Sportsman's Park Race Report: Dirt Devil

Published in the April 27 issue of The Blood-Horse
Dirt racing ranks right with spicy food and endless sunshine as things least associated with jolly old England. So last fall, when a dozen Englishmen found themselves the proud owners of Hail The Chief, a colt whose performances improved every time he raced on dirt, they exported him to America--in the care of Irishman Niall O'Callaghan, no less.

"We knew his potential, but we ran out of races for him in the U.K. because the prize money and the (dirt) racing is very limited," said Paul Lacy, a member of the ownership syndicate headed by co-breeder Peter Crane and based in Cowfold, a village south of London.

The English-bred 5-year-old bay son of Be My Chief used his fifth U.S. start, in Sportsman's $200,000 National Jockey Club Handicap (gr. III) on April 20, as his coming-out party. Jockey Jorge Chavez sent Hail The Chief rocketing out of his outside stall and quickly grabbed the lead, with several of the six rivals to his inside becoming entangled 50 yards out of the gate. Favorite Ubiquity, the upset winner of the Clark Handicap (gr. II) last fall, and Mc Mahon, wire-to-wire winner of the Sportsman's Breeders' Cup Handicap in his last start, are front-running types, but they got the worst of it in the bumping incident.

That allowed Hail The Chief to coast on easy fractions of :23.51, :47.73, and 1:12.77 over a Sportsman's Park track labeled "fast" but dulled by heavy overnight rain. Ubiquity mounted a challenge turning for home, but couldn't kick on, yielding second in the final strides to E Z Glory. Last year's winner, the stretch-running Chicago Six, launched a belated rally to finish fourth, a nose behind Ubiquity. But they were all basically running for second, as Hail The Chief's 11 1/4-length victory in 1:51.72 for the 1 1/8 miles attests.

Betsy Couch, who saddled the winner for O'Callaghan, gave much of the credit to Chavez. "There wasn't anybody there, so he went to the lead, slowed it down--the second quarter went in :24 and change--he just rode a perfect race, and when he called on him, the horse ran away with it."

There "wasn't anybody there" because Ubiquity, breaking from the rail, bore out after the break and appeared to bump Mc Mahon. Stewards briefly looked at the incident, but took no action. Mc Mahon's jockey, Larry Sterling Jr., said the bumping "wrecked the whole race" for his colt. "Mainly it was the mental part of it," Sterling said. "The horse was just confused. He wanted a clean break and have everything go smoothly, but that was pretty much uncalled for."

Not surprisingly, Ubiquity's trainer, Jim Bond, offered a different assessment after conferring with jockey Mike McCarthy. "The middle horse (Mc Mahon) looked like he was bothering him a little bit," Bond said. "It looked like he hit his hip and kind of turned him sideways. The horses got into a chain reaction."

Whatever the cause, the incident probably didn't affect the outcome. Hail The Chief's electrifying performance came after a tough defeat to Macho Uno in a Gulfstream Park allowance race. The horse is thriving in America thanks to O'Callaghan's tutelage, Lacy said.

"The surfaces here are just incredible," Lacy said. "There's nothing like it in all the U.K. In fact, he's almost a different horse, he's developed so much. It was hard to recognize him, to be honest, just walking around the paddock a few moments ago. I think The Chief has found where he's happy. This is home to him now."

Crane's syndicate had never raced before in the U.S., but decided they'd have to if "The Chief" was to move forward. They chose O'Callaghan upon the recommendation of a friend of Crane's. And while they now have quite a commute to watch him race, they have no regrets.

"We're all chums together," Lacy said. "We're racing partners; we're drinking partners. We spend an awful lot of time together. This is just the biggest fun in our lives."

And they might be getting a little extra help.

"The syndicate was put together by a great friend of mine who died of cancer before the horse ever saw the racecourse," Lacy said. "If ever we could dedicate everything to Kevin (Stokes), this is it. He's always in our thoughts. He's out there pushing him around the tracks...I know he is."

(Chart, Equibase)