The Profile: Cranking Up the Horsepower
Three Triple Crown contenders in as many years. With another big horse coming up, one has to ask, Is Delaware becoming bluegrass country?
Hard Spun, owned by Rick Porter of Wilmington, wins the 2007 Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
Photograph by Jack McCartney III
Last November, an unusually large crowd that included well-known horsemen and half a dozen reporters and photographers gathered along the hedge outside the paddock at Delaware Park in Stanton.
“Which one is he?” one woman asked as she strained to see the two-year-old thoroughbreds that paraded through the paddock. “They’re all so beautiful.”
“There he is,” said a man in a Smarty Jones cap. He pointed toward a tall, lean bay colt standing in the No. 1 stall. “That’s him. That’s Hard Spun.”
A car door slammed, causing the big colt to rear. Trainer Larry Jones grabbed the horse’s shank, then eased him back to earth. He spoke quietly to Hard Spun and patted his well-muscled neck. As the animal settled down, Jones scanned the paddock to find all eyes watching his colt. He let out a breath and smiled as if to say, “He’s just fine.” Excitement ran high. Hard Spun, after all, had won his first race, just a month before, by an amazing 12 lengths.
As grooms led the horses out of their stalls, a trainer boosted Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Stewart Elliott onto one horse. Another gave Preakness and Belmont winner Jeremy Rose a leg up. Journeyman jockey Mario Pino, wearing the red-and-white silks of Fox Hill Farm, walked with assurance toward the big Hard Spun.
As Pino and Hard Spun trotted toward the starting gate, cameras began flashing, photographers scrambling along the rail to get a better angle. Hard Spun seemed to know the cameras were there for him. He turned his head toward them as if to smile.
“What a beauty,” one shooter remarked.
The deep Delaware Park track was muck, the result of a morning downpour. Hard Spun clearly didn’t like the mud packed into his hooves.
The colts moved away from the gate, Hard Spun stalking the lead horse from second place, uncomfortable on the wet track. But on the backstretch, with the front-runner leading by a mere head, Hard Spun bolted, then flashed down the homestretch to win by a commanding five lengths.
“I was so nervous with all the people here and all the expectations,” his smiling owner said in the winner’s circle. “I was just happy to get him home. I don’t think he was real comfortable on the track, but he’s that good that he handled it anyway.”
As reporters swarmed around him, Jones tried to contain his enthusiasm. “We’ve tried hard not to get excited about him,” Jones said, tipping back his 10-gallon hat. “He’s led us to believe we have some good things here. With each race you get a little more into it. He’s handled horses with relative ease. It’s hard not to get excited about him.”
The dazzling Hard Spun is the latest on a growing list of standout horses with compelling ties to Delaware. And there’s every reason to believe that list will grow.
John Servis, trainer of 2004 Triple Crown contender Smarty Jones of Chester County, Pennsylvania, selected Hard Spun for Wilmington’s Rick Porter, owner of Fox Hill Farm, from a crop of Kentucky yearlings. When Porter and Servis parted company, Jones took over Hard Spun’s training. The horse exhibited enthusiasm and heart right from the start.
Hard Spun is one of the last sons of the magnificent Danzig. Before dying in January 2006 at the age of 29, Danzig sired 1,074 foals that earned a total of more than $101 million on the racetrack.
Hard Spun finished his two-year-old season by winning Philadelphia Park’s Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes in December. Then Jones took the colt to New Orleans to make his three-year-old debut in January’s Lecomte Stakes. Hard Spun smoked his rivals in the one-mile test. Then, on February 19, the colt faced his first defeat, finishing fourth in Oaklawn Park’s Southwest Stakes. The loss took some of the shine off of Hard Spun’s career. But on March 24, he bounced back by winning the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway Park to establish himself as a top Kentucky Derby contender. Even before the victory, the colt had earned himself a place on a growing list of standout horses with connections to Delaware.
The most famous is Barbaro. Months before he swept to victory in last year’s Kentucky Derby, the big bay won his debut at Delaware Park on October 4, 2005. Unlike Hard Spun’s first Delaware victory, Barbaro won on Delaware’s turf course, not dirt.
Though a breathtakingly dominant triumph, it didn’t fuel speculation about the Kentucky Derby right away. Barbaro, a son of the great turf sire Dynaformer, was widely expected to continue running on grass. The Derby is a dirt race. Trainer Michael Matz continued running him fruitfully in turf races until trying him on the dirt in the February 2006 Holy Bull Stakes. Barbaro’s victory in that muddy race convinced Matz he had a Derby horse. Matz, a former Olympic equestrian, raced Barbaro only once more before the Kentucky Derby.
Barbaro peaked at just the right time, the first Saturday in May, to win the 132nd Kentucky Derby by the largest margin in 60 years. Many racing fans still believe the undefeated colt would have won the Preakness and Belmont, too, had he not shattered his right hind leg at the start of the Preakness. His tactical speed would have been perfect for the tight turns at Maryland’s Pimlico raceway. His endurance pedigree qualified him for victory in the grueling mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes.
After the breakdown ended his career, the colt fought to stay alive at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square. Eight months later, painful laminitis proved too much. His owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, stood beside him as world-renowned veterinarian Dean Richardson euthanized Barbaro on January 29.
