by Frank Vespe

There was a moment, during Saturday’s retirement ceremony at Laurel Park for Bowie-based sprinter Dance to Bristol, when Xavier Perez, her jockey during the most productive part of her career, leaned against the chestnut filly’s neck.

His back, clad in the black and gold of owner Susan Wantz, was turned to the gathered crowd.  His right arm rested against her neck, his hand patting her.  His left arm snaked under, and around, and then his hands joined at the top of her neck, and Perez held the filly tight in a hug.

You couldn’t see his face, couldn’t know, not really, what he was thinking: a young man, likely at the beginning of his racing career, and a filly, feted at the end of hers.

It was that kind of day; even while looking forward (here), the mind kept reaching back.

It reached back after the fourth, the Jennings Handicap for Maryland-breds.  That’s when one of the best current Maryland-breds, Eighttofasttocatch, joined his name to that of one of the best of an earlier generation.  It was the easiest kind of victory for the seven year-old Not for Love gelding, more like a parade than a race.  He sped to the spot he likes best — the lead — and never was challenged en route to his third Jennings win.

That made him only the second three-time winner of the Jennings, a race that has now been run 72 times.  The other, one of the best and most popular Maryland-breds of the 1980s, was Little Bold John.

That fact brought a smile to trainer Tim Keefe’s face.  “Little Bold John was a great horse when I was galloping horses when I was first starting out here,” Keefe said in the winner’s circle after the Jennings.  “Jerry Robb had the horse.  Little Bold John was synonymous around here in Maryland.  He was a great horse.”

Little Bold John, a John Alden gelding, won more than $2 million in a career that ended in 1992.  Eighttofasttocatch, whose earnings now exceed $850,000, isn’t likely to reach those exalted heights.

But, his trainer said, the horse is just about as good now as he’s ever been.  Asked — inevitably — what was next, Keefe demurred.  “I never typically do [have anything in mind],” he said.  “I always wait until a few days after the race and see how they come out, and then I go from there.”

[pullquote]“I’m going to miss her; she took me on an adventure.”Xavier Perez, on Dance to Bristol[/pullquote]

And then the winning connections were gone, shooed from the winner’s circle in order to accommodate Dance to Bristol’s retirement ceremony.  The filly, resplendent in a special Dance to Bristol blanket, stood calmly while her humans fussed.

Trainer Ollie Figgins, III, wiping his nose to fend off the tears, led her in.  Rider Perez, eyes rimmed in red, kept finding reasons to turn away from the crowd.  Owner Susan Wantz put on a brave face and said she didn’t like the limelight, but, true or not, you could tell she was only too happy to take it if it gave her the chance to talk about the best filly she’s ever owned, perhaps ever will own.

Wantz and her husband David breed more horses than they buy.  “Sometimes I buy one or two, and that’s what we did with her,” explained Susan Wantz.  “And, boy, did we get lucky with her.  I thank the Lord.”

And, indeed, with a filly that won 10 of 20 career starts, won a Grade 1 race at Saratoga, and ran in the Breeders’ Cup as a legit contender, there is much to be thankful for.  “I’m feeling sad, but she’ll be fine,” said Perez, the jockey.  “I’m going to miss her; she took me on an adventure.”

He paused.  “It’s a feeling – I can’t explain it,” he said.

Figgins couldn’t explain it either.  “I can remember the first day she come to the barn pretty vividly,” he said, groping for ways to make comprehensible the connection between horse and humans.  “I kinda remember just when she was younger, before she ever ran…  I can still see her in the early stages; it’s a good memory.”

Happy winner's circle for Eighttofasttocatch after the Jennings.  Owner Arnold Heft is third from left, trainer Tim Keefe (holding plate) is next to jockey Forest Boyce.

Happy winner’s circle for Eighttofasttocatch after the Jennings. Owner Arnold Heft is third from left, trainer Tim Keefe (holding plate) is next to jockey Forest Boyce.

Asked for the memory she would keep, Wantz, oddly, also reached back before the racing, before the winning.  “I think, the day we got her adjusted in her hind end as a two year-old is what I’ll remember,” she suggested.  “She had some rotations and joints out of whack, and we worked on her and worked on her and worked on her, and the day we finally got it right, she went from being in pain and hateful and not wanting you to touch her to putting her head on my shoulder and nuzzling and licking and being like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so good.'”

And yet that didn’t quite explain it either; she tried again.  “Watching her develop and become a really, beyond-happy horse,” she assayed.  “I think that’s what I’ll always remember: how you can change, how you can really have a relationship with an animal.”

She added, “I’m racing because I love the sport.  If they come in second, come in last, if they tried, I’m happy.”

Perhaps so, but memories generally aren’t made of last-place finishes.

Figgins, who called the day “bittersweet,” allowed, after talking about Dance’s arrival at his barn before her career began, “Of course, all the wins are exciting, too.”

“We gonna remember her for what she did,” Perez added.  “She gave us a good show, and we enjoyed it every time she run.”

And then, to applause, Dance to Bristol was gone, heading back to her van, and then home, and ultimately to Kentucky and a date with War Front.

And a half hour later, the two year-old fillies were on the track for the Smart Halo, and racing, after casting one last glance over its shoulder, turned again to the future.

[boxify cols_use =”5″ cols =”5″ position =”left” order =”none” box_spacing =”5″ padding =”5″ border_width =”2″ border_color =”blue” border_style =”solid” height =”60″]