By Jeff Nations
About this time last year, horse racing fans in the Shenandoah Valley had more than the usual rooting interest in the annual Triple Crown spectacle.
Heading into last May's Kentucky Derby, Virginia-bred Bodemeister had all the trappings of a true Triple Crown contender -- amazing enough for a state bred, even more thrilling considering the then 3-year-old had been bred at Clarke County's historic Audley Farm. It was a dream pairing, as it turned out, of Audley Farm's Grade 3-winning mare Untouched Talent with 2004 Preakness winner Empire Maker, with the impressive Bodemeister the result.
Unraced as a 2-year-old, Bodemeister delivered a flashy 9 ¼-length victory in a maiden special weight at Santa Anita, and was soon on the fast track.
Under legendary trainer Bob Baffert, the bay colt unveiled dazzling speed in a 9 ½-length romp to win the Arkansas Derby (Grade 1). That dazzling performance had the entire horse racing industry abuzz, and the fans caught on soon enough as Bodemeister entered the 138th Kentucky Derby as the solid favorite.
He looked every bit the favorite, too, rocketing out of the starting gate at Churchill Downs to surge to the front. Under jockey Mike Smith, Bodemeister was blazing through the first half-mile, clocking a nearly unheard-of :45.39 -- too fast, as it turned out.
The 4-1 favorite battled on in his Run for the Roses moment, but inevitably weakened enough to allow 15-1 longshot I'll Have Another catch him down the stretch for a 1 ½-length victory.
The Derby's mile-and-a-quarter distance might have done in the fleet-footed Bodemeister, but surely the shorter Preakness at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course -- the second leg of the Triple Crown, and shortest at a mile-and-three-sixteenths -- was more suited to the bay colt's determined front-running style. The odds-makers thought so, installing Bodemeister once more as the favorite despite I'll Have Another's comeback victory in Louisville, Ky.
The Preakness played out in similar fashion -- Bodemeister and Smith surged to the front, this time with a bit more reserve, while jockey Mario Gutierrez kept I'll Have Another within striking range. Like the Derby, it was a two-horse race down the stretch, again with Bodemeister leading and I'll Have Another gaining. Once more, Bodemeister came up just short as I'll Have Another nosed ahead to win by a neck.
On to part three, the Belmont Stakes -- or not. Shortly after the Preakness, Baffert announced that Bodemeister would not run in the final leg of the Triple Crown, seemingly leaving history for the taking to his biggest rival. I'll Have Another had his own issues, of course, scratching before the Belmont to bring the Triple Crown chase to an anti-climatic end.
I'll Have Another hasn't raced since, and won't -- he was retired to stud shortly following his disappointing scratch from the Belmont.
And what of Bodemeister, whose meteoric rise to fame and near-glory ended after just six races? He's retired, too, and that seems to suit the now 4-year-old just fine.
Last August, Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat announced a shoulder injury to Bodemeister had prompted the decision to retire him from racing. Now located at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky., Bodemeister has taken to his new life of mostly leisure.
"He's better than normal," said Chance Timm, the Stallion Season Sales coordinator for WinStar. "He's settled in quite comfortably to his new life."
Timm said he sees Bodemeister every day, and the still youthful horse seems to enjoy life on the farm.
Bodemeister entered his first year at stud in 2012, and Timm said he's been booked solid even with a $30,000 stud fee.
"He's doing great," Timm said. "He's been booked full since the beginning of the year."
It seems that even with his abbreviated racing career, Bodemeister still made quite an impact on the racing industry. And as his first crops start to hit the race track in the coming years, that impact could be even greater.
"For a first-year horse, it's a bit unusual, the fact that he's booked up that quick," Timm said. "He's a very exciting racehorse, and a lot of people followed him."
Just think, within just a few years racing fans could well get the opportunity to see Bodemeister's sons -- or daughters -- make their own Triple Crown run. Now that's something to get excited about.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>