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A Look Back On A Breeders Crown Shocker

Published: October 25, 2018 2:18 pm ET

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“Well, there’s a hole in one for you,” said announcer Tom Durkin, as the winner crossed the finish line in the 1990 Breeders Crown for open pacers on November 2, 1990.

That year, just the seventh edition of the Breeders Crown, saw a record established that lasted 18 years. Five-year-old horse Bays Fella crossed the finish line first at odds of 69-1. The $2 win ticket payoff was a whopping $140.60.

The Breeders Crown for all age divisions will be contested at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono this Saturday (Oct. 27).

It was an unexpected spot for a then-27-year-old Breeders Crown rookie driver Paul MacDonell, trainer Mike DeMenno, who started Bays Fella as a yearling with the help of some high school students, and the 20 golfing buddies who each kicked in $400 to buy a horse and call themselves the Par Birdie Stable.

The late Hugh Bentley and Bert Nash, who were already involved in the Standardbred industry, played golf most weeks with some friends in western New York. Their outings generally involved a trip to the track after the 18th hole and the 20 friends were a ready-made partnership.

Joe Smith, now of Vero Beach, Florida, who’s owned more than a dozen horses since Bays Fella, was a Par Birdie Stable member and remembers the loose business plan that surrounded the acquisition.

“Friday nights, the guys I used to play golf with would go to Buffalo Raceway after playing,” said Smith. “We had a good time watching the horses and always said, ‘Geez, someday we ought to own a horse.’ Years later, in 1986, I got a call from one of my friends; he said we’re going to buy a racehorse, do you want to be in on it?

“They had 20 guys and we were all going to kick in and buy a racehorse. So they went out and couldn’t buy a horse because it cost too much money at auction. They found someone selling Bays Fella privately. So now we had a horse, but we needed a trainer.”

Mike DeMenno juggled a stable of horses and a stable of teenagers. He trained racehorses while employed by local school district near Batavia Raceway, teaching young people to care for horses in a vocational program. “Some of them liked horses, some were just trying to get out of something else,” says DeMenno, now retired and living in Pinehurst, North Carolina.

Bays Fella’s winner’s circle presentation featuring late Hall of Famer Delvin Miller, John Cashman and Batavia Track – home track of Bay's Fella – President Barbara Samberg, among others (Breedes Crown)

DeMenno was given a budget to shop for a yearling at the Harrisburg Sale. Bentley gave DeMenno guidelines. “He said, ‘Well, we have $12,000, but we need money to train him,’” said DeMenno. “I couldn’t buy one for six or eight thousand – not one that I would want to train.

“So now this is November; Bentley called me up and said we’re still looking. He talked to Keith Hamilton (a U.S. Trotting Association identification tech), who travels all over New York tattooing, and he asked him to see if he could find something. Keith called him up and said, ‘I’m in Saratoga and there’s a fella who wants to sell a horse.’

“They were just line driving him, Keith said he looks pretty good, all four legs are pointing forward. They bought the horse, sight unseen, for $8,000, with equipment and they would ship him to me – delivered. They took him off the trailer, he’s loaded with burdocks (weeds whose seed heads stick in manes and tails and are very hard to remove), he was screaming and hollering and the shipper had a burlap bag with a harness.

“We got the burdocks off him and polished him up, line drove him one day, hooked him to a cart and away we went. He was easy to handle. I’m thinking we’re just trying to make him a racehorse, a five claimer. The first time I turned him with a watch, I didn’t even cluck to him, didn’t carry a whip, tapped him on the rear with the line, he went a three-minute mile. I said, ‘Hold on, what is this?’ He didn’t try to pull up, didn’t look for the barn, do anything stupid.”

Bays Fella kept improving and dominated the New York Sire Stakes, the only stakes races to which he was nominated, and had more than a half million in earnings before his five-year-old season in which he won the Breeders Crown. As an older horse, his skills were a bit too lofty for local competition, and it was at Greenwood Raceway in Toronto that he met up with young catch driver Paul MacDonell.

“I fell into the job,” joked MacDonell, who drove the horse in high-level overnight races there. “It was my first Breeders Crown start and my first Breeders Crown win.”

The 69-1 shot raced like a horse with much lower odds, as he set a :27.1 first quarter, tucked in behind heavy favourite Topnotcher and driver Doug Brown, and sprinted to the finish to win by a half length.

“He was peaking and probably at his very best at that point,” MacDonell said. “I am not sure if he was ever at that point before or after; he was great on the right night. I knew he had that gate speed; he could just fly off the gate. I figured if I was going all the way to Florida, I was going to get him in position to win. Topnotcher came as the heavy favourite and he was the horse to follow that night, he took me where I needed to go.”

Trainer Mike DeMenno greets his 69-1 winner Bays Fella – the late great Alan Finkelson in the winner circle (Breeders Crown)

Winner’s circle reporter John Pawlak – who noted on camera that the young driver was “trembling” after the race – may have been as surprised as MacDonell.

“I was a total unknown in the U.S. for sure,” MacDonell said. “Things were so much different then, no social media. He was totally surprised. He didn’t come right out and ask me who I was, but he wanted to know, ‘Where did you come from?’”

Bays Fella retired in 1991 after a career in which the $8,000 yearling won $805,234 in purses, recorded 28 wins from 93 starts, and notched a career record of 1:51.3 while as a six-year-old. The son of Brand New Fella had a brief career as a stallion, with a select 11 progeny earning close to $350,000 before succumbing to colic.

(With files from the Breeders Crown)

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