October 5, 2009

Remembering ... Five Star Flight

I will forever remember the Haskell Invitational of 1981. It was the 1st of August and it was a showdown at the Jersey shore. In one corner you had the defending 2-year-old champion Lord Avie and in the other corner was the challenger and my favorite horse, Five Star Flight. The crowd was divided in their loyalties as they made Lord Avie a slight favorite over the 8-5 challenger. The stretch-running Lord Avie was the best juvenile of 1980 and he looked every bit the champion in winning the Florida Derby earlier in the year. Unfortunately, he came out of that race with an injury, and the early Derby favorite was off the Triple Crown trail. Returning to the races, Lord Avie had won an easy prep a few weeks before the Haskell. Five Star Flight meanwhile was a speedy Florida bred trained by Ben Perkins who had not yet fulfilled the potential that he had flashed several times in his short career. He had looked ready to take it to the next level in the aforementioned Florida Derby, but he dueled on the lead that day and backed out, he too came out of the race an injured horse.

Five Star Flight’s return to the races came sooner than Lord Avie as he reappeared in an allowance race at Monmouth Park less than three months after his Florida Derby injury. One minute and eight seconds after the race began, it was clear that Five Star Flight was still a horse on a path for stardom. Next came one of the greatest allowance race matchups I have ever seen as Five Star Flight and Noble Nashua ding-donged all the way down the Belmont stretch. 1:21 and change was the time as Noble Nashua defended his turf by a short head. Noble Nashua loved Belmont and went on to impressive scores in the Dwyer, Jerome, and Marlboro Cup over this surface later in the season. Five Star Flight was as impressive as a losing horse could be and now it would be time to stretch him back out. The Jersey Derby at Atlantic City would be the site for his first major stakes win as he easily handled the two-turn assignment. Left to chase his tail that day were such fine runners as Tap Shoes, Silver Express, and Willow Hour. It was in that race that yours truly, all of 12 years young and watching from the rail, officially fell in love with the bay son of Top Command.

So now the big day had come, Five Star Flight vs. Lord Avie. I went to the races with all the enthusiasm you would expect from a giddy schoolboy. This was my Christmas. Since I was a child prodigy with the Daily Racing Form, my father had instituted a wonderful financial plan for me. In lieu of a more structured allowance, my father would finance a $2 bet for me on every race, each time we went to the track. Some cynics may see this as contributing to the delinquency of a minor…to me it was a wonderful tradition that I will be proud to carry on with my children. On Haskell Day in 1981 I did something different, something I had never done before. As each race went by, my father asked me how I wanted to bet my $2 and each time I said “No, I will wait for Five Star Flight.” Nine races, so the $2 wagers had accumulated to $18 and I had waited patiently to put it on my favorite horse’s nose. $18 to win for me was about $16 more than my previous biggest wager. The race finally begun and Craig Perret did a masterful job of harnessing the speed of Five Star Flight. His speed was not taxed and as Lord Avie began to roll from the back of the pack of the six-horse affair, it was clear that Five Star Flight was just waiting to sprint home. As Lord Avie easily passed the other runners, Perret let out a notch on Five Star Flight and I was as happy as anyone in attendance as he steadily drew away from the champion for a five length win. My favorite horse had just won New Jersey’s biggest race and my bet returned fifty two dollars… My father had been impressed with my discipline and made the bet an even $20. What a day!

That day would prove to be Five Star Flight’s greatest moment. Injury issues continued to plague him and he would run only three more times. He was injured in his next race, the Travers, another race I witnessed. After five more months off, he returned in January in California and in his second race back, he impressively won the San Pasqual Handicap in racehorse time. But that would be that, another injury and the well bred grandson of Bold Ruler out of the multiple stakes producer, Sweeping Beauty, was off to stud. He raced only 12 times in his career and won 7. I was lucky enough to see several of his races in person. Five Star Flight has long since passed away, but every time I think of him, I am swept away to my childhood and that special day at Monmouth Park. I remember you Five Star Flight.


LDP said...

What a great story. To bad he never got a real chance to show his metal, thanks to the constant injuries. He sounds like a fantastic horse.

Billy Huntington said...

Great memories Brian.