Radiant Ruler at the Fox Stake

Radiant Ruler

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Radiant Ruler at the Fox

He was fantastic in the Fox, but can he overcome the odds in'84?

Text by Dean a Hoffman
Photos by George Smallsreed & Ed Keys

For nine years, memories of the Fox Stake have haunted trainer Jim Crane. For breeder Barry Epstein, the torment has lasted five years. But one hot summer afternoon last year a pacing colt faster than a phantom eased all of their bad memories. Radiant Ruler, a bay colt bred, raised, and sold by Epstein and tutored so carefully by Crane, triumphed in the Fox Stake in a smashing speed display. That conquest ameliorated the disappointments which still pain both Crane and Epstein. In 1974, Crane shipped his unbeaten underrated colt Nero to the Fox Stake, only to have him tranquilized before the race in a cloak-and-dagger caper which was never fully explained. In 1977, Epstein owned the pacing prodigy Sonsam who was romping unmolested to the wire in the Fox when he slammed on the brakes and made a jump every bit as inexplicable as the incident with Nero. The evening after the Fox Stake last year, Crane, Epstein, and Allen and Connie Skolnick (who own Radiant Ruler with Crane), had dinner together in Indianapolis and naturally drank a few victory toasts, wholly unaware that the roller coaster ride of horse racing would take them back to the bottom soon. Three weeks after the Fox Stake, Radiant Ruler suffered a hairline fracture of his hind cannon bone and his season was over. Finis. Some observers said it wasn't just his season that was finished, it was his career. Jim Crane has lived with that fear throughout this past winter. Planted firmly in the conservative element in the training fraternity. Crane knows that lameness can rear its ugly head at any moment and thus he has walked on eggshells this spring. The bubble can burst without warning and Jim Crane knows that all too well. But Jim Crane definitely does not believe that Radiant Ruler's career is over. He can't help but anticipate a summer of racing because he adamantly believes that Radiant Ruler is truly a gifted animal, fully capable of acquitting himself quite well, thank you, if he avoids debilitating lameness. Before we begin to project too far into the future, let's take a look back to ascertain some background on Radiant Ruler and we really must begin with Barry Epstein. "I'm the Sonsam man," the 45-year-old Epstein tells people. With good reason, too. He sent the filly Princess Sam to Albatross in 1975 and wound up being blessed with a colt the likes of which we've seldom seen. While Sonsam did drop a decision to Scarlet Skipper in the Wilson after popping a curb warming up, he swamped his rivals in virtually every other event. That's why the Fox Stake had been conceded to him before they paraded to the post. He coasted past the three quarters in 1:27.2 in the opening round, then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by jumping it off in the final hundred yards. In the following heat, Sholty stirred up Sonsam and he sizzled to a stake record mile of 1:55.2, but the trophy went to the fittingly-named Crackers on best-in-summary decision. That Sonsam had blinding speed is undeniable, but misfortune seemed to dog his hoof prints. He started only twice on a half-mile track in his life (both of those heats in the Cane Pace) and came away a loser to inferior horses on both occasions. When Sonsam was good, be was not merely very good. He was stupendous. After his 1:53.2 Meadowlands Pace victory, most horsemen were nodding in his direction when asked who would be the first horse destined to break the 1:50 barrier. Ironically, what Sonsam was destined to break was not that elusive speed standard, but a sesamoid on a front leg and his career was abruptly over. Epstein is an intense man who takes his horses very seriously. He does not have an arm's length relationship with his horses, nor are they merely a place to shelter some income. With Barry Epstein, horses are his passion. He seems to love every aspect of the racing business and he is always willing to articulate his progressive ideas. But never do his inner fires bum hotter than when the subject is Sonsam. His pride in the horse in understandable. (Wouldn't we all feel that way if we had bred and owned such a champion?) Whenever the name Sonsam is mentioned. Epstein will take to the pulpit like a preacher at a Chautauqua meeting. Even when Sonsam was terrifying his foes on the track, Epstein was looking ahead to the horse's breeding career. It was with that thought in mind that he attended the 1979 mixed sale at The Meadowlands in mid-August Just prior to the sale, Epstein had breakfast with popular insurance executive Peter Rhulen and the two men were browsing through the sale catalog as devotees of the breed are want to do. Epstein spotted a non-record Strike Out mare selling just five horses from the end and he told Rhulen, "I like this family. I'm going to try to buy this mare." Rhulen reinforced Epstein's convictions by noting that he thought that the family would "break loose with a big horse somewhere along the line. The mare in question was Full Catch, a three-year-old who was carrying a Crash foal. Billy Haughton had trained her for owner Hanley Dawson, but, like so many Strike Out fillies, she wasn't stakes caliber. Dawson had paid $18,000 for her as a yearling. "I heard that Full Catch had some ability. but that she got hurt," recalls Epstein. Full Catch went to Epstein after he had the final 120,000 bid on her. A few days later, Sonsam broke down at Roosevelt The Strike Out mare was sent to Pine Hollow in the spring of 1981 where she foaled a Crash colt who died after about 30 days. She was bred to Sonsam and caught to his cover, delivering a robust colt on March 17, 1981. Although Full Catch failed to get back in foal that spring, the little fella at her side was clearly exceptional. "I can remember Dr. Gill in New York saying that this colt was one of the best he'd ever seen and that he intended to follow his career," recalls Epstein. As a yearling at Epstein's charming Avondale Farm in Lexington, farm manager Bobby Miller remembers that Radiant Ruler didn't necessarily stand out from the others in the field, but he demonstrated his individuality once the yearlings were brought up for sale preparation. "We turned him out one day and spooked him and he just exploded," said Miller. "He had a tremendous stride in the paddock. The only horse I remember having a stride that long was Ideal Society. He showed us a lot of spunk." Epstein has enjoyed a long and harmonious relationship with trainer George Sholty and he tells me that Sholty saw and liked the yearling from Full Catch early in the year. Epstein was committed to establishing Avondale Farm as a market breeder and thus Radiant Ruler went to the 1982 Tattersalls sale along with Epstein's other Sonsams. Because of the high regard horsemen had for the horse and the dearth of Sonsam yearlings, the prices paid for Sonsams in 1982 were premium. "I expected that Radiant Ruler would bring $75,000 on looks alone, but the mare wasn't the kind you expected to produce $100,000 yearlings," admits Epstein, "I thought that the colt from Kwacky Barmin (Cosmic King) would bring a lot more money." It didn't exactly take a genius to spot Radiant Ruler's striking conformation and perhaps that's why even I was able to single him out for praise. At the bottom of my catalog page from that sale, I wrote I like everything about this colt" It was at this point that Allen and Connie Skolnick and Jim Crane were about to lay claim to Radiant Ruler. Before relating that story, let's regress a decade to the 1974 Fox Stake and delve into Crane's contretemps in the '74 Fox. If there were betting in Indiana, Nero would have been the prohibitive favorite in that Fox Stake, but he never got a chance to display his majestic gait and awesome ability. Prior to the race, a person or persons unknown grabbed the colt through the outside window of his stall at the state fairgrounds and hit him with a massive dose of tranquilizer. Crane still seethes when recalling the incident. "How Nero kept from dying, I don't know," says Crane. "He warmed up, but there was something wrong. Nineteen gallons of fluid were pumped into him from 12:30 on the afternoon of the Fox Stake until 4 o'clock the next morning."

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