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'Joy'-Filled Season For Horner

Published: February 2, 2018 4:58 pm ET

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Despite a winless freshman campaign, The Joy Luck Club blossomed into a champion filly at three, capturing the $225,000 Ontario Sires Stakes Super Final at Mohawk to cap a 14-win season. And for Mark Horner, the journey of his homebred from troubled beginnings on the racetrack to an O’Brien Award nomination has been a dream come true.

“It was a dream season for us, for sure,” said Horner, who bred the daughter of Camluck and Oh The Joy in partnership with Beechwood Acres. The St. Marys, Ont.-based horseman had high hopes for The Joy Luck Club right from the beginning, and her conditioning as a yearling confirmed those expectations.

“I picked her up as a yearling and was very happy with the way she looked, and she was one that we knew—and I think you do know with most good horses—they have the attribute of a great gait,” continued Horner. “She was long in the barrel, she broke in great, and she was just a real nice horse to train down as a yearling.

“Bill O’Donnell was here in April of her two-year-old year, and I told him that she was a machine, and if things just came together she’d have a bright future ahead of her.”

Unfortunately, a string of bad luck starting in her second career start kept The Joy Luck Club from reaching her full potential at two. “As a two-year-old, she was going to win at Clinton, but got interfered with, and just other things, like bad posts,” Horner said. “For whatever reason, we couldn’t get in the win column. She was a good two-year-old, but we just couldn’t get her in the right spot at the right time."

In that Ontario Sires Stakes Grassroots race at Clinton, The Joy Luck Club sustained a strong first-over push through the middle half of the race, only to be fouled in upper stretch and ultimately elevated to second. Further outside posts and rearward dispatches kept her from displaying her true talent, although she mustered a third-place finish and four fourth-place efforts to go along with her runner-up performance at Clinton in 10 starts at two.

“When you’re racing them at two and you’re looking for longevity, you have to try to protect them,” Horner said of the filly’s light stakes schedule in 2016. “Maybe we overprotected her—I’m not sure if it was right or wrong—but at the end of the day, we never raced her in an overnight at two; we raced her strictly in the Grassroots. She made every dance. She went to the Battle of the Belles and things just didn’t work out in the final, and then she drew bad in the Grassroots semis later on in the year.”

After a five-month spell, The Joy Luck Club broke her maiden by 5-3/4 lengths at The Raceway at Western Fair District on February 21, 2017. Of that decisive score and the six that followed during the London spring meet, she controlled the pace almost the entire way. Despite that early success on the tight half-mile Western Fair track—success Horner attributes to his filly’s clean, smooth gait, he felt something was still missing.

“At Grand River (for an OSS Gold event on June 1), I thought I had her on her toes and ready to go, but I was having a lot of trouble with her, just getting her to do what we wanted her to do. I had Doug (McNair) try to take her off the pace a couple starts in a row. The first start she was sick. We thought we had her healthy and ready to go for Grand River, but she came up flat.”

A pair of previous wins at Mohawk notwithstanding, including a five-length score in 1:52.2, Horner remained at a loss for how to bring out The Joy Luck Club’s full ability, so he turned to her driver’s father, longtime friend and fellow one-time goalie Gregg McNair. “It was just a goaltending change at the right time, and I decided that I really wanted to give her the best shot, the best opportunity that I could give her. We’ve had a lot of horses go back and forth between us. It was maybe frustration on my part, but he was there to pick up the ball, and he did a great job from there.”

The elder McNair liked his new trainee so much that he bought into her.

“The rest of the year worked out. It was a matter of convenience and frustration on my part, but it all worked out. (Gregg and I) were great friends for a long time, and to be honest, it’s great for us to have that back-and-forth combination of friendship where we do business back and forth, both feed off each other, and pick each other’s brains. He’s been a big help to me over the years, and I’m sure I’ve been a help to him somewhere along the line. It was just a matter of making a change and going from there.”

“People need people, right?” Horner continued. “In that case, it was just rare fortune. I thought I had her ready to go for Grand River, and I think it was partly my disappointment because, as hard as it was to drop her off at his place, it was pretty easy to do because I know he’s a great trainer, they have good staff there, and it’s nice to have people to feed off of, for sure.”

Ever since Horner dropped his prized homebred off at McNair’s stable, she won five of seven races, all save one of them stakes events. The second go-around at Clinton proved more uneventful than the first, as The Joy Luck Club came back from her flat start at Grand River to win the $61,200 Kin Pace by five lengths before picking off a pair of OSS Gold preliminaries at Mohawk and ultimately trouncing the Super Final field by four lengths in 1:51.2 on October 14.

“Obviously the Super Final was the highlight,” Horner reflected. “I don’t know, when you’re trying to map out a schedule and do things right and stuff like that with one, you almost get caught up in things. We got on a nice roll in London with her. The whole thing, as you look back, every win is a great one, but to win the Super Final was special for us. That would have to be the highlight, but winning the O’Brien Award would be the highlight.”

After sustaining progress for eight months from that maiden-breaking win at London to the Super Final, an O’Brien Award would be the ultimate storybook ending of the season for Horner. But whether they or Fan Hanover winner Bettors Up claim O’Brien glory on Saturday night (Feb. 3), this season has exceeded all expectations for Mark Horner, and he deflects the credit to his star pacer, who "is back in training" and "looks phenomenal" in advance of her four-year-old season, which Horner projects will start in April or May.

“There’s thousands of stories like that where you put the work in, do everything right, and things don’t work out in your favour. But this time, it worked out for us, and it worked out for her. It all starts with her. She’s the one that did it, and we just put her in the right place.”

The 2017 O’Brien Awards are scheduled for Saturday, February 3 at the Hilton Mississauga / Meadowvale Hotel and will feature an Academy Awards theme. The O'Briens will be hosted by Ken Middleton and Jason Portuondo, with Juno Award nominee Heather Bambrick singing the national anthems. The Marc Joseph Band, one of Toronto’s best event bands will be taking the stage after the awards presentations and provide dance music until 1:00 a.m.

Follow the latest updates on the O’Brien Awards on Standardbred Canada’s Facebook Event page and on the SC website. Standardbred Canada will also provide live updates on the event through its social media channels. For anyone tweeting or adding photos to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, please use the hashtag #obriens17.

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