Old Race Horses - Brad Rainwater / Retired Trainer Bobby Springer Passes

Old racehorses, like any aging professional athletes, are just cool. You love to see them still fully engaged in competition, get a special thrill when the old-timers beat their younger rivals.  

Fifteen-year-old Joshua G is the oldest horse to have raced in North America during 2021. He’s a steeplechaser, winless in two starts this year. Three 14-year-olds and two 13-year-olds have raced, a single third-place finish the only top three placing among them. Twelve-year-old horses are like 40-year-old humans; thirty-five in that age set have raced this year, with six winners.

Eleven-year-olds – still really old for an active racehorse. Ninety-nine of them have made a North American start this year, 33 posting wins, led by Salsa’s Return, a Pennsylvanian who has found the winner’s circle five times in nine starts this year. But Arlington’s own Mongol Bull is hot on his heels in the race for champion 11-year-old. Mongol Bull won a turf sprint during April at Hawthorne, won another one in June at Arlington, and on Thursday, he made short work of $5,000 grass-sprint claimers in the fourth race at Arlington. Mongol Bull went straight to the front and came home nearly a two-length winner under only mild encouragement. Unsurprisingly, no claims were dropped on the gelding.

“He wants to compete,” said trainer Brad Rainwater. “He’s on the lower level now, but he still wants to outrun somebody. And he knows when he wins – I can tell you that.”

Rainwater owns Mongol Bull and made an astute claim to get him – almost eight years ago. Mongol Bull debuted during the summer of 2013 at Arlington and Rainwater haltered him that November at Hawthorne. “Claimed him off the Mongolians,” he said. Yep. Mongol Bull began his career trained by Mongolian native Enebish Ganbat, who handled all the horses owned by Mongolian Stables, the racing operation of Mongolian businessman Ganbaatar Dagvadorj. “When we got him, they couldn’t train him. He wanted to throw the exercise riders, was running off all the time. I had a boy working for me at the time, Antonio Meraz [now a Chicago trainer himself], who was about the only one who could get along with him galloping. Once we could train him, he turned into a pretty good horse,” said Rainwater.

Better than pretty good, actually. A year after Rainwater claimed him, Mongol Bull finished full of run at Keeneland and came within a half length of winning the Grade 3 Woodford Stakes, beaten only by No Nay Never, a Grade 1 winner who went on to finish second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint that year and now is a successful stallion. Mongol Bull finished third during the summer of 2015 in the Grade 3 Parx Dash, then settled in through fall of 2017 as a high-level claimer and allowance runner, a very useful horse going short on turf.

“With just a little bit of luck, he could have won one of those big races,” Rainwater said. “Then he had some injuries and had kind of a rough go for a few years.”

Mongol Bull didn’t race between November 2017 and May 2019. Rainwater farms land near tiny Wayne City, IL, and keeps whatever horses he has that aren’t stabled at the track on the farm. Rainwater and his wife put Mongol Bull in small pasture beside their house and gave him access to a little run-in shed to keep him out of the weather, rehabilitating the gelding at the farm. Rainwater is a second-generation trainer, following his father, Owen, who had some talented horses during his day splitting time between farm and racetrack. Mongol Bull healed enough to return to racing and won his second start after his long layoff, but he was hapless in five subsequent starts that year and looked like he was finished. The gelding’s 2020 campaign had a couple flickers, but with two victories in four calendar years, 2017 through 2020, this sudden, 11-year-old winning streak was hard to see coming.

“This is kind of a farewell tour,” Rainwater said. “He’s a very, very smart horse, lots of personality. Everyone that knows him likes him. He’s made a name for himself as a competitor and as an individual around the barns. Probably after this summer we’ll retire him.”

Probably. And if not, a 12-year-old campaign in 2022 beckons. Mongol Bull still has the fire.

Retired trainer Bobby Springer passes

One day, someone told Bobby Springer he was talking like a racist. Springer demurred. He disliked every group of people equally, he said, favoring none over any other.

Frank “Bobby” Springer could be a difficult person, as anyone who knew him around the races could attest. Look hard enough, though, and you saw a twinkle in his eye, and who could doubt Springer’s capability as a horseman? Springer retired from training in 2016, moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2018, and died from cancer in his home there June 7, according to his nephew, former assistant, and current Chicago jockey’s agent, Ben Allen. Springer was 74.

Springer is best known in the wider racing world as the trainer of War Emblem – up to the time the colt won the Kentucky Derby in 2002. War Emblem, owned by the Reineman family, longtime clients of Springer’s and a linchpin of Chicago racing for much of the 20th century, required plenty of patience and tinkering, which Springer provided. War Emblem blossomed during his early 3-year-old season and won the Illinois Derby at Sportsman’s Park with such verve that Ahmed Salman’s The Thoroughbred Corp paid $900,000 for a 90-percent stake in the colt, deciding to go forward despite chips in the colt’s ankles. Springer’s training got War Emblem to the Triple Crown, but it was Baffert who got the glory when War Emblem won the Derby and the Preakness before stumbling at the start of the Belmont to lose any chance at a Triple Crown.

Springer, a native of Littleton, CO, was the son of a clocker, horse identifier, and exercise rider and as a young man tried to launch a career as a jockey despite being too large to stick in the trade. Springer rode rodeo for a time, galloped horses for legendary Nebraska trainers Marion Van Berg and his son, Jack Van Berg, and settled in as an assistant trainer to another Nebraska horsemen, Harvey Vanier, in Chicago. For the Vaniers, still active in Illinois racing, Springer worked about a decade before launching his own small string in 1975. He began working for Russell Reineman in 1985 and handled a host of stakes-class performers, the best of which, per Allen’s assessment, were Gracious Granny, Starry Dreamer, Pretty Gale, Lady of Peace, Cosmic Kris, Home of Stars, Dining with Stars Charming Accent, Take That Step. Mr. Importance, Jaguar City, and Berbatim.

If you paid attention to Chicago racing for the last 20 years of the 20th century and the first 15 of the 21st, you remember at least a few of those steeds. And here’s remembering Bobby Springer.