August 10, 2010

Remembering ... Manila

The Arlington Million, one of my favorite races of the year, is only eleven days away. My memory bank of past Millions is deep and rich. There was the Miracle Million of 1985, and John Henry's fantastic wins in 1981 and 1984.  I saw one of my favorites, Paradise Creek win in 1994, and I witnessed the trials and tribulations of Powerscourt in 2004 & 2005.  But as far as sheer ability of the winner, no Million meant as much to me as the 1987 running.

People often ask me, who was the best American turf horse I ever saw. With all due respect to the excellence and longevity of John Henry, my answer for the past 23 years has been the same, the 1987 Million winner, Manila. The first time I saw Manila in person was the 1986 Lexington Stakes. The moment was not lost on me. Manila, A Lyphard colt out of Dona Ysidra, by Le Fabuleux, had taken to turf like a fish to water just a few months before the Lexington. That day at Belmont, he would relentlessly track down a talented turf runner named Glow, who appeared home free in the stretch. It was an impressive and dogged stretch run that I remember left me thinking that Manila was on the cusp of becoming a turf star. Little did I know how soon that would become reality.

Mike Shannon had purchased Manila just months before, from breeder and Filipino businessman Eduardo M. Cojuangco Jr., who was a close associate of Phillipines president Ferdinand Marcos. Cojuangco left the country in February 1986 on the plane that carried the deposed dictator to exile in Hawaii. Shannon purchased several of Cojuangco's horses, including the young Lyphard colt who had been 0 for 3 on the dirt as a juvenile for his former owner. But it would not take long for Manila to prove to be the star of the bunch.

Beginning with the race before the Lexington, Hollywood Park’s Cinema Handicap, Manila went on a stakes skein seldom seen in American turf. He rolled up nine straight stakes victories in a little over a year. After the Lexington, Manila would never run strictly against his age set again. He broke the track record in Atlantic City’s prestigious United Nations Handicap in his very next start, to bring his victory streak to three. After that, Manila would win a graded stakes at the Meadowlands by almost ten lengths, before earning hard fought victories in the Turf Classic and Breeders' Cup Turf, and what’s more, he won those races as a three-year-old. In that season of 1986, he was named the nation's champion grass horse and finished second in the balloting for Horse of the Year to the great filly, Lady's Secret.

Heading into the Breeders’ Cup Turf, all the talk was about another three-year-old turf star. Dancing Brave was the toast of Europe after powerful wins in the 2000 Guineas, King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Also a son of Lyphard, Dancing Brave’s press clippings were more than glowing and the colt was thought to be near invincible, despite the presence of Manila, and two other turf tigers in Theatrical and Estrapade. But my friends, that is why they run the race, for it was the other three-year-old who would prove to best on the Santa Anita Turf. As the field straightened for home, it was the great mare Estrapade on the lead, but a three-prong challenge of males was ready to pounce. Manila was moving strongly on the rail, with Theatrical in the middle and Dancing Brave a threatening presence on the outside. The threat never materialized as Dancing Brave hung badly and finished a well beaten fourth at odds of 1-2. Meanwhile Theatrical made a winning move collaring the mare and quickly edging away. Manila’s hole on the rail was closed tightly, and rider Jose Santos had to snatch him up at the 3/16 pole. Theatrical was in full flight and appeared to be long gone, that is, long gone if Manila had been just another horse. Digging down unbelievably deep, Manila accelerated in gargantuan proportions and nailed his older competition at the wire. It was a fantastic performance, and one that saw Manila beat three champions.

Seeing Manila in the Arlington Million the following Summer was especially gratifying for me on many fronts. Despite winning impressively in three straight stakes races to begin 1987, naysayers were doubting him after his first loss in a long time when he ran 2nd in the Bernard Baruch at Saratoga. On that afternoon he was beaten by a half length. He did give winner Talakeno 12 pounds in the Baruch, but it was his first non-Manila like performance since I started following him. I was hoping for redemption for the great horse, and I was thrilled that he would be doing it in Chicago’s biggest race. As usual the Million came up tough, and to win he would need to beat the sharp import Sharrood, and his old rival Theatrical. It was no contest. Manila had all of his class and ability on full display in winning the Million easily over Sharrood, while Theatrical was beaten nearly five lengths back in 3rd. The win was ample affirmation of his spot as the nation's leading grass horse. Sadly, only 12 days later to Manila was retired from racing because of a hairline fracture in his left cannon bone. Theatrical would begin his own streak after the Million, culminating with a BC Turf victory and an Eclipse Award. But those of us lucky enough to see Manila’s final race, knew who the best turf horse was.

Overall, Manila won 12 of 18 lifetime starts, including a sensational turf record of 11 wins and 3 seconds in 14 races, and earned $2,692,799. At the time of his retirement, his earnings put him into the top ten all-time. As a stallion, he was initially sent to Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, where he sired multiple Grade 1 winner Bien Bien from his first crop. He was purchased by the Turkish Jockey Club in 1996, where he would spend the second half of his life. Manila went on to sire three champions, and was the leading broodmare sire in 2003 in his new home. He remained in Turkey until the time of his death last year. Manila passed away on February 28, 2009, from an aortic rupture. He was 26 years old.

In case my words have not yet displayed just how special a horse Manila was, perhaps his trainer can do him justice. Leroy Jolley declared that he considered Manila to be the single best horse he ever trained. Powerful words when you consider that this man also trained Genuine Risk, Foolish Pleasure, Ridan, Gulch, Honest Pleasure, General Assembly, Meadow Star, and What a Summer, to name a few. I remember you Manila.

Photo by Frances J. Karon


Brian Appleton said...

He was a magnificent racehorse. I'd always heard very good things about him and I finally watched a bunch of his races for the first time last summer and was thrilled with his style. Some horses are just naturally more exciting to watch than others and he definitely fell into that category for me.

Brian Zipse said...

He was Brian, glad you got to see some videos ... thay are not easy to find these days. Did you see the '86 BC Turf? WOW!