July 27, 2010

Remembering … Ferdinand

By the time the 1986 Kentucky Derby rolled around, master horseman Charlie Whittingham had his big horse ready to peak. Ferdinand was a strapping chestnut colt owned and bred by Howard and Elizabeth Keck, and was a bit of a slow developer. He ran five times as a juvenile with but one win. He had developed into a stakes performer over the Winter, and scored his first added money triumph in the Santa Catalina Stakes. But still, after being well beaten by division leader Snow Chief in the Santa Anita Derby, the son of superior sire Nijinsky shipped to Louisville with only two wins in nine races. At post time, Ferdinand, with regular rider Willie Shoemaker on his back, would be sent off as a 17-1 outsider, but his Hall of Fame trainer was full of belief that the colt was ready. He was right.

Breaking from the one-hole, Ferdinand was squeezed a bit early on, and quickly dropped to last in the 16-horse field. The pace was strong and Ferdinand was allowed to relax early. When Shoemaker asked him for run, it was clear that the Bald Eagle’s trainee was ready to respond, but traffic would be a major issue. Ferdinand weaved his way through horses and looked ready to pounce spinning out of the Churchill Downs turn. Passing horses on the outside, Ferdinand was now near the leaders, but as the field straightened out, he was completely blocked by a wall of horses all vying for the Kentucky Derby lead. In an instant, Ferdinand and the Shoe darted through a hole and towards the inside. It was a bold and decisive move. Now on the inside of his competition, Ferdinand was clear to run, and he proved too strong for the rest. He spurted clear and hit the wire 2 ¼ lengths a winner. It was a special win. Whittingham at 73 was long respected, and Shoemaker was never more loved after becoming the oldest rider ever to win the Derby at 54. Ferdinand and his connections were the toast of the nation.

After his big score in the Run for the Roses, Ferdinand returned to run two solid races to complete the Triple Crown series. In the Preakness, he came from far back to finish 2nd , while in the Belmont, Ferdinand caught a sloppy track and could never get to the speedy Danzig Connection. He was 3rd that day, beaten only 1 ½ lengths, and it would be the only day I would see the West Coast star in action. After the rigors of the Triple Crown, Ferdinand was given a long break before returning to run one of his most impressive races. The day after Christmas, 1986, Ferdinand was entered in a strong field of 12 in the Malibu Stakes. Proving his class, Ferdinand, a true distance horse, rallied by his talented nemesis, Snow Chief, to win by 1 ¼ lengths in the seven furlong affair. After this win, Ferdinand would run his final 16 races at 1 1/8 miles or longer, but in the Malibu he proved that he could beat the best at any distance. The Malibu set up Ferdinand well for his four-year-old season. A season that would culminate with a Horse of the Year award.

As a four-year-old, Ferdinand was at his best, but wins would not come easy. He ran well each and every time out, but despite his effort, a six race losing streak started the season. Two nail-biting losses highlighted the first half of the year. In the Strub Stakes, he lost by a nose to Snow Chief. A month later he returned to defeat his rival in the Santa Anita Handicap, only to lose out to Broad Brush again by a nose. The losing streak would finally end, and the big colt looked outstanding in winning the Hollywood Gold Cup, Cabrillo, and Goodwood. The winning streak seemed like fair retribution for the horse who had been so good all year.

Ferdinand still had one last test to pass, and it was administered to him in spades in his final race of the season. He went on to meet Alysheba in the Breeder's Cup Classic, and it there the world would see a classic battle between two proud Kentucky Derby winners. Ferdinand was game and strong, and he defeated the onrushing Alysheba in dramatic style, winning by a nose after a head-to-head battle down to the wire. It was the final crowning achievement for Ferdinand on the racetrack, and he was rewarded by being named America’s best of 1987.

Unfortunately, Ferdinand returned from his BC Classic victory to go 0 for 6 as a five-year-old, but would give the champion Alysheba everything he wanted in memorable battles in the San Bernardino and Santa Anita Handicaps that Spring. He was retired after an uncharacteristic poor performance when 5th in the Goodwood Handicap that Fall. All in all, Ferdinand would win 8 out of 29 lifetime starts, with 23 in-the-money finishes. A record that at first glance might not seem sterling, but when you consider that 17 of those races were in grade 1 stakes, and that he was able to win nearly $4 million dollars more than twenty years ago, and you begin to realize what a strong horse he was. Ferdinand was able to win on the two biggest stages in American racing and was always a threat to win major races in all four seasons he ran.

Ferdinand was retired to Claiborne Farm in 1989 with high hopes for success at stud, after all he was a well bred and durable classic winner. It did not happen. He was quickly defined as a disappointment as a stallion. Much like many fine horses, Ferdinand was not able to pass on his quality as a runner to his offspring. You can only stand on your racing laurels for so long in the big money business of thoroughbred breeding. At eleven years old, and only eight years removed from being draped in roses, Ferdinand’s value as a stallion was drastically lower than a few years before. He was sold to Japanese breeding interests and shipped across the globe to stand stud.

After several years of breeding in Japan, it became apparent that the once proud runner was now a financial liability to his owners. In many nations, thoroughbreds, whose financial usefulness runs dry, have their lives ended at the hands of humans who once showered these horses with admiration. And in 2002, so it was for Ferdinand. Details are a little fuzzy, but the end was horribly clear. Ferdinand’s life was extinguished in a Japanese slaughterhouse. It was an unspeakable fate for a marvelous horse.

