Carpe Diem: What might have been

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

July 23rd, 2015

It's a bit ironic, not to say very disappointing, that a young, lightly raced horse named for the Latin phrase "seize the day" will never again try to seize a prize on the racetrack. With Thursday's announcement of the retirement of Carpe Diem, I can't help wondering what might have been.

WinStar President and CEO Elliott Walden cited as the determining factor a bone chip in the "lower joint of his right knee, and that can be problematic."

To be fair, I'm not qualified to render a judgment on this type of injury. At the same time, considering that 2016 would presumably have been a Pharoah-free zone, Carpe Diem could have cut quite a figure in the older male division. Or at least I would have hoped that he'd have the chance to do so.

Of course, I'm biased, since I've been a Carpe Diem fan since his victorious debut at Saratoga. More hopeful than confident when he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles for the Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, I was elated when he romped in the manner of an exciting prospect. Even his first loss, a belated second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), boded well for the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail.

The Todd Pletcher trainee readily outclassed the opposition in both of his Derby preps, the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and Blue Grass (G1). And Hall of Famer John Velazquez chose to ride Carpe Diem in the Kentucky Derby, in preference to then-undefeated Florida Derby (G1) winner Materiality.

By that point, the Bob Baffert pair of American Pharoah and Dortmund had captured the imagination, accordingly going off as the favorite and second choice in the Run for the Roses. Carpe Diem rated as the third choice at 7-1, and I erroneously thought that the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby would suit him better than the Baffert beasts.

When Velazquez avoided the pitfalls of being drawn toward the inside, and had Carpe Diem perfectly placed early, half the battle appeared to be won. That impression soon evaporated, however, as Carpe Diem backpedaled for the first time in his life. Empty rounding the far turn, he trudged home a well-beaten 10th.

Surely there must have been a physical reason for Carpe Diem's non-effort, right? But none came to light, and Carpe Diem was pointed for the Belmont S. (G1). Having seen one of his pre-Derby works at Keeneland in person, I didn't like the video of how he was training at Belmont. His head was cocked, and he was trying to drift out. So I was actually relieved that connections decided to pass on the third jewel of the Triple Crown.

Off the worktab until July 12, Carpe Diem resurfaced with a half-mile move in :48.77 at Saratoga, but was AWOL since. Pletcher reportedly indicated that he wouldn't run at the Spa, which I took as a possible red flag. And here we are with the retirement announcement.

Connections believe that Carpe Diem had unfulfilled potential.

"The impressive thing about Carpe Diem, to me, is his ability to run 5 1/2 furlongs in a tough maiden race at Saratoga and then stretch out to win Grade 1 races around two turns," Pletcher said in the WinStar release. "It is unfortunate his career ended so soon because I feel like he had more Grade 1 wins in him."

Walden sounded the same theme.

"Carpe Diem is as good as any young horse WinStar has ever been involved with, and it's always bittersweet when you retire a colt of his quality, particularly knowing we likely never got to see his best.

"In the Kentucky Derby, we were in perfect position, but when he switched leads going into the far turn I felt something wasn't right. After missing the Belmont, we brought him home to evaluate him and try to get him back for the Haskell (G1). However, a chip finally revealed itself in the lower joint of his right knee, and that can be problematic.

"I believe his raw ability puts him among the top of this talented group of three-year-olds, which is probably the best group of runners we've had in years. It's unfortunate, but given where we're at in the season and what would be in front of him, Mrs. Banke, John Moynihan, and I just felt like retirement was the best option."

Walden's words underscore what it's all about: stud appeal.

"The positive is that he is an extremely exciting stallion prospect."

Co-owner Barbara Banke of Stonestreet Stables said the same: "Carpe Diem was a standout physical at the two-year-olds-in-training sales, and quickly demonstrated his precocious speed, breaking his maiden at first asking as a juvenile at Saratoga.

"Carpe Diem offers breeders a great opportunity with conformation, speed, and stamina all packaged within an outstanding pedigree. We have enjoyed running the colt with the Troutt family, and look forward to standing him at their WinStar Farm where we will support him with some of our best mares."

I understand that here's a good-looking son of Giant's Causeway out of an Unbridled's Song mare who brought the co-highest price of $1.6 million at the 2014 OBS March Sale. He can sire babies who will likely have plenty of commercial appeal, as speedy juveniles who can hop onto the Derby trail, just like Dad.

But it's really irksome not to know exactly how good Carpe Diem was, or might have been. We'll never find out if (or how much) I overrated him. Carpe Diem could have been given time with a view toward a four-year-old campaign. And if connections weren't thrilled with his training, they could have shelved the comeback attempt.

That would have entailed the loss of the 2016 breeding season, though, and connections weren't prepared to let that go. So in another sense, they are "seizing the day" -- only to reap the immediate dividends of a stud career. Those benefits can be quantified, while the cost -- foregoing potential future rewards on the track -- is harder to gauge. A fan's calculus is obviously different.

Amateur photo by Kellie Reilly.