Favorite Trick: Special Racehorse, Remarkable Season

It’s a rare occurrence when a 2-year-old manages to earn the Horse of the Year title at the Eclipse Awards, but then again, it’s not every day that a 2-year-old as talented and dominant as Favorite Trick emerges on the scene.

Born in 1995, Favorite Trick’s heritage suggested he was cut out to be a sprinter. After all, his sire (father), dam (mother), grandsire, and grandam all were accomplished sprinters, particularly his sire, Phone Trick, who had gone 9-for-10 in his career while winning three Grade 2 sprints. Furthermore, three of Favorite Trick’s older siblings were sprinters. Perhaps because of his relatively unfashionable pedigree, Favorite Trick sold for just $32,000 at the 1996 Keeneland September yearling sale (well below the sale-topping price of $1.4 million) and for just $100,000 as a 2-year-old when sold to owner Joseph LaCombe the following February.

But pedigree isn’t everything, and Favorite Trick was destined to rise above his relatively humble beginnings. His pedigree filled with sprinter speed may have been responsible for Favorite Trick’s early maturity and brilliance, but the truth of the matter is that Favorite Trick — though very fast — was much more than just a sprinter.

Under the care of the up-and-coming trainer Patrick Byrne, Favorite Trick showed talent right from the start and won his debut at Keeneland on April 25, 1997, leaving eight rivals behind to win by an easy 1 ½ lengths under Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day. That promising debut was followed by three straight stakes wins at Churchill Downs, including an impressive 4 ½-length romp in the Grade 3 Bashford Manor Stakes that stamped Favorite Trick as clearly the best 2-year-old in Kentucky.

After that, it was off to Saratoga, where Favorite Trick took on some of the best young horses in New York and beat them decisively in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes and the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes. A 6-for-6 record was impressive, but Favorite Trick had never run beyond seven-eighths of a mile and needed to prove that he was more than just a sprinter … which he did when returning to Keeneland and winning the Grade 2 Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity going 1 1/16 miles by three lengths with a sharp rally from just off the pace.

The logical conclusion to the season was the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Hollywood Park, which would require a cross-country trip to California. Considering the length and extent of Favorite Trick’s campaign, he could have been forgiven if he regressed a bit in the Juvenile. Instead, he seized command turning for home and drew off to win by 5 ½ lengths.

“He was just playing with the opposition,” Byrne said in the Nov. 9, 1997 edition of Bridgewater, N.J.’s The Courier-News. “And those were tough horses. There were horses in there that weren’t just coming off maiden wins.”

Having completed an unbeaten 8-for-8 season, Favorite Trick was a shoo-in to be voted champion 2-year-old male at the Eclipse Awards, but he was also gaining support for Horse of the Year honors. In a year that lacked a standout among older horses, Favorite Trick’s clear-cut superiority over his rivals was appealing and even reminiscent of the great Secretariat, the only previous 2-year-old to win Horse of the Year at the Eclipse Awards.

Turf writer Jennie Rees, discussing the subject in the Courier-Journal, made a case for Favorite Trick to be named Horse of the Year and noted that racing fans in the area strongly agreed. Sure enough, when the votes were counted, Favorite Trick was a clear choice for the honor, winning the title over Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Skip Away.

Thereafter, Favorite Trick’s career was a story of ups and downs. Patrick Byrne soon gave up his public stable to work as a private trainer for owner Frank Stronach, and Favorite Trick was turned over to trainer Bill Mott, best known for his work with two-time Horse of the Year Cigar.

Favorite Trick opened his 1998 season with an easy win in the Grade 3 Swale Stakes sprinting seven-eighths of a mile, but suffered a shocking defeat when finishing third by a neck in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, his longest race to date at 1 1/8 miles.

Once again, concerns about Favorite Trick’s pedigree rose to the forefront, especially with the stiff test of the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby rapidly approaching. Even Mott had wondered whether Favorite Trick could run that far; in an article by Neil Milbert in the May 2, 1998 edition of the Chicago Tribune, Mott said: “When Favorite Trick won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, I thought, ‘He might win everything up to the Derby, but I question the distance factor.’ You have to be around him to appreciate him. He has given me more confidence that he can get the mile and a quarter.”

In the end, there wouldn’t be a clear answer, for Favorite Trick never seriously threatened in the Derby and finished a distant eighth in a performance that was difficult to blame on a simple lack of stamina. Given a short break from racing, he rebounded during the summer to win the Long Branch Breeders’ Cup Stakes and the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes in narrow fashion (the latter race at 1 1/8 miles) before a troubled trip compromised his chances and led to a fifth-place finish in the Grade 2 King’s Bishop Stakes, the only sprint race he would ever lose.

But Favorite Trick was full of surprises, and when Bill Mott concluded that Favorite Trick’s best distance was probably around a mile, he entered the colt in the one-mile Grade 2 Keeneland Breeders’ Cup Mile Stakes on the turf course at Keeneland.

“Without question, I feel like he’s not a six-furlong specialist, and a mile and a quarter isn’t his bag, either,” Mott said in an Oct. 18, 1998, story by Jennie Rees in the Courier-Journal. “We thought just try the grass and see how he liked it.”

Apparently, Favorite Trick liked it very well, as he led from start to finish to win by 3 ½ lengths.

“That’s the best he’s felt since Breeders’ Cup last year,” said jockey Pat Day in the Courier-Journal. “He looked dynamite. … Three jumps away from there he threw his ears up and went into a big gallop. I mean, he was just tip-toeing over the grass, just happy and getting over the ground so nice.”

Favorite Trick couldn’t replicate the effort in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile, in which he battled for the lead before tiring to finish eighth, but while his unbeatable aura was gone, he had proven himself to be a versatile, talented horse, and much more than just a sprinter.

At stud, Favorite Trick wasn’t quite as accomplished as he was on the racetrack, but he achieved some success as a stallion in New Mexico before he was sadly lost in a barn fire in June 2006.

In the 20 years since Favorite Trick’s unbeaten juvenile season, no other 2-year-old has won Horse of the Year honors at the Eclipse Awards. It takes a special horse to pull off that feat, and there’s no doubt that Favorite Trick was special.

Fun Facts

  • Favorite Trick retired with a record of 12 wins and a third from 16 starts, with earnings of $1,726,793.
  • Among Favorite Trick’s most successful runners were the stakes winners Yucatan, Sum Trick, Tricky R., and Tight Spin.
  • Favorite Trick was the leading New Mexico-based sire of 2006.
  • Favorite Trick was favored to win in all but three of his races and never went off at odds higher than 7-1.