When the horses load into the starting gates for the 2017 Belmont Stakes, viewers should think twice before writing off the longest shots in the field. After all, this will be the 15th anniversary of the day a 70-to-1 long shot named Sarava, with only two wins to his name, would shock the horse racing world and defeat the favored War Emblem.
War Emblem, the front-running son of Our Emblem, had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and was favored to win the Belmont Stakes and become the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner. Then War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and, two minutes and 29 seconds later, Sarava held off a furious challenge from Medaglia d’Oro to shock the world.
So who was this horse named Sarava who had just triumphed in the biggest upset in the Belmont’s 134-year history?
Cookies and Pedigrees
Sarava was born in Kentucky on March 2, 1999. Bred by William Entenmann (of the famous Entenmann’s bakery brand), Sarava was born with a strong pedigree.
Sarava’s sire was Wild Again, winner of the first Breeders’ Cup Classic, and sire of five millionaires. Wild Again, who was the third-leading sire in the world in 2002, was in high-demand while he stood at two prominent Kentucky horse farms during his career.
Sarava’s dam was Rhythm of Life who was unraced but whose full sister, Wilderness Song, was a Canadian Champion who won more than $1.4 million. Wilderness Song was also sired by Wild Again, suggesting the cross between Wild Again and Sarava’s family was favorable, to say the least. (In laymen’s terms: Wilderness Song was Sarava’s aunt and a very successful racehorse. Her breeding was very similar to Sarava’s suggesting he might be a good runner as well).
Additionally, Rhythm of Life’s sire was Deputy Minister who was a dominant racehorse and whose progeny had phenomenal success in the Belmont Stakes. From 1997 to 2007, Deputy Minister was either the sire or broodmare sire of a remarkable four of 10 Belmont Stakes winners. Sarava’s pedigree was well-suited for the long distance of the Belmont Stakes. (In laymen’s terms: The sire is a horse’s father and the dam (or broodmare) is a horse’s mother. The broodmare sire is the mother’s sire. Sarava’s sire was Wild Again, his dam was Rhythm of Life and her sire was Deputy Minister).
The Land of Hope and Glory
In October of 2000, Sarava was sold at the Fasig Tipton Midlantic Yearling Sale in Timonium, MD for $190,000 to well-regarded horse agent Buzz Chace for Ernie Paragallo. In 2001, Sarava was sold at the Fasig Tipton Selected Two-Year-Olds-in-Training Sale in Florida for $250,000 to Newmarket International for Paul and Susan Roy.
The Roys live in England and, although they buy many American horses, they race them in their native country. So, after Sarava was sold to the Roys, he crossed the Atlantic to begin his racing career in The Land of Hope and Glory.
In August of 2001, Sarava made his first start at Sandown Park in the London suburbs, but he finished a disappointing fourth. Eleven days later, Sarava gave it another shot against maidens at Lingfield Race Course south of London, but he finished fourth again. Two weeks later, Sarava traveled north to Doncaster Race Course where he finished 13th.
Afterward, the Roys began looking for an American co-owner to continue Sarava’s racing career in the United States. Gary Drake, a horse owner and businessman in Louisville, wasn’t scared off by Sarava’s three losing races on the British turf and signed on to become Sarava’s co-owner.
“Sarava was bred top and bottom for dirt racing,” Drake said recently. “His turf form was okay, and he would likely have improved with racing. But in fairness, he was a baby just learning how to be a racehorse.”
Drake turned Sarava’s conditioning over to trainer Burk Kessinger. In November, Drake and Kessinger gave Sarava his first start in the U.S. on dirt going a mile and a sixteenth at Churchill Downs. Unfortunately, Sarava drew the 11th spot, meaning he would break from an outside post near the first turn, a starting point that is difficult for any horse to overcome on that track. Despite the odds being against him (he was literally 36-to-1), Sarava raced near the front then made a strong move when jockey Robby Albarado asked him for more in the stretch. Sarava, in his first American start, won the race by 2 ¼ lengths.
“Winning a two-turn two-year-old dirt race at Churchill Downs in the fall is always cause for optimism,” Drake said. “When offers to buy him started to come in the next week, it was clear he had been impressive.”
