Category Archives: obituary

In Memoriam: JIM GAFFNEY

Exercise Rider Jim Gaffney aboard SECRETARIAT

Horse racing is unusual among sports in that its athletes cannot speak for themselves.  They show us their heart and courage and speed and talent on the track, but it is up to the humans who care for them to tell their personal stories.  One of the greatest spokesmen a horse ever had left us last week.  Jim Gaffney, exercise rider for Secretariat and one of the best friends of The Infield, passed away Thursday at the age of 75.  Gaffney worked Big Red as well as Riva Ridge, Angle Light, Spanish Riddle and many other champions in his long career on the backside.  He also worked in the NYRA mutuel department until 2000.  To the end, he was a leading voice in the legend of Secretariat.  Gaffney met thousands of people and gave out hundreds of photos of Secretariat to the fans who stood in awe listening to his stories.  It is heartbreaking that he did not get to see the film version of his tale.

I met Jim in April of 2006, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Secretariat bronze at the Kentucky Horse Park.  It was an unusually frigid day and I was waiting inside the lobby for the activities to begin when an energetic, fast-talking older gentleman rushed up to me and my mom and asked if we were sisters!  He asked me if I knew who he was, and I told him any true Secretariat fan would know Jim Gaffney.  He waved his wife Mary over and posed for a picture with my mom & me, then slipped me one of his trademark yellow envelopes with the horses rubber-stamped on it.  Inside was an autographed photo of him astride Secretariat.  He encouraged me to write to him at the email address stamped on the envelope.  Each time he had a free moment, he found me and we talked about Big Red.  He seemed impressed at how much trivia I knew for such a young person, and he quizzed me about races and some of Big Red’s competition.

Shortly after the ribbon-cutting, I wrote to him and thus began a rich correspondence that lasted until just a little while ago.  Along the way, I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Jim & his wife, Mary, at big races and Secretariat events in Kentucky.  At Breeders’ Cup 2006, I met the rest of Jim’s fan club in the paddock.  At Jim’s first Kentucky Derby in 2007 (he did not go to Secretariat’s; family events prevented it and so Charlie Davis went with Sec to Churchill), he was on the same floor in the clubhouse as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, but after the race he wanted to go to the Cracker Barrel for a celebratory dinner!  In 2008, he once again had a great seat in the clubhouse, but my favorite memory from that year was a trip to Kroger.

Oaks 2008 was a terribly drizzly, rainy day, and so instead of getting Jim out in such weather, I suggested he make a trip to watch the staff make the wreath of roses for the Derby winner.  The store was crowded as the shoppers and curious Derby fans filed past the booth set up near the deli where the satin panels were stretched across two tables and a dozen ladies buzzed over them, stitching in the deep red rose blossoms.  Jim was so delighted watching the scene and impressed by the skillful seamstresses-slash-florists  that he pulled out a few of his yellow envelopes and passed them to the ladies.  He told them who he was and autographed the photos, laughing and sharing his favorite Secretariat memories.  Another shopper overheard and joined the small conversation, and Jim gave her a photo too.  Then a few more people came up, and a few more, and soon the entire store had turned from the roses to the spry gentleman who rode Secretariat!  Jim ran out of envelopes, so my dad rushed to the truck to get some more.  Jim happily signed photos for at least an hour, and the local news filmed a lot of it.  Mary was always supportive of his outgoing nature but that afternoon it seemed even she was surprised at the number of people smitten by Jim’s charisma and love for a horse.

Jim was an honorary Kentucky Colonel and had the official calling cards which he sent out with his yellow envelopes.  He found out about every new book, magazine article and news story about Secretariat and passed along the details to his circle of fans.  He was proud of his relationship with “Nack”, the most famous Big Red biographer, and reminded us that he was “Chapter 10” in the Book.  Many times he’d ask me how I liked the newest merchandise from, and always said he’d pass along my comments to “Lusky”, the man in charge.  During one Derby excursion, he called up Seattle Slew’s exercise rider, Mike Kennedy, just to tell him how much fun he was having in Louisville, and then he passed the phone to me!  It was pretty cool chatting for a few moments with the guys who galloped Triple Crown winners — at the same time!

