by Jay Valter
The Never Ending Story was a 1984 film based on a fantasy novel by Michael Ende. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but it is a good film, and holds up better than other similarly-themed movies of its era (Dark Crystal, Time Bandits, Dune). The story of the movie centers around Bastian Bux, a beleaguered lad who seeks solace in a book of the same title as the movie. Therein, Bastian learns of the fantasy world of Fantasia, and the threat against Fantasia from “The Nothing,” an evil void of darkness. Early in the film, the Empress of Fantasia summons the boy-warrior Atreyu to put an end to The Nothing. Atreyu is accompanied by trusted equine companion Artax, and the two set out for the dangerous Swamps of Sadness to seek the counsel of Morla, the wisest being in all of Fantasia. Cue one of the most gutwrenching movie scenes I can recall:
Fast forward to 1997, and the racing world was introduced to a real Artax. A good-looking colt from the first crop of Marquetry, Artax was a purchased as a weanling by pinhookers Buzz Chace and Bobby Barry on behalf of Ernie Paragallo. Artax sold for 16 times his sire’s stud fee. In November of 1997, Artax broke his maiden at second asking, in spectacular fashion, winning over the Hollywood oval by 9 lengths, going 1 1/6 mile. Trainer Randy Bradshaw was convinced he had a two-turn superstar on his hands, and a legitimate contender for the Kentucky Derby. At an OTB in New Orleans, I was convinced of the same thing. Artax finished his two-year old season with a hard-fought runner-up spot to Real Quiet in the Hollywood Futurity (G1); there was no reason to expect anything but great things for his three-year old season.
Artax got things going with a 5 ½ length romp over Souvenir Copy in the Santa Catalina Stakes (G3), setting up a rematch with Real Quiet in the San Felipe (G2):
It was brilliant front-running score for the 6-5 favorite, barely holding off Real Quiet, but doing so gamely. Following my love for Silver Charm from the previous year, I was once again in love with a gritty horse from the Left Coast, and was tabbing him as my Derby choice.
A couple of weeks later in the Santa Anita Derby, Artax got an odd trip from jockey Chris McCarron, and allowed Indian Charlie to settle much more comfortably towards the front, and run away with the win. Real Quiet finished second, and our hero settled for third. After the race, there were whispers that Artax wasn’t completely sound, but the connections stayed the course, and it was on to Louisville.
I did not stay the course, and switched my allegiances to the Rick Pitino-owned Halory Hunter. It didn’t matter; Halory Hunter didn’t hit the board, and Artax didn’t run a lick, and finished 13th, some 39 lengths behind the winner, his old California nemesis, Real Quiet.
After the Kentucky Derby, Artax’s injury problems were acknowledged, and he spent most of the rest of 1998 on the shelf, popping back late in the year to finish a strong second to Event Of The Year in the 7f Malibu (G1), giving some indication that his 4YO campaign may be best suited to sprints. Nevertheless, Bradshaw tried him in the San Fernando (G2) and Strub (G2) (both routes), and he finished non-threatening 7ths in both races. I was beginning to think that Artax would never come close to fulfilling the immense promise he had displayed early in his career. He had one more failure in the Bradshaw barn, a horrendous fifth-place finish in a one-mile optional claimer. The ownership decided a change was needed, and he was shifted to the East Coast-based barn of Louis Albertrani. One of the wildest rides of any season for any horse was about to take off.
Albertrani had a very different vision for Artax than had Bradshaw; based off the Malibu, he was convinced that Artax had what it took to be a top-notch sprinter. After a second-place finish in the Bold Ruler (G3), he was looking like he may be right. But nobody could have predicted what happened next:
Fourteen months after he had last won a race, Artax, with Jorge Chavez aboard, captured the Carter Handicap (G1), and, in doing so, broke broke Dr. Fager's 31-year-old track record for seven furlongs yesterday, taking the race in 1:20.04.
Artax’s next race was also noteworthy, but for a far different reason. The Maryland Breeder’s Cup Handicap (G2) was part of the Preakness undercard, and, as usual, the crowd was raucous. But never before (and never again) have we witnessed stupidity of this magnitude:
I wish there was a better video available than the one above, but some mental midget by the name of Lee Ferrell wandered onto the track during the race, and took a swing at Artax’s jockey, Jorge Chavez. It was one of the most bizarre incidents in horse racing history (for me, it’s one of those “I will always remember where I was when I saw this” moments), and, for a while at least, seemed to cast a pall over the rest of Artax’s season. Albertrani kept him busy throughout the summer and early fall, running in graded sprints at Belmont, Philadelphia, and Saratoga. He cracked the board in 4 of his next 5 starts, but failed to find the winner’s circle. That would change in late September with a powerful 3 ½ length triumph at 4-1 odds in the Vosburgh (G1). Three weeks later, Artax was back at it in the Forest Hills (G2), and history was once again made:
Another legendary track record fell, hs time of 1:07.60 was a fifth of a second better than the Belmont record for three-quarters of a mile, set by Groovy in 1987. I remember vividly watching in awe (and cashing a nice ticket), and predicting to my friend Adam that was a stone-cold lock to capture the Breeder’s Cup Sprint. It was the most juiced I had been for a sprinter in my lifetime. One last time to make history:
Artax and Chavez, in scintillating fashion, held off Kona Gold, and captured the Breeder’s Cup Sprint (G1). Once again, another track record was set, as the mighty one equaled Mr. Prospector's 27 year old track record of 1:07 4/5 for 6 furlongs. In one magical year, Artax had broke or tied track records set by three of the greatest sprinters of all-time: Dr. Fager, Groovy, and Mr. Prosepector. Based on the large number of losses, he was denied the overall championship, but he easily captured the sprint division title. It was, the best sprint season I’ve ever witnessed, and the level he was competing at in those final three races is as good a finish to a season as any horse EVER. His three big wins accorded him Beyer Speed Figures of 124, 123, & 123…three of the six highest sprint figures during the 1990s.
Artax was retired immediately after his Breeder’s Cup win, and was later diagnosed with a suspensory issue. Nevertheless, owner Ernie Paragallo ominously directed Artax back into training the next summer, with the hope of a repeat win in the Sprint. However, after suffering more setbacks during training, he was retired for good in August of 2000. Ten years later, Paragallo was headed to jail for cruelty to animals.
Artax had one of those racing careers we just don’t see much of these days, a true second act, a second chance. He is never going to be a Hall of Famer, his 7 for 25 lifetime record sees to that, but he will always be remembered by me as a magical sprinter, one of the best I ever saw.
As for the cinematic version of Artax? Well, as anybody who is familiar with film knows, Bastian saves the day, and Fantasia is restored to all its glory, and all that were destroyed by The Nothing return. One of the film’s final scenes is Atreyu happily riding Artax. A second act, a second chance.