Steve Coburn taught the public a lesson that many turf writers learn within their first year on the job: when dealing with connections after a loss, expect the unexpected.
Coburn's version of “unexpected” went over like a lead balloon for a number of reasons, and it's a shame he wasn't standing in the enclosure behind Victory Lane for the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps. That's where I watched the race – and watched a textbook tutorial on how to lose a race with grace.
A number of the King of Prussia Stable connections, all sporting Princess of Sylmar hats and purple ties and shirts, poured into the enclosure after the horses left the paddock. I've liked this group since they came to the press box after last year's Kentucky Oaks, whooping, hugging, and handing out lilies from Princess of Sylmar's blanket. Their joy in victory is infectious, and I think it's part of what made people embrace their horse as a fan favorite.
The buzz around the Princess grew since her unexpected Oaks win, and rose to a roar as she knocked down three Grade 1 victories after that. Owner Ed Stanco had the option of resting the Princess on her laurels following her Beldame Invitational victory over older horses (including Royal Delta), but after much consideration, he gave the filly's fans what many wanted — sending her to California for the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
The gamble didn't pay off. After an awkward break, the ‘Princess' lost a potential Distaff crown to Beholder, and it cost her the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old filly.
“It was a stinging defeat,” Stanco told Albany Times Union's Tim Wilkin the day after the Distaff.
“It is frustrating and disappointing to have the season she had and to accomplish things no other fillies had ever done in history and then have it end this way,” trainer Todd Pletcher told Wilkin, noting that the Santa Anita track was not suited to Princess' running style. “And, unfairly, it seems. But we knew that coming in. We knew it was a risk.”
When the field turned for home in Saturday's Ogden Phipps, Princess of Sylmar and jockey Javier Castellano were poised on the outside, driving for the wire on their home dirt. The King of Prussia crew around me was deafening, voices cracking, cell phone cameras hoisted aloft to capture what they hoped would be redemption. There's a funny phenomenon that takes over people who really love a horse, as fans or otherwise, wherein they briefly seem to feel that if they flail a little harder or yell a little louder, their energy can push the horse just a few more inches forward — and King of Prussia was giving the race all they had.
When the wire came, we all knew from where we were standing that she didn't get there fast enough, and the group fell silent. “Just a few more strides,” one person muttered.
What followed was somewhat remarkable.
As the horses came back from the gallop out, the group started clapping and shouting again. Their Princess was unsaddled directly across from them, and they gave her a round of applause. They called out to Castellano, “Great job, Javier!” and to their filly, “Good job, Princess! We love you, Princess!” as the frothy chestnut took the long walk back through the tunnel to the barn.
It was touching, and not because I think the horse understood them or could even pick out their voices over the crowd. It was touching because rather than letting the disappointment get to them, they silently and quickly decided to instead celebrate what their horse had accomplished. After a finish as agonizingly close as that one, no one could have blamed them if they had focused on the second-place effort as a missed opportunity to set straight the Distaff result. But they didn't do that, at least not outwardly.
They hung around after Princess went into the tunnel, and I was wondering what they were waiting for. Then I saw – Close Hatches was coming to claim her trophy. The group gave her a round of applause. As the surge of laughing owners and connections followed the Princess' rival to the winner's circle, one King of Prussia member called out to Bill Mott as he stood to the right of his victorious trainee. “Hey, Bill! Bill!” Mott turned his head to look at the sea of purple. “Great job!”
If you have to lose a race, that is how you do it.
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