Revelry, merriment, and debauchery are three words often associated with hockey. So perhaps it is only fitting that the championship trophy of the top league in the world, the Stanley Cup, has both borne witness to and been a material participant in such hijinks.
The Stanley Cup’s off-ice legend goes back generations. It was drop-kicked onto the frozen Rideau Canal after a drunken wager (Ottawa Silver Seven, 1905). It was forgotten completely at a photo studio, and turned into a flower pot by the owner’s mother until it was remembered and retrieved nearly a year later (Montreal Wanderers, 1907). It was stuck in – and then forgotten in – a roadside snowbank en route to a team party (Montreal Canadiens, 1924). It was used as a chimney and possibly a chamber pot (New York Rangers, 1940). It was thrown from an elevation into a swimming pool, arriving there only after first landing on a concrete pad (Pittsburgh Penguins, 1992). It’s been used several times as a baptismal font and a cereal bowl, and has been filled with enough liquor to inebriate a small country.
But amidst all the legends going back over a century, there was one moment that triggered controversy, and a claim that the Cup was shamefully “being prostituted”. Among all the history, all the hilarity, all the memories both vivid and hazy, what could possibly create such a stir?
The New York Rangers began play as an expansion team in 1926-27, and won three Stanley Cups in their first fourteen seasons. Each one was notable. 1928 featured an injury to goalie Lorne Chabot in Game 2, and 44-year-old head coach Lester Patrick stepped between the pipes and backstopped the Rangers to a 2-1 win which knotted the series at one game apiece. 1933 was the first Cup victory to be decided in overtime, as forward Bill Cook scored to give the Rangers a 3-1 series triumph over Toronto. And 1940 featured one of the greatest single-season teams in history defeating Toronto 4-2, with the clinching Game 6 also being decided in overtime on a Bryan Hextall goal.
1940 was also when a curse began. The mortgage on Madison Square Garden had been paid off during the season, and after the Cup victory it was decided to burn the mortgage papers in the bowl of the Cup. The Rangers had such a glorious start to their franchise, but as the years dragged on without another title, there were whispers that this act of desecration had cursed them.
But historical legends have a way of becoming larger than life. One cannot help but recall the newspaper reporter’s response to Ranse Stoddard at the end of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
In response to later questions of whether the incident of burning the MSG mortgage papers had really happened, a reporter did some digging.
But wait, there it is on Page 133 of the NHL Stanley Cup Centennial Book. An old, tattered photo from The New York Times. Gen. John Reed Kilpatrick and three fellow members of the Madison Square Corp. burning the $3 million mortgage on the old Garden on 49th Street in the bowl of the Stanley Cup early in 1941.
The hockey gods were so incensed by this greedy, money-grubbing, sacrilegious act that the Rangers were doomed never again to win the Stanley Cup.
You kiss the Stanley Cup. You hug the Stanley Cup. You sleep with the Stanley Cup. You drink champagne from the Stanley Cup. But as Lester Patrick, who like Francis ran the Rangers for many years, correctly pointed out, you don’t desecrate the Cup.Jacobs, Jeff. “TRYING TO EXTINGUISH THEIR CURSE IN THE CUP”. Hartford Courant, Jun 14 1994. Sports
(You may recognize the date on that citation. Or “Citation”, if you will. More on that later.)
Regardless of the origin of the curse, the Rangers suffered as the years progressed from 1940. They led the league in points in 1941-42, only to be bounced in the semifinals. This was followed by the mass exodus of players to fight in World War II, taking the team from a contender to one that posted an overall .285 points percentage over the ensuing four seasons.
They made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 1949-50, then became the first team to lose Game 7 of a Cup Final in overtime. This was followed by a wilderness period lasting nearly two decades. But with the emergence of players like Jean Ratelle, Brad Park, Ed Giacomin, and Vic Hadfield, it looked like the 1970s would finally bring about the end of the curse.
Despite some terrific teams in that decade, they could not break through: a 109-point season (1970-71) followed by a loss in the semifinals, a 109-point season (1971-72) followed by a loss in the Stanley Cup Final, a 102-point season (1972-73) followed by a loss in the semifinals, a 94-point season (1973-74) followed by another loss in the semifinals. After dropping back and re-tooling, they re-emerged in 1978-79, but saw their season end in the Cup Final at the hands of the last great Montreal dynasty.
Twice in the 1980s the Rangers posted a 90-point season, only to be unable to make it as far as the third round of the playoffs.
By 1991, it looked like the Rangers had settled into a fairly middling existence: a team that would finish a few points above .500, maybe win a playoff round, and go no further. Their last six seasons had seen point totals of 78, 76, 82, 82, 85, and 85.
