by Dean Towers
When a “best ever” poll in any sport is released, a common theme emerges – the effect of recency. The ‘now’ player or coach, or horse, always seems to top the list, as the accomplishments of those before him or her fade from memory.
Reading the industry chatter about Bulldog Hanover, I see a little of this phenomenon and it does gives me pause, but as I dig deeper and deeper, this feels a whole lot different.
Please allow me to share why.
“Time only counts in jail” is a phrase we hear often in harness racing to discount the speed of an animal, but it ignores a simple fact: A horse that stops the clock faster than the others wins the race. And Bulldog does that better than any horse in memory. His times, internal fractions and the way he does it is pure magic.
Bulldog won the Haughton in 1:45.4, but he did it from the seven post, hung to a :26.1 first panel, then forging to the lead with a :26.4 second quarter. He backed off the third quarter to :27.1 and then restarted his engine, coming home in :25.1 under no urging to win as easily as any horse can. Almost all of his races go something just like that.
There’s something in handicapping called even energy distribution, which means, generally, even fractions yield the best results for a horse. The horses the energy types are talking about clearly aren’t named Bulldog Hanover.
We can often be tricked with a horse by the competition they face. This is seen some years in the age restricted divisions, where a precocious colt or filly can win all the chocolates, but when they turn 4 or 5, they have to prove their mettle and fail.
Bulldog Hanover might be toying with his competition, but he isn’t beating up on slow horses.
Allywag Hanover is a 1:46 pacer who can’t seem to get close. Abuckabett Hanover came his back half twice in 51 seconds with last quarters of :24.4 against Bulldog and could not finish in the same area code. Tattoo Artist is probably the sharpest and most talented horse in North America not named Bulldog Hanover. He got within a length, with Dex impersonating a statue in front of him. This horse’s competition has been fantastic, and he’s made them all look ordinary.
I believe how a horse wins off adversity is always a solid benchmark to judge just how good they are.
We all likely remember watching Somebeachsomewhere in the Messenger at Yonkers in a driving rainstorm. The Beach was saddled with the six post against the Jug winner, world record holder, and top racehorse Shadow Play. Beach took the absolute worst of it parked most of the mile, was slipping and sliding on the greasy surface he surely didn’t like, and never once looked like a winner. Until he won.
I thought about The Beach’s Messenger while watching Bulldog’s tremendous performance in the Dayton Derby last week. It was a windy night, he was on a new surface at five-eighths that some think isn’t his best, and he was surely not reaching the lead easily from his outside post. In the end, Dexter put a nice drive on the colt (what else is new) and he looked to be a winner at the top of the lane, but how he won we weren’t expecting. He simply exploded, again making these very nice free-for-all horses look like they don’t breathe the same air, and giving us all a thrill; one we won’t forget any time soon.
Several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent book called Blink. The author believes those who have done something their whole lives have an innate gut feel, where they might not be able to put into words what they conclude about a topic in their purview, they just know it’s special, or different.
For many people outside this sport, their blink moment was Secretariat’s Belmont. Horses just don’t do that. With Bulldog, I’d argue it’s not one specific blink of time, it’s about everything he does. It’s how he moves, how he handles adversity, how he paces after the wire for a half mile, not wanting to stop; wanting to keep going, to keep fighting, to never let a horse get near him.
Is Bulldog Hanover the best ever? I don’t know. But I do know one thing — this horse is special.