Ignoble End for Derby Champ

Times Staff Writer

Perhaps no one in U.S. horse racing was more saddened to hear about Ferdinand's ignoble death than Bill Shoemaker.

"It's terrible," said Shoemaker, who was 54 when he won the Kentucky Derby with Ferdinand in 1986. "It's hard to believe that the horse couldn't have been brought here to live out the rest of his life."

Ferdinand, who was 20, died last year at a slaughterhouse in Japan after an unsuccessful stud career.

"He was getting old and in some discomfort," said Yoshikazu Watanabe, a horse dealer in Japan, according to an Associated Press story.

Until this week, there had been no announcement of Ferdinand's death. The Japan Race Horse Registry, which tracks stallions in that country, had been notified in September by Goshima Farm, near Niikappu, that Ferdinand should be removed from the list.

"When I heard about it, it made me sick to my stomach," said Grace Belcore, director of the California Equine Retirement Foundation, which currently cares for about 80 retired racehorses at a ranch in Temecula. "What happened to Ferdinand is totally inhumane. We sure could have made room here for him."

Besides his Derby win, Ferdinand also beat Alysheba, the 1987 Derby winner, in that year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park and was voted horse of the year. Ferdinand was retired from the track in 1988. His stud career sputtered in Kentucky, and in 1994 he was sold to the JS Co. in Japan. He spent six years at Arrow Stud on the island of Hokkaido, but by 2000 he was virtually forgotten. Blood-Horse magazine, which said that no U.S. farms were contacted before Ferdinand died, reported that he had been bred to only 13 mares in the last three years.

Ferdinand is the second major horse trained by the late Charlie Whittingham to have ended up in a slaughterhouse. Exceller, who beat the Triple Crown champions Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, died in Sweden in 1997.

Assuming that Ferdinand's death came late last year, he is the seventh Kentucky Derby winner to die in a recent 13-month period. Seattle Slew died on May 7 last year, and since him have gone Sunday Silence, Spend A Buck, Pleasant Colony, Sunny's Halo and Spectacular Bid.

Ferdinand revived the career of Shoemaker, who had won three Derbies but none in 21 years before 1986. Both Shoemaker and Whittingham were in the Racing Hall of Fame, but Whittingham had never won the Derby and before Ferdinand had started only two horses in the race, none since 1960. Whittingham, 73 when Ferdinand claimed the roses, was the oldest trainer to ever saddle a Derby winner. Three years later, with Sunday Silence, Whittingham broke his own record, winning the Derby at 76.

Ferdinand loved peppermints, and Whittingham always carried some in his pocket for him. It was a marvel to watch Ferdinand, waiting patiently while Whittingham removed the cellophane from the candies. The horse never lunged for the peppermints until they were unwrapped.

"If it hadn't been for Ferdinand," Shoemaker said, "I would never have won another Derby. I was way to the end of my career, and at that stage nobody was going to be putting me on a contender anymore."

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Shoemaker remembered the first time he saw Ferdinand. It was at Del Mar in 1985, before the colt had run a race.

"This is Ferdinand," Whittingham said as he introduced Shoemaker to the colt at his barn. "We're going to have some fun with this horse. We'll probably win the Derby with him."

The Kentucky-bred Ferdinand was a son of Nijinsky II, who in 1970 became the 15th -- and last -- horse to sweep the English Triple Crown. Ferdinand, whose dam was Banja Luka, was bred by the late Howard Keck and raced for his wife, Elizabeth.

Going into the Kentucky Derby, Ferdinand had won two of nine starts, with only one minor stakes win, and was a well-beaten third in the Santa Anita Derby a month before. Sent off at 17-1 in a 16-horse field at Churchill Downs, he broke from the No. 3 slot and was crowded into the inner rail by several horses in the run to the first turn.

"He spit out the bit then," Shoemaker said, "but he galloped around there after that, and there wasn't another straw in our path."

In last place after the opening half-mile, Ferdinand began passing horses and needed to reach a hole between horses at the head of the stretch. Pat Day, riding Rampage, was trying to make the same hole.

Ferdinand won by 2 1/4 lengths. In the Preakness, he ran second to Snow Chief, who had finished 11th as the Derby favorite, and Ferdinand finished third in the Belmont Stakes. Snow Chief was voted best 3-year-old male in 1986, but in 1987 Ferdinand ended a six-race losing streak by winning the Hollywood Gold Cup, and in November he beat Alysheba by a nose in the Breeders' Cup to clinch the national title.

Ferdinand had eight wins, nine seconds and six thirds in 29 starts.

At the time of his retirement, he ranked fifth on the money list with purses of $3,777,978.

Coincidental to Ferdinand's death is a recent effort to return Derby winners Strike The Gold and Sea Hero to the United States.

Strike The Gold, the 1991 Derby winner, and Sea Hero, first at Churchill Downs two years later, have been standing at stud in Turkey.

Kim Zito, whose husband, Nick, trained Strike The Gold, is among those trying to relocate the stallions.

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