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Tongue-tied Amazombie wins it for Bill Spawr

Trainer Bill Spawr's trick, tying the gelding's tongue to the bottom of its mouth to make the horse easier to handle, pays a dividend as jockey Mike Smith guides Amazombie to victory in the Sprint.

November 05, 2011|By Lance Pugmire
  • Jockey Mike Smith rides Amazombie past John Velazquez on Force Freeze to win the Breeders Cup Sprint by a neck Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Jockey Mike Smith rides Amazombie past John Velazquez on Force Freeze to… (David J. Phillip / Associated…)

Reporting from Louisville, Ky. — Bill Spawr's last little trick Saturday with his Breeders' Cup Sprint entry Amazombie was to tie the gelding's tongue to the bottom of its mouth with a white bow.

Veteran trainer Spawr, a horseman since his teens who arrives at his barn at 3:15 a.m. daily, found tying the tongue keeps the horse easier to handle at critical moments when it might tend to lose control.

With that, Spawr, 72, handed over the star horse of his lifetime to decorated jockey Mike Smith, who guided the 5-year-old from a runner-up spot at the top of the stretch to a dramatic victory by a neck over Force Freeze.

The only dicey part of the run, Smith said, was at the final turn, where Amazombie tends to lug.

He didn't this time. With the tongue tied.

The victory was worth $1 million — quite a prize for a horse Spawr accidentally purchased with another for $5,000 at a Hemet farm three years ago.

"It's fairy tale," Spawr said afterward, celebrating the victory in a paddock room with his longtime friend, Amazombie co-owner Tom Sanford. "This one heals a lot of wounds, errors and mistakes I've made in my 35 years training."

Beyond the unlikely Hemet purchase, in which Amazombie's former owner thought Spawr had offered $5,000 for two horses instead of just one that turned out to be an average plodder, the ride to the Sprint title was a magical road.

Spawr, of San Gabriel, confessed Satrurday he needed a friend to pay $25,000 to cover expenses to make Amazombie eligible for the Breeders' Cup before winning the Ancient Title Stakes at Santa Anita last month. That victory qualified Amazombie for an expenses-paid trip to Churchill Downs.

Anything short of that Ancient Title victory likely would've sent Amazombie to a lesser race at Hollywood Park, Spawr said.

That set up Saturday, when Spawr stood leaning against the outside rail in a dark brown suit, his black dress shoes caked in mud by the paddock, peering for a better look after the horses were sent off.

"From the time I was in the gate, I heard him take a deep breath and let it out — cool, calm, collected," Smith said of Amazombie. "I cut the corner, but he made it just right, and then we took off. I was sitting loaded."

In a typical old-school move, Spawr gave Smith no pre-race instructions, trusting the veteran whose victory was his 14th career in the Breeders' Cup.

It was Spawr's first.

"They never handcuff me," Smith said of Spawr. "He's so good, so loyal — does his job, and lets me do mine."

Spawr worked to put his career-defining victory in perspective.

"It's a milestone and it proves hard work pays off," he said.

Villaraigosa lobbies

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attended the Dirt Mile trophy presentation ceremony, a torch-passing of sorts with the Breeders' Cup coming to Santa Anita next year.

"I worked hard to get it," Villaraigosa said. "I worked these guys over last year when the weather was horrible to bring this to California."

The mayor is still working, pushing now to make the Arcadia track the permanent home of the event. For now, Breeders' Cup officials are only talking to the New York Racing Assn. about a 2013 event at Belmont Park.

"I'd like to see it happen, and we'll push for that, even if it might not happen for a couple years. This is a great event, and it's a great shot to the L.A. economy. We want it all the time."

A.U. Miner injured

Marathon entrant A.U. Miner pulled up and was diagnosed with a fractured sesamoid in the right front leg. Surgery will be performed early this week.

"You do the surgery to save their life," track veterinarian Dr. Wayne McIlwraith said. "Hard to give a diagnosis, but generally 60% to 70% of them do well."

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