'I've been better:' Cough knocks Shirl's Speight from Derby

'I've been better:' Cough knocks Shirl's Speight from Derby
Photo: Michael Burns

Roger Attfield is in the Hall of Fame. Twice, in both the U.S. and Canada. At 80 he has seen it all from his days as a show-jumping rider in his native England to eight Sovereign Awards as a champion trainer in Canada. 

Oh yes, he has been to the Kentucky Derby. He got there in 1995 with Wood Memorial winner Talkin Man. They gave it a good shot, too, before fading to finish 12th. That looked like it might have been Attfield’s last best shot at North America’s biggest race. 

But along came Shirl’s Speight this summer to debut. And win. And win again. And what do you know? Attfield was on the verge of a second chance at the trip of a lifetime to Louisville.

They were 48 hours away. Then came a cough. And another cough. And just like that, those Derby dreams were shattered. 

“I’ve been better,” Attfield said with a resigned tone in his voice. “I had to abort what we were going to do.” 

Shirl’s Speight had just galloped at about 7 a.m. Saturday at Woodbine when Attfield approached.

 was on my pony as usual,” he said. “When he pulled up at the end of his gallop I went over and stood in front of him, and he started coughing. When we got back to the barn, the vet came and scoped him, and he was filled with heavy mucus.” 

For a young horse it is a routine problem. But it had to happen to a late-developing Woodbine 3-year-old that won his debut last month by eight lengths and then an 8½-furlong Grade 3 just three weeks later by 2¾ under a hand ride. 

Everything was looking good for the highest-profile move from fake dirt to the rich Derby soil this side of Animal Kingdom. The Derby was coming up under-subscribed. On Twitter last week Charles Fipke’s stable said that they had their entry for the race confirmed.

Some bettors were also getting giddy on Shirl’s Speight. They could still get him at 70-1 in the futures at William Hill Nevada on Saturday, but some big wagers shortened him to 25-1 at Circa Sports.

But then came that cough. 

“Several of Roger’s horses have caught this minor bug.” That is what the Tweet said Saturday morning from owner Charles Fipke’s stable. “We expect a complete recovery quickly. We appreciate all the good wishes, and we’ll be looking forward to the Preakness.” 

No, it is not the coronavirus or any virus. Attfield said “it’s just a cold; it usually goes about a week. But obviously you can’t schedule a race with it.” 

Shirl’s Speight was the fifth horse to develop a cough this summer in Attfield’s barn. He said it was less a time bomb as it was a slow-release annoyance. 

“It started with the 2-year-olds,” he said. “Lady Speightspeare was the first one in the stable to get it. That was three or four weeks ago. Then she won (a maiden race last Saturday) her first time out. It’s just something that happens. It’s nothing serious. Actually young horses need to get stuff like this to get some immunity going.” 

But why now? Why did this have to happen on the verge of a moment that could have been to Attfield what it may yet be to fellow octogenarian Barclay Tagg with the heavy favorite Tiz The Law? No eighty-something trainer has ever won the Derby. 

Where is the shrug emoji? 

“It’s very upsetting because you make all the plans,” Attfield said in a telephone interview Saturday. “He was scheduled to work here (Sunday) morning, and then we were going to ship him Monday morning early. I was also flying in there on Monday. I was bringing my pony to Churchill with him, so I could ride out every morning. We had everything organized. And then all of a sudden ...” 

Then Attfield paused and thought about it for a second.

“I have been through this many, many times before, but absolutely, yeah. This is disappointing. Just like everything else in the world it just confuses us now. It’s just unfortunate timing.” 

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