Training a Star

Jack Darling talks about Horse of the Year Bulldog Hanover’s 2022 campaign

interview by Gordon Waterstone

Bulldog Hanover’s 2022 racing campaign is unparalleled in the history of harness racing.

During a four-week stretch at the Meadowlands that included a world record 1:45.4 mile, Bulldog propelled himself to legendary status. He completed his 4-year-old season with 14 wins in 16 starts and $1,649,906 in earnings, sweeping Horse of the Year honors in both the United States and Canada. He also was honored with Standardbred Canada’s Cam Fella Award for extreme meritorious service to the Canadian harness racing industry and the Stan Bergstein Proximity Achievement Award by the U.S. Harness Writers Association.

Before Bulldog Hanover was announced as the 2022 Horse of the Year, Jack Darling, who trained and also co-owns Bulldog Hanover with Brad Grant, took time to reflect with Gordon Waterstone on Bulldog Hanover’s career.

HB: Looking back on the year Bulldog Hanover had in 2022, what are your thoughts?

Darling: My wife, Ann, and I have been in Florida relaxing this winter and I’ve watched all replays several times and I can just enjoy it. It’s a great experience. Everything couldn’t have gone better. It was a Cinderella year, really. I can watch those replays forever.

HB: When the year started, did you have any inkling of what was to come?

Darling: I was excited because he was coming back good. As a 2- and 3-year-old he did some very impressive things. I was cautiously excited about what he could do. Did I ever dream what he did? No. But I was hopeful for some exciting things.

HB: The year for Bulldog Hanover actually began in the hands of your second trainer and the pacer’s caretaker, Johnny Mallia, right?

Darling: I was away until April 1. Johnny is my second trainer and does it all. He did it all from January until I got there on April 1. When I got there, Johnny was excited how great the horse was training back. Johnny is a complete person and likes to do it all.

HB: You aimed Bulldog for the Juravinski at Flamboro Downs for his 4-year-old debut, which meant starting in late April. You were comfortable with that?

Darling: He had two qualifiers at Flamboro—the first in late April and then another in May—and he won both. I qualified him twice at Flamboro because I wanted to make sure he was good for a half-mile track.

In his first start in the elimination, he won. He went into that first turn 100 miles an hour and did everything but go up in the air. He’s such a big-going horse that it just wasn’t his strong suit. And he set the track record that night.

HB: But then fourth in the final after a tough trip?

Darling: It was a big mile. In the final he kind of got lost in the first turn and then he was out in all the turns. He lost too much ground in the turns and finished fourth.

HB: Did that discourage you at all?

Darling: Oh, no. Just the fact that he finished fourth after all that. When he came in after the race he had hobble burns all over. He was very stressed because the stress of those turns was really hard on him.

HB: After the Juravinski, he came back two weeks later and won twice at Woodbine Mohawk, and then you sent him to the Meadowlands, but you didn’t go and instead sent the horse to New Jersey-based Noel Daley. Was there a reason you didn’t go?

Darling: I’ve known Noel for years and he trained Carnivore for me down in Lexington way back. He trained Carnivore for me in the Kentucky Sires Stakes. We’ve had a relationship for years. It was that time of year when we are so busy with the 2-year-olds. Johnny was very upset he didn’t go out with him, but I had decided early I was going to send Bulldog out for those four weeks. We both watched the races from home in Canada.

HB: So Bulldog goes to the Meadowlands in late June and has a four-week stretch of races that had never been seen before. He won a Graduate leg in 1:47, then the Roll With Joe in a world record-equaling 1:46, then captured the Graduate final in 1:46.1 before the historic 1:45.4 mile in the Haughton Memorial.

Darling: When he won the Graduate (by two lengths), that first start at the Meadowlands and was so impressive, I really knew he really stepped it up a notch. (The next week) Allywag Hanover was in there and he blew him away and that was when I knew he was really special.

HB: When you sent Bulldog to the Meadowlands, you also made a driver change from Jody Jamieson to Dexter Dunn. How did that transpire?

Darling: When you are going to the Meadowlands you want to use the best driver out there. In my mind, Dexter was the top driver. He was the guy I really wanted. I knew if we got Dexter on Bulldog, we’d be all set. We were very lucky we got him. I kept asking Noel to work on him. Dexter was driving Rockyroad Hanover, so it was a tough decision for him to take Bulldog.

HB: As a horseman, can you put into words what Bulldog accomplished those four starts at the Meadowlands?

Darling: It’s hard to really comprehend. To have a horse do that four weeks in a row, it is actually quite incredible. As we were going along, toward the end I just wanted to hope he could do it one more week. And he did. He showed he was far and away the best horse.

HB: Looking back at that Haughton win, what did you think when you heard announcer Ken Warkentin yell 1:45.4?

Darling: I never even thought about the time (when) watching it. But when Ken yelled that, it was pretty exciting. That was just a great stretch call.

HB: Bulldog eventually put together an 11-race win streak, with his other victories coming at Harrah’s Hoosier Park and Hollywood Dayton, in addition to Woodbine Mohawk Park, where he equaled a Canadian record with his 1:46.4 win in the Canadian Pacing Derby. And suddenly he’s an attraction at the track, right?

Darling: After those four races at the Meadowlands, everybody knew about Bulldog Hanover. People wanted to see him in person. At Hoosier Park the crowd just kept building and building, so there was a really big crowd there (when he raced in the Hoosier Park Pacing Derby on Sept. 23, 2022, after winning Hoosier’s Dan Patch on Aug. 12). When I turned him to bring him back after warming him up and going by the grandstand, everybody was out there with their phones taking pictures and videos. It was the first time I had ever seen that.

HB: How about the [Dayton Pacing Derby]—with post time so late (11:46 p.m.)—with a full house watching?