“Grief is the price we all pay for love,’’ Gretchen Jackson said during an emotional news conference the day after Barbaro’s death.
The Jacksons, of West Grove, Pennsylvania, had high hopes for their colt from the beginning. They paid $100,000 to breed Barbaro’s mother, La Ville Rouge, to Dynaformer at Kentucky’s Three Chimneys farm. The aging Dynaformer is the sire of some of racing’s most brilliant performers over the past decade. Had Barbaro been sold as a two-year-old, he could have easily fetched $1 million or more. But the Jacksons kept their colt and Barbaro fulfilled his lofty potential.
If the Jacksons expected great things from their colt, Barbaro’s Delaware Park predecessor, Afleet Alex, far exceeded his owners’ expectations. Five newcomers to the sport bought the Florida-bred Alex at Maryland’s 2004 Fasig-Tipton two-year-old in training sale for the rock bottom price of $75,000. Chuck Zacney, Bob Brittingham, Joe Judge, Joe Lerro and Jen Reeves made Alex the first purchase of Cash is King stable. Delaware Park trainer Tim Ritchey chose Alex for the group after watching the small but sturdy colt strut through the ring.
“Tim knows horses,” principal owner Chuck Zacney said seven months after the purchase. “There was something about the way Alex moved, his athleticism, that Tim just liked. But we had no idea how good Alex would turn out to be.”
That summer Afleet Alex won his first race at Delaware Park by 11 lengths and his second by 12. Ritchey immediately began charting a schedule of top races for Alex.
“When Tim started talking about the Kentucky Derby, I thought he was nuts,” Lerro said. “I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Ritchey’s ambition for the horse turned out to be prophetic. In August 2004 he took the colt to Saratoga, New York, where the nation’s top horses compete each year. Alex established himself as the top two-year-old with impressive victories in the Sanford and Hopeful stakes, running faster than Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Secretariat.
“I think he’s the best two-year-old in the nation,” Ritchey said at the end of the year. “Nobody else has come close to doing what he’s done.”
On the first Saturday in May 2005 Alex joined a Kentucky Derby field in which Delaware was well represented. Nearly a quarter of that talented field began their winning ways at Delaware Park. Alex, Derby favorite Bellamy Road, Closing Argument and High Limit all won races here.
California-based Giacomo won the roses that year, but the place and show horses were Closing Argument and Afleet Alex. And Alex was far from finished. The plucky colt nearly took a fatal fall at the Preakness Stakes after tangling with another horse, but left the crowd breathless when he recovered to shoot ahead to win by four lengths. In the Belmont Stakes, Alex blew by Giacomo as though the Derby winner was standing still, winning the marathon race by a convincing seven lengths. Two jewels of racing’s 2005 Triple Crown belonged to a Delaware Park colt. Turf writers named Alex the three-year-old champion at horse racing’s prestigious Eclipse Awards.
In 2004, the year before Alex’s victories in the Triple Crown races, a Philadelphia colt captured two of the Triple Crown jewels. Smarty Jones entered the Kentucky Derby undefeated and, despite a Churchill Downs track covered with mud, surged to the lead at the top of the homestretch, then drew off for the victory. Two weeks later, he won the Preakness Stakes by a record 11 lengths. Smarty, too, had a Delaware connection. His trainer, Servis, races and trains horses at Delaware Park. Servis began racing in Delaware more than a decade ago.
Servis hasn’t been surprised by the streak of great local horses that have succeeded in the nation’s top races. He believes Delaware’s location in the center of the Mid-Atlantic is the key.
“The Mid-Atlantic region is a wonderful place to race. There are so many advantages, so many racetracks, so many options for horsemen,” Servis says. Delaware horses can easily ship to Pimlico, Laurel, Philadelphia Park, Monmouth, Aqueduct and Belmont to race. “There have been a lot of good horses who’ve come out of Delaware Park long before this recent streak. Back in the day, Delaware Park’s meet was a lot like Saratoga.”
Servis points out that 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid was stabled at Delaware Park. His Delaware Park-based trainer, Bud Delp, called Spectacular Bid “the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle.”
Delp trained at Delaware Park long before slot machines were added. But when Delaware Park added slot machines, there was an immediate increase in the size of the winning purses. More trainers with good horses in their stable began bringing their star thoroughbreds to Delaware Park. It was a matter of simple economics: Big purses attract big horses.
Servis says the money may keep Delaware Park at the top of the game. “I think you now have outstanding horsemen and owners here, owners who have given horsemen opportunities to get good horses. Rick Porter gave me an opportunity to buy some good horses.”
The arrival of slot machines at Philadelphia Park will create some competition for Delaware Park, but most racing participants believe bigger purses in Philadelphia will only mean more good horses in the region. Good horses will ship back and forth between the two tracks, increasing the quality of racing at both venues.
So whether the high-speed Hard Spun turns into a Derby horse or not, there is no reason to believe the streak of top Delaware horses will end anytime soon. Top trainers are now jockeying for stall space at both Delaware and Philadelphia Parks. The good horses already run here, and a combination of geographic convenience and cash will likely ignite a stampede of more good horses. D