Bulldog Hanover: Ambassador without obligation

Bulldog Hanover: Ambassador without obligation

November 8, 2022

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The presumptive Horse of the Year in Canada and the United States will have one final career start in the TVG open pace at The Meadowlands on Nov. 26.

by Melissa Keith

Jack Darling bought one yearling Monday (Nov. 7) at the opening session of the Standardbred Horse Sales Company yearling auction in Harrisburg, PA. Hip #17 Brady Hanover (Always B Miki– Bittorsweet Terror) is a half-brother to his former trainee Beaumond Hanover (p, 3,1:49.1m; $430,427), who swept the 2019 Harvest Series at Woodbine Racetrack and won three 2020 Ontario Sires Stakes Gold legs at Woodbine and Rideau Carleton.

The Cambridge, ON horseman said he was pleasantly surprised by numerous well-wishers at the sale – not about the new $100,000 purchase, but about Bulldog Hanover (p, 4, 1:45.4m; $2,247,325), the horse he bought at the 2019 Harrisburg sale for $28,000. Darling developed and trains the fastest-ever standardbred, whom he co-owns with Brad Grant of Milton, ON.

“Virtually everybody that I knew, and even people that I didn’t know, came up and congratulated me about Bulldog and said how much they admire the horse,” Darling said. “What really stands out is people were just so sincere. The look on their face and in their eyes. I mean, they just have a tremendous reverence for that horse–they see the greatness in him. It’s really something.”

There were naturally questions about the decision to bypass Rosecroft Raceway’s Potomac Pace Invitational, taking place this Thursday (Nov. 10), and the decision to make the stallion’s final career start the TVG open pace on Nov. 26 at The Meadowlands. But the overall theme was simply appreciation for Bulldog Hanover.

Before his most recent start, the Oct. 29 Breeders Crown open pace, Bulldog Hanover encountered a steady stream of admirers in the Woodbine Mohawk Park paddock. Caretaker Johnny Mallia stood vigilantly alongside the stallion, who displayed a gentle, even friendly, attitude towards his visitors.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Darling. “The last few times he’s raced, wherever he goes, people – I don’t know how they get in the paddock – but they’re getting in there to see him. They just can’t seem to get enough of him. They’ll stand there for a long time. They just love to look at him and watch. He just stands there and pricks his ears up. He’s just a very classy horse. Most of the really good horses I’ve had, they’ve had that class, you know–things just don’t bother them. They take it all in stride.”

The world champion’s temperament is a clear factor in his success, but also his popularity. Not every top horse can calmly meet fans face-to-face, let alone a top horse who stood stud in early 2022.

“He was in training and bred 80 mares, so there’s going to be little Bulldogs coming up this spring,“ said Darling.

He confirmed that Bulldog Hanover will be returning to stand at Seelster Farms in Lucan, ON, full-time in 2023.

The strength of the Ontario Sires Stakes program makes Seelster Farms an ideal location for Bulldog Hanover’s second season at stud. Darling noted that dual-eligibility in other racing jurisdictions will create even greater opportunity for little Bulldogs.

“When they’re raised in Kentucky, [foals] are Kentucky-eligible for all their stakes, and then Ontario-eligible as well, plus all the Grand Circuit races, so there will be lots of stakes races for his offspring.”

Darling’s Somebeachsomewhere–Armbro Wallflower mare Beach of a Time (p, 3, 1:52.2s; $67,597) is currently in foal to Bulldog Hanover, as is Canada’s fastest-ever filly on a -mile track, Powerful Chris (p, 3, 1:50.2f; $333,876). He co-owns the Betterthancheddar–Cell Power daughter with John Pentland of Dorchester, ON.

Unusually for a double-duty stallion, Bulldog Hanover has had plenty of close contact with fans this year. Did his owner/trainer expect the impromptu meet-and-greets?

“Not necessarily,” said Darling. “He’s just been there and people have come back, and we’ve let them. Sometimes I get a little concerned when there’s people in the paddock, that it might be a little too much, but they just want to see him, get their picture taken with him, and they just want to touch him.”

