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Mister Herbie's Road To Recovery

Published: July 21, 2016 10:28 am ET

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Four years after making Canadian harness racing history, Mister Herbie is another step closer to an on-track return.

On Tuesday, the eight-year-old gelded son of Here Comes Herbie made his first on-track appearance in nearly two years and showed no signs of rust with an effortless looking 1:56.1 qualifying win.

Trainer Jeff Gillis has managed Mister Herbie since acquiring the trotter near the end of his three-year-old season. The bond between trainer and horse, and the respect Gillis has for his pupil is abundantly evident. That's why Mister Herbie was given as much time as needed to completely recover from his hind suspensory issue.

"He recovered quite comfortably," Gillis told Trot Insider after the qualifier. "By all accounts to this point he seems to have come out of it well. He was well within himself; it was a little bit quicker than our target speed but he's a competitor, he wants to go."

The replay of the qualifier confirms that tenacity as driver Jody Jamieson clearly has a firm hold of Mister Herbie leaving the gate, gets him to settle in the pocket before pulling before the half and opening up serious daylight.

"I'll always be concerned with it; most good trotters either end off breaking coffin bones or tearing hind suspensories," continued Gillis with respect to the soft tissue injury. "It tends to be their undoing, the trotters that drive so much with their hind end. It's a tough injury to come back from, especially at the speeds they go these days."

Even though he's got a trotter in his stall with an enviable resume and bankroll, Gillis remains cautiously optimistic regarding Herbie's return to the races. He always felt he could and would come back, but kept the horse away from stakes races for 2016.

"It was less about confidence in him coming back and more about not wanting to let his timetable be dictated by a stakes schedule," noted Gillis. "I felt like there would be pressure I'd put on myself to meet deadlines. I really felt to do the horse justice, we had to let him tell us when he was ready.

"We've been close before, we were close to qualifying a month ago but just minor little setbacks with blood and what have you...and the other thing is, I feel like he'll last longer if it's a gentle progression as opposed to throwing him to the bearcats."

With all due respect to the horses regularly competing in the Preferred class on the WEG circuit, Gillis feels those horses are not at the same level as the 'bearcats' in the open trotting ranks on the Grand Circuit.

"There's a difference between the Preferred [at Mohawk] and open/Grand Circuit company, and all the more reason to ensure he's 100 percent ready because he's not the kind of horse that will just go through the motions. If he gets in with one that's going in 1:51 he'll do anything he can to go with them. Obviously it's hard to come back off of two years and be ready to trot in :51.

"To use the car analogy, the engine is great it's just a question of whether the wheels will carry it."

Gillis is quick to defer any credit for Mister Herbie's recovery and return, giving all the praise to the horse and co-owners Mac Nichol and Gerald Stay.

"I give all the credit to the horse. My partners have been very patient, we've really, really struggled the last couple of years and I couldn't ask for two more supportive owners...especially with this horse," said Gillis. "Obviously he owes us nothing but they've been very patient in allowing me to keep backing off with him each time a bump on the road came along. Otherwise, it wouldn't be possible. He would have ripped [his suspensory] right to shreds and he'd be on pasture the rest of his life.

"I want to give him the best chance to come back to what he's capable of, and if that means a year or two years, I'd rather that than do it halfway and cut corners. I've always said 'you can't cheat Mother Nature.' You either give a horse time or they take it."

In addition to his suspensory injury, Gillis confirmed that the hoof issues that previously plagued him still persist but he manages those accordingly. In fact, he won the 2012 Glorys Comet with two rear quarter cracks. It's a testament to the horse's will and ability.

"The other thing too is I just love this horse. We've been fortunate enough to have some really good horses, very nice horses, good personalities but this horse is on a different level. He's my friend. I just can't say enough about him. He's one of the most courageous athletes I've ever encountered."

Later that season, Mister Herbie established a Canadian record in the 2012 Maple Leaf Trot, winning in 1:50.4. With a 6-4-0 record and $955,000 in earnings that season, Mister Herbie won his first of back-to-back O'Brien Awards as Canada's Older Trotter of the Year.

Gillis will keep an eye on Mister Herbie's injury and target a return to racing on the WEG circuit if all goes well. He might qualify again, or he might send 'Herbie' on a solid training mile, but he won't be dropped in the box off that effort.

"He tends to get extra-amped up with a gate involved and I could see him wanting to trot in :53 or better next time. I'd really rather come back in :55 or :56 again. We'll play it by ear.

"I can tell you, regardless of how his comeback goes he'll have a home for life. He'll never leave my care. He's far and away my favourite horse we've ever had."

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