Hail to Ake!

by Alan Leavitt

Last Saturday’s Hambletonian was a total celebration of Swedish horsemanship. For some unknown reason, at least unknown to this kid, Ake Svansteadt has received only a tiny fraction of the praise he deserves for his Hambletonian accomplishments. Not only did he train and drive the decisive winner, Captain Corey, but he also trained both the colts that finished third and fourth in our most important harness race.

In a day and time when trainers only train and drivers only drive, and plumbers only plumb and lawyers only lie, etc., Svanstedt showed the world he was a master of both practices. My memory may not be infallible, but I’m pretty sure no trainer before, in all the years the Hambletonian has been raced, ever trained three of the first four finishers, including the winner.

As an aside, Svanstedt’s chief second trainer is his wife, Sarah. She’s also a talented driver, and in fact she drove Captain Corey in his first baby race last year as a 2-year-old; and drove him well, finishing a good, unhurried second, giving him the education he needed to become the racing machine he is today.

As a personal note, I like to tease Ake that he needs to smile more when his picture is being taken. I’m happy to say he didn’t need any encouragement in the smiling department last Saturday. And what he did last Saturday will give him a reason to smile for the rest of his life.

Captain Corey’s win was also a triumph for another Swedish horseman Robert Lindstrom. Lindstrom fastened onto Captain Corey at his first, informed glance. The story of how he managed to come up, in the moment, with the $150,000 it took to buy him, is a living testament to Lindstrom’s self-confidence and powers of persuasion (full story here). By the time he had found the money to make the winning bid, he must have approached every horse loving Swede within a hundred miles of the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion.

Here, please forgive this kid for relating his own Captain Corey caper, and its philosophical implications.

Last year, after Captain Corey had won his first three starts for money, I suggested to a good friend, a fellow breeder, that he explore the possibility of buying an interest, say 25 per cent, of the colt. At the time I was also heeling for a possible job as an advisor at the same farm, and perhaps this suggestion would clinch the deal.

Alas, it had the exact opposite effect. There was no interest whatever in investing good money in a 2-year-old who had only made three starts. Let him keep winning this year and next, and then we’ll be willing to talk turkey. But now, with only three starts in a sire stakes program, fugetaboutit.

For me, however, those three starts were enough to convince me that the colt had great sire potential. As you’ve heard too many times before, I share with the great Italian thoroughbred breeder, Federico Tesio, that 2-year-old brilliance on the racetrack is the best single indicator of future success as a sire. Not that it’s infallible, by any means, but it’s still the best we’ve got to go by.

There was something else, also, that made Captain Corey alluring. He’s by the pacing bred Goo Goo Ga Ga, out of a mare by Angus Hall, making him an outcross sire for all the mares sired by the popular trotting sires of today. Which will give him a definite edge up when he enters the stud. And again, you can’t make a bad sire with good mares, just as you can’t stop a good sire with bad mares. But from a business standpoint, Captain Corey will sure make a harvest in his first four years in the stud.

Now for the philosophical part. For this kid, the horse business has always meant betting big on the unusual, or the otherwise unrecognized. There were always bargains to be had at public sales when a well-bred barren mare was offered. You just did a little research, determined that there was nothing wrong with her other than just deciding to take a year off, and you had a good mare that more than earned back her purchase price with her first foal.

Garland Lobell was just killing time in Quebec while the wonderful Saccomani brothers were just waiting for a breeder from the States to realize they owned a world class sire. Striking Sahbra, likewise, was cooling his heels in Ohio while he waited for someone to realize he was a great sire, and act on it.

The same rationale applied to going back to darkest Quebec and grabbing up two breed-changing mares in Amour Angus and Canne Angus. It also meant buying half of Dewey after he’d made two starts for money at 2. As the world, or at least our little part of it, now knows, Dewey didn’t make it as a sire, but he still made a lot of money for us.

The list goes on a little longer, but the point has already been made. One can be conservative in the horse biz if they’ve got the money to pay top dollar for proven commodities. But for the rest of us, the way to success lies in the paths less taken, and a Yiddishe Kop can also be helpful.

On a different note, looking back to 1971, Rum Customer was ready to be retired to the stud after a successful racing career. Billy Haughton and Lloyd Lloyds (yes, that’s his real name) his trainer and owner, respectively, gave him to me to syndicate. He was a popular horse, but the key selling point was that he had won a million dollars, not nearly so easy then as it became later.

Actually, at the time I syndicated him, he hadn’t won a million dollars, but Roosevelt Raceway was going to take care of that little detail by putting on a “Farewell Pace” with a purse of $25,000.

It was late fall by then. Billy had long since gone to Florida with his big stable of babies to get started, and Del Insko was down to drive the horse in his final start. All Insko needed to do was finish fifth and it would be mission accomplished. And at the time Del was the leading drive on the Yonkers-Roosevelt circuit. Easy Peasy, no?

Except that Insko decided to let the horse go out in a blaze of glory, got him parked the whole mile, and finished sixth. And by now he was fully syndicated as a million-dollar winner.

Desperately I looked for a racetrack that was still open in December. There was only one in those early days, Aurora Downs, in Aurora, IL. Aurora Downs was a tiny harness track whose license allowed it only to race when no other track, harness or thoroughbred, was racing in the state of Illinois.

So, Aurora Downs it had to be, and fortunately the racing secretary then was a somewhat friend of mine. I told him of my plight, and he agreed to put on a FFA pace with a $7,500 purse. This was more money than any of the turtles racing at Aurora had ever gone for in their lives, so the race filled. Insko was press-ganged to fly out to Aurora to drive Rum Customer, and to make sure he got there on time, I went with him.

Off they went in the biggest purse race Aurora would ever put on, and under a heavy drive, Rum Customer stumbled home first in 2:07. Finally, mission really accomplished.

But this was a big deal for the management of this misbegotten track, and there was a ceremony in the winner’s circle. In a fitting gesture for the moment, the track had come up with a wreath of flowers, and it was hung around our horse’s neck. Unfortunately, at that point a chill wind that Chicago was famous for, blew in. It completely blew off everything on the floral wreath, leaving Rum Customer standing there with only the metal frame still around his neck. And me, standing next to him, wondering why I hadn’t gone to law school when I had the chance.