an old friend, still with me

On March 26, 2014, I was a horse racing neophyte.  Having followed the sport closely for less than a year by that point, I had far more enthusiasm than knowledge or sense.  (One could say that is still the case, though hopefully the gap has narrowed over the last few years.)

That enthusiasm led me to volunteer to do Jim Vs. — once a week, a fan would go on the pre-race show with Jim Miller, discuss their picks, and have a friendly little handicapping competition.  I knew I had jumped in over my head, but I’ve always liked public speaking…so I could do my homework, deliver my picks with confidence, and hope for the best.

The opener proved the perfect metaphor for the day:  Jim beat me as soundly as Divine Delivery beat Sgt. Green in the day’s first race.  In that race, a $17,500 maiden claimer, he sided with 4/5 favourite Divine Delivery.  I took my shot with second betting choice Sgt. Green…who finished second, beaten 18 1/2 lengths.  That’s how most of my day went: I kept looking for cute ways to beat the chalk, and I kept falling short.

In one race, however, I took an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude toward the favourite.

That day’s third race was as classy as you could get at Hawthorne, particularly for a cold Wednesday afternoon.  Six horses lined up for a stakes-quality allowance-optional.  River Bear, Chatfield Road, and Four Left Feet were all Illinois-bred stakes winners, and River Bear had hit the road a little as well.  Even Sacred Gift had nibbled at the undersides in state-bred stakes.

But, for me, Hogy was on another plane.

I had watched Hogy’s last start on simulcast.  It came on a dark, soggy day at Keeneland, in the Grade 1 Shadwell “Turf” “Mile”.  The rain had pushed the race off the grass, and without the pressure of a Breeders’ Cup, mile races became mile and a sixteenth races on the Polytrack.  All eyes were on Wise Dan, and eventually spoiler Silver Max.  One of my eyes trained on that pair.  But, even then, I had some vague idea that Hogy had Chicago connections.  My other eye saw him.

In my nascent handicapping career, I gave what I have since learned to be an inordinate amount of weight to graded stakes form, and Hogy had that.

Hogy did not excel in the 2013 Shadwell “Turf” “Mile”.  He tracked Silver Max early, but faded to eighth.  But, he had run against Wise Dan, Silver Max, Willcox Inn, prodigal Illinois son Coalport.  He had beaten Turallure home, and Handsome Mike.  He even had a graded stakes win not too long ago: a win in the 2013 Hanshin  Cup.  Yes, that was a mile on the poly, not six panels on the dirt.  But…class.  If he could run against those fancy out-of-towners and not make a fool of himself, couldn’t he manhandle Illinois-breds even off an extended layoff?

Recall, I had far more enthusiasm than sense.

I knew Hogy would be a short price, but for once that day, I’d eat the chalk.  If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?

Jim took another horse…River Bear.  Like Hogy, River Bear was making his first start off a winter break.  Like Hogy, River Bear was coming off a stakes try.  But, instead of Keeneland, that stakes try had come at Fairmount. He also hadn’t won that last start, though he’d been third, not eighth.

That had come against Illinois-breds, not national champions. Instead of facing Wise Dan and Silver Max, River Bear had been third behind Work All Week and Signsealndeliver in a state-bred sprint stakes.  Work All Week had come back since then to frank the form pretty well: another stakes win at Hawthorne, and then an allowance score at Oaklawn.  But, his stakes win at Hawthorne had also come against Illinois-breds, and I didn’t yet appreciate the class of a conditioned allowance-optional Hot Springs.  Furthermore…maybe he was past his prime?  River Bear was nine already; Hogy, a spry five.  River Bear had only run three times at eight.  How good could he still be?

I figured River Bear was a decent enough Illinois-bred who could come running, perhaps fill out an exacta or a trifecta.  I figured Hogy was a horse with open graded stakes class, as sure a winner as there was on the card that day.

In the early going, I felt good.  Speedball Chatfield Road did his thing, pressed along by allowance mainstay Calmer Than You, but Hogy wasn’t too far off.  River Bear was last early in the six-horse field.  Through the far turn Hogy began to make his move, and I felt better and better about my choice for where to take the favourite.

He descended on the leaders, turning for home three wide.  He had slightly better momentum, and by the furlong pole, he had gotten his nose in front.

