Photo: Golden Eagle Farm/Piedra Photos
On the afternoon of the final day of October 2012, the
excitement was nearly tangible as dozens of the world’s best racehorses prepared
for that weekend’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park. Fans
and media flocked to see top contenders schooling in the paddock beneath the
California sun, Breeders’ Cup decorations abundant at the Great Race Place.
Meanwhile, a large chestnut gelding stood within a small paddock, staring off
into the distance of the foothills of the Laguna Mountains less than 150 miles to
the southeast of Santa Anita. On the nameplate of his halter read the name General Challenge. Thirteen years earlier, he had competed in the Breeders’ Cup
Classic (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park. While he did not find success that day,
General Challenge certainly had a racing career to remember.
A homebred for John and Betty Mabee’s Golden Eagle Farm, General Challenge
raced twenty-one times for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Raced only once as a two-year-old, the California-bred
son of General Meeting won his first two starts as a three-year-old in 1999,
including the Santa Catalina Stakes (gr. II), in which he defeated eventual
Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Charismatic.
A 3 ½-length romp in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) earned him favoritism in the
Kentucky Derby, but uneasiness before the race and a rough trip saw him finish
a disappointing eleventh in the Run for the Roses. However, this loss did not
define his career. General Challenge went on to capture five additional graded
stakes races, including the Pacific Classic (gr. I) and Santa Anita Handicap
(gr. I). By the time his career ended in July 2003, the flashy chestnut had won
nine races from twenty-one starts, earning $2,877,178.
His career on the track had ended, but new career plans for the white-faced and
white-legged gelding were made for him to become a pony. But General Challenge,
whose quirkiness had earned him the nickname “Rodman” (after Hall of Fame
basketball player Dennis Rodman), did not approve of this plan. He also did not
approve of the alternative plan to train him to become a jumper. Instead,
General Challenge lived the rest of his life in pasture – exactly the way he
wanted to live it.
On that October day, I had the opportunity to meet this quirky California
legend. He was no longer the robust athlete he had been on the track;
unfortunately, he was becoming weaker due to health issues. But General
Challenge certainly had not lost an ounce of his personality. He shook his head
at me and pawed with his left front leg, begging for a treat. Momentarily, he
allowed me to scratch his face before losing patience, knowing I did not have a
treat for him. As if in disgust, he turned away and pranced about his paddock
before returning to the gate in hopes that I had somehow gathered a peppermint or
carrot for him in the past minute.
Photo by Terri Cage
General Challenge would overcome these health issues, but unfortunately, they
returned. On February 4, 2014, he lost his battle and was laid to rest at
Golden Eagle Farm – the place that had always been his home. The quirky but
handsome chestnut gelding is no longer with us, but memories of him still
remain. Images of his white legs carrying him to spectacular victories at
California tracks race through the minds of racing fans, his unique personality
maintains a place in the hearts and minds of those around him, and that October
afternoon I met him, is engraved in my memory. Rest in peace, General Challenge.