Shattered Bones, Shattered Dreams: The Short, Undefeated Career of Onlyforyou

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On a sunny day this past February at Hallandale Beach, Florida’s Gulfstream Park, a field of eight Thoroughbred racehorses were guided toward the starting gate by tiny jockeys perched atop their backs. The weather was particularly welcoming for a late winter day, and the track was listed as fast–a term used to describe the track footing as dry, even, and at peak efficiency. The field of contenders, all three-year-old fillies, were aiming for the top prize of the Grade 2 Davona Dale Stakes.

The Thoroughbreds filed calmly into the gates and barely fidgeted as they awaited the start–except for one. A strong bay filly of almost 16 hands (64 inches at her back) in the third stall of the gate challenged her tiny steel confinement for a brief moment. Onlyforyou was her name. She reared and pranced nervously, causing her five-foot-one, 115-pound jockey, Javier Castellano, to dismount until she calmed down. Her trainer, Todd Pletcher, watched the outburst from among the crowd with a fleeting moment of disappointment. Little did anyone know, Onlyforyou’s eruption was just a preview of the power she would unleash when she would break from the gates.

Although this race was her longest yet, at a mile-and-a-sixteenth, also known as eight-and-a-half-furlongs, Onlyforyou was a clear favorite in the race, backed by her undefeated career of three prior starts.

The bell sounded and the gates flew open, clearing the way for the eight, half-ton animals to thunder down the track at more than 30 miles per hour. Onlyforyou had a quick start, launching herself in the first position along the inside rail. For any spectator rooting for their chosen contender, an early lead can be unnerving, considering the length of the race and the potential for tiring before the finish, but it was an ideal spot for Onlyforyou. Her speed was fast, urged by the pressure of the other contenders who were just as hungry for a first place win. But Onlyforyou wasn’t about to let anyone shatter her undefeated record.

Onlyforyou galloped under the finish wire, two-and-a-quarter lengths ahead of the closest rival. She secured her fourth victory in a gate-to-wire trip. Her final time was 1:43.71, only two seconds longer than the track record set just a week prior by an older, stronger filly, Devil’s Cave. Onlyforyou was the 1-1 favorite and returned $4.20. “She really blew out of the gate,” Castellano said after the race. “She set strong fractions at the beginning of the race and she was under pressure the whole race. She handled it so well.” Pletcher was equally pleased. “She’s got natural speed and we don’t want to take that away from her,” he said. The victory secured Onlyforyou a spot as the second-highest earning female of 2014, hinting at a promising future for the most important year of her career–her three-year-old year. But this promising filly wasn’t always such a superstar.

Onlyforyou was bred and born by Kentucky’s Elm Tree Farm, who also bred multiple Grade 1 and Grade 2 stakes winners. Her sire (father) Malibu Moon, had a shoddy race career himself, but managed to pass on the tremendous speed and power of his sire, A.P. Indy. A.P. Indy amassed career earnings of almost $3 million in the 1990s, and earned himself an honor in the Racing Hall of Fame. But being in the business of breeding and selling, Elm Tree Farm sold Onlyforyou at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2012. She was purchased for $115,000 by Phase II Thoroughbreds in partnership with Glencrest Farm, who had also owned numerous champions, including Kentucky Derby winner, Venetian Way.

John Greathouse, one of the owners of Glencrest Farm, had admired Onlyforyou’s mother, Erhu, and her prior offspring, and took the chance on purchasing the yearling. In December, he admitted to Thoroughbred Daily News that his decision was based on Onlyforyou’s resemblance to her half-sister, Devil May Care, a promising four-year-old filly whose short career was cut short due to an unsuccessful battle with cancer. But after Onlyforyou developed some medical issues that impacted her training performance, Greathouse’s plan was to resell Onlyforyou at the April 2013 Keeneland sale for two-year-olds. However, bidders were less than pleased with the filly’s performance in the preview for the sale. Despite positive workout performances prior to the sale, Greathouse said, “That day [at the sale], for whatever reason, she was looking around and didn’t work that good.” Potential bidders noticed, and the lack of interest in purchasing the filly caused Greathouse to withdraw her from the sale. “It might have been some of these physical things that she needed to work her way through,” he told TDN. “She had a chip that needed to be taken out..just that simple,” he clarified via e-mail.

