Retired champion Whitmore ‘wanted it,’ but what’s next?

Retired champion Whitmore ‘wanted it,’ but what’s next?
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Ron and Laura Moquett left their Hot Springs, Ark., home at night in late January and headed the short distance to Oaklawn Park.

Their destination: the barn of newly crowned Eclipse sprint champion Whitmore, who had been given the award that evening.

“You’re the best,” Ron told the gelding, who had earned the award after a thrilling performance in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

The phrase was one he had often repeated to the son of Pleasantly Perfect, but now it was undoubtedly true.

“It was just a fact,” Moquett said.

The moment marked the culmination of a long journey for the Moquetts and Whitmore, who was retired last Saturday after sustaining an injury in the Forego Stakes (G1) at Saratoga. The 8-year-old gelding, who is expected to make a full and speedy recovery, was an unlikely champion.

Pleasant Mel

Whitmore refused to work.

The colt was pulled out of a sale in Ocala, Fla., as a 2-year-old after he steadfastly would not breeze ahead of the sale. According to Ron’s son, Chance Moquett, the trainer saw it happen but did not get the hip number of the unruly juvenile.

After the sale, Ron was in the market for horses who had not met their reserve when bloodstock agent Jeff Mackor sent over pictures of several prospects, including a colt described as “a wacko,” according to the trainer.

“I’ve got a reputation for dealing with horses that are a little bit different,” Moquett said. “So when I saw a picture I just texted back two words. ‘Buy him.’ ”

The colt was named Pleasant Mel at the time. However, Moquett did not feel he looked like a Mel, and his temperament was less than pleasant. Instead, the trainer named him after one of his high-school basketball teammates, a “freakish athlete” named Wilbur Whitmore.

When he arrived for the first time at Churchill Downs, Ron’s wife and assistant trainer, Laura, along with assistant trainer Greta Kuntzweiler were in the clockers stand. Whitmore took to the track along with the last set of 2-year-olds for the day.

What they saw was the colt wreaking havoc on the track.

Whitmore would run from the outside to the inside rail, slide to a stop, then take off again when the outriders approached, pulling “all sorts of maneuvers,” according to Laura. The exercise rider, who stayed on him the entire time, was left with his helmet over his eyes after a sudden stop caused it to slide down his face.

“He was crazy,” Laura Moquett said. “We were kind of scratching our heads at that point, like what are we going to do with this thing?”

Kuntzweiler agreed with the assessment.

“I was just laughing hysterically, because I wasn’t on him,” he said.

Along with the gelding of Whitmore, Ron’s solution was to have Laura work with him along with a pony in the long chute at Churchill Downs. Without having to worry about him getting into traffic, she was able to keep asking him to move forward while the pony helped him stay on track.

Eventually he started to learn, with much coaxing from the Moquett team.

“It was like, ‘look, we’re going to have to work together,’ ” Ron said. “It was a big meeting every day, like ‘what did we do wrong? Why didn’t you want to do this?’ ”

Even so, Whitmore’s pure talent showed. Laura said the moment she knew he could be special came when Whitmore, while working in company, tripped hard and bit through his upper lip.

Despite being jarred, Whitmore stayed on his feet.

“That takes a lot of strength,” Laura said.

Chance Moquett maintained if Whitmore had a different trainer, he might not have seen the races or would have quickly run for a claiming tag.

“Whitmore would not have been Whitmore in some of these bigger stables,” Chance said. “He wouldn’t have been there.”

Instead, the gelding debuted as a 2-year-old in November 2015 at Churchill Downs. With Didiel Osorio in the irons, Whitmore broke slowly before drawing off late to win a six-furlong race by 7 1/4 lengths.

His trainer had the proof of concept that he needed.

“The big question is, does he want to do it when you want him to do it? With him, his tendency to give everyone the middle finger. It was like, ‘We’ll see. I’ll believe it when I see it,’ ” Ron said. “Whenever he ran his first, it was like, OK, he uses this stuff for good as well as evil.”

‘It wasn’t over yet’

After two races as a juvenile, Whitmore returned in 2016. Now owned by Moquett, Robert LaPenta and Head of Plains Partners, the plan was to try for that year’s Kentucky Derby. After an allowance win to begin the year, Whitmore finished second in both the Southwest (G3) and the Rebel (G2).

After a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby (G1) it was on to the Run for the Roses.

Ron Moquett said he was feeling good going into the race.

“I thought, talent-wise, if he put it all together ... ,” Moquett said. “The thing was, he didn’t get tired, ever.”

In the crowd that day were Wilbur Whitmore and his family. Ron had promised from the beginning that if the gelding made it to the Derby, he would fly them in for the race.

“And I did,” Moquett said.

The race did not go as planned for Whitmore. After settling toward the inside, he failed to respond leaving the three-furlong pole. He faded, finishing 19th, beating only Shagaf, who was pulled up and walked off.

