Thoughts of John's Call always warm Voss

ON HORSE RACING

Horse Racing

January 19, 2003|By Tom Keyser

Tom Voss answered his cell phone Friday, a frigid morning for man or beast. I asked him how John's Call was doing.

"I'm looking at him right now," Voss said. "He's doing great. He's got a bright look in his eye. He just looks fantastic."

Even the cold at Voss' farm in Monkton couldn't keep him from feeling almost giddy at the mention of John's Call. The old boy, now 12, took Voss on the most thrilling ride of his splendid training career: Two Grade I victories and a trip to the Breeders' Cup in 2000.

"The whole trek of that year was phenomenal," Voss said. "The Breeders' Cup was just the greatest thing. The Sword Dancer and the Turf Classic were wonderful. But the whole Breeders' Cup thing was amazing. It was just electric."

As a much-loved 9-year-old, John's Call captured the Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap at Saratoga and the Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park before meeting the top turf horses in the world Nov. 4, 2000, at Churchill Downs. He found himself trapped along the rail at a crucial time on the final turn. For four or five strides he couldn't go anywhere, although he wanted to. Boy, did he want to.

When he finally broke free, he took off running down the stretch, chasing the younger leaders and gaining with every stride. It looked for a moment as if he might prevail, but he ran out of ground a half-length too soon. He finished third.

That was the final hurrah for John's Call. The next year, at 10, he ran three straight lackluster races, and Voss and his other owner, Douglas Joyce of Nashville, Tenn., retired him. John's Call had lost that spark, but earned a home for the rest of his life in cushy retirement at Voss' Atlanta Hall Farm.

John's Call isn't happy just hanging around. He sort of mopes out in the field when nothing's happening. So Voss makes sure he's ridden four or five times a week, and right now he's trying to turn him into a hunter. Voss wants to ride him on fox hunts.

But John's Call is set in his ways. He never was a great jumper, which was a good thing or else Voss would have never tried him on the flat, where he became perhaps the most popular horse in training for several months in late 2000.

John's Call holds his head too high when he jumps. Voss is trying to teach the old horse new tricks.

Last year, Voss clinched his third straight title as champion steeplechase trainer - and fourth in the past six years. He won 26 races with 75 starters last year for a winning percentage of .346, the second highest by a champion trainer in the history of the National Steeplechase Association.

Voss will talk jumpers all day. But if you really want to see his face light up, then ask about John's Call.

He laughs even before beginning to tell the story of John's Call and Chance. Upon retirement, John's Call was let loose into a large field of horses. After awhile, Voss noticed the other horses coming back with parts of their tails missing or gashes in their skin. He finally figured out that John's Call was attacking them.

Well, he wasn't exactly attacking them. He was kicking and biting them, keeping them away from Chance, a 15-year-old hunter pony. John's Call had somehow taken to thinking it was his job to protect Chance, who didn't really need protecting but seemed to like the attention and became John's Call's shadow.

Voss eventually had to take all the horses out of the field except John's Call and Chance. So now he has two horses in a 20-acre field that should really be harboring about a dozen.

Not many horses can get away with that. John's Call can.

"With him," Voss said, "you do make allowances."

On frigid Friday, clutching his cell phone, Voss described the scene: John's Call and his exercise rider on the indoor track, preparing to jump four fences set up for instructional purposes. Voss chuckled at the mere sight of John's Call.

"OK. Here he comes now. ... That wasn't too bad [the first fence]. ... Over two now. ... Not too bad. Not too bad. ... He bucked and kicked that time. He tried to kick the horse behind him. He got too close to him."

Voss laughed out loud.

"OK. We're finished. ... Today was a good day."

Et cetera

After a one-year hiatus because of a lack of purse money, the Pimlico Special will return this year and be held the day before the Preakness, on the same day as the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. The Pimlico Special, one of the top races for older horses, had been held one week before the Preakness.

"It always gets lost between the [Kentucky] Derby and Preakness," said Lou Raffetto Jr., chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club. "Black-Eyed Susan day is already a good day. Adding the Pimlico Special will make it a better day."

Amateur boxing will join the Barbara Fritchie Handicap on Feb. 15 as featured attractions at Laurel Park. Eight to 10 bouts billed as "The Rumble at the Races" will be held beginning at 4 p.m. in the Carriage Room. Tickets will be $3 at the door.

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