Photo credit Chelsea Durand
The relationship between player and coach is often times very special. This is absolutely the case in the game of Thoroughbred racing. Perhaps it is even more so as these four-legged athletes enjoy a special bond with their conditioner in what can be a “who trains who” situation. A classic example will be on display at the 2020 Breeders’ Cup when one trainer in particular hopes to orchestrate a fairy tale ending for his prized pupil.
Tom Amoss has had many horses in his barn since beginning life as a trainer back in 1987. With over 3200 wins in the saddle bags, the native of New Orleans has enjoyed a trip or two to the winner’s circle. There is one runner, however, that holds a very special place in the LSU graduate’s heart.
Serengeti Empress is without question one of the most courageous runners in the game today. Under the expert care of her loving conditioner, the Empress has reigned supreme seven times in eighteen career starts. With more speed than Shirley Muldowney, this four year old daughter of Alternation always provides thrills no matter where she finishes.
“You can’t measure her heart and that is probably her greatest feature,” says Amoss. “Anyone that watches her race and sees what she puts into it can’t help but become a fan. She leaves it all on the track every time.”
The most notable win of her career came in the 2019 Kentucky Oaks. Coming into the race under the radar, the Empress took’em gate to wire in a real showcase of her racehorse qualities. Front end speed and the ability to carry it through the finish put the spotlight on the superior preparation instilled by Amoss. Even though his barn did things basically the same way they had always done, the Oaks triumph cast their racing team in a different light.
“I owe a lot to the Empress because when she won the Kentucky Oaks I suddenly became a better trainer in the eyes of a lot of people,” says Amoss. “We really didn’t change our approach, she’s just a very special athlete that changed our public perception. Her performance that day allowed me entrance into “the club” and believe me being in the club has it’s advantages.”
One of the things that made the Oaks win so special was the uncertainty in the weeks leading up to the world’s most famous race for three-year old fillies. A bleeding issue in the Fairgrounds Oaks on March 23 had cast doubt about her ability to be ready. As Amoss carefully nurtured his prized filly back to health a very special bond was formed. Always putting the health of his horse first, the decision to run in the May 3 showcase was not made until the week before when he knew his Empress was sound physically. She in turn rewarded her coach with a huge effort.
Serengeti Empress has continued to shine the spotlight on her dedicated conditioner in this, her four-year old season. That same heart and effort have produced courageous performances in all but one of her six starts this year. Her win in the mile and a sixteenth Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park in March was another gate to wire romp. After being unable to score in the Apple Blossom due to an outside post draw and fading in the mile and an eighth Fleur di Lis, Amoss changed the game plan for his star.
Because she has normally been fantastic in the early stages of every race in her career, the cagy conditioner decided it was time to play to her strengths and run shorter distances. The grade 1 Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga on August 8 was the site for Serengeti and her test at seven furlongs in 2020. Amoss looked like Einstein as the Empress displayed one of the most dynamic runs ever over this New York dirt. Simply sizzling opening fractions (21.73 quarter mile, 43.74 half) would have cooked most, but this beautiful girl thrives when the grill gets hot. Her six challengers could not hold up and Amoss’s Empress was crowned.
The next try at this same seven furlong distance was not a win, but her loss by a flaring nostril in the Derby City Distaff on September 5 featured a legendary stretch run. Once again this granddaughter of Bernardini set a blistering pace (21.93 quarter, 43.77 half mile). Refusing to give in when confronted by Bell’s The One, the Empress battled all the way to the wire as she just refused to give in.
Those two fantastic efforts by his fabulously fast female gives Amoss confidence as she prepares for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Contested at seven furlongs, this year’s Cup will be run at Keeneland. A likely lineup that will feature the also freakishly fast Gamine should not alter the game plan for the Empress.
“It’s a little late to change things up,” observes Amoss. “This is going to be the final start of her career and now is not the time to try and change. She wants to be out front and that’s what we want too.”
Preparations for their last dance together have gone well to this point. A recent half mile breeze told Amoss his beauty is ready to run. Now he hopes to fine tune her and provide the sendoff he knows she deserves.
“Winning this race is very important for us,” says Amoss. “Our number one goal is to see her walk off the track healthy. But I also want to reward her by sending her out with a win. I think I owe that to her. As the years go by and we reflect on things Serengeti Empress will always be the first one we talk about. She has been so big for our stable and closing out her days on the track with a Breeders’ Cup victory is what we are hoping for.”
No matter what happens as these two trip the light fantastic one final time, Amoss and his Empress will be winners because they have each other.
The $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint is scheduled for November 7.