Enter Mark Messier, who arrived in a trade from Edmonton and who in 1991-92 led the Rangers with 107 points as the team surged to the Presidents Trophy. Messier was the toast of Broadway, and of the league, winning the Hart Trophy and the Pearson as well as being named first-team All-NHL. But in the playoffs, it all fell apart against the 87-point Penguins. Despite the fact that the Penguins were playing without all-world forward Mario Lemieux (who had suffered a broken hand on a slash by Ranger forward Adam Graves in Game 2), and despite having a 2-1 series lead after three games, the Rangers were bounced from the playoffs after two late-game meltdowns and an uninspired Game 6.
In 1992-93, with the Rangers widely expected to contend again, it instead turned into a year of drama. Messier publicly feuded with coach Roger Neilson, and the team’s fortunes were dashed for good when defending Norris Trophy winner Brian Leetch broke his ankle after slipping on ice on a New York City sidewalk. After the season, Neilson was fired and Mike Keenan brought in to replace him.
To make a long story short, the Rangers won the Presidents Trophy again, then annihilated the Islanders and Capitals to make it through to the Eastern Conference Finals. It took seven games and then overtime to dispatch the upstart New Jersey Devils, but the Rangers would play for the Cup for just the third time since the curse began 54 years prior.
The Rangers dominated Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against Vancouver, only to lose in overtime on a Greg Adams goal. The Rangers scrapped back to tie it in Game 2, then blew out Vancouver in Game 3. In Game 4, the Rangers came back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game late in the second period, then took the lead for good with less than five minutes to go.
With a 3-1 series lead, and looking to clinch their first Cup since before Pearl Harbor, the Rangers and Canucks treated fans to one of the wildest periods of hockey in history in front of the MSG faithful. Game 5 was scoreless after one period, but Jeff Brown scored in the second to give the Canucks a 1-0 lead going into the third.
Early in the third, Geoff Courtnall swatted a fluttering backhander at an open net. Rangers goalie Mike Richter had it and lost it – seriously, that’s how announcer Gary Thorne described the play in real time – putting it into his own net for a 2-0 Canucks lead at 0:26 of the third. Pavel Bure then rocketed a shot off Leetch’s skate and past Richter to make it 3-0 at 2:48. The Rangers struck back almost immediately: Doug Lidster scored at 3:27 to make it 3-1, and Steve Larmer at 6:20 to make it 3-2. With the home crowd energized, Messier sent them into hysterics at 9:02 with a goal that tied the game at 3-3. Undoubtedly this was the moment…at least until Canucks defenseman Dave Babych struck back just 29 seconds later to give his team the 4-3 lead. Geoff Courtnall then made it 5-3 Vancouver at 12:20 of the third, and Bure sealed it with a goal at 13:04. After a back-and-forth defensive battle that had lasted two periods, the teams combined for eight third-period goals in just 12:38 of game play.
Vancouver tied the series in Game 6, but the Rangers prevailed 3-2 in Game 7 to win their first Cup since 1940.
During their playoff run, the Rangers had flashed, gritted, streaked, hammered, scrapped, and suffered, before ultimately emerging as champions.
For Rangers forward Eddie Olczyk, the victory was exceptionally sweet. He had been acquired from Winnipeg during the 1992-93 season in a trade for Tie Domi and Kris King. The Jets were 13-19-3 when the trade was made, but went 27-18-4 the rest of the way to make the playoffs. The Rangers, who were 19-14-4, slumped to a 15-25-7 record over the remainder of the season.
Olczyk became a popular whipping boy for the fans and the media alike, and the move was bemoaned as one of the worst in franchise history. But in 1993-94, as the Rangers were putting together a 112-point season and winning the Stanley Cup, Winnipeg plummeted to a 24-51-9 record. But even as the backlash over the trade was forgotten, Olczyk found himself in the position of being a whipping boy again, only this time it was at the hands of head coach Mike Keenan.
Olczyk played in 36 of the team’s first 48 games, dropping further down the lineup as time went on. On January 28, 1994, he suffered a major hand injury in a game against Anaheim. But despite a fairly rapid recovery, Olczyk was relegated to the team’s Black Aces contingent – players who would practice with the team, and then be together in the press box for games as healthy scratches. Of the team’s final 59 games between the regular season and playoffs, Olczyk appeared in just two: a regular season contest on March 22 against Calgary, and Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against New Jersey.
