An ugly tendon, a genius vet and a horse that thrilled America

Race of the 90s: Captain Bodgit (left) just fails to overhaul Silver Charm (centre) and Free House in the 1997 Preakness. Photo: Team Valor

Team Valor boss Barry Irwin has never been one to back off when there are significant obstacles seemingly preventing him buying a racehorse he really wants. His determination to find a way was very much in evidence over one potential purchase in early 1996. Here, in an extract from Irwin’s book 'Derby Innovator: The Making of Animal Kingdom'*, he explains how he came to buy an animal who would become one of the most exciting Thoroughbreds in America.

In my search for viable horses to market, I became increasingly impressed with a Maryland-based 2-year-old named Captain Bodgit. The name ‘Bodgit’ is a slang word used in England. Bodgitting is handyman-speak for using unconventional materials and methods to fix something around the house. This Bodgit proved a fix for Team Valor’s lapsed syndication business.

Captain Bodgit developed into a very accomplished 2-year-old on the Maryland circuit under the tutelage of young Gary Capuano, the lesser-known brother of leading Mid-Atlantic claiming trainer Dale Capuano. Dale had an outgoing personality and the drive to maneuver his clientele through the treacherous waters of the claiming game. Gary was a quieter, more reserved young man of 33 who did things in a methodical manner that belied his youth.

After finishing third first time out in a July sprint at Laurel, Captain Bodgit reeled off five successive wins. Being ridden by a little-known jockey named Frankie Douglas and trained at the dilapidated barn area across the street from what once was Bowie racetrack did not stop Captain Bodgit from developing into a big-time horse.

Sensational figures

In his final outing at two, Captain Bodgit roared home in a sub-12-second final furlong to win the Laurel Futurity, running a mile and an eighth in 1:49⅖, which was excellent time for a 2-year-old on a deep track in his first try around two runs.

He only won by three-quarters of a length, but the colt he beat, named Concerto, was held in the highest regard by his savvy tainer, John J Tammaro III. Racing for New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Concerto put a nice shine on the Laurel Futurity by winning the G3 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, where five months later he would enter the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby riding a five-race winning streak.

Captain Bodgit ran a 101 Beyer speed figure and a 6½ on the Ragozin Sheets, which were sensational figures for a youngster going a mile and an eighth over a deep-surfaced racing strip. Like my peers, I had heard rumors that the colt had bowed a tendon and would not pass the vet.

Through my bloodstock agent, I made an offer well into seven figures, but the colt’s owner, Phyllis Susini, was a well-seasoned veteran with 40 years of ownership experience, and her deceased first husband had been a hard-knocking Maryland trainer. Mrs Susini knew exactly what she had, and she turned down the offer.

Imposing appearance

I must have watched the video replays of Captain Bodgit dozens of times in the next couple of months. I could not get the horse out of my mind. He was an absolute beast of a horse and he had already done enough to convince me he could be a Kentucky Derby horse. I wanted him.

Capuano knew what he had as well, so he took Captain Bodgit south to Florida to spend the winter in a warmer climate as he continued to train the colt for the First Saturday in May. Ten weeks after the bay colt had stamped himself as a classic hopeful in the Laurel Futurity, Capuano sent him post-ward for the G3 Holy Bull, Gulfstream Park’s first two-turn race of the season for the classic generation.

Captain Bodgit made an imposing appearance in the Gulfstream Park paddock and was bet down from 10-1 to 3-1, with 8-5 favoritism going to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile  runner-up Acceptable. The last-named, like Concerto, was owned by his breeder, George Steinbrenner.

Steaking speed horse Arthur L, with John Velazquez up, won easily, with Acceptable second and Captain Bodgit third, beaten 6½ lengths. He broke in a tangle, lurching out of the gate with his head positioned at an awkward angle. A slow pace hurt his chances. He tried to mount a bid around the stretch curve, but it was short-lived and he looked particularly in need of the exercise as he was hard-pressed to hold on to third.

Crafting a deal

I called my agent, Don Brauer. “Offer Phyllis Susini $500,000 for Captain Bodgit.”

Don said: “No way. I am not going to do that after she turned down our offer last year for all that money. It’s insulting.”