The intelligence of that decision would not reveal itself until much later, however. Greathouse, with his team, decided to give the filly time to recover, grow, and train. In November 2013, Onlyforyou revealed the potential that Greathouse had hoped for her all along. Paired with Pletcher and Castellano, she won her maiden debut, a six-furlong race (three-quarters of a mile) at Queens, New York’s Aqueduct racetrack, by two-and-a-quarter lengths. She started her career much later than most two-year-old racehorses, a decision that eventually proved to be a good one.

Onlyforyou repeated the performance just a month later, across the county at Gulfstream Park in a six-furlong allowance race. But the real test would be a month after that, when she would embark on her first graded stakes race, and the first of her three-year-old career. Fortunately, she had the success of her trainer and jockey on her side to prepare her for the upcoming battle.

Castellano is no stranger to the winner’s circle. He won the 2013 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey, and has nearly 4,000 wins under his belt in his 14-year career. Among those wins, he has captured the Preakness Stakes, Breeder’s Cup Classic, and Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Fillies–some of the highest prize races in the United States–as well as many other major stakes titles in America and abroad. In 2013 alone, he raked in purse earnings of over $26.2 million. Just three-and-a-half months into the 2014 season, and he has already acquired more than $3.3 million and is the leading earning jockey. He has swiftly climbed the ranks of the leading jockey chart in recent years, and may very well take the number one year-end spot yet again.

Pletcher has an even more impressive career as a trainer. In his 18 years of training racehorses, his collective trainees have raced more than 15,000 times. He has captured the Top Trainer Eclipse Award four times consecutively between 2004 and 2007, then two more times in 2010 and 2013. He holds numerous training titles in three different states, and trained many Eclipse Award-winning horses. Among those is 2010 Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, 2007 Belmont Stakes-winning filly, Rags to Riches, and 2013 Belmont Stakes winner, Palice Malice. His lifetime earnings are a whopping $262 million, a staggering number that continues to grow and repeatedly land him at the top of the leading earning trainers chart. Like Castellano, Pletcher currently holds the number one earner spot for his position so far in 2014, with over $4 million in earnings.

The strong trio hoped to prove their collective skill again in their first start of 2014, the Grade 2, $200,000 Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The race was slightly longer; seven-furlongs compared to the six-furlong length of Onlyforyou’s maiden and allowance races. Pletcher was unconcerned. “She’s trained like she’ll run further, and she was able to relax a little bit in her first two starts, so she’s not one-dimensional,” he said. Among the field of six contenders was Onlyforyou’s stablemate, Stopchargingmaria, also trained by Pletcher. “I hate to run them against each other,” he admitted with reluctance. “They are two nice fillies.” Not only was Stopchargingmaria a nice filly, but she had the experience of running a mile-and-an-eighth, and had already captured a $250,000 graded stakes win by 10 lengths. Despite the competition, Onlyforyou was the anticipated favorite.

She broke sharply, rushing to the first spot on the rail. She was running comfortably, with her ears forward and attentive–a good indication of an effortless trip. But as she rounded the turn, she was pressured not by her stablemate, but by Aurelia’s Belle, a filly who had not yet even won a race. When it seemed like Onlyforyou was about to tire and lose her first graded race and first three-year-old start, the threat kicked her into overdrive. She surged ahead, widening the gap between her and the second-place challenger, flying under the wire two-and-three-quarters lengths ahead. Castellano barely showed his whip, suggesting that Onlyforyou may have had even more unspent stamina in her reserves. “I didn’t expect her to be on the lead,” Castellano said. “She did it so easy and broke on top. When the other horse came to her, she took off again.” He was clearly impressed by her important performance. Pletcher was equally pleased. “It kind of speaks for itself,” he said of her third consecutive win. “She’s a filly that has always impressed us in her training. She’s a beautiful filly, big, scopey, good-looking filly that has tactical speed,” he marveled. The first place prize added $120,000 to Onlyforyou’s record, surpassing her $115,000 purchase price from the previous year in a brisk 1:22.50 performance. She had amassed $188,100 earnings in just three starts. Her 3-10 odds as favorite paid out $2.60.