Sarava made his next start in an allowance race at Turfway Park and, although he finished second, he made a strong closing move that encouraged Drake. Unfortunately, Sarava developed a small quarter crack in a front hoof that required him to take two and a half months off from training.
While Sarava recovered from the injury, Drake moved the horse to the barn of trainer Ken McPeek. The missed training forced Sarava to forego any possibility of running in the Kentucky Derby prep races in 2002, instead making his first start of the year in an allowance race at Keeneland Race Course in April. On a sloppy track, Sarava finished second again, but the only horse to beat him was Wiseman’s Ferry who would go on to win $825,000 in his career and later sire two-time horse of the year Wise Dan. So, losing to Wiseman’s Ferry was nothing to be ashamed of. Sarava raced again a couple of weeks later on a sloppy track at Churchill and again finished an encouraging second.
“He was getting fitter, but it was clear he preferred a fast track over the off tracks he was catching in the Kentucky spring weather,” Drake said.
A Bit Charmed
To this point, Sarava’s racing career had been a bit of an odyssey. In a span of three years, he’d been born in Kentucky, sold in Maryland, sold in Florida, crossed the Atlantic, raced at three tracks in England, moved back to the U.S. and raced at three tracks in the states. Then the story of Sarava took a turn for the better.
“The Sir Barton Stakes is where Sarava’s story became a bit charmed,” Drake said.
Drake nominated Sarava for the Sir Barton Stakes, which is a race for three-year-olds that is run at Pimlico Race Course on the Preakness Stakes undercard. Drake’s friend, the racing secretary at Pimlico, called to tell him they were expecting a short field and he should consider racing Sarava. As Drake considered whether to start Sarava in the Sir Barton, he saw that Wiseman’s Ferry had won the Lone Star Derby at Lone Star Park in his first start after beating Sarava at Keeneland. Sarava’s second-place finish was flattered by the fact that the winner was proving to be a formidable racehorse.
Drake pitched the idea of racing Sarava in the Sir Barton to McPeek a week before the race. McPeek felt it would be better to point Sarava toward an allowance race at Churchill Downs a couple of weeks later, plus he said it wouldn’t be possible to arrange transportation for Sarava to Pimlico in such a short period of time.
“Disappointedly, I accepted the plan,” Drake said.
Then the phone rang a few days later. One of McPeek’s horses wouldn’t be making the trip to Pimlico and there was suddenly room on the airplane for Sarava if Drake still wanted to race him at Pimlico.
“I had been convinced that Sarava was a serious racehorse since that November maiden win at Churchill,” Drake said. “He was unlucky to miss the entire winter because of the quarter crack, but I was convinced he was finally fit and ready to step up his game. He would either prove it in the Sir Barton Stakes or we would need to accept that maybe he wasn’t the top caliber horse we hoped.”
In the Sir Barton, Sarava broke slowly from the gate but he had smooth sailing the rest of the way and won by four lengths. He out-dueled the pacesetter, Shah Jehan, who had sold for more than $4 million as a yearling and was coming off a second-place finish in the Grade-3 Withers Stakes.
“I just remember him settling behind horses, bullying his way through a small gap between horses in mid-stretch, and drawing off to win easy,” Drake said. “I remember thinking how game it was for him to go through that hole. Once he split horses, it was fun watching and cheering him to the wire.”
Sarava, who trailed by three lengths at the top of the stretch, won by four lengths with jockey Edgar Prado driving him through the finish.
“Edgar Prado had dead aim when they straightened up and I think the colt was better when Edgar rode him,” McPeek said.
Jokes and Nausea
After the Sir Barton Stakes, Drake and McPeek were watching a replay of the race when a reporter asked Drake what was next for Sarava. Drake jokingly responded he would aim the colt for the Belmont Stakes. But jokes often contain truths and Drake did, indeed, want to consider running Sarava in the Belmont.
A few hours later, McPeek’s entry in the Preakness Stakes, Harlan’s Holiday, finished a disappointing fourth. After the race, the connections of Harlan’s Holiday made the decision not to take him to the Belmont. Prado, who was the rider for Harlan’s Holiday, was suddenly available and said he wanted to ride Sarava in the Belmont.
