By TERESA GENARO
Nothing particularly exciting was happening at Aqueduct Racetrack in Ozone Park on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. It was a reasonably nice day for December and, in fact, the racing card was a little light: just eight races, all of them a variation on claiming races, in which the horses running in them are available to be claimed, or purchased, before the race. Claiming races are the least-prestigious races in Thoroughbred racing, the horses generally not of particularly high quality.
The fourth race was an allowance/optional claimer; only some of the horses running could be claimed. One of the runners exempt from the claiming condition was a 3-year-old named Diversify. Something of a late bloomer, he hadn’t begun his racing career until June of that year. His two straight wins had earned him the status of the betting favorite, a status he proved he deserved when he won the race by a whopping 12 3/4 lengths.
A ho-hum Wednesday at Aqueduct, and less than a year later, Diversify, who was bred in New York State, was in the winner’s circle for the historic Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes at Belmont Park. If claimers are the low end of racing, stakes races are the highest, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup is a Grade 1, the highest possible designation. A few months ago at Saratoga Race Course, Diversify notched his second Grade 1 win, taking the Whitney Stakes.
Diversify is far from the only horse to run inconspicuously at Aqueduct and then go on to become a racing household name.
Aqueduct is frequently scorned and mocked because the quality of its races is overshadowed by that of those run at Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course. The races for younger horses at those tracks are known for their flashy début winners; horses débuting at Aqueduct are often thought to be a cut below.
But even, or perhaps especially, at Aqueduct, even the most apparently lackluster weekday card can be the start of something big.
A Friday card in late March 2015 was undistinguished: nine races, all of them some version of a claimer, and only four horses ran in the third race. One of them, a New York-bred filly called Bar of Gold, was running in only her second race; she’d won her début, but that had been seven months earlier. She ran a nice comeback race, winning by 5 1/2 lengths.
Bar of Gold won $34,200 that day. By the time she retired last fall, she had banked $1.5 million and won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, a race akin to the final in a major tennis tournament.
The richest New York-bred horse in history got his first win at Aqueduct Racetrack. Now 5 years old, Mind Your Biscuits took five attempts before he broke his “maiden,” horse racing parlance for winning the first time, on April 9, 2016. He spent some time racing against fellow New York-breds. He then took on more competitive races, winning the Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga and the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita in California. Soon, the New York-California journey would be surpassed by the first of two trips to Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, where Mind Your Biscuits would twice win the Grade 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen. He ran second to Diversify in the Whitney, and he’s expected to run in the Breeders’ Cup in early November at Churchill Downs, where he could become a multimillionaire, having already won $1.7 million.
There are some big Saturdays at Aqueduct, when the card is stacked with graded stakes races. Nov. 5, 2016 was not one of those days. There was the Grade 3 Tempted Stakes and a few other decent races, but nothing remarkable.
The fifth race was a maiden special weight, a race of decent quality, restricted to New York-breds. The favorite was Voodoo Song, making his second start after a runner-up finish at Belmont Park a couple of weeks before. He got the win by two lengths, but it would be another eight months before he made his mark, winning four races at the ultra-competitive 2017 Saratoga racing meet. He came back to Saratoga this summer to win the Grade 1 Fourstardave Stakes, and has earned $880,000.
No one is ever going to confuse Aqueduct with Saratoga or Keeneland or the Breeders’ Cup. But you never know when you’re going to catch the next rising star—and if you happen to be there, you can say you knew them when.