Caretaker Johnny Mallia on his incredible ride with Bulldog Hanover.
by Melissa Keith
When Bulldog Hanover (p, 4, 1:45.4m; $2,419,000) stepped off the trailer at Seelster Farms to begin his new life as a full-time breeding stallion, it marked the end of his time with Johnny Mallia. The caretaker told HRU it was difficult to say goodbye to the world champion on Dec. 5, for more than emotional reasons.
“Yeah, it was [hard]. Very. That [last] morning was pretty much the same as normal. I turned him out like I usually do… As I had him out in the field, a skunk went into his stall, so I couldn’t even put him back in there. I had to keep him out a little longer than I like, because we were supposed to leave [for Seelster] at a certain time.”
It wasn’t the first time Bulldog Hanover and Mallia had to deal with unexpected company this year, but this visitor was less welcome than the usual fans who showed up wherever Jack Darling and Brad Grant’s horse was racing.
“We couldn’t get the stupid skunk out of the stall,” said Mallia. “Nobody wanted to get sprayed, so we had to wait… We brought [Bulldog Hanover] out of the field and tried him in a different stall, but he wouldn’t go… so we just took him down there” to his new home at Seelster Farms, in Lucan, ON.
“He’d been there before, but when you unload him, even when you take him to the track, he gets worked up and puts on a big show,” said Mallia, laughing. “You better watch him! That’s the way he is sometimes.”
The caretaker looked after Bulldog Hanover throughout the stallion’s three years on the track.
“He definitely got better, as everyone can see, but it was funny how through the season he just got sounder and better as the year went on. Those four races that he raced at The Meadowlands, that would kill a normal horse. Thank God he had a month off before his next race.”
The only time Mallia was not with “Bulldog” this season was during a three-week span when the horse was with trainer Noel Daley to compete at The Meadowlands.
“I wanted to, but we have horses here and we’re kind of not set up for so much travel,” said Mallia, who works for Darling at Classy Lane Training Centre in Puslinch, ON.
Bulldog Hanover returned home a little tired after his remarkable record miles.
“He had lots of big races coming up,” recalled Mallia, who worked with Darling to bring the top pacer back to top form. “It wasn’t overnight – it took a few weeks, and he just got better and better… to the end of the year. I was kind of proud of that.
“Overall, now that he’s gone, he was a little bit hard [to care for], but we got along. We knew each other’s routine and we knew each other. He has moments where he can be really aggressive, strong, and drag you around – he’s just so powerful. You try not to be too aggressive with him, to hurt him or anything like that. Basically, I just tried spoiling him all the time, making him feel everything was his idea, and doing things he would like,” such as feeding him sliced watermelon, apples, and bananas.
“Right from day one, the very first time he went in to qualify at Mohawk, he was like that – he was quiet,” said his caretaker, who stood by watchfully as large groups of admirers paid homage to the likely Dan Patch and O’Brien Horse of the Year, who was named the third equine winner in the history of USHWA’s Stan Bergstein/Proximity Award on Monday (Dec. 19).
“I didn’t know how he would handle all the people, but he was almost human, that horse. He was so intelligent,” said Mallia. With the exception of one boisterous group seeking souvenirs at the Breeders Crown — “They were keeping me from doing my job… They wanted a piece of his harness, his halter… It was just too much” — he found Bulldog Hanover’s admirers to be a respectful crowd.
“All the other people around all the tracks, everybody was so courteous and they would ask first – ‘Take my picture.’”
Two overly-enthusiastic fans, kids in tow, even photobombed Bulldog Hanover’s retirement ceremony at Woodbine Mohawk Park.
“When I looked at the pictures in the winner’s circle, they barged in and they were there.”
Many owners and trainers historically took strong measures to prevent close encounters, Mallia told HRU.
“They wouldn’t allow any of that. They would hire security guards for their horses, so people couldn’t come close, and they had barriers set up to keep people away… We never did any of that” for the sport’s latest rock star.
On Dec. 3, Bulldog Hanover’s home track Woodbine Mohawk Park sent him out in style with a special retirement lap and winner’s circle presentation.
“It was a little bit sad, too – the last time he’s at the track, doing what he does,” said his caretaker. “Normally when he comes to the winner’s circle, he’s in the infield and he stands like a perfect gentleman, but that’s after a race. So Jack [Darling] just kind of went around the track once with him, and he was kind of worked up… I was kind of obsessed with just keeping him safe, one more night. Basically a big part of my job was keeping him safe – it wasn’t easy.”
