Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bessie

She was a millionaire, you know. But that's not how most of us will remember "Bessie." Brown Bess, the Eclipse award winner as best older mare of 1989 died last week. At 29, she lived a good long life for a thoroughbred mare. But that's no surprise, she never really got good until she was 7. That's not exactly right, she was always good, but to win an Eclipse as the best in the nation at 7 is rarely done. Most thoroughbred champions are done much earlier. Today, they often don't make it to their 4 year old campaign.
But there was nothing typical about Brown Bess. Owned and bred by Suzanne Pashayan of Fresno, and trained by Chuck Jenda, "Bessie" was based in Northern California. When she won a few Grade III races, the connections decided to go down south and see just how good she could be. We all found out.
I'd done a number of stories on her Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields wins, and a few pieces on the entire team. With jockey "Cowboy" Jack Kaenel, the politically conservative Pashayan, and the former Berkeley radical Jenda, this story was a correspondent's dream. Lots of folks at the track don't talk politics; it's often much better that way.
I recall driving down to Del Mar near San Diego with some Bay Area friends to see Brown Bess run in the Ramona Handicap. When we entered the parking area with Northern California credentials, one of the attendants yelled, "What are you guys doin' here?" The Southern Cali/N. Cali bias was no surprise. Besides it's generally accepted that Southern California racing and horses are a cut above those in the North. But not all horses. Certainly not Brown Bess. We left that afternoon hoarse from rooting her all the way to the winner's circle. She went on to win the Grade I Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita and then the Eclipse. Who else?
What made Brown Bess so exciting to watch was that she was so small. Hardly a mare the size of Zenyata, she always looked overmatched. But Jack Kaenel always said her size contributed to her success because she wasn't afraid to run inside and she could scoot in and out of holes that opened during the running of a race with ease. She loved to win races and knew just how to do it.
Too bad Brown Bess never produced a champion herself. In fact, only one of her offspring ever made it to the winner's circle. But that's the mystery of horse racing and breeding.
In the fall of 1989, right before the big Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco, I drove down to Fresno with a friend to interview Susanne Pashayan for a feature in the Blood-Horse magazine. I'll never forget her 32 cats, (in a spotless compound in her large back yard) the trophies she kept in her living room, and her willingness to answer all my questions about Brown Bess. Given the current state of horse racing, this was definitely the best of times. Like the Dan Fogelberg song says, "the chance of a lifetime, in a lifetime of chance."

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