What’s harder, getting to the top or getting back to the top?
“Both,” trainer Jim Bond laughed. “It’s been a long, long drought needless to say. We’ve had good horses, but not great ones.”
Tizway, the six-year-old horse he trains for long-time client William Clifton, Jr., is on the threshold of greatness. If he can follow his dominant victory in the prestigious Grade 1 Metropolitan Mile by capturing Saturday’s $750,000 Grade 1 Whitney Handicap Saturday afternoon at Saratoga, Tizway stamps himself as not only the leader of the older handicap division but also a top contender for Horse of the Year honors. In the Met Mile, Tizway covered the eight furlongs in 1:32.90, the second fastest time in the stakes’ 120-year history and just .09 of a second off Honour and Glory’s 1996 stakes record.
“Tizway’s been in the barn four or five years,” Bond said. “This was a breakthrough year.” Bond couldn’t be happier that Clifton is the beneficiary. “It’s just an honor and a privilege to train for Mr. Clifton,” Bond said. “He’s just a great, great person. He was always there.”
Even when Bond was struggling.
Tizway’s Met Mile victory May 30th was Bond’s first Grade I triumph since Buddha captured the 2002 Wood Memorial by a head over Medaglia d’ Oro. Buddha may have gone off the favorite in the Kentucky Derby had he not been scratched the day before because of a bruised left front foot. It still pains Bond to talk about it: “I said I would never bring a horse to run in the Derby unless I thought he’d win the Derby. The timing stunk.”
Buddha re-injured himself that summer and never raced again, retiring with three victories from four starts.
Bond’s career seemed to be stuck ever since, as he searched for the one horse to catapult him back to the upper echelon of racing.
He’d exploded on the national scene when he left Finger Lakes for New York and captured the Saratoga Cup in 1995 and 1996 with L’Carriere, who was also second in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic and second in the 1996 Woodward, both close losses to two-time Horse of the Year Cigar. Then Bond came within inches of capturing three consecutive Grade I Travers Stakes.
Will’s Way, who would also add the Whitney Handicap the following year, defeated Louis Quatorze, Skip Away and Editor’s Note in the 1996 Travers. The following August, Behrens, trained by Bond, lost by a nose to Deputy Commander in an incredible stretch duel between Hall of Famers Jerry Bailey, riding Behrens, and an emotional Chris McCarron, riding in his first race since his mother passed away four days earlier.
Bond took that loss hard, his chance to become the first trainer to win back-to-back Travers since Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey won in 1989 with Easy Goer and in ’90 with Rhythm. Bond said, “I was staying up that night, beating myself, saying, `What did I do wrong?’” Bond’s wife Tina told him, “Maybe Chris needed it more than you,” and that seemed to help.
At least until the 1998 Travers. Nobody expected Bond’s New York-bred Raffie’s Majesty to be near Coronado’s Quest and Victory Gallop, but the three horses hit the finish line together. Coronado’s Quest had defeated Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop by a nose with Raffie’s Majesty just another nose back in third. Ten yards past the wire, Raffie’s Majesty was in front.
“It was a phenomenal run,” Bond said. “But you can’t relive yesterday. You have to think of tomorrow.”
Tomorrow could be special for Tizway and his connections, especially Bond, who has never shied away from his roots at Finger Lakes. “I’m very proud of that,” the 53-year-old Bond said. “I can honestly tell you, it’s like going to a two-year college and then a four-year college. Finger Lakes was a great two-year-old college. I was lucky to be around some great horsemen at Finger Lakes. I take great pride in that. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That makes me who I am.”
(Bill Heller’s latest two books, “Above It All; The Turbulent Life of Jose Santos,” and “Captain Free-lance; The Check Is In The Mail,” are available exclusively at www.billhellerbooks.com.)