Pavel Datsyuk, an owner's love of hockey, and an honest gray horse

Profile Picture: Rowan Ward

June 22nd, 2021

In 1998, Detroit Red Wings scout Hakan Andersson went to a game in Moscow to scout Dmitri Kalinin.

Instead, he was taken by "this little guy on the other team."

Pavel Datsyuk played in the Russian minor leagues for a few years but had yet to attract the attention of scouts. For a player who didn't grow up assuming he had a professional hockey future, Datsyuk made it further than anyone dreamed. The Red Wings drafted him in 1998. He made his NHL debut in the 2001-2002 season, at age 23. He rose in prominence through his first few seasons and got more playing time after the retirement of star center Sergei Fedorov.

Going into the latter parts of the 2017 racing season, a steel-grey horse named Pavel — owned by Red Wings fan J. Paul Reddam, and named after Datsyuk — was the proverbial little guy. A later bloomer, Pavel did not debut until July of his three-year-old year. He first appeared in a maiden special weight sprint at Santa Anita, where he disputed the early pace and cleared to win by 4 1/2 lengths at 7-1.

It was enough to earn Pavel a plane ticket to Saratoga four weeks later, where he contested the Jim Dandy S. (G2). He finished fourth, 5 1/4 lengths behind Good Samaritan, but he was only a half-length away from second place, part of a four-way blanket that included Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming and Preakness S. (G1) victor Cloud Computing. Pavel then joined the ranks of graded stakes winners just more than a month later, when he stalked the pace and bounded clear by six easy lengths to win the Smarty Jones (G3) at Parx.

When NHL play resumed after the 2004-2005 lockout, Datsyuk rose to stardom. He was as good a defensive center the NHL had through the late 2000s, led the league in plus-minus in 2007-2008, and earned the Frank J. Selke Trophy for top defensive forward in 2008, 2009, and 2010. 

Datsyuk was also an excellent sport. A 2009 Detroit Free Press column by Mitch Albom portrayed him as one of the most pleasant people to pick up a hockey stick. The Lady Byng Trophy is awarded to a player each year who shows both excellent sportsmanship and skill. Datsyuk won it every year from 2006 through 2009, more than anyone not named Wayne Gretzky.

After those few early starts, the equine Pavel became a Grade 1 mainstay. He finished third in the 2017 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), only his fourth start. He came in fourth in the 2017 Malibu (G1), then fourth in the San Pasqual (G2), the Dubai World Cup (G1), and the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) in the spring of 2018. In June, Pavel made his first visit to Churchill Downs for the Stephen Foster H. (G1). 

Drawn far outside, he tracked in the second flight through the first turn and down the backstretch, outside of odds-on Backyard Heaven. Patient as Backyard Heaven bid on longshot leader Uncle Mojo into the far turn, Pavel encroached three wide approaching the five-sixteenths pole and took the lead with a quarter-mile to run. From there, no one got close.

After an excellent NHL career, Datsyuk is still writing his epilogue. He returned to Russia for good to play in the Kontinental Hockey League in 2016-2017 and still plays in the KHL. He was chosen to captain the men's ice hockey team for the Olympic Athletes from Russia in 2018, and led them to gold.

Pavel the stallion is working on the epilogue to his Grade 1-winning racing career, too. Though he never won after the Stephen Foster, he remained an honest presence in the handicap division through 2018 and 2019. Since 2020, he has been at stud in California, at Ocean Breeze Ranch, alongside Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another, as well as his onetime stablemate Mrazek, himself named after former Red Wings goalie Petr Mrazek.