“I am not sure Ken would have run Sarava if Edgar had not shown such confidence in wanting to ride him,” Drake said. “Edgar was an up-and-coming rider on the New York circuit and, if he thought the horse fit, we should probably seriously consider it.”
The team monitored Sarava’s training at Churchill later that week to make sure he was feeling strong and sound then made the decision to send him to New York. Sarava trained on the Belmont track and seemed to like the track, so Drake and McPeek made the decision to enter him in the Belmont Stakes.
On race day, Sarava’s morning line odds were 25-to-1. He was a long shot, to be sure, but not so much as to suggest he was tremendously overmatched. Then, as the race drew closer, the betting public delivered a huge surprise to Drake who saw that Sarava was a whopping 70-to-1.
“Frankly, I was more nauseous than surprised,” Drake said. “With his consistent and improving dirt form, I didn’t expect him to be completely dismissed by the bettors. His Sir Barton winning time was comparable to War Emblem’s Preakness time a few hours later, so I was convinced, if Sarava could get the Belmont distance, he could be competitive with those horses. His race form and breeding said he fit, however the bettors disagreed.”
The Belmont Stakes was supposed to be War Emblem’s time to shine, but the rest of the field was strong as well. The race included Kentucky Derby runner-up Proud Citizen, Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Perfect Drift, Preakness Stakes runner-up Magic Weisner and Sarava’s old friend Wiseman’s Ferry. The race also included a top three-year-old named Medaglia d’Oro who would go on to win more than $5.7 million in his career and become one of the most influential sires of his generation.
“To compound the agony of the moment, Sarava was saddled next to Medaglia D’Oro, who, by thoroughbred standards, is physically very large and imposing,” Drake said. “So I am in the paddock looking at the tote board and this beast in the next stall thinking this is probably not going to end well.”
So what advice does a trainer give his jockey when he’s riding a 70-to-1 long shot in one of the biggest races in the world?
“Go shock the world,” McPeek told Prado. And that’s exactly what he did.
One of the most decisive moments of the Belmont Stakes happened at the start. War Emblem, vying for the sport’s first Triple Crown in 24 years, stumbled as he left the gate. For most horses, a bobbled start might not signal defeat in one of the longest races on the American racing calendar. War Emblem, however, loved the lead. In fact, of the seven races he won in his career, he won six of them wire-to-wire, meaning he was in the lead from start to finish.
War Emblem caught up after his stumble, but he never gained the lead as Wiseman’s Ferry and Medaglia d’Oro set the pace. At half a mile, Sarava had settled in comfortably about three-and-a-half lengths back of the leaders. After a mile, Wiseman’s Ferry had fallen out of contention and Medaglia d’Oro held a slight lead over Proud Citizen and Sarava.
As the horses neared the top of the stretch, Sarava was caught between Medaglia d’Oro and Proud Citizen. Would they squeeze him off or would Sarava prove he still belonged in a race with these well-accomplished competitors?
As Sarava squeezed through the hole, race caller Tom Durkin announced that Sarava had taken the lead. The veteran announcer showed more than a hint of surprise in his voice as the 70-to-1 long shot was taking charge of the race.
Meanwhile, Drake was watching the race through binoculars hardly believing what he was seeing.
“I had my binoculars locked on Sarava all the way around the track to the head of the stretch,” Drake said. “When he split Medaglia D’Oro and Proud Citizen to take the lead, I thought I might have picked up the wrong horse. But Ken began yelling that Sarava was going to win, so fortunately I was locked on him the whole trip.”
Sarava dueled with Medaglia d’Oro down the stretch, but Sarava never wavered and never surrendered the lead.
“They’re coming down toward the finish,” Durkin proclaimed. “A huge upset is looming here. Under the line . . . Sarava has won! The biggest long shot in the history of the Belmont Stakes!”
Drake and McPeek celebrated the win in their box.
“The stretch duel was a bit surreal,” Drake said. “Sarava maintained a half-length lead which never diminished. So I don’t remember ever having anxious moments as he raced toward the wire. To me, he looked in control the whole way. Obviously, after the wire, an emotional celebration broke out in our box.”
