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Hovdey: Capistrano win brings some light to dark time

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Flashbacks are no fun. They come without warning, usually triggered by trauma, reviving a moment best forgotten.

The death of Bullards Alley as a result of the injury he suffered in the Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland last Saturday was bad enough. The stalwart 6-year-old was the star of the Tim Glyshaw stable for owners Wayne Spalding and Faron McCubbins, and carried himself with class and dignity through a career of 39 previous starts, highlighted by his sweeping win in the Canadian International last year.

To have watched Glyshaw and his crew dote over Bullards Alley at Del Mar last fall was a treat, as they welcomed all visitors to admire their pride and joy. No one can know how they feel in the wake of such a loss, unless you are ghoulish enough to ask Thad Ackel, who sustained a similar body blow on Nov. 5, 1990, upon the fatal breakdown of his Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Great Communicator.

“Other than the death of my father, it was the most devastating thing of my life,” said Ackel, who trained Great Communicator for his family’s Class Act Stable. “I can’t even describe the wrenching of the gut when I saw him out there hobbling behind.”

For four solid years, a very hands-on Ackel and Great Communicator had driven the conversation when it came to West Coast turf racing. Along the way, the blue-collar gelding won just shy of $3 million, while carrying his California momentum to Kentucky to win the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs.

His form sagged during the early part of 1990, but he was back on his game to win a small stakes at Santa Anita before tackling the Grade 2 Carleton F. Burke Handicap at the end of the Oak Tree meet. About six furlongs into the 1 1/4-mile event, Russell Baze felt his horse go wrong behind. It was Great Communicator’s 56th start.

“We buried his heart in a box by a lake at Hollywood Park, where he trained,” Ackel said. “When they leveled the track a few years ago, they couldn’t find it. I still have the headstone I made for him, but it’s hard to look at.”

And it reads?

“It reads ‘Great Communicator, 1983-1990, The People’s Horse,’” Ackel said.

Great Communicator won the 1988 running of the San Juan Capistrano Handicap when it was still considered one of the elite grass races in North America. These days, the San Juan Capistrano is a Grade 3, $100,000 event, but that did not matter last Sunday when one of those cosmic coincidences occurred, the kind that makes life so interesting and strange. Barely 24 hours after the death of Bullards Alley, his younger full brother became a graded stakes winner in the San Juan.

Nessy, making his 21st start for Ed and Sharon Hudon’s Sierra Farms, won the race by a length after dealing with the full mile and three-quarters of Santa Anita’s downhill turf course. Sharon Hudon, watching at home in Kentucky, confessed the San Juan had been the goal for Nessy from the moment he had become good enough to finish a close second last year in the Sycamore at Keeneland and earlier this year in Gulfstream’s William L. McKnight.

“Ed has wanted to win the San Juan Capistrano for as long as I can remember,” Hudon said of her husband. “For a most people it’s the Kentucky Derby, but for him this is his favorite race. We couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Nessy, like Bullards Alley, is by Flower Alley out of the Kris S. mare Flower Forest. This did not explain why he apparently ended up with the nickname given to the Loch Ness monster.

“No, that’s not it,” Hudon said with a laugh. “The obvious way to go was something with flowers, but I began to search for a name that brought the ‘forest’ part to mind. I thought of Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest, then I discovered an Irish version of Robin Hood named Nessy.”

Hudon was referring to none other than Naoirse O’Haughan, the notorious highwayman of the early 18th century whose merry band plundered local well-to-do land owners north of Belfast and then, in a canny PR move, shared some of their swag with the local less fortunate. For his trouble, Nessy O’Haughan was caught and hanged at the age of 29.

The San Juan, by contrast, is 79. The world-class version of Ed Hudon’s younger days boasted winners such as John Henry, Exceller, Cougar II, Lemhi Gold, Olden Times, and Amerigo. Among the most memorable races in the 83-year history of Santa Anita, the San Juan produced the last, winning ride of John Longden aboard George Royal in 1966, and the dead heat between Fiddle Isle and Quicken Tree in 1970, with Hall of Famer Fort Marcy a nose back in third.

There are nascent plans afoot to tinker with the San Juan’s purse and calendar placement in an effort to maintain its graded status, or even edge it upward. The best cure, however, remains the downstream performance of its winners, which puts the ball squarely in Nessy’s court. Ian Wilkes, his trainer, will be searching for graded races of substantial distance.

“The more the better,” he said. “But you can bet we’ll be back for the San Juan next year.”

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Photo Credits:   Vassar Photography (Northern CA)  |  Benoit Photo (Southern CA)  |  Michael J. Marten (Southern CA)

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