The fact Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) contender Grace Hall has had such a stellar campaign thus far holds special meaning for co-owner Mike Caruso, a three-time NCAA wrestling champion at Lehigh University who used to compete at the famed arena for which the filly was named.
“To have a horse like Grace Hall would have been great to start off with; she’s my first grade I winner in 33 years,” said Caruso, who campaigns the daughter of Empire Maker in the name of his Bethlehem Stables in partnership with Long Island, N.Y., resident Michael Dubb and Delaware-based Stuart Grant’s The Elkstone Group.
“They’re getting ready to finish the beautiful practice facility (at Grace Hall), and I made a comment the other day to the president (of Lehigh) that the two most exciting things in my life right now are both named Grace Hall,” Caruso said.
Located in Bethlehem, Pa., in the Lehigh Valley, Grace Hall was chosen by USA Today as one of the top five indoor venues for college sports in the nation. The arena was built specifically for wrestling in 1939 by Eugene Grace, who was president of Bethlehem Steel Corp.
“He gave a blank check to the president of Lehigh and said, ‘Build a wrestling arena,’ ” Caruso said.
When trainer Tony Dutrow found out the new practice facility at Grace Hall would be named after Caruso in honor of his wrestling accomplishments, the trainer insisted they name their newly purchased filly after the facility.
Dutrow, whose two young sons are also involved in the sport of wrestling in Pennsylvania, purchased the Darley-bred Grace Hall for $95,000 at the 2010 Keeneland September yearling sale from Bluewater Sales, agent.
“I buy a lot of horses—probably 25 yearlings every year—and I buy a lot of bad ones,” Dutrow said. “But when I saw Grace Hall at Keeneland, for two days, I got on everybody’s nerves asking them, ‘Do you think we’ve got enough money to buy that filly?’
“I really liked her that much. Physically, she was my kind of horse—a big, strong filly and very athletic. I looked at her pedigree and thought, ‘Wow, this filly will get the distance.’ I know Empire Maker fillies are very good, and I was just so excited about being able to afford to buy her.”
The purchase was clearly worth it because Grace Hall has been ultra-consistent from day one, never finishing out of the money in her six-start career.
“We watched her on television run the first time at Delaware and she was just effortless,” Caruso said. “If you look at her, she’s a fun filly, but she has business on her mind. I’ve also always been a fan of Empire Maker.”
Grace Hall didn’t disappoint in her next two starts, which were consecutive scores in the 2011 Spinaway Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga and the Blue Hen Stakes at Delaware Park.
Following a solid runner-up effort in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) at Churchill Downs in November, she launched her 3-year-old campaign with another second-place finish in the Feb. 25 Davona Dale Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park. In her most recent outing at the Florida track, Grace Hall captured the March 31 Gulfstream Oaks Stakes (gr. II) under jockey Javier Castellano, who will be aboard for the Oaks. The filly will ship to Churchill Downs May 1.
Caruso said Dutrow had always wanted a chance at the Run for the Lilies. The trainer made the race his ultimate goal for Grace Hall from the first time she ran.
“Tony said the Oaks was a race he had always wanted to win, and we have an opportunity now,” Caruso said. “I always had this foolish notion that I wasn’t ever going to go to the (Kentucky) Derby until I had a horse in it, but I think having a horse in the Kentucky Oaks is just the same.”