With little more than a quarter mile remaining in the $82,575 Remsen stakes last Saturday, a 2-year-old named Royal Ski was in about as much trouble as a horse can get himself into without actually falling down. He was trapped in what racetrackers call "a large box," with four horses in front of him fighting for the lead and another directly alongside. Putting the thing in perspective, Ski was skiing uphill.
"I looked and couldn't find him," said his trainer, 29-year-old John (Butch) Lenzini. "It went through my head that we had done every darned thing wrong. We put Royal Ski in the Remsen so he would have a chance to be recognized as the top 2-year-old in the country. He certainly deserved the shot because he had won four stakes at four different racetracks, and in eight lifetime races had never run over the same track twice. But when I looked up the track and saw the mess he was in, I thought, 'Dammit, Ski, we've done wrong by you. We ran you in one race too many.' Then I saw him start to roll."
At the top of the Aqueduct stretch, Jockey Jack Kurtz detected a small crevice and shoved Royal Ski through it. Ski was suddenly three horses wide but moving up on the front-runners. A sixteenth of a mile from the wire Royal Ski's head was nodding in tandem with theirs, and then he went by them as if they had been nailed to the ground, winning by 1¾ lengths in the nation's only major 2-year-old race contested at a distance as long as 1‚⅛ miles. Naturally, Royal Ski's entourage began jumping up and down and kissing folks nearby before rushing off to the winner's circle.
But the owner of Royal Ski did no such thing. At the time his horse was making his big move, Gerry Cheevers was starting to awaken from a nap in room 907 of the Sutton Place Hotel in Toronto. Later on he got a phone call giving him the good news. "Won, eh?" he said "I'm supposed to be a cool kind of a guy, but I'm really excited. The thing is that my real job starts in a couple of hours. Nothing can interfere with that. First things must come first."
Cheevers is a goalie for the Boston Bruins, and his major concerns these days are not popped osselets, rundown bandages or blinkers, but screen shots, breakaways and clearing pucks. His Bruins, who have the best record in the NHL, are aiming at reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 10th year in a row. Cheevers may have the right perspective about Royal Ski, but his teammates tend to go overboard. "Horseracing," said Left-winger Wayne Cashman after hearing of the latest win, "has the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys and the Cheeverses."
At this early stage of his career, Royal Ski is already one of racing's better bargains. Cheevers bought the son of Raja Baba-Coz O'Nijinsky for $20,500 at Keeneland's 1975 fall yearling sales. He admired the sire, a son of Bold Ruler, and the dam, an unraced mare who is a cousin of Nijinsky II, the famed European champion of 1969-70. The Keeneland sales that year had 109 yearlings who fetched more than Royal Ski, though Cheevers was ready to go to $30,000 to get him. By winning the Remsen, Ski's earnings jumped to $309,704, making him the top money-winning 2-year-old of 1976 and one of the early favorites for next spring's Triple Crown races. Offers to syndicate Royal Ski have already started to surface, and the colt is now probably worth at least $1 million.
Ski runs beneath an odd-looking purple-and-gold set of silks, the colors of the Cleveland Crusaders, a now defunct WHA team that Cheevers played for before returning to the Bruins last season. For some reason, Cheevers still considers purple and gold a lucky combination. Royal Ski also has a habit of casting himself in his stall, which in horse parlance means getting himself in a position from which he cannot rise. Against this, his stall has been padded to keep the colt from injuring himself.
What currently interests Cheevers most about Ski's future has to do with a green piece of paper that folds out like a road map and says OFFICIAL BALLOT—ECLIPSE AWARDS 1976. The ballot contains 11 categories to be voted upon by members of the National Turf Writers Association, Daily Racing Form staff and members of the Thoroughbred Racing Association. The first category on the ballot is for top "2-year-old colt or gelding," a credential highly prized by horsemen. Royal Ski may not get it because the ballots were sent out a few weeks ago, and many of them were probably marked and mailed in before the running of the Remsen.
Should that be the case, the results will surely cause a controversy. Early voters probably gave the nod either to Seattle Slew, who won the Champagne Stakes in October by nearly 10 lengths, or Run Dusty Run, like Ski a four-time stakes winner. Seattle Slew ran only three times this year, however. The Champagne was his only stakes appearance, and his other two races were over the same track, Belmont Park. Run Dusty Run beat Royal Ski in the Arlington-Washington Futurity on Sept. 25, but neither Slew nor Run Dusty Run has raced farther than a mile, while Royal Ski has gone better than a mile in three stakes and won each time.
If Royal Ski does not win an Eclipse, the loudest cries of anguish will probably come from New England, where Ski is becoming a legend partly because of Cheevers' position as Bruin goalie. Although Ski was bred in Kentucky and is stabled in Maryland, he won his first stake at Suffolk Downs in July, beating nine other starters in the Mayflower Stakes. It is rare for a good runner to come out of New England. In fact, horse-players have suggested that the last good New England horse was the one under Paul Revere.
Athletes have dabbled in thoroughbred racing in the past, but most have had little success. Whitey Ford tried it, as have Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Al Kaline, Richie Allen and Jim Kaat. When Cheevers started buying horses four years ago, however, the racing business was getting no maiden. "I walked hots and worked on the backstretch at Ft. Erie when I was a young hockey player," says Cheevers. "I'd do it during the off-season and it was good work. The pay was only $50 a week, but I got to know horses and started to understand them. Later I worked selling mutuel tickets and then got a job in the publicity department of the Ontario Jockey Club."
Today, Cheevers owns some 20 horses trained in Maryland by Lenzini and his father. A few years back an outfit called the Four and Thirty Stable showed up on the tracks. It was named for Bobby Orr (uniform No. 4) and Cheevers (No. 30). The two had fun, but made little money. Cheevers and Orr are still friends, and when it came time to submit names for two of his yearlings to The Jockey Club for registration earlier this year, Cheevers proposed either Royal Ski or Royal Goal for his Raja Baba colt and Score For Orr for his son of Exclusive Native. The Jockey Club selected Royal Ski. The other colt, Score For Orr, has started three times but has yet to win.
Royal Ski will be shipped to Florida for a rest before a winter campaign that hopefully will get him to the Kentucky Derby. Cheevers, meanwhile, will be thinking Stanley Cup. If the Bruins make it, he will certainly miss the first two legs of the Triple Crown, because neither Louisville nor Baltimore has an NHL franchise. In fact, he has seen his horse win only two stakes, the Mayflower and the Heritage. "I usually find out in a hurry, though, about how he has done," says Cheevers. An hour after the Remsen, Betty Cheevers, who was at Aqueduct for the race, called him in Toronto. "Listen," she said, and a taped call of the race went out over the phone. "Ski is some kind of horse," Cheevers told his wife, "and we're lucky, just plain lucky." That night Cheevers' luck ran out; Toronto put four goals by him, and the Bruins lost 4-2.
Ski and Jockey Jack Kurtz (third from left) begin their big move from the top of the stretch.