Q-Racing Blog: Champions Come to Mind

We are celebrating champions today.

We are celebrating champions today.

It’s championship season with the year’s champions recently announced. The winners and the horses nominated should all be congratulated. It’s a revered honor and something you’ll never forget.

I wondered, “Who are the world champions that I’ve watched compete that first come to mind?” Here they are. The selection process took about 15 seconds. There was no reasoning, no research. It was simply stream of unconsciousness.

Try it. It was pleasant to look back and smile.

They are listed chronologically, without any preference. This list could have been much longer, but you need to stop somewhere.

Easy Jet, 1969 world champion

Easy Jet will always be connected with the iconic Walter Merrick, his breeder, owner and trainer. He will also be recalled for his 22 wins (nine stakes) from 26 starts as a 2-year-old. It is beyond comprehension. It is akin to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941.

I was a teenager when he raced and I convinced my dad to go see him run at Centennial Race Track in Littleton, Colorado. He won the Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Association Futurity by 1 3/4 lengths and I thought I had seen DiMaggio hit one in the gap. He romped and I reveled.

Dash For Cash, 1976 and 1977 world champion

He’s my G.O.A.T. (greatest of all-time). I’ll probably die with him as my G.O.A.T.

I was fortunate and didn’t know it. I started working at Los Alamitos when Dash For Cash was racing and would visit him about every day in Bubba Cascio’s barn. Plus, I got to visit with his groom, Fish, a true classic. Brad McKinzie and I would tease him and he would give it right back. Good times.

Every time I saw Dash For Cash race, the race was over in two jumps. If he was upright, then the race was over. The only question was the time and the margin. He won the 1976 Champion of Champions in :21.17, breaking the :21.50 track record set by Jet Deck in 1963. The 1976 Champion of Champions is immortalized by the Milt Martinez photo with jockey Jerry Nicodemus looking back over his shoulder. That track record stood until 2007 when Blues Girl Too won the Champion of Champions in :21.13. I watched Blues Girl Too with Brad while standing in the saddling paddock. We agreed it was a bittersweet moment. We concluded that all records are made to be broken and we were pleased it was broken by a horse with connections that are good people and friends.

Dash For Cash came back to win the 1977 Champion of Champions and then it was off to the breeding shed full time. He had bred a few select mares between his 3- and 4-year-old seasons.

A son of Rocket Wrangler, Dash For Cash was elegant, kind and intelligent. I believe these traits helped him change the course of the breed through his foals. His descendants boosted Quarter Horse racing to another level.

Dashs Dream, 1984 world champion

Dashs Dream is my female G.O.A.T.

I knew she was a top Grade 1 futurity horse when I first saw her at trainer Mike Robbins’ barn. However, up close, she looked like a halter horse. She was gorgeous and flashy. Jerry Wells twice asked owner/breeder Joe Kirk Fulton if he could show her. He twice declined. Dashs Dream with Wells on the lead shank would have won, a lot. Of course, she was far too valuable to haul down the road to show.

Like her sire, Dash For Cash, she represented the breed through both her performance and conformation.

As a 3-year-old, her world championship year, she won nine of 10 starts with six stakes wins. Those stakes wins included the Champion of Champions, the All American Derby and the Los Alamitos Derby.

As a 4-year-old, Dashs Dream won five of seven starts. Her stakes victories included the All American Gold Cup, Go Man Go Handicap and the HQHRA Championship. She was second in the Champion of Champions to world champion Cash Rate (a horse who deserves to make this list).

Dashs Dream was the total package.

First Down Dash, 1987 world champion

I have never seen a horse develop as much as First Down Dash.

First Down Dash was purchased by Millie Vessels for $97,000 as a yearling at the Phillips Ranch Sale. When he arrived in California, Brad and I went to look at him. This was when Vessels Stallion Farm was next to the track. We looked at him, chuckled and said, “Millie spent $97,000 for that?” To say he looked like a filly would be kind.

As a 2-year-old for trainer Robbins, First Down Dash had matured, but didn’t look like he would. He did show he was a real runner with wins in the Kindergarten and Dash For Cash Futurity.

First Down Dash steadily progressed physically as a 2-year-old, and when he was a 3-year-old, he had become a specimen.

The Dash For Cash son had become a sensation on the track with eight wins (six stakes) from nine starts.

I distinctively remember two of those stakes wins – the Hollywood Park Invitational and the Champion of Champions.

Thankfully, for First Down Dash, the Hollywood Park Invitational was at 440 yards. Any shorter and he’s beat. I was in the winner’s circle and looking at the starting gate through a long camera lens. When the gates opened, I could see air between First Down Dash and jockey James Lackey. Meanwhile, Kipscash was coming off setting a Hollywood Park 350-yard track record and flying along the rail. Lackey gathered First Down Dash and First Down Dash took off. He caught Kipscash in the final yard to get the nose win.

With the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, the Champion of Champions was really a final exhibition by First Down Dash. Like his sire in the Champion of Champions, the race was over in a couple of jumps. He humbled a deep field that included world champion Gold Coast Express and the great champion Florentine.

I talked to Florentine’s owner, Ginger Hyland. several weeks before the Champion of Champions. She asked what I thought of the race. I said, “You have a great horse, but he may be a freak.” She said, “I agree.” He was a freak.

By the time of First Down Dash’s Champion of Champions victory, he was a powerhouse, far from what he looked like as a yearling. He entered the stud as a 4-year-old and looked even more powerful. Millie Vessels told me she would have raced him as a 4-year-old if a Champion of Champions win gained an invitation to the next year’s Champion of Champions. That was the case in previous years.

As a sire, First Down Dash’s record speaks for itself. From a larger perspective, I think Dash For Cash turned the path of Quarter Horse genetics and First Down Dash accelerated that direction change.

DM Shicago, 2005 world champion

DM Shicago was the people’s horse. His co-owner Fredda Draper and his trainer, Carl Draper, (Fredda’s husband) lived a few miles down the road from Ruidoso Downs. Their children live in the Ruidoso area, their grandchildren live in the Ruidoso area and their great-grandchildren live in the Ruidoso area.

Ruidoso is a small town. If you go out, there is a high probability you will run into someone you know. Virtually everyone knows a Draper. Carl and Fredda’s son Dallas is a county commissioner and their daughter Robyne now has a promising training career.

Now add DM Shicago to the recipe. He was a big strapping gray that reached out and grabbed more ground with each stride. He had charisma.

With each major victory, DM Shicago’s following grew. After a third-place run in the Rainbow Futurity, he showed his affection for 440 yards with a convincing win in the All American Futurity. His celebrity was assured and folks waited throughout the winter for his 2005 campaign. Locals with little knowledge about horseracing – maybe going to the track a couple of times each summer with friends – wanted to know more about DM Shicago and when he would race.

It was great for Ruidoso Downs, racing and the town. Win-win-win.

DM Shicago stepped up and did everything asked of him. There was plenty of room on this bandwagon and it was looking like we still may need another bandwagon. The gelding won the Ruidoso Derby at 400 yards and then moved up to 440 yards. He won the Rainbow Derby by a length and the All American Derby by a length. If he would have done that this upcoming summer, he would have taken a $1 million bonus. He did get at least $1 million worth of affection.

It showed me that a charismatic horse winning major stakes can still fill the grandstand.

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