Humans and animals overcoming physical handicaps and going on to achieve great things has always been a sure way to bring out the sentimental side of people, who admire grit and resolve in the face of adversity. It most certainly sparks tremendous fan interest and inspires heartrending features in all forms of publications.
In today's animal-conscious society, where such stories trend daily on YouTube with millions of views, even the hardest of hearts have been known to soften whenever there are stories or videos of animals overcoming their afflictions to perform Lassie and Rin Tin Tin-like deeds of heroism.
In the world of Thoroughbred racing, the mighty steeds who run their hearts out often do so while overcoming aches and pains that go unnoticed. These magnificent athletes are born to run and compete, and many times they grow up asserting their superiority in the fields whether they are nicked up or not.
But when they become racehorses, there are times when physical handicaps are so visible they grab the public's attention. And nothing is more visible than a Thoroughbred with only one eye, and even more so where there is nothing but a crater-like socket, as in the case of the aptly-named Patch. And if that horse should be running in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, he becomes a hero on a national scale.
There have been more photos taken of the cavity where Patch's left eye used to be than any of the big-name horses in this year's Derby.
That is why Patch, despite having only three career starts and drawing the far outside in post 20, still was bet down to 14.10-1, making him the sixth choice of 20 starters. What makes those odds bordering on insane is the fact that only one horse in the past 102 years had won the Derby with as few as three starts, and only one horse in the 143-year history of the race had won from post 20. And in both cases that one horse was the freakishly talented Big Brown, who totally dominated that year's crop of 3-year-olds. To add to that, Patch never raced as a 2-year-old, and it had been 135 years since a horse won the Derby without having started at 2. Also, by breaking from post 20, Patch likely would be unable to see most or any of the other horses, who were all inside him.
But the American public had fallen in love with Patch and his story, which appeared in publications and websites all over the country. The money came pouring in on him as soon as the wagering opened. They read how the horse lost his eye due to an ulcer and infection and how he actually was named Patch before the eye was surgically removed. Although his trainer Todd Pletcher felt badly for the horse and would always make noise before nearing his stall so not to startle him, the colt not only recovered quickly from the traumatic experience, he never seemed fazed by it and went about his business as a normal horse would do, endearing himself to all those around him.
Photographers would flock to Pletcher's barn at Churchill Downs to get photos of the horse and his now familiar empty eye socket.
Patch had already defied the odds in many ways, finishing second in his career debut and then winning by nearly two lengths going a flat mile. Pletcher wasted no time moving him up in class. He not only put him in a stakes race, he put him in one of the major Kentucky Derby preps, the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby. All Patch did was overcome a bump at the break, split horses in the stretch, cut to the inside, and finish a strong second to the local hero Girvin, beaten only 1 ¼ lengths. He showed that his handicap would not affect his broken field running ability.
The one-eyed horse was now headed to the Kentucky Derby, having to cope with a 20-horse field, heavy traffic, and the good possibility he would get banged around from either or both sides. But nothing mattered. He was the big human interest story. The horse everyone had fallen in love with. The horse who had captured the hearts of a nation. The horse on whom the money kept pouring in.
In the Derby, run in the slop, Patch, as horses on the far outside often do, broke to the outside, which left him hanging well out in the middle of the track all by himself. He actually was able to establish a good position in midpack, but had to cope with the wet kickback with only eye, which had to hamper him. He then got bumped around briefly between the five-sixteenths pole and quarter pole and just slogged home in 14th. Like many others in the field, this was considered a throw-out race by his connections. The Derby often is.
Pletcher and owner Calumet Farm decided to run him back in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, and despite his poor finish in the Derby, he still was sent off at only 12.40-1. Once again, this was despite drawing the No. 11 far outside post, which in some ways can be more detrimental to a horse than post 20 in the Derby, because of Belmont Park's big sweeping turns where being hung wide usually proves disastrous. What Patch had in his favor was that his sire, Union Rags, and broodmare sire, A.P. Indy, were both Belmont winners.
As it turned out, the Belmont Stakes was where Patch finally separated sentiment from reality. One eye or not, the public love affair or not, being a human interest gold mine or not, Patch, by finishing third in "The Test of the Champion," established himself as something that people previously had ignored or couldn't even care about – an extremely talented racehorse with an unlimited future, who is now heading toward the upper echelon of the 3-year-old class. The Louisiana Derby had been just the tip of the iceberg, and the Belmont Stakes brought the rest of the iceberg above the surface for all to finally see – this time objectively.
Unlike the Derby, the outside post in the Belmont proved much more of a hardship to overcome, and Patch did indeed get hung almost five-wide on the first turn and he remained wide throughout the mile and a half. That was a recipe for disaster. By racing so much wider than the ground-saving Tapwrit, he lost touch with the winner and runner-up Irish War Cry. But Patch never stopped trying, never stopped running, and in fact was matching strides with Tapwrit from the eighth pole home. To show how much he had to overcome, according to Trakus, Patch ran 73 feet farther than the winner, which actually brings them much closer together when compensating for the ground loss.
In addition, Patch not only was able to pass Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley in the final furlong, he opened up on him, finishing 4 ¼ lengths ahead of him. Gormley in turn finished 7 ¾ lengths ahead of the fifth horse, who was eight lengths ahead of the sixth horse.
Now we can shout it from the rooftops. The Triple Crown is over! The hype is over! It is back to the real world. His hardcore fans will still flock to him and he will still have a number of visitors and curiosity seekers, especially at Saratoga. But the fact is, we have ourselves a future star in the 3-year-old division and his name is Patch.
It doesn't take a sharp eye to see that.