Can the proverbial lightning strikes twice happen again? Two years ago trainer-driver Kelly Hoerdt qualified four three-year-old fillies for the Northlands Filly Pace and amazingly finished 1-2-3-4 with Brighten Your Life leading home Jet To The Beach, Lucky Lucka and Lissoy. Now, on Saturday in the co-featured $125,000 Don Byrne Memorial (which used to be called the Northlands Filly Pace), Hoerdt has again qualified a quadruplet of starters.
So Kelly what do you think? Can magic echo again? “Those kind of finishes are so very rare that I’m not counting on that happening again,” said Hoerdt, Northlands leading trainer. “But, hopefully, if the race goes right one of them can get there on top. Cusdmagicdragon and Blue Grotto are my best two chances. But the other two, Lively Rocket and Noisy Nora can get the job done too. It all depends how the race goes. How it sets up will determine it.”
In last week’s two eliminations, Cusdmagicdragon got a perfect drive from Hoerdt and took advantage of a speed melt down to win the first elimination in 1:54 2/5. In the second elimination, which couldn’t possibly have been more dissimilar, Blue Grotto, gutted out a first-over trip through painfully slow early fractions and ended up third behind Born A Dragon and Lively Rocket.
In that elimination Born A Dragon was able to get away unchallenged through a first quarter in :29 1/5 and a half mile in just 1:00 3/5. While Born A Dragon’s winning time was 1:56 4/5 - more than two full seconds slower than Cusdmagicdragon, the filly out of Keith Clark’s barn that has been first or second in 13 of her 18 starts this year and is sure to be in the mix again on Saturday.
“Cusdmagicdragon had a good trip and raced well off of it,” Hoerdt said recalling Hot Kiss setting a blazing pace of :27 1/5 for the first quarter and then :56 3/5 to the half while he jumped on the back of Ginger Beer before tipping clear in the stretch to win in 1:54 2/5. Blue Grotto is a big strong filly with a lot of stamina. She can take a lot of air which she had to do last week. She toughed it out, raced excellent and came out of the race great.”
As for the other pair, Hoerdt said “Lively Rocket is getting better all the time; she’s shown steady improvement. She got a real good drive from Mike Hennessy and she is coming into the race sharp and in good form. Noisy Nora is a filly we recently bought privately from Jim Marino. She’s had some issues but we’ve made some equipment and shoe changes and she seems to be getting better and better.”
Cusdmagicdragon’s win snapped a streak of five straight seconds. Ultra consistent, Cusdmagicdragon has only been out of the top three once this year and has come up with stakes wins in the $75,000 Penny Bath in the slop at Fraser Downs - at odds of 36-1 when she came from last place to win by more than six lengths - and then the $20,000 Moores Mile at Balzac’s Century Downs when she won as the odds-on-favourite over Bearcat Josi, who also made the Don Byrne Memorial final.
“Cusdmagicdragon is very honest. She had some soundness issues this summer and ended up needing some time off,” Hoerdt said of the homebred who was sidelined most of June and all of July. But she healed up well and is as good as ever.”
The Don Byrne Memorial is Saturday’s co-feature along with the historic $175,000 Western Canada Pacing Derby presented by Boston Pizza. In the Derby things couldn’t have worked out much better for Cheddar Jack.
After going wire-to-wire to win last week’s second elimination heat, Cheddar Jack ended up with the rail for the final. “It’s never bad when you get the rail with a front-runner,” said Cheddar Jack’s trainer Rod Hennessy. “He’s a pretty versatile horse but most of his wins have been on the front end.”
That’s how Cheddar Jack won the $50,000 Brad Gunn at Century Downs in July - winning by three easy lengths - and how he got the win in Aug. 6 $125,000 Ralph Klein final. The latter comes with an asterisk as Cheddar Jack crossed the finish line second behind Serge Masse’s Better Watch Out but the latter was disqualified for interference and placed ninth. Unfortunately for Better Watch Out he doesn’t get a chance to make amends in the Derby. The even-money favourite in last week’s second elimination, Better Watch Out inexplicably trailed throughout.
