The Times West Virginian

May 3, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Derby win would have been perfect

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — It can be beautiful in Ireland this time of year, but all things considered, Giovanni Boldini would prefer to be in Kentucky.

You probably don’t know much about Giovanni Boldini and, if you do, you probably are thinking of the Italian portrait painter from the late 19th and early 20th century who, according to a 1933 article in Time magazine, was known as the “Master of Swish” for his flowing style.

But we’re not talking of him. Instead, we’re talking about the thoroughbred race horse named after him, a 3-year-old race horse who belongs in today’s Kentucky Derby.

Now you may be wondering why we should care about this around here and that’s fair, but there is a strong reason and it is that Giovanni Boldini was bred right here in West Virginia, was eligible for the Triple Crown races and proved it last year when he was named West Virginia-bred Horse of the Year after just being nipped at the wire in the prestigious Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Turf, the best finish by a West Virginia-bred horse on racing’s biggest stage.

The story of Giovanni Boldini and his breeder, Charles “Buck” Woodson, is a warm one … not along the lines of “Black Beauty” or of a man and a love for his horse, but instead about a wonderful man in love with the game of horse racing who spent seven decades before he found success.

Buck Woodson is 88 now and breeds horses on his 40-acre Buckstud Farm near Charles Town. He spent most of his life dealing with lower-end thoroughbreds without a lot of success. Until Giovanni Boldini came around, his prize thoroughbred had been Onion Juice, who won 27 races including the inaugural $100,000 Jim Beam Classic and finished his career with $225,000 in earnings.

They tell the story about Woodson, an old-fashioned, tough-as-they-come horseman, having an epiphany back in 2003. He was in his mid-70s then and had not had a lot of success. On a cold winter’s afternoon, after having finished a long day of work battling the wind and frigid temperatures, Woodson told “The Blood Horse” that he sat down and began thinking.

It would change his life.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’ve done this for so long, but I’m not sure about this anymore,’” Woodson recalled. “I wasn’t overly spiritual or religious before that, but I felt like someone was telling me something. I really believe it was the Lord conversing with me. He was telling me what to do. He told me to put my life in His hands and that He would guide me.

“I told my wife that night, ‘Just help me get through the rest of this year, and everything will change. I promise.’ And you know what? From that point on it has.”

And Giovanni Boldini helped with that change.

Not that Woodson worked any less or eased up any. The only thing he knew was hard work, so much so that in his 80s he’s been driving his own tractor and trailer from West Virginia to Kentucky for horse sales.

A product of the Depression, as a child he bounced around from state to state with his father, who went wherever there was work. He says he went to 17 different elementary schools as a child before joining the Navy in 1944.

In love with horses, but needing to earn a living, he completed his education after leaving the Navy and worked for a paper company before deciding he had to get into the horse business.

“I was in my 40s, but I couldn’t fight it anymore. I had to work with horses,” he said.

And so it began, a lot of hard work and tough times, but he was doing what he wanted to do and, in the end, along came the horse that would be Giovanni Boldini.

“He was an outstanding individual right from the beginning,” Woodson said last year around Breeder’s Cup time. “Not only was he good looking, but he did everything right. Whatever you wanted him to do he did, and he was calm and quiet. I think you could have actually shot off a firecracker next to him and he would just turn around and look and think ‘what’s that?’”

But this isn’t a business where you fall in love with your livestock. You breed them and sell them, and this was a horse with some really good breeding, a son of War Front out of Dancing Trieste. He brought $190,000 at the 2011 Keeneland November weanling sales and later was a $675,000 purchase by the Coolmore partnership of Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale.

“When I saw who bought the horse, I knew he was becoming quite a story,” Woodson said.

The horse was sent to trainer Aidan O’Brien in Ireland, with grass racing in its future. It won a couple of races, led the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf 100 yards from the wire and then was put away for the winter.

Giovanni Boldini came back a month ago to run third as the 8-5 favorite in the UAE Classic in Dubai but was not entered in the Kentucky Derby, probably to follow a summer campaign on turf in Europe.

Too bad, because a Kentucky Derby victory would have been a perfect finish to Buck Woodson’s tale.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.