With the passing of the great Admirals Express still resonating within the Canadian racing industry, Trot Insider caught up with Mike Hales, who reflected on the iron-tough grey and cleared up any misconceptions people may have had with Canada's 2005 Horse of the Year
Owned by Michigan residents Gary and Laurel Gust and Cheryl and Edward Sayfie, Admirals Express, a 14-year-old gelded son of Admirals Galley, had to be euthanized on Tuesday, October 19 at the farm he was staying at in Coboconk, Ont. after having suffered a broken bone in his leg.
Mike Hales became a household name within the Canadian standardbred racing industry, as he and 'The Grey Gladiator' grabbed the industry's attention by the collar and made it witness some of the toughest performances week-in, week-out over Woodbine Entertainment Group tracks.
Hales got the Michigan-bred during his three-year-old year, and once he got rolling, The Admiral took him on quite a ride.
"He had many different things which were setbacks, but he always recovered from them -- an ankle infection; he was in Guelph twice. They basically said that he had a 50/50 chance of coming back to race, but he came back every time, and each time better than what he was, which was an amazing thing," Hales said. "He is probably the only horse that was in at Guelph that put on weight. Most horses lose weight when they are in there, but he gained weight -- he was an exceptional 'keeper,' even though he was hard on himself at times. He always kept very good weight no matter how many times he raced every year. He was a very 'routined' horse. He had to race every week to stay sharp. In terms of the actual training part, he didn't care much for it, that's why we raced him every week. Even weeks where he didn't get it, we would qualify him or whatever we had to do."
Success wasn't instantaneous between the two. Admirals Express had to work his way into the career that he will be remembered in the annals of history for. But Hales still remembers when the grey showed him that the best was yet to come.
"It was in a leg of the Cam Fella (Pacing) Series (in 2000 at Woodbine Racetrack). When he won that leg we knew he was kind of special. Mind you, from then it took him about two years to really become the horse that he was. He was racing in the Free For All there for about a year, and at that point he was kind of 'filler.' He was a fringe horse and was picking up thirds and seconds. But the next year when he matured and got a little bigger, he was able to carry his speed, and then he went on a roll where he won so many Free For Alls."
After going on a long and well documented run on the WEG circuit, Admirals Express was retired by his owners. He had nothing left to prove to anyone. His efforts had been acknowledged in 2005 when he was named both Canada's Older Pacing Horse/Gelding of the Year and Canada's Horse of the Year. His last pari-mutuel performance had come on December 23, 2006. There was an official retirement ceremony by WEG which honoured one of the gutsiest horses the sport had ever seen. Everything seemed to be wrapped up with a pretty little bow. But there was one problem, The Admiral couldn't simply flip his racing switch off.
Hales told Trot Insider that the last thing Admirals Express wanted to do was retire, no matter how much everyone wanted him to. After his brief retirement, Admirals Express would go back into training with Hales, a move some supported and some did not. The gelding went on to make an additional 60 pari-mutuel starts and record 10 wins, six second-place finishes and six thirds, good for another $131,230 in purse earnings.
"When we retired him initially, I thought he could have kept racing," Hales explained. "At that time there were so many (1:) 47 miles -- I mean 47 and 48 miles week in, week out -- and we didn't think it was fair… He liked the front so much, but a lot of the time he just couldn't do it (hold off the rest of the field), so we retired him, even though he was still pacing fast miles. We didn't want to break his heart.
"When he sat around here (at Hales' farm), with the racetrack and everyone training, he wasn't himself. He got bully. He would kick the stall -- he would've ended up hurting himself by not training -- that was one of the main reasons for bringing him back. That is why when we retired him the second time, we moved him away from the farm here where there is a training track, and had him at a pleasure location where he didn't see horses training. He was a horse that enjoyed doing things every day."
Hales told Trot Insider that he was under intense scrutiny once he announced that Admirals Express was coming out of retirement. He said that after a while it was tough to find a place to race. He also discussed an incident in which Admirals Express was placed on the vet's list. He said that The Admiral had suffered a small laceration to a hoof in his stall during the day before a race night. Hales said when the gelding touched himself in the paddock at the track that night, blood appeared and the whole situation was misconstrued. Hales also took the time to comment on Admirals Express' less-than-perfect gait.
"We were criticized for racing him in some of his starts. He would make the odd break because of mistiming the gate. He had that funny gait. The more you watch greys and that, you just seem to notice it more on them. If he was a black horse I don't think you'd notice it quite as much, but we got criticized by a lot of people for racing him as what they thought was 'lame.' We took him to the vet and they couldn't find anything, and we took him there because of his gait. If we thought he was lame he wouldn't have been racing. When he was pacing miles in (1:) 48, people would look at his gait and say, 'how fast would he go if he were sound and well-gaited,' but in actual fact he was sound, that was just his gait. There wasn't anyone that wanted to fix his gait more than us. He was never lame at any time during his career.
