Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Welcome to this week’s edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.
Each Tuesday in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
As for this week, we’ll relate the story of a golden moment in one of the sport’s most famous races.
If you look over the list of past winners of the Jockey Club Gold Club, you’ll see enough Hall of Famers to open a new wing at the museum in Saratoga.
There’s Curlin, Skip Away, Cigar, Easy Goer, Slew o’Gold, John Henry, Affirmed, Forego, Shuvee, and Kelso, just to name a few.
On Saturday at Belmont Park, a new name was added to the list in heartwarming fashion.
The 99th Jockey Club Gold Cup was captured by Diversify, a New York state-bred appearing in a graded stakes for the first time who gave his 80-year-old owner his very first Grade 1 stakes win after 50 years of owning horses.
Talk about a big moment for the little guys in the sport.
“I have never won a Grade 1,” said Ralph M. Evans, who owns Diversify along with his 54-year-old daughter Lauren, “so it is emotional.”
Aside from the euphoria of securing an initial Grade 1 in such a prestigious stakes, what added to the emotion for Evans was a person who was not there on Saturday to share it with him, even though he was largely responsible for the moment.
For about 20 years, Rick Violette has trained for Evans and saddled the owner’s best horse before Diversify came around, Upstart, who won the Grade 2 Holy Bull in 2015. Violette has bounced back after battling cancer a few years ago, but on Saturday, when Diversify gave the trainer his first Grade 1 win in 10 years, Violette stayed home due to a separate illness.
“Rick has had his problems. I, too, have had some health problems. Rick and I have been together a long, long time,” Evans said. “It is emotional from several different positions. There’s Rick’s health and the fact that we’ve been doing this a long time. I’m a good lightweight fighter trying to fight with heavyweight fighters for 50 years and, occasionally, something good happens.”
Speaking by phone, Violette felt the same pride in the moment as Evans.
“He's done nothing but get better from the early summer until now,” Violette said about Diversify. “He's always been a nice horse, but he's certainly jumped into the major leagues here today.”
For a horse whose biggest win before Saturday was an 11 ½-length score in the Evan S. Shipman Stakes for New York-breds in his last start, a front-running, one-length victory over Keen Ice in the JCGC certainly elevated the gelding into elite company.
“(Diversify) is a good horse and he's improving," said jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. "He's growing up and he was that good today. He was ready to run today. He was challenged and responded.”
As funny as it might seem now, after purchasing Diversify at the Keeneland November sale for $210,000 following the gelding’s first two races, Evans believed the son of Bellamy Road might have been “distance-challenged.”
Yet now, after three straight wins in races ranging from a mile-and-a-sixteenth to Saturday’s classic mile-and-a-quarter distance, Evans has a different opinion of his horse’s scope and one huge option that seemed laughable at the start of the year when Diversify was running in allowance races. With the JCGC being part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge series, Diversify went from a stellar state-bred to a gelding with an all-expenses paid spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Whether Evans and Violette accept the “Win and You’re In” spot at Del Mar on Nov. 4 is still up in the air. When Evans was asked about his speedy horse’s chances in a race with Gun Runner and Arrogate, he said if it was up to him, there was a 50-50 chance Diversify would head west to California.
“We had a horse in the Breeders’ Cup once, Upstart (third in 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile), so it’s not as if, ‘oh, I’ve got to go to the Breeders’ Cup.’ If he comes out fine, I think he’s quicker than one of the horses you mentioned, at least at the start. I don’t know if he can beat them, but it’s no shame to hit the board in a $6 million race, particularly when they are paying your entry. If I had to make the decision I’d say it’s 50-50 but frankly I don’t make the decision. I suppose I could overrule Rick. That’s probably happened once or twice in the 20 years Rick has trained for me.”
Once or twice. That might also be the same number of times Evans has toyed with the idea of running one of his horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But now, an octogenarian who hasn’t won more than eight races a year since 2000 with horses owned solely under his name has a golden ticket to the World Championships at Del Mar with a horse who captured a Grade 1 stakes won for five straight years by the legendary Kelso.
Score one for the little guys.
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:
Romantic Vision holds off Martini Glass in Spinster
Friends, Family Celebrate Penny Chenery
Unique Bella overcomes trouble to win LA Woman in return
Free Drop Billy Bringing Albaughs Back to Breeders’ Cup
Firenze Fire bounces back to win Champagne