I took a photo of the Secretariat bronze that Jim was particularly fond of, and so along with a copy of the photo, I had some notepads made with the image prominently centered at the top.  He loved them and used them in his yellow envelopes to write personal messages to those he sent photos.  The camera was Jim’s best friend and worst enemy, as he took it everywhere and shot rolls and rolls of film, but many times he was so excited about what he was photographing that he moved the camera, resulting in rolls and rolls of blurry snapshots!  Jim also often would instant message me asking for picks at Belmont, and I’d dutifully study the DRF and pull out a few promising names.  He always promised to share the winnings, but sadly there were none ever to report:(

Along the way, I also met many other Secretariat fans who were friends of Jim.  I was able to tour Claiborne with Jim because of Mary McKinley, a fan & horse trainer from Pennsylvania.  I met Ron Turcotte & Penny Tweedy while hanging out with Jim.  And Jim encouraged me to pursue my love of the sport and make a career out of it.

Jim Gaffney was one of an exclusive fraternity of riders who got to sit astride the Greatest Racehorse Who Ever Lived.  But he was willing to share that with all of us, and welcome us into the world of Secretariat.

Thank you, Jim.

Thanks for the memories, Jim!


Filed under Bourbon County Secretariat Festival, Claiborne Farm, Jim Gaffney, obituary, Secretariat

Farewell to an All-Time Favorite: SKIP AWAY

The late, great SKIP AWAY winning the 1997 Breeders' Cup Classic

The day came Friday that I always knew would happen many years in the future:  SKIP AWAY passed away at the age of 17.

SKIP AWAY won the 1996 Blue Grass Stakes and then went into that year’s Kentucky Derby as one of the favorites.  That is when I first heard of the big grey colt with the red and yellow blinkers that made him stand out like a knight’s horse among the other bays and chestnuts.  His running style was unique — an animated, high-stepping gait not unlike a carousel horse.  As a 14-year-old girl fond of both knights and carousels, I was in love with Skip Away. Even though Skippy didn’t win the Derby that year, he had an even more profound impact on me than the Genesis Derby Pick, Thunder Gulch.

Where Thunder Gulch made his TV debut in the Triple Crown races, he dropped off of my six-channel radar shortly after.  He didn’t run in that year’s Breeders’ Cup.  He didn’t race as a 4yo.  SKIP AWAY was that increasingly rare horse who raced at the top level and remained there for many years.  Each time there was a race on TV, Skip Away was usually in it.  And he almost always won.

My exposure to racing was confined to whatever was broadcast on network TV in those days, since Memphis is basically the Death Valley of the sport.  Even though it is only 2hrs from Oaklawn, it might as well be on the moon for how much interest there is in thoroughbreds (I do believe reruns of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air beat the KY Derby in ratings).  I got to know the races beyond the Triple Crown because of Skip Away.  It was only when Skippy beat him that I first heard of Cigar.

The 1997 Breeders’ Cup Classic was my favorite up until 2009.  Skip Away simply outclassed and out ran the rest of the field, and he was FAST, too – his time of 1:59 for the 1 1/4 miles was the Classic record until 2004.  I loved Skippy, his owners Sonny and Caroline Hine, and his BC jockey Mike Smith.  This was also the year of Silver Charm, but even that grey Derby winner just didn’t capture me like Skip Away did.  I had a Skip Away birthday cake and even named my bike after him.  Breyer probably has a file of letters from me begging them to create Skippy in plastic.

Shortly after the ’97 Breeders’ Cup, I got the internet.  When asked to choose a screen name for an early racing bulletin board, I went with my favorite race horse, Skip Away (+ my year of high school graduation — this has made me feel old since 2004). That bulletin board was home of many a heated argument over the 1997 Horse of the Year, which makes RA vs Z seem like a friendly disagreement.

Unlike so many top handicap horses, Skip Away remained in training after his Classic win, and his owners actually pointed him for a repeat in ’98.  With my new access to racing information, I was able to find out when Skip Away was racing next, who he was facing, and by how many lengths his victory was within moments of the race!  Within a day I could usually find the race replay itself (though it took ages to load on pre-YouTube dial-up sites!).  It was amazingly awesome for a 14 year old, horse-crazy girl.

I also grew to love the horses Skippy left in his wake: Gentleman, Running Stag, Will’s Way, Formal Gold.  I couldn’t hate Formal Gold, who beat Skippy 4 times, because I knew how hard he had to run to accomplish that feat.

When Skip Away retired at the end of 1998, I vowed to visit him some day.  He stood at Hopewell Farm, not far from Three Chimneys.  As many times as I visited Silver Charm, Point Given and others, I never got to Hopewell.  It was the farm at the top of my list for future trips to the bluegrass.  It reads, “1. Hopewell, to finally see Skip Away” followed by “2. Darley to see Street Cry” and “3. Lane’s End to see Lemon Drop Kid”.