"A lot of people thought that when we brought him back, it was because his owners needed money or something, which is completely untrue. He came back and won in (1:) 51 over Mohawk. It was very touchy when I brought him back. I had to make sure he was 100 per cent. I had to get him into shape at tracks closer to the farm (in Orillia, Ont.) to ensure that he would be in optimal shape. We had to do that for his first start back (on the Woodbine Entertainment Group circuit), because if I were to take him back there and get beat up, I knew that I would be done for. It would've been a situation where I would be blackballed as a trainer, because who would give me a horse when I was, quote, 'hurting an old horse that should be the best.' The truth is that we weren't hurting him, we were doing what he loved to do, and we kept him happy."
After having finished off the board in his last five starts, Admirals Express was retired again after a January 19, 2010 conditioned race at Kawartha Downs.
"The thing that led to his retirement was that he drew terrible posts for a long stretch. I don't think he drew inside the eight hole in the last three months he raced. We had limited options as to where we were allowed to race him, so we raced him last September (2009) up in Sudbury in a stakes series. He finished second and paced his mile in (1:) 55 over the half-mile track. In his best day, he only paced in 55 over a half. After that race he drew nothing but outside posts. At that point, I asked myself, 'how many times can I take this horse and just race him off the back?' When you went to the back with him, he didn't try. His game was always 'go, and give all.' When you are constantly asking him to go out there and do the exact opposite, he's just going to go around, and he's not going to be happy doing it, either. If he would've drawn some better posts, I think he would've been alright."
After his retirement, Admirals Express connected famously with caretaker Wellington 'Welly' Charles. He kept The Admiral in touch with the people, as he gave him steady exposure to his fans via photo ops and Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society horse shows.
"This horse loved people, so going to the shows was one of the best things for him, mentally. He went to a good amount of shows and I was impressed with him. People sat on his back and he was quite quiet. He enjoyed it. He was always kind to kids, posed for pictures, and whatever else -- he always enjoyed that. But when he was stabled too close to the track sometimes he was just a different horse, because people have to remember that even though he was retired, he was still a racehorse. In those situations, when he was stabled close to the grandstand and horses were going by, or what have you, he was different, like night and day. In those situations he thought he was racing. He took the mindset that it was his job (to race) and that was why he was there."
Hales told Trot Insider that Admirals Express' time and experience with Charles was the best thing for him when racing was no longer an option.
"The only way that I can compare it is that when he retired, to me, it was sort of like when you live with someone your whole life, and then they die, and you're left wondering what to do and how to live. A lot of times people in those situations give up, and that ends up being the end of them. The shows and all the rides gave him something to do -- I think it was the best thing for him. If he was stabled at a training centre or a farm where there was training going on, he would've hurt himself in a stall or hurt somebody else. I think what Welly did with him was a good thing for him and the business. Amongst other things, it let people see that once these horses are retired, they have to do other things. They can't just be left in a stall or left out beside a round bale in a field."
For what Admirals Express appeared to be on paper, he was much more in the flesh. He transcended his humble beginnings and became something much more.
"He was out of a pretty good mare, and Admirals Galley maybe shouldn’t have thrown something as great as Admirals Express, but he was just a freak. For the breeding and where he came from, this horse had heart and desire. Every time he went behind the gate, and every year, he got better. He enjoyed it, and there are very few horses that would enjoy their job as much as he would. I think that is what put him above everything else. He had the heart. He had the desire, and he enjoyed doing it. So, he had the combination of all three, and those three traits made him what he was. Also, I think it's important to point out that he wasn't raced terribly hard as a baby -- he didn't have to go 1:50. Nowadays, a lot of the two-year-olds are done at two. Very few come back and become a great three-year-old. Very few three-year-olds can make that step up to become a four-year-old and go against older horses. This horse was one of the very few that could do it, along with the Gallo Blue Chips, the ones that just seem to thrive on what they do."
Even though it was a tough task, Trot Insider asked Hales to pick out one variable which summed up what Admirals Express was.
"It was that he was just a freak. You can't describe it. You won't get a horse with the heart that he had, and also find a horse that made as many starts on a top circuit that he had. How many horses have you seen in the past couple of decades that have won 17 Opens in a year? I have a pile of horses in my stable that haven't won 17 races in their lifetime, let alone 17 Opens in a year."