There is nothing as thrilling in horse racing as a deep closer surging past the rest of the field to complete a last-to-first rally.
It’s part of why racing fans were so drawn to Hall of Famer Zenyatta – that and the whole perfection thing. The excitement when that deep closer starts picking off rivals one at a time, when the mindset of that horse’s fans transitions from “no way in hell can he/she win” to “maybe, just maybe …” is unrivaled. Imagine the New England Patriots comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017 Super Bowl, but condense the improbable rally into about 45-47 seconds.
I’m a sucker for a closer, always have been, so it’s no surprise that one of my all-time favorite racehorses was 2004 John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now.
I was desperately rooting for “Blackie” to recover from the colic surgery he underwent on June 7 and the complications that followed. Like he did as a racehorse, Better Talk Now fought like hell to the very end, but the sad news broke Wednesday that Better Talk Now was euthanized on June 27 at age 18.
Better Talk Now had a profound impact on the lives of many, most of all the Bushwood Stables partnership of Brent Johnson, Karl Barth and Chris Dwyer, his trainer, Graham Motion and, of course, those who rode him, cared for him and fed him a steady diet of peppermints in retirement. He touched the lives of many others, especially those who were part of the Fair Hill Training Center Community in Cecil County, Md.
I was a sports writer for the local Cecil County paper, the Cecil Whig, with a circulation then of about 17,000, in 2004 and was looking for a story leading up to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
I’d been a horse racing fan since childhood. I can remember my grandfather, Pop-Pop Johnny, talking about Spectacular Bid when I was a tyke, and I visited my first racetrack with him. I was a fan of Ferdinand and Alysheba, but my passion for the sport was truly ignited by the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer rivalry in 1989. I’m the rare fan of both, although back then I was on the Easy Goer bandwagon.
After I graduated from the University of Delaware in 1997, I took a job as a copy boy at the Wilmington News-Journal and wrote three stories there in addition to taking high school scores and putting together the stats page before jumping ship for the opportunity to write full time in 2000 at the Cecil Whig. The News-Journal sports editor at the time warned me that I was making a grave mistake, but I wanted to write, so off I went.
It was at the Cecil Whig where I met my wife, Carrie, and one of my best friends, Tim Nichols. Carrie and I made the trip to Belmont Park for War Emblem’s Triple Crown bid in 2002, after which I introduced her to my sister. Two years later, Nichols joined us as we returned to Belmont as official members of the Smarty Jones brigade after I’d written a series of columns for the paper through the Triple Crown … which brings us to the fall of 2004.
Two years before, I’d done a series on Cecil County-based trainer Michael Dickinson, his Tapeta Farm synthetic racing surface and his two Breeders’ Cup entrants. The day the article went to print, one of the two horses came down with a fever and both were scratched before any readers had a chance to lay eyes on the Breeders’ Cup preview. Undeterred, I kept a close eye on Fair Hill horses with a little encouragement from future Eclipse Award winner Joe Clancy, who was a regular visitor to the sports department and an occasional contributor.
Michael Matz trained 2004 Arlington Million winner Kicken Kris and it seemed like a decent angle, so I called him out of the blue. He told me he wasn’t going to make the Breeders’ Cup but that I should check in with another Fair Hill trainer, Graham Motion. The name rang a bell, so I did some research and contacted Motion through office manager Sue Kenny, who set up the interview and remains a key part of Motion’s Herringswell Stables team.
Staff photographer Matt Given joined Carrie (who designed the sports section) and I for the visit to Fair Hill. We pulled tentatively up to the barn shortly after the morning training session like a trio of rubes. Motion was waiting and greeted us warmly.
He said the coverage from the paper was unexpected – the focus of the Cecil Whig’s sports department had been always been and remains high school sports – but he welcomed us to his environment and gave us more than an hour of his time.
Unlike Dickinson, who was also welcoming but almost bursting at the seams with energy, Motion was very relaxed. He put all of us at ease, gave us a tour, introduced us to his three Breeders’ Cup hopefuls – Filly and Mare Turf runner Film Maker, Juvenile Fillies contender Dance Away Capote and Turf runner Better Talk Now – and pulled them out of their stalls for photos.
Motion doted on Film Maker, who I’d later learn was his first Grade 1 winner, like she was a pet; he made fun of the way I pronounced Dance (daynse rather than dahnse) Away Capote; and he warned us to be very careful around Better Talk Now.
At one point later in the morning when all of the horses were back in their stalls, Motion sprung into action to rescue Given, who was backing up to get a wide-angle shot of Film Maker and edging precariously close to Better Talk Now’s corner stall. Given looked at Motion with wide eyes and asked if he thought Better Talk Now really would have bit him, and Motion made it clear that it was better not to take that chance.
Motion talked about Better Talk Now a little like he was a teenaged son who frequently got into trouble but always meant well. Better Talk Now needed a little pace in his races to set up his closing kick, he could be a little stubborn and cantankerous on the track and in the barn, and he needed a rider who was familiar with him because he needed to settle early in races – but he always tried his hardest. We also later found out that he wore a big blinker over his left eye because he had a tendency to lug in and lean on opposing horses.
When Carrie and I got back to the car, we both were bubbling with excitement and floored by what a kind, engaging person the trainer turned out to be. Given, the aforementioned staff photographer and a man of few words, surprised us by stopping by the sports department later to say, “Wow, what a nice guy!”
I wrote profiles of each of the three Breeders’ Cup contenders as well as a longer piece on Motion that, given what I know about the sport now, are a bit embarrassing but only had a few minor mistakes.
Both Kenny and Motion were very appreciative, even though I’d place the over/under on prospective owners who read those features at one, and bet the under heavily.
