Commentary: A race to redemption

Saratoga Race Course is a cathedral of horse racing and Travers Stakes day has always been a holy day in my world, but what transpired over the weekend was nothing short of divine.

A horse named Catholic Boy ran them off their feet in the 149th Travers, capturing the Midsummer Derby by four lengths. His backers were rewarded with a handsome win payoff of $16.20 and telephone numbers in the exotic wagers.

I have felt a special connection to Catholic Boy since last November, when I placed a win bet on him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in honor of my father, Paul K. Halloran Sr., the best Catholic boy I have ever known. Dad’s instructions the night before I left for the Breeders’ Cup were to “take $100 of my money and bet it.”

He had been in the hospital and hospice with significant heart issues for the previous two weeks, though he was actually feeling a little better as I was preparing to leave, to the point of virtually ordering me not to cancel the trip on his behalf.

The day after I arrived in San Diego I got the call. Dad may have begun All Saints’ Day here but he would finish it with those whose lives the holy day commemorates. Dad had already beaten the odds by living almost four years in my care since my mom had died unexpectedly in 2013.

On Friday, the first day of Breeders Cup ’17 at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, I remembered Dad’s instructions. I looked through the program for a horse to bet for him. When I got to the eighth race, it became obvious: Catholic Boy in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.

The horse ran a good fourth that day and I made a mental note to follow him. He actually won three of his next five races and through a combination of stupidity and dereliction of duty, I did not have one penny on him. I did, however, bet him the two times he lost. Sinful.

The Travers presented an opportunity for redemption. When Catholic Boy overtook Mendelssohn just inside the quarter pole and drew away, none of the other 49,417 people at Saratoga was yelling more loudly. It was exciting, emotional and, yes, profitable.

More than anything else, there was a feeling of sheer satisfaction that the horse had won for dad. I’ve never cried at a racetrack – though I’ve had plenty of tough bets that would have warranted a teardrop or two – but I actually had to struggle to hold it together Saturday after the horses crossed the finish line.

In the afterglow Saturday night, I decided that I needed to meet this Catholic Boy. Sunday would be no day of rest as I set out with my good friend – and equally insane horseplayer -- Dr. Jeff Morer to find the Travers winner. (My usual traveling companion, Lynn’s Bob “Moona” Mullins, would not arrive in town until later in the day.)

We came up empty, until we found trainer Jonathan Thomas’ barn at the harness track down the street. Upon inquiring, we were told “the big horse” was actually across Nelson Avenue on the backstretch of the main track, in Barn No. 9.

It took about 10 minutes to find the barn, but when we did, there he was, getting his morning bath. His groom, the very pleasant Olivia Perkins-Mackey, then allowed him to graze outside the barn. “He loves grass,” she said, and when you win a $1.25 million race, you can eat as much grass as you want.

Thomas was very gracious and generous with his time. I suspect it wouldn’t be quite so easy to get a 1-on-1 with the winning coach 14 hours after the Super Bowl – especially if the game were won by your N.E. Patriots – but horse racing people are typically humble, genuine souls.

Thomas explained that the horse’s name can be traced to owner Robert LaPenta’s Catholic heritage – he’s an Iona grad – and the horse’s dam, Song of Bernadette, named for a 1943 movie chronicling the life of Bernadette Soubirous, later canonized as St. Bernadette. Thomas said he has heard stories similar to mine from people who can especially relate to the nomenclature.

It really was a thrill to see the horse up close and spend some quality time with the best three-year-old still in training. I’m looking forward to his next start, which will likely be at Belmont in the fall, then the year’s best race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

With the barn tour complete, there was only thing left to do: 10 a.m. at St. Clement’s, figuring that there was really no excuse to miss Mass on this of all weekends. Father George Blasick greeted the faithful with this:

“I might as well get this out there right off the bat. I trust all you people who made money on Catholic Boy yesterday will be putting extra money in the collection.”

You can bet on it, Father.

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