Donn Handicap day at Gulfstream Park was a perfect way to spend a Sunday. We were treated to some truly memorable horse racing with the complement of the warm sun and a cool ocean breeze. I don’t think anyone could blame me if I’m secretly praying that the snow prevents me from heading home to the frozen north tomorrow.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m one of two-time Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint champion Groupie Doll’s fans. She was sold after her 2013 win in that race, and her new owner Mandy Pope, who bought the Doll to breed her, was kind enough to continue to run her so fans could see “their” horse for a little while longer. Today’s Hurricane Bertie Stakes was to be the final start of Groupie Doll’s career, and I know that I wasn’t alone in my anticipation to see her run for the last time.
The Hurricane Bertie was scheduled as the fourth race on the afternoon’s program, and as the stakes horses walked toward the paddock after the third contest of the day fans gathered around the entry path to see Groupie Doll arrive for the last time.
As the Doll walked toward the saddling enclosure, fans called out to her, wishing her luck or just shouting her name. And after Groupie Doll had been saddled and entered the walking ring, more fans crowded the paddock to give her more encouragement. It was so moving to hear the outpouring of love and support for her – she really became a “people’s horse” in her career through her unlimited heart, grit and determination.
As the horses made their way onto the track and to the starting gate, the crowd surged forward to find the best vantage point to watch the race. Gulfstream Park was packed, and the crowd was here to bid adieu to the Doll.
The race, the Hurricane Bertie, is a sprint at only six-and-a-half furlongs (a furlong is equal to an eighth of a mile) so the starting gate was a little more than half way around the track from the finish line. When the gates opened and the race began, Groupie Doll apparently decided to give her fans heart palpitations by lagging at the start, and midway down the backstretch she was spotting the field about 10 lengths. But when she hit the turn for home, the Doll swung wide around four other horses and put her motor on overdrive. As she pulled away from the field, jockey Rajiv Maragh just let her cruise, and when she neared the finish line he pumped his fist in acknowledgement of his and Groupie Doll’s numerous wins together.
As the pair galloped back after the race, fans in the stands cheered them home. The smile on Rajiv’s face at that moment said it all: he and Groupie had had one heck of a ride in their time together, and to go out winners in such spectacular fashion was the best curtain call anyone could imagine.
As they arrived at the Winner’s Circle, high-fives were exchanged and Mandy Pope led her horse to get their picture taken.
Groupie even gave a little bow, the perfect ending to a wonderful career.
As he left the Winner’s Circle after the race, jockey Rajiv Maragh was happy to pose for photos with his fans:
Of course, Groupie Doll’s outstanding performance in the Hurricane Bertie was just the beginning of an amazing afternoon of racing at Gulfstream; there were two more huge races on the program, and the first was the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. This is a 1 1/8-mile test on the lawn for horses four years old and up, and a field of eight talented Thoroughbreds were queued up to challenge each other for the $300,000 in prize money. I hadn’t really handicapped the race to bet on it, and that’s a very good thing: I would never in my wildest dreams have picked Lochte, who won the race at odds of 39.3-1. I mean, I wish I had that – that worked out to an $80.60 payday for a $2 win bet! His connections were truly thrilled by the win, and Lochte looked pretty pleased with himself as he crossed the finish line.
Then it was time for the big show – the Donn Handicap. Some of the top older horses in the nation (meaning that the competitors are four years old and up) had arrived for fame, glory, and a big chunk of the half-million dollars up for grabs. Will Take Charge, who narrowly missed winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2013, was the favorite, and fans were out in force to catch a glimpse of him and his fellow competitors.
All of the horses were in tip-top condition and shone in the late afternoon light as they paraded around the paddock for fans and admirers.
As the horses left the paddock and headed to the track, photographers hustled to the Winner’s Circle to secure a good spot to shoot the race. I spied the Donn’s beautiful trophy and had to take a photo; unfortunately this resulted in a rather odd selfie.
By the time I got back to my spot in line with the other photographers, it was race time! There’s nothing like the thrill of horses leaving from the starting gate for big races, especially when it happens right in front of fans in the Grandstand. There’s something about the roar of the crowd, the banter of the jockeys in the gate and the surging tide of horses springing into action that makes my blood race.
And after a mile and an eighth, it was Lea who earned his first Grade I race; and he did so with ease, cruising home with a length and a half between him and runner-up Will Take Charge.
After the win, trainer Billy Mott stepped out onto the track with a huge grin on his face. Mott is truly one of the nicest people in racing, and I think pretty much everyone that knows him was just delighted for him at that moment.
When Lea and jockey Joel Rosario got back to the Winner’s Circle, Joel was clearly very stoked: he even did his very best “King of the World!” pose:
As the pair entered the Winner’s Circle to pose for photos with Lea’s owners and trainers, this adorable little girl shouted out, “Lea! Lea! That’s my name, too!” I think that horse may have just made a fan for life.
As Lea and his connections posed for their winning photos in the setting South Florida sun, I reflected that this was a wonderful end to a great Sunday at Gulfstream Park.
I hope you enjoyed today’s racing as much as I did, and thanks for stopping by. Let me know in the comments what your favorite parts of Donn day were, and I’ll be back with more photo diaries soon!