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A Winner Against All Odds

Published: December 20, 2015 12:41 pm ET

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"I have a Saint Therese medal I carry in my pocket when he races...Every time I had it he won and then I couldn’t find it for the two starts he was second in. I found it and had it with me for his last race and he won again."

Most people would attribute Red Clay’s astonishing development to co-owner/trainer Carmen Cappotelli’s patience and perseverance, but his wife (and the horse's co-owner) Pat offered another explanation for the five-year-old trotting gelding’s award winning season.

"I know some people would find it silly, but I like to think it provides him protection every time he’s out on the track. I just want him to come back safe and sound every time he goes out there."

Red Clay, a flashy chestnut son of American Mike and the El Paso Kash mare Ersa Kash, is Batavia Downs' winningest trotter of the meet and was the recipient of the Heart of the Standardbred award from the Upstate New York Chapter of the United States Harness Writers Association for defying all odds to become a racehorse.

“We are in our early seventies and the last award we ever won was in 1984 and 1985 with my mom’s horse who was the state fair champion,” Pat said. “We were so excited when Todd Haight (General Manager/Director of Live Racing of Batavia Downs) came to us in the paddock and told us he was going to be tied or win the most trotting races for the meet. It was very kind of him to be so nice to us and he always took an interest in this horse.”

The gelding certainly satisfied, if not exceeded, the criteria of the award and merited Haight’s attention. He was unraced at two and only started on six occasions prior to 2015. He never visited the winner’s circle, as he only placed twice and earned just over $2,000.

This year, however, it was quite the reversal of fortune as the gelding went to the post 16 times, amassed a record of 8-2-0 and collected $23,745. The only time he earned a check at a facility other than Batavia Downs was at Vernon Downs on April 24 when he finished third but was placed fourth.

After arriving at Batavia Downs, Red Clay, who was piloted primarily by Shawn McDonough, captured seven of his first nine starts and was the favourite seven times. He established his lifetime mark of 1:57.4 on Sept. 26 and hit the wire in front by 6-1/2 lengths in his last start of the season on Dec. 11.

“There were so many times I would look at all the big, beautiful horses he was racing against and wonder how my little red horse was going to beat them,” Pat said. “But a friend of mine kept coming to the winner’s circle with us every time and said every time I would have my doubts, “Of course he’s going to win. He’s the little red engine that could.’”

But for two years the Cappotellis wondered if Red Clay was the little red engine that couldn’t. Carmen received the horse as a birthday gift from the couple’s close friends Clint and Barbara Galbraith. The Cappotellis had owned the gelding’s older half-sister Easy Hit (Giant Hit, $19,844), but right when they first met him, they wondered if Red Clay would suit them.

“When Carmen went in his stall he backed right up in the corner and started roaring at him,” Pat said. “He had just been turned out his whole life and it was now March of his three-year-old season. The only human contact he really had was when Barb would feed him. Carmen was not too sure he wanted to take him if he couldn’t get along with him. But Barb came over and got him better adjusted.

“After that we had him sent to an Amish boy in Pennsylvania to break him. We started him in three fair races that year, but he broke in his last start. Carmen decided to just stop with him as he gained some racing experience and we were a little worried he hurt himself on that break. Everything was fine though.”

At age four it was more of the same as Red Clay made three starts at Batavia Downs, but struggled with sickness and staying flat. The first half of this year the gelding continued to make costly breaks but in his Aug. 26 qualifying contest it was as if he decided to put everything behind him for a fresh start.

“He always had a pattern of qualifying well and then the next time out would break,” Pat said. “We never really knew why he would do it and never wanted him to hurt himself. We were actually wondering what we were going to do with him for the rest of the year if that qualifier had not went so well.

“I was nervous because it was like I told everyone, ‘I think they only give you three chances and this is his last one.’ He went out there and was great with Jim McNeight driving him. Jim couldn’t drive him in his first race at Batavia because he had a horse of his own in there and we wanted someone familiar with him. Shawn had driven him before and was available so he has been with him ever since.

“He loves this horse and really fits him well. He said the only time he has to grab a hold of him is at the gate and then you can do whatever you want with him. He also said he’s never really asked him. He does it all on his own.”

Red Clay is now preparing for his winter sojourn before he resumes training for his 2016 campaign. The Cappotellis are looking forward to how he performs next year.

“I just love this horse,” Pat said. “To think how far he has come. He is so mild-mannered and gentle. It’s hard to believe he roared at Carmen like that. You can do anything with him and he never kicks or nips at you. He is the perfect gentleman in all ways. I grab him to nuzzle him and kiss on him all the time and he never moves a muscle. He is my sweet boy.”

(with files from USTA; photo courtesy Paul White)

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