ELMONT, N.Y. -- "I hear McAnally's horse worked pretty fast," Jack Van Berg said around his breakfast chicken wings.
Everybody at Belmont Park had heard that the champion mare Bayakoa, trained by Ron McAnally, worked fast in her final exercise before the $1 million Breeders' Cup Distaff on Saturday. In gossipy racetrack tradition, they were suggesting she worked too fast for her own good.
"I told [jockey Aaron] Gryder to let her do what she wants," McAnally said. She wanted to run: seven furlongs in 1:22 4/5, the kind of time that wins races.
Bayakoa, winner of last year's Distaff, did not "get away" from an inexperienced rider. Gryder, 21, won 165 races worth more than $3 million on the Kentucky circuit last year.
Not to worry, McAnally said. Two days before Bayakoa won the Spinster on Oct. 6, he said, Gryder "let her go" three furlongs in a startling :33 3/5. She won by three lengths, coming within a fifth of the track record.
Winning the Distaff again would move 6-year-old Bayakoa within "a race or two" of Lady's Secret's money-winning record. It would almost certainly make Go For Wand, half Bayakoa's age, the Horse of the Year.
So impressive is Go For Wand's record (10 victories and two seconds in 12 starts) that trainer Billy Badgett gave "some, but not overabundant" consideration to running her against the good males in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 6.
There is a body of opinion in racing that holds running fillies against colts to be a crime against nature. Go For Wand's 76-year-old owner, Mrs. Harry Lunger, doesn't feel that strongly, "but she's very superstitious," Badgett said.
Mrs. Lunger named Go For Wand's mother Obeah, for a West Indian discipline of sorcery. Under such a spell, nothing will help but a an anti-magic wand. "She'd probably have said OK," Badgett said, "but if we got beat . . . "
Badgett's other reason for running Go For Wand as the 1-10 favorite against fillies the day after the Gold Cup was more logical. "If you won the Gold Cup you'd be committed to run in the Classic," he said.
In the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic, Go For Wand would face the very good males, or those that are left since Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, Criminal Type and Summer Squall yielded to the rigors of top-level competition.
"They'd hound you," Badgett said. "The phone would ring off the wall."
"They" are the media and the public relations drum-beaters, to whose hounding McAnally yielded in running Bayakoa in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap last March.
"I'd never done it," McAnally said. "I got caught up in the hype. There was a little pressure from the publicity office." Bayakoa, then favorite at 1.90-1, was 10th of 10, beaten by 29 lengths.
Running her against colts in the San Diego Handicap on Aug. 4 was another story. "She gave a lot of weight [7 pounds to winner Quiet American]," McAnally said. "But she needed a race and we were at Del Mar. It fitted her and we didn't have to travel." Bayakoa, the 1-2 favorite, was second by 2 1/4 lengths.
Neither Bayakoa nor Go For Wand has been anything but a favorite since they shared a barn at Gulfstream Park for last year's Breeders' Cup. They were separated by a few stalls, but their trainers were a career, if not quite a generation, apart.
McAnally was 57 and, to oversimplify his distinguished career, he had trained John Henry. Badgett, 37, was in his fifth year on his own. In his big moment he had rationalized a horse named Firemaker into last year's Belmont Stakes and shouldn't have.
But he was taking a shot in the Juvenile Fillies race with a nifty looking daughter of Deputy Minister. She had won two of three starts.
Go For Wand had been a beaten favorite in her only stake, a half-length back of Stella Madrid in the Frizette. The winner, trained by Wayne Lukas, would be the favorite in their Breeders' Cup meeting.
Go For Wand won going away and Bill Badgett, a graduate of the Woody Stephens school of horsemanship, was his own man.
Starting with a stable of "two or three" horses in 1986, Badgett has 29 now. His helpers included William "Zeke" Badgett Sr., who used to take his kid to work with him when he was breaking the Guggenheim horses for Woody on Long Island. "I broke Never Bend," Zeke said. Billy was 9 then.
Go For Wand has grown up, too. "Bigger, yeah," Badgett said, "but she's really progressed. I watch the Breeders' Cup films now and I can't believe how green she was. She's not the same horse."
Plain Ben Jones probably said something like that in 1944, before Calumet's Twilight Tear became the first female Horse of the Year. Busher, the next year, was the second. Lady's Secret, in 1986, was the last.