April 15, 2021

Manila schooled his rivals when writing a new chapter in Churchill Downs history

Manila at the 1986 Breeders' Cup
Manila wins at the 1986 Breeders' Cup (Courtesy of the Breeders' Cup)

Manila introduces the world to the Matt Winn Turf Course

Remember the old days when a kid could come home from school, turn on the TV and watch some star Thoroughbreds in action?

Okay, the concept isn’t quite a thing of the past. Kids can still do that today, if they’re interested, except for the part about viewing stars run on a weekday. Unless you live in England, that’s generally not going to happen.

Frankly, that didn’t occur all that often in my youth either.

Manila at the 1986 Breeders' Cup
Manila at the 1986 Breeders’ Cup (Horsephotos.com)

However, one could have forgiven a very young, budding racing fan in the spring of 1987 for believing it wasn’t entirely outside the norm.

Eight days after watching War get elevated to first on the disqualification of Alysheba in the Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland on a Thursday afternoon, this writer rushed home from class on a Friday and was back in his appointed spot to watch the national broadcast of the Kentucky Oaks (G1).

While the feature race of the program was won (against a rather undistinguished field) by Buryyourbelief, a New York-bred that never won another race, it was anti-climactic compared to the bit of history shown earlier in the broadcast.

That first day of May happened to be the afternoon they christened the Matt Winn Turf Course at Churchill Downs. The baptizer was Manila.

Manila
Manila (Coglianese Photos)

The Matt Winn Turf Course

Although a little late getting into the business of offering turf racing, the Kentucky circuit saw two high-class courses open in the 1980s. Churchill’s, which opened several years after Keeneland’s, was built for the specific purpose of hosting the Breeders’ Cup, which it did for the first time in 1988.

The Churchill turf was ready to use for the 1987 spring meet, and what better way to kick off grass racing under the Twin Spires for the first time in track’s 113-year history than with a $150,000 stakes for older horses.

Sponsored at the time by Early Times bourbon (and later by other distilled spirits including Woodford Reserve and Old Forester), Churchill’s Turf Classic attracted a select field of four, including the biggest name on grass at the time.

Who was Manila?

Manila at the 1986 Breeders' Cup
Manila at the 1986 Breeders’ Cup (Horsephotos.com)

Manila was the reigning Eclipse Award champion having earned honors as a 3-year-old following a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) at Santa Anita over Theatrical, Estrapade, and European superstar Dancing Brave, like Manila a son of Lyphard.

Manila was the best he had ever trained

Trainer LeRoy Jolley

The late LeRoy Jolley, who trained other Hall of Famers like Foolish Pleasure and Genuine Risk, was on record even at that point saying Manila was the best he had ever trained. And when he brought Manila to Churchill Downs for the Turf Classic, he rued that it was only the first time he had brought the colt to Louisville.

“I’ve had many thoughts this week about not running him in the Derby last year,” Jolley told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Walking over to the paddock with the horse today, I was thinking that I had come here with him a year too late.

Manila had broken his maiden on the dirt at Hialeah by eight lengths before pursuing a career on the grass. Although he was only stakes-placed, in the Forerunner at Keeneland on the turf, by the time of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, he could have easily made the field as only 16 lined up in the classic won by Ferdinand.

Manila wins at the 1986 Breeders' Cup
Manila winning the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Turf (Horsephotos.com)

Whether he could have won or acquitted himself in such a difficult spot is pure conjecture, but the remainder of his career suggests he had the talent to have pulled it off.

Manila arrived at Churchill Downs off a season-opening win in the $50,000 Elkhorn at Keeneland by three lengths. Although favored at 2-5, there was some substance to the three horses who lined up to oppose him.

Crème Fraiche had won the 1985 Belmont S. (G1) for Woody Stephens plus many other Grade 1 events, and had placed multiple times in graded company on the turf in Florida.

Lieutenant’s Lark had captured the Washington D.C. International (G1) at Laurel the previous fall, though that race had begun to lose luster after arrival of the Breeders’ Cup. Then there was Vilzak, who was seven months away from securing his only U.S. stakes victory in the Hollywood Turf Cup (G1).

Manila at the 1986 Breeders' Cup
Manila at the 1986 Breeders’ Cup (Horsephotos.com)

He’s the kind of horse you love to ride

Jockey Jacinto Vasquez

The long-striding Manila, under Jacinto Vasquez, sat second as Lieutenant’s Lark attempted to steal the race setting modest fractions, but the champion took it to that challenger approaching the stretch. Except for one tap from Vasquez to straighten Manila out, it was a hand ride as Manila won by three lengths before a sun-soaked crowd of 62,689.

“He’s the kind of horse you love to ride,” Vasquez told the Courier-Journal. “He was running very comfortably the last part, well within himself. He did it easy; he was just so much better then the rest in there.”

The end of Manila’s brilliant and frustratingly shortened career has been covered in this space before, but there couldn’t have been any better horse to write that new chapter in the history of Churchill Downs.

And that’s a book this schoolboy would have preferred studying instead.