A "Joy Ride" for Team Hardest Core Print

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October 2014

The Arlington Million is one of our most fabled and rousing turf races. This year the usual pack of top-flight Euros and North American horses jetted in.HardestC 1

But for Team Hardest Core, it was the overland route. They drove all night from Coatesville,  Pa. to Chicago-- 13 hours total-- to get Hardest Core to the million dollar race.  They are all longtime Chester County horse people-- trainer Eddie Graham, barn manager/groom Brianne Slater, exercise rider/champion jump jockey Jody Petty and Keith Cooper, the van driver.

The travel itinerary didn't faze Hardest Core. Piloted by a Parx jockey, Erilus Vaz, the handsome dark bay gelding roared down the stretch to defeat five Group/Grade 1 winners, including the reigning Breeders' Cup Turf champion to capture the 31st edition at the Arlington International Racecourse last August.  With the victory Hardest Core earned an automatic berth with a travel allowance to the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 1.

And, that's just a slice of this hard to believe tale. Roll cameras.

In the compelling back stories that often that illuminate the horse racing world, few can match that of Hardest Core. The four-year-old son of 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun is conditioned by steeplechase trainer Eddie Graham at Fat Chance Farm just outside Unionville, Pa. where the colt battled for his life last fall.  Greg and Caroline Bentley purchased the horse mainly as a steeplechase prospect at 2013 Keeneland Sale for $210,000. Hardest Core was a 30th birthday present for the Bentleys' son Andrew, who was born with Downs Syndrome. Hardest Core races in the name of Andrew Bentley Stables.

HardestC 2In front of a crowd of 31,164, Hardest Core stunned the racing world with his scintillating victory in the  1 1/4-mile test at Arlington. Closing outside from third off the turn with tremendous strides, Hardest Core (11-1) stormed down the stretch (a final quarter run in :23 2/5) to run down Side Glance, a Grade-1 winner in Australia and 9-5 favorite Magician, winner of the 2013 Breeders' Cup Turf in the final strides. It was Hardest Core's first graded stakes score. Displaying his impressive athleticism and a devastating turn of foot, Hardest Core earned a 117 Speed Figure.

"Vaz rode with total confidence in the Million, he believed the horse had a good shot to win," said Graham who has four steeplechase horses in training and two on the flat.

"Arlington seems like a big galloping course and (Hardest Core) really liked it out there. He's a very straightforward horse. He'll let you know how he's doing just by how he acts. We all joke and call him the big strong beast."

The Bentleys live near Unionville, Pa., and Greg is the CEO of a highly successful software  company in Exton, Pa. that produces solutions for the design, construction and operation of infrastructure. The Bentley family has been involved in racing since the late 1990s, owning seven horses overall. The family currently has a two-horse flat-racing stable-- Hardest Core and the filly Giant Shadow, a daughter of Giant Causeway, who was won her last three races.

"Hardest Core came from a very conscientious trainer in Kiaran McLaughlin who didn't run him a lot," said Bentley who earlier this year purchased the 550 acre Runnymeade Farm in southern near the village of Gum Tree in Chester County, Pa.

"The idea was to give him a few more shots on the flat then turn him into a jumper. I guess the steeplechasing might have to wait for awhile. He loves being turned out, feeling like a horse.  Being around steeplechase horses over the years you see how much they enjoy life on the farm.HardestC 4

"He's a gentleman at all times, a very thoughtful horse. He's got great composure, but also is tough minded. Here at the farm it's so much more relaxed compared to the racetrack. It definitely helps all our horses mentally which in Hardest Core has translated to his success racing this year."       

A former jump jockey and primarily a steeplechase trainer, Graham has elected to train Hardest Core at Fat Chance Farm and the Fair Hill Training Center leading  up to the  Breeders' Cup Turf at 1 1/2-miles race that will feature some of Europe's top-class runners.

"There was some thought of a stakes race the end of September, but he had a pretty active summer racing so I decided to just keep him fit and happy on the farm. Nothing bothers him, he's just pure class. He's doing really well. He thrives here."

Fight of his Life

Still, the Arlington Million wasn't Hardest Core's  greatest triumph. Last November he was gelded at the southern Chester County farm. Things went terribly wrong as the horse developed complications. Graham shipped the colt to nearby New Bolton Center where surgeons had to cut out 18 feet of his intestines to save his life.

"I turned him out the day of his castration and he looked great, but later he looked like he was colicking," recalled Graham, 43. "When I got to him in the field his intestines were coming out. It took seven people to help get him up and into a trailer. We weren't sure he was going to get up, by some miracle he did and we got him over to New Bolton.  

"I'm not sure any other horse would have made it, but he recovered. Three days after the surgery he was banging the feed tub against the wall, asking for more to eat. It was unbelievable. He is a remarkable horse with such a great disposition and a winning attitude."

Rusty Carrier, a former steeplechase rider and trainer, discovered Hardest Core in the Keeneland catalogue at the 2013 Sale and purchased the horse for the Bentleys. Carrier has an ownership stake in the gelding When Carrier gave up training, he sent his horses to Paul Rowland who was undergoing treatment for  Mesothelioma (lung cancer). Rowland was a transplanted Englishman who worked for trainer Michael Dickinson at Fair Hill Training Center in the 1980s. Unfortunately Rowland died, but before he passed away he spoke with the Bentleys about Graham, his best friend, taking over Rowland's horses.

