1998 NY Horse of the Year Incurable Optimist leaves behind strong legacy in Argentina | NYRA
May 10, 2024
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1998 NY Horse of the Year Incurable Optimist leaves behind strong legacy in Argentina

by Mary Eddy

The Argentine thoroughbred industry saw the end of an era this winter as 1998 New York Horse of the Year Incurable Optimist died on January 20 at his longtime home of Haras El Paraiso in Buenos Aires. Incurable Optimist, Argentina’s leading sire in 2008, died at age 28 due to infirmities of old age.

Owned by John and Theresa Behrendt, the dual graded stakes-winning Cure the Blues chestnut brought his owners on the journey of a lifetime both with his accomplishments on the racetrack and in Argentina as one of the southern hemisphere’s leading sires of his generation.

“It was fantastic from beginning to end, and it was quite a long journey,” said John Behrendt. “It was just terrific. His race career got cut a little short, but he made up for it with the rest of it. He was pretty generous with us.”

Incurable Optimist’s story began as a weanling in 1996 when purchased for $44,000 by agent Mike Ryan at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. Out of the winning Seattle Slew mare Miss Turlington, Incurable Optimist was his dam’s second named foal and was bred in New York by Dr. William B. Wilmot and Dr. Joan M. Taylor. Miss Turlington would later produce the mare Tiffany Twisted, dam of multiple stakes-winner and 2017 Grade 1 Belmont Stakes contender Twisted Tom.

In 1997, the Behrendts were in search of a foal from Cure the Blues, and purchased Incurable Optimist from Ryan as a yearling. It wasn’t long before the colt was sent to be broken at J.J. Pletcher’s training center in Florida, and eventually to trainer David Donk to start his serious preparations for becoming a racehorse.

“I first had horses for John in ’91, and it’s a really great friendship with memories that last a lifetime,” said Donk. “Incurable Optimist had so much power, and over the grass, he was very tactical. He could dictate the race if he needed to, and he was just a very good horse.”

Incurable Optimist debuted in June of 1998 at Belmont Park and made his first two starts on dirt before switching to the turf to graduate by a romping 14 lengths at third asking in a 1 1/16-mile maiden tilt that August at Saratoga Race Course. With eventual Hall of Famer John Velazquez in the irons, Incurable Optimist sat 2 1/2 lengths off the early pace before pouncing to the lead at the half-mile call and never looking back.

“He was born in Saratoga and it was only fitting he would come back and win his first race there,” said Behrendt, with a laugh. “We had worked him on the grass at the Oklahoma track and he went in 59 and change, so we expected a really good run, but if I were to tell you that we expected him to do what he did in his maiden win, I’d be lying. His turf racing was nothing short of spectacular.”

Incurable Optimist would never lose again, and only improved his form as he stepped up in class when capturing the one-mile World Appeal next out at Meadowlands in his first effort facing winners. Despite a troubled trip when blocked behind rivals at the quarter pole, Incurable Optimist found his way through and drew off to score by 1 1/4 lengths.

“I thought, ‘He’s beat, he can’t win,’” said Donk. “He was blocked so much, but when he got through, he won easy.”

Incurable Optimist only confirmed his superior ability in his final two outings when dominating two graded stakes, leading at every point of call to coast home a 4 1/2-length winner of the Grade 3 Pilgrim at Belmont Park, and completing his career with a nine-length romp over good footing in the Grade 3 Generous when shipped west to Hollywood Park.

“You don’t win like that over the grass,” Donk said. “He was so impressive and went 4-for-4 on the turf. At the time, the sky was the limit.”

The Generous effort was awarded a career-best 101 Beyer Speed Figure, and set the precocious colt up for a trip overseas for an attempt at the coveted 2000 Guineas at The Curragh. Unfortunately, Behrendt’s grand plan for international competition never came to fruition as Incurable Optimist was injured while preparing for his trip at the now defunct Hialeah Park in south Florida.