Not only was the Forward Gal her first graded stakes race, but it was one of the Kentucky Oaks Prep Season races. The Kentucky Oaks is a sister race to the Kentucky Derby, but is designed for three-year-old fillies only. Contenders are not chosen, but must earn their spot based on points earned in qualifying races. 30 graded stakes races give potential candidates the opportunity to garner enough points to be one of the top 14 that will earn them a stall in the Kentucky Oaks starting gate. Onlyforyou acquired 10 points with her win in the Forward Gal, one of the last remaining prep season races. However, the challenge would increase as the championship series races loomed ahead.

The first leg of the championship series, lasting for a month between February and March, consists of seven graded stakes races, with lengths of over a mile–a distance Onlyforyou had also never attempted before. Although she had proven herself at seven-furlongs, she would need to prove herself at over a mile–another furlong-and-a-half. “If we’re going to [keep running] back at Gulfstream, we’re going to have to stretch it out,” Pletcher said, admitting that their eyes were on the mile-and-a-sixteenth Davona Dale Stakes. This meant that Onlyforyou would face the challenge of two turns around the racetrack, a feat she had yet to pursue, but would need to conquer if she had any chance in the Kentucky Oaks. “I’m not overly concerned about her stretching out,” said Pletcher. “She has trained so well and always indicated to us that she won’t have an issue doing it. We know she likes the track, so there’s a lot going positive for her.”

A month later, the Davona Dale Stakes arrived. Onlyforyou once again went up against her stablemate, Stopchargingmaria, a veteran at the mile-and-a-sixteenth length. Just like her Forward Gal performance, Onlyforyou broke to an early lead. The pressure was on, as Aurelia’s Belle pushed her once again, along with Stopchargingmaria, and another strong contender, House Rules. Onlyforyou maintained the lead around the first turn, but her competitors closed on her as they neared the second turn–the major test of her stamina. House Rules rushed forward, matching stride with Onlyforyou as they rounded the second turn and the finish line came into view. Once again, the threat of a looming competitor kicked Onlyforyou into another gear, and she surged ahead across the finish for her fourth win. This time, she acquired another 50 Kentucky Oaks points, and another $120,000 to her record, boosting her career earnings to $308,100.

“She always had the look of a big two-turn filly,” said Ciaran Dunne, owner of Wavertree Stables, who consigned Onlyforyou at the Keeneland sale a year before, where she was withdrawn. “A beautiful trip,” Castellano said of the performance. “She really blew out of the gate. My only concern was the two turns, and responded today.” The two turns were Pletcher’s only concern as well. “She luckily broke well after misbehaving in the gate a little bit and was able to get into the position we wanted,” Pletcher said in an interview after the Davona Dale. “[House Rules] ran a big race and put some pressure on her down the backside, and she was able to keep finding a little more.” Even with four stellar performances on her record, it wasn’t enough to keep the skeptics away.

Fans on Horse Racing Nation had mixed opinions about Onlyforyou. Some were positive, touting, “she’s scary fast!,” “super impressive!” and “its as if [she is] a monster on a track.” Other fans expressed criticism. “Not sold on Onlyforyou,” said one. “I like Onlyforyou, but she’s been beating up on the same crowd. I’m waiting to see her tangle with the big girls before I get overly excited,” said another. Among those “big girls” were Untapable and Awesome Baby–both winners of their last mile-and-a-sixteenth starts with finishing times slightly faster than Onlyforyou’s Davona performance at the same distance. All three were tied in the first position for the Kentucky Oaks qualification with 60 points, well ahead of other challengers.

Horse Racing Nation columnist Brian Zipse also expressed criticism of Onlyforyou. “It is hard to knock a filly who has been perfect too much, but I came away decidedly unimpressed with what I saw in the Davona Dale,” he wrote on February 26. “Maybe she is the type who only does what she needs to win, but she is not likely to enjoy the picture perfect setup in Kentucky that she got [in the Davona].” His concerns were valid. Onlyforyou had only raced in ideal conditions on a fast track, against lesser opponents. Her potential for performing on a muddy track against stronger competitors was uncertain. Some questioned her capability of performing outside Gulfstream entirely, as she had grown familiar with the track. Greathouse wasn’t particular bothered. “Obviously, a different track is a concern, but she did win in New York, so I don’t think she has to carry her track with her,” he said.

