This year’s edition of the Pepsi North America Cup happens to be twice as nice for trainer Brian Brown.
When the field of 10 lines up behind the gate for the 39th edition of the $1 million classic, the conditioner from Ostrander, Ohio will have two opportunities, in the form of Ario Hanover and Night Hawk, for a shot at the coveted Cup trophy.
“I’d like to have more, but I only have two ready to go,” quipped Brown.
Sired by 2013 Pepsi North America Cup victor Captaintreacherous, Ario Hanover is the sixth foal out of A Filly To Fear. The bay colt, a $45,000 purchase at the 2020 Harrisburg Yearling Sale, sports a record of 1-4-1 from seven lifetime starts for the ownership group of Kirk Nichols, Aws Stbs LLC, Joe Sbrocco and Rich Lombardo Racing LLC.
Ario Hanover, sent on his way at 35-1, punched his ticket to the final after an impressive rally to finish third in his Cup elimination last Saturday at Woodbine Mohawk Park, highlighted by a :26.1 final quarter.
“If you look at his lines, he always finishes well every race," said Brown. "He’s actually coming off a very high white count, so we’re getting it down. You can see how much it’s come down with how well he raced in the elim. I wouldn’t call it perfectly normal, but he’s training well and he’s doing well. I expect him to have a good race.”
After just one start as a two-year-old, the bay colt broke his maiden at Miami Valley Raceway in April, pacing the mile in 1:52.4.
Brown believes the wheels are turning in his Ario Hanover's favour as the sophomore readies for the biggest race of his career to date.
“I liked the horse going into his elim. We knew we had him better, but again, he’s healthier now and he’s really sharp. He’s raced well for us.”
The other half of Brown’s one-two punch is Night Hawk, an ultra-consistent son of Betting Line, winner of the 2016 Pepsi North America Cup.
Owned by Acadia Farms Inc., Joe Sbrocco, In The Gym Partners and Leeman Lombardo Stable, Night Hawk will look to go one better in race 11 on Saturday night after a second-place finish in his Cup elimination last week.
Fashioning a record of five wins and two seconds from seven lifetime starts, the $35,000 purchase at the 2020 Lexington Select Yearling Sale recorded a gritty neck victory on May 30, winning a division of the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes in 1:48.4 – a career-best mark, the fastest mile of the year at Pocono and fastest mile by a three-year-old on the season.
“He’s a nice horse,” said Brown, of the colt who won both his two-year-old starts and is the first foal out of Somebeachsomewhere mare Night Music. “We did make some changes on him. We’re going back to the shadow roll. We had it on at Pocono, where they race during the day. When he was warming up, he was leaping the shadows. So, I added the shadow roll back just to be safe. David [driver, Miller] said last Saturday the horse saw something at the head of the stretch and made a step sideways, so we’re thinking he just really wasn’t paying attention.”
Brown is hopeful that keeping his eyes on the prize will help boost Night Hawk’s chances in the final.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, when you get into a quarter-mile sprint with [morning line Cup choice] Pebble Beach, most horses are going to lose. He’s crazy fast, at least for a quarter-mile, and I’m sure he’s fast longer. But for a quarter of a mile, I don’t think there’s a three-year-old that can beat him. I’m not saying our horse should have won [the elim], but I think he should have been even stronger last Saturday. So, we’re going back to the shadow roll just to make him focus. And I’m going to go from steel to aluminums.”
Brown, who shut down Night Hawk last July due to a sore cannon bone in his left hind ankle, is thrilled to have his young star back on track.
“He’s a wonderful horse and just like 'Ario,' he always goes out and tries every time.”
Adding to Night Hawk’s appeal is having David Miller in the race bike. The decorated reinsman partnered Betting Line to victory in the 2016 Cup.
One year later, it was Brown’s turn to join in on the win parade when Fear The Dragon, with Miller in the sulky, took all the spoils. In all, Brown has sent out four Cup starters and all have finished third or better.
Now, the trainer with 1,778 career victories has doubled his chances to add a second piece of Cup hardware to his trophy case.
And he’s doing it with horses who have vastly different personalities from the other.
“'Ario,' he’s gotten very studdy. But he probably has a more fun attitude, other than when he gets studdy. He’s a nice horse in the barn. Night Hawk is very skittish and easily spooked. You’re always worried when you’re putting the cart on that he could get spooked and be gone. On the track, he’s been pretty good other than looking at things. He has jumped things in the past. I just feel very fortunate to have these two horses in our barn and to be out there on Saturday. We’re really looking forward to it.”
The key to either one of his horses netting top prize is hardly a revelation.
“For both horses, the trip is going to be everything. I think the winner is the one that is going to have the trip. I don’t know how many of them are good enough to get beat up and still win the race, any horse, let alone mine. It should be a great race.”
Has Brown showed his Cup starters Fear The Dragon’s N.A. Cup winner’s circle photo, for inspiration?
“No, but we’ve been whispering his name to them.”