Dance With Fate wins the 2014 Blue Grass Stakes. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)
I drove in to Louisville pretty late, maybe 11 p.m. It was the night before the Kentucky Derby and I hadn’t even had a minute alone to look at a Daily Racing Form and figure out what I was going to bet the next day.
I found a diner near my hotel that was open all night, and I grabbed a booth in the corner near the window and ordered coffee and eggs. I opened up the Form, took out a pen, and set to work. Eventually, the waitress came over with my food. She waited for me to move my Form out of the way to set down the plate.
“You figure it out, yet?” she asked me.
“Not hardly,” I replied.
“I like the 12,” she said, matter-of-factly. I imagined she had shared that bit of information with every customer she’d had all day. “The black one.”
I looked at the name by the number 12 - Dance With Fate.
“I know this horse,” I told her. “I’m supposed to interview the trainer tomorrow.”
“You a writer? I had you figured for a horseplayer.”
“I’m trying to be both,” I said, cryptically.
“Well … the 12. That’s the one I like.” She hadn’t flinched. She topped off my coffee. “Probably gonna be a longshot.”
“Why do you like him?”
“I love the black ones. And I love a horse that comes from behind. That’s how he did in the Blue Grass. Come on at the very end. I like that.”
I drew a star next to Dance With Fate on my Racing Form real big so she could see it.
She didn’t notice.
Dance With Fate wasn’t technically black, though his shiny, dark-brown coat was about as dark as brown could get without being technically black. When the horse was doused in water in the mornings or after a race, you could see your reflection in his dappled coat.
DANCE WITH FATE TRAINS AT CHURCHILL DOWNS
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
Corey Nakatani was going to ride Dance With Fate in the Kentucky Derby. He was wearing pink silks with blue trim and the letters “ABC” on the back. The ABC stood for the three partners that owned Dance With Fate - Sharon Alesia, Bran Jam Stables and Joe Ciaglia. They purchased Dance With Fate for $120,000 as a 2-year-old in training after a recommendation from bloodstock agent Larry Zap and trainer Peter Eurton. Since then, the colt had gone on to place in two Grade 1s as a 2-year-old and compete in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Dance With Fate ran three times before the Kentucky Derby as a 3-year-old, on turf and on synthetic surfaces, and had just won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland a few weeks earlier.
I met Larry Zap and Peter Eurton in the Bran Jam box on the very crowded finish line stretch at Churchill Downs on Derby day. The energy was palpable. Both the friends and family of the various partners and the family of Peter Eurton were buzzing with excitement. Eurton himself was stoic. He agreed to enter Dance With Fate in the Kentucky Derby at the urging of the partners, but that was never part of the plan. They had always pointed the horse toward the Blue Grass, a race run on a synthetic surface, similar to the surface that the horse had raced on at Golden Gate Fields and at Del Mar, where he had broken his maiden in August 2013.
Prior to entering the Blue Grass, Eurton had said that they weren’t using the Blue Grass as a prep for the Derby. But that was before Dance With Fate won.
Winning the Blue Grass launched Dance With Fate into third-place in points for the Kentucky Derby, and the horse’s owners felt like it was a once in a lifetime opportunity - they had to take a chance.
“Roll the dice,” Zap explained, shouting over the crowd that was cheering on the race. “There’s no other race like it in the world. It’s an important piece of Americana. It’s history.”
Eurton agreed despite acknowledging that he thought the horse was probably better on turf than on dirt.
DANCE WITH FATE BREAKS HIS MAIDEN AT DEL MAR
Photo by Benoit Photo
Still, if you had seen that horse eat up that stretch in the Blue Grass, you could see how someone might convince themselves they had a horse to beat all horses under that saddlecloth.
Perhaps Dance With Fate was just now coming in to his prime. Perhaps he was so game, so ready, it wouldn’t matter if he was running on gravel. Britney Eurton, Peter Eurton’s daughter, was a believer. She silenced anyone she heard suggesting another horse might win, or that it mattered not if today was Dance With Fate’s day. Her faith was strong. Her father found the middle ground. “If it isn’t our horse, I hope California Chrome wins,” he allowed.