What he brought to the table, along with the rest of the team’s Black Aces, was leadership and the ability to step in when called upon. The Black Aces were a motley collection of depth players and those who were the victims of Keenan’s endless mind games and manipulation, or had otherwise incurred Keenan’s wrath. The core contingent was Olczyk (37 games played), forwards Mike Hartman (35), Mike Hudson (48), Phil Bourque (16), and Nick Kypreos (46), defensemen Peter Andersson (8), and backup goalie Glenn Healy. (Healy had ended up on Keenan’s list when the longtime Islander goalie was summoned to the coach’s office and asked, “What’s the difference between me and [Islanders coach] Al Arbour?” Without missing a beat, Healy responded, “Four Cups”. Keenan’s red-faced response was just as instantaneous, albeit much more obscene and loud.)1
Wait, you want another Keenan/Healy story? Asked about Keenan’s treatment of Healy, goalie Mike Richter said, “That is why there is a five-day waiting period on buying a gun.” Told of Richter’s comment, Healy said, “I’m not worried….I don’t have any priors.”2
When the Rangers handed out their team awards after the season, it was Olczyk who won the Players’ Player Award. In a year when Adam Graves set a new team record with 52 goals, and Sergei Zubov led the team with 89 points, and Mark Messier guaranteed victory and then went off for a hat trick, and the team won the freakin’ Stanley Cup, it was Olczyk who the other Rangers pointed to as their ultimate team guy.3
But Eddie Olczyk wasn’t the only afterthought to emerge as a champion in 1994.
Hockey’s Great Chalice, and Gin
For casual or passing fans of Thoroughbred horse racing, the Triple Crown races – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes – are the ultimate attraction which determine immortality. For hardcore fans, they’re still awfully important even if one knows that Dr. Fager, John Henry, Forego, Cigar, and Buckpasser are all-time greats who didn’t win so much as a single Triple Crown race among them. In some ways, the Triple Crown races are like the World Junior Championships: some legends of hockey didn’t perform well or even play in the tournament, but even casual fans will remember Justin Pogge’s historically dominant performance and Jordan Eberle’s last-second heroics until the end of time. (Sure, Secretariat beat Forego at the 1973 Kentucky Derby, but did Secretariat win the Woodward Stakes four consecutive years like Forego did? Did Secretariat win the 1976 Marlboro Cup as a six-year-old carrying 137 pounds like Forego did? There’s so much more to horse racing than the three-year-old season and the three big races.)
As 1993 turned to 1994, and as the late winter races got underway, the one question in the back of everyone’s mind was the same as it had been for over a decade: “Is this the year?” No one had claimed the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and the 15-year drought was now the second-longest in history. In those 15 years, just four horses even won the first two races to earn the opportunity at immortality. And of those four who chased ultimate glory at Belmont, all fell short. All-time great Spectacular Bid had faded down the stretch in 1979 – a race still talked about today as the ultimate “what if”. Pleasant Colony was a length and a half slow in 1981. Alysheba was barely competitive in 1987. And most recently, Sunday Silence was soundly defeated by rival Easy Goer in 1989.
Would 1994 be the year? It certainly appeared to be a good possibility, with what looked like a handful of potential all-timers emerging from the pre-Derby races. But the one who evoked the most praise was Holy Bull, who had won all four races he ran as a two-year-old – including a surprise win over unbeaten Dehere in a misty and muddy Belmont Futurity. After Holy Bull finished a disappointing 6th in the Fountain of Youth Stakes to begin the 1994 season, an equipment adjustment was made, and he dominated both the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes to emerge as the early favorite for the 1994 Kentucky Derby. He’d raced eight times with seven victories, six of them wire-to-wire and with the two most recent being against very strong competition.
The field for the 1994 Kentucky Derby, the crown jewel and the first leg of the Triple Crown, was a deep one loaded with star power. There were those who felt that Brocco, Tabasco Cat, and Irgun could win the Run for the Roses. But all eyes were on one horse in particular.
How good is Holy Bull? Perhaps the best horse to come along in years. Perhaps one of the sport’s all-time greatest by the time his career is finished.
A Kentucky Derby victory in two weeks would solidify his stature as, at the very least, the best of his generation.
Said one observer: “He has reached the Spend a Buck level. If he wins the Derby, he’ll move into Spectacular Bid territory, and if he continues to win the Triple Crown series, he’ll rank up there with Seattle Slew.”
Leon Blusiewicz, a Kentucky-based trainer, put it more bluntly: “If nothing happens to him, he’s got the Triple Crown written across his forehead. He doesn’t look like a 3-year-old; he looks like a 4-year-old. I think he’s a super horse.”
And after last week’s victory in the Blue Grass Stakes, opposing trainer D. Wayne Lukas suggested they just go ahead and “throw the bouquet his way.”
