Free Drop Billy, the Duffer's Hero
With the U. S. Open in full swing, golf fans are thinking about the best players in the sport and whether Phil Mickelson will finally win his first U. S. Open, following his age-defying victory in the PGA Championship earlier this year.
Perhaps Brooks Koepka will win his third edition, or local star Xander Schauffele will score a major on his home course. Maybe Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth will rediscover his best.
But, what about the everyman — the duffers who decide to spoil their perfectly good weekend walks?
What about your sneaky buddy who is always trying to find a little bit of an advantage on the golf course to cover for the fact that he's never going to be the next Tiger Woods?
Usually, being a mischievous sort who isn't great at golf doesn't lead to a Grade 1 winner being named after you, but most of us don't go golfing with Dennis Albaugh.
He had a golfing buddy, one Billy Collins, who had a penchant for taking a lot of free drops. Leading into the 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1) Albaugh recalled a story in which he told Collins that if he took one more free drop, he'd name his worst horse after him.
Perhaps a certain flashy chestnut truly seemed like the least promising one among Albaugh's yearlings of 2016. Perhaps Albaugh was just yanking everyone's chain a little bit leading into the Kentucky Derby. After all, that "worst horse in the barn" was a $200,000 yearling purchase and a Union Rags half-brother to Hawkbill, already a Group 1 winner in the Godolphin Blue by the time Albaugh signed that ticket at Keeneland.
No matter what, on December 29, 2016, that yearling's name was approved by the Jockey Club. Albaugh's rule-bending golfing buddy had a new equine namesake: Free Drop Billy.
By the time Free Drop Billy was ready to hit the track, he didn't look like the worst horse in the barn — not by a long shot. Though his namesake may not have been a top-class golfer, Free Drop Billy turned out to be a top-class two-year-old.
A bit hard to wrangle into stride early and well off the early pace in his dirt sprint debut at Churchill, he kicked on hard through horses around the far turn and rolled clear to win by three lengths at the wire.
In the Sanford (G3), his graded stakes debut, he ran out of room to catch Firenze Fire: a horse who remains of graded stakes quality, even now, at age six.
He was second again in the Hopeful (G1), only a neck behind Sporting Chance, despite that foe bolting right in front of him late.
But, a return to his old Kentucky home brought Free Drop Billy his Grade 1 glory. He stretched out to two turns for the first time in the Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, and won it like a horse meant to go long. He settled midpack early and mustered a run as sharp as the one he found in his maiden victory. Free Drop Billy took command in upper stretch and drove clear to win by four lengths over the deeply honest Bravazo.
At age three, Free Drop Billy did not win again, but he held his own on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, running in the money in prep races at three different racetracks. He finished second in the Holy Bull (G3) and third in both the Gotham (G3) and the Blue Grass (G2).
He never brought Classic glory into the hands of mischievous duffers who like to stretch the rules. He finished off the board in both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont (G1), and was retired to stud after one more start in the Saranac (G3).
Even so, Free Drop Billy was a victory for the common person, a whimsical bit of proof that you don't have to be a great athlete to end up the namesake of a really nice horse.