In the fourth race on the Kentucky Derby undercard, Eurton had another entry - a horse named Kyriaki. A 4-year-old filly turfer who had been running in graded stakes but was 1-for-8 lifetime. Unlike Dance With Fate, Kyriaki was expected to win her race. She was the morning-line favorite. She disappointed the bettors and the Eurtons with a seventh-place finish.
Kyriaki was a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. She was tortured for refusing to renounce her faith. They say that when she was thrown to the dogs, the dogs would go quiet; when she was thrown into a fire to be burned alive, the flames were extinguished. The more they tried and failed to torture her, the more people were inspired and moved to faith themselves.
Somewhere between “My Old Kentucky Home” and the loading of the starting gate, the Dance With Fate crew got their game faces on. Britney Eurton stood front and center in the owner’s box, her hands nervously gripping the bar in front of her. She wore an elegant, cream-colored dress accented only by the pink Dance With Fate buttons and the shock of a pink ribbon on her hat. She stared off at the starting gate as they loaded the horses. She didn’t look nervous. She smiled. He’s going to win the Kentucky Derby.
The thing about these closers - these horses that like to come on at the very end, to borrow a phrase - is you never know when to start worrying. Dance With Fate stayed well back in the pack for much of the race. And everyone in the Bran Jam box just looked around at each other, searching for a sign in Peter or anyone’s eyes that there was something to be concerned about. But then coming in to the stretch, on that final turn, Dance With Fate finally clocked in for work. He started eating up that Churchill Downs track just like he had done in Lexington.
He was flying.
Britney Eurton’s eyes opened wide. Her grip on the bar released and moved to the woman next to her. This is it. The horse flew ahead, gaining ground on the leaders. The 165,000 people at the track probably missed it. All eyes were on California Chrome, the favorite, taking the lead. But Dance With Fate didn’t quit because Chrome was on the lead. Dance With Fate never quit in the stretch. For Dance With Fate, the stretch was his world. The final furlongs were his entire race. He’d catch California Chrome same as he caught Medal Count, same as he caught Pablo Del Monte.
DANCE WITH FATE (OUTSIDE, PINK COLORS) CLOSES IN DERBY
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
He swelled up boldly and went forward, ready to put in his best closing effort. But wait - who was this on the outside? Commanding Curve, one of the few horses with less win money bet on him than Dance With Fate, was making a final rally of his own. And he appeared to squeeze Dance With Fate between horses and close off his path. Dance With Fate had to hesitate a bit, and in doing so lost the momentum, lost the race.
Britney Eurton saw it. Maybe she was the only person at the track who saw it. Maybe she was the only one with her eyes on Dance With Fate at that moment. But she saw it. Her expression turned off like a light. She went still. It was over. He wouldn’t win. But he didn’t quit.
Once clear, Dance With Fate kept running, kept putting in that work. But it would only be enough for sixth place — a respectable, tremendous finish for a horse that wasn’t even expected to be there.
As the crowd of well-wishers and TV cameras pushed past me to follow California Chrome’s owners down the stairs on their way to the winner’s circle, I glanced up at Britney Eurton and saw her offering conciliatory hugs to Dances With Fate’s owners. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a betting slip - $50 to win on the 12 - and let it slide from my hand and flutter to the floor.
He hadn’t made history, he hadn’t rewarded his faithful with a win, but he was heroic nonetheless. He showed them he was one of the fastest horses alive, that he deserved to race among the best, that he had much more to give on the racetrack.
Dance With Fate galloped that final furlong in the Kentucky Derby barrel-to-barrel with the best of his generation. Nobody knew it at the time, but it would be his final dance.
Thank you, Dance With Fate, from all of us ever watched you run around that oval, and all of us you ever touched.
Video courtesy of carlykaiser YouTube channel.