Even worse, Whitmore chipped his knee in the race, which cast the future of his career into doubt. After the disappointing loss Ron, Laura and Chance were left alone with the gelding to cool him off, which Chance said led to one of his favorite Whitmore memories.

“I just remember that moment almost like slow motion,” Chance said. “You really didn’t know what was going on or what the future held. It was disappointing. But you could just kind of see the way that they bonded in that moment that you just knew it wasn’t over yet.”

He does that so easy

Chance was right. Whitmore was not even close to done.

After Whitmore recovered from the chip, which never again caused trouble, Ron Moquett had what proved to be a fruitful plan: Whitmore was going to be a sprinter.

The first start back was a 6 1/2-furlong race at Aqueduct. After that 1 1/2-length win, Laura called Ron.

“ ‘He’s not even blowing hard,’ ” Ron recalled her saying. “And then we kept saying it over and over. Where he does that so easy, really does it so easy. Well, at the end of the day, we started thinking, well, if he does it so easy, maybe he’ll last longer. It’ll be easier on him.”

From then on, Whitmore began to show his true potential. He earned his first stakes victory in the 2017 Hot Springs, the first of four straight wins in that race, then followed it up with another in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap.

He won two more graded stakes before the end of the year, which ended with an eighth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs.

That 2017 campaign was just the beginning. Whitmore continued as an excellent sprinter for the next four years. Though occasionally hampered by foot trouble, he continued to find the winner’s circle, often closing late, leading to electric finishes that helped make him a fan favorite.

Ron Moquett said his fan base started at Oaklawn before growing nationwide.

“The fans in Arkansas, they were tuned into him for a while,” Moquett said. “And when he won the Forego, that’s when everybody else started jumping in, and then he kind of became more endeared to Arkansas.”

Fans were drawn to both the exciting nature of Whitmore’s races plus the mountain of personality displayed by the gelding. He had a wicked kick that he would often display behind the gates. Fans began to notice and take it as a sign he was about to run well.

After the Forego in 2018 became his first Grade 1 win, someone else took notice of Whitmore’s talent. Moquett received an offer of a stallion deal. For a gelding. Obviously, Whitmore was unable to sire foals.

“Me being the constant (expletive) that I am, I was giving them a hard time,” the trainer said after initially thinking someone was pranking him. “I was going, ‘Really? OK. We’re open to all offers.’ ”

Eventually he let the interested party down easy, responding that he was no longer interested in a stallion deal at that time.

During Whitmore’s run of success, Ron Moquett was going through a hard time, personally. The trainer was diagnosed in 2018 with atypical sarcoidosis, a pulmonary condition that attacked his lungs.

The condition forced him away from the track, making him work from home, and had him on what his son described as “his deathbed.”

According to Chance, Whitmore was a saving grace for his father, helping to keep him going.

“I’m convinced that Whitmore saved my dad’s life,” Chance said. “With Whitmore healthy and him recovering, now COVID doesn’t affect him at all? That’s not a coincidence.”

Every year, Whitmore tried the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. For his first three attempts, the winners circle remained out of reach.

In 2018 he seemed to come the closest, finishing second to Roy H. In 2019 he crossed the wire third.

Despite the disappointments, Laura said the fan support remained strong.

“Santa Anita (2019) was one of those times when I was walking home, and a whole section of people started cheering for him on the way back,” she said. “That was pretty cool.”

Even though the support was nice for all involved, it came as a consolation prize for a team that was hungry for a Breeders’ Cup victory.

“I wanted to win one for him,” Ron said. “For me, obviously, selfishly for sure. But I never wanted to win a race so bad for a horse as I did for him in the Breeders’ Cup.

This is the moment

When 2020 rolled around, Whitmore was 7 years old. In his older age he had calmed down to some extent, according to his connections.

Beyond his temperament and running style, by 2020 his longevity was helping bring in new fans.

“When they come back every year and perform at that level, more and more people keep jumping on that bandwagon,” Kuntzweiler said.

That year he finished second in his first race, the King Cotton at Oaklawn. After that he won the Hot Springs and Count Fleet.

From the Count Fleet, in April, until November, Whitmore did not have another win, coming closest in the Vanderbilt (G1) in July at Saratoga, where he finished second.

The team forged on to the Breeders’ Cup, held at Keeneland in 2020. Ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., Whitmore seemed to start slowly before getting to the rail and giving himself a chance on the inside.

From there, Whitmore passed horse after horse, moving outside and pulling clear down the stretch.

At home because of the impending birth of his son, Chance Moquett became the star of a viral Twitter video, featuring him rooting on Whitmore while jumping around his living room. Chance eventually crashed into the television, which he said remained in good working order.

“My win wager on that race probably would have paid for a new one anyway,” he said. “I think that’s what was going through my head. I didn’t care about the TV, because I knew about the bet I had on it.”

