Favorite Five: Natalie Voss’ Favorite Races Of All Time

by | 05.09.2020 | 7:09pm
Rachel Alexandra shown winning the 2009 Preakness.

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, we at the Paulick Report are aware that those under stay-at-home orders are starting to suffer from cabin fever. It's a stressful time and sometimes you just need to go down a YouTube rabbit hole for an uplifting distraction from the grim news cycle. With that in mind, we continue our Favorite Five video series launched by Paulick Report bloodstock editor Joe Nevills in April. You can find Joe's list here.

The prompt is simple: Each of our editorial staff is asked to list our favorite five races, along with an explanation of why each race was so impactful on our lives and/or careers.

I'll follow Joe's ground rules for choosing my favorite five: races are listed in chronological order, not ranked by preference, and each race winner can only be featured once.

  1. 1999 Kentucky Derby – Charismatic wins at odds of 30-1


It should be no surprise to anyone who knows me that this race is on the list. I wrote about Charismatic's impact on my life back in 2017, when he returned stateside after concluding his stud career in Japan. I was ten years old when the 1999 Kentucky Derby went to post and was confident I was an expert at picking horses. I had zeroed in on Thunder Gulch, Silver Charm, and Real Quiet. I probably thought I was the best horseplayer since Andrew Beyer, but in reality I chose them because I liked their names, and as trainees of D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert they got lots of attention on the ABC broadcast.

I don't know what stood out to me about the coppery chestnut in the post parade. He did not get much attention in pre-race coverage. I remember thinking his particular shade of chestnut reminded me a lot of Secretariat. I do know that when those chrome legs and blaze began flashing at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch, it seemed like I had been in on a secret the rest of the world was just waking up to – this horse could really be something.

The former claimer would go on to do more than his odds had suggested – he won the Preakness decisively, and for a few brief moments at the head of the Belmont stretch, it looked like he might end the Triple Crown dry spell. When he pulled up instead, I wanted to know the “rest of the story” – what did horses do after the Belmont Stakes each year? (I did not come from a racing family and so my awareness of horse racing was then limited to a few weeks in spring.) Thanks to him, I became interested in veterinary medicine and the Thoroughbred life cycle. I discovered entire magazines devoted to horse racing, and I decided that when I grew up, I was going to write for one of them (or even a website that covers the horse industry).

2. 2001 Breeders' Cup Classic – Tiznow prevails over Sahkee

I know, I know – it's not an original choice, this race. Everyone loves this race.

Many people view this race through the prism of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which had taken place a few weeks before. I was too young to make those types of connections. Instead, I look back on this race as an example of the enduring spirit of the Thoroughbred.

Tiznow had prevailed over Giant's Causeway in the 2000 edition of the race by a neck in a nail-biter that largely gets overlooked in the light of his performance defending his title in 2001. Since then, the quirky colt had become gradually reluctant to train. He worked well when he agreed to work, but trainer Jay Robbins had struggled to get consistency from him. At the age of four, Tiznow seemed to have decided he preferred to stand on the rail and watch his competition, rather than gallop himself. When he did work, no one could find anything wrong with him. There's a theory among some longtime racetrackers that a really intelligent horse is capable of figuring out at some stage that they get unsaddled and fed at the end of workouts whether they took a casual jog around the track or put in a four-furlong bullet.

Whatever his objection was, this race showed not only Tiznow's talent, but his heart. I believed then, as I do now, that Thoroughbreds love to compete. In a stretch battle like the one between Tiznow and Sakhee, a horse who doesn't want to win a race will back off, having the feasible excuse of tiring. In a head-to-head exchange like this one, the outcome is no longer up to the jockey, the trainer, the breeder – it's the horse who decides he wants this.

3. 2009 Preakness – Rachel Alexandra shows us something special


(I hadn't remembered until I watched this replay that John Velazquez got bucked off in the gates here, no doubt leading him to wonder when Bodexpress pitched him at the start of last year's Preakness, 'What is it about this race anyway?')

I grew up in a non-horsey family (no, I am not related to the racing Vosses but think of them fondly every time I am asked about them). I expect I was something of a mystery to most of them, prattling on about withers and jump strides and racing plates in what must have seemed another language. But my mother was patient with me, sitting through many riding lessons huddled in a fleece blanket and sitting down to watch many horse races with me. She has three rules for picking her rooting interest, which remain the same to this day: Grays are the prettiest, and therefore would look best in the winner's circle. Horses with clever or feline names are given preference. And you always, always root for the filly trying to upset a field of boys.

I don't think this was intended as a social commentary on her part so much as a feeling of vested interest in cheering for an underdog, as the fillies in the Triple Crown races often are.

We knew at this point that Rachel was unmatched in her class of fellow 3-year-old fillies, but the Preakness was the first time we could see what jockey Calvin Borel had known for some time – that this horse was special, no matter her gender.

