Athletes amaze fans with remarkable feats beyond imagination, which is a huge part of the allure of sports. Thoroughbred racehorses remind us frequently that on any given day you never know what you might witness at the racetrack.
Da Hoss in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile serves as a perfect example as his incredible comeback from myriad injuries was capped by a gritty win over Hawksley Hill that left awestruck those in attendance, fans watching at home, and even racecaller Tom Durkin.
Make no mistake, the story of Da Hoss is not that of a typical underdog racehorse overlooked or undervalued. Da Hoss was damn good from the first time he stepped on a racetrack, opening his career with three straight open-length victories as a 2-year-old for trainer Michael Dickinson. The Gone West gelding made it four straight with a three-length win in the Grade 3 Best Turn Stakes in March 1995. In his next seven races, he started four times on dirt and three times on grass for Dickinson, winning each of the turf races and running second in four graded stakes on dirt. But after a 13th-place finish in the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, the only unplaced finish of his 20-race career, Da Hoss became a full-time turf horse.
Da Hoss ran third in his 1996 debut before posting consecutive stakes wins followed by a runner-up finish by a head leading into the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Woodbine, where he would deliver a career-best performance. He stalked the pace from third under Gary Stevens, who was given a map Dickinson created outlining the ideal ground he wanted for Da Hoss on the Woodbine turf, and surged clear in the stretch to win by 1 ½ lengths.
But for as talented as Da Hoss had been through 18 races, he had overcome numerous physical ailments to get to his 10 wins.
“His problems started with an infection in a foot when he was a foal and he had part of the coffin bone cut away. Then as a yearling he had two bone spurs which led to arthritis in his hocks,” Dickinson told BloodHorse.
Stabled at Dickinson’s Tapeta Farm, which the trainer owns and operates with longtime partner Joan Wakefield, Da Hoss could not get right in 1997.
“In February last year, it was a tendon, and in June fetlocks,” said Dickinson, who subsequently invented the Tapeta Footings all-weather surface now used at Golden Gate Fields and Woodbine, among other tracks. “He went lame behind in September – he hadn’t been lame before – so we rested him until December.”
Then, in spring 1998 when he was nearing a return, Da Hoss was sidetracked yet again.
“This spring he was within two breezes of a race when he became still and pulled out badly,” Dickinson told BloodHorse. “I said to the crew, ‘We can’t carry on with him’ and his groom, Miguel Pedra … started crying. Jon-boy [Ferriday], the horse’s exercise rider, started crying, and so did Joan. We were all crying.”
Dickinson took his time with Da Hoss, giving him a month of walking and a month of jogging, slowly bringing him back to racing shape. After more than 23 months on the sidelines, Da Hoss was nearing a return, but again fate intervened as two races that looked like ideal spots were rained off the grass and Dickinson instead sent him to Colonial Downs Oct. 11, 1998, for a $30,000 allowance race that he won by three-quarters of a length.
With only an allowance race to his credit in the 24 months since his 1996 Breeders’ Cup Mile win, Da Hoss was first on the also-eligible list when the Breeders’ Cup selection committee chose the field for the 1998 Mile. He got into the field when Wild Rush opted for the Sprint, and Dickinson and his crew had Da Hoss ready.
The trainer who had earned a reputation as a “genius” for training the first five home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup and for winning 12 races with 21 runners on a single day would add another remarkable accomplishment to his résumé.
Sent off at 11.60-1 odds, Da Hoss tracked a solid pace under John Velazquez from midpack. Velazquez angled Da Hoss wide on the turn for clear running room and he advanced menacingly before seizing command with an eighth of a mile to go, but alas it would not be that easy. Hawksley Hill closed from last of 14 and pushed a head in front in the final sixteenth of a mile, but Da Hoss would not be denied on that day – he had overcome too much – and fought back resolutely on the inside to regain the advantage at the finish line. After one of the best stretch drives in Breeders’ Cup history, racecaller Tom Durkin called the win by Da Hoss, “the greatest comeback since Lazarus … he had one race in two years!”
Far from the typical underdog story, Da Hoss was so much more.