48 hours. It was all Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte needed, so why not me? It’s hard to believe that’s all the time I spent in Florida over the weekend. I experienced so much in such a short period of time.
After a Friday evening flight into the Fort Lauderdale airport, I was warmly greeted by balmy South Florida temperatures and racetrack buddy extraordinaire, Matt Shifman. A short drive to the hotel was followed by handicapping talk into the wee hours of the night.
This left little time for a luxury like sleep. Up early, we hightailed our rental Hyundai straight to the Palm Meadows training facility. A light mist could not dampen the morning, as we met up with friends, Ashley Tamulonis, Matt Scott, and Kostas Hatzikoutelis. As luck would have it, we didn’t see any of the biggest stars working, but after watching a busy set of works on the picturesque training track, and a friendly greeting from Michael Matz on horseback, we made our way back to some of the finest stables I’ve ever seen. We looked for some of the big names stabled there and were able to find Animal Kingdom in the Graham Motion barn. The big chestnut was full of interest and a little bit of playfulness as well, as he watched us watching him. Then an extremely friendly gentleman from the Ian Wilkes barn, named Bob, invited us to look on as the reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic champion, Fort Larned enjoyed a morning suds-down. We lingered on through the stables, seeing many more impressive looking horses, not to mention a few of Kostas’ Dream Team Racing Stables members, before finally calling it a morning. It was my first-ever visit to Palm Meadows, but it will not be my last
A quick change back at the hotel interrupted our drive down to Gulfstream Park. It was my first visit to the Hallandale Beach oval since the big change, and unlike some, I was not turned off with the new Gulfstream. It might not be what the hardcore racing fans of old might care for, but I found it to be both fan and family friendly. It’s definitely a place that my wife and daughter would enjoy while my attention is monopolized by the horses. A fabulous buffet (I’m not kidding, this was the best meal I’ve ever enjoyed at a racetrack) didn’t hurt one bit. I would be remiss in not offering a special thank you to Tim and Kathy Ritvo for taking such great care of our group. I’m not sure what they do to the crab claws in South Florida, but suffice it to say, I was all in.
Literally running into a few dozen of my racing friends down there added to the pleasant experience at Gulfstream. Many of them were there to watch the Eclipse Awards, which I’ll talk about more of in a moment, but first things first, as an excellent racing card on Sunshine Millions Day proceeded the big evening. Unfortunately, only one of the two stars of the Classic took to the muddy track, as one of my favorites, Mucho Macho Man, threw in an inexplicably sub-par performance, leaving the hour and the spotlight completely on Ron the Greek. An unusually brilliant looking animal from head-to-toe, and especially the head, Big Ron looks like something out of the King Arthur days. He turned the Sunshine Millions Classic into a personal tour-de force as he annihilated the field by nearly a dozen lengths while scoring a 115 Beyer.
After the great day of racing, it was all about racing’s version of the Oscars. The South Florida sun slowly faded below the horizon, and the Gulfstream Amphitheatre style paddock transformed into a light and smoke show. Bright lights, red carpets, and champagne flutes greeted us all as the rich and the beautiful mingled among the lucky and the talented, and somewhere in there, a place for me was included … a guy just lucky to be doing something I love.
Seeing all the jubilant celebration of victory was not something I will soon forget. Smiles, high-fives, and slaps on the back were in abundance as the very best of the 2012 racing season were rewarded for their efforts. The beauty and playful grace of Jeannine Edwards, was once again a highlight of the show, and on average, the comedy of non-comics, seemed just a little more funny in person. I laughed out loud when Laffit Pincay took his translator duties on a very different path then intended by the young winner of the apprentice jockey award, Jose Montano.
Capping the great evening was spending time down in the intimate media room with some of the biggest winners, Dale Romans, Morton Fink, and Charles Lopresti. It’s always nice to spend time with very happy people, but the amount of time each man took to answer our questions and shake our hands was greatly appreciated. Tried as I might to get Lopresti to commit to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2013 for Wise Dan, his skillful non-committal answers still spoke volumes of his love for the Horse of the Year.
24 hours down, and a memorable ThoroFan awards brunch, and a first-ever visit to the venerable Hialeah Park still to come. Please come back tomorrow for Part II of Flights of Fancy in Florida…