Darling: That was just an unbelievable night and an unbelievable experience. The way the people showed up that night, coming into the paddock. The crowd out there. Everybody was outside watching the race 12-15 feet deep at midnight. That was something I’ll never forget.

HB: You then brought Bulldog Han-over to Kentucky, where he had one start at the Red Mile, in the Allerage. The hype was that Bulldog could lower his 1:45.4 mile, and you candidly said it was a goal, but it didn’t happen. Bulldog cut the pace but finished second to Allywag Hanover in 1:46 after leading through midstretch. Do you have any regrets or things you wished you had changed?

Darling: The thing about Lexington is that, for some reason, he just wasn’t as good that day. Dexter said afterward that he just didn’t feel as good as usual. He wasn’t quite up on the muscle as he usually was. Why? I don’t know. He was a little bit on the line that day, so something was bothering him.

HB: Again, looking back, anything you did in his training preparation you might have done differently?

Darling: It was kind of a busy week there. Normally, I would have had him out on a farm for a couple of days, which he likes. But with people coming in every day to see him, I decided to keep him there. That might have had something to do with it. But even on a bad day he finished second; that’s the type of horse he was.

HB: Talking about training, now’s as good a time as any to ask if your training methods have changed over the years, maybe since you had stars Northern Luck—a winner of $907,974—and Gothic Dream—a winner of $1,528,671 and victor in the North America Cup—in the 1990s?

Darling: My training methods are pretty well the same. But I’ll tell you what I did with Bulldog Hanover that might be interesting. When I got home April 1, he only trained doubleheaders. I’d go a mile in about (2):30, walk him around the track, and then go a mile in 2:15, or 2:10, 2:05, or 2:02. The only time he went two single trips was just before I qualified him to put a race bike on him. I just like going doubleheaders.

Back in the day, we’d warm up two trips, but now I just go out one warm-up time before the race. We go out three races before. Some people go out a race early, but with Bulldog I never had to go early because his breathing was incredible. It didn’t take him long to blow out.

HB: After Lexington, Bulldog won the Breeders Crown at Woodbine Mohawk Park and you announced afterward you’d be sending him to Rosecroft Raceway for the Potomac Pace. But you changed your mind. Why?

Darling: It was just the shipping. My shipper was busy with the Harrisburg sale and I was in Harrisburg, and it just wasn’t going to work out right. So I decided not to go. The race did actually fit into his schedule OK, and if it could have been a normal week where I could have gotten my regular shipper, I would have gone. But I was just nervous when things weren’t working out right. I was nervous so I said I wasn’t going to rock the boat.

HB: Bulldog capped off his career with a stakes record 1:47.3 win in the TVG final in late November at the Meadowlands. Did that win happen as easily as it looked?

Darling: I wanted him to go out on a winning note. He was as good that day as any time he was through the year. It was such a great way to end his career.

HB: Speaking of his career, he paced four of the nine fastest miles ever. Only Bulldog and Allywag have gone faster than 1:47 twice. You’ve been around the sport a long time now—in February, you celebrated your 70th birthday. What are your thoughts about Bulldog consistently showing that kind of speed?

Darling: He was so dominant every week over that great group of horses. How can a horse be that much better over those great horses? You’d watch him go down the stretch and there was no doubt he’d be the best and win. You just don’t see that happen, especially at that level of great horses.

HB: When it comes to those types of performances, how much credit should go to the trainer and how much to the horse?

Darling: It was definitely the horse (laughing). He’d go off at odds of 1-9, so the bettors believed he was that good.

HB: Bulldog bred mares in 2022 and then raced last year. Any thoughts of doing the same this year and continuing to race him?

Darling: I thought about it. We all did. There is no doubt in my mind we probably didn’t see the best of him, and if he came back as a 5-year-old he would have been incredible. But just the fact that he was so valuable as a stud. Just the fact that when we took him out to Seelster to retire, I was just so happy and at peace because he was walking into the barn and had never been hurt and was healthy. He was heading to a great life.

HB: Standardbred Canada doesn’t award the Cam Fella Award every year—there really has to be something special. And only two horses—Foiled Again and Rambling Willie—had been voted to receive the Proximity Award. So those things are pretty meaningful, right?

Darling: It just shows the effect a horse like him could have on people. It’s really a special thing to get a horse like that who can impress people. It got to be an emotional thing for the fans, who were always cheering him on.

HB: OK, let’s put you to the test. Using horses like Albatross, Niatross, Nihilator, Bret Hanover and Somebeachsomehere, where do you put Bulldog Hanover?

Darling: It’s hard to compare because each year is different. But I remember Niatross when he raced. He was super and better than everybody else. There was no comparison between him and the others. As a 4-year-old, Bulldog is in the same league. He was by far the best harness horse in history so far. Then Niatross and then Somebeach.

HB: But who’d win a race among those superstars?

Darling: Who’d win? Bulldog, of course (laughing). People like to compare Somebeach and Bulldog and I just love to hear them both mentioned in the same sentence. If Bulldog raced against…I shouldn’t even say that. Bulldog is the best horse I’ve seen, but five years from now there will be somebody better for sure.

HB: After the year you’ve just had, including being elected into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, any thoughts of retiring?

Darling: No. I know I won’t be able to match this, but I still get excited about 2-year-olds. I love looking at yearlings, I love buying yearlings, I love training 2-year-olds and seeing what they can do. Racing the older horses doesn’t excite me that much, although I’ll race a horse like Bulldog anytime. I want to cut down on the numbers and take it a little easier, but I still want to train 2-year-olds. I’ll try to keep about 10 horses. HB

Gordon Waterstone is a veteran harness racing journalist and publicist and member of the Communicators’ Hall of Fame. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

 

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