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On rare occasions a horse race comes along that truly takes the breath away. When such a race occurs, even the videotape replays tend to confirm and reinforce what was seen originally. Often such a race involves a horse that has gotten itself into serious traffic problems, then extricates itself and then either wins or fails gallantly. Young horses encountering trouble in major stakes races seldom win because they are usually as green as AstroTurf. With that in mind, try to imagine a 3-year-old with only one eye in the most perilous of situations: well inside with his "dead" eye closest to the rail.
The horse enters the stretch at Bay Meadows, near San Francisco, some 12 lengths behind the leader. A wall of horses lies ahead, stretched out across the track. Suddenly his jockey, Darrel McHargue, spots a crack of daylight and sends his mount, hoping to get through. But another horse, Speed Broker, begins to bear out and slams into the one-eyed horse on its blind side. For an instant it appears both will fall. The severe bump causes the one-eyed horse's head to twist wildly to the right. He's stopped.
But he isn't. He digs in. He gets furious. He hates every horse in the race and perhaps all those others that have ever run or eaten oats from a bucket or drunk water from a pail. In the last two jumps he wins the race by half a length.
The one-eyed horse's name is Cassaleria. Please remember it. Last Saturday he not only won the $139,700 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows, but also might well have run the bravest race seen in this country in a decade. Cassaleria may not win this year's Kentucky Derby, or be named Horse of the Year come next December, but February belongs to him. Ron McAnally trains him and is one-fifth owner of the grotesquely named 20/20 Stable, whose one horse is Cassaleria. McAnally also happens to train the best horse in the world, John Henry. After viewing the films of the El Camino Real, he said, "I don't believe what he overcame. He looks to me like a Kentucky Derby horse, but there's a long way to go."
Indeed there is. But that's what's intriguing about any 3-year-old season—which horses, owners, trainers and jockeys get on the big wheel rolling toward Louisville, how long they can stay on it and which ones spin out along the way. Until very recently, a trip to Churchill Downs was earned in the Flamingo and Blue Grass Stakes, the Wood Memorial, and the Arkansas, Hollywood, Louisiana and Santa Anita Derbies. But in the past two years several rich and shiny new events have been added to the stepping-stone races. As yet many horsemen are still in the dark about them: the $75,000-added Bowie Stakes, the $100,000 H.I.T.S. Parade Derby at the Fair Grounds, the $100,000 San Rafael at Santa Anita, the El Camino Real at Bay Meadows, the $150,000 Jim Beam Spiral Stakes at Latonia.
Saturday's inaugural El Camino Real drew a field of nine starters, including two of the top money-winning 2-year-olds of 1981, Cassaleria ($234,070) and Tropic Ruler ($374,440), otherwise known as the Arizona Traveler. As a 2-year-old Tropic Ruler roamed the land like Johnny Appleseed. He ran on nine different tracks, won 10 of 13 races and brought to light one of the best horsemen in the world, trainer Brooks Claridge. Claridge wears cowboy hats, talks slowly and says a lot while professing to say nothing whatsoever. Listen:
"How good is this horse?"
"Don't really know. I'm a country boy. I can't speak at dinners. I don't know language that well."
"In the Southwest they say you can train ivy to grow down a wall. Is that true?"
"Let me say only one thing. A man trains a horse and a man trains a man. They're nearly the same. If the horse is trained to the right pitch, so is the man. The man has trained both himself and the horse and the man is at the same pitch the horse is. The horse thinks it knows and the man knows, but the horse doesn't know what the man thinks he knows and the man doesn't know what the horse knows. So who knows?"