I'm sure I wasn't the only one holding his breath when the gates opened for the fourth race Saturday at the Oak Tree Racing Association meeting from Santa Anita. Seven “old” men and one still young woman, all of them Living Legends who have retired from professional race riding, were set to show that their skills had not all faded.
This wasn't like one of those Old Timers Day baseball games at Yankee Stadium I remember watching on television in the 1960s, when pitches were lobbed up to the plate and spikes weren't sharpened for slides into second base. These eight Living Legends would be aboard racehorses still in the prime of their careers in a game that can be dangerous for even the youngest, fastest-thinking and quickest-reacting athletes.
Thankfully, the eight horses and riders made the seven-furlong course safely, with 59-year-old Canadian Sandy Hawley, one of the all-time great riders and gentlemen of the game, romping to victory aboard the race favorite, Tribal Chief. (Click here to view the race.) Hawley took his charge wire to wire to win by 6 ½ lengths, looking every bit as good as he did in his prime 30 years ago, when he was nine times Canada's champion jockey and four times led all North American riders by wins. Tribal Chief gave Hawley his 6,450th career victory, 10th on the list of all-time North American leaders.
Following Hawley across the finish line were horses ridden by Living Legends Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, Pat Day, Julie Krone, Jacinto Vasquez, Chris McCarron and Angel Cordero Jr. (Equibase chart.) All are members of the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. Not riding but participating in autograph sessions were three other Hall of Famers: Eddie Delahoussaye, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Jorge Velasquez.
Turns out I wasn't the only nervous one. “I was a little nervous going into the starting gate, because I haven't been out of a gate in 10 years,” Hawley said afterwards. “That was the part that I was worried about, so I grabbed a big handful of mane.”
The Living Legends race turned out to be a popular promotion for the riders and racing fans, and was a clever way to kick off a week featuring the 25th Breeders' Cup world championships. Fans in the Los Angeles area and at tracks across did more than watch the Living Legends; they bet on them to the tune of over $1 million, with the $438,012 in the win, place and show pool the highest on the 10-race card.
There was immediate talk of holding another similar event in the future.
“Being back with these guys was a thrill. I've been with them the last few days, and you really don't get to see them more than maybe once or twice a year at the Derby or the Breeders' Cup. To be able to ride with them … when I got the call, I was like, 'Holy cow, yeah, it would be an honor.' The field of riders they ended up getting was tremendous, and I never thought in a million years that I had an opportunity to win, but I got on a good horse.”
I kept waiting for track announcer Trevor Denman to say that Hawley had the Living Legends race “in the bag” as they came down the stretch. Back in 1983, when Denman was just getting started as a racecaller in the United States, that's exactly what he said about Hawley and a horse named Shanekite when they opened a big lead in the Morvich Handicap, run on the hillside turf course. “Sandy Hawley and Shanekite have this one in the bag,” Denman announced as they hit the sixteenth pole.
Unfortunately, Hawley heard Denman's call and eased up a bit on Shanekite as they approached the wire, only to get beat on the money by a John Longden-trained runner named Kangroo Court, who was charging hard to the wire under a young apprentice rider, Joe Steiner. It was a rare mistake in an outstanding career for Hawley, and a racecall Denman would like to be able to do over. “I heard the announcer say I had it in the bag,” a fuming Hawley said afterwards, explaining the loss to reporters.
There was no letting up on Saturday. On this occasion, Hawley was the best of the Living Legends.
Copyright © 2008, The Paulick Report
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