HardestC 3On a dazzling October morning, I walk into a small vintage barn at Runnymeade Farm. There is Hardest Core munching on a meal with Giant's Shadow and retiree "baby-sitter" Rainbows For Luck in nearby stalls. Rainbows for Luck triumphed in the Radnor Hunt Cup, a premier steeplechase race in 2012. Trainer Graham arrives and we walk Hardest Core out near a split rail fence above a rushing stream. The Arlington Million winner grazes contently and mugs for a photographer. Graham talks about his friend, trainer Paul Rowland.

"We were friends for 15 years and he was like a brother to me," related Graham, trying to keep his composure. "I think Paul is looking down watching all this success and just smiling and smiling. Like myself and countless other small trainers, he was a guy who trained seven days a week, caring for and doing his best for all his horses. Guys like Pletcher and Baffert, they get these big victories practically every month. For us little guys it's the dream of a lifetime. It's why we get up each morning and come to the barn."

Two Decade Friendship

The members of Team Hardest Core have been friends and racing rivals in the steeplechase world for nearly two decades. Graham, the son and nephew of  steeplechase jockeys of the 1950s and 1960s, worked for highly touted steeplechase trainers Bruce Miller and Sanna Hendriks before hanging up his own shingle. His wife Wendy works as an official at Parx racetrack.

Graham incorporates a steeplechase regimen into all of his horses' conditioning. They start out jogging uphill or on roads for six weeks, no matter the weather, then start routine gallops.

"Hardest Core loves training on the farm and then gets turned out every day," Graham related. "He trains on hills and gallops, basically like a European steeplechaser, that builds his endurance. The farther he goes racing, the better he is.  Building the top end and the hind quarters. It's just like training for the sport of cycling, giving him back-up muscles."  

Living up to his name Hardest Core returned to racing for Graham and the Bentley family in June where he won a 1 1/16-miles allowance turf by three easy lengths and scored a win in the Cape Henlopen Stakes, a mile-and-a-half turf race, again by three lengths  at Delaware Park on July 12. He notched a pair of impressive 109 Speed Figures in both contests. With Hardest Core training in top form he was entered in the Arlington Million.

"I just went with my gut," Graham related. "I looked at the Sword Dancer (at Saratoga), looked at the American St. Leger (at Arlington), all three races were tough, but thought a shorter field would be better." When he ran at Delaware Park he ran his last half-mile in 47 flat and he wasn't even being asked. He just has done everything right. We knew he was training well even if he was going up in class. All he knew (going in) was that he had won three in a row. He doesn't read the Racing Form so he didn't know about the top-class field and he ran his race. He jus gets the job done. He thinks he's the boss."

Bred in Kentucky by Mueller Farms and out of the Housebuster mare Lillybuster, since his maiden victory Hardest Core has never been worse than second in seven starts. With the Million's win he improved his record to six wins and two seconds from 11 starts for earnings of $842,580

Son of Hard Spun

Hardest Core's sire is  Hard Spun, bred and raised by Chester County's Betty Moran and her son Michael.  Hard Spun was a tough as nails colt, but had the tough luck of competing against the stellar crop of thee-year olds in 2007 that included Horse of the Year Curlin. Owned by Wilmington's Rick Porter, Hard Spun was consistently in the money and finished runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Hard Spun's big career win came in the Grade-1 King’s Bishop Stakes, a seven furlong sprint, but don’t let that convince you he was only a sprinter. Both sides of Hardest Core’s family provide the gelding with speed and stamina.

After the Hardest Core  recovered from his surgery, the horse built a foundation of stamina through  the winter and spring with strenuous gallops over the rolling Chester County terrain. Champion jump jockey Jody Petty was in the irons. Petty also started schooling Hardest Core over short obstacles at the farm. Petty says he will be in the saddle when the horse makes the transition to jumping fences.

Petty knows the feel of a good horse. He rode Hall of Fame steeplechaser McDynamo to three of his five wins in  Breeders’ Cup Grand National and was the regular exercise rider for Animal Kingdom before the colt won the 2011 Kentucky Derby for trainer Graham Motion. It was Keith Cooper who drove him to Kentucky for the race.

“He's a gentle giant who is like an old jumper, he does what you ask,” Petty observed. “He was right where he needed to be heading into the Million. When he came off the turn and went flying by all those elite horses, it was an amazing feeling. But I've got to tell you, it's so much harder being a spectator than a rider when you can make things happen."HardestC 5

When asked about the feeling of breezing the horse, Petty breaks into a broad smile.

"His stride is huge and he just floats over the ground," he noted. "You don't realize how fast he's going, he does it so easy. He's a bit of a freak with his size and the way he moves. He shouldn't be as quick as he is. Going to the Breeders Cup, that's insane, but he proved he belongs. We'll be ready."

Andrew Bentley works with his father at Greg's software company and is a huge racing fan.

When he looks through the program he can spot a winner in many cases, and I'm just very proud of Andrew's continued interest in racing," related his father. "It's just another example of believing in people and what they can accomplish given the chance."

Andrew will be accompanying his parents and Team Hardest Core to Santa Anita awaiting the race of a lifetime.  A friendly, effusive young man, Andrew will bring his mantra for watching his family’s horses race:  get excited, don’t get nervous.

"I think the longer distance of a 1 1/2 mile will be in our horse's favor," noted Caroline Bentley. "We will all be there counting our blessings."