The 94th edition of the Hambletonian was won by an Ontario-sired son of Kadabra with wholly Canadian connections led by Serge Godin’s Determination Stable.
by Dave Briggs, with files from Mike Farrell
In the afterglow of his ultimate harness racing victory, famously media shy mega-owner Serge Godin of Montreal was feeling charitable. Though initially declining to be interviewed about Forbidden Trade’s 1:51, 15-1 upset of overwhelming 3-10 favorite Greenshoe in Saturday’s $1 million Hambletonian final at the Meadowlands, Godin, the man behind Determination Stable — as well as the Canadian tech company CGI Group — hesitated, smiled, and then acquiesced.
Godin has spent many years and likely millions chasing this holy grail, but he wanted to heap praise on the rest of his carefully-crafted harness racing team led by trainer and fellow Quebecer Luc Blais and driver Bob McClure.
“We selected the best horses and conformation and everything, then we have assembled a very strong team, the A team. We are very lucky,” said Godin, a man not afraid to pay handsomely for yearling stock he truly covets. “The trainer is a fantastic guy and Bob McClure is really, really good so I’m really privileged to be surrounded by some really strong people.”
McClure, who at 28 was looking more than a little stunned to find himself atop the trotting world despite his poised steer of Forbidden Trade, deflected the credit back to Godin and Blais, who is based in Ontario. McClure said his career began to take off when Determination started using him to drive their horses.
“When they started putting me on horses of that calibre to drive, then other people start having confidence in me, too. I owe it all to them,” said the Orangeville native and Elora resident. “It’s taken me to a whole new level. The owner, Determination Stables, they invest a lot of money in horses, but Luc does a really great job maintaining them. He’s a competitive guy and he always wants to win and his horses are always, always ready. I’m just lucky to be along for the ride.
“There’s a lot of people that never get to race in this race, let alone get lucky enough to win it, so I’m just pinching myself right now.”
McClure may also have had some cosmic forces on his side. Three weeks ago, he graciously ceded what turned out to be the Meadowlands Pace winner to Brian Sears. Transportation delays getting to the Meadowlands from Ontario caused McClure to miss the drive on Best In Show for the Meadowlands Pace eliminations. When Sears drove the colt to a second-place finish, McClure said the right thing to do was for Sears to keep the drive on the horse for the $682,650 final, which Sears and Best In Show won.
Saturday in the Hambletonian, McClure fought off Sears’ late charge with Greenshoe in the lane to win by neck.
“I said to a lot of people that good karma will get you further than good luck, so maybe that’s it,” McClure said smiling.
This from a man who had a decidedly un-karma-like qualifying accident in April in which he suffered a broken pelvis. McClure was back in action by May 23, using a hyperbaric chamber to hasten the recovery.
“I was really lucky to have a good physical trainer,” McClure said. “I probably rushed it back a little faster than I should have. I’m sure most drivers in this business have done this a time or two.”
In the end, what was shaping up to be a Hambletonian dominated by Swedes, ended up being a decidedly Canadian victory. Forbidden trade is owned, trained and driven by Canadians and is an Ontario-sired son of Kadabra out of the great Ontario mare Pure Ivory.
Swedish-born trainer Marcus Melander — at the McClure-like age of 27 —sent out a four-horse Swedish-owned armada that included Greenshoe — a horse drawing comparisons to the greatest trotters of all time — plus undefeated Gimpanzee and top colt Green Manalishi S.
Melander didn’t get the victory, but his trio of finalists raced well. Gimpanzee rallied from far back to get third and Green Manalishi S held on for the fifth and final purse check.
Forbidden Trade, third in his Hambletonian elimination, was always in contention throughout the final. McClure and his colt tracked Green Manalishi S, the other elimination winner, into the stretch. Forbidden Trade took charge, but danger was looming with Greenshoe uncorking a menacing rally.
For an instant, it appeared Greenshoe would blow on by. McClure admitted he was headed, but Forbidden Trade was not done.
