The most brilliant horse in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic is listed at 20 to 1 in the early line for Saturday's race, and few experts believe he can win. Old Trieste has been bedeviled by foot problems that have spoiled most of his season. "To see all this talent and have it stalled," said his owner, Gary Biszantz, "is like having a Rolls-Royce in the garage and you can't drive it."
On his best days, Old Trieste has looked almost invincible. At Hollywood Park in May he set a torrid pace, ran 1 1/8 miles in a sensational 1 minute 46.6 seconds and won a stakes race by seven lengths over Budroyale, a prominent Breeders' Cup contender. But his training has gone awry since then, and he lost his subsequent two starts. Some critics say this is what happens when an owner thinks he can manage his own horse.
Biszantz is the first to say that he is not a typical horse owner, and doesn't want to be. Horses have been his passion since he bought his first thoroughbred in the mid-1950s, but he was necessarily preoccupied with other business. After operating two Ford dealerships for many years, he took all of his money, borrowed more and bought a small golf club company in 1979. Biszantz built Cobra Golf into a thriving enterprise, with Greg Norman as its spokesman. American Brands bought Cobra for $700 million in 1995 and Biszantz--with 10 percent of the stock--was able to play the racing game the way he had always dreamed.
He bought a farm in Kentucky and now owns 140 horses, with runners in Europe and South America as well as the United States. But Biszantz didn't intend to be a passive participant, like most horse owners who hire top trainers and leave the major decisions to them. He hired a young trainer, Mike Puype, to work exclusively for him, and he makes it clear that theirs is a collaborative effort. "There aren't many owners who are as hands-on as I am," he said. Biszantz knows there are people in the business who think any meddlesome owner is a bad owner, but he said, "I'll put up our numbers against any of the critics."
Although he has had some high-profile success before now, Biszantz has attracted much more scrutiny since Old Trieste has been in his barn. Possessing a royal pedigree, the colt showed promise as a 2-year-old and signs of brilliance at 3, when he won a bottom-level allowance race at Santa Anita by 10 lengths. Injudiciously, Biszantz sent Old Trieste--who had not won a stakes or raced beyond a mile--to the Kentucky Derby, where he was trounced by 20 lengths after stumbling at the start. Puype theorizes that the colt might have suffered a deep-seated bruise that would be the source of his future physical problems. But until those problems surfaced, Old Trieste was unbeatable.
After the Derby, he led all the way to win three straight stakes by a combined 21 lengths before a deep abscess in his left front foot sidelined him for the remainder of the year. He returned to competition with his stunning performance at Hollywood Park that suggested he had horse-of-the-year potential. But the foot kept causing problems--and Old Trieste hasn't won since. Second-guessers say that Old Trieste shouldn't have been forced to run when he wasn't able to deliver his top performance. Biszantz and Puype say that they've been trapped by the calendar.
Ideally, Puype said, Old Trieste would have been given months to recuperate so the foot could fully heal. But practical considerations made this impossible. Biszantz sold an interest in the colt to Jonabell Farm and shares to many top breeders; Old Trieste is a blue-chip stallion prospect, and will be retired at the end of the season. If he had been rested for months, he would have lost the year. So he's been brought to the Breeders' Cup in a less-than-ideal fashion. "We had to rush his schedule," Puype said. "Everything is out of sequence."
Old Trieste was undertrained before he lost a stakes at Del Mar as the 2-to-5 favorite. He was wearing bar shoes--protective footwear that can hinder a horse's performance--when he lost to a good field at Santa Anita. In preparing for the Breeders' Cup he suffered more foot problems, necessitating the postponement of a crucial workout. But Puype finally gave him that necessary final work, and then shipped him to Florida.
Can a horse possibly be ready to run in the toughest race of his life, at a distance at which he's never won, after being compromised so much? Bruno De Julio, clocker for the California publication Today's Racing Digest, said no after watching Old Trieste train recently. When the colt exercised last week, De Julio observed: "He galloped a bit choppy and did not look like his former self. . . . He just looked poor all over. He didn't do anything right." Unimpressed by his workout Saturday, De Julio said that Old Trieste has no chance in the Classic, but was not surprised by the decision of Biszantz and Puype to run him: "Even Cinderella's evil . . . stepsisters dressed up for the dance, right?"
Biszantz and Puype acknowledge that they have had to make compromises, but they believe that Old Trieste--with two races behind him this fall--is fitter than he's been in months. They think he could be very tough at 1 1/4 miles since he figures to be the clear front-runner in the Classic.
If Old Trieste manages even a respectable finish after all of his travails, the achievement will verify what an exceptional competitor he is. But if he gets humiliated, Biszantz and Puype can expect some harsh criticism for letting such a good horse finish his career in such an inglorious fashion.