Indiana Sires Stake champion has been on a tear this year for trainer Joe Putnam and his partners a year after the group almost gave up on her. Now 21-year-old driver Joey Putnam is getting his first chance to drive a talented horse.
by James Platz
There was a point in time last summer when the connections of pacing filly Rockin Nola almost parted with the young pacer. In hindsight, the outcome is the best thing that could have happened considering what she has accomplished since the near deal. After winning the $220,000 Indiana Sires Stakes Super Final last fall, the now 3-year-old has been on a tear, winning five of six to open her sophomore season in what has become a family affair. Her latest effort equaled a Harrah’s Hoosier Park track record.
“Obviously we felt like we had a talented filly and we looked forward to bringing her back, but she’s just been better than we could have ever expected,” said trainer Joe Putnam, who owns the filly in partnership with Novi Trot LLC and Suttons Bay Racing. “She won last week in 1:49.4 and :26.4 on the end strong. She’s been above and beyond her expectations.”
Rockin Nola’s ascent to the top of the division began last year as Putnam prepared the Rockin Image—Gottogetoutmore lass for her first season of racing. A $15,000 Hoosier Classic purchase, the conditioner took his time bringing her along, and while she didn’t compete in the opening round of Indiana Sires Stakes competition, she was there at the end when it counted most.
“Honestly, her 2-year-old season we thought she had a lot of talent right from the get go. I just brought her along a little bit slow,” Putnam said. “Each start at two she kept impressing and getting better and better. She was always a great finisher. She finished all her miles pretty strong. We took our time getting into the sires stakes action, and it just worked out really good. She improved each and every start. Ultimately she made the big dance, and she raced unbelievable.
Sent off at 8-1 odds in the Super Final, LeWayne Miller steered the pacer to a 1:53 score, delivering a big win for her connections. She closed out the campaign with a runner-up effort in a $73,000 division of the Madison County, pacing in 1:53.3 as the second choice. Rockin Nola finished the season with four wins from 11 starts, hitting the board eight times and banking $160,100.
Upon returning to action in 2019, Rockin Nola has been nearly flawless. Miller qualified her twice at Hoosier Park before guiding the lass to victory in a $15,000 contest for sophomore pacing fillies. In her first Indiana Sires Stakes start of the year, a $34,500 division, Putnam’s charge cruised to a five and one-half length advantage in a time of 1:51. Miller had sat behind Rockin Nola throughout her freshman campaign and the first two starts of her sophomore season, but with a 3-year-old pacing filly in his barn, it created a conflict.
“LeWayne did an outstanding job. She got a great education, and he was first call this year coming back,” Putnam said. “But he also had a filly, and as you can imagine they were going to get in together.”
Enter Putnam’s son, Joey, to take over driving duties. The 21-year-old is in his third season as a driver and has become a valuable part of the stable. The younger Putnam has already collected 45 victories in 2019 and is closing in on his 100th trip to the winner’s circle.
“This year for him he’s stepped up and he’s been driving the whole stable. It’s been a good ride for him and a blessing for him to be able to drive a filly with that level of talent, and he’s done a great job with her,” said the trainer.
With Joey at the lines, Rockin Nola has managed three wins in four starts, beginning with a triumph in another overnight event for sophomore pacing fillies. Her lone defeat this far came in a $49,000 ISS division June 21 where she finished three parts of a length behind Play For Pay in 1:51.4. The pacer would use a pocket trip to her advantage on the way to winning a $20,000 division of The Star Destroyer in 1:50.1. That set Rockin Nola up for her best effort to date. Designated the heavy favorite in the third round of Indiana Sires Stakes action, the filly produced a track record-equaling performance. Moving to the top after a :55.4 half, the sophomore extended her margin to two-and-a-half lengths at the wire, tripping the timer in 1:49.4. The winning time matched the mark for sophomore filly pacers established by Wisdom Tree last summer at Hoosier Park.
“If I felt like he wasn’t ready, I would probably wait,” Putnam said of listing his son on the high-speed filly. “He works with me every day in the barn; he’s trained her all winter. He’s sat behind her a lot. He knows what she’s about. In a year, year and a half’s time, he’s grown leaps and bounds as a driver. He’s doing a great job, and the other owners are very supportive.”
Now, the father-son team has their name in the Hoosier Park record book, and a filly in the barn that impresses each time out. She has amassed $80,250 already, bringing her career bankroll to $240,350. The 56-year-old trainer is enjoying the ride, both because of Rockin Nola and working alongside his son.
“For me it’s been a blessing. I’ve done this for quite a while now,” he said. “Seeing him at the beginning of his career, he’s like my right arm now, so to speak. We talk all the time about the horses and the races. Keeping it in the family is pretty darn special.”
Rockin Nola has a full slate of Indiana Sires Stakes this summer and fall, and the filly is also eligible to a few stakes in Indiana. Just as he was careful to manage her freshman campaign, Putnam is not over-committing his charge and instead eyeing the future. He’s been successful before, conditioning and managing trotter ABC Mercedes to multiple Indiana awards and accolades and just over $1 million in earnings.
“We mapped her schedule out and figured if we danced all the dances she’s going to have 15 or 16 starts,” said Putnam. “The way they race now, every time you go it’s all you can go whatever the time may be. At that level, 15 or 16 starts would be a full season for her. Hopefully, that all goes according to plan and we’ll have a real nice horse coming back at four.”