Hawthorne Race Report: Hail Storm

Published in the May 25 issue of The Blood-Horse
Trainer Niall O'Callaghan had wandered into this horror film before at Hawthorne Race Course, one year ago to be exact. But all he could do was stare in disbelief on May 18 as Duckhorn galloped out to a clear uncontested lead in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II), while his own speedster Hail The Chief was on the chase.

The fractions clicked off, :23.81, :47.72 ...

"When Duckhorn was on the bridle going around the turn, he looked like he was in a race of his own," O'Callaghan said. "I was awfully concerned."

... 1:11.63 ... then he stopped.

"Ducky," who cruised to an easy victory in 2001 over newcomer Lido Palace and O'Callaghan trainee Guided Tour, stopped abruptly at the half-mile pole, and Hail The Chief picked up the pieces. He grabbed $300,000 of the $500,000 purse for owner Peter Crane, whose 5-year-old son of Be My Chief--Jade Pet, by Petong, piggybacked the Gold Cup win onto a wire-to-wire, 1 1/4-length tally in the National Jockey Club Handicap (gr. III) at neighboring Sportsman's Park.

Hail The Chief benefited from a perfect stalking trip under jockey Jorge Chavez, drawing off to defeat Dollar Bill by 3 1/4 lengths in 2:02.80. Dollar Bill, the hard-luck horse of last year, had the misfortune in the Gold Cup of being one of three deep closers. Parade Leader plodded home third, another 6 1/4 lengths back, followed by the tiring Duckhorn and the gallant 9-year-old gelding Sir Bear, who never got into the race and was eased.

Parade Leader's trainer, Neil Howard, could have been speaking not only of his New Orleans Handicap (gr. II) winner but also of Dollar Bill and Sir Bear when he commented, "A horse like him, it's tough when they've got a five-horse field (Chicago Six would have made six, but he was a race-day scratch). He needs a little more of a realistic pace."

O'Callaghan had concerns that the Sportsman's victory might have taken its toll on Hail The Chief. The horse lost weight after returning to his Churchill Downs base, but bounced back enough to justify running him in the Gold Cup. The third time was the charm for the trainer, who not only watched Duckhorn run away from Guided Tour last year, but also saw the ill-fated gelding drop a head-bobbing decision to 38-1 shot Dust On the Bottle in 2000.

O'Callaghan, enjoying his third major stakes victory in seven days, gave credit to Chavez for devising the winning game plan for the Gold Cup.

"Jorge said it was muddy; he'd never let (Duckhorn) get away,'' said O'Callaghan, relieved that the track was drying out but fast. "Jorge made the superior move by not using the horse then."

Trainer Pat Byrne said he thought Duckhorn "bounced" after winning the Ben Ali Handicap (gr. III) over a sloppy track by seven lengths.

"He ran a huge number in his last race, and even though he won easily, he ran huge, a two on the Ragozin sheet, with considerably softer fractions. This is the way the horse runs," Byrne said. "Nothing new, he's an in-and-out horse anyway."

Although Byrne considers Duckhorn "a five- or six-week horse," meaning he doesn't perform at his best if his races aren't generously spaced, he said he'd probably run him next in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs four weeks after the Gold Cup. There he's likely to meet the three horses who beat him in the Gold Cup, plus some other heavy hitters. And O'Callaghan knows how to win the Foster, having done it last year with Guided Tour.

"That brings back a lot of memories," he said. "It's sad to bring up that he (Guided Tour) was euthanized in Saudi Arabia. I would love to win it again just because of my feelings for that horse. But this is a different kind of horse, and I don't know, maybe he's just as good."

Hail The Chief campaigned for three years in Europe before the English-bred was sent to the Irish trainer late in his 4-year-old campaign. But he's considerably better since coming to America, said Paul Lacy, Crane's racing manager, who was representing the owner because Crane was attending a family reunion in Spain. Lacy, who also witnessed the National Jockey Club win, was particularly impressed that the horse showed he was rateable in the Gold Cup.

"He's never shown that before, to be quite honest," said Lacy, who was a member of a 12-person syndicate that campaigned Hail The Chief in England. "He's a horse that galloped his opposition into the ground, and now all of a sudden since he's been in Niall's care, we have a horse that can finish as well."

(Chart, Equibase)