What else can you say after Hemlock Channel broke Northlands’ six and a half furlong track record when he blazed that distance in a heart-stopping 1:15 1/5 on a picture-perfect Wednesday night? This, you need to understand, from a horse who was astutely claimed for just $9,500 two starts ago last winter at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack. This from a horse that is eight-years old.
And this, you also need to understand, to break a record that had stood since classy Timely Ruckus set it with a time of 1:15 2/5 way back in 1999. “He’s a lot of horse for that kind of money,” said Chris Duggan, who owns the horse with partner Craig Robertson - a team that has only been together for four years yet already own 32 horses between them. “I watched all of his replays before we claimed him. He just doesn’t go away. It’s game on and he keeps digging in.”
That’s just what Hemlock Channel did on Wednesday. Aided by a torrential speed duel between Blue Dancer on the rail and Private Money Game glued to Blue Dancer’s outside flank the first quarter went in a quick :22 3/5.
But that was nothing.
With Hemlock Channel racing in third - six lengths off the pace - the half zipped by in a heart pounding :44 3/5 seconds which meant that the second quarter went in :22 seconds flat which you hardly see anywhere - especially on a five-eighths of a mile track. Head to head Blue Dancer and Private Money Game stayed at each other’s throats neither one willing to give in.
Thoroughbreds generally run slower as the race goes along. But here they were going much faster. And they kept turning it on with six furlongs reached in 1:08 4/5 - a time that is just one-fifth of a second off Ready Racer’s track record set four years ago. While Blue Dancer and Private Money Game stayed at it, Hemlock Channel was flying down the middle of the track.
“I knew we were going real fast but I really didn’t think we were going to get there,” said Hemlock Channel’s jockey, Rico Walcott, who was still third - three lengths behind - at the sixteenth’s pole. Then it all changed as Hemlock Channel kept finding more and the front runners finally started getting leg weary. “I said to myself ‘we’re going to get them; we’re going to get them,’” said Walcott, who had only been on Hemlock Channel’s back one previous time - a solid runner-up effort to Killin Me Smalls on May 12.
They did. In the last 10 strides Hemlock Channel made up two lengths to win by half a length with a resolute Private Money Game second a head over Blue Dancer. “Wow, what a race,” said Robertson, who along with Duggan, also own Blue Dancer. “Blue Dancer ran a great race too and so did Private Money Game.”
Trainer Greg Tracy, who was in Vancouver where he also has a string of horses, didn’t see the race live. But he got to see the simulcast and came away, like just about everyone, most impressed. “You don’t see an eight-year-old set a track record very often and that was a tough track record to break seeing how it has stood for 18 years,” said Tracy. “There have been a few races that have gone in 1:16 and change but nothing in the 1:15s.”
Duggan, whose grandfather, Joe Duggan, was a fixture at the track with trainer Freddie Jones, and Robertson came close four years ago to another track record. When Ready Racer set the six-furlong track record in 2014 Wine Stock - a horse Duggan and Robertson owned - was third beaten just a couple of heads. But that narrow loss still doesn’t explain how close they came to holding the six-panel record too.
“Wine Stock should have won that race,” said Tracy. “He was four or five wide the whole way. It was a horrible trip; he was definitely the best horse in the race that day.” The day Tracy dropped the claim for Hemlock Channel for Dugan and Robertson there were six other claims in on the horse. “We got lucky,” said Tracy.
“The trainer we took him from, Norman McKnight, is very aggressive,” noting that Hemlock Channel had been running in $25-$37,500 claiming races last year. “Hemlock Channel won for $12,500 last October. Then McKnight dropped him in for $11,500 which he also won.” Then, when McKnight rolled the dice and dropped the veteran into the $9,500 claiming race Tracy said “It seemed like the entire backstretch wanted to claim him.”
In that race, Robertson and Duggan also claimed another horse, Courtville, who has yet to make his appearance this year. Duggan, Robertson and Tracy weren’t sure what kind of a horse they were getting for $9,500 in Hemlock Channel but it’s probably safe to say they never imagined getting a track record holder. “Horses are funny. Sometimes it just takes a little something different to spark them,” said Tracy.
“Hemlock Channel had been running on polytrack at Woodbine and we were hoping that if we gave him a little time off, put him on dirt and gave him a change of scenery that we might be able to race him in stakes races in Alberta.” A two-time allowance winner at Woodbine when he was younger, Hemlock Channel has always been a consistent fighter. Last week’s victory was his 10th win in 30 starts. He was also second nine times.
And then there’s Hemlock Channel’s pedigree. His sire, E Dubai, has fathered several top stakes winners including Fort Larned, an earner of over $4.4 million including the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic and several Grade 2 winners like High Heels, My Gi Gi, Accredit and Italian champion One More Dubai. E Dubai is also a son of Mr. Prospector, an outstanding breeding stallion and one of the most dominant sire of sires in North American racing history.
As much as Duggan and Robertson, whose 32-horse stable includes 16 two-year-olds, were over the top with Hemlock Channel’s victory they, along with Tracy, were just as pleased with the effort of Blue Dancer. A winner of 10 of his 17 starts and the favourite in the 2015 Canadian Derby, Blue Dancer was exiting a dismal last place finish in his previous start on April 23 at Hastings Park in Vancouver. The track was sloppy, he had drawn the 10th post position and was three wide. But those factors still didn’t explain Blue Dancer’s effort.
“Good horses overcome stuff like that,” said Tracy. “Good horses can win from the 10-hole, they can overcome wide trips. But then they still might run second or third; they don’t get eased.” No, the far bigger explanation was that Blue Dancer had a virus and an abscess in his forehead. “He was sick for a month,” said Tracy. “He was depressed; he didn’t want to gallop; he wasn’t happy; he was miserable.”
While Hemlock Channel came out of the race hardly breathing hard - playing in his stall and just wanting to get petted - Tracy is hoping that Wednesday's effort wasn’t too taxing for Blue Dancer, a horse who needed that race. “He ran huge; he ran his eyeballs out. I just hope it didn’t knock him out. After a race like that a horse can bounce in his next outing.”
That next outing is likely to be the June 17 Spangled Jimmy which shapes up to be one of the races of the year with the likes of Annie’s Candy, winner of the May 27 Journal, Killin Me Smalls, the champion sprinter and aged older horse the past two seasons, Ready Intaglio, last year’s Derby winner and Horse of the year, Hemlock Channel and Blue Dancer also likely heading there. Royal Warrior, who won last year’s Speed to Spare and the Harvest Gold Plate, could also make his 2017 debut in the Spangled Jimmy.
“Now Blue Dancer has another contender to deal with,” said Duggan. “Instead of trying to run down Killin Me Smalls all the time, Blue Dancer has Hemlock Channel to deal with too. “They should work good as a 1-2 punch; we’re loaded for bear now. “The nice thing about Hemlock Channel is that he will go farther,’ added Duggan.
Tracy concurred. “Seven furlongs looked like it was his best distance in Ontario. But a flat mile on a bull ring looks perfect for him.” As it turns out the Spangled Jimmy is a mile so bettors beware.
Timely Ruckus, who held the six and a half furlong track record for 18 years was one of Alberta’s top thoroughbreds of all time. Going on to win $618,004 Timely Ruckus, trained by Ernie Keller and owned by Ed Welsh and Dennis Dale, was a pure sprinter. Dogged, determined and resilient, Timely Ruckus turned just about every race he contested in the late 1990s and into the next decade into a street brawl. Four times Timely Ruckus was named Alberta’s sprint champion; three of his plethora of wins came in The Journal Handicap which is where he set the track record.
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