Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Einstein: Living up to brilliance

Originally published at smilepolitely.com.

The day of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, I was glued to the rail at Churchill Downs and shaking my head at this 8-year-old girl standing next to me who had been hitting the long shots all day like some kind of pint-sized prophet. She had garnered a small crowd, a fan base that grew with each remarkable pick; in three straight undercard races, this girl picked long shot winners with her own scientific method: the color of the horse's saddle cloth. Each time she won, the surrounding crowd would go into hysterics; her dad lifted her up on his shoulders and people began to beg the little girl for her next pick. I had to comfort myself in knowing that since she was only picking the winners of maiden claiming and allowance races, it would only be a matter of time before my knowledge of horseflesh would eventually win out in the end (thankfully, she didn't pick Mine That Bird for the Derby later on, or I'm sure my head would've exploded). Admittedly, I'm terrible at picking anything but stakes horses because I don't follow the contenders.

But when the field began to parade for the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, I confess a ghost of a sneer crossed my face when I glanced at the tiny prophet. Am I so sinister? Well, maybe I was a little jealous this kid who knew nothing about horses was picking 60% or better on the undercard races, but I also knew this: because she didn't follow the stakes horses like I did, there was no way in hell she was picking the winner of this race based solely on the color of his saddle cloth. After all, she was picking against Einstein.

Like a fine wine, the striking black horse named Einstein has only grown better with age. He is a 7-year-old horse, a stallion, and as hard-knocking as they come; aptly named, Einstein has shown brilliance on all surfaces, from turf and dirt to the tricky synthetics. It hardly needs explanation how rare a horse he is to be able to handle all these surfaces ambidextrously; while most horses need to be coddled and kept to one surface, perish the thought if the ground should turn up imperfect, Einstein has handled them all and is always right there when it counts. He is simply a horse who knows how to win; Einstein has found victory coming from dead last, sitting mid-pack, off the pace, and on the lead—there is essentially nothing this horse can't do. The past two years, he has finished in the money more than 70% of the time. While he has his quirks, like any mortal, he has battled obstacles few horses could come back from and persevered, a champion to the end.

The first time Einstein tried a dirt surface was in his fifth start; the track was a sealed slop at Gulfstream. He romped by seven lengths, winning in front-running fashion after he had raced each of his previous races from dead last. He won his first stakes race in the Grade I Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Stakes on February 25, 2006. Einstein was four years old.

While it hardly seems plausible Einstein could ever be considered an underdog, one only has to look at his towering stablemate to understand how this versatile horse started out as "second best." The time was brief, but the impression was lasting. Trainer Helen Pitts had two promising horses in her barn in the beginning 2007—Einstein and this chestnut 3-year-old colt named Curlin. After Curlin's maiden race, where he romped by a commanding 12 ¾ lengths, the majority interest in the chestnut was privately sold to Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables in a partnership with Satish Sanan, and he was moved to trainer Steve Asmussen's barn to prep for the Kentucky Derby. With Curlin's tremendous prospects no longer her concern, Pitts was left without a chance at having her first contender for the Kentucky Derby, and was eventually forced to watch the colt win the next two Eclipse Awards for Horse of the Year. Einstein was her consolation, but he has hardly turned out to be a feeble prize.

Imagine the devastation Ms. Pitts had to endure when on May 19, 2007, Einstein ran headlong into tragedy while Curlin emerged as the winner of the second leg of the Triple Crown with the Preakness Stakes. On the undercard for the Preakness, Einstein was entered in the Dixie Stakes at Pimlico and unseated jockey Robby Albarado when the horse tripped and fell over Mending Fences, the front-running horse who broke down on the backstretch. Though Einstein was not badly injured in the Dixie, and picked himself up and finished the race riderless, he sustained a bruised splint bone and did not race again for eight months.

