by Stephanie Lawson
It's the Coolmore of Standardbreds, the Three Chimneys of Pennsylvania. It's home to all the greatest stallions in that other race world of trotting and pacing.
Hanover Shoe Farms lies just outside Hanover, PA, just beyond the Adams/York County border. The buildings have a historic feel. Not palatial, but functional and solid, with the feel of history -- not only past but also in the making.
Horses bred by Hanover Shoe Farms have led the annual money earnings totals since the US Trotting Association started compiling figures. The babies born at the nearly century old breeding farm have gone on to win all the greatest Standardbred races -- the Hambletonian, the Kentucky Futurity, Little Brown Jug and Breeder's Crown.
Among them is the latest star of Standardbred racing, Donato Hanover. The homebred returned to the farm on a snowy December 5.
Twelve days later (and 75 pounds heavier), he was settled in, at home in his paddock and learning the breeding game. Shortly after, the US Harness Writer's Association named him harness racing's 2007 Horse of the Year, with 157 of 191votes. He was also named Trotter of the Year and Three Year Old Trotter of the Year. Syndicated for $10 million, with a stud fee of $20,000, his stud book for 2007 was full and closed as of January 23.
A paddock injury in January 2007 had raised the question of whether the three year old racehorse would settle peacefully into the relatively sedate life of a breeding stallion. All the stallions at Hanover Shoe Farms live in paddocks with access to shelter.
While most of them settle in easily, there are exceptions. One of them was Donato Hanover's sire, Andover Hall, who twice jumped fences and headed for the hills.
He escaped in Ontario before the Breeder's Crown, one of the four big races for Standardbreds. He ran for miles on asphalt before being caught and had to miss the final big race of his career.
On arrival in Hanover, following his retirement from racing, Andover Hall was startled by snow sliding off the roof of his run-in shed. From a standstill, he jumped the five board fence. His paddock now sports a fence seven boards high, tall enough to contain a deer.
But, not to worry, said Hanover Shoe Farm Manager Bridgette Jablonsky, VMD. Unlike his father, Donato Hanover is "a mellow, smart horse. His trainer thought he would be fine (turned out.) The first day he was in a small paddock. It snowed, he ate grass. A couple days later when he still hadn't done much, we moved him to a larger paddock."
Unlike thoroughbreds, most Standardbreds see turnout during both their racing and breeding careers, Jablonsky said. Hanover was the first farm to keep stallions on turnout 24 hours a day. "It was a little scary at first, but they really benefit," she said. They come in at night only if thunderstorms, ice or other weather conditions dictate.
Turnout keeps the weight off and more importantly, helps their libido, Jablonsky, a Penn Vet School grad, said. The less potent stallions get a boost from being pastured near a herd of mares. Stabling all the stallions in one barn has the opposite effect, she said. A lesser stallion stabled near a dominant one will have more difficulty in the breeding shed.
"In the long run I think it will improve their longevity," she said
Though intuitively one might expect that breeding is a matter of allowing nature to take its course, in fact stallions need to be trained for the job. At this endeavor, as his last, Donato Hanover is a star.
"He might be one of the smartest, most agreeable horses at the farm," Jablonsky, whose fondness for the colt is obvious, said. "He works with you." After three sessions he was trained to mount the dummy mare, and in no time he was performing like an old hand without ever acting too aggressive.
"In 11 years I've broken 7 or 8 stallions," she said. "One took six days to figure out how to mount a live mare. It took Donato 15 minutes. He's by far the quickest. He never made a mistake at the racetrack either."
Hanover's yearlings are turned out 24 hours a day, seven days a week to play and live nearly untouched. Every five weeks they're run into a chute for maintenance of teeth and feet. They are captured and brought into the barn in late August to be prepared for the November sale.
When Donato Hanover arrived in the barn as a yearling, he didn't stand out. "He didn't grab the eye. But he kept getting better and better," Jablonsky said. "He had an effortless trot and he never galloped. He also showed tremendous sense for a trotter. His trot was flawless."
He sold early in the fall Standardbred sale for $95,000, shipping to Showplace Farms in Englishtown, NJ for owner David Sharp and trainer Steve Elliott. Driven by Ron Pierce, Donato Hanover won 11 races in 13 starts as a three year old and had 19 straight lifetime wins. He won $2,336,190 in 2007, including the $356,160 Kentucky Futurity in straight heats, and set a world record of 1:50.1 in the final. He won the $1.5 million Hambletonian (elimination & final), the $970,000 Canadian Trotting Classic (elimination & final), the $600,000 World Trotting Derby (in a three year old National Season's best time of 1:51.2, tying the All Age fastest trotting record for 2007), the $400,000 Stanley Dancer (elimination & final) and the $85,000 Dickerson. His racing career ended with a second in the three year old CT Breeders Crown elimination and a third in the $610,000 final.
As of Valentine's Day, Donato Hanover had passed his breeding soundness exam and was ready for the first day of breeding season on February 18.