Spencer, Clark. “HOLY BULL TO BECOME A RARE RACING GIANT?.” Miami Herald, SPORTS, 24 Apr. 1994, p. 16D
The star power even carried over into the owners’ boxes – Brocco was owned by movie producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli of the James Bond franchise, Soul of the Matter was owned by singer Burt Bacharach, and Powis Castle was owned by Motown legend Berry Gordy.4
As race day approached there was a bit of intrigue, as Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey withdrew from riding Go For Gin to take over Irgun.5 There had been whispers about Go For Gin lacking competitive drive, and a run of listless second- and third-place finishes leading up to the Derby seemed to back this up. It seemed unbecoming – Go For Gin, who is named after an aggressive card play (and not the alcoholic spirit), had been foaled by Never Knock, also named after an aggressive play. In the card game gin rummy, knocking is a conservative strategic play, and to never knock means aggressively “going for gin” (even at huge risk) on every hand. The idea that a horse named after an aggressive play didn’t have enough competitive spirit to contend for a win was outrageous, but there he was, coming up short race after race.
If someone was looking for a jockey in 1994, there could be no one better than Bailey. Just a year prior, he’d ridden longshot Sea Hero perfectly through a crowded field to win the Kentucky Derby. In the previous four years alone, Bailey had scored wins in each of the three Triple Crown races, in addition to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (twice), the Kentucky Oaks, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Jaipur Stakes (twice), and the Bonnie Miss Stakes. His run aboard French import Arcangues at the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Classic was the stuff of legends – Arcangues was a 133:1 longshot, and Bailey (who spoke no French) could neither understand the trainer’s instructions nor correctly pronounce the horse’s name.
But after riding Go For Gin to a second-place finish in the 1994 Wood Memorial – his third straight disappointing loss aboard the horse – Bailey decided that he’d had enough and took the mount for Irgun.5
Finding a Jockey
To replace Bailey aboard Go For Gin, trainer Nick Zito tried to track down jockey Chris McCarron. Although McCarron had been immensely successful in the 1980s, the 1990s had been much less kind. Since 1990, his only Grade I stakes wins were in two different Breeders’ Cup races (both in 1992, the Juvenile and the Distaff), the Preakness Stakes (also 1992), the Santa Anita Derby (once), John C. Mabee Stakes (once), and the Kentucky Oaks (once), a far cry from the success he’d posted years prior. McCarron was tough as hell – he’d taken Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes while still recovering from surgery to repair his leg, which had been broken in five places after being thrown from his mount just six months prior.
But in April 1994, it all seemed like a distant memory as McCarron was sitting in the jockey’s room at Santa Anita, flipping through the day’s race sheet. When the phone in the room (located on a post next to McCarron’s locker) rang, McCarron ignored it. As it continued to ring, an annoyed McCarron finally decided to just answer it. On the other end was Nick Zito, who offered McCarron the chance to see what he thought of Go For Gin. The day that Zito and McCarron first spoke was just two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. But with McCarron already committed to his usual jockey duties at Santa Anita, he wouldn’t be able to even take a look at Go For Gin for another week – meaning that if McCarron liked Go For Gin, and if he agreed to ride, he would be going from first meeting to testing to training runs to running in the Kentucky Derby in the span of just six days. McCarron didn’t hesitate, agreeing to the offer.6
Eleven days before the Derby, Irgun (with Jerry Bailey) was forced to withdraw with a hoof injury, and it looked like the race would be Holy Bull’s for sure. Maybe Brocco could mount a charge, and one couldn’t count out Tabasco Cat, but the end result seemed like a matter of destiny. McCarron had yet to fly out to see what he thought of Go For Gin, but Bailey took the mount for Blumin Affair rather than try to go back to the horse who had vexed him so.
McCarron arrived in Louisville four days later, and seemed impressed with Go For Gin – enough to call his wife Judy (who had a distaste for the spectacle of the Derby) and tell her to make sure to be there for the race. But being impressed with a horse is a far cry from being competitive, particularly in a race that was expected to mark the public anointing of a superhorse in Holy Bull.
After the post draw in which he drew the favorable 4 position, Holy Bull was set at 8:5 odds in early betting, followed by Brocco at 3:1 and Tabasco Cat at 6:1. Go For Gin was set at 15:1, fifth in the field.7
Asked about the race, and his own chances with Go For Gin, Zito said, “Anybody who stays close to Holy Bull can win the Derby, and the Bull can’t be rated. The only time he was off the pace was a disaster for him.” When asked about whether Panamanian sprinter Ulises could hang with Holy Bull, Zito said, “Holy Bull’s going to say, ‘What do you want?'”8
But then the weather forecast changed, with intermittent rain predicted for both the day before and the day of the Derby. Brocco was bred to run in the mud – could he score the upset? Of course, Holy Bull had won the Belmont Futurity seven months prior in the fog on a muddy track against an unbeaten favorite – could mud really prevent him from becoming a legend?
As the Churchill Downs track completely disintegrated into a muddy slop, Holy Bull was dropped from 8:5 down to 2:1 odds.
