Runnymede Bred Divine Park Produces a Queen
Thursday, March 21, 2019

This boy-meets-filly love affair began, from afar, a year ago- she at Tampa Bay Downs, me at The Meadowlands. It culminated recently, face to face, at Fair Grounds in New Orleans as part of a frivolous, same-day down-and-back trip from New Jersey.

The relationship began, as many do, for a shallow reason–not the adolescent or young adult kind of shallow: “I call the one with the blue eyes.” Rather, a brand of shallow that wiser, more mature people fall victim to: she broke her maiden at 61-1, and I had her.

That Saturday in March 2018 found me at The Meadowlands, tending to a portfolio of modest investments. Having done the requisite homework the night before and ready to lose intelligently, I arrived with a bounce in my step. I had spotted something at Tampa that I thought could win and almost certainly would outrun her odds. She was Divine Queen (Divine Park), a maiden 3-year-old filly who, as it turned out, was aptly named.

My reasoning went like this: in her debut, a $25,000 maiden claimer, she broke poorly but did enough running to finish a decent fourth. So she could run and, unlike some, handled the deep Tampa surface. The owner/trainer–the capable Buff Bradley, who had trained Brass Hat, The Player and Groupie Doll, among others–thought enough of her to protect her by running her back in a maiden special weight race. That, plus the natural debut-to-second-start progression might be enough to get her to the winners’ circle, or at least create some robust prices in the exotics.

She broke alertly, went to the front, hung on and paid $125.

Seeing that she was a runner, knowing that a savvy trainer thought highly of her without having some delusional, starry-eyed owner fueling those thoughts, and yes, cashing a nice ticket, I followed her. A next-out sixth in a tough Keeneland allowance didn’t dissuade me–again, she kicked in too late to threaten the winner, but again, she showed she was a runner. She then went wire-to-wire in a Churchill allowance and paid $14. Three races later, as the longest shot on the board in the $100,000 Dogwood S., she devoured the slop at Churchill and closed on the rail to win by a head and pay $103. Two months later, she won a salty optional claimer in the slop at Fair Grounds and paid $17.

I had her each time she won and, other than her debut, each time she lost; at those prices the wins more than covered the losses. But beyond her pari-mutuel productivity, my appreciation for her grew with each race. She always showed up and tried. She was game, and the antithesis of a prima donna, comfortable and willing on or near the lead, coming from behind, between horses or in tight quarters on the rail. Nobody seemed to be on to this filly–more Divine Queen for me. I checked in by email after each breeze, and before and after each race.

So with vacation days in the bank and with all-important spousal permission, I planned a week-long trip to Louisiana, with the New Orleans half devoted to mornings at Fair Grounds, hanging out with The Queen, cooling her out and delivering some well-earned carrots and love-slaps on her neck. Buff was apparently impressed enough by my hot-walking credentials–in the mid-70s, at Belmont, I learned quickly to make a left turn at the end of shed row–and impressed enough with his filly’s intelligence and manners to promise me some time on the end of the shank.

The airlines don’t offer walk-up fares based on who’s in the entry box, so I booked, though with the trip not predicated on her racing. Just getting an audience with Her Majesty would be enough. Then, days after I booked, she was entered to run, a week before my scheduled arrival.

I didn’t exactly whine to my wife, but I did point out that I was this close to getting to watch my favorite horse in the whole wide world race in person.

“Well, you know ….” I started to tell Maureen. “Just go. It’s fine,” she said.

So a week before the trip, I took a trip. I dragged myself out of bed before dawn’s first light and went, with only carrots, mints, apples and that day’s Daily Racing Form as baggage.

It was Mardi Gras, and the track joined in the celebration. Lead ponies wore beads, and people wore jesters’ hats with pom poms, colorful shoes with upturned toes, and masks. The most surreal sight of all was the trainer Tom Amoss in full Fat Tuesday Krewe regalia, giving pre-race instructions to his jockey and saddling his filly.

In a competitive field of seven allowance fillies, Divine Queen opened at 11-1…can’t they tell by now she can run? She dropped to 5-1, and drifted up to 7 or 8-1. She broke well and raced forwardly, seemed to lose focus leaving the backstretch and dropped back. And then, entering the stretch, she kicked in with a gear I hadn’t really seen before, and she… finished second. She was beaten a length by the 6-5, loose-on-the-lead filly, running her eyeballs out and gaining with every stride. At 6 1/2 furlongs, she probably would have won, but the race was carded for six.

She cooled out like a champ–dragging me up and down the shed row–and attacked her feed tub and the carrots. Just as she trains and races forwardly, she cools out and eats forwardly–a pleasure to be around. And just as parents love their kids regardless of school grades or wins and losses on the ballfield, we love our horses, especially those who try. A lifetime mark of 12-4-1-0 and a robust ROI is nice, but getting to watch–and hang with–a truly game horse is something special.

Dave Brooks is a New Jersey-based freelance writer and nearly lifelong fan of Thoroughbred racing. In the mid-70’s, he was a hot walker at Belmont Park.