Emotional Day

Rebuff earns redemption; Bulldog Hanover’s missed opportunity ‘a heartbreaker’

by Gordon Waterstone

Anticipation hung heavy in the air as the final day of racing of the Red Mile’s fall Grand Circuit meet got underway on Sunday, Oct. 9. The $430,000 Kentucky Futurity was set to close out the meet, Bulldog Hanover was ready to take on the clock, and the adored trotting mare Atlanta—who set a 1:49 world record at the Red Mile in 2021—would be making her last appearance on the track.

The Futurity was regarded as a wide-open race. It included the winners of the Canadian Trotting Classic and Hambletonian although Periculum, who had won during the first week of the Lexington Grand Circuit meet, seemed to have an edge in form. Also in the field was Rebuff, who was the heavy favorite in the Hambletonian but finished a disappointing sixth. After the Hambletonian, Rebuff was shipped to Kentucky for the Sires Stakes Championship division. He won his first Sires Stakes start in Lexington in late August but finished third and second in two later Sires Stakes appearances. In the Grand Circuit Bluegrass Stakes on Oct. 1, Rebuff trotted a mile in 1:51.1—with a :26.4 last quarter—but he finished third, beaten by Periculum.

Rebuff clearly wasn’t racing poorly, but his form when he was an early-season sensation—which included a 1:49.4 victory in the Stanley Dancer in July—seemed in his past. Bettors lost faith in Rebuff when it came time to bet the Futurity. They made Periculum the heavy favorite; Rebuff was cast in the middle, a 10-1 shot, which broke a streak of seven consecutive starts in which he was the wagering favorite.

But trainer and co-owner Lucas Wallin had not lost faith in Rebuff. When Rebuff came closing from seventh at the half to win this year’s 130th renewal of the Futurity, the redemption was sweet for the young Swedish-born trainer.

“It was mixed feelings going into the race,” said the 29-year-old Wallin, who came to the U.S. in 2016. “I was very, very confident that on a good day he is the best colt out there. He’d been feeling super sharp training and everything checked out good before the race. I was hoping for a good race but you really don’t know, especially with a 12-horse field. You don’t know how it will work out.”

In the Futurity, Rebuff raced without shoes for the first time in his 20-start career.

“This was his first time racing without shoes and there aren’t too many racetracks in the U.S. you can do it on,” said Wallin. “The surfaces are not as good as overseas.

“Back home you can do it on all tracks, but here at just a handful of tracks. If the horse is comfortable with it, and it has good feet and the track is good, then I have no problems doing it. This time it worked out, the next time it might not. You never know.”

Wallin said the combination of Rebuff having come up short his last three starts—and the 1:45.4-winning world champion pacer Bulldog Hanover attracting most of the attention in Lexington—led to quiet times around his barn the days prior to the race.

“It was a very quiet week and that’s always nice around the horses,” he said, adding with a laugh, “It was kind of nice to be an underdog. Like trainers and drivers, if you don’t perform they will forget you. It’s the same with the horses. It was a wide-open race and I’m very happy it worked out well.”

Wallin said his uneasiness about Rebuff in the Futurity evaporated when he saw the trip that driver Tim Tetrick worked out with his colt. Tetrick followed cover on the outside and Rebuff kicked home to score in 1:50.3.

“Even if he was on the outside the whole mile, he got a very good trip by Tetrick, so it worked out good,” said Wallin about the biggest victory of the 159 he’s had thus far in his training career in the U.S. “With the fractions of :54.3 to the half it worked out. I became confident during the race and in the last eighth, when it looked like he was going to win, it was an incredible feeling.”

Finally, the disappointing—and unexplainable—loss in the Hambletonian was no longer on Wallin’s mind.

“He couldn’t have looked better before the Hambo,” Wallin reflected after the Futurity triumph. “And then the Hambo was a fiasco and we didn’t expect that. But that’s horses. You have to take the bad days because that happens.

“We checked everything and we took all kind of tests. That was a bad day but that’s horse racing.”

Bulldog Hanover Falls Short, Defeated by Allywag Hanover

Trainer Jack Darling has won many of harness racing’s biggest races on the biggest stages throughout his career, but he admitted that he felt more pressure than ever before when his horse Bulldog Hanover went to the post.

“I really wanted to do it for the fans, but it just added pressure trying to get that done,” Darling said the day after Bulldog Hanover finished second by 1½ lengths to Allywag Hanover in a 1:46 mile in the $153,000 Allerage final, a time that fell one-fifth of a second shy of equaling Bulldog’s all-age speed mark of 1:45.4, set on July 16 at the Meadowlands.