A few days later, Carrie and I were joined by my aforementioned colleague Nichols at Delaware Park to watch the Breeders’ Cup from Lone Star Park via simulcast, investing a decent chunk of our paltry bankroll on our three new favorite horses that we were cheering with the same vigor we’d reserved for Smarty Jones five months earlier at Belmont Park.
Dance Away Capote closed well to finish fifth of 12 in the Juvenile Fillies, and three races later, to our delight, Film Maker finished second to monster European invader Ouija Board in the Filly and Mare Turf. We were so thrilled for Motion that we almost forgot he still had Better Talk Now left to run.
Because his other horses had run so well, we put $5 on Better Talk Now to win but didn’t expect too much.
Better Talk Now actually was in pretty good form, having earned his first Grade 1 win as a 5-year-old that August when he won the Sword Dancer Invitational, and he’d seemingly found a perfect match in rider Ramon Dominquez. He had a win and two seconds in his four starts leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Turf but entered off a fourth-place finish in the Man o’ War Stakes.
Better Talk Now also was facing the biggest favorite on the entire Breeders’ Cup card in 7-to-10 Kitten’s Joy, whom racing fans had dubbed a “freak.” Overlooked at 27.90-to-1 odds, the highest in the eight-horse field, Better Talk Now shocked the racing world that day at Lone Star.
Better Talk Now took his customary position at the back of the field alongside Mustanfar, another deep closer. Dominguez saved ground on Better Talk Now early and kept him covered up behind horses as he had a tendency to become aggressive as soon as he was steered to get clear running room. Dominguez angled Better Talk Now out on the backstretch and they passed a couple of horses, but when Powerscourt made an early move to take the lead on the backstretch to really pick up the pace, Dominguez just bided his time. When the field entered the top of the stretch, Better Talk Now was in the clear and really rolling. He surged right past Kitten’s Joy and moved alongside Powerscourt with the two of them coming together and pinching off Kitten’s Joy a bit (although those who bet Kitten’s Joy that day will tell you Better Talk Now pinballed his way through the stretch).
Better Talk Now surged clear to win by 1 ¾ lengths and, after the results were upheld following inquiry, we watched the local trainer we’d met just a few days beforehand interviewed on national TV as a Breeders’ Cup winner.
We were among the few celebrating the upset Turf winner at Delaware Park that day, and we joked I’d never get Motion on the phone now for a follow-up story since he was famous.
But like Better Talk Now’s chances in the Turf, I discovered I’d misjudged Motion. He did, indeed, call me back on Sunday for a nice follow-up story on the local Breeders’ Cup winner and his big day, and Motion again told me he appreciated the coverage in the local paper.
After the Breeders’ Cup, Better Talk Now got even better. He won three of his next six starts, including Grade 1 wins in the United Nations Stakes and Man o’ War, and established himself as one of the best and, no doubt, most exciting turf runners in the country.
Every win was one of those goose-bump inducing rallies from way back that has to be seen to be believed. Better Talk Now won a graded stakes race every year from 2003 through 2007 and raced competitively in elite races until he was 10, finishing second in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer in his final race in August 2009.
The last of Better Talk Now’s five Grade 1 wins and his final victory came in the Manhattan Handicap in June 2007. It’s the perfect reminder of the thrill-ride that was being a Better Talk Now fan:
Better Talk Now finished his career with 14 wins and 27 top-three finishes from 51 lifetime starts with earnings of $4,356,664. The Talkin Man gelding took his connections to Grade 1 races from coast to coast in the U.S. He led them to Japan and to Dubai to compete against the best in the world and raced in five straight editions of the Breeders’ Cup Turf from 2004 through 2008 (he ran second in 2006).
Better Talk Now was the first multiple Grade 1 winner Motion trained and the first of his three Breeders’ Cup winners. He also was the first multiple Grade 1 winner for 2016 Hall of Fame inductee Dominguez, a three-time Eclipse Award winner.
Motion would go on to win the Kentucky Derby in 2011 and the Dubai World Cup in 2013 with Animal Kingdom, and this year’s Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets with Irish War Cry, among his more than 2,200 career wins through June 25.
After his racing career, Better Talk Now remained with Motion at Fair Hill, sharing a paddock with Motion’s first-ever stakes winner, Gala Spinaway, who turned 29 in May. The two became best friends and were treated like royalty in retirement.
A few months after the 2004 Breeders’ Cup, my colleague Nichols passed along a job opportunity in Lexington with the horse racing trade magazine Thoroughbred Times. I used my Breeders’ Cup newsclips along with my Smarty Jones columns as a foot in the door, and in March 2005, Carrie and I moved to Lexington, where we later got married and started a family.
Better Talk Now changed the lives of so many people he was associated with far, far more profoundly than my brief, distant association, but in many ways, that two-week stretch before and after the 2004 Breeders’ Cup helped shape the future of my family and my career.
I’ve worked in the Thoroughbred industry since spring 2005, and the two future Kentucky Derby winners who came out of Fair Hill, Barbaro for Matz in 2006 and Animal Kingdom for Motion in 2011, provided me access to dozens of stories.
But it really all comes back to Better Talk Now, whose picture fittingly hangs next to Barbaro’s at the heart of a horse racing collage above the sofa in our family room.
Three summers ago, we stopped by Motion’s Fair Hill barn to visit a horse we owned a (very, very, very) small percentage of, and, of course, we also visited Better Talk Now and introduced the kids to him. My daughter, Elizabeth, 8 at the time, fed him a mint and before I knew it she was petting him. I watched for a minute like a slack-jawed yokel before snapping out my daze and making sure she was safe, but Better Talk Now seemed to have mellowed out, and he could still thrill a young fan.
Of course, I later found out he still had plenty of fight in him and we probably should have kept a safer distance. Better Talk Now, it turned out, was still a fighter and he stayed that way right up to the end. Farewell, old friend.