by Tom Finkel
Two years ago Unreal asked perennial Fairmount Park force Lou O'Brien how much he'd charge us to rename a horse after our source of income. Replied O'Brien: "$1 million."
We talked him down to $100 -- coincidentally, the price the Jockey Club charges owners to process a name-change for a Thoroughbred. (Doubtless O'Brien, the protagonist of this 2003 feature story in RFT -- the paper, that is, not the horse -- by then-staff writer Mike Seely, was just being nice.) For the name swap, O'Brien chose a two-year-old colt he'd recently purchased named Pollys Jaybird.
And the rest, as Unreal likes to declaim at cocktail parties, is history.
Actually, most of the rest, Unreal would readily admit under oath, is futility.
First (presumably on the advice of his estimable trainer, Ralph Martinez), O'Brien had our colt gelded. Then, early in Fairmount's 2006 meet, he entered River Front Times in a maiden race -- which is to say a race against other horses that haven't yet won a race. With his jockey sporting the proud green shamrock of O'Brien's stable, River Front Times finished second.
An auspicious beginning, you might say. Unreal, who had wagered money on the colt to win, didn't see it precisely that way.
But O'Brien persevered, as owners are wont to do, as did River Front Times, finishing second again. In his third race, sent off as a 2 to 1 favorite, River Front Times changed things up, finishing eighth, approximately one zip code removed from the winner of the race, the aptly named Hurricane Fury. After two more fruitless efforts, O'Brien shipped the horse to Ellis Park in Kentucky. Perhaps RFT was tiring of the Collinsville scenery. Or maybe not. He finished fourth.
Then it was on to Hoosier Park (the other kind -- outside Indianapolis), where, as autumn's thrill gave way to winter's chill, River Front Times raced five times, finishing seventh, seventh, second, seventh and second. In December the horse was moved once more, to Beulah Park near Columbus, Ohio, where he...ran second yet again.
For those keeping count, that's twelve starts and five second-place finishes -- and still a maiden.
All this Unreal ponders today as we sit with 1,832 of our fellow gene-pool bottom feeders in the Fairmount Park grandstand to celebrate the first day of 2007's racing season. Well, that's not quite accurate; only about a thousand of our fellow bottom feeders have availed themselves of the $1.50 Horse Hooky Tuesday perquisites; the rest are ensconced in the Clubhouse, doing whatever it is hoosiers do when they pay more than they have to to watch the same thing the rest of us paid less for.
And then it's time.
The horse named after our little weekly newspaper is entered in the fifth race on the card, a $5,000 maiden claiming event with a purse of $4,700. The second choice on the morning line and ultimately sent off as the favorite at odds of 9 to 5 -- this despite the disrespect accorded him by track handicapper Jay Randolph, who ranks him fourth in the eight-horse field (and who must be 973 years old, so what the hell, we'll forgive him) -- the four-year-old son of Petionville breaks toward the rail at the start under jockey Camilo Pitty and bumps his neighbor in the four hole, Dancing Ray.
But he recovers to contest a four-way battle for the lead along the backstretch, takes over by a slim margin at the top of the stretch and holds off two rivals, to win the five-and-a-half-furlong sprint by a neck.
Final time: 1 minute, 7.27 seconds over a fast track.
Pedestrian, especially when measured against the effort put in by Pitty three races later on O'Brien's Chipotle -- only two-fifths of a second off the track record of 51.4 seconds for four and a half furlongs.
Hey, Seely: This, bud, is for you.