The growing legend of a Tall Dark Stranger
Four days after a history-making triumph in the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup that required military-style logistics, the pacer’s delighted connections can’t help but gush about the colt’s intestinal fortitude.
by Dave Briggs
Pedigree, conformation and athleticism. Even a novice could see Tall Dark Stranger was overly blessed in all of those critical areas as a baby.
It explains his legion of well-heeled admirers when he was a yearling prospect.
It explains why a group of owners predominantly looking for fillies to bolster broodmare bands suddenly found themselves gaga over a pacing colt.
It explains that colt’s $330,000 price tag at the 2018 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale.
What no one knew then — and what no one ever knows for sure when horses are babies — is if TDS had, as Yannick Gingras might say, the “je ne sais quoi” necessary to go to war with the continent’s best.
Not to diminish his other tremendous qualities, but two years on, having the heart of a warrior, that intangible “it” factor and the grit of hockey grinder, is likely Stranger’s best characteristic.
Time and again his opponents have been in position to put him away in the stretch and time and again he has responded, none better than in the final of the Meadowlands Pace (replay here) which deserves to be on the shortlist of the greatest races of all time along with Wiggle It Jiggleit’s Jug, Art Official’s upset of Somebeachsomewhere in the Meadowlands Pace, Itz Fritz v. Cam Fella and Life Sign’s Jug.
On Saturday (Aug. 29) in the $1 million Pepsi North America Cup final at Woodbine Mohawk Park, Tattoo Artist pulled the pocket at the top of the lane and threatened to go right on past Tall Dark Stranger, only to be rebuffed on the way to a two-length, 1:48.2 victory.
Certainly the NA Cup win lacked the drama of the M.Pace slugfest with Papi Rob Hanover, but on Aug. 22 in Stranger’s NA Cup elim, the son of Bettors Delight out of Precocious Beauty was nearly nicked at the wire by Capt Midnight when there was an equipment malfunction and the former’s earplugs failed to pop. That TDS fought back in virtual silence, proved the colt’s natural-born tenacity, yet again.
“He’s a real fighter and he’s got grit,” said his part-owner Judy Chaffee of Caviart Farms. “You can’t tell about heart until they start racing. When you see it, it’s just incredible and he has it in spades. I’ve never seen a colt dig in like he does and he just fights with everything he’s got. It’s beautiful. We’re so fond of him.”
Part-owner Howard Taylor said what he loves most about Tall Dark Stranger is, “his guts. He refuses to lose.”
“He has no ‘off’ and I’ve never seen him give up,” said part-owner Michelle Crawford of Crawford Farms. “I don’t know how to describe how much tenacity and how much fire in the belly he has.”
They’re all biased, of course, as is their other partner Marvin Katz, but the videos don’t lie. Neither does the colt’s trainer, Nancy Takter, who would prefer a nice, easy butt-kicking to all this angina-inducing stretch drama.
“He frustrates the crap out of me when he does that,” Takter said. “I’m, like, ‘What are you doing?’ because deep down inside I know he’s going to win, but it’s like, ‘Why can’t you just do it easily? I don’t know what his deal is, but I would be really happy if he just won every race by at least two lengths. It’s easier on me.
“I don’t know if it’s laziness or that he’s just a diva. He does just enough. ‘I’m just going to do what I need to do.’ It’s the same when I train him at home… I don’t really feel like anytime that I train him that I’m, like, ‘Wow, he’s so good today’ because I always have to ask him to do his work. Then, if I ask him too much, he’ll go a quarter in :26 in a 2:30 mile. It’s a fine line, because he switches gears so quick that you could be going a mile in 2:30 and all of a sudden you’re going a quarter in 30 seconds and you don’t even feel the difference. Your stopwatch is your best friend when you’re out on the track training him.”
Takter is quick to note that Tall Dark Stranger has never been race-timed slower than 1:48.4 this year in his seven starts — six of which are wins — in which he has earned $879,131 of his career total of $1,596,645. His lifetime record is 14-1-0 in 16 starts.
Yet, Katz prefers another way to measure the colt’s greatness. The owner likes to point to history and on that score Tall Dark Stranger is peerless.
Stranger is the only horse in history to win the Metro Pace and Breeders Crown at 2 and the Meadowlands Pace and Pepsi North America Cup at 3. A few horses — Rocknroll Hanover, Presidential Ball, Captaintreacherous, Somebeachsomewhere, Mach Three — have won three of those races, but not all four.
“When you can do something that just hasn’t been done before, I think that’s extraordinary. That’s an extreme level that’s so unusual. It’s compelling to sort of focus on that,” Katz said.
“I’m a great follower of history. You’ll recall, Ariana G, when she was a 3-year-old, there was a lot of debate about whether we would put her in the Hambletonian or not, but the fact that All The Time had won the Oaks the previous year and (myself and Al Libfeld) would be the breeders of back-to-back Oaks winners, two full sisters, and the fact that it had never been done before in the history of that, was a big part of our decision.”