Einstein returned to winning form in his comeback race, a one-mile allowance on turf at Gulfstream, but failed to impress in his next start, when he finished sixth in the Grade I Donn Handicap. But after the Donn, he would do no worse than second place in his next five starts, winning his second Gulfstream Park Turf Stakes, as well as his first Woodford Reserve Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs; in the Grade I Stephen Foster on dirt, he finished second to Curlin.
And then came what seemed like a no-brainer to the Einstein camp, to run him in the prestigious Grade I Arlington Million. But the race was over for the black horse the moment he stumbled badly coming out of the gate, and the soft Arlington turf course didn't provide him with the kick he needed, letting him do no better than fifth. But after a breather, Einstein returned to Churchill Downs and the dirt, and defeated the champion Commentator in his first stakes victory on the surface in the Grade II Clark Handicap.

Einstein has proven to have certain races that just elude him; one is the Donn Handicap, another is the Stephen Foster, and the last is the Arlington Million. I don't think there is or will ever be another horse that can claim that. He fared better in the 2009 renewal of the Donn, finishing 3rd, but finished fifth again in his second try at the Million. But Einstein was saving himself for a more historic feat when he flew to California and conquered the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap his first time over a synthetic surface. Not only was the Santa Anita Handicap his richest win to date, he made Helen Pitts the first woman trainer ever to win the classic race.

Though I hadn't been at the track when I watched Einstein win the Santa Anita Handicap, I was screaming almost equally as loud as that day at Churchill Downs when Einstein began to unwind that long stride and he began to duke it out with the talented Cowboy Cal in the Woodford Reserve Turf. There he was, Einstein, the Comeback Kid, the Man of Many Faces, showing us all he had, starting to smoke like a rocket ready for blast-off. You can bet that 8-year-old prophet next to me on the rail was initiated into what it was really like to root for a horse when Einstein came flying past the wire in a flurry of flared nostrils and shredded grass, becoming the first horse ever to repeat victories in that Grade I test. It's one thing to bet on a horse, another to really love one.

Though Einstein was denied his opportunity to emulate Lava Man and be a Grade I winner on three different surfaces when he tried the Stephen Foster again, finishing a hard-luck third to Macho Again after stumbling at the start and being boxed in and checked in the stretch, he never failed to display class and heart. He finished second in the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar to Baffert-trained Richard's Kid as a prep race for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

But the Breeders' Cup Classic was just not meant to be for Einstein. While the race provided a number of obstacles for the champion, number one being the dominatrix Zenyatta, Einstein's scheduled last race disappointed his connections so much that they decided to give him one last shot at glory. The site of this race will be Churchill Downs, the place where Einstein has proven so dominant, winning beneath the twin spires on both turf and dirt. How fitting it will be that Einstein takes his career bow at the track he has dominated with such authority.

Perhaps his most bitter career defeat was in the 2009 Stephen Foster, where Einstein never really got the opportunity to run. He will get the chance to take on the horse that beat him, Macho Again, when he enters the gates on Black Friday. Though he will never be secured a second opportunity at a Grade I dirt race if this be his final start, it would be with sweet revenge if he should show the gray horse what an unchecked, un-boxed Einstein can do over the Churchill dirt. For whatever reason, Einstein has fallen in love with the dirt at Churchill more than any other track, and it has been good to him.

Einstein has given Helen Pitts a great ride, carrying her to victory on both sides of the continent, cementing her name, as well as his own, into the record books. To be given the opportunity to watch this 7-year-old horse compete at the top of his game, when he could’ve been retired to the breeding shed years ago is an honor, and win or lose in the Clark Handicap, Einstein will go down in history as one of the few horses who ever lived up to his lofty name. Dirt or turf, synthetic or slop, he has met each test with the same heart and determination, and that in itself is more than you could ever hope for in a single horse. Einstein may not be able to boast the kind of streaks like the Curlins and Zenyattas of the world, but that only makes him more relatable to us humans; perhaps the lesson he has taught us is more invaluable, too: that we can rise from the ashes of defeat to achieve what was once merely a pipedream.

See updated information of the Clark, including post positions, at Bloodhorse.com.

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