Alaska journeys from Amish buggy to the track

The 5-year-old trotting mare has earned $53,000 this year after leaving the highway for the racetrack.

by James Platz

Every year, scores of horses that do not make it to the races are expedited to Amish communities. There, many of them enjoy careers pulling a buggy instead of a race bike. Seldom do these horses return from the highway to the raceway, and if they do, the success may be minimal or short-lived. Alaska is a trotting mare that has bucked many of those trends while turning into quite a find for her connections, banking just over $53,000 in her first season of racing.

“This is very, very rare. A lot of people think that horses can make it to the races, but it’s very rare do you find one out of the buggy that you can make a good racehorse out of,” said Maynard Miller, one of three partners on the mare. “I figured she would make it to the races, but I didn’t know how fast she would go.”

This too-good-to-be-true tale began in early 2018 when Miller was at the farm of northern Indiana-based trainer Jay Cross. That Saturday morning, Cross encouraged Miller to stick around after training as a local Amish man had a horse he wanted the veteran conditioner to look at and train.

“We both just kind of rolled our eyes because we’ve heard this story many times. He thought the horse needed to be on the track because she pulls like crazy. That was his comment. This horse really pulls so she should be good to race,” Miller said, laughing. “I didn’t even stick around to watch her go.”

Miller did not wait around to see the horse, but he inquired with Cross later. The report he received was that she had broken stride twice, but each time it was because she had hit the stirrups on the jog cart. An owner that was without a horse at the time, he instructed Cross to buy the mare. Sired by Northern Kid out of the Living Legend mare Forever Roses, the 5-year-old had never registered a start. However, based on the assessment from Cross, Miller took a shot on the trotter.

“This was more on a gut feel. I just thought it felt right,” he said. “Normally, I at least check them out a little closer, but I took Jay’s word on her. I give Jay all the credit.”

After buying the mare, he entrusted her with Cross, who began the work of getting Alaska ready for the races. He then reached out to trainer Walter Haynes Jr., previously a partner on other horses, and co-worker Mike Yoder to gauge their interest in buying into the mare. Both took a piece of the maiden with no racing experience. The opportunity was particularly appealing for Yoder, who had been trying without success to get a horse to the races.

“Three years I tried with three different horses, and for three years I had no success at it,” Yoder said. “I wasn’t about to give up after the third one.”

Cross worked with Alaska at his Middlebury, IN farm and then sent her down to Haynes in central Indiana to finish off before qualifying. She lined up behind the gate fir the first time Wednesday, April 25 at Harrah’s Hoosier Park for Haynes. The trotter raced fourth in the qualifying effort, clocking a mile in 1:59.4.

“I knew after the qualifier that she was more than an average horse,” Haynes said. “She was real green like she didn’t know what she was doing. Other than that, she was flawless, really. She is long and she’s fast. All she wears is a brace bandage. She’s easy to deal with in the barn, and she doesn’t do anything wrong.”

Alaska made her pari-mutuel debut May 2 at Hoosier Park, finishing third in a non-winners of one event. She finished third with Haynes in the bike, trotting in 1:59.3. Since then, the mare has gone on to put together an impressive “freshman” campaign. In 19 starts, Alaska has yet to miss a check. During that span, she has registered seven wins and finished second or third seven more times. She took her 1:55.1 mark at Hoosier Park in September, capturing the $21,250 final of the Richard Taylor Memorial, winning by two lengths. Alaska’s most lucrative win came in her last start, the $25,000 Autumn Leaves Series Final at Northfield Park, where she tipped three-wide on the backstretch and surged late to nip stablemate Credit Fraud by a nose in 1:56.1. It has been an incredible run for a mare that was traveling northern Indiana’s county roads less than a year ago.

“In a case like this my hope is that a horse makes it to the races. From there, it’s just like buying a yearling. You hope that they are good enough to make it, and then you hope they are good enough for the fairs. If you have a little luck, you hope they are good enough for the sires stakes,” Miller said. “It’s no different with a horse like this. You hope to make it to the races, for one, and then if you do, you hope that they’re good enough that you make some money. I was hoping she would trot in 1:58 and go through the non-winners of one and make a little money. I guess I never dreamt that she would take a mark of 1:55.1.”

After struggling to get a horse to the races, Yoder is enjoying the ride with Alaska. He has even taken some of her earnings and reinvested, partnering on a yearling last month.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling. I never expected this much out of her. I figured if she makes $15,000 or $20,000 for the year I’ll be happy as a lark. She has just totally exceeded what I expected out of her. It takes care of everything that happened the three years prior,” Yoder said. “Not very many of them come from a buggy and go to the races and have this success. It’s a remarkable story for her.”

Alaska will try to extend her success and continue the remarkable story this afternoon at Yonkers. She has been selected the morning line favorite in Race 6, a $26,000 event going a distance of a mile and a quarter. Jim Marohn Jr. is slated to drive Alaska, who has drawn post four.