It also partly explains why the connections and driver Gingras went to incredible lengths to win the NA Cup.
In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, racing U.S.-based Tall Dark Stranger in Canada, on the other side of a closed border, was what Katz calls a “two-month ordeal to work out the logistics.”
The operation went into effect on Hambletonian Day (Aug. 8) when Takter sent assistant trainer Josert Fonseca across the border to serve a two-week quarantine. Then Takter found a farm as close to the Canadian border as possible to keep her horses that were heading for Woodbine Mohawk Park. She found the perfect place in Alden, NY, complete with a five-eighths mile track.
Since Takter wasn’t going to be making the trip to Ontario, she said she, “needed to keep the horses on (the U.S.) side of the border so I would at least have as much control and be able to train them prior to them racing.
“I’ve just basically done a circle – Lexington, Buffalo, New Jersey. Lexington, Buffalo, New Jersey, around and around. I was able to go there and train in between the elimination and the final — I went up there on Wednesday — just to know that I had everything in order that way.”
Doyle Transport delivered the horses back and forth across the border, with Fonseca receiving them in Ontario and arranging for locals to paddock them.
As for Gingras, his ordeal with crossing the border and receiving an exemption from quarantining was well reported (full story here). All the planning paid off with the driver winning his first North America Cup, a victory that reduced the Quebec-born reinsman to tears in the winner’s circle.
“Yannick really wanted to be here to drive the horse and he said publicly that’s why he came. There were other races, of course, once he was here, but that was the underlying factor to drive Tall Dark Stranger in the NA Cup,” Katz said. “It was more than the purse that was part of the emotional make-up of it. (TDS) was just creating history and Yannick was keenly aware of that. The value of the horse, there were so many different factors. This was a hugely important race and thankfully it played out.”
Three days later, Howard Taylor said the dominant emotion that is still resonating with him is relief.
“With all the hype going on, the pressure started actually to get to me and I was just more relieved than happy when he won, Not that I ever doubted him,” Taylor said.
Of the owners, only Katz was able to be at Woodbine Mohawk Park in person due to capacity limits and border restrictions.
“We had been unable to go to his prior races,” Katz said. “We weren’t there for the Meadowlands Pace or the Cane Pace and my partners got to enjoy that, so that’s fair that I got the NA Cup,” Katz said, laughing. “I got the home-court advantage on that one. Believe me, not being able to attend the Meadowlands Pace and Hambletonian Day was tough. Those were tough misses.”
He said NA Cup was surreal.
“Mohawk was not deserted, but it was very much less populated than it would normally be for an event like that,” Katz said. “There’s always an electricity and an atmosphere that’s created when there’s an event like NA Cup night and that’s certainly part of it, but the emotions of just watching the race and the anticipation prior to the race and the race itself, the adrenaline surge that follows, that was all the same.”
SOCIAL DISTANCING HEARTBREAK
Judy Chaffee said not being able to be at Woodbine Mohawk Park with her husband, Buck, to see Tall Dark Stranger triumph was heartbreaking.
“We would have loved to have been there and we definitely planned to come whether we had a horse racing or not, because we love it up there. We love coming to Canada this time of year, so it was heartbreaking that we couldn’t do it, but it was very exciting,” she said.
“We had our kids (at home) here with us, some of them. We’ve got seven children and all of them were watching, either at their houses or our daughter and her family was here with us. Buck hooked up the computer to the TV screen so we were able to all watch it together on that. When he won we threw our hands in the air and screamed and hugged. That was all wonderful.”
Michelle Crawford said she and Al ordered in Mexican food and invited their farm manager, Heather Marshall and her husband, Chad, the farm’s operations manager, over to watch the race.
“It’s so much fun when you can watch the races with people that really love it like we do. We have friends that will come over, and even our kids, we can have 15 people watching with us and I’ll have to ‘shush’ them all when our race goes on, ‘Guys, stop talking! Are you kidding?’” Michelle said laughing.
Afterward, it took a day to process, especially since this is the continuation of an incredible couple of months for Crawford Farms, which bred and owns a piece of Hambletonian-winning filly Ramona Hill, owns a piece of Hambletonian Oaks winner Sorella and has won the Meadowlands Pace, Cane Pace and NA Cup with Tall Dark Stranger. The Crawfords also bred and own a 2-year-old trotting filly named Destined To Dance that is undefeated in the New York Sires Stakes.
“Al said, ‘Don’t get used to this because this will never happen again. There will never be another year like this. You can’t possibly get that lucky. It just will never happen again,’” Michelle said.
