November 9, 2009

Remembering ... Eillo

I will never forget the very first Breeders' Cup Sprint. It was 1984 and one of my favorite horses of the time, Eillo made the cross country trip from the swamplands of New Jersey to the glitz of la-la land. It was a thrilling time. The very first Breeders’ Cup had all the promise of the most exciting event ever to come along for race fans. Some of my favorite horses were running with a big chance to win and the Jersey horse was certainly one of them. Eillo did what he always did and ran as fast as he could. You could still hear the ringing of the starting gate bell when Eillo cleared the field. He bounded along, his small chestnut body too quick for the other top sprinters. As they neared the top of the stretch, his competition closed in but Eillo had plenty left. My hopes soared as Eillo started to pull away in the stretch. The race was over. Or was it?

The long Hollywood Park stretch was starting to take its’ toll. One hundred yards to go and the lead was still two lengths. I held my breath as his stride began to shorten and Commemorate made a final rush. As they hit the wire together, I did not know who won. An agonizing wait for the photo finally revealed that Eillo had desperately held off Commemorate to win by a nose. This is still the closest finish in a race that has often had fantastic finishes. It is also a race that has not always been kind to favorites, but on this day the favorite would overcome. Eillo went off as the 6-5 favorite, and no favorite would again win the Sprint for ten years. Happy times for everyone rooting for the unique talent that was Eillo, but the happy times would not last long.

Unfortunately, I will also never forget the day I heard that my favorite sprinter was no longer with us. Less than one month after his greatest triumph, Eillo had passed away after surgery for Colic. I could not believe that a horse I had grown to love and so recently had become a champion was suddenly gone. My heart sank from the news. I was fifteen years old and had not yet experienced much death in my life. It hurt. It was unimaginable that the horse I was dazzled with at the Meadowlands two months before was dead. If there can be any solace in such an untimely death, it can be found in Eillo completing his career with ultimate success. In the short time between his Breeders’ Cup triumph and his death he had been retired from racing. When he got his chance to shine on the biggest stage, Eillo had made the grade.

Perhaps I liked Eillo so much for our New Jersey connection. Eillo was New Jersey through and through. He was ridden by perennial New Jersey leading rider Craig Perret and trained by Budd Lepman who for years ran his horses at two of my hangouts Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands. Eillo raced only 17 times in two years, but his local fans got to see him each of his seasons at both Monmouth and the Meadowlands. Seeing an Eillo race was a rare treat. His owner was a likeable fellow named Ollie Cohen. Cohen was the co-founder of King's Department Store, a chain that grew to 190 stores before he sold his interest in 1979. His Crown Stables owned 16 stakes winner but none could compare to the horse he named after himself. Eillo is owner Ollie Cohen’s name in reverse. Somewhere Harry Caray must be smiling. Or maybe I liked Eillo so much because every time I saw him race in person he would blow the field away with speed to burn. He was a Jersey horse and he was the quickest thing on four legs.

A chestnut son of the outstanding sire Mr. Prospector, Eillo was born to run swiftly. His dam was the stakes producing Northern Dancer broodmare, Barb’s Dancer. From the very beginning, Eillo was faster than fast, winning his first two races by a combined 15 lengths. In all, the talented speedster won 12 times in 17 attempts. Unlike the BC Sprint, many of these wins were by daylight as the other horses simply could not keep up to Eillo. He was posthumously awarded the 1984 Eclipse Award as the nation’s best sprinter. To the people that knew Eillo well, he was considered a sweet horse who was exceptionally intelligent. His sudden passing was a great blow to all. When I reflect back on Eillo I always think about the line made famous regarding James Dean. He was too fast to live and too young to die. I remember you … Eillo.


Anonymous said...

A sad ending for a brilliant sprinter. I remember seeing him win at Hialeah. You don't soon forget a horse that fast!

ja.raymond said...

I met "E" at Gulfstream Park in the winter of 83/84. I worked for J Bollero and we were in barn 4 with Lepman. "E" was a courteous little guy, usually quiet and unassuming, and always about the business. When he ran, we all went up to watch him kick ass in the Tallahassee and the Kendall; wire to wire, setting fractions of 22 & 44 or 45 & change! He actually knocked off the Tallahassee in 1:08 1/5!!
Then came the day for him to try the turf. He worked between races one day and we could almost see the expression on his face (from the backside rail) when he stepped on the grass: "OMG..what is THIS crap??!!"
When Lepman raced him on it a few days later, he finished dead last..he hated it! They never made him contend with it again.
He went to Oaklawn for the Count Fleet and didnt do so well..guess he didnt like that track either. But after that, he never lost another one.
RIP Lil Supa E!!

ja.raymond said...

And thank you, Brian, for your tribute to a very deserving little gentleman! :)

Brian Zipse said...

My pleasure and thank you for your insider perspective Jane. It must have been a great experience to be so close to E. Obviously you loved him like I did! I will never forget him.

LDP said...

He sounds like a fantastic horse. Again I'm glad you have this Remembering series to transport me back to what I was too you to see for myself. Great post.

Luvbarbaro said...

Oh gosh, I just love Chestnuts. I never saw Eillo race unfortunately, but he sounded like an amazing sprinter. When Barbaro died in 2007, I was absolutely devastated, so I can only imagine how difficult that was for you, being only 15.

Heather said...

i was only four years old at that time, but Eillo sounds like he was a truly great horse. on a side note, this makes me think of all the great thoroughbreds that suffered an untimely death this year, do to complications with surgery, illness, or injuries on the track. it's so sad when we lose ANY of them, especially the great ones that seem invincible. great blog, brian.