Still a challenge

General Challenge is enjoying a laid-back retirement. Courtesy PiedraPhotos.com

I'm not really sure why his name popped into my head the other day. Maybe it is because the Santa Anita Handicap is coming up, and that was one of his biggest wins. Maybe it is because jockey Gary Stevens is making a come back, and they were partnered together in the Kentucky Derby years ago. Maybe it is because you don't forget a horse so quirky he was given the nickname "Rodman" after the one and only Dennis Rodman.

Whatever the reason, once General Challenge's name nested in my brain, I couldn't shake it. When I realized he has been off the track for a decade, I felt old. I also wondered what he is up to these days.

Once you saw General Challenge, it was hard to forget him. He is a flashy chestnut in the truest sense of the word. A big, white blaze runs down his narrow face, and white stockings run up all four of his legs. Anyone associated with the horse will tell you he was talented but quirky. Hence the nickname Rodman. It should come as no surprise that he was gelded at an early age due to his antics.

In 1999, trainer Bob Baffert was coming off back-to-back Kentucky Derby victories with Silver Charm and Real Quiet. His stable had plenty of nice 3-year-olds, and General Challenge was at the front of the pack. He came into the Run for the Roses off of an incredibly impressive victory in the Santa Anita Derby over stablemate Prime Timber, but a Kentucky Derby hat trick for Baffert was not in the cards.

Prime Timber and the lovely filly Excellent Meeting gave respectable runs for the trainer, finishing fourth and fifth that year behind upset winner Charismatic, who had finished a well beat fourth in the Santa Anita Derby.

And General Challenge? Well, the large Derby crowds got him worked up before the race, and luck was certainly not on his side once the race started. The Derby chart sums it up best: General Challenge was knocked sideways soon after the start, steadied in traffic on the first turn, raced between horses while five wide on the turn and lacked a further response.

In the end, he checked-in a distant 11th.

The quirky beast serves as a good reminder to those new to the racing game, though. The Derby isn't everything. He bounced back from that disaster and had a very productive career, including victories over his elders in the Pacific Classic later that year. As a 4-year-old, he added the Santa Anita Handicap to his resume and went for a repeat in the Pacific Classic, but it was not meant to be.

General Challenge was injured during the running of the 2000 Pacific Classic, and finished fourth behind Grade 1 winners Skimming, Tiznow and Ecton Park. Later that year, Tiznow would go on to run one of the most memorable Breeders' Cup Classics of all time and be named Horse of the Year.

In 2001, General Challenge was meant to make a comeback, but another injury sent him back him to John and Betty Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm in California, where he had been born and raised. In 2003, he did make it back to the races, but only briefly. Ironically, his first of three starts that year was in the Tiznow Stakes. He was retired for good that summer.

In all, General Challenge earned $2,877,178 during his career and won seven graded stakes, including three of the biggest grade 1 races in California.

Since he was a gelding, the game plan was to turn him into a farm pony, but General Challenge had other ideas. So, they thought was he might like jumping. Again, General Challenge had other ideas.

"He absolutely hated anything we tired," said Golden Eagle Farm's Lori Piedra. "We tried to make him a pony horse; he would try to kill any horse that came up next to him. We tried jumping; he didn't like it. He loves being a retired pasture pony. That's what he wants."

And so a decade after his retirement, and 13 years removed from his last Grade 1 victory, that is how General Challenge spends his days. He is completely, 100% retired.

"Listening to Bob talk about him, it is like, 'Yeah 12,13 years later the horse has not changed at all,' " said Piedra. "I still don't trust him. He is still just as quirky as all get out. He is just a goofy horse."

For awhile he and Dramatic Gold, another Golden Eagle millionaire, were in neighboring paddocks and became fast friends. However, a health scare last year with General Challenge required he be moved to a different, smaller paddock. Because of hoof issues, General Challenge also needed special farrier work and a new diet. The folks at Golden Eagle kept his fans up to date on his condition via the farm's Facebook page while they tended to him.

"We were in deep water with him, and we weren't sure if we were going to be able to pull him out of it," explained Piedra. "We wanted to let people know what was going on."

Although both John and Betty as well as their son Larry have passed away since General Challenge's glory days on the track, their Golden Eagle Farm has maintained its reputation for not only breeding quality racehorses but being responsible for their own, even if that means making tough decisions. Those at Golden Eagle wanted General Challenge's fans to be prepared if such decisions had to be made.

Happily, General Challenge overcame his health issues with flying colors and is a happy camper once more. His favorite things in life include being scratched anywhere on his body -- but especially under his neck along the jugular line -- and receiving peppermints from anyone who will give them to him.

"He is down at our weanling barn, and I have never seen him so perky," said Piedra. "He just loves all the activity that goes on. It is where all of our breeding stuff happens, so we are down there on a daily basis. He just has his head over the fence and watches it all. He loves it. He likes having people around him, as long as we are not fooling around with him. He also always gets very attached to whichever horse gets put next to him."

To this day, Golden Eagle still gets people asking if they can come visit the multimillionaire, and they are happy to oblige.

"We always like fans coming out and seeing him, and I always tell them to bring carrots and peppermints," said Piedra. "He loves his peppermints. That is what Mrs. Mabee always gave him, so he could be four acres away from you and hear that paper unwrapping and he will be in your lap in about two seconds."

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.