And They’re Off in the Kentucky Derby!
From the Cincinnati Post the morning of the Derby:
Not since Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in 1977 and Kentucky Derby runner-up Easy Goer in 1989 has Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia felt so strongly about the victory chances of a Derby starter.
That’s why Battaglia says he believes about the only suspense in today’s 120th running of the Kentucky Derby will be the margin of victory for favorite Holy Bull.
Gamble, Tom. “Holy Bull figures to trample field.” The Cincinnati Post, Sports, 7 May 1994, p. 1D
Rain splattered the TV cameras as post time approached, and the track itself had become bogged down with every type of mud imaginable. This would be the sloppiest Derby since Citation’s victory in 1948, which had been a springboard for that horse to win the Triple Crown and become a legend for the ages. History was expected to repeat itself.
As the track continued to degrade, the owners and trainer for Kandaly decided to scratch their horse from the race over fears that he would be unable to handle the track.9
How bad were conditions? This undated photo of Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye shows what it can look like after a muddy race. A jockey will normally wear two sets of goggles, possibly three, for normal conditions. As the first set becomes caked with dirt and dust, the jockey will take them off to regain clear vision with a clean set. In this photo, Delahoussaye has three mud-splattered pairs dropped down, with his fourth (clean) set up on his helmet.
As post time drew near, and as the news spread that Kandaly had been scratched, Chris McCarron looked out onto the swampy track and decided that he would ride with six pairs of goggles.10
At 5:34 PM on May 7, 1994, the gate swung open and fourteen Thoroughbreds charged forward into a veritable bog. Ulises quickly moved to the front, chased by Go For Gin. Go For Gin took the lead at the first wire, as Holy Bull got boxed in and fell to 6th. Go For Gin led into the turn, out in front of Ulises and Powis Castle. The field held moving onto the backstretch as Smilin Singin Sam mounted a charge for the front, which was held off with ease. Go For Gin continued to lead into the far turn as the field scrambled for position, looking to make a play for the front. And coming off the far turn, a swarm consisting of Brocco, Blumin Affair, and Strodes Creek all made their move, as Holy Bull faded toward the back of the field.
But there was no catching Go For Gin on this day, as he pulled away down the stretch to score the huge upset. The horse who was said to have no competitive drive, ridden by a jockey who’d met him for the first time only a week prior, had emerged victorious over the strongest field in over a decade while happily splashing through a river of mud.
The mud was everywhere. Chunky mud. Sloppy mud. Runny mud. Nasty mud. Everywhere.
The wild walk from the Churchill Downs backstretch to the paddock for the 120th Kentucky Derby was a walk through split-pea soup. No matter how close Nick Zito moved to the outside of the racetrack, he couldn’t find a single step of dry ground.
The mud was running inside Zito’s black shoes, soaking his socks and staining his pants. Go for Gin? Try Go for Galoshes.
Bozich, Rick. “The mud was everywhere. Chunky mud. Sloppy mud. Runny mud. Nasty mud. Everywhere.” USA TODAY, 7 May 1994
Random Extra Note
In the aftermath of the Derby triumph, Chris McCarron was a popular TV and radio guest. One such appearance was a phone interview with radio host Jim Rome, who’d risen to international notoriety just a month prior after a particular incident involving an NFL quarterback.
At the beginning of the interview with Rome, McCarron immediately summoned his inner Jim Everett and said, “If you call me Chris one time, I’m hanging up on you.” 11
In the days after the Kentucky Derby, reaction turned to reflection. Not all of it was positive.
In the cold light of the day after the 120th Kentucky Derby, triumphant Go for Gin wasn’t getting a lot of credit.
Charlie Whittingham, runner-up Strodes Creek’s trainer, said “the breaks in the race” made the difference in Go for Gin’s 9-1 upset. “The winner got a good (trip) all the way.”
Jimmy Croll, trainer of slow-starting favorite Holy Bull, proclaimed that “as sure as I’m standing here right now, Go for Gin can’t outrun him” after an even start.
Jack Van Berg, who trains third-place finisher Blumin Affair, said “the winner didn’t scare us.”
Randy Winick, who trains Brocco, said, “Let’s not take the spotlight away from Nicky (Zito, Go for Gin’s trainer),” but added, “There were other factors.”
And D. Wayne Lukas, Tabasco Cat’s trainer, totaled up the consensus: “I think everybody feels like it was a throw-out race.”
Modesti, Kevin. “RIVALS CONTEND GO FOR GIN LUCKED INTO DERBY WIN.” Daily News of Los Angeles, SPORTS, 9 May 1994, p. S10
The second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, was run two weeks later on a fast dry track. Go For Gin led for much of the way, but was overtaken at the top of the stretch by Tabasco Cat, who ended up winning by 3/4 of a length. Third place went to Concern, six lengths back of Go For Gin. The Triple Crown drought would last for another year.
