Past the finish line, jockey Ray Sibille waved his whip in triumph not once but twice. Sibille seemed happier winning Monday's $212,800 San Luis Obispo Handicap with Great Communicator than the day he won the $2-million Breeders' Cup Turf last November at Churchill Downs.
"That's because everybody I talked to said there was something wrong with this horse," Sibille said. "I had people telling me that he'd never run again."
The stories were so persistent that Sibille called trainer Thad Ackel, who keeps Great Communicator at Hollywood Park, at the opposite end of a barn where horse-of-the-year Alysheba used to reside.
"Thad told me everything was all right, but I was still worried," Sibille said.
At the top of the stretch Monday, Sibille and Ackel had a right to be worried, not about Great Communicator's soundness, but about his ability to win at 1 1/2 miles after a layoff of almost two months.
Vallotton, the French-bred colt who led from the start, had a two-length lead on Great Communicator and didn't look like he was weakening. But when Sibille whacked Great Communicator with a left-handed whip and then switched to the right hand for some more encouragement, the redoubtable 6-year-old gelding kept coming.
Great Communicator passed Vallotton on the outside with about 80 yards to go and won by two lengths. Vallotton had 8 1/2 lengths on the third-place horse, Roberto's Dancer and Trokhos, the second betting choice, was last in the five-horse field, so badly beaten that there might be a physical reason for his poor performance.
Great Communicator, timed in 2:30 1/5, was heavily backed in the holiday crowd of 33,174--apparently most of them hadn't heard the rumors Sibille heard--and paid $3.40, $2.80 and $2.40. Vallotton paid $4.20 and $3 and Roberto's Dancer returned $3.60.
Great Communicator, who is owned by Ackel and his family and Rosalie Dufrene, became the first horse to repeat in the 22-year history of the San Luis Obispo. Winning for the 12th time in 43 starts, the one-time $25,000 claimer increased his purses to $2.5 million. He moved up two notches on the money list to No. 21. Of horses in training, only Creme Fraiche, a 7-year-old gelding with $4 million in purses, has earned more.
Ackel especially wanted to start this year with a victory for Great Communicator, because he thought his horse should have been selected the male turf champion of 1988 instead of finishing second to Sunshine Forever. Great Communicator beat Sunshine Forever in the Breeders' Cup, the records of the two rivals were otherwise similar and Great Communicator finished his year with another victory against top competition in the Hollywood Turf Cup.
"This does a lot to legitimize what I had been saying about my horse deserving to be the champion," Ackel said.
As for the rumors Sibille had heard about Great Communicator, Ackel said: "We backed off of him three weeks after the Hollywood Park race, and then he developed some muscle soreness. He had some of the normal things that a horse might have after a tough campaign. But they were enough to give me an ulcer."
Great Communicator was third, on the rail, through the first half-mile, then going down the backstretch Sibille was able to move him outside and they took over second place. Sibille hit Great Communicator once with the whip about midway around the turn, but still it looked as though they might not overhaul Vallotton and his rider, Gary Stevens.
"Around the turn, it looked like Stevens still had a lot of horse and I figured my horse would get tired," Sibille said. "But he kept right on running. He was fitter than we all thought."
At the quarter pole, Stevens thought he was going to win.
"Although the other horse was tracking me all the way, Ray thought he was going to get beat," Stevens said. "But then Ray's horse just kept coming. I think my horse is better if he has something to follow."
Shorter races aren't Great Communicator's forte, which is why he'll keep running long, in the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Rey March 25 and April 23 in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap, which is almost 1 3/4 miles. Great Communicator has a chance to become the first back-to-back winner of the Capistrano since Niarkos in 1967-68.
"At the top of the stretch, I thought the horse on the lead was stealing off," Ackel said of the San Luis Obispo. "And if the race had been only a mile and a quarter, he would have.
"But this is my point about running the horse a mile and a half or longer. He doesn't get his second wind soon enough at the shorter distances. At a mile and a half, it takes a horse with a lot of substance to out-finish this horse."
Sibille, who has won seven of 13 races with Great Communicator, had won only nine races of 200 mounts at Santa Anita before the San Luis Obispo.
"Ray's enjoying this horse as much as I am, and I wouldn't think that would be possible," Ackel said. "He's very appreciative of the opportunity to ride this horse, and that makes it so much more fun for me, too."
Horse Racing Notes
Music Merci, winner of the Del Mar Futurity and fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, will make his debut as a 3-year-old next Sunday in the San Rafael Stakes, one of two important preps for the Santa Anita Derby. Also expected to run is Manastash Ridge, the son of Seattle Slew who won the Los Feliz on Jan. 11. . . . On Wednesday, eight 3-year-olds with lesser credentials are entered in the Bolsa Chica at six furlongs.