I knew Skip Away would be there no matter when I finally got there, because his owner Caroline wouldn’t have him go anywhere else.  He was only 17, so I could definitely catch him on the next trip.  He had a long life ahead.

Only, it wasn’t so far in the future.  Maybe.  This is 2010, after all, The Future.

(and that screen name seems ancient now)

Skip Away’s complete past performances.

Steve Haskin’s Skip Away memories.

Thanks for the Memories, Skippy, and God bless you & the soul of Luke Krytbosch:

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Filed under favorite races, obituary, recommended blog postings, Skip Away, video clips

Three Years Later

Image from Kentucky Derby facebook page

Fans of Barbaro leave roses at his grave, the magnificent statue at the gates of Churchill Downs.

I was working on proofing transcripts from the Symposium this afternoon when I got a tweet that made me stop and get misty for a minute:

January 29, 2006 Rachel Alexandra born. January 29, 2007 Barbaro dies.

One date, two vastly different stories.

When I think about Barbaro, I feel like a mountain climber who is inches from reaching the summit when a rockslide suddenly causes me to loose my footing and tumble back to the bottom.  Barbaro was a very special horse, perfect in build and temperament and blessed with the speed of the wind.  After his fantastic 6-length score in the Derby, I was shivering with anticipation for the first Triple Crown winner in my lifetime.  I never felt more certain about a horse.  And I wasn’t the only one.  We all know what happened next, so I will spare the gloom.  But out of the fog of tragedy and despair shone a glimmer of hope.  All of those like-minded Fans of Barbaro banded together, determined to make the sport a better place.

Three years later, I am still in awe of the power of Barbaro.  Instead of sliding into the abyss of cultural forgetfulness, Barbaro has remained stuck firm in the minds of the racing world as well as the public at large.  His name is a rallying point for grassroots efforts to save retired racehorses, raise funds for laminitis research and even tighten track safety standards.  When I meet people and tell them why I’m in Arizona, they inevitably mention Barbaro, and I tell them I am glad they remember him.

But the world is cyclical.

Though we remember fondly the formidable Derby winner, we must not ignore those who have risen in his shadow.

Rachel Alexandra had just turned a year old that day in 2007.  She was living on a farm with many other fillies and colts, learning the basics of being a horse.  Still lanky and immature, she’d been pulled from the Keeneland November sale as a weanling by owner/breeder Dolphus Morrison so that she could grow into her frame a little better.  It would be many months before the daughter of Medaglia D’Oro even saw a race track for the first time.  Once she did, it was obvious she had incredible talent and speed to spare.

In the three years since, Rachel Alexandra grew from that lanky yearling to promising juvenile to legendary Classic winner.  Her 20-length score in the Kentucky Oaks was magical, a coronation in pink.  She thumped the best three-year-old males in the Preakness, ran away from them all again in the Haskell, and ended her season with a gritty win against older males at Saratoga.  She even accomplished what Barbaro couldn’t: Champion 3-Year-Old in her division and Horse of the Year.  Now she gallops in Louisiana, and I wait for her return to competition and a meeting with her biggest rival, the undefeated supermare and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Zenyatta.

I am again climbing the mountain, inches from the summit, and this time, my eyes have caught a glimpse of the other side.

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Filed under obituary, Rachel Alexandra, zenyatta


As the year winds down and the temps turn cooler, I get excited about the Breeders’ Cup and the year-end awards, the opening of Keeneland and Churchill and Oak Tree.  But this is also the time to remember the horses who have thrilled me in the past, the great champions in the autumn of their lives.  Two of those legends left this life on Tuesday, PRINCESS ROONEY and COZZENE.

Back in 1984, when they called it the BC DISTAFF, Princess Rooney won the inaugural filly/mare

Princess Rooney triumphs in the first Breeders Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park in 1984.  Photo by Tony Leonard/The Bloodhorse

Princess Rooney triumphs in the first Breeders' Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park in 1984. Photo by Tony Leonard/The Bloodhorse

championship at Hollywood Park by 7 lengths.  The race was run at the 1.25 mile distance at that time, the same as the Classic.  The grey mare covered the DIstaff distance in 2:02.2/5, a full second faster than the boys ran the Classic the same year.  Princess Rooney was expertly conditioned by trainer Neil Drysdale for owner Paula Tucker.  She was voted Eclispe champion older mare for 1984, over Life’s Magic.

