Connections of BELLA BELLINI are dreaming of Paris

If all goes well at the races this year, owner/breeder Dave McDuffee and trainer Nifty Norman will attempt to race the trotting mare in the 2024 Prix d’Amérique.

by Debbie Little

In the movie “Sabrina,” Audrey Hepburn said: “Paris exists to remind you that all your dreams are real.”

Owner Dave McDuffee and trainer Nifty Norman hope that quote is true since it’s their dream to bring Bella Bellini to the Prix d’Amérique in 2024.

“My wife, she’s got her bags packed already,” McDuffee said with a laugh. “We love Paris.”

But McDuffee isn’t putting the proverbial cart before the horse. He knows it’s a long season and there is no guarantee that Bella will end the year the same way she did in 2022. But until she tells him otherwise, he will continue to dream about competing in the “City of Light.”

“We all dream in this business,” said McDuffee. “Every horse we buy is undefeated and going to be the next world champion, and you know how often that happens. In this business, no matter what you think, it’s day to day and week to week. No matter what the plans are, we’re talking about a whole year out. And a lot of crazy things can happen in a year.

“We’ve had it happen over and over and over with other horses that we thought we were going to go somewhere with, and come the time to do it, they weren’t ready to do that.”

Upon hearing that the mare division of the Graduate series was being discontinued, McDuffee was considering retiring Bella and breeding her, but her impressive victory in the TVG Mares final gave him pause.

Norman remembers being at McDuffee’s place in Florida at Christmastime 2022 when the Paris conversation first
came up.

“While I was there the race secretary from Solvalla called him to see if we’re interested in going to the Elitloppet,” said Norman.

But, the timing of the race, the end of May, just didn’t fit into their schedule.

“The Elitloppet, I’d love to do that, who wouldn’t want to?” McDuffee said. “But I don’t think she’s the right horse to do that with at that time of the year. If it was later in the year at the end of the season, sure.”

According to Norman, that call did, however, get McDuffee thinking about another part of Europe at a different time of year.

“He hung up and Dave said, ‘I’d rather go to France,’” Norman said. “So, then we got talking about it. And I said, ‘Sure, if you’re game, I’m game.’ I was on board with it because it would probably be the end of her career kind of thing.

“Nobody’s getting any younger and if you’ve got a good horse, why not try and have as much enjoyment as you can out of it. Wouldn’t it be great to bring a horse there one day? And we might have as good a horse as we’re ever going to get.”

As they say, timing is everything, and since the Prix d’Amérique is in January, it fits perfectly into their plan for Bella.

“It’s this time of the year when there’s nothing else going on,” Norman said. “As long as you come through the 2023 season good and she’s sort of like she was at the end of 2022, why not? The timing is the key part but the way things have turned out there are less and less races every year and you’re starting later every year.”

Bella recently returned from her winter hiatus with Carter Duer in Kentucky, and according to Norman, looks great and is big, sound and healthy.

“Carter Duer called me [before I went down to pick her up] and said, ‘You won’t get over how much this mare has grown,’” Norman said. “She grew a lot the year before, but they really don’t get mature until they’re about 6 or 7. We hardly ever get to see that because we don’t have them that long.

“You retire a stallion at 4 and go and look at them when they’re 6 or 7, they’re massive. You go and see Captaintreacherous and he’s twice the size he was when he was racing. He’s a monster.”

Bella started back jogging last week and McDuffee and Norman were looking to map out her season this week, having just received the stakes book.

“I’m looking at having her ready for the Cutler (May 20),” Norman said. “That probably will be her first start.”

McDuffee said: “I don’t want to race her too, too hard if we’re going to try to do the Prix d’Amérique. I’ve got to keep her fresh for a year to do that and that’s a long time. There’s a lot to look forward to and we just hope that she continues to stay sound. That’s the key to any horse.”

They have not as yet contacted anyone in Paris and don’t plan to for a while, because the timing is only right if Bella tells them it’s right.

“That would probably be the last race of her career, actually, because I doubt that we would top that,” McDuffee said.

Should they get there, this would be McDuffee’s first time in the Prix d’Amérique. However, he was a co-owner of both Conway Hall and Trustworthy when they competed internationally as 3-year-olds in 1998 and 1995, respectively.

“We went to Italy to the Orsi Mangelli and won both of them, but that’s the only time that I raced anything in Europe,” McDuffee said.

Anyone who has watched Bella race would understand why the Prix d’Amérique at 1 11/16 miles could be a good fit for her. “The Great Pursuer,” as Bella has come to be known at The Meadowlands, doesn’t mind distance racing and is at her best picking off her rivals one by one down the stretch.

“I think she just likes to wind up,” Norman said. “You’ve seen her at The Meadowlands. The last sixteenth she’s doing her best work. She just trots over the top of them. 

“And it’s not like they go big fractions [in the Prix d’Amérique]. They just sort of idle along there and they get home good. I think the race would be perfect for her. As long as she’s got live cover, [the extra distance] doesn’t matter. With live cover she’s going to beat most of them.”

The only thing that is certain in Bella’s future is that she will become a broodmare and, if nothing changes between now and then, McDuffee has the stallion picked out.

“I bought a share of Walner just to breed to her,” McDuffee said. “I intended to do it last year and then I decided to race her instead. And I still own the share, so it’s waiting for Bella.

“To me, he’s the boy right now. I watched a couple of Walner’s 2-year-olds [last week] at [Sunshine Meadows Equestrian Village] and they catch your eye. I tell you what, he’s a top sire. No question about that. And she’ll match up good with almost anybody.”

For now, McDuffee and Norman will plan and dream and hope for one more magical season with Bella Bellini.

“Bella’s a lifetime horse,” McDuffee said. “Although I said that when we had Bee A Magician. I said I don’t think I’ll ever probably have another one like that, but to come up with this one on top of it is pretty special.”