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UNFITTING FINISH : Ferdinand Got Shabby Farewell

Times Staff Writer

The winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1986 and horse of the year in 1987, Ferdinand this week got the retirement send-off usually given to a ham-and-egg claimer at Finger Lakes or Tampa Bay Downs.

Which is to say, Ferdinand got nothing. It was a shabby way to treat a champion, just a couple of weeks away from the anniversary of his richest victory, the $3-million Breeders’ Cup Classic. At the same time, it was yet another example of how racing, which frequently complains that it doesn’t have any long-run stars to promote, allowed a bona fide hero to quietly slip into the obscurity of the Kentucky breeding world.

When John Henry was retired--the first time--he also went to Kentucky, but with the pomp and circumstance he deserved. The governor and other state officials greeted him.

A gubernatorial proclamation was issued, John Henry was paraded before a large crowd at Keeneland and now he lives at the Kentucky Horse Park in nearby Keeneland, where thousands of racing fans visit him annually. All this for a gelding, a horse who meant nothing to Kentucky’s vital breeding industry.

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Through the years, many prominent horses have been retired with style. When Nashua arrived by train to go to stud in Kentucky, more than 100 people greeted him at the station. Man o’War was paraded at the old Lexington Assn. track, the forerunner of Keeneland, and it may have been the only time he ever set foot on a track in this state.

The New York Racing Assn. gave Secretariat a big sendoff when he was retired. Kelso, a great gelding like John Henry, toured the country, helping to raise money for equine research. Derby winners Tomy Lee and Carry Back returned to Kentucky with considerable fanfare.

Ferdinand? He was led on to a plane in California with 11 other horses, and by the time they arrived in Kentucky, it was determined that he wouldn’t be kept eligible for this year’s Breeders’ Cup next Saturday at Churchill Downs.

For Ferdinand, it was tantamount to retirement by default. He was out of racing because he wasn’t in the Breeders’ Cup. There was no announcement from his owners, or his trainer. In Kentucky, the owner of the stud farm where he’ll stand for the next decade or two was even reluctant to confirm a report of the retirement.

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All right, so Ferdinand didn’t exactly go out leaving his fans laughing. The 5-year-old chestnut’s final season was 10 months of frustration for his trainer, Charlie Whittingham, who couldn’t get Ferdinand back to the winner’s circle in any of the 6 races after his Breeders’ Cup victory.

Two close defeats to Alysheba at Santa Anita at the beginning of the year could be explained away. Both horses ran well enough to win most races and Alysheba, only a 3-year-old when Ferdinand nosed him out in the Breeders’ Cup, had matured rapidly.

After that, though, Ferdinand never came close. He was beaten by a total margin of 28 lengths in his last 3 races, finishing well behind horses less accomplished than Alysheba. Whittingham kept feeding Ferdinand those cellophane-wrapped peppermint candies--he would wait patiently until his trainer unwrapped each one--and not even that helped.

It was said at the end that Ferdinand had reacted poorly to Lasix, the medication given to bleeders, but in his last race, a fifth-place finish in the Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita a week ago, he wasn’t medicated and he didn’t bleed. He still wasn’t competitive.

It was really sore feet that contributed to Ferdinand’s retirement. He had had a hoof problem earlier in his career and now his feet were sore and in 2 weeks they weren’t expected to be that much better. A horse needs to have a ton of talent and be 100% to beat Alysheba these days.

To the finish, jockey Bill Shoemaker was defending Ferdinand, seeing improvement in the Goodwood when it was less apparent to just about everyone else. Shoemaker, 57, once said that Ferdinand gave him two of his three greatest thrills in racing. Breaking Johnny Longden’s record by riding his 6,033rd winner in 1970 was one, and Ferdinand’s victories in the Derby and the Breeders’ Cup were the others.

“The Derby was special because I hadn’t won one in such a long time (21 years),” said Shoemaker, who cried aboard Ferdinand on his way from the track to the winner’s circle here. “The Breeders’ Cup was sweet, because a lot of people felt he’d never win another big race after the Derby.”

Actually, Ferdinand was more than a 2-trick pony. He finished in the money 23 times in a 29-race career and won 7 stakes, including the Derby, the Classic and the Hollywood Gold Cup. He earned $3.7 million and retired in fifth place on the money list.

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His owners, Elizabeth and Howard Keck, are involved in what Forbes magazine describes as a bitter divorce over the Keck millions. But at least the horse’s career didn’t suffer. At the Eclipse Awards dinner in New York early this year, Elizabeth accepted the horse-of-the-year statuette and thanked her absentee husband for breeding the horse.

When asked recently about who was calling the shots in Ferdinand’s career, Whittingham acted as though he didn’t understand the question.

“I’m the trainer,” he finally said.

There was no misunderstanding the answer.

Howard Keck bred Ferdinand by mating Nijinsky II, an English horse of the year and son of Northern Dancer, with Banja Luka, who raced under Whittingham and produced five other stakes winners. Banja Luka, who was also bred by Howard Keck, died in 1983 at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., where the Kecks have boarded their horses for about 30 years.

Nijinsky is a stallion at Claiborne, where Ferdinand stayed for his first 18 months before he was sent to Whittingham in California. Whittingham, Howard Keck and Shoemaker--who rode him for all but two of his races--were high on Ferdinand from the start.

He ran three times before he won his first race, at Santa Anita in November of 1985. Despite winning only one race after that, and finishing third, 7 lengths behind Snow Chief, on a slick track in the Santa Anita Derby, Whittingham saw enough to bring him to the Kentucky Derby. The trainer had never won the race, and Ferdinand was his first Derby starter in 26 years.

Working in company with the Kecks’ good 3-year-old filly, Hidden Light, Ferdinand was brilliant during the morning workouts here, but still went off at 17-1 at the Derby.

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Breaking from the inside post in a 16-horse field, Ferdinand was shuffled back and was running last after a half-mile. Shoemaker began picking up horses, then he split a pair of rivals at the top of the stretch, finding a hole that enabled him to take the rail. They won by 2 lengths over Bold Arrangement, the English colt.

In the Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park last November, Ferdinand was closer to the pace, struggled to overtake his stablemate, Judge Angelucci, in mid-stretch and then had just enough to withstand the charging Alysheba at the wire. Neither Shoemaker nor Chris McCarron, Alysheba’s rider, was sure who had won.

That was about a year ago, before the 6-race slump, before the sore feet and before Ferdinand’s imminent return to Claiborne, where he’ll go into the same business as Nijinsky, his successful sire.

The only sad part is that he should have returned to Kentucky to trumpets instead of indifference. Parading him at Churchill Downs on Breeders’ Cup day next Saturday--as they did with John Henry at Santa Anita 2 years ago--would be nice.


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