Friday, April 24, 2015

Arazi, portrait of a champion

As a lifelong horse racing enthusiast, I was thrilled when I was commissioned to paint a portrait model of Arazi, the 1991 Breeders Cup Juvenile winner. Arazi was inconsistent but brilliant, and few BC Juvenile winners have sparked so much hype leading up to the Kentucky Derby.

Foaled in 1989 into a crop that included the likes of A. P. Indy, Bertrando, Pine Bluff, Devil His Due, and Dr. Devious, Arazi was as regally bred as they come. The small chestnut colt with the crooked blaze was by French champion and top sire Blushing Groom out of a G3-placed daughter of Northern Dancer. Arazi was born in the heart of the Kentucky bluegrass, and like so many youngsters, he was sold as a weanling at Keeneland. Allen Paulson, who later owned the great Cigar and Azeri, purchased him for $350,000 and sent him to France to train, a logical move given Arazi's pedigree. Paulson, a longtime pilot as well as the CEO of Gulfstream Aerospace, frequently named his horses for aeronautical navigational checkpoints. "Arazi" is just such a point for aircraft enroute to Yuma, Arizona.

As a two year-old in France, Arazi began his career with a second place finish at Chantilly, but that would be his only loss for nearly a year. He put together a string of 6 victories including the G1 Prix Morny at Deauville and the G1 Prix de la Salamandre and G1 Grand Criterium at Longchamp, earning him the title of Champion 2 Year-Old in France as well as the Cartier Award for best 2 year-old in Europe.

Paulsen then daringly shipped the colt to Churchill Downs for the 1991 Breeders Cup Juvenile. Sent off as the slight favorite over Bertrando, the impressive winner of the prestigious Norfolk Stakes, Arazi broke from the far outside post and trailed most of the field through the first turn and down the backstretch. Entering the second turn, Arazi suddenly unleashed an incredible turn of foot that still gives me chills no matter how many times I watch it. Weaving through traffic and passing horses with ease, Arazi caught the leader Bertrando before they reached the top of the stretch and, as Tom Durkin said in astonishment as he called the race, "ran right by him!" He blew the turn and entered the stretch wide, still running on his left lead, but it made no difference. He won by daylight in what is one of the most impressive Breeders Cup wins of all time.

Photo by Racing Post
Footage of Arazi's astonishing performance is available here. The race begins at about the 4 minute mark, but there is some interesting footage of Arazi winning in France leading up to the race.

Not surprisingly, Arazi was named champion 2 year-old in the United States as well. He wintered in France and had minor surgery to remove chips from his knees. As a European-based horse, he was prepped for the Kentucky Derby as most trainers would do so for the Epsom or French Derby---to wit, with only one prep. He won said prep, a one mile Listed race, with Steve Cauthen (of Affirmed fame) in the irons. He won as he pleased by 5 lengths, but his time was absurdly slow. It was little more than a paid workout. Nonetheless, the hype surrounding Arazi in the weeks leading up to the Derby suggested he was practically invincible. Many were already speculating about the Triple Crown before he had even competed for the first jewel.

That said, any student of Kentucky Derby history can tell you that a schedule consisting of one prep in six months simply doesn't work for a race like the Kentucky Derby. And yet Arazi made a huge move again on the far turn, looking for all the world like he really was the second coming of Secretariat. He was absolutely flying, gaining with every stride, and he nearly made the lead. But as they straightened for home, the game little chestnut flattened out, and though he battled on willingly, he faded and could only finish eighth.

Arazi returned to Europe where he ran 5th at Royal Ascot before being given the summer off. In the fall, he finished 3rd in a G3 and then won a G2 before returning to the United States to contest the Breeders Cup Mile where he finished an uncharacteristic eleventh. He was retired after the race, and as a stallion, he traveled just as much as when he was racing. His stallion career began at Dalham Stud in Newmarket, England. He later moved to Three Chimneys in Kentucky, then to Japan, on to Australia, a season in Switzerland, and once again to Australia. In 2012, he was pensioned there and is happily enjoying his retirement.

Arazi had only modest success as a sire. His best known son Congaree proved to be a terrific miler, and surprisingly, Arazi's daughters have produced several top stayers including Americain (Melbourne Cup winner and champion stayer), Electrocutionist (Dubai World Cup winner), and Lahudood (champion turf mare). Interestingly, Arazi also sired a number of top steeplechasers.

My customer chose the John Henry model for the Arazi portrait, and the tack was created by Lisa Merrill of Painted Daisy Studio.

Arazi may not have lived up to the media hype his BC Juvenile win engendered, but many still wonder how he might have fared in the Derby with a proper schedule of preps. He also crossed the Atlantic no less than 6 times in the span of a year which had to take its toll. Most horses hardly even travel across the country in a given year, let alone the ocean. He is generally thought of as being "just" a talented two year-old or miler, but I can't help but think that there was more to him than we ever got to see.