The Eclipse was a well-deserved trophy for the multiple-graded stakes winner, who also won the 1983 Kentucky Oaks.  Though she was a terror on the track, her progeny couldn’t live up to her golden standard.

Princess Rooney was diagnosed with EPM earlier this summer, and though she was given the best care at Rood&Riddle, her condition didn’t improve.  She will be missed.

Cozzene and Gainesway.  Photo from Thoroughbred Times

Cozzene and Gainesway. Photo from Thoroughbred Times

The year after Princess Rooney’s romp in the Distaff, COZZENE won the second Breeders’ Cup MILE.  I always like watching this race because halfway through, the huge flock of birds engulfs the screen, and the camera angle warps your perspective, and it appears as though the horses have taken flight.  It’s awesome.  At his retirement, Cozzene became a prominent sire of stakes winners, including a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner.  The grey horse by Caro was owned by the potentate of the turf, John Nerud, and trained by his son, Jan.

Cozzene sired Alphabet Soup, winner of the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic, as well as Tikkanen, ’94 Turf winner, and 81 other stakes winners.  Cozzene stood at Gainesway Farm in KY his entire stud career.   

This weekend, 2 of my watch horses run at Keeneland: LICKETY LEMON in the QEII Cup and COWBOY CAL in the Bryan Station Stakes.  Lemon is a big longshot; they didn’t even mention her in the write-up at!  But for loyal readers of The Infield, this filly is a wonder on poly, especially the longer distances.  Storm Mesa will try to recapture her west coast form here.  BH likes Ariege.

Cowboy Cal hasn’t run since the Derby, but after a long break, he’s back!  He’s been working a lot, so I hope he’s ready for this.  There’s a security guard I know who’s rooting for him.

One last thing:  I am always looking for more awesome things to do for this blog (I haven’t forgotten the Infield Experience photos…those will be coming up soon) and I think I have hit the motherlode: BREEDERS’ CUP LIVE BLOG!!  Tell your friends!

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Filed under Blogroll, Breeders' Cup, live blogging, obituary, Underrated Racehorses

GENUINE RISK — Derby’s Grand Dame Dies at 31

Genuine Risk at 30 in 2007, relaxing at Newstead Farm/photo from NewYorkTimes

Genuine Risk at 30 in 2007, relaxing at Newstead Farm/photo from NewYorkTimes

1980 Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk died at her home in Virginia today.  She was 31, and the oldest living Derby winner.  The daughter of Exclusive Native competed in all 3 Triple Crown races that year, finishing 2nd in both the Preakness and Belmont.

She produced only 2 foals, neither of whom raced, but she has left a lasting legacy on the turf.  Her Derby win was the 1st for a filly since Regret in 1915, and no other filly would win again until Winning Colors in ’88.  She ran a hard-fought battle in the Preakness against Codex, where many fans felt rough riding by Codex’s jockey cost Genny the race.  I just rewatched the race, and while Codex swung out wayy wide on the final turn, it didn’t look like he bumped or touched the filly.  The biggest question I have from seeing it is how good would Codex have been if he hadn’t drifted out?  The filly still put in a valiant effort to place.  Her runner-up finish to Temperance Hill was also spectacular, as those two struggled in the slop to pass Rockhill Native.  On a fast track, would Genny have been the 80’s Rags?

At 4, Genuine Risk raced 3 times in allowance company before a knee injury led to her retirement.  Her broodmare career was anticlamatic: she produced only 2 foals after many unsuccessful tries, including a cover by Secretariat.  Genuine Reward, her first foal by Rahy, was born in 1993; he now stands at stud in Wyoming. 

Genuine Risk lived her final years at Bert Firestone’s Newstead Farm in VA.  She was a grand dame of the turf and will be missed. 

The torch has now been passed to Alysheba, who, at 24, is the Oldest Living Kentucky Derby Winner.


Filed under Churchill Downs, Kentucky Derby, obituary

Last Call for Luke Kruytbosch, Churchill Announcer

I’m just floored.  Kruytbosch was a great caller, good voice, always got the crowd excited.  I looked forward to hearing him each time I went to the track, like I looked forward to the genuine mint julips.  He was only 46.  Just yesterday, I was listening to him call the Ellis Park races on TVG, and Mom said, “He sounds familiar!”  I said, yep, he called the races in Kentucky.  Here’s his call of this year’s Humana Distaff, featuring 2favorites, Hystericalady and Intagaroo:

Even worse, this probably mean Mike Battaglia will be calling for Churchill in the fall.  Gahh…


Filed under Churchill Downs, obituary