Thanks for the lift, Somebeachsomewhere

A few days after his death, and 10 years after Brent MacGrath’s bold prophecy, remembering how one special horse united and raised an industry.

by Dave Briggs

My first taste of what we were all in for with Somebeachsomewhere came nearly 10 years ago to this day while waiting for a hotel elevator on a mild Toronto winter night in early February.

The 2007 O’Brien Awards had just ended, the photos had been taken and that’s when Brent MacGrath —arms full of trophies and his tuxedo still looking crisp — dropped a bombshell.

Somebeachsomewhere had just done something fairly remarkable, in my estimation. As a 2-year-old, he had tied Tell All for Canada’s Horse of the Year Award. This after Tell All won both Canada’s biggest race, the Pepsi North America Cup, and the Little Brown Jug in the 3-year-old heavyweight division. Sure, Somebeachsomewhere was undefeated as a 2-year-old and had impressively won the Metro, Battle of Waterloo and some Grand Circuit stakes at Mohawk. But, he only raced six times and precocious freshmen often benefit from not having to race against a full compliment of their birth year’s best, just yet.

I was, admittedly, a skeptic.

How did we really know how good he was before the slow starters arrived on the scene?

Why were we so quick to buy the hype and honor a 2-year-old?

And who exactly were these Maritimers most of us had never heard of prior to six months ago?

“You know, the big party is going to be right here next year,” MacGrath said, matter-of-factly just before stepping into the elevator.

At the time, it seemed like an awfully cocky statement from a man few of us really knew; a man that owned just one horse and ran a car dealership in Truro, NS for a living.

But as time passed, Somebeachsomewhere repeatedly dropped jaws and I got to know MacGrath better, I learned that on that night in that elevator MacGrath wasn’t telling me that he had some otherworldly skill as a trainer. He was simply telling me that he knew exactly what he had — the horse of a lifetime.

And he was blessed to have him.

Weren’t we all?

MacGrath would repeat that phrase often over the years that followed.

Horse of a lifetime.

Not just for MacGrath and driver Paul MacDonell and the rest of MacGrath’s partners in the Schooner Stable of Bible Hill, NS — Garry Pye, Stu Rath, Reg Petitpas, Pamela Dean and Jamie Bagnell — but for many of us, as well.

Count me in that group.

With more than 30 columns written about Somebeachsomewhere in the Guelph Mercury newspaper, a huge number of stories in The Canadian Sportsman and many more for other outlets in the years since Beach left the racetrack, I can safely say I have had the honor of writing about this horse more than anyone.

As much as I fell in love with the horse for all the obvious reasons — the power, the heart, the gait, the personality — it was the back story that drew me to the horse and kept me close.

Most pointedly, how MacGrath cobbled together $40,000 between himself and five other Maritimers to buy a single Ontario-sired horse and on his very first trip to Lexington plucked Somebeachsomewhere out of the 2006 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale for exactly $40,000.

Over the years, I have reused the same quote on the subject — one MacGrath gave me the very first time we met in the winner’s circle at Mohawk after Beach set a 1:49.3 world record in the $1 million Metro Pace.

“I didn’t have $40,100. I had $40,000. I said, ‘If he goes for $40,000, I own him,’” MacGrath told me that night in September of 2007.

MacGrath had considerable good fortune on his side that night at Fasig-Tipton. Somebeachsomewhere sold first in that session and some buyers were delayed getting to the sale because the afternoon card at The Red Mile — one that culminated with Ron Pierce waving bye-bye to Trond Smedshammer in a race-off in the Kentucky Filly Futurity won by Passionate Glide — ran long.

How Somebeachsomewhere came to be bred by Stephanie Smith-Rothaug of Ohio in the first place is a similar tale of good fortune. She purchased Beach’s dam, Wheres The Beach, in foal to Astreos, for $6,000 at the 2003 Standardbred Horse Sale Company’s Mixed Sale.

