'Hotstuf' was the right stuff

Hotstufanthensome before the Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs in 2007. Horsephotos.com

It started with a single horse.

A horse that changed my perspective about an entire sport.

A smallish gelding with an unassuming resumé, trained by a relatively unknown trainer, running in an ordinary allowance race at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

The horse's name was Hotstufanthensome, and it called out to me like a Cracker Barrel sign on the side of I-95.

It was Haskell Day 2004, and as tradition would have it, I was sitting in the grandstand with my family having the same Haskell experience as always -- spend six hours at the track and don't return for another 365 days.

But tradition would soon be broken.

At the time, I was a casual racing fan at best. I watched the Triple Crown races on TV, the live ESPN broadcasts from around the country during the spring and summer, but only stepped foot in a real racetrack the first Sunday of every August -- Haskell Day.

Resources like Equibase and the Daily Racing Form were foreign to me, so I had no way of following "Hotstuf" through his fall and winter campaigns. The following summer, however, while reading an the sports section of my local newspaper on one Saturday morning, the call of "Hotstuf" returned.

He was back, entered in an allowance race that afternoon.

I drove down to Monmouth Park for an afternoon of racing, my first ever on a non-Haskell Day.

I didn't know it at the time, but the race was his first since being injured in a January stakes race at Gulfstream Park.

Aboard for the first time was 20-year-old jockey Rajiv Maragh. He was a regular rider for trainer Norman Pointer, and on this day Pointer trusted him with his best.

With a $20 win ticket in my pocket, I sat on the edge of my seat as Maragh guided Hotstufanthensome to a front-running victory.

It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship. A relationship between jockey and horse, and a relationship between horse and new fan.

From the beginning "Hotstuf" appealed to me as the prototypical working man's horse -- Monmouth Park's own Derek Jeter. He wasn't 17 hands tall, he wasn't bulging with muscle, but every time he went to work he gave it all he had and then some (as his name would imply). Those who knew Monmouth turf racing knew this horse.

Three weeks after his allowance win "Hotstuf" was entered in the Elkwood Stakes, and I was back at Monmouth Park.

As the horses approached the walking ring, I saw something unlike anything I had ever witnessed.

"Hotstuf" entered the ring with the pre-fight swagger of Muhammad Ali. He was practically dancing over the ground. It wasn't a nervous canter -- it was a confident strut that seemed to say, "Get me to the track so I can do my thing."

He won easily.

It was then and there that I became hooked on horse racing. Hotstufanthensome became the first horse in my Virtual Stable on Equibase.com. I started hitting all the popular web sites for horse racing news and information.

Unlike the previous year, I began to follow "Hotstuf" everywhere he raced, not just Monmouth Park.

I watched as he finished only 5 1/2-lengths behind turf-superstar Leroidesanimaux in the Grade 2 Fourstardave at Saratoga. And I was at the Meadowlands when he won the Grade 3 Cliffhanger Stakes by over 14-lengths in one of the greatest performances, over one of the wettest turf courses, I have ever seen.

It was then that I truly began to understand what I was rooting for in Hotstufanthensome. He may not have been a future Grade 1 winner, and being a gelding he definitely didn't have a lucrative stud career ahead of him, but what he did have was something much more important. He had the heart of a champion. He ran on anything wet or dry, short or long and if he went down, he went down fighting.

Something else that appealed to me was the lack of respect he seemed to receive. He was almost never the betting favorite. Not many people had faith in the smallish gelding, his relatively unknown trainer and young jockey.

On Jan. 29, 2006, Hotstufanthensome ran in the Mac Diarmida Handicap at Gulfstream Park. While the condition book said Grade 3, the field read more like a who's who of Grade 1 winners.

Dismissed at odds of 18-1, "Hotstuf" sat tenth of 12 for the first six furlongs. As horses approached the far turn, the field began to bunch up, and my favorite horse began to circle the pack. At the top of the stretch, he was in front. A length in front of Grade 1 winners Go Deputy, Honor in War and Request for Parole, Hotstufanthensome only had an eighth of a mile to go. On this day, there was no way any horse was getting by him. At the wire, "Hotstuf" was a new track record holder.

I was ecstatic. Going in no one had given "Hotstuf" a chance. Turns out he didn't have the resumé, but he did have the heart.

Coming off the biggest win of his career, "Hotstuf" returned to Monmouth Park during the summer of 2006. He didn't win, but his three races couldn't have been more impressive.

In the Elkwood, "Hotstuf" finished half a length behind future Grade 1 winner Ashkal Way. In the Grade 3 Oceanport Stakes on Haskell Day, he lost by a neck to Grade 1 winner Three Valleys. And in the Grade 3 Red Bank, "Hotstuf" met that year's Breeders' Cup Mile winner Miesque's Approval, losing by only half a length.

Six months later, coming off a stakes win at Tampa Bay Downs, "Hotstuf" finished second again, this time to Grade I winner Jambalaya. It was one of the greatest five-race streaks I have ever seen.

Things have changed for "Hotstuf" since then. During the past two years, he's battled injury and struggled to regain his top form, and was even claimed.

But the changes in Hotstufanthensome career don't even compare to the changes in me. I've advanced from racing novice to knowledgeable handicapper. I've gone from Monmouth Park customer to Monmouth Park employee.

I used to watch the Haskell in the grandstand. The past two years I have watched from the winner's circle. I've gone from seeing the Breeders' Cup on TV to standing in the walking ring as Street Sense, Lawyer Ron and Curlin paraded past. I've traveled to Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course, Saratoga, Arlington and Belmont Park all in search of that rush you get when your horse crosses the wire first.

And as the eight-year-old Hotstufanthensome returned to Monmouth Park this summer under the care of new trainer Terri Pompay, I was reminded of how it all began.

A single horse -- smallish, gelded, with a relatively unknown trainer and jockey -- who won an ordinary allowance race and changed my perspective on an entire sport forever.

Thank you "Hotstuf" ... and then some.

Brian Skirka is a 2007 journalism graduate from Rutgers University. He was introduced to horse racing by his uncle ten years ago and has been a fan ever since. He currently works at Monmouth Park.