Not the only top American racehorse to die in a foreign slaughterhouse, Ferdinand joined Exceller, the only horse to beat two Triple Crown winners in a race, as the most famous of these heartbreaking deaths. Some good has come from their tragic ends. American owners now commonly have clauses written into stallion sales, where they can buy back their horses after breeding careers end. Anti-slaughter supporters are at an all-time high, and people like Alex Brown work tirelessly to protect the horses we love. One of the best organizations in championing the overall welfare of horses is named after Ferdinand. Please visit Friends of Ferdinand to see how you can support the cause.

Ferdinand was a very good horse and deserved so much better. Not that all beautiful thoroughbred horses do not deserve better, but this was Ferdinand, a Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. He was a champion, with the heart of a champion. When I try to imagine what Ferdinand may have gone through those final moments, I still lose it.  I remember you Ferdinand.


Michael said...

Couple comments. I just happened to watch the replay of his Derby a couple weeks agao and it was funny to hear Al Michaels during the post parade to state that "Shoemaker is currently 17-1 on Ferdinand. A few years ago, you couldn't get 17-1 on Shoe if he was riding Mr. Ed!"
My second comment is that there is also a ball held on the Thursday before the Derby in Louisville named in his honor to support Michael Blowen and Old Friends. 2011 will be the second year for Ferdinands Ball and I encourage anyone to attend or help if they can.

Heather said...

I got chills and tears, Brian. Thank you for remembering Ferdinand.

Anonymous said...

A few more rescue groups:

Thoroughbred Reiterment Foundation: www.trfinc.org

Canter: www.canterusa.org

Paws For Life/Mid-Atlantic Horse Rescue: www.midatlantichorserescue.org

Anonymous said...

Reiterment=Retirement ;)

Michael said...

Great one Keltic. My wife and I are actually thinking about volunteering at one here in Md (Days End). We have to get to an orientation first though.

Wendy said...

Thanks for reminding people about this. Between 10,000-18,000 (conservative estimate) US thoroughbreds die at slaughterhouses every year (1/3-1/2 of the number of yearly foal crop). Anywhere from 100,000-150,000 of horses of all breeds meet that fate yearly. Here's a link to a related article I wrote: http://www.sandiego.com/beach-life/opening-day-at-del-mar-remember-the-horses. Unfortunately, due to space constraints, about 1/2 the article was edited out, but still, a good reminder.

Anonymous said...

Nicely written Brian. Love reading your stories. Very sad and tragic ending.

Tony said...

Mr. Zipse, I can honestly say that I would rather read a story written by you than any of those so called famous turf writers. Thank you for doing what you do.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story Brian. It's sad to see how a horse like Ferdinand could be tossed away in another country like that. But then again, horses are sent to slaughter every day here, as well.
Owning an ex-racer myself, It breaks my heart.

Kate said...

I'm a graduate student writing an Op-ed piece for my writing class and I came across your article in my research. It is beautifully written and I couldn't help but tear up at the end. Thank you for writing such a special memoir.

Jennifer said...

Excellent article, Brian. :)

Celeste said...

Thanks, Brian. Beautifully said.

Cindy said...

Thank you for remembering, Brian.

MaryAinMI said...

Ferdinand's story so beautifully written! Thank you, Brian!

ja.raymond said...

I was stabled @ CD that yr. After the race, I went to his barn to meet him. The whole entourage was there, along with the Trophy Saddle and about 8 cops. Ferdinand was very cordial- came to the front of his stall and let me rub his pretty red head.
I shook The Shoe's hand and told him how excited & happy I was for him (and thanked him for the great pay-out! ;), chatted with his wife, & got some great pics of them all. It was a magical day all the way around!
Another great write, Brian..and it didnt make me cry like I thought it would! :)

william said...

wow brian..such emotion as always...great article and im glad to see so many more people supporting your work..keep it up

Sharla Sanders said...

Ferdinand changed the direction of my life and passion from racing to race horses after learning of his death in Japan.
The trajectory of my life changed, and I founded The Second Race to honor horses as grand as Ferdinand and those you will never hear about, because we owe them that much for all they do for us.

Thank you for a wonderful piece.
Sharla Sanders
The Second Race

The Track Philosopher said...

Thanks for the memories.... I can vividly remember that Kentucky Derby as Ferdinand led by Willie "The Shoe" went by the grandstand the first time and was in last place. Then to see the two of them work as a team moving through and by one horse at a time down the backstretch to be in contention at the quarter pole. And the amazing finish breaking through that wall of thoroughbreds to take the lead and eventually the win, oh my what a wonderful memory.
I would have to say that Ferdinand wasn't the fastest or the most popular or best, he's not even well known among the average race fan. But in my opinion that race is to this day the greatest performance by a thoroughbred in any horse race in history. That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.

LDP said...

We should work harder to protect our champions. What was done to him and countless other is horrible and should not be allowed.

RachelAlex said...

Dear Brian:

Thank you for this poignant remembrance of Ferdinand and of all the countless horses that suffered his fate. We all need to be reminded that for many people, racing is just a business, and that these beautiful creatures are living and running for our (Foolish) pleasure. He and Exceller and all of them deserve better than this.