“That was pretty much my limit,” she told The Canadian Sportsman in 2008. “At the time, it was the most I ever paid for a broodmare.”

Smith-Rothaug bred Wheres The Beach to Mach Three in 2004 and the resulting foal was, you guessd it, the horse of a lifetime.

MacGrath would defy conventional wisdom — as he would throughout Beach’s career — by training Somebeachsomewhere in Truro, NS to the great delight of the horse-crazy locals.

The pairing with MacGrath’s old friend MacDonell, was also perfect. It only made people love Somebeachsomewhere even more that he was driven by the talented and classy veteran, a man widely respected by his peers.

Together, the two Macs meticulously planned every step of Somebeachsomewhere’s career. When the colt was two, MacGrath sent Somebeachsomewhere to Jean Louis Arsenault to train in Ontario. When it came time for the all-important sophomore season, MacGrath took a year’s sabbatical from the car dealerships he owns with Pye to personally manage every facet of Beach’s campaign.

That’s when I got to know and like this candid Maritimer; a writer’s dream for his accessibility, honesty and deft analysis of the scene.

Through it all — a 1:46.4 world record in Lexington, more than $3 million in earnings, a nearly-flawless record of 20 wins in 21 starts, national mainstream headlines in Canada, induction in the Halls of Fame in Canada and the U.S. and a lucrative stallion deal with Hanover Shoe Farms where Somebeachsomewhere became the greatest pacing stallion of his age and, perhaps, all time — MacGrath always did what he thought was best for the horse.

Doing what was right was the reason he said from the beginning of Somebeachsomewhere’s sophomore season that he was going to skip the Jug in favor of setting a world record in Lexington — not, possibly setting, but setting. In MacGrath’s mind, it was always definite.

Doing the right thing for the horse was the reason the original owners retained majority ownership to the end.

It was the reason they picked Hanover and its world-class broodmare band in the first place.

It was the reason they aggressively treated his cancer with chemotherapy in an attempt to save the horse regardless of what it might have meant to his breeding career.

That penchant for doing what was right for the horse was the reason my heart sank when I received MacGrath’s text message on Sunday afternoon asking me to call him as soon as possible. I knew the news would not be good.

The right thing to do, he said, his voice thick, was to follow the advice of Hanover’s respected farm manager Dr. Bridgette Jablonsky — who loved the horse like he was her own. We swiftly moved to end the horse’s pain, he said.

MacGrath is quite right that Somebeachsomewhere, who had just turned 13, was taken from all of us too soon.

But I choose to remember what Beach gave all of us in his relatively short time with us — including, as predicted, one hell of a party at the O’Brien Awards one year after MacGrath made that exact prophecy near that elevator.

At the 2008 O’Brien Awards, guests were given little vials filled with sand from a beach in Nova Scotia, and Somebeachsomewhere was feted as the unanimous choice for both Canada’s Horse of the Year and sophomore pacing colt of the year as the country song that gave him his name blasted through the banquet hall. Despite just stepping off the racetrack a few months before, Somebeachsomewhere also became the first horse to win the rarely-awarded Cam Fella Award for meritorious service following the inaugural winner and namesake in 1997.

By that night, I had long turned from skeptic to fan boy.

I will long remember how Beach fought like a wolverine in his lone, epic, defeat in the Meadowlands Pace.

How he dazzled a Lexington autumn afternoon with the fastest race mile in history at that time.

The awful night in late October that he defeated Shadow Play by a neck in the monsoon-induced slop at Yonkers in the Messenger.

His two-heat dominance on the half-mile track at Flamboro in the Confederation Cup.

How he toyed with the field in the Breeders Crown at the Meadowlands.

And how he acknowledged the roar from a huge crowd at Mohawk with a bow after winning the Pepsi North America Cup.

Most of all, I will remember how Somebeachsomewhere inspired dreamers in a sport built on them.

He raised all of us up and proved, that despite the odds, virtually anyone could end up with a champion.

And take their own version of one heck of an elevator ride.