Late Bloomer, Bowl Game underrated stars of the Super 70s

December 13th, 2023

For a racing fan in 1970s America, it was an era of indulgence and pure gluttony. Roughly two dozen Hall of Fame inductees made their mark on the flat during those 10 illustrious seasons, and that doesn’t even begin to count many other talents whose exploits have receded more rapidly from the collective memory. 

Two prime examples of the latter were Late Bloomer and Bowl Game, who gave John Hay (Jock) Whitney’s Greentree Stable, one of the premier racing outfits of the 20th century, a final hurrah, so to speak, in the final years of the decade. 

Homebred foals of 1974, Late Bloomer and Bowl Game had much more in common than a place of birth and adjacent stall space. A rare, top-class filly for Greentree, Late Bloomer lived up to her moniker in every respect, peaking at age four as the best older filly or mare in the country. Bowl Game, gelded like many Greentree colts that had been slow to come around, also excelled as an older horse.

“It’s weird both horses were kind of similar,” said John M. Gaver III, a public handicapper and clocker who briefly followed his father, John M. (Jack) Gaver Jr., and grandfather, Hall of Fame inductee John M. Gaver, into the training profession earlier this century. “Both horses liked to run from off the pace, and both could handle dirt and turf.”

What’s more, both Late Bloomer and Bowl Game were dealt with patiently and allowed adequate time to overcome nagging ailments to become champions. This lack of soundness also cut short their respective careers, preventing both from enhancing their own credentials for Hall of Fame induction.

Late Bloomer and Bowl Game both commenced their racing careers under the care of Gaver Senior, but after he suffered a stroke in December 1977, Gaver Junior transitioned from the role of longtime assistant to that of head trainer, just in time to direct Greentree’s all-too-brief renaissance.  

“I got to give Dad credit for managing their careers,” Gaver III said. “They were a dream.”

Late Bloomer, who battled ankle and back issues at two and three, entered the winter of 1978 a winner in three of eight starts, all in overnight company. Bowl Game, beset by shin and ankle problems, was still a maiden with a mere two starts under his belt.

Bowl Game wins the 1979 Man o’ War at Belmont Park (Photo courtesy of Coglianese Photography)

Oddly, under the circumstances, it would be Bowl Game who would strike first in stakes company. After breaking his maiden over seven furlongs on the dirt in his third start of the season, Bowl Game captured two allowances, one on turf and the other on dirt. His stakes debut, in the 1 1/4-mile Gulfstream Park H. (G1) in March, resulted in a two-length victory, albeit in receipt of 14 pounds from highweight Silver Series.

“I have been running him quite a lot, but I’ve been like a kid with a new toy, wanting to see if it worked,” Gaver Junior told the Thoroughbred Record after the Gulfstream Park Handicap. 

Encouraged by that success, and the earlier turf allowance score, Bowl Game was wheeled back three weeks later in the 1 1/2-mile Pan American H. (G2) on the grass, in which he overcame a slow pace to win by 1 1/2 lengths as an even-money favorite.

Bowl Game later added a division of the Dixie H. (G2) at Pimlico by six lengths, but after finishing second in the Hollywood Invitational H. (G1) to Hall of Famer Exceller and then third in the Bowling Green H. (G2), he was sidelined for the remainder of the season due to an osselet, an arthritic condition of the fetlock joint. 

Late Bloomer, meanwhile, began blossoming. Although narrowly beaten in the Suwannee River H. and Orchid H. (G3) at Gulfstream in her first two stakes tries, she hit her stride that spring and summer in New York. Her first stakes triumph occurred in the Garden City H. at Belmont Park, one of four wins achieved that season over Pearl Necklace, another top-class, multi-surface talent. 

After taking a division of the New York H. (G3), Late Bloomer claimed future champion and Hall of Famer Waya as her next notable victim, winning the Sheepshead Bay H. (G2) by a head. Gaver Junior then switched gears and aimed Late Bloomer for a trio of Grade 1 races on dirt.

Although only a nose best in the Delaware H. (G1), Late Bloomer proved more dominant with back-to-back wins over Pearl Necklace in the Ruffian H. (G1) and Beldame (G1) at Belmont, the latter her sixth win in a row. Her success could be attributed in part to jockey Jorge Velasquez, who also piloted Bowl Game for virtually his entire career.

“She was finicky about the whip, if I remember correctly,” Gaver III said. “You had to kind of finesse her. Velasquez fit her like a glove.”

Late Bloomer was voted an Eclipse Award as the leading older filly or mare, Greentree’s first year-end champion since her sire, Stage Door Johnny, had won the three-year-old title 10 years earlier. However, inconsistency marked her five-year-old campaign in 1979.

