It is rare, in racing or in life, when anybody gets a chance to relive the past and correct mistakes. But Turkoman will have this opportunity in the Widener Stakes at Hialeah Park Saturday.
In November, Turkoman finished third in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, losing to Proud Truth and Gate Dancer. But trainer Gary Jones said, "I'll always think he could have won it," and there are plenty of neutral observers who share his assessment.
On a day at Aqueduct when the inside part of the track was disadvantageous, and all the winners were making wide moves on the turn, Turkoman tried to rally on the rail, ran into heavy traffic and lost his momentum. Meanwhile, Proud Truth and Gate Dancer were swooping around the field in the middle of the track.
Saturday, these same three horses will have a rematch in the historic Widener. The six-horse field also includes Creme Fraiche, winner of the 1985 Belmont Stakes, as well as two outsiders, Mo Exception and Darn That Alarm. It figures to be one of the best races of the year.
All of the other contenders have accomplished a great deal more than Turkoman. Proud Truth, Gate Dancer and Creme Fraiche have earned nearly $6 million among them. Turkoman never has won anything more important than a Grade III stake. Yet Turkoman is listed as the 2-to-1 morning-line favorite, on the basis of his victory in a recent six-furlong prep race at Hialeah.
Hopelessly beaten as he turned into the stretch, Turkoman made up 15 lengths to win in the near-record time of 1:08 1/5. None of his rivals ever has done anything so electrifying, no matter how big their bankrolls may be. Since he proved in the Breeders' Cup that he could handle the 1 1/4-mile distance and this class of competition, Turkoman probably is the horse to beat.
But he will have to overcome some tactical disadvantages in the Widener. With no real speed in the race, a horse who can lay close to the pace probably will have an edge. But this is not Turkoman's game: "His style is to blast and make one run," Jones said.
Similarly, Creme Fraiche has convinced trainer Woody Stephens that he is effective only when he comes from far behind. Gate Dancer has no choice; he has no tactical speed.
Only Proud Truth has the versatility to take advantage of a slow pace in the Widener, and he seems to be regaining the sharpness that carried him to the Breeders' Cup victory.
After that triumph, Proud Truth made an ill-fated journey to California, where he was soundly trounced in two stakes at Santa Anita. "We thought he didn't like the track out there," said assistant trainer and exercise rider Charlie Rose, who accompanied the 4-year-old to the West. "But we really couldn't be sure until he came back to Florida and started training great again."
Proud Truth ran a strong race in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, losing by a nose to Skip Trial, to indicate he will be Turkoman's toughest rival Saturday.
Creme Fraiche will be tough, too, especially if the weather forecasters are correct. Rain has been falling on south Florida for much of the last week, and it is expected to continue through Saturday. Running in the slop is Creme Fraiche's best game; the little gelding won the Belmont under those conditions. So Turkoman is facing plenty of difficult obstacles as he attempts to score the first major stakes victory of his career. But if he can do it against this high quality field, under adverse conditions, the sport will have an authentic new star.