Victor Cooley – We All Have Favourites
Geldings are the work horses of any race card throughout the sport. Thoroughbreds are gelded for a variety of reasons, the main reason being to calm the horse for him to be more manageable and concentrate on his work. Born male, some young colts can be quite aggressive, especially when a pretty young filly is within sight, or he is simply too aggressive around the barn. Known with tongue-in-cheek as “The unkindest cut of all”, gelding a horse intends to give him a calmer and more purposeful life. Another reason to geld is that many young colts are not what would be termed as fashionably bred and would have no long-term value as a stallion once his racing career came to an end. Many geldings however have gone on to become some of the most beloved Thoroughbreds in history. This is likely since a gelding will race for as long as possible and as such will create an ever-increasing fan base because of their extended track career.
Victor Cooley was foaled on March 31, 1993 at Windways Farm in King City, Ontario. Sired by Cool Victor, he was out of Willow Flight by Lend Lease. These are not names that will stand out on many pedigree charts of a champion, but if you look back just a bit further you will find some truly exceptional breed shapers. Victor Cooley’s dam sire Lend Lease was bred by Ogden Phipps in 1973 from his great champion race mare Lady Pitt, who in turn was sired by champion Sword Dancer. Lend Lease himself was sired by Phipps’ great horse Buckpasser, a champion in both racing and breeding and a very influential stallion.
The sire of Victor Cooley is an interesting story. Cool Victor had some very good breeding in him being by Tentam out of Polar Victress by Nearctic. Tentam was a champion grass runner and successful stallion. He was the second foal from the great breed shaping mare Tamerett. Tentam’s ¾ brother Known Fact (by In Reality) was also a champion and well-regarded stallion while his half sister Secrettame would produce the world class sire Gone West. Tentam’s sire was Intentionally, the sire of In Reality, and has in retrospect become a vital link in keeping the Man O’ War tail-male line going. Polar Victress, the dam of Cool Victor, comes from the same family as Flaming Page (dam of Nijinsky, second dam of The Minstrel), while her sire Nearctic needs no introduction to pedigree junkies.
Cool Victor however did not live up to his blue-blooded genes. He did win some races but non of them were stakes races and he was retired by his owner/breeder Steve Stavro. Cool Victor became a teaser stallion at Windfields Farm in Oshawa, where Stavro boarded his breeding stock. Stavro did send a couple mares in Cool Victor’s way and, lo and behold his get could run and run very fast. Early Cool Victor runners such as Volterra, Victoriously Bold and Megas Vukefalos won multiple stakes races. Then Apelia became a Sovereign Award champion and the word was out. The dark bay almost black teaser at Windfields could sire fast durable runners. From very limited foal crops, Cool Victor sired 14% stakes winners from named foals, but never became a fashionable (i.e. yearling sales popular) stallion.
So, Victor Cooley was not fashionably bred, nor was he ever going to be entered in a yearling sale because Windways Farm bred strictly for their own racing stable in 1993. He was gelded partly due to the perceived indifference to his pedigree and partly because he could be a handful at times. Mostly though the Begg family who owned Windways were in the game for their own sporting enjoyment and loved to watch their home breds win at what ever racing level they could compete in. Little did the Beggs know just how high a level the dark bay son of their mare Willow Flight could reach.
Victor Cooley began his racing career on July 7, 1995 in a maiden special weight race at Woodbine. He finished 7th. Three weeks later he started in the Bull Page Stakes at Woodbine and ran 6th. Given some time, Victor Cooley ran his third race in December at The Fair Grounds in a maiden special and finished 3rd. That was it for his juvenile year. Not an auspicious beginning.
Staying in New Orleans for the winter, on February 2, 1996 Victor Cooley broke his maiden at Fair Grounds in a six-furlong MSW and wired the field to win by five lengths over a sloppy track. He followed this up with a second and two wins in a row at Fair Grounds over the next seven weeks. This prompted his trainer Mark Frostad to enter Victor Cooley in the upcoming Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 21. The race was a 1 1/16-mile affair which was the longest VC had been asked to run up to this point. He never got into contention in the early going and finished fifth. Frostad brought him home to Woodbine.
