At the other end of the spectrum from the deceased Monzante – winner of the 2008 Eddie Read Handicap who died Saturday in a $4,000 claiming race at Evangeline Downs – is a 7-year-old gelding named Convocation.
A son of Pulpit out of Shade Dance, by Nureyev, Convocation didn't win a Grade 1 race. In fact, he never won a stakes of any kind, though he earned nearly $400,000 competing in graded races in New York during his 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old campaigns. Purchased for $340,000 at the 2008 Keeneland April sale of 2-year-olds in training sale, Convocation raced most of his career for Centennial Farms, the Massachusetts-based partnership created by the late Donald V. Little and now run by his son, Don Jr.
Convocation was sidelined for more than a year after an eighth-place finish in the 2011 G1 Woodward at Saratoga. When he returned 14 months later, Nov. 11, 2012, he was dropped in for a $50,000 claiming tag at Aqueduct by Centennial Farms and trainer Jimmy Jerkens. Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher claimed him, and Convocation ran third.
When the gelding surfaced next, at Aqueduct on Jan. 18, Pletcher and Repole dropped Convocation in for a $30,000 claiming price. His rider that day was Eclipse Award-winning Ramon Dominguez, and when Convocation went down in a spill after clipping heels with another horse, it would be the last race the future Hall of Famer would ride. Convocation became an unfortunate footnote in history when the accident would later force the retirement of Dominguez.
David Jacobson claimed Convocation out of that race for Christopher Dunn, then ran him back two months later for $20,000 claiming. Convocation finished fifth, but was claimed by trainer David Cannizzo on behalf of Two Tone Farms. Six weeks after that, on May 9 at Belmont Park, Jacobson claimed Convocation back, this time for $15,000.
Jacobson sent Convocation to trainer John Assimakopoulos at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Mass., where the gelding worked three furlongs in :37.40 on July 1, then had him entered in a bottom-level $4,000 claiming race at Suffolk last Wednesday. Like the drop of Monzante from $15,000 to $4,000 before his final race, this is a move that often doesn't end well.
The entry raised the eyebrows of several people at Suffolk Downs, including Sam Ellliott, the vice president of racing. Don Little noticed, too, having put Convocation on Daily Racing Form's Stable Mail, a service that alerts subscribers when a horse is entered to race.
“I never questioned any soundness issues and have nothing against the owner or trainer,” Little told the Paulick Report, “but I know the digression of claiming races and decided we needed to find something else for him to do.”
Little contacted his Centennial partners and began the process of buying Convocation back. Word reached Elliott, who called Assimakopoulos last Tuesday and let him know Centennial was interested in retiring the horse.
“Within two minutes,” Elliott said, “I got a call back from John, and they agreed to do this without hesitation – zero reluctance.”
Convocation was scratched. “It was a seven-horse field, too,” Elliott said. “Racetracks are short of horses and you can't tell people what to do with their horses. I'm glad I have people in place here who are willing to do the right thing.”
If Centennial didn't step up to purchase Convocation, Elliott insisted the horse would not have run if there were any questions about his soundness.
“With my vet, if they don't like one even a little bit, they're not running. That's the policy we have,” Elliott said. In Massachusetts, the veterinarians conducting pre-race exams are employed by the track. “With the wrong people in place, that could be dangerous,” Elliott said. “We let the vets do their jobs and don't interfere.”
Unlike Evangeline Downs, Suffolk Downs is a member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's Safety Alliance, which has an accreditation process and Code of Conduct for member tracks. “We are NTRA certified and we take it all very seriously,” Elliott said. “The safety issue begins with vigilance. You need the right attitude to do the right thing. It's never going to be perfect because of the nature of the sport, but you've got to do everything you can possibly. What happened to that horse at Evangeline Downs, it's sad. Grade 1 winners are the royalty of the sport.”
Little said the deal was not closed yet, but that “we will complete this transaction and I have a place for him to go” – someone who lives near Little and wants to transition Convocation into a trail horse.
“The nice thing is most of our partners are in showjumping or horse shows, and we do find good homes for our horses. That's part of the philosophy we like to see in the partners we have. Convocation was a good horse for us; he won races at Saratoga two years in a row. This was the right thing to do.”
If only more owners saw things this way, and more racetracks were so vigilant in protecting the health of the horses and riders.
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