temperence Hill is the luckiest horse alive, and that luck could sustain him through another season.
Temperence Hill came to prominence when he beat Genuine Risk and won the Belmont Stakes at 53-to-1 odds. Everything broke right for him that day. He liked the muddy track; Genuine Risk's form was deteriorating after a tough campaign, and there was nobody in the field capable of running 1 1/2 miles faster than 2:29 4/5. He figured to plunge back into obscurity as quickly as this year's Belmont Winner, Summing.
And, indeed, Temperence Hill did show his true colors after the Belmont. Every time he ran against top older stakes horses, he was trounced; sometimes indifferent 3-year-olds whipped him. But amid these defeats, he kept stumbling onto bonanzas.
In the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, he happened to encounter a field of horses that he couldn't go a mile and a quarter. The speedsters raced each other into defeat, and Temperence Hill plodded up the rail to win one of the slowest runnings of the Travers in years.
Trainer Joe Cantey had to be optimistic or prescient to aim his colt for a meeting with Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Spectacular Bid scared away all the serious opposition, then was scratched on the afternoon of the race, leaving Temperence Hill to win a $500,000 pot against a weak field. Two weeks later, he went to Louisiana Downs for the first (and possibly the only) running of a race called the Super Derby. No other decent horse showed up, and Temperence Hill won another $500,000 race.
Already a millionaire, Temperence Hill added to his bankroll this winter when he won a couple of lucrative stakes races at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas; he happened to be the only good horse in the state. But the party is just about over.
On Sunday, Temperence Hill finished fifth in the rich Hollywood Gold Cup behind some horses that even the West Coast chauvinists hadn't considered to be stars. That loss can't be held against him too much, since many good horses fail to reproduce their best form after a transcontinental trip. But now that he is in New York, he will be measured against the East's top older handicap horses, such as Fappiano, Winter's Tale and Amber Pass.
Somewhere along the line, there is going to be a great opportunity to put one's money on the proposition that Temperence Hill -- underneath all his laurels and his earings -- is still, essentially, a dog.