Fewer still knew the story of his owners, the Bentley family—residents of Unionville, Pa., who own a two-horse stable and purchased the runner as a 30th birthday gift for their son, Andrew, who was born with Down syndrome.
But after the Million, everyone was talking about the modest shipper who came in from victory in a $50,000 ungraded stakes at Delaware Park to win the purse of $1 million over a superb field of turf runners (VIDEO).
A 4-year-old Hard Spun gelding ridden by Eriluis Vaz for Andrew Bentley Stables, Hardest Core upset Arlington's biggest day at odds of 11-1 to secure his first graded stakes score, let alone grade I victory. Closing outside from third off the turn with tremendous strides, he gobbled up ground to run down dueling rivals Magician , winner of the 2013 Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT), and Side Glance, a grade I winner in Australia.
It was the first time his trainer had entered a runner in a graded stakes event, and the first time Hardest Core had run at that level. Graham, 43, has four steeplechase horses in training and two on the flat—his flat runners are Hardest Core and the other member of the Bentley's modest cast, the 3-year-old filly Giant Shadow. Gregory Bentley said the family, involved in racing since the late 1990s, has owned about seven horses overall.
Prior to the Million, Graham's career earnings as a trainer were $634,675. Including the Million, he has won five of six starts this year. Hardest Core, purchased for $210,000 by Gregory Bentley from the 2013 Keeneland November breeding stock sale when consigned by Adena Springs, was initially intended as a steeplechaser before his connections decided he might have something left to give before jumping.
"We jumped him a couple times, he's a pure, natural jumper, but we just messed with him, always (with) intentions of flat racing because he was doing so well," Graham said.
Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Ghostzapper Racing prior to his sale at Keeneland, Hardest Core was gelded after the November sale and almost lost his life.
"He had a hernia up high and when they cut it, his intestines came out," Graham said. "We had to cut 15-18 feet (of his intestines), we didn't think he was going to make it. We finally got him up to New Bolton and two days later, he was in his feed tub again. He's tough."
Hardest Core then won a June 28 allowance event going 1 1/16 miles on the Parx Racing turf for his new connections before winning the Cape Henlopen Stakes at 1 1/2 miles on the Delaware lawn. The Million was his third start of 2014.
Magician, favored to win the Million for trainer Aidan O'Brien at 9-5 in a field of seven, pressed a pace set by Side Glance throughout the 1 1/4-mile turf test. Early fractions went in :25, :49.45, and 1:13.67 as those two were tracked by the eventual winner in third.
Swinging into contention coming off the far turn after the mile went in 1:37.72, Hardest Core lost ground slightly while drifting out to the six path, but he found his best stride late and rallied to victory by a length.
"He's a good horse, he's a nice horse, and I knew he was going to make his run," Vaz said. "I have to thank the owner and the trainer, they have been so supportive, and it's amazing."
Final time was 2:01.51 on a firm course. Hardest Core returned $25, $10.40, and $6. Magician paid $4.20 and $3, with Side Glance bringing $5. Up With the Birds, Finnegans Wake, Smoking Sun, and Real Solution, winner of the 2013 Arlington Million on disqualification, completed the order of finish. All carried 126 pounds.
"I thought a shorter field would be better, and the horse was training so well," Graham said. "He doesn't know what he's going against, and he showed it today."
Hardest Core earned an automatic berth with a travel allowance to the Nov. 1 Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) at Santa Anita Park as part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" series.
"It was a factor to enter here because it's all about believing for us in our team and...we thought if we can win any of the races, perhaps we can win the Million and then go on to the Breeders' Cup," Greg Bentley said. "Who doesn't want to think like that with a small-time horse owner?"
Andrew Bentley said he's ready to go to the World Championships.
"I only get excited," he said of watching Hardest Core run, "never nervous."
"Andrew is our biggest racing fan. When he looks through the condition book he can spot a race and when he looks through the program he can spot a winner in many cases, and I'm just very proud of Andrew's continued interest in racing," Greg Bentley said. "It's just another example of believing in people and what they can accomplish given the chance."
Bred in Kentucky by Mueller Farms out of the Housebuster mare Lillybuster, Hardest Core improved his record to six wins and two seconds from 11 starts for earnings of $842,580. He first sold to Adena Springs as an $87,000 yearling in 2011 at the Fasig-Tipton October sale after failing to meet his reserve for the Bluegrass Thoroughbred Services consignment at the Keeneland January and Keeneland September sales that year.