Big Gulp drinking in success at Miami Valley for his new trainer Walter Haynes, Jr.

by James Platz

Gelding Big Gulp dominated the Indiana fair circuit at 2 and picked up four wins as a sophomore for trainer Jay Cross. Purchased last November by Brian Carsey and Jeff Fought and sent to Walter Haynes Jr., the Always A Virgin—Astra Destiny 4-year-old has hit the board in six of seven starts this season, winning three times. His most recent victory came March 3 when Sam Widger steered him to a narrow victory over battle tested Rockin Ron at Miami Valley in a time of 1:52.4.

“He’s got a really good heart. He has no idea how fast he can go because he’s never been pushed to his absolute limit, I don’t think,” said Haynes. “You never exhaust him or exert him so much that he gets sour. He’s never been like that. The other night he came first up and just sat on the outside and beat some good horses.”

Big Gulp was not a project horse when he arrived in Haynes’ barn. In fact, quite the opposite. Slugging it out in the ultra-competitive Indiana Sires Stakes program, the gelding’s 5-2-5 record in 20 starts last year is not indicative of his ability. Before adding the pacer to his stable late in the season, Haynes had a pair of 3-year-old colts that also competed in the division.

“Oh, they were brutal. There had to be 12-15 horses that could pace in 1:50 or better. They did it every week. It’s just so tough here,” he said of the division.

Campaigned by Cross for breeder/owner Ben Yoder and Anna Yoder, McKenzie Yoder and Michael Yoder, the then-sophomore competed in six of seven Indiana Sires Stakes legs. He managed two third-place efforts despite pacing in 1:52.3 or faster each time out, and timed in 1:49.2 in the last leg. Big Gulp did not accumulate the points necessary to make the lucrative Super Final and raced third in the $25,000 consolation, completing the mile in 1:51.1. He followed that effort by capturing a $34,000 Circle City division at Harrah’s Hoosier Park in a lifetime best 1:49.4 on a track rated sloppy. After a three-length romp one week later, Carsey and Fought purchased the gelding.

“Jay did a great job with him. Jay was the one that never over-drove him and hurt him. So the horse is just in a good frame of mind right now,” Haynes said. “He showed so much speed. He showed a lot of speed everywhere. Jay is great to buy off of and great with babies because he never hurts them. He makes great horses.”

Haynes made three starts with Big Gulp to close out 2021, capping the trio of races with a victory during Hoosier Park’s closing weekend. Whereas Cross had used steel shoes on the pacer’s back feet, Haynes opted for aluminum.

“I didn’t change a lot on him. I put aluminums on him after his second start for me. I just thought he’d be a lot better-gaited that way. I don’t know that he is better-gaited. He’s just a little easier on himself.”

After a break of just over a month, the gelding qualified at Miami Valley on Jan. 7 and won his seasonal debut five days later, stopping the clock in 1:52. He picked up another win the following week. Over the next four attempts, Big Gulp hit the board three times and raced fourth in the other start. After a runner-up performance Feb. 24, Widger suggested Haynes “open up” the pacer, accustomed to wearing a blind bridle, his next time behind the starting gate.

“The last thing Jay told me is, ‘Don’t open him up because he will absolutely run off. He gets paranoid,’” Haynes said. “Jay said he jogged him with some half blinds and he ran off with him and he couldn’t hardly get him stopped.”

Armed with that knowledge, Haynes made a subtle change on Big Gulp’s equipment. He opted to switch to a blind bridle that included holes which were covered with velcro. He moved the velcro back so that the 4-year-old could see about a half an inch. The hope was to fix Big Gulp’s tendency to lose focus once on the lead. It appears to have worked in the short term as he out-finished favored Rockin Ron by a neck Thursday at Miami Valley after racing first over most of the mile.

“The first two days he was a little scary, boy. He acts like someone is going to kill him,” offered the trainer. “Sammy said he was way better. Once he gets beside the horse, and he can still see him, he keeps racing him, instead of getting to the front and slowing down and another horse comes back and passes him.”

Big Gulp has quickly banked $41,750 this winter for his connections. If he continues to win, the pacer will run through the rest of his conditions and move into the invitational ranks. He is proving to be a versatile horse that could compete in Ohio or Indiana, giving Haynes, who lives just north of Hoosier Park in Alexandria, Indiana, flexibility as the track opens for live racing later this month.

“He’s not a bad shipper, by any means. It’s easier to ship 15 minutes than three hours to Scioto or a little over an hour to Miami Valley. We can go a lot of ways,” he said. “He shows big last quarters at Hoosier Park, but he also shows good last quarters at Miami Valley; :27.4, :27.3, :28, which is good for the wintertime. He’s a nice horse. He’s beaten some good horses this year and he’s paced some big miles. I think he’s an invite horse. He won last year in 49.4, so I think he can do that.”