I was living in Kentucky by this point, beginning to pursue my dreams of working in the racing industry. I was starting to grasp that it was largely a man's world, this universe I was trying to break into. This was not a place where tradition was easily shaken. When Rachel became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years and did it so effortlessly, my mother and I were both yelling at our television screens in separate states. “Show them you've got what it takes!” we cried. Show them that what matters most is what's inside. And she did.

4. 2010 Breeders' Cup Mile – Goldikova

 

I was lucky enough to be in attendance for this race and had a great view of the backs of about 20 people's heads, plus a tiny sliver of the dirt track visible at about the eighth pole. Somewhere I've got a pair of blurry pictures from that year's Classic – one of the field coming by the stands for the first time, and one blur that was Zenyatta and Mike Smith, so far behind the pack they are alone in their own blurry photograph. I put my camera away after that, assuming there was no point in chronicling such a sad end to a career. Little did I know I'd have more respect for Zenyatta in that defeat than I ever had before.

But before that moment of heartbreak, there was this shining victory for Goldikova. I loved Goldikova because she seemed to me an unapologetic mare. She was little, often grumpy, with a simple head and a frequently-sour expression with the personality to match. She was not the graceful, smooth poetry in motion that so many champion Thoroughbreds are. She did not care. She did not seem to me like one of those horses who plays to cameras, who loves to be admired; she cared about winning in a fight, and the list of things she cared about ended there.

But even such a fiercely independent horse can inspire adoration from those who know her best. Work rider Thierry Blaise started with Goldi when she arrived to trainer Freddy Head's barn as a 2-year-old, at which point he has said she was angular and awkward, and showed little in the mornings until she grew into herself. In the meantime, he would later tell France Sire she threw him off once a week to stave off boredom.

By 2010, the two of them had been together for five seasons. Goldi was going for a record three Breeders' Cup Mile races in a row, having been named European Champion Older Horse and American Champion Female Horse in the previous year. She had already won 13 Grade/Group One races, but Head had admitted coming into the 2010 Mile that this one would be a challenge. She would need to run her heart out, and she did, taking aim at Sidney's Candy in the stretch with unsettling determination and acceleration.

Somewhere on the sidelines, Blaise broke away from the gaggle of grooms and trainers, sprinting on the inside rail of the dirt course while his girl came charging down the center of the turf course. NBC's cameras captured him running beside her, arms raised, calling to her as she made history. Now having stood on the spot where Blaise ran, I realize she could probably hear him as she approached the wire. We have all been Blaise at one time or another, feeling that we ourselves have borrowed our horse's wings. From where I stood on my bleacher seat I could just see the flash of blue, white, and red from the French flag jockey Olivier Peslier hoisted as they walked into the winner's circle. If you watch until the end of this video you'll be able to see Blaise's celebration, and if it doesn't melt your heart, nothing will.

5. 2013 Woodbine maiden special weight – Unspurned

Every race is critically important to somebody, even a maiden special weight. I had fallen in love with Unspurned when I groomed her at the sales for Cara Bloodstock. Even as a yearling, she was incredibly smart, calm, confident, and kind. She had failed to her attain her reserve in September at Keeneland, so her breeders sent her to Fasig-Tipton in October and I got another week of long afternoons on my feet, sneaking in snuggles with The Filly, as I called her, when we weren't busy with shows for buyers.

In the end, there was some disagreement between buyers over the significance of a bone spur on Filly's knee, and she failed to attain reserve a second time. Breeders Jay and Christine Hayden kept her and named her Unspurned – a play on words for the first homebred in their relatively new breeding program who would carry their colors.

On the summer afternoon of her very first race, I was in Chicago to cover the Grade 1 Arlington Million. I was at the track before the day's card began to do some work on the website from the press box. Reporters were banging away at their keyboards, speaking in hushed tones and loading up on sandwiches before things got too busy.

There's an unofficial rule that you're not supposed to cheer in the press box; it's not considered professional and can be disruptive to fellow writers trying to concentrate. So, while the first serious horseplayers were filing into the open lobby around the teller windows, I snuck out of the press box and placed a bet on a 2-year-old maiden special at Woodbine.

When I knew her, Unspurned was anything but a firecracker, which is part of why I liked working with her so much. She did her job on the sale grounds quietly and professionally; I was sure she'd either find racing to be too much bother, or she'd throw herself into it. She ran this, her first start ever, with the same confidence she had done everything else the previous year, edging up on the outside on the turn as if she'd done it before and taking determined aim at Spanish Flower in the stretch.

I yelled. I jumped up and down like a child. People turned to look at me. I remember nearly taking Scott Jagow's arm off. I didn't care. It was not even noon and the most important race of the day had been run. Filly was a winner.

She would go on to be multiple graded stakes placed and win the Bison City Stakes, part of Canada's Filly Triple Crown. I cheered her on every time. She still has my heart.

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