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.
When handicaps fell out of favor in the United States, these races were transformed into “starter allowances,” with varying weight assignments but none so high as to crush a superior horse. Lou Raffetto Jr., former racing secretary at Laurel and other prominent tracks, observed, “I was never a big fan of starter allowances, because if you can’t adjust the weights, you can’t do anything to ensure that the race is competitive.”
If a horse has the form of a $10,000 claimer and he is eligible for a $5,000 starter allowance race, he’s got an edge. With the form of a $50,000 horse, Rapid Redux is virtually unbeatable under these conditions. He has run mostly against small fields of overmatched rivals, and he has been the odds-on favorite in his last 16 starts. Rival trainers frequently scratch out of races where Rapid Redux has been entered, making the fields less competitive and prompting a flurry of rumors that Cole is persuading other trainers to scratch. Any chicanery would probably be superfluous: Rapid Redux doesn’t need help to win these races.
When a boxer beats up on a succession of carefully selected pushovers — “tomato cans” — none but the naive would look at a 22-0 record and declare that this is the next Marciano. If the Maryland basketball team wins games against opponents such as Radford, Albany and Samford, nobody is going to hail the Terps as a champion until they face some real challenges. So is a 22-race winning streak compiled under these circumstances worthy of acclaim and an Eclipse Award?
In another era it would not have been. When the mare Peppers Pride won 19 races in a row — all against New Mexico-bred competition — the racing world yawned in 2008. But Rapid Redux compiled his streak in a year that underscored the shortcomings of contemporary American thoroughbreds. Horses are not durable, and too many of them don’t fulfill their potential because of injuries. The champion 3-year-old, Animal Kingdom, was sidelined after racing five times in 2011. Tizway, probably the most talented older horse, managed to race only four times before infirmities forced his retirement. Faced with such fragility, trainers are afraid to campaign horses aggressively and pick their spots cautiously. Havre de Grace raced seven times, faced males only twice and beat them once — hardly an ambitious or illustrious campaign.
In the modern racing world, there is a lot of truth to Woody Allen’s maxim that “80 percent of life is just showing up.” Rapid Redux showed up at mid-Atlantic tracks week after week. While most horses manage to lose races they appear certain to win, he never did. He delivered his maximum effort every time he stepped on the track. In years past his durability and consistency might not have seemed exceptional, but in 2011 they were the rarest of virtues.
For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.