Roll cameras. A relatively unknown local owner, trainer and jockey team up with Hardest Core to challenge a superb field of turf runners including the reigning Breeders' Cup Turf champion in the 32nd edition of the famed Arlington Million in Chicago.
In the compelling back stories that often that illuminate the horse racing world, few can match that of Hardest Core. The four-year-old son of 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun is conditioned by former jump jockey Eddie Graham at his small farm outside Unionville, Pa. where the dark bay colt battled for his life last fall. Purchased as a three-year old at the 2013 Keeneland Sale by steeplechase horse owner Greg Bentley for $210,000, Hardest Core was a 30th birthday present for Bentley's son Andrew, who has Downs Syndrome.
In front of a crowd of 31,164, Hardest Core stunned the racing world with his scintillating victory over a superb field of turf runners to win the purse of $1 million in the 1/4-mile test at Arlington International Racecourse on August 17. Closing outside from third off the turn with tremendous strides, Hardest Core (11-1) stormed down the stretch (a final quarter run in :23 2/5) to run down Side Glance, a Grade-1 winner in Australia and 9-5 favorite Magician, winner of the 2013 Breeders' Cup Turf in the final strides. Ridden by longtime Parx jockey Erilus Vaz, it was Hardest Core's first graded stakes score.
A resident of Unionville, Pa., Bentley is the CEO of a software company in Exton, Pa. He has been involved in racing since the late 1990s, owning seven horses overall. The family currently has a two-horse stable.
With the victory Hardest Core earned an automatic berth with a travel allowance to the $3 million Breeders Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park on November 1, as part of the Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" series. Primarily a steeplechase trainer, Graham is considering a $100,000 stakes race at 1 1 /2-mile at Laurel Racetrack in late September as a prep for the BC Turf, or he may train the horse on his farm up to the 1 1/2-miles race that will feature many of Europe's top turf runners.
"Vaz rode with total confidence, he believed the horse had a good shot to win," said Graham who has four steeplechase horses in training and two on the flat-- Hardest Core and the filly Giant Shadow.
"Arlington seems like a big galloping course and (Hardest Core) really liked it out there. He's a very straightforward horse. He'll let you know how he's doing just by how he acts. We all joke and call him the big strong beast."
Surgery Gone Wrong
Still, the Arlington Million wasn't Hardest Core's greatest triumph. Last November he was gelded at Graham's farm not far from the Whip Tavern in southern Chester County. Things went terribly wrong as Hardest Core developed complications. Graham shipped the colt to nearby New Bolton Center where surgeons had to cut out 18 feet of his intestines to save his life.
"I turned him out the day of his castration and he looked great, but later he looked like he was colicking," recalled Graham, 43. "When I got to him in the field his intestines were coming out. It took seven people to help get him up and into a trailer. We weren't sure he was going to get up, by some miracle he did and we got him over to New Bolton.
"I'm not sure any other horse would have made it, but he recovered. Three days after the surgery he was banging the feed tub against the wall, asking for more to eat. It was unbelievable. He is a remarkable horse with such a great disposition and a winning attitude."
Steeplechase trainer Rusty Carrier bought the colt at the 2013 Keeneland Sale for Bentley who was looking for a solid racehorse and jumping prospect. When Carrier gave up training, he sent his horses to Paul Roland, who was undergoing treatment for Mesothelioma. Unfortunately Roland died, but before he passed away he spoke with Bentley about Graham, his best friend, taking over Roland's horses.
The son and nephew of steeplechase jockeys of the 1950s and 1960s, Graham worked for highly touted steeplechase trainers Bruce Miller and Sanna Hendriks before heading out on his own. Graham incorporates a steeplechase regimen into all of his horses' conditioning. They start out jogging uphill or on roads for six weeks, no matter the weather, then start routine gallops.
"Hardest Core loves training on the farm and then gets turned out every day," Graham related. "He trains on hills and gallops, basically like a European steeplechaser, that builds his endurance. The farther he goes racing, the better he is. Building the top end and the hind quarters. It's just like training for the sport of cycling, giving him back-up muscles."
Living up to his name, Hardest Core returned to racing for Graham and the Bentley family in June where he won a 1 1/16-miles allowance turf by three easy lengths and scored a win in the Cape Henlopen Stakes, a mile-and-a-half turf race, again by three lengths at Delaware Park on July 12. He notched a pair of impressive 109 Speed Figures in both contests. With Hardest Core training in top form, Graham and owner Bentley entered the horse in the Million.
Hardest Core's fairytale run is filled with longtime Chester County horse people-- Brianne Slater, the groom, Jody Petty, the exercise rider and Keith Cooper, the van driver. All three drove through the night to get Hardest Core to the million dollar race. All his rivals flew into Chicago. Didn't matter to Hardest Core as he roared down the stretch defeating five Group/Grade 1 winners to win the legendary race, recording a 117 Speed figure.
"I looked at the Sword Dancer (at Saratoga), looked at the American St. Leger (at Arlington), all three races were tough, but thought a shorter field would be better," Graham noted. "When he ran at Delaware Park he ran his last half-mile in 47 flat and he wasn't even being asked. He just has done everything right. We knew he was training well even if he was going up in class. All he knew (going in) was that he had won three in a row. He didn't know about the top-class field and he ran his race."
Bred in Kentucky by Mueller Farms and out of the Housebuster mare Lillybuster, since his maiden victory Hardest Core has never been worse than second in seven starts. With the Million's win he improved his record to six wins and two seconds from 11 starts for earnings of $842,580.
Hard Spun Son
His sire is Hard Spun, bred and raised by Chester County's Betty Moran and her son Michael. Hard Spun was a tough as nails colt, but had the tough luck of competing against the stellar crop of thee-year olds in 2007 that included Horse of the Year Curlin. Owned by Wilmington's Rick Porter, Hard Spun was consistently in the money and finished runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Hard Spun's big career win came in the Grade-1 King’s Bishop Stakes, a seven furlong sprint, but don’t let that convince you he was only a sprinter. He seems to be passing stamina on to his foals. While Hard Spun was a dirt horse on the racetrack, he is the sire of two of the three U.S. “Win and You’re In” horses for the Breeders’ Cup Turf, including Main Sequence, trained by Graham Motion. Del Mar Handicap winner Big John B is also by the stallion.
Both sides of Hardest Core’s family provide the gelding with speed and stamina. After the horse recovered from his surgery, the horse built a foundation of stamina through strenuous gallops over the rolling Chester County terrain. Champion jump jockey Jody Petty was in the irons. Petty also started schooling Hardest Core over short obstacles at the farm. Petty says he will be in the saddle when the horse makes the transition to jumping fences.
Petty knows the feel of a good horse. He rode Hall of Fame steeplechaser McDynamo to three of his five wins in Breeders’ Cup Grand National and was the regular exercise rider for Animal Kingdom before the colt won the 2011 Kentucky Derby for trainer Graham Motion.
“He's a gentle giant who is like an old jumper, he does what you ask,” Petty observed. “He was right where he needed to be heading into the Million. When he came off the turn and went flying by all those elite horses, it was an amazing feeling. But I've got to tell you, it's so much harder being a spectator than a rider when you can make things happen."
When asked about the feeling of breezing the horse, Petty breaks into a broad smile.
"His stride is huge and he just floats over the ground," he noted. "You don't realize how fast he's going, he does it so easy. He's a bit of a freak with his size and the way he moves. He shouldn't be as quick as he is. Going to the Breeders Cup, that's insane, but he proved he belongs. We'll be ready."