I said: “Don, there is every chance this race scared the hell out of her. Did you see how lousy he looked coming down the stretch? Look, this horse already injured a tendon. This woman was married to a trainer. She knows how fragile these things are. A race like this might just jolt her back to reality. She might jump at this offer. Just call her, for Chrissakes.”

When Don Brauer phoned me back he said, “Hey, we just might be live here. She’s definitely thinking about it.”

I quickly swung into action, crafting a deal to give the seller $500,000 plus a one-time $50,000 bonus for a Grade 1 either at three or four. This time she took the offer.

‘An absolute beast’: Irwin says, “I could not believe the depth of [Captain Bodgit’s] shoulder, chest and especially his girth. He was a true monster.” Photo: Team Valor

Facing me were two dilemmas: where was I going to get the money to pay for the horse, and who could I get to vet a horse with a suspected problem?

The prospect of raising money has rarely, if ever, proved daunting to me. But finding a vet who had the talent and experience to look past the obvious and make a comprehensive decision that required an accurate assessment of the risk was very nearly impossible. There was Dr Jack Robbins in California and, in Kentucky, there was Dr Alex Harthill.

Harthill was widely recognised as the best racetrack vet in America. I only knew him to say ‘hello’.

Harthill was a genius with horses, but he loved nothing more than pulling of an artistic stroke. But he was always ahead of any other vet in racing as he kept up to date on human medicine and new human drugs, always looking for things that could work with horses. He was the first vet to scope and use Lasix on a horse, and he had been taught the ways drugs made horses run faster or slower from his own veterinarian father.

I once turned down a horse on the Arlington Park backstretch because I did not like the vet report. When I walked out of the barn, Dr Harthill was waiting for me. “Look, don’t let that so-called vet talk you off buying this filly,” he said. “He’s an idiot. I know this filly and there’s not a goddam thing wrong with her.”

Costly lesson

Based on all the stories I had been told, I chose not to trust Harthill, and it turned out to be a costly lesson as the filly went on to win half a dozen races in a row, including some stakes.

Half a dozen years before the advent of Captain Bodgit in my life, I managed to get a signed contract to by an ill-bred, silly-named 2-year-old colt called Lil E Tee. My vet turned down the colt, but Harthill okayed him for another owner in line behind me. At three, Lil E Tee went on to win the Kentucky Derby. That was enough for me. I vowed then and there that, if another complicated vetting were required, I would contact Dr Alex Harthill.

So I decided on Dr Harthill because of the uniqueness of the tendon story. I needed somebody who had seen it all, and Dr Harthill was that man. I was game myself, but as a syndicator it behooved me to be as careful as possible in assessing risk on behalf of my clients. I needed The Pope to bless this deal, and The Pope was Doc Harthill.

Harthill asked, “Do you think he’s the real deal?”

I replied, “Yes, no question about it.”

“All right then. I know you’ve got a good opinion and I love to be involved with a top horse,” he said. “I’ll go down there and vet him for you.”

Team Bodgit: Dr Alex Harthill (left) with trainer Gary Capuano (centre) and Barry Irwin. Photo: Team ValorIt was the dead of winter in Louisville, and Harthill had been on enough wild goose chases in his career, so he brought in Dr Jerry Johnson, who was spending the winter in Miami, to X-ray the colt’s joints and scan his tendon. Dr Johnson’ report was encouraging enough for Harthill to board a plane to Miami.

Harthill had been hired for two days but wound up staying four, the last two days on his own dime. Like Harthill, I did not want to fly across the country for nothing, so I phoned the vet for a progress report.

“Tell me about how he got that tendon,” Harthill asked.

I relayed both of the stories I had been told. The first one went like this: in March of his 2-year-old season, the vet who owned him noticed a swelling in the tendon and attributed it to the colt’s banging the leg against the side of his still. The vet said he considered it to be of little no consequence. “I scan everything,” the vet said, “but this was so minor, I never thought to ultrasound it.”

Freak accident

The second story went like this: while training as a 2-year-old at Ocala Stud in Central Florida, Captain Bodgit was cooling out on an electric hotwalker one morning and he reared up, catching a front leg over a metal part of the machine. In an effort to free himself, he put a crease in the tendon.

