FOUNDED ON SOLID GROUND
Maybe it’s because my upcoming citizenship test requires me to learn more about the founding fathers or maybe it is simply my own personal curiosity but the upcoming 49th Riley Allison Futurity at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino gives me pause to reflect on the history of this 2-Y-O classic. Named after the founder, builder and president of the racetrack, Riley Allison, the Futurity, at one time held in May, just sneaks in before the close of the calendar year on Friday, December 30.
If this story rings a bell for Washington State, it is because fans could easily substitute the name of Riley Allison with that of Joe Gottstein, a man of remarkably similar influence in the establishment of Longacres racecourse who continues to be remembered through the Gottstein Futurity - originally known as the Washington Futurity - that is run at Emerald Downs each September.
Veteran race-trackers may argue that Futurities in general were in their hey-day some thirty years ago when winners appeared to have more national significance. Throughout the 1980s, both the more established Gottstein Futurity, coming up to its 75th edition next season and its south-western counterpart, the Riley Allison, first run in 1953, had their share of big named winners that would springboard to prominence outside of their own states.
Bold Ego, the 1980 Riley Allison Futurity winner, arguably the fastest-ever New Mexico-bred, stamped himself as equal to the very best by placing second as a 3-Y-O in the 1981 Preakness Stakes to the mighty Pleasant Colony.
Belle of Rainier toppled WA great Chinook Pass en route to her 1981 Gottstein Futurity success over the boys. The 1982 WA Horse of the Year added five out-of-state stakes wins, three at Bay Meadows and two across the border in Canada, to her nine local ones.
In 1983, Triple Sec parlayed his Riley Allison win into multiple stakes successes in Louisiana and the 1987 Gottstein Futurity winner, Saratoga Passage would triumph later that year in the Grade One Norfolk Stakes on dirt and in the Grade One 1989 Eddie Read Handicap on the turf.
But why settle for record books when we can go back even further with the one man in our midst who perfectly tied these two classic races together? Hall of Fame trainer, Jim Penney was able to enjoy the best of both worlds when Pataha Prince landed the rare double, winning both the 1967 Washington Futurity at Longacres and the Riley Allison Futurity at Sunland Park that same year. It was a story Jim fondly recalled at this season’s WA Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony that welcomed Pataha Prince into its prestigious ranks.
In a twist of fate, the Penney barn captured its first Longacres Mile victory at the expense of Pataha Prince who had been claimed from Jim earlier that summer, at the age of eight, by the late Bobby Frankel. Veteran star Pataha Prince, led the 1973 Mile field until late but was unable to hold off Silver Mallet, the first of five Mile successes for the legendary trainer.
Half a century on and understandably, the face of the industry has changed remarkably, especially for Washingtonians who are now coming up on 20 years since the closure of Longacres. There are now as many roads to the Kentucky Derby each year as chances in the race, with the old-school belief that a true contender needs a solid 2-Y-O foundation brought more and more into question. Despite altered financial landscapes, the Futurities remain a logical step on the advancing path to 3-Y-O maturity. Until as recent as five years ago, there were trials for the Riley Allison Futurity, a race whose prize purse peaked in 1985 at $339,705.
The 1990s proved very tough on both Washington and New Mexico racing circuits. Fortunately the establishment of Emerald Downs has been a saving grace to Washington fans and continues to build on the state’s great racing tradition. Gottstein Futurity winner Smarty Deb (2007) went on to finish a gutsy fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and subsequent champion Gallant Son (2008), not disgraced in his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile bid, went on to stakes wins in Southern California in the Pasadena at Santa Anita as a 3-Y-O and the Inglewood at Hollywood Park as a 4-Y-O.
The new millennium marked the resurgence of New Mexico Racing that rapidly raised purse-money and lured promising shippers from leading barns nation-wide. It is no coincidence that trainer Steve Asmussen has walked away with the Riley Allison Futurity the last three years and local top trainer Henry Dominguez two of the prior three. Both stables will be represented again this season. Of recent winners that went on to tackle the Borderland Derby, it was 2005 victor, Disappearing Trick that fared the best with a close third.
Unlike the mile and sixteenth of the Gottstein Futurity that is the next logical step for the youngsters after the WTBA Lads, the six and one half furlongs of the Riley Allison Futurity is the first step before the Borderland Derby in February and then possibly the Sunland Derby in March. The two state calendars differ widely in their structure, one with a futurity coming at the end of a local season with implications for the Breeders Cup, the other at the start with implications for the Triple Crown.
Despite their differences, it appears no coincidence that in each case, its visionary founders put their name to a race that is all about developing stars of the future. The Gottstein Futurity and Riley Allison may not yet be back to their glory days but both have remained valued as integral to the racing programs and garnered talent bred both locally and out of state. And while these races deserve special protection in respect of the individuals they honor, even more essential is the pioneering spirit that they represent.
We are reminded not only of what came before us but of our responsibility to the founders to now make a difference ourselves. The introduction of WA Cup Day at Emerald Downs and the birth of the Grade 3 Sunland Derby at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino are fine examples of new traditions that have formed even in this complex internet and simulcast era. Up or down times, risk and growth remain part and parcel of what racing programs must do. The Gottstein Futurity and the Riley Allison Futurity were once young too.
- Robert Geller