Underdog vs. Bulldog

Underdog vs. Bulldog

September 1, 2022

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Desperate Man, Canada’s 2021 Horse of the Year, returns in Saturday’s Canadian Pacing Derby.

by Melissa Keith

According to Trevor Henry, his favorite horse is probably the one who accompanied him to Trevor Henry Day, July 23 at Ontario’s Hanover Raceway. The appearance by Desperate Man (p, 3, 1:49.3s; $847,615) and connections helped raise $12,000 for Canadian Tire youth sports program Jumpstart. The 2021 O’Brien Somebeachsomewhere Horse of the Year, barn name “Slick”, spent the afternoon in a temporary stall outside the grandstand, meeting fans. “It was good. A lot of people showed up,” said Henry.

Desperate Man hadn’t raced since his seventh-place finish in Mohawk’s June 11 free-for-all, after which he was found to be sick. Trainer Kathy Cecchin told HRU the gelding’s road back from illness couldn’t be rushed to meet the timetable for any specific race.

“We just couldn’t seem to get back on the right track. Obviously, we did everything that we were supposed to do, but nothing seemed to work… He just wasn’t coming around. Our vet’s a super nice man, Dr. [John] Hennessey. He finally said, ‘I think you’re just going to have to wait.’ He just didn’t respond to the normal treatment for a horse that was sick.”

Kathy and her husband, Desperate Man’s co-owner/trainer John Cecchin, had to decline their horse’s invitation to the June 18 Mohawk Gold Cup.

“We thought, there’s no big worries, and then time just kept going, and he just wasn’t really coming around,” she said. “We didn’t even know if we would make this race [Saturday’s Canadian Pacing Derby], with the way things were. All of a sudden it was crunch time.”

The season began in more predictable fashion. Last year’s Canadian Horse of the Year began his 2022 campaign with a winning 1:53.1s qualifier at Woodbine Mohawk Park on April 22. He finished fourth to Jimmy Freight in his first start of the year, the May 7 Mohawk FFA Pace, then started from the rail in a May 15 Charles Juravinski Memorial elimination at Flamboro Downs. A second-over trip behind first-up American Courage put Desperate Man in position for a three-wide move on the final turn. A perfectly-timed late move put him ahead of 1-9 favorite Charlie May and late-flying Linedrive Hanover at the wire.

The 1:50.2h victory remains Desperate Man’s only 2022 win, although he outperformed his 18-1 odds and Flamboro post #8 to finish second to Linedrive Hanover in the $213,330 Juravinski final May 22. Bulldog Hanover, fourth in the final, would soon find renown as the sport’s fastest-ever pacer. Coincidentally, because of scheduling issues, Desperate Man ended up returning from illness and having to qualify against the world champion on Aug. 2.

The Cecchins’ gelding, co-owned with daughter and son-in-law Nikki and Paul Davies, was 10 days out from his most recent training mile when he qualified.

“When the entries came out and Bulldog was in our qualifier, I was like ‘We’re not chasing him today!’” said Kathy. “We did not think our horse was ready to go much more than :53, just because of the timing of everything.”

Second by 13 lengths in a 1:53.3 individual mile was enough.

“We thought about qualifying him again instead of trying to race him, because we know where he’s got to go, but he’s not the same horse in the morning,” said Cecchin. “He’s no morning glory. It didn’t seem ideal to qualify him again because it wasn’t like he was going to tear though a mile in :50. He would just walk around out there, so it’s not really progressive.”

On Aug. 20, Desperate Man was a quick-closing fifth at Mohawk.

“I think that was the first race where he’s really looked like himself,” said his trainer. “The start when he made the break [the Aug. 13 Mohawk open handicap], we were just kicking stones, like ‘Why?!’ He’s threatened to do that kind of stuff before, so hopefully that’s out of his system.”

She attributed the break to Desperate Man being “spoiled” by his relaxing life at the family farm.

“It’s just us and our daughter and son-in-law [Nikki and Paul Davies] who own half of Desperate Man, and Trevor and Shannon [Henry] who are stabled here.”

On Aug. 27, it was underdog vs. Bulldog again in the second of two Canadian Pacing Derby eliminations at Mohawk. First over from fifth at the half, Desperate Man provided cover to Bulldog Hanover, who chased him around the final turn. The 38-1 shot led until mid-stretch, when the 1-9 favorite rolled past to win in 1:48. Individually timed in 1:48.2, his quickest mile to date, Desperate Man held on for place ahead of Tattoo Artist and Abuckabett Hanover.

