Alberta harness trainer/driver Jamie Gray didn’t know what he had this year in Yankee Up but suffice it to say that he wasn’t expecting very much. Before he qualified the two-year-old colt who will be favoured in the $18,000 Snowshoe final on Saturday afternoon’s 1 p.m. card - once again the only card of the week - Gray trained Yankee Up four times in a nothing special 2:05. “He didn’t display a lot of talent; he would just follow along,” said Gray of the colt who has won three of his seven starts - as well as a couple of seconds.
“He just didn’t have the killer instinct.” But the fourth time Yankee Up trained in 2:05 something changed dramatically. “He came home in a last quarter in :29 2/5 and a half half in 1:01. That’s when I first started thinking that ‘Whoa; maybe we’ve got something here after all. He went really, really well. He’s really surprised me. I’m very impressed with him now. He’s exceeded all of my expectations.”
Gray purchased Yankee Up for just $4,000 from consignor Jim Rhodes, who bought back into the colt after last year’s Alberta Yearling Sale. “I liked his breeding. I had his brother Dreamway Confed - claiming him for $10,000 off of Gerry Hudon,” Gray said of the colt who is also out of the mare Nice Yankee and who would go on to post a log of 22 wins, 13 seconds and 11 thirds in 94 career starts. “Dreamway Confed was a really, really good race horse. Mostly just a claimer but he tried hard all the time and took a mark of 1:54 3/5. He didn’t need a trip either.”
Gray said Yankee Up’s conformation was also decent albeit with one noticeable flaw - he’s pigeon toed; his left front foot toes in. “I’m pretty sure that’s why I was able to get him for just $4,000. He doesn’t know he was only a $4,000 purchase.” Even though Yankee Up trained very well in his fourth 2:05 trip, Gray took a gamble and entered him in a $7,000 maiden claiming race on Oct. 20. “The maiden allowance didn’t fill and if I didn’t race him in the $7,000 claimer he would have sat on the sidelines for a month because it was just before the rodeo break. “Not too many people would have seen him train because I trained him at 4:30 in the afternoon. “It was a coin flip on whether to wait a month or enter him in that maiden claimer. I definitely took a chance that nobody was going to claim him.”
Yankee Up won that maiden claimer in spectacular fashion - winning by 8 1/4 lengths in 1:58 4/5. “Coming around the last turn and down the stretch I was really doing some heavy praying - hoping nobody had put in a claim on him.” Fortunately for Gray and Rhodes nobody did. And that was the end of Yankee Up’s claiming days. After a couple of starts in condition races - one of which he paced in 1:57 2/5 which Gray said “really impressed” him - Gray entered Yankee Up in the first leg of the Snowshoe series for two-year-olds that hadn’t won $20,000 by Oct. 1.
Yankee Up finished a hard charging second. Then he easily took the second and third legs. On Dec. 2 Yankee Up breezed home in two minutes flat. Then on Dec. 16 he won the third leg by two and a quarter lengths in 1:58 2/5. “There’s not many two-year-olds that can pace that fast in December,” extolled Gray, a talented singing horsemen who has written and sang four songs that he hopes one day will get recorded. Included in those songs are one for his daughter Brie, 23, another for his daughter Riley, 24, and even one for his cat.
Yankee Up finished third in last weekend’s fourth and final leg of the Snowshoe but it was a solid third given that Yankee Up drew the outside seventh post position and sat in sixth place while longshot President Elect was allowed to dawdle through a half mile in a pedestrian 1:02. Third over, Yankee Up paced his last quarter in :29 2/5. “He didn’t win but it was a real good mile given the circumstances. As well as drawing the outside post the track was deep because of all the snow and it was hard for horses to get a hold of and come from behind.”
For Sunday’s final, which will go as race 10 on the 12-race card, Yankee Up drew in the middle getting post four which should be about perfect. Shaker Tank, who won last week, got post 2.
“This Series is what I’ve been pointing him to all year,” said Gray. “I just babied him along this summer avoiding all the bear cats. I gave him a couple of months off starting in July and he came back with a changed attitude. Especially when he saw the starting gate for the first time. “He’s a big growthy colt - tall and lean - and he needed some time to fill out. He doesn’t do anything wrong. You can do anything you want with him,” said Gray, who has been married to his wife Shelley for 27 years.
“He’s not afraid of anything - he’s not scared of tractors or the starting gate. He’s very smart and he’s very mature for his age. You can drive him with two fingers. And he’s got a real good appetite which is a really good sign for me.” After Sunday’s Snowshoe final, Gray said Yankee Up is going to get some rest. "This will be his eighth start in just two months which is a lot for any two-year-old. We’ll turn him out and see what he can do next summer. He’s not going to win every race but he should be able to whack out a good chunk of money.”
Also on the card is the five-horse $18,000 final of the Snowflake series for two-year-old fillies. True Horizon, who will be odds on having won three of that series’ four legs - breaking stride in the other - enhanced her already solid chances by getting the rail. Ruths Crown Royal, winner of the other leg, will start from post 2.
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