by Brett Sturman
Horses from New Zealand and Australia have been importing to North America at record rates over the past couple of years, and at least two fresh imports could show the ability to make loud noise in this year’s older pacing division. Down-Under standouts that include the Australia-bred Waikiki Beach and New Zealand-bred Heaven Rocks will race in the U.S. this season for the Let It Ride Stables and will be trained by the Australian native Ross Croghan.
If all goes to plan, the two imports can bring some needed new blood and a bit of foreign intrigue to an older pacing division that currently lacks any true star. There’s nothing wrong with the top older horses from last year such as Keystone Velocity, Mach It So or All Bets Off as examples, but missing are some of the killers that we’ve seen in recent years past.
Waikiki Beach (Somebeachsomewhere—Cyclone Beach) seems to be regarded as the more ‘put-together’ horse of the two, and his connections are giving him every opportunity to see what he can do.
Eric Cherry of the Let It Ride Stables says that Waikiki Beach will be heavily staked.
“He’s staked up for all the majors and he’s going to be starting in the Levy,” Cherry said. “We left him out of a couple of them, but in general he’s pretty staked up. I wouldn’t say he’s the perfect package but he seems to have all the credentials so we’ll find out if he can go back to his form from when he was a 2- and 3-year-old.”
Cherry is referencing the fact that Waikiki Beach won 20 of 21 starts as a 2- and 3-year-old including multiple Group 1 races, but went winless in his final 14 starts prior to departing for the U.S. Providing additional insight, Croghan noted that the horse was unbeatable his first two years racing. “He looked like the next coming of Niatross at 2 and 3, believe it or not. He did all that and came back at 4 and had that problem that 4-year-olds have of leaving the gate against seasoned free-for-allers and it was just a different kettle of fish for him,” said Croghan. “When I was down there I talked to (former Waikiki Beach trainer) Mark Purdon about him and I went and kind of went over the horse myself from head to toe, and I just thought he was a horse I could possibly change the schedule on and help out a little bit.”
Croghan is keeping his fingers crossed but so far so good as Waikiki Beach is two-for-two in the U.S., with two wins in the open at Pompano, including his most recent in a lifetime best of 1:50.2.
Waikiki Beach will be shipping up from Florida to New Jersey in a few days and he’ll be joined by Heaven Rocks, who is scheduled to arrive from New Zealand in five days.
The mercurial Heaven Rocks is another multiple Group 1 winner although he is, by far, the wild card of the two. The gelding by Rock N Roll Heaven—Mendelico is loaded with raw ability but is also wildly unpredictable. It wasn’t too long ago when trainer Mark Purdon was drawing comparisons between Heaven Rocks and stablemate Lazarus, who is arguably the best pacer today in the world.
“He’s an extremely powerful horse,” said Croghan. “He’s got 1:47 capabilities; he’s just a bit of rogue. When the decision was made to buy him, it was made basically with everyone fully involved that the horse could definitely hit or could definitely miss. He’s not a turnkey horse that’s easy on himself. He’s got a V12 under the hood, but he just doesn’t have power steering to go along with it.”
Echoing Croghan’s comments is leading New Zealand bloodstock agent John Curtin. “Of all the imports there (in North America), Heaven Rocks is probably the scariest one for speed. He’s got unbelievable speed and it’s just a matter of a trainer getting him right because he has his own mind, but he can certainly pace a scary mile if he does everything right.”
Heaven Rocks will be heavily staked, although with his later arrival to the states won’t debut until sometime after the Levy.
“We bought him and the funny thing is that we actually staked him before he was vetted out,” said Cherry. “The 15th (the February 15th staking deadline) doesn’t wait on anyone, so we knew we were going ahead and we had a deal based on vetting him out, and we made a decision to go ahead and stake him. If he would have failed the vet then we would have lost that, but basically, he has a tremendous amount of ability. Along with my partner Dana (Parham), we feel there is more upside and more downside with him than a horse with Waikiki Beach but we’re willing to take a shot and see how it goes.”
Cherry acknowledged that with the older division lacking some of the horses we’ve seen in years past that it creates a favorable environment for these types of imports, but he stopped short of saying that success at this high level would come easily for that fact alone. “Look, it’s never easy,” said Cherry. “You still have to be the best of who’s there. But I would have to say from a couple of years ago – and this is one of the things that goes into our decision making (to import horses here) – is that there aren’t any Always B Miki’s or Wiggle It Jiggleit’s that we see, and some of the ones that are still around that were good back then, are a few years older now. Again, it’s never easy at the top, but it may not be as deep as it was a few years ago.”
Should Waikiki Beach and Heaven Rocks perform at levels their connections are hopeful of, the trend of acquiring Down Under horses with the intent to race at high levels in North America will continue.
“You’ve got a problem up there like we’ve got down here, and you can’t just get good horses,” Curtin said. “Everybody is looking for horses, and there are an awful lot going up there at this moment, with 15 horses alone leaving Australia tonight (Wednesday).”
Croghan acknowledges the same. As fewer horses are available, horses at sale are overpriced and finding top quality stock is at a premium.
Waikiki Beach and Heaven Rocks are both only 6-year-olds, and could be highly competitive in the older pacing ranks for years to come. Beginning next month we’ll find out just how good they are.