The career of The Boz’n, one of the most prolific losers in thoroughbred racing history, came to a quiet end last week. He’s been—and there’s no other way to say this—put out to pasture.
The Boz’n—or just plain Boz, as owners Joe and Rhea Pennella of Boonsboro, Md., call him—got his first start back in the spring of 1994. He finished 22-and-a-quarter lengths behind the winner that day, earning the comment of “no factor” from the race caller. That phrase could also describe too many of his subsequent outings. Boz went on to lose every one of his next 77 races, too, thereby reaching the cusp of infamy.
Few animals get the chance to lose that much before they’re turned into pets or pet food. But Boz wasn’t your typical loser. Most of his defeats came at top-flite tracks in New York, the state where he was bred: Aqueduct, Belmont, and elegant Saratoga. And while losing in racing’s major league, the big brown gelding developed a following among the hard-core gamblers by coming close to winning fairly often (10 second-place finishes, 12 thirds), so they could reliably use him in “exotic” wagers, like exactas and trifectas and superfectas, where the big scores are made.
The top jockeys in the business—among them Hall of Famer Pat Day, Belmont Stakes winner Jose Santos, and Jorge Chavez, now the leading rider in New York—got in Boz’s saddle hoping to help him win, or, in paddock parlance, “break his maiden.” But they all came up short. In February of last year, after 51 straight losses, Robert Lake, his original trainer, expressed hope that the skein would end when he secured the services of Shaun Bridgmohan, then the hottest apprentice in New York. Earlier in the week, Bridgmohan had taken six mounts to the Aqueduct winner’s circle in a single day.
“We’ll see if he can wake the dead,” Lake said before
Bridgmohan got a pulse from Boz, bringing his mount to within a length of the lead coming out of the final turn. But Boz died down the stretch, finishing fourth.
By the end of the year, Boz’s stay in his home state was over. In November, the New York syndicate that had bred and still owned him dissolved, putting Boz, along with the rest of its stable, up for sale at auction at Belmont. A 7-year-old maiden with zero potential as a stud—geldings are
horses that have been castrated—wouldn’t figure to fetch any bids. It’s not a stretch to say Boz’s life was in danger.
But, luckily for Boz, Joe Pennella, a humble horseman from rural Boonsboro (a tiny burg just north of Burkittsville), had made the trip to Belmont on auction day. Pennella, along with his wife, Rhea, had been in the racing business for 25 years. They’d started out as a breeding-only operation but ended up training the foals they couldn’t sell. The Pennellas run their horses at Charles Town Races, a decidedly downscale track just across the West Virginia border from the family farm and a lifetime away from Belmont. Rhea handles the training chores, and Joe takes care of procurement. He’d never been to a sale in New York before. He had hoped his wife would accompany him. She didn’t. On his own in the big city, Joe bid $8,200…on a horse with an
0-68 record. Boz was theirs.
“I’m like a lady at a yard sale at those things,” Joe shrugs when asked about the acquisition. “I knew I shouldn’t have gone by myself.”
The realization of what he’d bought, and at what price, hit Joe on the ride home from New York to Boonsboro. He worried how his wife would react to the news.
She just laughed.
“I thought he was trying to challenge me as a trainer,” Rhea says. “He was saying, ‘Let’s see you make this thing win!’ And that’s what I wanted to do for Boz. I liked him as soon as I saw him, even though I’d never heard of a horse losing this much. And I’ve been in this business a long time.”
Boz didn’t gain a step during his adjustment to low-falutin’ surroundings in Boonsboro. His Charles Town debut came on New Year’s Day, in a 1-and-1/16th-mile race with a purse of $8,500 at stake. Boz had never lost for so little in his days in New York. But against a field of horses that won’t ever see Belmont, Boz finished a lackluster seventh—or “failed to menace,” as the chart suggested.
And though Rhea began putting him in less moneyed races against fields with even less class, Boz kept on failing to menace. He lost again. And again. And again.
By last month, Boz was 0-10 with the Pennellas, bringing his streak to 78 and leaving him just eight defeats from becoming the greatest loser of all time. (A horse named Zippy Chippy is the record-holding loser, at 0-86. Maybe they shouldn’t have included “zip” in his handle.) Rhea didn’t want her name attached to such a dubious mark. But she liked working with Boz, and she told herself that as long as he was happy and healthy, she’d keep running him, no matter where he finished.
On Sept. 10, Boz repaid his benefactors. In a claiming race for just $4,500 at Charles Town, he came out of the gate in his usual torpid canter and fell off the pace by eight lengths going into the final turn. But at the top of the stretch, with Boz along the rail in fifth place, everything changed. Boz took his jockey on an outside charge around the traffic and toward the front of the pack.
For once, Boz was a factor. For once, Boz did menace.
For once, Boz won. A maiden no more. “I was as shocked as anybody,” says Joe. “I didn’t bet on him.”
Neither did many other folks; Boz went off as the longest shot on the board, with odds of greater than 22-1. Rhea, however, had put $2 on Boz, for which she was rewarded $46.40. The winners’ share of the purse defrayed the cost of obtaining him, too, but the Pennellas weren’t thinking about the bottom line that night.
“I was really glad to see him win,” Rhea says. “When you have a horse like him, people just laugh at you. Then, when you win, it’s a big thing. It’s always a big thing.”
There will be no more paydays for Boz, however. Not in racing, anyway. In his next start, just eight days after breaking his maiden, Boz went to the back of the pack early and stayed there. “No factor,” the chart said. And Wednesday of last week, in his second outing as a nonmaiden, Boz started fairly strong and sat in fourth place going into the first turn. But in the backstretch, he began slowing down, first to a trot. Then, as the other horses headed for home, he stopped. That’s not normal behavior. Rhea, watching the race through binoculars in the grandstand, feared that he was injured. When she reached Boz on the track, however, she could detect no physical ailments. Boz, she says, was speaking to her.
“He told us he’s done,” she says. “He knows he won, and twice in a row now he’s told us, ‘I’m not running anymore,’ with the way he’s run.”
She listened. So, at 1-80, The Boz’n will lose no more. He’ll spend the rest of his days on the Pennellas’ farm, where he can baby-sit foals and get petted by visiting children.
“He’ll make a better pet than he did a racehorse,” Rhea says.
Joe already has plans to fill the void in the family’s racing stable left by Boz’s retirement. He has high hopes for a horse he just claimed. It’s a 5-year-old maiden with a bowed tendon. Rhea’s not so sure about this one, either.—Dave McKenna