Back at the track, the rest of the team was rooting just as hard.

“I started absolutely losing my mind,” Laura said. “I just felt it, like this is the moment.”

It was indeed the moment.

Whitmore crossed the wire leading by 3 1/4 lengths, winner of the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

“I was in shock,” Kuntzweiler said. “Like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s really going to win it.’ ”

The victory solidified Whitmore as the clear leader of the sprint division. Not quite three months later, Eclipse Award voters confirmed it. The $37,000 gelding with bad feet, who wouldn’t work, who finished 19th in the Kentucky Derby, was a champion.

His team quickly experienced an outpouring of support from the rest of the industry.

“The horse world, if you work for something, and you try hard, they want you rewarded,” Ron Moquett said. “Not so much me because they don’t know me, but everybody knew Whitmore, and they were ready for him to have a shot at success.”

That night, Ron and Laura went to the barn and thanked Whitmore for taking them that far.

Then Whitmore took his yearly vacation to Rebecca Maker’s farm before returning to training for his 8-year-old year.

Hell always be with us

The start to 2021 featured Whitmore continually running solid but not quite getting the win. His streak of Hot Springs victories was snapped when he finished second. The same thing happened in the Count Fleet in April. Then he ran third in both the Churchill Downs (G1) and Vanderbilt (G1).

With a ban on Lasix for most stakes races, Whitmore, who bled as a 2-year-old, also missed a start as Ron protected his health.

Despite not having his usual level of success, fans did not turn on the champ. Chance Moquett marveled at the amount of support he received.

“I’ve never seen a horse so adored for running second,” Chance said. “Any other horse, this year, they’d have been calling Whitmore a money burner. You know the gambling public. ‘Oh, this is a money-burning son of a gun, blah blah blah.’ And they didn’t, because they could tell that he wanted it.”

In last Saturday’s Forego, the ride finally came to an end. Whitmore suffered “a small flake, not even a chip,” which Ron said was less severe than the injury from the Derby but necessitated him being loaded onto the equine ambulance.

It was a scary moment for his people.

“You don’t even think of retirement at that time,” Laura said. “You’re just so terrified he’s hurt really bad.”

Fortunately, Whitmore’s injury was not serious. In fact, Ron said he was told by the vets that he could run again in two months.

“I don’t want to,” Ron said of returning him to racing. “It's about not pushing the issue. He was always perfect with us other than feet, and I did not want ... If there is a skeletal issue at all, then there is no reason to go forward.”

And so Whitmore was retired. Ron posted the news on social media, and the messages started to flood in.

Tons of them. Enough that Ron had Chance set up an email address (HereIsWhitmore@yahoo.com) for people to send their favorite memories of Whitmore. Since, the younger Moquett said they have had “hundreds” of responses.

Chance’s favorite shared memory: A woman wrote to describe her own personal struggles and triumphs, comparing them with the gelding’s story.

“Life wasn’t going as she thought it would be,” Chance said. “And like with Whitmore, we thought he was going to be like this classic distance Derby horse, but then he comes back as this resurrected sprinter badass. I think that’s a story that a lot of people can relate to, that it’s not always on your plan. Sometimes God has a better plan.”

As for Ron, his favorite involved someone who ended up at Whitmore’s first race on a work trip, having never been interested in racing before. Through following the champion, she got sucked into the trainer’s beloved sport.

“She signed up with stable mail. She had never done it, but a friend taught her how to do it,” Ron said. “She walked me through the fact of a non-fan becoming a fan. That’s what I’m talking about, that kind of story is what I feed off of. Because I am a fan that happens to be, you know, a horse trainer.”

Chance said he plans to take the collected memories and put them into a physical book, then sell copies with the proceeds going to support Thoroughbred aftercare.

“He’ll always be with us, no matter what,” Chance said. “But there’s other horses that aren’t that lucky, and I want to use that fandom of him to help give to that greater cost.”

As for Whitmore himself, after going through the procedure and recovering, he will enter the Retired Racehorse Project program in some fashion.

The Moquetts also said they plan to see whether Whitmore could be a pony for the barn, although Laura was unsure that would work, given the gelding’s well-documented temperament.

“Maybe, if he’ll do it,” she said. “He’s really aggressive with his hind end, like he’s run backwards and double-barrel fired horses on the track multiple times, so that’s not really an asset you want in a pony.”

Whitmore also could end up doing dressage or jumping, Ron said. There are also fan-appreciation events in the works.

Whatever Whitmore ends up doing in the future, he will have the eyes of his fans and the love of his connections. Chance Moquett summed up what he saw as the importance of the champion’s story.

“Nothing with Whitmore ever went right. Ever,” he said. “I think it’s so cool that you have the story of a horse who just wanted it and made the best out of whatever the situation was.”

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