Bulldog Hanover’s record this year (13 wins in 15 seasonal starts, seven in 1:47 or quicker) would indicate that he wasn’t bothered by the spotlight. Before the Breeders Crown open pace at Woodbine Mohawk Park, he patiently posed for selfies, then went out to win going away in 1:46.4s, equalling Canada’s fastest-ever mile (set by Dr J Hanover in 2017, then equalled in Bulldog Hanover’s own Canadian Pacing Derby victory Sept. 3 at the stallion’s home track.)

Standardbreds of this caliber have traditionally attracted popular attention, but audiences have increasingly splintered into areas of specific interest: Today’s dedicated sports fan is unlikely to accidentally stumble upon harness racing content. Urbanization has simultaneously eroded the number of North Americans who have regular contact with horses, making equine sports a hard sell. Expecting Bulldog Hanover to reverse harness racing’s trend toward mainstream invisibility is unfair.

But Darling told HRU that he nonetheless witnessed a low-key, small-scale renaissance in public interest during his horse’s year of escalating excellence.

“Well, I’ve got to say that he has attracted fans and [new] people,” he said. “I’ve heard from people that aren’t regular fans and they’re not horsemen, but they’ve heard about him and they’re interested in him. I think that he’s created some interest in our [sport].”

“And we’ve been getting interest from the mainstream media around home. He’s been getting quite a bit of that, and at the tracks that he races at: At Lexington, the local [television] station covered him, and Indiana, they had a couple of stations cover him. Even the Toronto newspapers are covering him, which is kind of unusual.”

That media interest hasn’t been evident since the great Somebeachsomewhere’s 2008 campaign. “They’re always trying to compare: ‘Who’s the greatest horse?’,” said Darling. “Somebeachsomewhere and Bulldog, they’re always mentioned in the same sentence. It’s kind of neat.”

He said Bulldog Hanover did his part to promote harness racing, one start at a time.

“He definitely has attracted his admirers. Over the summer, with each race, he got more and more fans. There’s just something about him, the way he races, the way he does it. He’s so overpowering, and that just attracts attention and admiration. People really admire and respect that horse.”

Throw in an unexpected touch of easygoing charisma (à la Foiled Again) for a harness racing ambassador with more than pure speed and toughness. “It’s such a bonus when a horse has that kind of mentality, when they can relax and take it all in,” said Darling, adding that composure was always part of the 4-year-old’s personality: “Yeah, I would say so. Even as a 2-year old, he was pretty good to work around. First time going to the paddock, to race and to qualify, he took it in stride. Every time he went to a new track, no problem.”

Unfortunately, the 2022 Potomac Pace presented logistical problems for Bulldog Hanover.

“I was actually planning on [entering] it,” said Darling. “He had 30 days between races, and that race kind of popped up and we thought it would be a good tightener for him. But mainly because of the Harrisburg sale, I couldn’t get my regular trucker, and I was going to be at Harrisburg… It was just going to be a little too much, so I changed my mind. The shipping around is a little bit of a concern.”

The TVG open pace will be Bulldog Hanover’s final career start, but viewers can catch him in action one more time before the pari-mutuel farewell.

“He’ll probably get a qualifier in at Mohawk, about a week before that,” said his trainer. A 5-year-old campaign is definitely not happening, despite the stallion’s all-but-guaranteed Horse of the Year season at age 4.

“In his case, I’m like everybody else: I’d love to watch him race for another year, too,” said Darling, who will be inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame next year. “There’s not really much there for him to prove, and he’s going to be a very popular stallion.”

He said he was already fielding Bulldog Hanover breeding queries from “virtually every standardbred breeder” at Harrisburg.

As with recently-retired Breeders’ Cup winner Flightline on the thoroughbred side, there are risks associated with keeping the world’s top racehorse in training. It is logical, yet emotional, to conclude on a high point.

“He likes to get behind the gate and race horses. He enjoys racing,” said Darling. “But as much as I’d love to watch him race [next year], I’m just really happy that he can go into retirement never having been hurt, no surgeries, and he’s going to live a great life, which he deserves.”

While awaiting his final qualifier on Canadian soil, Bulldog Hanover is taking it easy at the Puslinch, ON training centre where Darling’s stable is based.

“He’s at Classy Lane. Out in the paddock every day for an hour. He loves life,” said his trainer. “It’s almost like he knows what’s going on, he knows how great he is, and he just seems to enjoy it.”

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