But, River Bear closed ground.  A dozen lengths beaten had become half a dozen, then just a few once the field turned for home.  In the final sixteenth, Hogy tried to hold on, but River Bear was bearing down.  He fought to the front, hitting the wire a neck in front of Hogy.  River Bear had returned at least as sharp as he had been before his winter break.

For the first and only time in my life, I had underestimated River Bear.  For one, he was a six-furlong dirt specialist — something Hogy perhaps was not, with all his turf and all-weather form.  More clearly, he was nowhere past his prime, and he was ready to be a force at nine years old.

At nine, River Bear ran he most ambitious campaign of his life.  He followed that allowance win with another Illinois-bred stakes victory in the Molaro.  He tried graded stakes company for the first time in his life, and though he finished well up the track in the Churchill Downs Stakes (G2), he stayed at Churchill for the Kelly’s Landing.  After another tough day there, he returned to his home state.  Four more starts brought a win and a second at Fairmount, a third in an allowance at Hawthorne, and a late-charging fourth in the Lightning Jet Handicap at Hawthorne.  He was as fast, as competitive, as he ever was.

In addition to his race record, I had learned more about River Bear, his career, and the horses he had faced.  I had more context.  River Bear had been running since age two, and had been a stakes horse since age two.  Even at nine, River Bear had been able to hold his form.  Though Churchill did not suit him, he still ran well in Illinois — his light racing schedule at eight was no harbinger, given his more lively schedule at nine.  And, that Work All Week who had beaten him in his last start of his eight-year-old year?  By that last start of River Bear’s nine-year-old year, Work All Week had won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, paving his path for that year’s Eclipse champion sprinter award.

It has been almost three years since River Bear faced Hogy.  Since then, River Bear has retired — he recorded one work at ten, then retired for good.  He had 21 wins in 61 starts, won stakes races from ages two to nine, and epitomized durability.  This longtime icon of Illinois racetracks has retired in style, able to make funny faces and eat carrots whenever he wants.

Now, Hogy is eight.  At five, on some Wednesday afternoon at Hawthorne, I figured him the unbeatable class of an allowance field.  River Bear proved me wrong.  And, by now, Hogy has begun to show some traits very similar to River Bear.

Like River Bear, Hogy won his first stakes race at age two, and has continued to deliver every year.  Though he hasn’t had a stakes win every year of his career, he has always been competitive.  Yes, they have some differences.  River Bear loved six furlongs on the dirt.  Though Hogy has been able to win on anything, and his graded stakes win came at a mile on polytrack, turf dashes have emerged as his best trip.

At four, he finished second behind the venerable Saint Leon in the Arlington Sprint, and won the Troy Stakes at Saratoga in his next start.  At five, he started with that second to River Bear — and ended up only starting four times, with his only victory a six-furlong polytrack allowance at Arlington.  At six, he started sprinting on the main track, but ended the year dashing on the turf once more.  He won a turf sprint allowance, and such races have been his focus ever since.  Though his seven-year-old year (2016) was defined by close calls behind the likes of Latent Revenge, Successful Native, and Mongolian Saturday, he finally hit the wire first in a fall allowance at Churchill — despite facing Power Alert at his best trip, five panels on grass.

In December, Hogy had been third behind Green Mask in the Bonapaw Stakes at Fair Grounds.  Next out, in his eight-year-old debut, Hogy would be second behind Partly Mocha in the Frontier Utilities Turf Sprint at Sam Houston.

Today?  Hogy had tables to turn on Green Mask in the Colonel Power Stakes.  Just as one would expect from an old pro, that prospect fazed him not at all.  He tracked the pace over turf as fast as it had ever been, rallied into the sharp pace in front of him, and crossed the wire a length in front of Green Mask.

Three years ago, it seemed a surprise that old reliable River Bear ran down the classy Hogy.

Now, it makes a lot more sense.  River Bear had more class and prowess than I thought back in March of 2014, and has written himself into the Illinois racing history books for being so consistent into older age.


With 16 wins in 41 starts, including the victory in today’s Colonel Power Stakes, eight-year-old Hogy looks well on his way to join the guy who upset him that Wednesday afternoon, River Bear, among the pantheon of durable Chicago-based mainstays.  I could have never predicted this on that spring day three years ago.  But, knowing what I know now, Hogy’s class and durability deserve our enthusiasm and adoration.

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