Trainer Jerry Fanning was hoping for a little rain this week to soften the turf course at Arlington International Racecourse, thereby enhancing the chances of Pleasant Variety, his starter in Sunday’s Arlington Million.
Instead, the schizophrenic Midwest weather unleased killer tornadoes on the Chicago suburbs of Plainfield and Crest Hill, just 30 miles south of the race track. Fanning was playing in a charity golf tournament on a nearby course the day the twisters hit, but he was oblivious to the mayhem only a few miles away.
“When the rain, thunder and lightning started, we went in the clubhouse,” Fanning said from Arlington Heights. “But it was so dark we couldn’t see any of the tornadoes.”
Based on Fanning’s past luck in the Million, it is at least a little surprising that a wind spout didn’t touch down directly on Pleasant Variety’s stall. The 57-year-old native of Colorado Springs has run three horses in the 1 1/4-mile turf event--including Pleasant Variety last year--and has yet to grab even a small piece of the large purse.
In fact, Pleasant Variety’s seventh-place finish last year marked a dramatic improvement in Fanning’s Million fortunes. His other two runners--Desert Wine in 1984 and Kings Island in 1985--were major stakes winners in California before the Million. Both were highly regarded, and both finished absolutely last.
“I was very disappointed in Desert Wine’s race,” said Fanning of the handsome son of Damascus, who had defeated John Henry in the 1984 Hollywood Gold Cup. “But then he came out of the race very sick, with a real bad case of pharyngitis. He never really got over it.”
The next year, Kings Island won the Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park, prompting owners Dan Agnew and Charles Baumbach to put up a $50,000 late fee to run in the Million. Fanning was mindful of the pressure, but his horse helped ease the strain.
“Kings Island was doing so good leading up to the Million, I really thought he’d win the race,” Fanning recalled. “The only thing I was worried about was rain. He just couldn’t handle a soft course.”
Of course, it rained. Buckets and barrels, the day before the race. Not only did Kings Island flounder in the deep ground, he bowed a tendon so badly that he never raced again.
Last year, Pleasant Variety was the blue-collar hero of an outstanding field. The son of Derby winner Pleasant Colony had been claimed for $80,000 in March of 1989 by Marty and Eileen Alpert, then went on to four near misses in top stakes company. For the ’89 Million, Pleasant Variety backed his way in from four deep on the list of alternate invitees, then was relegated to the pari-mutuel field in the betting.
“Last year, I thought he might hit the board,” Fanning said. “He tried hard and he ran a good race, but he was never in a position during the race where I got excited. He put in a good, steady run, but I knew he was never going to get there.”
Pleasant Variety was beaten by 4 1/4 lengths by eventual grass champion Steinlen, then came right back 20 days later and won the Louisiana Downs Handicap.
In terms of his physical condition, Pleasant Variety is lucky to be in this year’s Million at all. After running 16 times in 1989, he spent several months recovering from a variety of leg and hoof ailments, and did not make his first start of the ’90 season until May 24.
“Initially, we sent him out because he was going very sore on a foot with a quarter crack,” Fanning said. “Later they X-rayed him and found a little fracture in the pastern (just below the ankle). That surprised me, because he never showed any soreness at all in the pastern.
“I’m a firm believer, though, that some horses have a higher tolerance for pain, just like some humans,” Fanning added. “That could explain why we never suspected he had a fracture. I had a real good horse once, named Reb’s Golden Ale. He broke three splint bones, healed up and kept right on going.”
With two stakes wins and several near misses, Pleasant Variety brings to mind a Fanning horse of the mid-1970s, named Top Crowd, who competed at the same level.
Top Crowd lost such races as the Oak Tree Invitational, the San Juan Capistrano, the San Luis Rey and New York’s Manhattan Handicap by agonizing necks and noses. And if there had been an Arlington Million then, Top Crowd probably would have lost it by a head.
“Top Crowd got beat a total of about a length in four straight Grade I races,” Fanning recalled. “He had that real powerful kick, while Pleasant Variety has more of a long, steady run.”
So far, that long, steady run has earned $704,300 for the Alperts and taken them to a pair of Arlington Millions and the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Gulfstream Park last November. In his last start, Pleasant Variety won the $300,000 Arlington Handicap on Aug. 11.
“I never thought we’d get this much out of him,” Fanning said. “We’re just lucky he’s kept going this long. He’s one of those tough old horses with a bad leg, and every time you run him could be his last.
“This time, if we get lucky, I think he’s got a chance to win it all. I know Steinlen is a good, good grass horse. But a mile and an eighth is his best distance, not a mile and a quarter. If (Canadian champion) With Approval runs his race, we could all be in trouble. But my horse has already beaten a lot of these other horses here--Ten Keys, El Senor--and he’s the kind of tough old trooper you like to see win one of these once in a while.”
Fanning, who has been training since 1967, made his reputation with such flashy young horses as Reb’s Policy, Windy Tide, Kfar Tov and Emmamia. Although his stable does not approach the depth of the Charlie Whittingham’s or Wayne Lukas’, Fanning still manages to develop a regular supply of successful runners. And he’s not afraid to ship them around the country to prove it.
This year, Fanning was convinced that he had his first champion, the 4-year-old filly Akinemod. The daughter of Time to Explode won the El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita by 18 lengths, then became ill on the eve of a confrontation with Gorgeous in the La Canada Stakes Feb. 3. She hasn’t been in training since.
“She had bacterial infection and then a viral infection that went through her system and kept settling in different places,” Fanning said. “One day she’d have a swollen knee, the next day she’d have a swollen hock.
“At one point it tried to settle in her feet, and they had to work real hard to keep her from foundering,” Fanning added. “She’s over all her infirmities now. But we want to give her at least three months of good health before starting her back in training the first of next year.”
Horse Racing Notes
Del Mar will offer betting on Sunday’s Arlington Million. The race will go at 2:40 p.m. PDT, between the first and second races. . . . Besides Pleasant Variety, California horses in the Million field include Golden Pheasant, Classic Fame, Saratoga Passage and Prized, who will be starting his first race since winning the San Luis Rey Stakes on March 25. . . . Defending champion Steinlen, With Approval, El Senor, Ten Keys, Alwuhush and Double Booked complete the Million lineup.