At the Belmont Stakes, it was once again Tabasco Cat winning, with Go For Gin right behind in second.
Although the muddiest Kentucky Derby in nearly a half-century proved to be the last win of Go For Gin’s career, his performance in the Preakness and Belmont proved that his ultimate triumph was no fluke. He may have been at his best in the mud, but he certainly had the look of a champion.
After the Triumph
On July 1, Eddie Olczyk took the Stanley Cup to Belmont Park, home base for Go For Gin. As a longtime horse racing enthusiast, setting up at one of the cathedrals of racing while carrying the greatest trophy in sports would have been quite a thrill…and an opportunity to have a fundraiser. Patrons could pay $2 for a picture with the Cup, with the resulting proceeds going to charity. And for Olczyk, it gave him the chance to get up close and person with his equine counterpart.
Over 15,000 people stood in line to get their picture with the Cup. But out of every snapshot taken over the two days that Olczyk was at Belmont Park, one particular photo caused a bit of a stir. The Stanley Cup may have previously been used as a flower pot, a football, a chimney, and many other things over its century of existence to that point. But when a picture of Olczyk with trainer Nick Zito surfaced, it was the sight of Go For Gin’s big brown snout stuck in the bowl of the Cup which prompted an immediate outcry.
And one person with a very personal connection to the Cup was the most outspoken.
That’s too long for Ole Peterson, a former engraver of the Cup. His family – father Carl, Ole and brothers John and Arno – was commissioned in 1962 by NHL president Clarence Campbell to redesign the Cup after it became unwieldy.
The family, which ran a silversmith shop in downtown Montreal for almost 40 years before the business closed in 1977, when Carl Petersen died, was responsible for engraving the names of the winning team onto the Cup until 1976.
“I’m pretty emotional about this,” Petersen, 67, said Monday at his home in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield.
“I’m stunned that the Cup is being treated with such a lack of respect. What if the Mona Lisa was taken out of the Louvre, hung in [a suburban] mall and kids were throwing spitballs at it?”
Since the Rangers’ victory, the Cup has appeared on The David Letterman Show, served as a seat for diapered babies and has been on a whirlwind tour of some of New York’s finer watering holes.
Last week, over the course of two days, more than 17,000 people waited in long lines at Belmont Park for a chance to look at the Cup and Olczyk spent an hour showing it to Go For Gin.
“The Cup is being prostituted by allowing people to hug and kiss it,” said Petersen, who left the family business in 1972 and is now the switchboard operator at John Abbott College.
“The reputation of the Cup has been tarnished. This is mind-boggling to me. My father must be turning in his grave.”
Canadian Press. “Stanley Cup taken on bizarre adventures: Hockey Hall of Fame doesn’t mind but some are dismayed by ‘abuse’.” Kingston Whig-Standard, Sports, 6 July 1994, p. 33
In the previous ten days, the Cup had been to a children’s hospital to visit a 13-year-old heart transplant patient, to Yankee Stadium, to a Tampa Bay Tritons (RHI) game, to the NHL Draft for a four-day display, to the Rangers’ post-draft party for team personnel and draft picks, and then with Olczyk to Meadowlands Racetrack and then Belmont.12 So I don’t think there’s any real doubt as to exactly which event and photo it was that set Mr. Petersen off.
I do not wish to berate Mr. Petersen, who I can find no further record of and who would be 93 or 94 years old today if he is still alive. But I’m of the opinion that the wild (mis)adventures of the Stanley Cup over the years is a part of what makes it as unique as it is. The Cup has been won over the years by teams composed of players largely from working-class backgrounds, and simply tossing the trophy from one boat to the next wouldn’t even crack the top 100 list of things that has happened to it over the years. That was cause for outcry this year in the NFL, which has a new trophy made every year for the Super Bowl-winning team.
To me, far from being an act of desecration, there are few pictures that more clearly show what sports is all about. Olczyk had endured a great deal of very public disrespect over his season and a half with the Rangers, from the fans, the media, and his coach. And he overcame it. Go For Gin had been very publicly disrespected, as his jockey decided to take another mount rather than try to win with the horse he’d ridden for the last five races. Nick Zito had been publicly disrespected, as his previous Derby triumph (with Strike the Gold in 1991) had been dismissed as a fluke – and Zito himself was referred to by others (through the media) as a better person than a trainer. And Chris McCarron, who is not part of the picture but without whom none of it would be possible, had overcome years of adversity to prove that he still had the heart and the skill of a champion. And even after winning in the Kentucky Derby, Go For Gin, Zito, and McCarron were still disrespected as if the win was illegitimate due to track conditions. And they overcame it, being vindicated despite falling just short in the next two races.