I told Harthill that I disregarded the first story as blatant merchandising, but I gave a lot of credence to the second version.

Harthill said, “I believe it because this does not look like a racetrack bow to me. It had to be some sort of freak accident like you mentioned.”

I asked Harthill what he thought of the tendon.

“The tendon is very ugly. It is definitely very ugly,” he said.

I asked, “Is it an automatic throw-out?”

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Harthill replied. “I like this colt a lot. Come on down here.”

‘This horse is a throwback’

Harthill and I watched the colt train on the vet’s third morning at Hialeah. When Captain Bodgit came around for a third time to complete his morning spin, he seemed to be breezing. Doc and I looked at each other and almost simultaneously asked Capuano if he did that every day.

“Every day, just like that,” Capuano said matter-of-factly. Capuano added that the colt galloped a full mile before his breezes, “just to take the edge off him.”

After we left Capuano, Harthill whispered, “I haven’t seen a horse train like this for a long, long time. I am totally intrigued by him. As a matter of routine, he jogs a mile, gallops two miles and finishes up faster than a two-minute lick. First time I saw it, I thought for sure he was breezing. I don’t know a horse in training that could stand that gaff. This horse is a throwback.

“Barry, he is a man. He goes out there and trains like a locomotive, comes back and doesn’t take a deep breath or as much as a sip of water. I really like this colt.”

It was hard not to like the colt in person. I could not believe the depth of his shoulder, chest and especially his girth. He was a true monster.

Looking like idiots

As for the tendon, I asked Harthill if he had ever seen anything like this - a horse injuring a tendon before he had ever raced, never being taken out of training, running as early as July of his juvenile year and racing at the highest level.  

“No, I haven’t,” said Harthill. “I have seen horses heal and go on and do things like this, but never one that was kept in full training and went on to heal.”

I came to the conclusion that whatever tendon damage occurred could not have been related to stress but to an external blow. Otherwise the whole thing didn’t make any sense. It defied logic.

Having all but made up my mind to buy the colt, I asked Dr Harthill if, among horsemen, I would look like an idiot.

“Yes, yes you would,” he said. After a pause he added, “But so will I.”

Dr Harthill dictated a filed a vet report that, in part, read as follows:

“At your request, I traveled to Hialeah to meet the most challenging pre-purchase evaluation in 50 years of veterinary equine practice.

“The clinical appearance of the left fore superficial flexor tendon is rather unsightly from two different angles. At other angles it is hard to see at all. On palpation, it is void of inflammation and without pain from mashing on it.

“Ultra-sonic picture revealed two old lesions - one medical and one lateral - that are rapidly filling in with healthy fibers. I personally went to the track on two consecutive days and observed a strenuous exercise program. On each occasion, he grew stronger at the end of his two-mile gallops. I check him an hour after exercise each day. The conformation and integrity of the tendon never changed.

“We all know how fragile horses are and some misfortune can come at any time, but I sincerely believe that this horse is as sound as almost any horse I have seen. In spite of the way his tendon looks.”

The Pope had blessed him. Say hallelujah.

The Captain and two fantastic Triple Crown races

The judgment of Barry Irwin and Dr. Harthill proved spot on. Indeed, the purchase of Captain Bodgit was described in The Blood-Horse as the “best buy of 1997”.

In an astonishing ten weeks in 1997, Captain Bodgit won the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial and was narrowly beaten in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

He started favorite for the Derby, in which he was beaten a head by Silver Charm after a mighty stretch duel (see YouTube video above). He was then made favorite to get his revenge in the Preakness but was just touched off by Silver Charm and Free House after closing from way back in a contest Blood-Horse readers voted Race of the 90s (all three were given Beyer figures of 118 - YouTube video above).

The Captain was found to have a tendon swelling two days after the Preakness and was retired to stud.

Irwin says in his book at the end of the section on the horse:

“We have never owned a horse quite like Captain Bodgit before or since. The depth of his body was matched only by the depth of his courage. He was not the prettiest mover we ever campaigned, but he got more out of his God-given tools than any horse we have ever owned.”

*Derby Innovator: The Making of Animal Kingdom is published by Xlibris and is available at Amazon and other booksellers.

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