“The pressure was enormous,” said Darling, whose biggest career victories include the 1997 North America Cup with Gothic Dream and the 1997 Tattersalls Pace at the Red Mile with Northern Luck. “I’ve been through a lot of big races and they are always pressure packed, but this was the most pressure I ever felt. Everybody was there to see him and beat the record.

“It was a heartbreaker and painful. Johnny (assistant Johnny Mallia) was heartbroken. I’m having a little trouble shaking it off, but that’s harness racing, a roller coaster ride.

“For every high there is a low,” added the 69-year-old Darling, who a few days prior to the race received the news that he had been elected into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Six horses were entered against Bulldog Hanover in what was expected to be an attempt at his besting that 1:45.4 mark he set in the William Haughton Memorial. The stallion rode an 11-race win streak coming into Lexington, and Darling admits he lost sight of a 12th consecutive victory in anticipation of a world record-shattering effort over the famed clay oval known for producing world records.

“It’s one of those things where we went for the time instead of the win,” said Darling. “To go that kind of speed you need somebody else to do a little bit of the work for you. It didn’t work out and it’s painful.”

Although Darling believes Bulldog Hanover’s best efforts come when he races from behind, when there was no early speed off the gate by any of his rivals, driver Dexter Dunn decided to gun his charge to the front. Bulldog Hanover reached the first quarter in :26.2 with the Todd McCarthy-driven, Brett Pelling-trained Allywag Hanover tucked into the two hole.

It was a scenario Darling said he feared.

“When I saw the entries, what I was really worried about was that nobody would leave and Bulldog would have to go to the front and Allywag would sit in the two hole and he was the horse that could upset us,” said Darling. “It was my biggest nightmare the way the race went.

“Dexter had no choice. If he hadn’t left and dropped back to fifth, they wouldn’t have gone anything up front. The whole thing was to give the fans what they wanted and it didn’t work out. When nobody else left, Dexter wasn’t happy about that. He knew right then that he was in a little bit of trouble.”

Bulldog Hanover reached the half in :52.2 and three-quarters in 1:19.1, and Darling knew then that the sizzling fractions were going to work against his 4-year-old pacer.

“At the three-quarters pole I knew he wasn’t going to do it,” said Darling, who watched the race along the fence midway through the 850-foot Red Mile stretch. “He had gone the big fractions and Allywag was climbing over the top of him, so I knew we were in trouble. That’s what I was afraid of.

“The fans were there to see a record and with the fractions he had to do to have a chance to lower the record, it just didn’t work out. It’s hard for a horse to go down to the half in :52 and change. Kudos to Allywag Hanover, he’s a great horse and Brett (Pelling) had him sharp.”

This was the fifth time Bulldog Hanover and Allywag Hanover had met on the racetrack this year. Although Bulldog Hanover had gotten the best of Allywag Hanover in all four prior matchups—they respectively finished one-two in all four—in their first encounter in a free-for-all race at Woodbine Mohawk Park in early June, Allywag Hanover—who was making his first start after his 2021 campaign that saw him voted the Older Horse Pacer of the Year—was actually sent off the favorite.

Bulldog bested his rival by five lengths in that race, and in the next three encounters won by 1¾ lengths, six lengths and 4¼ lengths. In all four races defeating Allywag Hanover, Bulldog Hanover had been relaxed early before moving to the front.

“Bulldog likes some action in the race,” said Darling. “For him to go to the front right away, he can still race good and still win, but he likes to rough it up a little bit early. He doesn’t like being on the inside for a while. He likes a target. When he sees something up ahead he likes to go after it. It was a scenario I feared, but that’s horse racing.”

Darling admits he wishes he had a do-over.

“The only thing we could have done was so we’d just try and win the race. He got to the front easy and could have got a nice breather to the second quarter and a nice breather to the third quarter and then sprinted home; it would have been a whole different story.

“But we knew why we were there and we took a shot. He laid down the fractions it would take to get a new world record, and it just didn’t happen. It’s too hard to do it yourself. You need a little bit of help early on to go that kind of mile.”

Despite the loss, Darling says Bulldog Hanover’s year—in which he’s won at five different racetracks and more than $1 million to bring his total earnings to just shy of the $2-million mark—has been overwhelming.

“I’m so proud of the horse,” said Darling, who shares ownership of the son of Shadow Play with Brad Grant. “When I warmed him up (before the Allerage) and brought him back in front of the fans, I was in tears as everybody was taking pictures and cheering him on. It was an unbelievable experience. I couldn’t be prouder of the horse no matter what. He’s a superstar with the fans.” HB

Gordon Waterstone is a USTA editorial specialist. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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