“It was two incredible colts fighting it out,” McClure said. “I don’t think there was a loser in that, but we’re really happy to get out on top.”
Greenshoe never looked comfortable behind the starting gate for the final as Sears held him together to prevent a break. That put him further back than expected, a loss of ground that proved costly.
“I think Greenshoe is a little hard on himself and Marcus Melander and his team have done an amazing job having him behave as well as he has this year, but I’m sure a few people thought that maybe two heats might do him in because of how hard he is on himself, but I was one of those people that saw him as probably invincible,” McClure said.
Earlier in the day, a determined Green Manalishi S pulled a 9-1 upset in the first Hambletonian elimination. He left strongly from post eight, briefly dropped into fourth before ranging up first-over to wear down Osterc in a lifetime best 1:50.3.
Melander also won the second elimination. In a favorite’s delight, it was with Greenshoe, the 1-5 favorite, in 1:50.2.
Forbidden Trade, the O’Brien Award winner as Canada’s Two-Year-Old Trotting Colt of the Year for 2018, now sports a lifetime record of 12-2-2 in 19 starts and earnings of $867,600.
Unconventional route to victory
Blais took an unconventional route to Hambletonian glory by keeping Forbidden Trade in Canada until the last possible second.
Instead of racing at the Meadowlands, the trainer raced Forbidden Trade against older horses in an overnight at Woodbine Mohawk Park on July 22 (won by Forbidden Trade). Blais then dropped his colt into a qualifier on July 30 — in which Forbidden Trade was second — just minutes before dropping into the Hambletonian box.
“The horse has a nice paddock (at home) and he’s fresh. I go with (what’s best for) the horse,” Blais said, explaining he purposely skipped going to an Ontario Sires Stake Gold event at Rideau Carleton in Ottawa to keep Forbidden Trade fresh for the Hambletonian. “I just go with my feelings, that’s it.”
Though Forbidden Trade qualified without trotting hopples, Blais used them in the Hambletonian, saying it was better to be safe than sorry.
Blais said he’s been watching and dreaming about the Hambletonian for more than 30 years. His only previous entrant was Jake in 2017.
He said he particularly remembers — and admires — the Hambletonian won by brothers Jim and John Campbell with Tagliabue in 1995.
“I was here and he was not sound, that horse, but he was prepared for that race and he won that race. I was a groom, on the road with the horses at that time,” Blais said, adding that he now understands the emotions that hit people when they win the Hambletonian.
“Winning a big race with a horse you build… is an amazing feeling,” Blais said. “We chose this horse.”
Bred by Steve Stewart of Hunterton Farms of Paris, KY, Forbidden Trade is the fifth of six foals out of Pure Ivory, a winner of nearly $1.3 million on the track for trainer Brad Maxwell.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my buddy, Marti Ala-seppala from Finland,” Stewart said. “He kept telling me to breed her to Kadabra, breed her to Kadabra, breed her to Kadabra, and I never did. I ended up with (Pure Ivory) on a board bill. She was owned by somebody in Finland that just disappeared.”
Stewart finally took Ala-seppala’s advice and bred Pure Ivory to Kadabra and the rest is history. Forbidden Trade was sold for $110,000 to Determination at the 2017 Standardbred Horse Sales Company’s yearling auction in Harrisburg, PA.
This fall, Stewart’s Hunterton Farms will sell Forbidden Trade’s full-sister.
As for Godin, he said Forbidden Trade’s victory was all the result of a well-thought-out plan by his entire team.
“(Godin’s) a passionate guy and he loves the game and he loves horses,” Blais said. “We race at Hanover, Flamboro and he doesn’t miss a race, it doesn’t matter.”
Godin said he named his stable Determination for a reason.
“It’s a kind of principle that I’ve been observing all my life,” he said, before slipping out of the winner’s circle and off to celebrate the joy of a plan coming together perfectly.