When John's Call arrived six years ago in Maryland, he was the wrong horse for the wrong job.
The handsome chestnut gelding with the racing-stripe blaze carried the name Stuart's Affair and his Tennessee owner's dream of becoming a jump horse, a steeplechase star. Trouble was, that horse wasn't Stuart's Affair, and he couldn't jump.
But boy could he run.
Once his identity crisis was resolved and his career path adjusted, John's Call developed into a fierce competitor, finishing first or second in 25 of 32 starts. His crowning achievement came Aug. 12, when the 9-year-old became the oldest horse to win a Grade I non-jumping race at Saratoga.
In what has become one of the year's most compelling racing tales, John's Call captured the Sword Dancer Handicap by more than nine lengths.
As the esteemed Joe Hirsch wrote in the Daily Racing Form:
"The difference between a story and a saga is the degree of incredulity, which is why this is the Saga of John's Call and not merely his story. ... A 9-year-old winning a Grade I stakes at Saratoga! Incredible."
The architect of this saga is the savvy trainer Tom Voss, who has managed the career of John's Call at his 900-acre farm in Monkton.
Renowned as a developer of steeplechase horses as well as horses on the flat, Voss will saddle John's Call today for his second straight Grade I race, the $500,000 Man o' War Stakes on the turf at Belmont Park. Like a grandfather challenging the grandkids, John's Call will race against seven horses, all five years younger than he.
Should John's Call win again, Voss and the gelding's owner, Douglas Joyce of Nashville, Tenn., will face a monumental decision. Do they pay the $400,000 entry fee to run him in one of the most prestigious and richest grass races in the world: the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs?
As astute as he is, Voss could not have envisioned such a dilemma in May 1994, when he first eyed the horse everyone thought was Stuart's Affair. The 3-year-old gelding arrived at Voss' farm as if he had spent nary a minute around humans.
"He was as wild as a horse can be," Voss says. "We couldn't even catch him in his stall."
The 49-year-old trainer taught the so-called Stuart's Affair etiquette as well as jumping technique. The gelding turned into a gentleman but not an accomplished jumper.
Nevertheless, that's how he started his career in the spring of his 4-year-old season. But by then, Stuart's Affair was no longer Stuart's Affair. He was John's Call.
Before horses begin training, their identities must be verified by officials who match the horse against detailed physical descriptions recorded when the horse was a foal. In the case of Stuart's Affair, the horse did not match his papers.
Joyce concluded that the two yearlings he bought at auction in October 1992 in Kentucky - Stuart's Affair for $3,000 and John's Call for $4,000 - had arrived at his farm in Nashville that winter wearing the wrong halters dangling the wrong name tags.
The mix-up brought Voss his greatest bonanza. Stuart's Affair, whom he was supposed to train, had instead gone to the trainer Janet Elliot at her farm in Pennsylvania. Stuart's Affair developed physical problems and never made it to the races.
John's Call, whom Elliot was supposed to get, turned into the best horse Voss has ever trained - once Voss switched him to the flat.
An accomplished steeplechase trainer, Voss won his first non-jump graded stakes with John's Call, the Grade III Laurel Turf Cup in November, and his first Grade I stakes, the Sword Dancer.
Voss marvels at his powerful runner, who, at 9, threatens to become a phenomenon.
"I don't know how to explain it," Voss says. "He's kind of an enigma. He just doesn't seem to age."
Voss has run John's Call sporadically and without medication, not even Lasix. John's Call has won 14 times and earned $756,420.
"I think he wants to win at all costs," says Voss, who has seen John's Call try to kick horses as they pull up after races. "He must have a heart the size of my pick-up truck."
If Voss and Joyce, the gelding's owner, decide to run John's Call in the Breeders' Cup Turf, they would have to cough up $400,000, or 20 percent of the purse. That's because Lord At War, the sire of John's Call, was not nominated to the Breeders' Cup the year John's Call was born.
Joyce says he will consider it if John's Call excels today at Belmont. Voss says he can't look that far into the future with this horse.
"Each spring I ask myself, 'Is this the year he'll lose a step?' " Voss says. "Then I ask myself that before each race. ... With this horse you live for the moment."