Monday, June 25, 2012
The modern day Seabiscuit
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
Back before Googoo Gaagaa had his first race, his trainer Richard Hans tried to tell people that his young trotter was something pretty special.
"This horse can absolutely fly," Hans said. "I said that a long time ago and no one believed me."
Of course they didn't.
It was beyond unlikely that Googoo Gaagaa could be a good horse or that the sport's next big thing could belong to a smalltime guy like Hans. It was as close to impossible as close to impossible gets.
Hans is part of a small family-operated stable in Maryland, harness racing's minor leagues. In 2010, when Googoo Gaagaa was still just a yearling, he won a mere six races with stable earnings of $57,001. A typical horse for him was Kora's Trotter, the dam of Googoo Gaagaa. Hans paid $1,200 for her and she won one of 11 career starts, earning $2,229.
After Kora's Trotter was done racing, Hans bred her. In 2008, he sent her to be bred to a trotting stallion but she did not get in foal. Hans didn't want to waste a breeding season, but it was getting late and he didn't have many options. The only solution he could come up with was to breed Kora's Trotter to an obscure stallion owned by his family, Cam's Rocket.
The problem was that Cam's Rocket is a pacer and Kora's Trotter is, of course, a trotter. Hans was attempting to mix oil with water. It is extremely rare to breed trotters to pacers because, according to conventional wisdom, the offspring are usually good at neither.
By a unsuccessful sire out of a slow, cheap mare, the product of a mating that seemed to be a recipe for failure and owned, trained and bred by someone who had no experience competing at the top levels of the sport, Googoo Gaagaa seemed certain to be a complete and dismal failure on the racetrack. Instead, he is well on his way to greatness.
At two, Googoo Gaagaa won all six of his starts, one by 41 lengths and another by 32. In one race, he completed the mile in 1:56, the fastest race ever on a half-mile track by a 2-year-old. But he was competing in races restricted to Maryland breds, races with small purses and where the competition was weak. That's a reason why few took him seriously.
He stepped up to a higher level when beginning his 3-year-old year, but broke stride in his 2012 debut, to date his only loss. Driver Corey Callahan said the misstep was his fault because he used a sulky that was too small for the horse. Googoo Gaagaa regrouped and won his next three starts easily.
After winning a $20,000 race at Chester, Googoo Gaagaa was aimed for his first major event, the $500,000 Earl Beal Jr. Memorial at Pocono Downs. There were still some skeptics entering the elimination races for the Beal, but Googoo Gaagaa put virtually every doubt to rest when he won by seven lengths in 1:51.3, another world record time.
He was even better in the final, where he beat, among others, three horses from the powerful Jimmy Takter stable. His time of 1:50.4 was the fastest ever by a trotter on a five-eighths of a mile track, an incredible accomplishment for a 3-year-old. In harness racing, older horses are usually significantly faster than 3-year-olds.
Like Seabiscuit, this is a fairytale that has come true.
"It's a great story," Callahan said after the Beal win. "No offense to the Takter connections, but this is what these people came out here tonight to see. Takter and Fielding and Ron Pierce, those guys win all the big races. This is about the little guy, Richard Hans. He bred the horse, he owns the horse, he trains the horse. It's just all him. That makes it extra special."
In the case of Googoo Gaagaa, the trotter-pacer combination was more or less an accident, but Hans' colt has led some to rethink the logic of mixing the two types of standardbreds. Pacers are faster than trotters and by mixing pacing blood into a trotter you might just be able to create a horse that is superior to the average trotter.
"He trots very good and square," Callahan said. "If you watch him on TV his front legs move like a pacer almost. He's got tremendous reach. If you look at some of his win pictures, his arm is out even with his nose. It's unbelievable. I think that's why he can go so fast, because he covers so much ground. It is so effortless with him."
The only drawback to the Googoo Gaagaa story is that he is not eligible to compete in the Hambletonian, the closest thing harness racing has to a Kentucky Derby. Horses cannot be supplemented into the Hambletonian, and because he had no reason to think Googoo Gaagaa was going to turn out to be anything Hans did not make the payments to make his colt eligible.
But there are plenty of big races he can compete in, like the July 7, $450,000 Yonkers Trot, likely to be his next start. Hans must also decide if he wants to sell the horse. He has fielded offers in excess of $1 million.
Ask Hans, a man of very few words, how this horse can possibly be this good and he struggles to explain it. Or maybe there is no explanation, other than sometimes billion-1 shots come through.
Driver Corey Callahan said the misstep was his fault because he used a sulky that was too small for the horse.