The Keeneland race did do the gelding wonders in that the rapid early pace of The Lexington had taught him that to be serious about this racing game he would have to cruise a little quicker than he would have done in the allowance ranks. Victor Cooley got the message as he took the Queenston Stakes by four lengths and the Marine Stakes by 2 ½ to give his connections hope to make the final entry in the country’s most famous race, The Queen’s Plate. This is the race that every Canadian breeder dream of winning.
The 1996 Queen’s Plate attracted a good field of thirteen colts and geldings. With his recent run of form, Victor Cooley was instilled as the co-favourite by the betting public with Sam-Son Farm’s big chestnut colt Chief Bearhart. VC stalked the pace set by Stephanotis (ridden by Mickey Walls) and Kristy Krunch (ridden by Robin Platts) and came to these two at the top of the home stretch. Chief Bearhart (Sandy Hawley up) began his patented run from behind at this point. Emile Ramsammy aboard Victor Cooley gave his mount the word to go and go he did. VC drew level with the front pair and a three-horse battle ensued down the lane to the finish post. In the final sixteenth Victor Cooley drew away from Stephanotis and won the Queen’s Plate by 1 ½ lengths at the wire. Kristy Krunch was another length back in third and Chief Bearhart closed strongly to be fourth. Another future multiple stakes winner Crown Attorney was also in this race. He finished seventh.
Victor Cooley and Ramsammy returned to the winner’s circle to thunderous applause by the fans at Woodbine. A new star had risen, and he gained a many of fans on this day. But his win streak ended abruptly two weeks later at Fort Erie when the best Victor could do was a tiring fifth to Stephanotis in the Prince of Wales Stakes. The race was a bit of a head scratcher for his fans. Frostad was undeterred however and entered Victor Cooley in the grade one Molson Million race due six weeks after the Fort Erie puzzler. The Molson Million attracted a fine field that included US invaders Victory Speech, Louis Quatorze and Skip Away. Victory Cooley would also have to face arch nemesis Stephanotis in the nine-furlong race.
From the off Stephanotis rushed to the front from the outside post to take the lead and set a good honest pace with Victory Speech nipping at his heels along the back straight. Victor Cooley sat behind these two bidding his time in fourth keeping Louis Quatorze pinned on the rail. Around the far turn the even money favourite Skip Away made his move and took the lead coming into the home stretch while Ramsammy had to wait for an opening to unleash his mount. Skip Away drew well clear of the field to win by four lengths but Victor Cooley, finally loose charged by Victory Speech and then Stephanotis to finish second. A very good result for VC.
Victor Cooley came back a month later to start in the Sir Barton Stakes at Woodbine. The field was not nearly as tough as the Million, so he was made the overwhelming favourite by the local punters at 1-5 odds. Victor took the lead at the top of the stretch for home but was caught at the wire but Regal Courser, who ran the race of his life. Despite that disappointment, Victor Cooley was named as the Sovereign Award winning three-year-old for 1996.
Mark Frostad took his stable to New Orleans for the winter. Victor Cooley made his four-year-old debut at the Fair Grounds a winning one with a workmanlike performance in an allowance race and then ran sixth in the Pelleteri BC Handicap. Moving to Keenland, VC captured the grade two Commonwealth BC Handicap defeating some good ones such as Western Winter and Appealing Skier. Then Victor Cooley finished second in the next five consecutive races which included the Equipoise Handicap, Stephen Foster Handicap, and the Forego Handicap. He was in good form but was unlucky.
His good form carried him to the biggest win of his career in the US. The grade one Vosburgh Stakes is one of the important seven-furlong races on the yearly racing calendar. Victor Cooley would be in tough with this field as it included Tale of The Cat, Northern Afleet, Basqueian, and Score a Birdie who had won the previous race (Forego H) over VC. Victor Cooley drew the nine stall in the twelve horse field at Belmont Park. He broke sharply when the gates open and settled just behind the leaders along the back straight. Victor Cooley took the lead at the top of the home stretch and powered his way to a 1 ½ length victory over the hard charging Score a Birdie and Tale of The Cat.
His triumph in an important grade one race was well received by his fans back home but unfortunately, his schedule would keep him away from Woodbine for another year and a half. VC made one more start in 1997 which came in the Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs. He finished third as the 1-5 favourite. So back to New Orleans for the winter and prepare for his five-year-old debut at the Fair Grounds. Making his first start in 1998 in the Taylor Special Handicap he ran fourth but three weeks later he avenged his defeat from the previous year in the Pelleteri BC Handicap to score another stakes win. His travels took him to Kentucky where he ran unplaced in both of his races, finished third in the Teddy Drone Stakes at Monmouth Park and then unplaced in a Belmont allowance race. Frostad found an allowance at the Keeneland fall meet to try and get Victor Cooley back in the winner’s circle, which proved to be successful. VC’s final race of the year came in the Thanksgiving Handicap at the Fair Grounds, but he ran a disappointing fifth.