Even though Cheddar Jack won the Brad Gunn handily in 1:54 3/5 and got the backdoor win in the Ralph Klein which went in 1:55 1/5, Hennessy said the Ralph Klein was more impressive. “Cheddar Jack is prone to allergies and there was a lot of smoke in the air,” Hennessy said referencing the thick haze from forest fires in B.C. He was challenged repeatedly but still turned out a very gutty performance.”
Hennessy also said that Cheddar Jack’s elimination win last week wasn’t far behind. “Kelly (Hoerdt) came up to him with Custards Laststand but Mike (his driver son) was just sitting there. I thought that was a very impressive performance too. I don’t know if anybody really knows how good Cheddar Jack is.”
In 17 starts this year, Cheddar Jack has come home the winner seven times. While Cheddar Jack was eighth in his start before his Derby elimination that Sept. 28 race is almost a throw-out given that he drew an outside post and got away last.
“Cheddar Jack is a big, big horse that has matured very well,” Hennessy said of the three-year-old co-owned by Lorne Duffield, who owns several Boston Pizza franchises that is sponsoring the race and who picked him out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania sale for $20,000.
“He’ll be the favourite and I expect you’ll see him on the front end but there’s some speed on the outside. It’s a horse race and as we all know there is never a given in a horse race,” said Hennessy, who believes Hoerdt will have plenty to say in the outcome with Custards Laststand. With six wins, four seconds and a pair of thirds in his 16 starts, Custards Laststand and Cheddar Jack are well known to each other.
As well as finishing second to Cheddar Jack in last week’s elimination, Custards Laststand finished third - placed second - in the Ralph Klein final - about a length behind Cheddar Jack. And, Custards Laststand was runner-up to Cheddar Jack in the Brad Gunn final when he drew the outside eighth post position and was three wide both at the half mile and three-quarter stations. Custards Laststand also finished ahead of Cheddar Jack in both the first heat of the Ralph Klein and then in that Sept. 28 mile.
One of the bigger questions for the Derby is if Snap Test’s upset victory in his Derby elimination was for real. Sent away at 23-1 and returning $48.70 to win, Snap Test took advantage of some quick early fractions - :27 seconds flat for the opening quarter; :55 2/5 for the half and 1:24 1/5 for three-quarters of a mile - to swing three wide late and pace them all down to win in 1:54 flat.
By comparison, Cheddar Jack was able to get away with more manageable fractions of :28 1/5; :58 and 1:25 3/5 before stopping the clock in 1:54 1/5. One fact should be mentioned if you are wondering if Snap Test, who will be hampered by is outside eighth post, is the real goods: Snap Test’s trainer Keith Clark has won 12 Derbies. Another question is what happened to Screen Test in last week’s elimination when he finished a very disappointing fifth behind Snap Test?
For certain Screen Test, who was sent away as the 1-2 favourite, was locked in solid for most of the way. But when he finally did get clear he didn't have any pace left and just managed to get the final spot in the Derby.
While Clark has won those dozen Derbies, Hennessy is looking for his third Derby title. In 2003 Armbro Aviator scored by two and a half lengths with John Chappell driving in 1:53 1/5. That year Hennessy’s horses finished first, second and third. Three years later Hennessy scored again in the Derby with Hyperion Hanover. Driven by Paul Mackenzie, Hyperion Hanover went wire-to-wire winning by six and a quarter lengths in 1:52 flat.
“It’s always great to win the Derby; it’s always fun to just race in the Derby,” said Hennessy, “It’s a race I grew up with when Jim Lelacheur started it all way back when. It was always our most important race,” said the highly personable, 64-year-old veteran trainer, who recently won the Alberta Standardbred Horse Association’s Ron McLeod Award of Achievement, has won over 2,800 as a driver and some 1,900 wins as a trainer.
Outside of the two Derby winners, just a few of Hennessy’s other outstanding horses include Roaring Snortin, the first two-year-old to pace in under two minutes in Western Canada, Just A Ripple A, who won 54 of his 174 races, Weekend Bernie and Tyler’s Royalty.
“We’ll give her a go again on Saturday.”