With the horse of a lifetime now moving on to a second season at stud, Mallia is currently caring for three young pacers trained by Darling.
“Three or four, that’s what we usually do,” he said. “We have a 2-year-old who’s just made his first qualifier – his name is Sky Low Low [Bettors Delight–Fancy Filly]. He just qualified Monday. He did good. He was third [individually timed in 2:00.1s at WMP]. He’s going to make his first appearance here soon, in a maiden. He’s kind of a small horse,” renamed by Darling for a famous wrestler of small stature.
“We have two babies: Freight Air [Jimmy Freight– Walk On Air] and Tea Party Hanover [Stay Hungry–Thisorthat Hanover], a filly Brad Grant bought in Harrisburg… He paid $150,000 for her. So the pressure starts again!” he said with a laugh.
Mallia thrives on the pressure of helping young standardbreds reach their potential.
“I’ve been in it since I was 18, so over 40 years,” he said, adding that 15 of those years were spent working for Darling.
“I’ve worked for lots of different people. Trevor Ritchie: I was there for a while and we were partners on horses; we owned a couple of horses together. Terry Kerr: I worked for him for four years. He was really good to work for. Good guy. That’s where I started, and then I went to work for Trevor.
“I worked for Jack one winter down at Pompano. It was the very first winter that he went there. I was there for six months, then I left and came back to Mohawk and started my own stable. I had my own for a few years; probably 10 or 15 years I had a horse on the side, and then I started working for people [like] Tom Durand, also a good guy. I was hooked up with Cal Campbell for a while; we claimed some horses together and I worked there… Blair Burgess: I went to Florida one year and actually had two of my own yearlings, and just helped Blair drive. We went to the same farm when we came home from Florida.
“The original idea was that Trevor and I were going there to look for horses to buy or claim and race in Florida. We’d never been there before. This was 1986 or something. It was just an opportunity that I thought would be fun. It turned out Trevor never went, so I just worked for Jack… [Years later], when the opportunity came up again where he needed somebody, I was down the shedrow and out of a job, I think, and I just asked him for a job, and boom, he hired me right away.”
Mallia said his father, Stan, first got him into harness racing, then “tried to talk [him] out of it.”
“We always had one or two, and we had a broodmare,” he said. ‘We started that way. It was more of a hobby for him. He raced at Flamboro, Western Fair, a little bit at Mohawk… I was horse-crazy, probably when I was 6 years old. He got his first horse and I think I had my groom’s license when I was 8 or 10 because I needed to get in the paddock at London… I’ve had it ever since.”
Being a caretaker takes talent, the ability to make every horse feel like a potential winner when they step onto the track.
“I try to look after them like they’re that horse, and look after all the horses as if they’re Bulldog [even if] they’re obviously not… That’s a huge part of the job: making them feel good and like they’re better than everybody else. Sometimes it works; sometimes they’re just not as good – most times it’s like that.”
Mallia also took care of Beaumond Hanover (p,3, 1:49.1s; $442,057), another top Darling protege who trained down as well as, maybe better than, Bulldog. He said the latter “just possessed something the other horses didn’t have.”
The successful caretaker won’t be slowing down in the new year, aside from playing golf when he finds a spare moment in the summer.
He loves his job, even though it has a demanding schedule.
“It’s the racing that takes the toll,” he said. ‘It’s way too long at night. Breeders Crown night, I got home probably 2:30 in the morning… The longest night was when we went to Dayton, Ohio. They do it a little bit different there: Once you do a urine [test], after you get tested, you have to wait around another hour where they draw the blood. We were in the very last race and I think we got out of there around 1 o’clock. Then it was a three-hour drive to Lexington with him, and I got home at 3:30-4 o’clock.”
Another groom arrived, surprising Mallia as he was finally getting Bulldog Hanover settled in: “What’s this guy doing? Oh, he’s here to feed breakfast.”
Despite the long hours and pressure, the lifelong horseman stays devoted to the racing game.
“I just like doing well,” he said. “It’s satisfying for me, knowing that the horse raced to its full potential. I like to feel that I was a part of it. That helps you keep going. Horses get beat and whatnot, but you know when you’ve got a good one.”
He was reassured by what he was told on Bulldog Hanover’s arrival at Seelster Farms: “‘Feel free to come by any time, because he is your horse.’ It kind of made me feel good,” said Mallia.
It was hard letting him go, but I’m going to go see him at Christmas. My family lives in London, so I’m going to go there for Christmas. We took everybody to see him [at Seelster] last year, so I think we’ll do it again.”