By John Manley
LOUISVILLE — Noel Hickey enjoyed the biggest win of his multifaceted career in horse racing when Quarter B Farm’s Buck’s Boy went wire-to-wire in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs.
Although Hickey is listed as the gelding’s trainer, he is much more than that. The Corkman owns the sire, Bucksplasher, the dam, Molly’s Colleen, and is the breeder of record via his Irish Acres Farm, which is based in Ocala, Fla. Buck’s Boy was actually foaled in Illinois, to take advantage of that state’s purse incentives for state-breds. The win, thus, makes Hickey the first trainer of a Breeders’ Cup winner to have also bred that horse.
He sold the 5-year-old to Quarter B several years ago, but was retained as trainer.
Buck’s Boy faced opposition in the Turf from another Irish quarter, Patrick Garvey’s Sunshine Street. John Murtagh came over to ride the Epsom Derby fourth for trainer Noel Meade. The field also included Chief Bearhart, victorious in last year’s edition of the Turf at Hollywood Park, in which Buck’s Boy was fourth.
Ideally situated in the two post, Buck’s Boy broke sharply to gain the lead, setting mild fractions under Shane Sellers. The Irish-bred Insatiable and Sunshine Street shadowed Buck’s Boy the first time around the Churchill grass course. Insatiable fell back by the time Buck’s Boy was rounding into the lane for the final quarter mile, at which time Murtagh was all over his charge, which was game but unable to gain.
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Sellers, meanwhile, employed a hand ride to keep his mount’s mind on business. No serious threat appeared until midstretch, when Yagli made a run, but Buck’s Boy threw it into another gear and was clear by more than a length at the wire. The 12-furlongs time of 2:28.74 was over two seconds off the course record. Buck’s Boy paid $9.20 to win.
"He loves to play a cat-and-mouse game with the rest of the horses, go out in 25 and change," Sellers said. "The last quarter mile was a very fun race to ride."
Dushyantor and Chief Bearhart came on late to throttle Sunshine Street’s hopes of figuring in the trifecta, which would have been huge had the Meade runner hopped on at 115-1. The price is more indication of a grave oversight on the betting public’s part than a true reflection of Sunshine Street’s ability. Although winner’s circles have proven elusive, he provided ample competition for his superiors throughout the year.
Hickey reflected after the race on the difference between Buck’s Boy 1998 vs. the 1997 version.
"In order to win races like this, you have to put a lot of stamina into the horse," Hickey said. "I didn’t really have him ready to go a mile and a half last year, because I wasn’t pointing him for the Breeders’ Cup. This year, I did point for it.
"It’s more than training when you win a race like this. You’ve got to have a great horse. I try and get mares that produce classic winners. That’s what it takes to win: class and pedigree. If a horse isn’t bred to go a distance, you can’t train him to do it."
Hickey admitted to being optimistic about the gelding’s chances going into the race and brushed off the European challengers, dismissing their connections as "egotistical."
The normally taciturn and canny Hickey let his guard down a notch during an emotional postrace interview, when asked what satisfaction he derived from also earning stallion and foal nominator awards of $104,000.
"Oh my God, I totally forgot about those," Hickey exclaimed. "Do you know how much they are?"
Hickey, a former banker, is apparently pretty good converting dollars into yen, because he will next send Buck’s Boy to the Far East for the Nov. 29 Japan Cup.
Aidan O’Brien’s first Breeders’ Cup will have to be chalked up to experience. Second Empire ran third to Desert Prince for much of the year, but outran that rival in the Mile. However, he could do no better than sixth under Michael Kinane. Irish-bred Desert Prince, owned in part by the Irish National Stud, came in 14th and last as the 3-1 second choice.
"He got a big bump on the first corner and he was not the same after that," said Olivier Peslier, Desert Prince’s rider. "He just didn’t want to do anything."
Hawksley Hill came as close to a win as the Irish breeding industry would get all day. The gelding lost a photo to Da Hoss in the Mile. Also in that race, the Frank Lyons-trained Mr. Lightfoot finished 10th. Lyons won the Sprint in 1995 and returned to training last spring after a stint as a jockey’s agent.
The Classic saw two Pats with ancestral ties to Ireland revisit the winner’s circle when Awesome Again was first across in a thrilling stretch run. Trainer Pat Byrne won two Breeders’ Cup races last year. He is a fifth-generation horseman who grew up in England, his father having left the family homestead in Newbridge, Co. Kildare. Byrne now bases his operation in Kentucky. Awesome Again was ridden by Pat Day, the Breeders’ Cup’s winningest jockey, who won his third Classic.
The Irish-bred Swain might have earned the lion’s share of the $5,120,000 purse had he not sidestepped his way down the stretch the final 16th. Jockey Frankie Dettori attributed his bearing out to the horse’s reaction to grandstand lights, but it could have been that the horse was taken aback at the unrelenting punishment Dettori was administering with his left hand.
European racing authorities are less tolerant of whipping, and Dettori might not have the requisite experience at switching the stick that could have straightened Swain and saved precious ground.
Kieren Fallon had no success in the Sprint. His mount, the Irish-bred Bolshoi, settled in the back of the pack early, then closed late to finish seventh at 65-1. The Exeter Man, owned by Dr. Pat Sheehy, who grew up in Kinsale, came up empty in the stretch and finished 13th at 57-1.
Michael Kinane’s time wasn’t exactly well spent in the Juvenile. He took the ride on Time Bandit, which was within hailing distance of the leaders early, but came apart in the lane to finish 13th and last.