With John Henry unable to run, Strawberry Road II is probably the best horse in the $2 million Breeders' Cup turf race. But that, of course, doesn't mean he'll win Saturday. If past performances are any guide, the thoroughbred from Australia will find some excruciating and frustrating new way to lose.
Nobody looking in a racing form at Strawberry Road II's past performances possibly could guess that the 5-year-old is one of the top horses in the world. He has won only once in his last eight races, and that victory came by a nose, in Baden-Baden, West Germany, not one of the great citadels of the sport.
Strawberry Road II had been a national hero in his homeland, a Derby winner and horse of the year. But he had been over-raced and his form had declined when he was sold this spring and trainer John Nicholls took over his management.
When Nicholls announced his plans for the horse, he conceded, "A lot of people thought we were idiots."
Strawberry Road II would go to Germany for a prep race, then to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France, then to the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel, then to the Breeders' Cup, then to the Japan Cup in Tokyo.
As things turned out, the horse has justified his trainer's confidence. He has handled his thousands of miles of travel with no difficulty.
His problems have come in a couple of 1 1/2-mile journeys with bonehead jockeys on his back.
"Everybody told me I'd be crazy to bring an Australian jockey to the Arc because Longchamps is a very special kind of course," Nicholls said. "So I got Greville Starkey, who'd won the Arc before. He was always close to the leaders, but when he came to the stretch, instead of letting him progress gradually, he cut him loose and went four lengths in front. In the last 50 meters he had nothing left."
Even detached observers who saw the Arc were stunned by the ineptitude of Starkey's ride.
"The press called him an assassin," Nicholls said.
So when Strawberry Road II came to Laurel, Nicholls brought in a new jockey, Australian-born Gary Moore. People who witnessed the International won't easily forget his performance.
Moore stayed on the rail most of the way and, when Strawberry Road II started to accelerate on the backstretch, he presumably hoped the horses in front of him were about to vaporize. He raced right into a wall of horses and was stopped cold.
"The race was gone then," Nicholls said. But Moore wasn't finished. He accelerated again, ran into another wall of horses and was stopped again. When Strawberry Road II recovered, Moore swung him wide and he rallied strongly to be third, only 3 1/2 lengths behind the victorious Seattle Song.
His performance left little doubt that he was the best horse in the International. And now that John Henry, the world's top money-winning thoroughbred, has an injured ankle, the horses coming out of the International appear to be the strength of the Breeders' Cup. (Seattle Song very likely will be the betting favorite.)
Nicholls knew his choice of a jockey would be crucial. He didn't pick Greville Starkey. He didn't pick Gary Moore. But cynical locals did chuckle when he gave the riding assignment to Bill Shoemaker.
The 53-year-old Shoe is long past his prime. He rode in the major local prep for the Breeders' Cup, the Oak Tree Invitational, and got Treizieme in so much trouble you might have thought Moore or Starkey was riding.
So new disaster could befall the Australian horse at Hollywood Park Saturday. And even after the Breeders' Cup, the considerable talent of Strawberry Road II may continue to be a well-kept secret.