After finishing fourth in the Apple Blossom H. (G2) at Oaklawn, over a muddy surface Gaver Junior described as “concrete-like,” Late Bloomer rebounded to win the Black Helen H. (G2) at Hialeah by a measured half-length. However, she would lose her final three starts, including the Saratoga Springs Cup by a nose to Waya, as well as her title defense of the Sheepshead Bay by the same margin.

“I remember she had bad feet. She was a very thin-soled horse that Dad had to train around,” Gaver III said.

While Late Bloomer was exiting the stage in the summer of 1979, Bowl Game was trying to right the ship after three consecutive losses. The son of Tom Rolfe won the Hialeah Turf Cup (G2) in April but then ran third behind Canadian Horse of the Year Overskate and Waya in the Bowling Green. He then ran a head second in the Tidal H. (G2) by a neck while conceding the lightweight winner 16 pounds.

Entered as a substitute for a sidelined stablemate, Bowl Game ran a creditable second in the Brooklyn H. (G1) on dirt in late July, but in no way was it a strong enough effort to convince Gaver Junior that taking on Affirmed in the major weight-for-age races in the fall would be a fruitful idea. Instead, a fall turf campaign geared toward receiving an invitation to the prestigious Washington D.C. International (G1) at Laurel was planned, and executed, to a tee.

After easily beating 13 rivals in the 1 1/2-mile Arlington H. (G2) as an odds-on favorite, Bowl Game turned in a pair of heart-stopping rallies in New York. He ran down long-time leader Native Courier to win the Man o’ War (G1) at Belmont by a head, and then captured the Turf Classic (G1) at Aqueduct in a three-way photo over that rival and Trillion, who would be named that season’s champion grass mare.

“He was a push-button horse, but always made you a little nervous,” Gaver III said. 

Bowl Game received his invitation to Laurel, where he would again face Trillion, Waya, and Native Courier. However, he would start as the third betting choice behind a pair of three-year-olds. French invader Le Marmot entered off a second-place finish in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), while Golden Act, like Bowl Game a multi-surface talent, had just won the Canadian International (G1) in fine style.

Day-long rains reduced the Laurel turf to a quagmire. Bowl Game raced in close attendance to Native Courier, who set farcical fractions of :29.60, :57.60, 1:25.40, 1:54.20, and 2:23.40 in the 1 1/2-mile event. After taking the lead inside the final quarter mile and headed briefly by Trillion, Bowl Game edged away to win by three parts of a length. Trillion finished second by a nose over Le Marmot, who encountered significant trouble in running and was thought by some to have been given a questionable ride by Phillipe Paquet.

“He will continue to run as long as he’s happy and wants to run,” Gaver Junior predictably said of Bowl Game, newly crowned as America’s best older turf male. Unfortunately, Bowl Game would race only once more, finishing second in an allowance in the summer of 1980. No other comebacks would be attempted.

One could argue Bowl Game’s premature retirement was especially ill-timed, with lucrative grass races like the Arlington Million about to be birthed. On the other hand, it could also have been fortuitous, as Bowl Game would bequeath the honor as the nation’s best grass horse to a more durable gelding named John Henry.

“Greentree was in it more for the sport than the business, as a lot of those outfits were,” Gaver III said. “They weren’t going to grind those out.”

Gaver Junior’s association with Greentree would continue through the 1981 season, during which the stable’s homebred colt Woodchopper won the Louisiana Derby (G2) and finished a fast closing second to Pleasant Colony in the Kentucky Derby (G1). However, Whitney’s fading health brought swift changes.

“Jack (Gaver) resigned two months ago because Whitney’s failing health had led to a cutback in the number of horses and the young trainer found himself dealing with middlemen who did not understand racing instead of with an owner who did,” columnist Ed Comerford wrote upon Whitney’s death in February 1982.

After operating a public stable for a few years, Gaver Junior eventually became a racing official in Florida, where he died in early 2002 at age 61.

“I don’t know what he would think about horse racing today,” said Gaver III about his father. “It seems like the horse has become secondary, or third, fourth, fifth down the line. The horse was everything to these guys.”

Late Bloomer produced two notable runners for Greentree in the 1980s. Ends Well was as versatile as his dam, capturing the United Nations H. (G1) on turf as well as the Hawthorne Gold Cup (G2) and Michigan Mile and One-Eighth H. (G2) on dirt. Fred Astaire was a Grade 2 winner and finished third behind Last Tycoon in the 1986 edition of the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). Both were trained by Bob Reinacher, who had been the lead assistant to Gaver Junior. Late Bloomer’s last offspring, the stakes-placed filly Bloomer, was a foal of 1997.

Bowl Game passed away in 2006 at the ripe age of 32, having spent his final years at a Virginia farm owned by Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation president Johnathan Miller.