Manitoulin has always marched to the beat of his own drummer.
The striking chestnut was born via elective Cesarean section, with a dedicated team at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute near Lexington ensuring his survival in the fragile moments that followed his delivery.
Descended from a long line of brilliant Darby Dan bloodlines, the product of a mating between Awesome Again and champion 1999 grass mare Soaring Softly, he spent his early days on the farm near Lexington with a nursemare, while his dam healed from the surgery that brought him into this world.
A fighting spirit enabled the fiesty runner to thrive, but it took patience, gelding, 17 starts, a trip to California, and the faith of his Phillips Racing Partnership connections to unearth the talent they knew ran in his veins. Finally, in a 1 1/2-mile test Nov. 24 on the Del Mar lawn, that talent shone through when Manitoulin withstood the late challenge of fast-closing 7-5 favorite Chicago Style to win the $200,000 Hollywood Turf Cup Stakes (G2T).
Trainer Jimmy Toner, who conditioned Soaring Softly through her championship career and who landed his first Del Mar stakes score Friday, said he never doubted Manitoulin's ability. Channeling his energy and that fighting spirit was the challenge.
"I always felt like he had the ability," Toner said. "But early on, mentally he was not very cooperative about things. We tried to deal with him and he showed flashes of ability, but we knew he wasn't giving us everything he had. Eventually John (Phillips, Darby Dan owner) and I decided we'd have to castrate him to get his full potential. I always thought he was a very good horse, and now he's started to show it."
In previous stakes attempts, Manitoulin was eighth in the 2016 Exacta Systems Dueling Grounds Derby, fourth in the Arlington Handicap (G3T) this July, and seventh in the Oct. 19 Sycamore Stakes (G3T) at Keeneland, which Toner called a "throw-out race" because of an outside post and other unfavorable factors.
"Other than that (Sycamore finish), he's run some very good races this year, and I think he could compete at the top level next year," Toner said.
In allowance company this season, the 4-year-old gelding has three wins and a second.
Maybe a familiar connection was felt between Manitoulin and Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who was aboard for the first time in the Hollywood Turf Cup.
"I've got some history here. I rode his mother, and I rode the sire, too," Smith said.
Toner told the jockey to warm Manitoulin up briskly, and to keep him forwardly placed from the start.
"I think Mike made a big difference today, the fact that he put him in the race early," Toner said. "We realized there was no pace in the race and when we talked ahead of time, I said, 'Get him engaged.'
"If you let him relax next thing you know, he's relaxed and just galloping around there, so you have to put his mind into the game."
"It was just like J.J. told me," Smith added. "He said, 'He can get a little lazy on you.' He said if I dropped my hands, he'd back right out of there. He said, 'Warm him up good; get his blood pumping. Make him think he's running a half-mile instead of a mile and a half.' It worked out just right."
Beautifully rated in an outside stalking position just off pacesetter Tequila Joe, Manitoulin never disengaged from that rival through easy early fractions of :25.30, :51.36, and 1:17.08. After a 1:43 mile, the eventual winner went to the lead in the upper stretch and showed his gameness when set down for the drive, even though Smith lost his whip near the sixteenth pole.
Chicago Style came flying from sixth in the field of seven, but could not get up in time. Manitoulin held the victory by a neck in a final time of 2:30.16 on firm turf, while Flamboyant finished third by 1 3/4 lengths. Tequila Joe, Lottie, Prince of Arabia, and Inordinate completed the order of finish. Infobedad and Prime Attraction were scratched.
Sent to the gate at 4-1, Manitoulin returned $10.40, $4.80 and $3.40 while collecting his fifth victory in 17 starts. First money of $120,000 increased his earnings to $394,506. Chicago Style paid $3.40 and $2.40, while Flamboyant returned $2.60 to show.
A trip back to Lexington is in order for the gelding after his California raiding trip.
"We're going to drop him off at Darby Dan," Toner said. "He'll get a freshening down there; he had a tough campaign this year and topped it off today. We'll send him home now and they'll freshen him up, and we'll pick him up mid-winter and hopefully have him ready for Keeneland and a top-level campaign next year."