Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Flightline, the undefeated and still untested favorite in the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic, is not the only superstar competing in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Keeneland Race Course. Golden Pal deserves the same accolade.
In a sport with delightfully few sure things, Golden Pal appears to be as close to unstoppable as a horse can be as he defends his title in the Nov. 5 Turf Sprint. The winner of the 2020 Juvenile Turf Sprint is bidding to join legends Goldikova and Beholder as three-time Breeders’ Cup winners. Goldikova was indomitable in the Mile from 2008-2010. Beholder took the Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and the Distaff in 2013 and 2016.
Those fans fortunate enough to have attended Golden Pal’s four starts at Keeneland have never seen him stub his toe at his home base. His tune-up there for the Turf Sprint could not have been more impressive. He and Irad Ortiz Jr., the jockey who suits his fast-starting style so well, rolled gate to wire in the Woodford Stakes Presented by FanDuel, blazing the 5 ½ furlongs in a stakes-record 1:01.39.
Although longshot Oceanic rallied to be second, 1 ½ lengths from the front, truth is he never had a prayer. As Jordan Blair, Oceanic’s trainer, lamented afterward, “It is nearly impossible to beat Golden Pal.”
Owned by Westerberg Limited, Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, Golden Pal has prevailed in eight of 12 career starts with a pair of second-place finishes for earnings of $1,815,131. As the bay blur approaches what is expected to be the last race of his memorable career, trainer Wesley Ward lavishes the highest praise on him. He regards him as “the fastest horse in the world.”
Ward, 54, also calls the son of Uncle Mo the best horse he has ever had in a barn that has produced 12 groundbreaking Royal Ascot triumphs, showing what American trainers can accomplish across the pond at one of the world’s most prestigious race meets.
Ward, a native of Selah, Wash., and a former jockey, owns six Breeders’ Cup scores with five second-place finishes and nine third-place efforts. He has swept the Juvenile Turf Sprint for three consecutive years since the inaugural running in 2018. He ranks 27th all-time with $5,328,345 in Cup earnings.
Ward describes Golden Pal as the total package – size, speed, strength and intelligence. “He just loves his job. He wants to be a racehorse. He wants to go out there and run,” the trainer said.
The horse’s zest for competition typically shows the instant the starting gate snaps open. “He’s so quick and agile,” Ward said. “When the gates open, he’s two (lengths) in front.”
Golden Pal has lost only once domestically. And that was in his 2-year-old debut. On dirt. On April 17, 2020, he missed by three-quarters of a length going 4 ½ furlongs at Gulfstream Park.
His other setbacks occurred overseas. In his second career start and first on turf, he ventured to Royal Ascot only to endure a brutal beat, failing by a desperate neck against The Lir Jet in the Norfolk Stakes. At 3, he inexplicably faded to seventh after setting a solid pace as the top choice in the Coolmore Wotton Bassett Nunthorpe Stakes at York on Aug. 20, 2021.
Then came a bitter disappointment at Royal Ascot last June. Amid great expectations for an elusive overseas success, the horse known for being dynamite at the start missed the break and wound up a shocking 16th in the King’s Stand Stakes.
Not that it was his fault. Ortiz was looking back at Mondammej, a horse that had refused to load and was being led away, when the field was sent off. Ortiz was so ill prepared for the start that he nearly fell off. Golden Pal found himself in unfamiliar territory at the back of the pack. He made such a furious rush into contention that he came up understandably empty when it counted most.
Ward’s jaw dropped. “There are so many different ways to lose a race,” he said. “But to actually have that happen to the fastest horse I ever trained or been around in my life, to have that happen to him was unbelievable. To have that happen, I was just sort of in a daze.”
When it was over, Golden Pal was as downcast as the connections. “He usually kind of bounces from his wins. He knows he won,” Ward said. “This guy was head down, completely dejected. He’s usually high energy, in front of the stall. He was in the back of the stall.”
Golden Pal was given ample time to put that behind him, which he did. He resumed competition by winning the Troy Stakes on Aug. 5 at Saratoga, which led nicely into an electrifying Woodford. All that remains is for Golden Pal to step onto his home track for the final time and provide the storybook finish his fans yearn for.