Monday, July 12, 2010

Black Tie Affair, 1986 - 2010

    
BLACK TIE AFFAIR IN HIS LATER YEARS
  
     Black Tie Affair, who died July 1 at the age of 24, was the only Chicago-based Horse of the Year in recent decades, and given the lamentable state of racing in Illinois, he might well have been the last of all time. Owned by suburban car dealer Jeff Sullivan and trained by Chicago fixture Ernie Poulos, Black Tie Affair won his last six starts—all in graded-stakes competition—to take home the award in 1991.
     A gray colt foaled in Ireland in 1986, Black Tie Affair was, in racing parlance, a “speedball” who ran every race the same way. As soon as the gate opened, he charged to the front and played “catch me if you can.”
     For the first three years of his career, Black Tie Affair made 35 starts, 16 of them at Arlington, Hawthorne, or Sportsman’s Park. As his running style seemed to dictate, he was almost invariably entered in “sprint” races of a mile or less. On November 24, 1990, Poulos tried stretching him out to a mile and a quarter in the Hawthorne Gold Cup. At odds of 8-to-1, Black Tie Affair led from gate to wire under Juvenal Diaz for his first victory at any distance longer than a mile.
     Black Tie Affair never attempted a mile and a quarter again until a year later, in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Classic. By that time, he had won five consecutive races at five different tracks—each at the distance of a mile and an eighth and each in front-running fashion. The last of these was the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington on September 14, in which Black Tie Affair splashed to victory in the slop by seven and a half lengths under Shane Sellers.
     In the Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 2 at Churchill Downs, Black Tie Affair confronted a field that included two Kentucky Derby winners, Unbridled and Strike the Gold, along with the highly regarded Twilight Agenda. Sent off at lukewarm odds of 4-to-1, he was equal to the task. Expertly ridden by Hall-of-Famer Jerry Bailey, Black Tie Affair went to the front, as usual, and never looked back.
     The Daily Racing Form official chart described the effort thusly: “Black Tie Affair, away alertly, was rated along on the lead while saving ground, held a clear advantage into the stretch and was roused to turn back Twilight Agenda in a long drive.” In layman’s terms, it means that Bailey sent Black Tie Affair to the front—or more accurately, allowed the horse to carry him to the front—and then deftly managed the pace so that the horse had enough left in the tank to withstand a challenge in the home stretch.
     Black Tie Affair’s victory was a perfect illustration of the old saying “pace makes the race.” It was also testimony to the skill of Bailey in holding him together for a mile and a quarter and of Poulos in preparing him to go that far against the best horses in the world. Black Tie Affair retired after the race and took up a lengthy career as a stallion. To date, 683 of his sons and daughters have raced, 410 have won at least once, and together they have earned $56 million. Two of them, Evening Attire and Formal Gold, have joined their dad in the ranks of Grade I winners.

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