1998 was not a good year for Victor Cooley. Two wins in eight with four unplaced results were not the kind of results associated with the gelding. Frostad kept Victor in allowance company at Fair Grounds where he garnered one win and two seconds in three races. Another second in a grass allowance race (his first career grass race) at Keeneland in April followed. Clearly not the going concern of his previous years, Frostad and Windways brought Victor Cooley home to Woodbine in the spring.
Victor Cooley still enjoyed competing, but time was beginning to take its toll on the old warrior. The Woodbine faithful backed him to be the second choice in the grade three Eclipse Stakes, plenty of heartfelt sentimental money. He showed his old fire and gave a strong effort to finish second. VC could not do anything to get close to the winner Social Charter who had gotten loose on the lead and never looked back. Four weeks later Victory Cooley was in the starting gate for the grade two King Edward BC Handicap. In only his second race on grass, Victor Cooley lacked his patented finishing drive ending up five lengths behind grass specialists Desert Waves and Crown Attorney. Again, he was well backed by those that still loved him, but it was plain to see the end was near.
After a five-year racing career in which he tackled some of the best in North America, it seemed Victor Cooley had done enough for Windways Farm and his trainer Mark Frostad. However, they wanted him to end his career in victory. Victor Cooley did not start again in 1999. He went with the Frostad string to their home away from home in New Orleans and wintered at the Fair Grounds. Frostad found an easier allowance race on the February 25, 2000 card that he felt would be good for VC. In his final hurrah, Victor Cooley won the race with his trademark determined style, pinned back ears and never give in attitude to stay in front at the wire and won the race.
The dark bay gelding with so-so breeding returned to his birthplace and retired from racing. He gave his connections a thrilling ride, had won prestigious races such as The Queen’s Plate and Vosburgh Stakes, and banked $1,320,475. Victor’s race record from 39 starts: 13-12-3, indicate his consistency. Victor Cooley was not a world beater, but he also was not a quitter. VC gave his all in every race, even when he did not have it in him on the day. You can not ask for more than that from any athlete. He epitomised the fundamental essence of a Thoroughbred.
Victor Cooley lived the life of a retired gentleman at Windways. He shared a paddock with stable mate El Brujo and was pampered and spoiled by the Begg family and Windways staff. Known around the farm as “Victor”, he spent fourteen years in this harmony. In 2014 Jeff Begg announced that his family were selling their boutique farm and pulling out of the racing business after thirty-five years of involvement. At the time of the announcement, there were only two horses on the farm, Victor Cooley and El Brujo. Jeff Begg contacted Michael Blowen of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky, and donated both geldings. So, twenty-one-year-old Victor Cooley moved to Kentucky, just a few miles away from Keeneland where he scored one of his biggest wins, and now lives just as comfortably and relaxed at Old Friends as he did at Windways.
Two years ago, I spent a pleasant morning with Michael Blowen as he took me around the farm in his golf cart. We met up with Victor Cooley among the other legends who call Old Friends home. For me it was a happy meeting as I remember VC very fondly after watching him perform. I will never forget his drive and determined efforts. He did not always succeed, but that is part of his appeal. He never gave up. I thanked him for all he gave to racing as I fed him a good supply of carrots from the cart which Michael always brings when he visits his equine friends. Victor is such a friendly soul, and I had a great time visiting him.
I know that many of you reading this may never have heard of Victor Cooley or knew very little about him. We all have favourites for one reason or another. Victor Cooley was one of my favourites. He was never brilliant and was never going to be a household name. Victor Cooley was bred to be a racehorse with no high expectations. He overachieved and became a champion. He will be forever in the books as a Queen’s Plate winner. And Victor Cooley is still to this day a special soul enjoying his well-deserved retirement.
Victor Cooley is a favourite of many who had the fortunate chance to meet him.
(Photo of Victor Cooley by Beth Shannon)
( Close up Photo of Victor Cooley by The Author)