The use of designated pacesetters, or “rabbits,” in horse racing has a long history. It’s been part of the Sport of Kings for a long time. It reminds me of the line from the movie “Days of Thunder” with Tom Cruise and Michael Rooker: “That’s rubbin, rubbin’s racing.”
Rabbits are a part of racing. They were used much more frequently in the US in the past, but their use does have some consistency and repetitiveness here. In other countries, they are used even more frequently.
I believe the term “rabbit” stems from dog racing, where greyhounds chase a mechanical rabbit they will never catch around the track. If the phrase comes from someplace else, I’m not aware of it (nor was I inclined to research it). The meaning of what a rabbit in horse racing is… well, that’s far more significant.
The purpose of a rabbit is to ensure a fast pace and create a little havoc and turmoil among the early leaders of a race, in hopes of setting it up for a closer, or a horse dependent on a fast pace, to launch a winning rally. Usually, the rabbit is from the same barn as the closer they are trying to assist.
Keep one thing in mind, though: regardless of whether a rabbit is used or not, the outcome or success of the rabbit is far from a guarantee. Obviously, enough have worked to keep them around a long time. Many have also failed. You know the old saying: “a million ways to lose a race but only one to win.”
One epic failure was in the Ballston Spa at Saratoga this year. The race marked the incredible story of the comeback of the great Lady Eli from double laminitis. We wrote about that amazing comeback and its historical significance on our sport right here at US Racing.
Taking absolutely nothing away from Lady Eli, Chad Brown, Irad Ortiz and the rest of her team, she ran remarkably well. Getting to the gate following a disease that is usually fatal in one hoof, let alone two, was a tremendous accomplishment and achievement in our sport. If not for the rabbit, however, we may — and likely would — have gotten the story book comeback race the game, her team, and, most importantly, she deserved. It was not too be, however. Bugs Bunny showed up at the Spa this year and, in the Ballston Spa, it backfired.
Chad Brown, who has such a powerful stable he often has more than one runner in grass stakes, did, in fact, have two in the Ballston Spa. It’s logical that he wanted to ensure a legitimate pace for Lady Eli. So much went into getting her back, you know they wanted to win, and took every shot to make it happen.
She deserved nothing less.
It’s hard to argue that Sympathy was a legitimate contender in the race, as she went to post at 74-1. The proof she was entered as a rabbit was how she ran.
We are all familiar with the ongoing complaints about New York grass races having no pace. Well, the Ballston Spa had pace and plenty of it. Sympathy, normally an off-the-pace runner, set fractions under Aaron Gryder of :22-2/5, :45-2/5 and 1:09 flat before falling apart like a soup sandwich and finishing last.
With suicide splits like that in a 1 1/16-mile turf race, her collapse was hardly a surprise. Neither was Irad moving Lady Eli when he did and reaching contention on the outside turning for home. The stage was set — she was coming on the outside… but there was a catch. Sympathy went so fast, and Lady Eli was close enough to those killer fractions and moved into that fast pace, that it took a toll on her too. Although she passed all the other classy gals in the field, she could not hold off the late surge of deep closer Strike Charmer, who came from dead last, exactly where you would have wanted to be given the circumstances.
Strike Charmer got up late at 27-1 and the great Lady Eli put in a monumental effort to get the place as opposed to the win.
Slow that rabbit down, or bar Bugs Bunny from the grounds on Travers Day and, make no mistake about it, Lady Eli is back a winner. She didn’t need a rabbit and it worked against her.
The most famous rabbit of all was probably Hedevar.
His speed was sacrificed to compromise the chances of arguably one of, if not the fastest racehorse of all time, the great Dr. Fager. The good Dr. should need no introduction, but, if you haven’t heard of him, let’s just say he was fast.
Very, very, fast.
He’s also the only horse to ever win four titles in one year, when, in 1968, he was named Horse of the Year, Champion Handicap Horse, Champion Sprinter and Champion Grass Horse. He could run and he didn’t collapse like a soup sandwich. Dr. Fager and Damascus, who was also great, had quite a rivalry. They went at it four times. Each one took two. The two races Damascus won were aided by the rabbit Hedevar. When Hedevar stayed in the barn, Damascus couldn’t beat the good Dr.
The inaugural Breeders’ Cup Classic saw Mugatea go as a rabbit for Slew O’ Gold. It didn’t work. That might be more because Slew O’ Gold was not quite at his best for the race, nursing a quarter crack, as opposed to Bugs Bunny not doing his job. Factor in that Mugatea was not really fast enough to hurt Wild Again, who was nursed along by those soft, cool hands of Pat day, who always had a little more horse than you thought he did.
Richard Dutrow tag-teamed Commentator with two claiming horses used as rabbits, Show Boot and Crafty Player, to win the 2005 Woodward, then run at Belmont Park. A few weeks earlier, Commentator narrowly held off Saint Liam to win the Whitney in wire to wire fashion. Dutrow was getting Saint Liam ready for his Breeders’ Cup Classic win later that year and he wanted to make sure Commentator didn’t wire him again. Saint Liam won The Woodward with the rabbits, and the Classic without them.
Even legendary Citation, another all-time great, had a rabbit, and his was the champion Coaltown. Buckpasser had four rabbits — Impressive, Stupendous, Great Power and Poker.
Rabbits are within the rules, and the bottom line is they don’t guarantee a win.
The biggest recent rabbit controversy occurred at Saratoga during this year’s Sword Dancer. Inordinate was entered as a rabbit for Flintshire, who likely didn’t need one. Inordinate was there though, and the Equibase charts notes that he was “rushing up under urging, advanced to perform his assigned task as a rabbit.” The long and short of it is Aaron Gryder, who rode Inordinate, made room for Flintshire on the rail. Noteworthy is Flintshire had to overcome a “lack of room wide trip” to win his prior race. He just got up in that one, but it was really never in doubt.
In the Sword Dancer, Gryder opened the rail, Flintshire shot through and won easily. Roman Approval, trained by Mike Maker, finished sixth, a half-length behind the rabbit Inordinate, who was fifth. Maker claimed foul, but his rider didn’t and the chatter by Roman Approval’s owner was that jockey Florent Geroux rides a lot for trainer Chad Brown, a powerhouse stable, and had a conflict.
The stewards let the result stand, ruling that when Gryder looked back at Flintshire and moved out, brushing Roman Approval, it did not cost Roman Approval a placing. The ruling has been appealed and there is a $10,000 difference in the fifth and sixth placings at stake. This is a rare time in life where it truly is more about the principle than the money.
My take: Rabbits are allowed and part of the game. Fouls aren’t. If the foul was judged independently of the rabbit role, so be it. If not, that’s another story. Take a look at the chart and the replay and you be the judge. Either way, you are likely to see Bugs Bunny at the races again in the future.