Why We Love This Game — Written by John Lhotka

Why We Love This Game — Written by John Lhotka

Hardest Core: One in a Million

This isn’t a story about me and my day at the track, how I hit a huge score or even picked the winner.  It’s the best kind of story; one that creates new horse racing fans and inspires old ones.  It’s the kind of story that includes an amazing human element and an unlikely hero, and a horse as tough as nails with the will and perseverance to overcome the longest of odds.  When I arrived at Arlington Park on August 16 for the International Festival of Racing, I expected a great time with family and friends and maybe a chance to put some extra cash in my pocket.  I didn’t expect to be blown away by a horse and his connections – but that’s exactly what happened.

I’ll be honest, when I sat down to handicap the 32nd running of the Arlington Million the first horse I threw out was Hardest Core.  The 4-year-old gelding just didn’t seem to fit on class, and I thought he would have been better placed in the American St. Leger.  After all, it was Hardest Core’s first graded stakes race and only his third start of the year.  He was facing defending champ Real Solution and the heavy favorite Magician, among others.  It was a jump in class to say the least. Just the fact that the he made it to the Million was incredible.

Shortly after owner Greg Bentley purchased Hardest Core for $210,000 last November at the Keeneland sale, the bay colt was gelded.  When trainer Edward Graham went to check on him he found a nightmare of a sight.  Hardest Core was sprawled out in the pasture with a portion of his intestine spilled out onto the grass.  Fortunately, the New Bolton Center Hospital for equines was only five minutes away from the farm and they were able to save the young Thoroughbred’s life by removing 18 inches of intestine.  As you can imagine, this would take a toll on any horse.  However, Hardest Core was reported to have been banging his feed tub just a day later.  The son of Hard Spun was one tough horse.

Hardest Core had shown promise as a young colt winning 3 out of his first 8 races for Kiaran McLaughlin and owner Ghostzapper Racing.  Bentley purchased the colt as a gift for his son Andrew, who has Down Syndrome and absolutely loves horse racing.  Ex-steeplechase trainer Rusty Carrier also bought into Hardest Core and sent him to be conditioned by Paul Roland.  Sadly, Paul had Mesothelioma and passed shortly after, but he made sure Greg Bentley was introduced to trainer Edward Graham.  Graham had almost turned Hardest Core into a jumper but having shown promise and having won his first two races of the year,  the bay gelding was nominated for both the American St. Leger and the Million.  The son of Hard Spun, best known for wins from 7 furlongs to 1 ⅛-miles, out of a mare by champion sprinter Housebuster had defied the odds and made it to the Million.

I should have seen it coming.  Million Day was full of double-digit odds winners, while the favorites just weren’t getting it done.  But I stuck to my guns and put what little money I had left on Real Solution, hoping for a fantastic finish to a great day of racing.  While this was happening, my cousin waited in line at a kiosk to place his bets.  My cousin basically only plays the horses a couple times a year – Million Day being one of those times.  He had come with me to Arlington Park for  Million Day for the past couple of years and had never really won much.  He waited for a machine to open up and when he got to it, there was a man leaning over from the fenced area placing a bet.  He waited patiently since there was still some time before the race.  The man finished his wager and began to walk away.  My cousin noticed that he had left a ticket with his remaining balance on the machine, around $50 or so.  My cousin called over to him and he came back and was surprised that my cousin was honest and returned the ticket. He thanked my cousin, proceeded to place a $5 win wager on a Hardest Core and handed the ticket to my cousin.

As the horses reached the starting gate, there was a buzz amongst the crowd with hours of racing having culminated into the 32nd running of the Arlington Million.  The bell rang and the gates flew open.  Magician and Real Solution had great trips, but so did Hardest Core, who saved ground throughout.  As they turned for home Magician took over the lead while Real Solution faded.  Ridden by Erilius Vaz, Hardest Core came on strong on the outside and found his stride down the center of the track.  He caught and passed Magician down the stretch to win by a length and complete the most unlikely of stories.  The gelding ran 1 ¼-miles in 2:01.51 and at 11-1 paid $25 for a $2 ticket.

My cousin was ecstatic. It was a case of instant karma for him. Meanwhile, I made my way to the winner’s circle where the connections were hugging and celebrating.  Hardest Core entered calm and composed, while the celebration raged on around him.  I couldn’t help but smile, look around, and enjoy what I had just witnessed.  How could you not feel complete joy for Greg Bentley, Andrew Bentley, Edward Graham, and all the people involved in making this improbable story come true?  I will always remember this Million as one of my favorite races, and I’m sure my cousin will too.  The story of Hardest Core truly is one in a Million.

We thank John  for sharing his story on DanonymousRacing.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @Strat_JCL4!

You can also visit John at his blog, On the Bit with John L.

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