“We had wanted him to run in the 2000 Guineas at the Curragh, but he bowed a tendon,” said Behrendt. “We tried to bring him back, but it didn’t work.”

The star-crossed Incurable Optimist retired to stud at Highcliff Farm in New York, where he stood a single season, but found success with the limited number of foals from his only American crop. Multiple graded stakes-placed Pa Pa Da, bred by the Behrendts and trained by Donk, was his best runner, followed by Don Corleone, a stakes-winner who stood in the Empire State for a short time as well.

“He produced a very small crop, but it was a very good crop of horses,” said Behrendt. “We had bought a few horses from them [El Paraiso] and in talking to them about Incurable, they said they needed a stallion. They thought he would be a fit for them, we moved him down there, and he stood there for the rest of his career.”

The move to Argentina proved life changing for the Behrendts, who followed their beloved stallion to the southern hemisphere and supported him with mares in his first few seasons at El Paraiso, where he was managed by Pablo and Victoria Duggan. From there, Incurable Optimist helped kickstart a booming business for the Behrendts, who now, thanks to their horse of a lifetime, own and breed around 85 broodmares at El Paraiso.

Behrendt said Incurable Optimist was not only imperative to a successful business venture in Argentina, but to a special and long-lived friendship with the team at El Paraiso.

“Incurable helped us all get to this point,” said Behrendt. “The Argentine journey started as something we were curious about doing, but as it evolved and got more successful, it got to be more fun. Theresa and I have made really dear friends with the Duggans and this project is very much a family operation.”

Incurable Optimist went on to leave an indelible mark on the thoroughbred breed in Argentina, and was quickly met with success as the Leading Freshman Sire of 2004. He sired two horses named their country’s Horse of the Year in Fire Wall [2004] and Life of Victory [2008], who both won Argentina’s most prestigious race, the Group 1 Gran Premio Carlos Pellegrini. Additionally, he sired Group 1-winners Inter Optimist, the Champion Miler in 2008, and Brandyrun. For his progeny’s outstanding performances in 2008, Incurable Optimist was named that year’s Stallion of the Year.

According to El Turf Diario, in 22 seasons at stud, Incurable Optimist sired 1,253 foals with 864 runners and 536 winners, 35 of them Classic winners. He is the broodmare sire of an additional 24 Classic winners.

While Incurable Optimist’s death marks a sizable loss to the sport of horse racing in Argentina, his lasting impact on the breed can be seen in the doors he opened for the Behrendts in the years after their first ventures there. With their roots firmly established in the Argentine breeding world, the Behrendts jumped at the chance to purchase the promising 2014-15 Chilean Horse of the Year Il Campione to stand him at stud at El Paraiso after his retirement in 2015.

“Theresa and I are both very involved in his career, and you’re not in this game if you’re not hopeful of doing fun things,” Behrendt said of Il Campione, who was the Champion Leading Sire in Argentina in 2022 and 2023.

Among Il Campione’s top progeny is Edict, who was named the country’s Champion 3-Year-Old Filly last year for a campaign that included Group 1 scores in the Gran Premio Enrique Acebal and Gran Premio Copa de Plata.

Behrendt said he is hopeful his journey with Donk will come full circle as he has shipped the talented filly stateside to the veteran conditioner’s care in late April.

“She had a very successful campaign last year and was really game, and we have seen those traits in her sire, just like with Incurable Optimist,” said Donk. “She’s come here and is a beautiful filly and lovely mover. She’s very classy and intelligent and hopefully she’ll get to the work tab in a few weeks.”

While the Behrendts’ chapter that features their cherished stallion has come to its close, the future is bright both in Argentina and America through Incurable Optimist’s last progeny, and through Il Campione and his exciting first crops.

Behrendt did not take long to put into words what Incurable Optimist means to him and his family.

“It’s really easy: He took us on a journey that you can’t buy the ticket for,” said Behrendt. “Between the excitement of his races, the friends we made, the move to Argentina and all that’s happened to us there – it all wouldn’t have happened without him. We were very blessed.”

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