In any case, the Hockey Hall of Fame decided to address the controversy, rejecting the idea that there should be any lasting changes to the way that it was handled by the winning team. After all, Clark Gillies had once fed his German Shepherd (Hombre) from the Cup, and brushed off any criticism by asking why it would be an issue since Hombre was a good dog. And this didn’t curse the Islanders or otherwise tarnish the Cup.
Asked about any damage to the Cup, Phil Pritchard, officially titled “director of information and acquisitions” for the Hall of Fame, said, “We don’t mind some of the scratches. It just adds to the character.”13
The NHL chimed in as well. Bernadette Mansur, NHL vice president for corporate communications, brushed off the criticism by saying, “I think the players respect the Cup. They’re just enthusiastic.”13
With the Hall of Fame and the league dismissing any sort of future change, the controversy fizzled out just as quickly as it had emerged.
Did It Happen?
In the years since Olczyk appeared with Go For Gin, there has been some question of whether it actually happened as commonly remembered. From a story on NHL.com in 2010, we find this:
And if Eddie Olczyk was at the table, he could tell Vince, Larry and the World Series Trophy about the time he took Stanley to Belmont Park, the thoroughbred racetrack in New York, to meet the 1994 Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin while the horse was training at the track.
Olczyk’s New York Rangers teammates were parading the Cup around town after winning in 1994 when Olczyk got an idea.
Why not take the Cup out to Belmont? Olczyk liked racing, so he could combine celebrating the Cup win and being at the track.
“Each guy got a day with the Stanley Cup,” Olczyk said. “My day came and I got in on a Friday night and brought it out to the Meadowlands Racetrack for a nice evening, real quiet with a few friends, and the next day we had we had a nice charity day out at Belmont where we raised money for Ice Hockey in Harlem and the Backstretch Fund and I introduced the Stanley Cup to Go for Gin and the trainer Nick Zito.
“I got a lot of world-wide attention. That picture ended up being in the Japanese racing form, so it got a lot of headlines.”
That picture was of Go for Gin looking like he was eating or drinking something from the bowl of the Cup, but Olczyk insisted that was not the case. It is an urban legend — at least that’s Olczyk’s side of the story. Go for Gin never commented. Nor did Stanley.
“He actually stuck his head in,” Olczyk said. “He never drank or ate anything out of it, contrary to other reports. It was a great day and I will always know in history that in that day Go for Gin was introduced to the Stanley Cup.”
So Olczyk denies that Go For Gin ate or drank anything from the Cup, and the famous photo is inconclusive.
It’s not the only photo of the event that exists.
From the fine folks at Blood-Horse, we see a slightly different photo. Although the coloring isn’t quite the same due to a difference in lighting and the angle, it’s unquestionably Olczyk holding the Cup, it’s unquestionably Nick Zito supporting the base of it, and that horse is unquestionably Go For Gin. And looking at it from this angle, we can see the champion Thoroughbred with his mouth partially open, his tongue exposed, and a partial stream of what appears to be horse feed falling from his mouth to the ground.
So it would certainly seem that, despite Olczyk’s statement to the contrary, Go For Gin did in fact eat directly from the Stanley Cup. But if Stanley Cup champions (and their friends and families) can eat and drink from the Cup, why couldn’t a Kentucky Derby-winning Thoroughbred horse?
In the years since, trainer Nick Zito has gone on to become a Hall of Famer. And although a Zito-trained horse has never completed Thoroughbred racing’s ultimate hat trick to win the Triple Crown, two of them have spoiled Triple Crown bids at the Belmont Stakes: Birdstone (a 36:1 longshot) chased down Smarty Jones in 2004, and Da’Tara (who went off at 38:1 odds) defeated Big Brown in 2008.
Speaking of the Triple Crown, the drought reached a record 37 years (with nine more horses winning both the Derby and Preakness before falling short at Belmont) before American Pharoah broke through in 2015.
Chris McCarron retired as an active jockey in June 2002 as the all-time leader in purse winnings. In 2006, he opened the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, KY – the only college degree program in the United States with a focus on producing jockeys.
Eddie Olczyk retired from hockey after the 1999-00 season. Since retiring, he has been the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins (2003-04 season, plus the beginning of 2005-06), and he has been a commentator for both hockey and horse racing. He also fought and overcame a bout with stage 3 colon cancer.
Tabasco Cat got his revenge in the weeks that followed the Kentucky Derby, beating Go For Gin at the Preakness Stakes by 3/4 of a length and at the Belmont Stakes by two lengths. He was retired to stud after the 1994 racing season, although his stud career was largely undistinguished. Tabasco Cat died in 2004 at age 13, from an apparent heart attack while in the breeding shed.
