LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The interview session was over. The camera lights were turned off. The reporters were leaving the room. Up on the podium, Robert Meyerhoff turned to Dickie Small with a smile. "Did that really happen?" he asked, unable to contain his incredulity.
Small just giggled, obviously still in the throes of disbelief himself after watching Concern deliver a victory as a 7-1 shot in the
Breeders' Cup Classic yesterday at Churchill Downs, providing Maryland racing with its richest victory ever and its biggest moment since Deputed Testamony won the Preakness 11 years ago.
At the 11th running of racing's version of the Olympics, a meeting of the sport's best and brightest from two continents, a Maryland-bred horse and a couple of Baltimore guys won the big race. But to Meyerhoff, who owns the colt, and Small, who trains the colt, there was no doubt about which one of them deserved the bulk of the credit.
"This horse," Small said, "is nothing short of amazing. "He's a little fella, a plugger, not all that talented, not all that fast. But is he ever relentless."
The colt is a smallish son of Broad Brush with a dramatic running style. He runs last for the first half-mile, sometimes even the first three-quarters, then makes a wild sprint for the finish. When he won the Arkansas Derby last spring, he was 20 lengths off the pace after a half-mile.
"I've ridden a lot of horses, but never one quite like him," jockey Jerry Bailey said. "Most horses will make up some ground on the backside and try to finish strong. He saves it all for the last 3 1/2 furlongs."
When he finished second or third in seven straight races after winning in Arkansas, it was easy to speculate that he was getting too far behind in the first half-mile.
Meyerhoff said: "My wife was on me every day, saying, 'You've got to get him closer [to the leaders].' "
Said Small: "Sure, it was frustrating to keep coming so close and losing. But I never lost faith."
Small, who has won at least one stakes race in every year since 1974, understood Meyerhoff's frustration. "When you run this way [from so far back], you don't control your destiny," Small said. "You have to hope things break right in front of you and other guys make mistakes."
Still, Small never considered changing Concern's style. Most of the horses sired by Broad Brush, a Maryland-bred who ran third in the 1986 Kentucky Derby, run similarly.
"These horses are going to do what they want to do," Small said. "He wants to run this way. There's nothing you can do about it."
Concern finished second to Holy Bull in the Travers Stakes in August, then third in the Molson Million and second in the Super Derby in October. Small didn't bring him to Churchill until early Friday morning, some 38 hours before the race. All the attention was on Tabasco Cat, the favorite, and a couple of older horses, Devil His Due and Best Pal. Although Holy Bull's absence robbed the race of some stature, the other 13 starters had a combined $18.5 million in earnings.
Typically, Concern dropped to last when the gate opened and stayed there for a half-mile. He was still only 11th after three-quarters. But he was not quite as far behind the leaders this time, only 10 lengths or so, and he seemed to find a new gear when he took off on the second turn.
"There are two things about him that are truly exceptional," Small said. "His acceleration is fabulous. He takes off like a shot. And, most important of all, he has that will to win. A horse that runs as hard as he does in every race has phenomenal desire."
When Small saw that Bailey had maneuvered the horse to the outside at the top of the stretch, meaning no one was going to block his big run to the finish line, he knew something special was happening.
"I thought to myself, 'We've got chicken dinner here,' " Small said.
Concern was fifth at the quarter pole, third at the eighth pole and overtook Tabasco Cat to take the lead before the sixteenth pole. He finished in front by a neck.
Not a bad time to end a seven-month losing streak.
"Pretty neat," Small said. "Pretty extraordinary."
Small didn't run the colt in the Kentucky Derby last spring because, he felt, the competition was a little too good. But as the 1994 season winds down, Concern has earned more money ($2.56 million) this year than any other American horse. Small had always thought Broad Brush would have beaten Concern, (( but he isn't so sure anymore.
"Broad Brush had more talent, no doubt about it," Small said, "but he goofed off a lot and didn't always pay attention, This horse runs to his full potential in every race, which is incredibly rare. I just can't say enough great things about him."
This will be remembered by many as the Classic that Holy Bull didn't run in, but that's just hype. The only time Holy Bull and Concern competed this year, Holy Bull won by only a neck in the Travers. As terrific as Holy Bull was in 1994, he wasn't much better than Concern.
"We pressed him all the way to the wire, and they say he's the best horse since Secretariat," Meyerhoff said, "so our guy must be pretty darn good."