Like other allergy-prone horses, Desperate Man prefers cooler air temperatures. Atypical scheduling of the 2021 Pepsi North America Cup due to COVID-19 closures earlier in the summer may have helped his chances in the career-defining victory, but his trainer said a number of factors worked in the gelding’s favor that September night.

“I certainly wasn’t cocky or anything like that,” she recalled. “We thought he was coming in in good form. He paced the last half in :51.3 in his elimination, and we knew he’s dopey off the starting gate. We knew if he gets away at the back, the race will be over. We knew it was going to be the trip, and Trevor gave him the perfect trip, getting second-up behind Perfect Sting. I mean, we felt we deserved to be an underdog. Bulldog was tearing everybody’s bridle off and Perfect Sting was amazing, so we wanted him to get money and we were going to be happy with that. [Instead], he got the perfect trip and that’s what it takes to win a race like that.”

Bulldog Hanover and Desperate Man have the same post positions (#4 and #6 respectively) this Saturday (Sept. 3) that they did in the 2021 North America Cup final.

Assessing the deep field of the $650,000 Canadian Pacing Derby final, Cecchin was hesitant to predict another September upset for her small stable. “I don’t know how it will go. Trevor will have to figure it out and hopefully [Desperate Man] behaves himself and can get position and have the trip work out. I don’t know if anybody can beat Bulldog, really… He’s been so good and, really, the horse of a generation. We’ll be talking about him in 20 years because he’ll probably have a prolific stud career. There’s no knock on him, right?”

Yet the unpredictable business of keeping a top horse on top means the outcome isn’t a foregone conclusion to the lifelong horsewoman, who obtained her first training license at age 16.

“Jimmy Freight knows Mohawk inside and out. He’s coming into form off a layoff… Warrawee Vital drew the 10 hole, which is sad for his connections,” she said. “We thought Linedrive [Hanover] would be here… I don’t know how people with a barnful of these top-caliber horses can possibly do it, because we have enough trouble with one.”

Despite calling herself a “glorified groom” and letting her husband take Desperate Man for training miles, Kathy is hands-on with Canada’s Horse of the Year.

“My whole family was in it,” she explained, remembering growing up in a Welwyn, SK harness racing family.

“My grandfather, Chuckie Lewis, I have a picture where he won the 2:24 dash in 1948. Ray Remmen worked for him. My dad, Roy Cuthill, did labor and got his trainer’s license. He owned horses before, but later in life got his trainer’s license. And I was horse crazy, as a child. I read every book and I dreamed about horses.”

Her respect for Trevor Henry and peers comes from early experience.

“I drove in a couple of ‘powder puffs’. I learned early on I was never going to be a driver. Hats off to all the drivers – it was never going to be me.”

When Cecchin paddocks Desperate Man, she can’t bring herself to watch his races as they unfold in real time. She’s dubbed herself “king of the replays.” For the Juravinski final, she found a unique hiding place to avoid seeing her horse: “I was hiding between the chip wagon and the men’s bathroom.” During last Saturday’s Derby elim, she stayed in the Mohawk parking lot beside her trailer. This weekend’s vantage point is yet to be determined: “I’ll see how I feel and I’ll bolt somewhere.”

But first, the retention barn.

“For us, because it’s a retention race, everybody’s going to be there, and that’s good for him,” said Cecchin. “He likes retention. He’s a nosy individual… he loves to see what’s going on and he just stands with his head up looking at what everybody’s doing. It puts him in good humor. We’re only about an hour away from Mohawk, so for us it is an easy ship, but everybody will be there the night before.”

The $5,000 starting fee for the Derby was a decision that came down to Kathy’s verdict on Desperate Man’s form.

“I just thought he deserved a chance. He hasn’t done anything wrong, other than he made a break. Things seemed to be going right; John was saying he’s getting fitter, he’s getting sharper, more like himself.”

Her husband also added: “If you don’t want to race him in it this year, there’s always next year. He’s not going anywhere – he’s a gelding.”

The son of Shadow Play–Dreamlands Latte is the $20,000 yearling purchase that keeps on giving.

“He’s eligible to the Hoosier Pacing Derby and the Breeders Crown,” said Cecchin. “He doesn’t owe us anything, so what we do is all dependent on how he is. If we think he is competitive, he will race in it. If we don’t, he won’t. I will not throw him to the wolves. It’s family that owns him and everybody only wants what’s best for him.”

“He’s not a business for us. He’s done more for us than anyone ever in their wildest dreams could’ve expected,” she added. “There’s John, there’s my kids, there’s my grandkids, and then there’s him… Not because he made a million dollars, but because he’s him, right? He’s funny. He’s got a very true heart. It’s not because I think he’s an ATM… I would have loved him had he been a $7,000 claimer.”

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