Holy Bull recovered from the crushing loss at the Kentucky Derby, winning his next six races – including the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap, Travers Stakes, and Woodward Stakes that very year. He was named Champion 3-Year-Old Colt and Horse of the Year for 1994. At the Donn Handicap in February 1995, he was engaged in a furious duel with Cigar when a misstep caused a significant tendon injury. Holy Bull did not finish the race, and was retired due to the injury. (This race is also important in that it marked Cigar’s third consecutive win in what ultimately became a record-tying sixteen-race win streak.)
Holy Bull’s stud career was a notable one, siring Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and champion Macho Uno among his 51 stakes winners. He was inducted into the United States Racing Hall of Fame in 2001, and he was placed 64th on Blood-Horse magazine’s Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century. He died in 2017 at age 26.
As for Go For Gin? Well, he’s now the world’s oldest living Kentucky Derby winner and the world’s oldest living Triple Crown race winner, approaching age 30. He lives out his days in retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park, just off I-75 north of Lexington. His stall – previously occupied by the legendary John Henry and Alysheba – is right across from 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, next to 1997 Triple Crown-winning pacer Western Dreamer, and diagonally across from 2001 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Point Given. (There’s another hockey connection there as well. Point Given’s Belmont win was one of the most dominant in history, a twelve-length victory while posting the fourth-fastest time in history. Although his offspring were largely undistinguished on the track, he did produce 2007 Canadian Horse of the Year Sealy Hill. Sealy Hill raced for Melnyk Racing Stables, run by Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk.)
But one question has baffled people for the last 27 years: how did such an undistinguished horse who had just five wins in nineteen races score such a monumental upset on such a sloppy track? In a field of fourteen horses, several of whom had run and won races on mud, how did he alone have no problem handling it? Well, this video from last year may help explain it: even as an old man, Go For Gin absolutely loves and thrives in dirt and mud. He loves it even when the ground is frozen and he has a blanket on. Even on his 29th birthday celebration last year, fresh off eating a birthday cake of peppermints and carrots, the first thing he did was run off and throw himself on the ground to get as dirty as possible. So on the sloppiest track in 46 years, it was the one who most enjoyed splashing around who was able to get enough traction to dominate the race and score an upset for the ages.
As for the famous photo of Olczyk, Zito, and Go For Gin, it depicts just one more amazing moment in the 128-year history of the greatest trophy in sports – when a group of unexpected champions across two sports shared in ultimate glory for all time.
1 McKenzie, Bob. “Quick-witted Healy made sure laugh was on Keenan.” The Toronto Star, SPORTS, 12 Nov. 1995, p. F2
2 “RANGER NOTES.” The (Newark, NJ) Star-Ledger, NEWS, 8 Mar. 1994.
3 “RANGER NOTES.” The (Newark, NJ) Star-Ledger, NEWS, 19 Apr. 1994
4 Peddicord, Ross. “Win, place or show biz: TV, movie personalities plunk money onto Derby stage.” Austin American-Statesman, SPORTS, 7 May 1994, p. E7
5 Reed, Billy . “HANDLERS SURE IRGUN IS ‘WHERE HE BELONGS’.” Lexington Herald-Leader SPORTS, 22 Apr. 1994, p. C1
7 Searcy, Jay. “HOLY BULL LEADS STRONG DERBY FIELD \ HE WAS MADE THE FAVORITE. NO SURPRISE THERE. HE ALSO DREW A VERY GOOD POST POSITION..” Philadelphia Inquirer, SPORTS, 6 May 1994, p. D01
8 Modesti, Kevin. “CAN ANYONE DENY LEAD TO FAVORED HOLY BULL? – THREE FAST-STARTERS WITH HEART MAY TRY.” Daily News of Los Angeles, SPORTS, 5 May 1994, p. S1
9 Fortus, Bob. “KANDALY POINTED TOWARD PREAKNESS.” The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), SPORTS, 9 May 1994, p. D10
10 “Go For Gin crowd ends up singing in the rain.” Daily Breeze (Torrance, CA), SPORTS, 8 May 1994, p. C14.
11 “Tabasco Cat claws past ‘Gin’ as bettors’ choice.” The (Baltimore, MD) Sun, SPORTS, 21 May 1994, p. 14C.
12 Dellapina, John. “LONG SUMMER’S ODYSSEY FOR HOCKEY’S BIGGEST PRIZE – 90-DAY TOUR DELAYS CUP’S TRIP TO HALL.” The Seattle Times, SPORTS, 2 Oct. 1994, p. C2
13 Rappaport, Ken. “AFTER RANGERS WIN, CUP HAS BEEN ALL OVER TOWN.” Rocky Mountain News , SPORTS, 10 July 1994, p. 12B