It wasn’t surprising to see McPeek celebrating a win in the 2002 Triple Crown races. After all, he had campaigned Harlan’s Holiday, the Kentucky Derby favorite. Unfortunately for McPeek, Harlan’s Holiday’s disappointing finishes in the Derby and Preakness had compelled the horse’s owners to move Harlan’s Holiday out of his barn and into the hands of another trainer.
“(The Belmont Stakes) was awesome, considering Harlan’s Holiday had been moved from me,” McPeek said recently. “Poetic justice.”
Luck Runs Out
After the Belmont, Drake and McPeek targeted Sarava for the Jim Dandy Stakes and Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. Unfortunately, the good luck that had followed Sarava to the Sir Barton and Belmont did not continue as Sarava battled injuries for the rest of his career. Problems with his shins and feet forced him to take time away from training. He was moved to the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert but, after his return race at Del Mar, Sarava collicked and required emergency intestinal surgery. He recovered and returned to racing, but he was never the same horse as he was during his three-year-old campaign.
“He ran a few races that year that indicated he was on the path back to being a top-level handicap horse,” Drake said. “But, sadly, he never was able to regain his three-year-old form.”
Sarava never won another race after his triumph in the Belmont Stakes. In fact, he never finished in the top three again, although he was running against stiff competition in some Grade I and Grade II races at America’s best racetracks. After a fifth-place finish in a Grade II race at Saratoga, Sarava was retired with a career record of 3 wins and 3 places from 17 starts and total earnings of $773,832.
Upon retirement, Drake fielded offers for Sarava’s services as a stallion. While Sarava’s pedigree and Belmont win may have been encouraging, his failure to win again depressed his value as a stallion. He had only limited interest from farms in Kentucky, so Drake decided to stand Sarava in Florida where he would be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
“He sired a few graded stakes winners and a Champion over his eight years at stud,” Drake said. “But he never sired the consistent numbers of stakes horses that were required to support a commercial stallion. We enjoyed racing Sarava’s babies and were disappointed he wasn’t able to achieve commercial success as a stallion.”
After standing Sarava at a few farms in Florida, Drake fielded a few offers from foreign farms, but he wasn’t willing to lose contact with the horse that had meant so much to him.
“Sending him off-shore meant losing contact and assigning responsibility for his future well-being to others,” Drake said.
As Drake was considering Sarava’s future, he received a call from his friend, Tom Bozarth, who is a horseman and also happened to be the mayor of Midway, KY. He suggested Drake retire Sarava to Old Friends thoroughbred retirement farm in nearby Georgetown, KY.
Old Friends is a cross between an equine retirement home and a living museum. It’s the brainchild of Michael Blowen, a former Boston Globe film columnist who believed racehorses should have a comfortable retirement.
“I met with Michael and was immediately convinced that Sarava would have a great retirement home there,” Drake said. “The Roys were equally excited to retire him at Old Friends Farm. Sarava has been like family to us and we are so pleased the way it has all worked out. It is gratifying to see daily groups of visitors enjoy visiting Sarava as much as we do.”
Old Friends, which has two farms in Kentucky and one in New York, is home to more stakes winners than any farm in history. In 2012, Sarava became the first winner of a Triple Crown race ever to retire to Old Friends. Drake and the Roys each contributed $15,000 toward Sarava’s retirement at Old Friends and, today, he is the first horse visitors see when they visit the farm.
So what did it mean to Old Friends to get a winner of the Belmont Stakes?
“It means everything,” Blowen said. “Every time we get a horse that people remember, it helps an enormous amount. Sarava’s in the first paddock. He’s the first horse everybody sees when they come to the farm, so it’s really cool.”
Today, Sarava is 18 years old, energetic and in good health. According to Blowen, Sarava hasn’t had a single bad day since he joined the farm.
“He’s very intelligent,” Blowen said. “He likes things done his own way and, as soon as he teaches you how to do them the way he likes it, you get along fine. He’s still very energetic. He still exercises himself every day. He’s beautiful. He likes to have horses around as neighbors, but he doesn’t want any roommates. He’s really something.”
Since Sarava arrived, a few other Classic winners have arrived, including War Emblem whose Triple Crown effort was spoiled by Sarava in 2002.
“I am not sure War Emblem enjoys seeing Sarava considering their history,” Drake said. “But we will leave it to Michael to make peace between the 2002 Triple Crown race winners.”