North America Cup champ Wakizashi Hanover wins Truro debut

It’s not about the purse for the Maritime connections of the 2015 Cup winner, who is now being trained “at home” by Brent MacGrath of Somebeachsomewhere fame.

by Melissa Keith

Two past North America Cup champions went behind the gate this weekend, one for a purse of $500,000 (U.S.), the other for $1,675 (Cdn). Lather Up faced off against fellow Ben Franklin free-for-all finalists on Sun Stakes night at Pocono; Wakizashi Hanover (p, 5, 1:47.3m) towered over a field of five “NW $950 last 5 starts” rivals at Truro Raceway. The latter pacer, previously trained by Jim King Jr. and Jo Ann Looney King, last raced December 13, 2018 at Dover Downs. He finished third, individually timed in 1:51.3f, in a “NW $9,001 last 6 starts” conditioned event.

Questions emerged when 7-year-old Wakizashi Hanover qualified in a 1:58 solo mile over a “good” surface at Truro Raceway last week. “We took him out of Delaware in December,” said co-owner Bruce Kennedy. “His last race was in December, and when I talked to Jimmy (King Jr.), I said I’d like to take him off the track and give him a break.” That entailed the Pennsylvania-bred gelding coming “home” to a province where he had never before set foot. His original ownership group, Tri-County Stable, was entirely Nova Scotia-based, as are his current owners. Bruce Kennedy, Percy Bonnell, and Wayne Burley were Tri-County Stable members; Jennifer Weeks now shares ownership of “Waki” as well.

The pacer wintered at Linden Leas Farm, in Pictou, NS. “He’s never had a complete break, except for his operations,” said Kennedy. (Wakizashi Hanover has had two tie-back surgeries and underwent a surgery on a right front tendon last May). “He’s been so good to us that we’ve got to be good back. So we said, ‘Let’s bring him home and we can rehab him here.’”

The Equi-cizer, shake plate, and time off strengthened Wakizashi Hanover for his return to training, under the watch of a well-known local.

“When I got back from Florida (in mid-April), he was over in Pictou. I think they had [already] been in around 2:15 with him,” Brent MacGrath told HRU. Familiar as the owner/trainer of Somebeachsomewhere, MacGrath is Wakizashi Hanover’s current trainer. “I was part of the purchasing of him (as a yearling), and always had a connection with the horse.” He and wife Rhonda are both hands-on with the gelding, who appeared on the cover of Friday’s official Truro Raceway program.

Race 10, June 28 saw a Lasix-free Wakizashi Hanover and driver Darren Crowe allow Revenant (Adam Merner) to set the early fractions (:27.3 / :57.3/ 1:25.3). “Waki” powered past in the stretch for a one-and-a-quarter length win in 1:54.4h, the top two well ahead of the rest throughout the mile. The win was Wakizashi Hanover’s 24th in 81 career starts.

“I was expecting pretty much what happened,” said MacGrath. “He’s been training very good and strong, very willing, and seems quite sound.”

The victory was a fan-pleasing return for Wakizashi Hanover, in front of a sizable local crowd used to watching him via simulcast. Despite the warm reception and bustling grandstand, a few online critics suggested that racing at Truro Raceway was degrading to the 2015 O’Brien Award 3-year-old male pacer of the year.

MacGrath countered that Wakizashi Hanover’s 2019 campaign was the opposite of degrading. Co-owners Bonnell and Kennedy jog their horse and introduce him to the public at popular barn tours, two of which took place at the track’s June 23 Hubtown Community Day. “They baby him and take him out for grass and give him all the things he’s earned,” said “Waki’s” conditioner. “I go the fast miles with him.”

On those fast training miles, MacGrath keeps Wakizashi Hanover’s future, as well as his past, in mind. “We have to look out for and protect him a bit. That leg (issue) is there and is going to be there. The harder you race him, the less liable he’ll be to stay sound on it, so we have to protect him a little bit. We know that he has the class, and we know he has the desire, the ability. So we’ll just race him within himself and let him enjoy it.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Wakizashi Hanover wasn’t brought to the Maritimes to compete in the 60th anniversary edition of the Gold Cup and Saucer. Kennedy said the horse was originally pointed towards Red Shores Summerside’s top FFA race, the Governor’s Plate, but poor weather conditions slowed his training schedule and 2019 debut. With a final slated for July 13, the Governor’s Plate requires a minimum of two seasonal Maritime pari-mutuel starts for eligibility to the July 7 elims.

Having earned $1,475,750 (U.S.) and raced every year since he was two, Wakizashi Hanover campaigning outside of the mainstream spotlight means respect, not diminishment. “We decided to bring him home and have fun with him,” said owner Bonnell, who answered questions while feeding carrots to his charismatic horse. “He’s such a nice boy to be around.”

MacGrath agreed. “We don’t want to cheapen him, for sure; we don’t want him racing in the lower classes, and if he stays healthy, I don’t think there’s much chance of that happening.”

Plans call for Wakizashi Hanover to possibly visit Ontario this fall, but everything depends upon how he fares throughout his Maritime campaign, however it unfolds. Kennedy, Bonnell, and MacGrath would all like to see him capture Truro Raceway’s Lindsay Construction Exhibition Cup Invitational July 20.

While he could easily pass for a thoroughbred due to his height and refinement, the gelded son of Dragon Again exemplifies one of the standardbred’s best points: Wakizashi Hanover’s high-spirited but gentle temperament makes him a pleasure for his owners to work with, in the barn and on the track. “It’s a dream for me,” said caretaker Gary Fraser, preparing a cross-tied Wakizashi Hanover for Friday evening’s race. “I never thought that I’d get to handle a horse as good as him.”

MacGrath was once general manager of Truro Raceway. He said Wakizashi Hanover’s arrival represents a useful form of public outreach. “I think it’s very important. They had a good bet there ($19,488 (Cdn) for 11 races) last night, for what they had on — it wasn’t a stacked program — and I think that he would have contributed to that some.” The popular pacer’s connections weren’t celebrating about handle or personal wagers or purse when they posed for the winner’s circle photo Friday night.

“Those guys love the game,” MacGrath said, “and they were as excited last night as they probably were when he won the North America Cup.”