NA Cup champion Wakizashi Hanover retired to New Vocations

“At what stage, before something happens, do you retire a horse like this?” said part owner Bruce Kennedy.

by Melissa Keith

After seven straight years of racing, 2015 North America Cup champion Wakizashi Hanover (p, 5, 1:47.3m; $1,489,550) has finally laid down the sword for good. The 8-year-old gelded son of Dragon Again—Western Gesture (by Western Hanover) finished eighth in the last race of his career, a Dover Downs NW7001L5 conditioned event on March 5. While never a threat in that mile, he was still individually timed in 1:51.3f, only factions of a second behind winner Beach Art’s 1:51f flat performance.

Trained by Jim King Jr. and wife Jo Ann Looney-King through most of his career, Wakizashi Hanover had not won a race in his six seasonal starts, but did manage two place finishes in Rosecroft Raceway’s open handicap pace for catch driver Allan Davis. The popular pacer had spent the greater part of 2019 in Nova Scotia, the province where his ownership group lives. He romped to a 1:54.4h victory in his lone pari-mutuel start at Truro Raceway last June. When the track closed for the season Nov. 1, after Wakizashi’s 29-length win in a qualifier, the Tri-County Stable members opted to send him back to Jim King Jr. to race at Dover. December 19 in Delaware, the gelding battled to his last win, a 1:52.2f photo- finish decision over Lyons King.

Bruce Kennedy is the lead partner of the Tri-County Stable. He told HRU that there were limited opportunities to race Wakizashi Hanover as the new year started, but it wasn’t a problem at first. “We raced him a little bit because we went down there [Dover] in December, and he was getting his starts now and then. He’s not racing quite with the company he did before, and that didn’t bother us too much. With some of the tracks closed, we couldn’t get in every week. We didn’t really want to race him every week. We were happy with three times a month.”

Given the costs of keeping a horse in training, the low Canadian dollar, the COVID-19 crisis, and the challenges of keeping an older horse ready to race, Kennedy said that the ownership partners (himself, Percy Bonnell, Wayne Burley, and Jennifer Weeks, all of Nova Scotia) soon faced a difficult decision. Early in 2020, they were aware that Wakizashi’s “earning-power days were pretty much behind him,” yet the gelding’s willingness made it tough to retire him. “He’s a horse that will give you what he’s got,” said the Bible Hill, NS horseman, adding that there were plenty of tears and “mixed feelings in the group” about the healthy pacer leaving the track forever.

When Wakizashi Hanover took his Truro Raceway sabbatical in 2019, his owners wanted the horse to get some time off for a persistent injury to heal to its fullest extent. “He had a tear in his tendon, and that kind of indicated to us that at 7-years old, it’s a lot to put pressure on him and ask him to pace half-mile tracks in :51, :52,” said Kennedy. “It’s going to hurt; we didn’t want to hurt him. We just thought: What’s best? So I talked to Jimmy [King Jr.] on several occasions about that: At what stage, before something happens, do you retire a horse like this?”

King Jr. advised him that the choice was always up to the owners, but Wakizashi Hanover had more than earned a rest from the racing wars. “So we started to investigate, and there were a couple of options for us,” said Kennedy. “After talking to the Kings, they said there’s always the option to go to Tim Tetrick and his wife Ashley; they’re very heavily involved in this foundation [New Vocations, the largest racehorse adoption program in the USA] and they certainly have a lot of regard for the horse.” The Hall of Fame driver had similar advice when Kennedy inquired about Wakizashi Hanover’s future: “[Tetrick] said, ‘He’s earned his retirement, so it’s a matter of when you’re ready. He’s not going to get faster; he’s not going to get richer. He’ll add to his bankroll, but it’s going to be spent on getting him there.’”

Tetrick had known Wakizashi Hanover from the start of the horse’s career. Kennedy said the reinsman advised turning out the gelding after a few starts as a 2-year-old, because he thought the pacer was capable of sub-1:48 speed at age 3. “We turned him out, down at Olive Branch Farm [in North Carolina] with Chris Coyle, and brought him back, trained him down, and then Jimmy [King Jr.] got him ready. Sure enough, he was going to the North America Cup and the rest, everybody knows all about it: He beat two undefeated horses, one in the elimination in Artspeak, and came back seven days later and beats Wiggle It Jiggleit.”