Pletcher’s post-race comments after the Davona Dale left analysts wondering what his plans were, but he didn’t express any intention on racing Onlyforyou outside of Gulfstream Park just yet. “Having already won here three times now, it’d be hard to think about taking her anywhere else.” There is only one more Kentucky Oaks championship series race at Gulfstream Park: the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Oaks on March 29th. That race is one of the six races in the second leg of the Kentucky Oaks championship series, lasting just two weeks between the end of March and early April. It would be Onlyforyou’s last opportunity at gaining enough points to secure her qualification into the Kentucky Oaks. “Well the Oaks (both) are possibilities, but she needs to get past the first one to get to the second,” said Greathouse. Days later, on March 13th, he confirmed that the team was indeed aiming for the the Gulfstream Oaks.

But Onlyforyou would never make it to the Gulfstream Oaks, or any other race.

On March 15th, Onlyforyou stepped onto the soft dirt track at Palm Meadows, the satellite training center for Gulfstream Park, located just 47 miles away. It was the same facility where she had been since her move to Florida in December. Each Saturday, she underwent a timed breeze–an officially recorded, swift workout similar to racing speed that is ranked against other horses working out on the same day. Instead of a four-furlong breeze that she typically worked, she went five-furlongs. Her speed was quick, but comfortable, and she passed the five-furlong pole in 1:02 flat. Just seconds after the official clock had recorded her time, the promising racehorse took a bad step that changed the course of her future forever.

“She had a complex condylar fracture that was displaced and irreparable,” Pletcher reported. The young superstar filly was unfortunately euthanized, after what was expected to be a routine training session. “It was multiple fractures; sesamoids weren’t involved, but there was so much of it that they just couldn’t do much,” said a disappointed Greathouse. The bone structure of fillies make them more prone to injuries affecting the sesamoid bones–bones that provide stability to flexor tendons and ligament, and undergo high stress during racing. Sesamoid fractures are the most common cause of euthanasia in U.S. racehorses. Even though Onlyforyou spared that type of fracture, it wasn’t enough to save her life. A displaced fractured means that the bone fragments have separated and exposed a gap between them.

In his book, The Lame Horse, Dr. James Rooney explained that a condylar fracture occurs when “the fetlock joint opens too fast relative to the coffin joint … and almost literally pries the lateral (outside) condyle away from the rest of the cannon bone.” Some condylar fractures are reparable. In 2013, multiple graded stakes-winner, Point of Entry, suffered a condylar fracture and underwent successful surgical repair. He even returned to racing to capture fourth place in the Breeder’s Cup Turf before his retirement to stud. But his injury was described by his trainer, Shug McGaughey, as minor and “just separated a little.” In their Equine Veterinary Journal research study, Zekas, Bramlage, Embertson and Hance found that 86% of horses with incomplete-nondisplaced fractures were able to return to racing. However, they also stated that displaced fractures carry “a poor surgical prognosis.” While a non-displaced fracture can be healed with screws if the fracture is small enough, the reparability of a displaced fracture is significantly jeopardized. Whether or not the fracture is operable depends upon the severity of the injury, specifically the completion, location, and amount of fracture.

Fans of Onlyforyou were rattled at the tragic news, and they expressed their condolences on Onlyforyou’s Facebook fan page. Several referred to it as “a tragedy” and said she was “so special.” One fan accused the team of not doing enough to repair her injury and save her life. But Onlyforyou suffered an injury with a terrible prognosis. Multiple displaced fractures meant that the bone was far too damaged and separated for repair. Humane euthanasia was the only option on the table.

“Obviously, it’s a sad moment for everybody,” Pletcher explained. “The barn takes it hard when stuff like that happens, especially when it’s a filly like that who was perfect her whole career. It looked like she had a big future ahead.”

“[She] was special,” said Greathouse. “We did have a lot of fun with her, but we were hoping to have a lot more.” Perhaps Greathouse will have another opportunity to own another superstar like Onlyforyou. He confirmed that her mother, Ehru, whom he purchased in November for $50,000, will be bred once again to Malibu Moon, in hopes of producing an equally successful full sibling to Onlyforyou.

Despite the sudden and tragic end to a special life, the racing world went on. Later that day, Castellano was honored for his accomplishments at Gulfstream. Pletcher continued to train and oversee his other promising racing contenders. Greathouse moved onto other projects, and fans fixed their sights on new favorites.

Onlyforyou’s tragic end serves as a reminder to the often forgotten delicateness of the talented and powerful thousand-pound creatures, as well as the unforgiving environment of horse racing.

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