A Horse by Any Other Name
For a time there was an outside chance the improbable combo of Cowboy Dan and Indian Charlie would be dueling down the homestretch during the eighth race at Churchill Downs this Saturday. But then Cowboy Dan bested only one of seven other horses in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes last week at Keeneland, blowing his shot at the Kentucky Derby.
But you'll undoubtedly be hearing a whole lot about Indian Charlie all afternoon. The highly regarded 3-year-old winner of the Santa Anita Derby has been installed as the morning-line favorite (albeit at 5-2 a very tepid one) in the 124th edition of the most prestigious event in American horse racing. One subject that may or may not come up amid all the prerace chatter is the derivation of the horse's name. And though it probably wouldn't be for fear that Vernon Bellecourt and his National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media are of a mind to burn any effigies, we're talking family values here.
Indian Charlie is the name of a broadside filled with the racing tips, gossipmongering, and sometimes outrageous opinions of Eddie "Muggins" Musselman, who has been hawking the sheet at Churchill Downs for the past five years, save for a brief hiatus two years back when track management threw him off the grounds. (He was brought back by popular demand.) A colorful storyteller, Musselman favors blunt commentary, especially on racing management. He is said to have topped one item about a well-known racing figure simply by labeling the man "an asshole."
When owner Hal Earnhardt asked trainer Bob Baffert what he should name his new colt, Baffert suggested he go for something funny and controversial: Why not commemorate that feisty tip sheet? (Although Musselman himself has become known as Indian Charlie, he says he named his sheet after a hard-living Churchill Downs clocker.) And if Earnhardt's horse manages to win this year's Derby, Kentucky's thoroughbred racing establishment will certainly not be amused to see that particular name painted in gold leaf in the company of Secretariat, Silver Charm, and the other 122 winners of the Run for the Roses.
Of course, they may not have to endure such a sight. True, Baffert is going for back-to-back wins, Silver Charm having won for him last year. And true, Indian Charlie, who is undefeated in his brief four-race career, turned in a time of 1:111/5 for a six-furlong workout on a Churchill track listed as "good" last Thursday. (Silver Charm, in a workout nine days before last year's Derby, clocked 1:13 on a track labeled "fast.") Said an independent clocker who was present that day: "If you believe in workouts, this horse [Indian Charlie] will not lose the Derby." But right after Indian Charlie's workout, his stablemate Real Quiet went 1:122/5 with early speed on a worsening track. In addition, perennial Derby force D. Wayne Lukas has entered Florida Derby winner Cape Town, while the eminent Nick Zito has Blue Grass Stakes winner Halory Hunter, currently second choice on the morning line. Favorite Trick, Horse of the Year in 1997 as a two-year-old, is also getting some attention, despite a recent third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby. And if it rains come Saturday, there's always Artax, who ran the fastest San Felipe Stakes in 15 years and broke his maiden by nine lengths on an off track. Graham Motion, trainer of Flamingo Stakes winner Chilito, is likewise unbothered by the prospect of bad weather.
In short, despite the absence of early hopefuls Lil's Lad and Event of the Year (both of whom bowed out owing to injury, the latter after a workout at Churchill just this past week), players who bury themselves in the Daily Racing Form aren't going to have an easy time of it this year. One factor, observes veteran Canterbury Park trainer Bernell Rhone, is the prevalence of early speed. "It's going to be a very competitive race," Rhone posits. "Wide open."
Still, the name that comes up most often is Indian Charlie. Of the 35 horses that ran at least five furlongs last Thursday, Indian Charlie was the only one to break 1 minute on the moist, deep track. "He came barreling down the stretch, reaching out with those humongous strides," the Daily Racing Form noted of the workout. "He continued to pick up steam, going from the quarter pole to the wire in :224/5, with a strong second eighth in :111/5. He kept pouring it on past the wire with another eighth in :121/5 around the turn, then galloped out seven furlongs in 1:241/5."
There might be a minilegend building. At the very least, it seems the thousands who'll journey to Louisville to be penned up in the Churchill Downs infield for the annual party-within-a-party will have a kindred hero on the track.
Closer to home, most Minnesota gamblers will observe Derby Day in customary fashion: methodically feeding the casino slots, morosely contemplating piles of shredded pulltabs, or buying tickets in a lottery where the chances of winning are worse than the odds of being struck by lightning in one's own backyard.
Those horseplayers who do descend on Canterbury Park to wager on the simulcast from Churchill Downs will number less than 2 percent of this state's gamblers. Slim purses and a short season don't encourage owner, trainer, or player interest. Still, Art Eaton, who breeds and syndicates thoroughbreds in Randolph, is optimistic. "Canterbury is on the right track," says Eaton, oblivious to the pun. "It is in the hands of horse people, and unlike Iowa and elsewhere, its destiny lies with horse racing. No slots or other gimmicks. That's all to the good."
And while Canterbury will never solve the enigma of Minnesota--a state that nurtures a strong anti-gambling lobby while at the same time operating a vast gaming system that in its privatized days was called the numbers racket--these days the racetrack is to big-time horse racing what the St. Paul Saints are to major-league baseball: affordable outdoor sporting entertainment. A seat on the sun deck at Canterbury has the same relaxed, local feel as a spot in the stands at Midway. And unless the track is rediscovered and the larger crowds return, Canterbury will remain as easy for horseplayers to negotiate as a racetrack can possibly be.
Indian Charlie almost certainly won't ever run here. But a colt named Unbridled did. A moment as vivid as any in the highlight reel that is the history of the Kentucky Derby: trainer Carl Nafzger shouting into the ear of Mrs. Frances Genter on the first Saturday in May of 1990. Her eyesight failing her, the eightysomething Mrs. Genter listened intently as Nafzger described the event unfolding before him along the homestretch. The dress she wore the day her colt won the Derby by 31/2 lengths over Summer Squall hangs in the first-floor gallery at Canterbury Park.
When I talked to Eaton, he was on his cell phone, heading north on I-94 outside Beloit, Wisconsin. He'd just taken two brood mares to Lexington, Kentucky, to join four other mares already there for servicing. Two of the mares will be returned to Minnesota in foal. The others may go to Illinois or Oklahoma to take advantage of statebred programs. Their offspring will become part of the nationwide network of new thoroughbreds now on the way. By lineage and other factors, some will be singled out for possible greatness.
And as somebody once said to somebody, "What do you think I ought to call this colt, anyway?"
And somebody replied, "Why don't you call him Indian Charlie, just for the hell of it."
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