For me, this past weekend encapsulated the best and the worst that horse racing, The Sport of Kings, can offer.
My Eclipse Award ballot, which I take very seriously, was due on Friday, Jan. 3, for the various 17 categories. The connections of each of the winning horses will be ecstatic on January 18th at the 43rd annual Eclipse Award Dinner at Gulfsteam Park. Who could blame them?.
I voted for Wise Dan as Horse of the Year for the second time, over fillies Beholder and Princess of Sylmar. That three-year-old filly category, which also included Close Hatches, was one for the ages.
Other contentious categories included older male with Game On Dude (my vote), Wise Dan, and Mucho Macho Man, plus the jockey category of Mike Smith, J.J. Castellano, John R. Velazquez, and Gary Stevens. My vote went to Mike Smith for his performances in the graded stakes throughout the year.
Then, the next morning, at approximately 8 a.m. on the training track of Belmont Park, everything turned upside down. One of the gamest horses I've ever covered, Caixa Electronica, a nine-year-old and one of the best sprinters ever and a possible Eclipse Award nominee every year since 2011, died in a bizarre training accident.
He was claimed by New Yorker Mike Repole for the Todd Pletcher barn in 2011 at Gulfstream Park for $62,500 and had earned over $1.8 million, with seven stakes wins, including the 2012 Fall Highweight Handicap at Aqueduct Racetrack in 2012. Ironically, his last race was a fourth-place finish in the same race on Nov. 28. He was as game as they come, just like Fourstardave and John Henry, among others.
Here's what happened. Six Drivers, a four-year-old Sunriver gelding, who finished second in a maiden claiming race on Dec. 27th at Aqueduct Racetrack, spooked behind the Belmont training track gate, throwing jockey Julio Pezua, who was uninjured. However, the horse reversed direction and began galloping the wrong way into intervening traffic and towards Caixa Eletronica and his jockey, Carlos Castro.
Unfortunately for all, Six Drivers and Caixa Eletronica collided head-on, killing both instantly, according to Dr. Anthony Verderosa, Chief examining verterinarian for the New York Racing Association. Caixa Eletronica suffered a fractured skull and Six Drivers a broken neck. Carlos Castro, the exercise rider aboard Caixa Eletronica, was transported to North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., where it was determined that he had broken his pelvis and would also need facial reconstructive surgery.
Repole and Pletcher were both distraught. Repole is a New York guy and Pletcher, a future Hall of Fame trainer, appreciates horses who are kind and yet gritty, such as Caixa Eletronica.
Repole, 44, a Long Islander who has been going to the track since he was 13, said, "He was such an iron horse. For him to pass away like this makes no sense. I told Todd, 'If this horse ever gets a pimple on his rear, I'll retire him.' Todd said, 'I wish my two-year-olds and three-year-olds were as super sound like this horse.'" Repole has also owned such good horses as Uncle Mo, Overanalyze, and Stay Thirsty.
Pletcher, who received my vote for trainer of the year for 2013, remarked about Caixa Electronica emotionally earlier this week. "Like I've said time and time again, to me, Caixa Electronica was everything good about the game. You take a horse with a modest beginning (a $62,500 claim from an Indiana sire in 2011) and literally get to the pinnacle of racing. He showed up every time. It's just heartbreaking."
My most enduring Caixa Eletronica moment occurred in August of 2011. As host of a bus trip for retirees to Saratoga for a day at the races, most of whom didn't know a thing about how to bet, my tip sheet touted the blue and orange silks of Caixa Eletronica as the best bet of the day. He didn't disappoint and I didn't have to pay for a beverage all night. May you run freely forever, Caixa Eletronica. You are the best the sport can offer.
Paul Daley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org