The last time Vilzak ran, in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Turf Stakes at Hollywood Park on Nov. 21, there wasn't room on the tote board to reflect the public's apathy toward the horse.
The infield board said Vilzak was 99-1, but he was actually 147-1 that day, and although his trainer, Jack Van Berg, was slightly more optimistic, the 4-year-old colt seemed to be accurately priced. Vilzak had never won a race in the United States, he hadn't won a race anywhere since September of 1986 and he was on a losing streak that had reached 17 races.
Running against Theatrical, the best American grass horse in training, and Trempolino, the winner of this year's Arc de Triomphe, Vilzak extended his losing streak to 18 starts, but he was a respectable fourth and earned $140,000 for his owner, Harry Rosenblum of Little Rock, Ark.
Van Berg felt that Vilzak's Breeders' Cup race was even better than it looked. "He was wide on both turns and then he wound up on the fence and had to come out again," the trainer said. "I don't think he would have beat those two big horses (Theatrical and Trempolino ran 1-2 in a slam-bang finish), but he could have been an easy third."
On Sunday, with time running out on this year's calendar, Van Berg placed Vilzak in the $500,000 Hollywood Turf Cup. The race could have been called the Breeders' Cup Consolation, because besides Vilzak it included five other also-rans from Nov. 21.
Trainer John Gosden, who had won the Turf Cup three straight years with two horses--Alphabatim and Zoffany--had surveyed the 14-horse field the day before and tried to be as kind as possible.
"A contentious lot," Gosden said. "Not a vintage bunch--compared to some of the horses we had to beat the other three years--but a contentious group."
There were no 147-1 shots Sunday, and the crowd of 24,969 must have heard Van Berg talking in the paddock, because it sent Vilzak off at a mere 14-1. Van Berg had told Rosenblum, who's an investment banker, that Vilzak had been training well enough to have a chance at ending his streak.
Minutes later, Van Berg became a prophet with honor. Vilzak, proving that he couldn't lose them all, came roaring between horses in midstretch and beat Forlitano to the wire by a neck for a victory that was worth $275,000 to Rosenblum, who had bought the Green Dancer-Zippy Do colt for $150,000 at an auction in November of last year.
Pat Day, who is battling the leader, Jose Santos, for the national money title, rode Vilzak to victory. Vilzak, who is now 3 for 28 lifetime, had won two stakes in France as a 3-year-old before Rosenblum bought him.
Forlitano finished 2 lengths ahead of the third-place horse, Political Ambition, who had a head on the 86-1 Great Communicator after setting slow early fractions in the 1 1/2-mile race.
Running on a course that was firm but not as hard as the speedy greensward of Breeders' Cup Day, Vilzak covered the distance in 2:27, which was 2 seconds slower than Theatrical's time. Vilzak paid $30, $12.40 and $7.60, while Forlitano returned $12.40 and $9.60 and Political Ambition paid $11.
There was no clear-cut favorite in the race, the Nelson Bunker Hunt-owned entry of Rivlia and Swink going off at 3-1, the same price as Stately Don. Rivlia was 5th, Stately Don 8th, Swink 10th, and Gosden's hopes for a fourth straight straight win vanished when Allez Milord ran 11th.
Day, who is based in Chicago, made a quick airport getaway that rivaled Vilzak's move through the stretch. They were 10th at one point, seven lengths behind Political Ambition and Great Communicator, who vied for the lead most of the way around.
"This horse fired up big on the backside," Day said. "He got back in contention and eased out, and things broke just right. He was able to find room at the head of the stretch and finished real big. I got squeezed back and shuffled back farther around the first turn than what I really anticipated."
Rosenblum took some time coming to racing, entering the game two years ago, although he had been around horses as a youth because his father was in the U.S. Calvary. He remembers accompanying Van Berg to the barn at 4:30 in the morning to examine Vilzak the day he bought him.
"It was so dark that we had to ask somebody to turn the lights on," said Rosenblum, who has 14 horses in training. Before Sunday, he had never won a race worth more than $50,000.
For all his losing, Vilzak had still flashed signs of ability, running a close third to Snow Chief in the Oaklawn Handicap and finishing second behind Manila in the Early Times Classic at Churchill Downs.
Vilzak never had serious physical problems, but his training was stalled by a hoof injury, and he was also knocked off schedule by reacting badly to humid heat this summer at Monmouth Park.
"In his races, he had been running up to horses and hanging," Van Berg said. "That's why we put blinkers on him (three races back)."
Vilzak will return to the track as a 5-year-old. No matter how he does, nobody will ever be able to get him at 147-1 again.