“I think what’s happened this year, it’s a little bit of a numb feeling and it doesn’t register… We’ll have a bottle of wine the next day or next night and we’ll celebrate and watch all the replays and we’ll watch our races a couple of times. It’s just so much fun, it’s kind of like a date night. I cannot wait to hit the couch, get the TV, get the wine and watch it all over again and relive it. I think my heart beats so fast in the moment and there’s just too much going on,” Michelle said.
Takter raced at The Meadows on Saturday afternoon and was heading for Lexington afterward when she stopped in Columbus, OH. She watched some races at Scioto Downs and then went to her close friend Stacy Miller’s house to watch the NA Cup with Miller and her husband, driver Brett Miller.
“I definitely had some good friends with me, so that was fun,” Takter said. “At least there was someone there, because I was pacing around the kitchen. I was, like, ‘I can’t sit down, I’ve got to stand up.’
“I think it’s actually less nerve-wracking at the track because there at least you know what’s going on. You know the horse got on the track, you know the equipment is on right, you’ve been able to talk to the driver, you know what the track conditions are like… When you’re at home, I’m at the mercy of what they are telling me on the TV and maybe a text here and there from Josert, but he had his hands full, too. He had three horses racing and he had three people catch-paddocking that don’t know the horses, so he had to stay on top of everything. So, he didn’t have time to call me every three seconds. It was definitely different and definitely nerve-wracking.”
TWO FOR TAKTER AND CAVIART
A year ago, Takter and Scott Zeron were the toast of Mohawk after Captain Crunch won the NA Cup. It was not only the first NA Cup for both of them, it was the first, as well, for the Chaffees and Caviart Farms.
“I never thought that we would ever have a colt in the race, let alone win it, and now there have been two, so that’s really quite remarkable and we’re just kind of stunned and thrilled. It’s just a wonderful experience,” Judy said. “We always just kind of thought of ourselves as ‘filly people.’ We went to the sale and bought fillies. I think Captain Crunch was the first colt that we ever bought. We got him in partnership, so it’s really new for us, other than the horses that we breed or sell.”
As for Tall Dark Stranger, a little karma led the Chaffees to him.
“We went to the sale and studied the sale catalogue and picked out the list of fillies, just like always,” Judy said. “We like to race them and then have them for broodmares and there was only one colt that I picked out and it was Tall Dark Stranger. When Nancy called in the afternoon to talk about fillies, I was trying to go through my notes and I mentioned that I had fallen in love with this colt. She said, ‘Which one?’ and I said that it was Hip 60 and she said, ‘How much of him did you want?’ We never gave any thought to buying him at all, but when she said that I thought that Buck would be fine with it, so we took a piece of him. That was kind of how it happened, rather unexpectedly, but he’s the one colt that I had picked out from the sale.
“The breeding was there on paper and his video, but when we saw him, he was powerful, he was beautiful. I turned to Buck and said, ‘Is there such thing as a horse being too perfect?’ He just looked regal and had an air about him. The funny thing is, from that moment we bought him at the sale, I never doubted that he would be good. I didn’t know how good, but I knew that he would be one of the top colts because he just looked the part.”
That one colt, bred by James Avritt, Sr. of Kentucky and sold out of the Hunterton consignment, was also the pick of the litter for Takter and her father, Jimmy, who, in turn, convinced Katz to buy in.
“My priority remains trotters and trotting fillies, in particular. The focus really was, at that sale, trotting fillies. We’ll look at pacing fillies because (we own) Captaintreacherous, but they become sidebars. I was looking at the trotting fillies and Jimmy called me over and Tall Dark Stranger was out there and he was looking at him. Jimmy said to me, ‘This is the best colt on these grounds, you’ve got to have him.’ I said, ‘I’m in.’ That was the whole conversation. That was the entire conversation.”
The Crawfords were just as easy to convince.
“Nancy called and said, ‘My dad said his number one colt in the sale is Tall Dark Stranger. We need to put a partnership together.’ We were, like, ‘Yep, all in,’” Michelle said.
Jimmy, who never won the North America Cup in his Hall of Fame career, now has a daughter who has won it back-to-back at the age of just 39.
“Now the problem is going to be to win three in row,” said Nancy, who currently sports an off-the-charts UTRS of .497.
Don’t think she’s not going to try her damnedest.
“Nancy plans the program and she does a phenomenal job,” Judy said. “We are so happy with her. She’s so talented, she’s smart, she’s organized and plans everything out. She’s flexible when we need to change our schedule. I think she’s quite a perfectionist and has all the patience in the world. I just think she’s a combination of everything you would want in a trainer. It’s really quite remarkable for someone so young, but I guess growing up with her dad being a top trainer, she learned all of the elements of the job.”
As for Tall Dark Stranger, Judy Chaffee is just as effusive in her praise.
“I can’t say enough good about him… He’s amazing and we’re very pleased with him,” she said. “He’s a superstar. He’s the perfect combination of beautiful gait, speed, power, strength, intelligence and his super competitiveness and grit.