The Tri-County Stable didn’t realize how special their horse was at the time, leading to Kennedy’s “one regret” about Wakizashi Hanover’s racing career. “We raced him back a few too many times immediately following the Cup. He was eligible for a few more stakes, the Brandywine and a few of them in the Midwest. I think we raced six or seven weeks in a row… I think we were too hard him. Then when we got to the Breeders Crown at the end, he only missed by a little wee bit, but in my eyes, it’s because we over-raced him. I felt bad after that.”

The small-time owners didn’t know what they had, because the odds had been overwhelmingly against them landinganyhorse, let alone the 2015 O’Brien 3-Year-Old Male Pacer of the Year. Kennedy recalled attending the 2013 Harrisburg yearling sale with Percy Bonnell, his lifelong friend and Tri-County Stable partner; they were hoping to purchase a yearling for no more than $20,000 US, and had another $10,000 U.S. set aside for training bills. “Then we found out that there was a lot of people there with $20,000, because we were losing at $21,000, $23,000, $25,000… We even tried to buy from people who bought them and pay them a premium, but that didn’t work,” said Kennedy.

Friend Brent MacGrath asked Hanover Shoe Farms to help the group find a few affordable-looking prospects, but the end of the sale was approaching. Kennedy consulted with his partners, and they agreed to exceed the $20,000. “There were 1118 yearlings in the sale I went to, and Wakizashi’s number was 1104, so everybody left him there for me,” he told HRU. Trainer Gordon Corey placed the winning bid for the Tri-County Stable’s lucky purchase: $23,000.

Today, Wakizashi Hanover is a USTA Full Circle Program horse, meaning that if he is ever found in a situation where his welfare is at risk, there are people who can be notified to step forward and help him to safety. Kennedy said the gelding’s well-planned retirement should hopefully mean that “Waki” never requires the assistance: As of last Friday, he was headed to New Vocations’ Ohio location to be retrained as a potential pleasure, show, or therapy horse. “When he gets broke and gets pacified with a saddle rather than a jog cart, they can find better where his liking is,” added his grateful former owner. “They seem to think that he’ll adapt to anything he does.” With his “people horse” attitude and striking good looks, the gelding is ready for a different vocation, one in which he’ll have a chance to showcase the versatility of the off-track standardbred. “They’ve already suggested down there that this won’t just be an ordinary person that will get this horse,” said Kennedy. “He’ll get placed with somebody who’s really going to appreciate a millionaire horse in their barn.”

The hands-on horseman, often seen jogging his pride and joy at Truro Raceway last year, will miss watching Wakizashi Hanover race. But the 79-year-old owner/operator of Kennedy’s Convenience in Bible Hill, NS has been keeping busy: He said his store had recently introduced precautions to protect customers and staff from COVID-19 while remaining open as an essential service. Taking social distancing seriously, he was also focusing on his 2-year-old Control the Moment—Isabella Blue Chip (by Bettors Delight) colt, named Under Control, who is training at nearby Truro Raceway. “I’d be going up the wall if I didn’t have one now,” Kennedy said with a laugh. He owns 25 per cent of the colt, sharing ownership with trainer Barry Whidden; his son, driver Mark Whidden; and Tri-County Stable member Wayne Burley.

Looking back, there is no single moment that Kennedy appreciates most about Wakizashi Hanover. “The moment is stretched out to a lot more than a moment, a day, or a week,” he explained. “It was that everybody who met the horse, everybody who was around the horse, especially the people who worked with him, thought he was the greatest horse.”

On Friday, March 27, Jo Ann Looney-King posted a short video online, showing Wakizashi Hanover exiting his stall and boarding a trailer bound for his next, transitional, home at New Vocations. Tearful emojis and one word — “bye”—accompanied her quietly-emotional video, which was widely shared on social media. Although he will be missed by all of his racing connections, the gelding is ready for the next chapter of his eventful life.