McDuffee Asks 'What If?'

Published: July 31, 2020 06:05 pm EDT

Throughout the annals of time, harness racing has faced a myriad of hypothetical scenarios that force a mind to ponder what if something did or didn't happen. David McDuffee knows that all too well.

The longtime owner has experienced the highs and lows of racing on a roller coaster the likes of which many participants might not be able to handle, and a good number of those peaks and valleys stemmed from rendered 'what-if' decisions. Entering the 1994 Little Brown Jug against a juggernaut by the name of Cams Card Shark might not have sounded like a winning proposal at the time. But there needed to be a Jug winner that year after favourite Cams Card Shark was scratched the day of the race, never to start again. McDuffee's entrant, Magical Mike was a straight-heat winner.

In 2011, McDuffee partnered with Mel Hartman and Herb Liverman on a $90,000 Kadabra - Beehive yearling at Harrisburg -- a what-if decision he said yes to on the purchase side. After 72 starts, Bee A Magician retired with 45 wins, nearly $4.2 million in earnings and an undefeated 2013 Horse of the Year season. That same season, the what-if scenario of racing Bee A Magician in the Hambletonian or the Oaks was on the minds of many in the industry and her performance in the Oaks on Hambletonian Day only stoked those what-if flames.

Nearly seven years later, McDuffee has another giant question mark on his hands. The performance of pacing colt Papi Rob Hanover in the 2020 Delvin Miller Adios eliminations left the sport in awe as the Brett Pelling trainee scorched the five-eighths mile surface at The Meadows in 1:47.1 -- a time that's just two-fifths of a second off the world record for three-year-old pacers over any size of racetrack.

Not long after, the news broke that sent shockwaves through the Standardbred industry: Papi Rob Hanover suffered a stress fracture to his left front coffin bone and would be sidelined for at least the 2020 season.

Earlier in the month, McDuffee also received word that his talented trotter Chin Chin Hall had to stop racing after breaking a coffin bone as well. Such events are rare, any certainly uncommon to befall one owner in such a short timeframe.

"We take it day to day and we don't take anything for granted, we never have. I think in all the years I've been in the business I don't know that I've ever had coffin bone [break] on any of the good horses I ever had," McDuffee told Trot Insider. "These are two outstanding horses and to have them both, within a month's time, suffer that type of injury is a little bit perplexing. But we have to deal with the cards that are dealt so we'll deal with it."

Very quietly, Chin Chin Hall put together respectable freshman and sophomore seasons for trainers Melanie Wrenn (at two) and Richard 'Nifty' Norman (at three). With a 5-6-4 summary from 21 starts, the son of Cash Hall - Canland Hall knocked heads with the Grand Circuit's best and appeared poised for a solid four-year-old season with a trio of second-place finishes to start 2020. His most recent start resulted in a third-place finish in the Graduate Final.

"I think he'll be OK, we've operated on him and we put a screw in and you know, he'll need a few months for stall rest and then back in. I have a partner on the horse, great guy, Steve Oldford...we've talked it over and I think we both want to keep the horse and keep him going so I think he'll be back.

"Generally, coffin bones heal pretty well and assuming no complications I would look for him maybe next year."

The situation with Papi Rob Hanover, however, is slightly different. The complexity of his future, unlike that of Chin Chin Hall, has a stallion aspect attached to it that regardless of the injury may not allow the horse to return to the track.

"He didn't have a broken bone, he has a stress fracture which will probably heal by itself without surgery. Still, he's done for the year. Obviously, I think he could be one of the greatest racehorses ever -- I think everybody recognizes that he's incredibly talented. The question that I'm wrestling with at this point is whether I want to go that route or, we're getting a tremendous amount of inquiries and interest from the breeding side...I've got to consider all opportunities for him. And we will.

"My guess is that, at this point, because of how much he offers from a conformation and pedigree standpoint, he'll probably end up going to stallion...but we'll wait and work our way way through all that."

Herein lies the what-if struggle. What if Papi Rob Hanover recovers fully, returns and races at four? What records would he break, what purses would he earn? It's a great unknown, and McDuffee still does have some time to make that decision given that the 2021 stallion season is still months away. One thing that he doesn't need time to consider is that Papi Rob Hanover is a great horse.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if he were to race as a four- and five-year-old for instance, or at least as a four-year-old, there's a pretty good chance that he'd set the all-time speed record for the sport.

"At the same time, he does bring a unique package for consideration on the breeding side. There's not a son of Somebeachsomewhere that's any more attractive on the breeding side than this particular horse is...The horse himself is the most impressive animal you'd ever want to see. So maybe he can make a much bigger contribution, as far as the overall business is concerned, on the breeding side. We'll wait and see how that all plays out."

Interestingly, and this could even add more lore to that world record mile at The Meadows, McDuffee thinks that the coffin bone fracture sustained by Papi Rob Hanover actually took place in the race prior to the jaw-dropping Adios elim.

"I'm of the belief that he suffered it about 100 years from the finish line of the Meadowlands Pace. Watch the replay, and watch the last 100 years of that race. He was coming on and I think he was probably going to get Tall Dark Stranger...and then he made a little bobble. And that's when I think this happened. David took hold of him, and he only had about 20 yards to go when he got him straightened out. And then he was coming, that son of a gun's got a heart in him and he wasn't going to let anybody beat him. And if we had another 20 yards we would have beat him, I'm pretty sure.

"And then he goes out to The Meadows seven days later and sets a world's record in spite of all that."

According to McDuffee, Papi Rob Hanover showed no signs of issues after the Meadowlands Pace and thus the connections entered him for the Adios. Driver David Miller had a firm hold of the horse crossing the wire, but after the wire McDuffee could tell that something was off.

"As a matter of fact, I talked with David and he said 'honest to God, he was still ready to go into another gear 100 feet from the wire'. He said 'I had to hold him back'. He thought he could go a lot faster than he did, and that's pretty amazing in itself."

McDuffee doesn't have to wait too much longer to see other horses compete as he's a part owner of 2020 Hambletonian entrant Chestnut Hill. A regally-bred son of Muscle Hill from McDuffee's O'Brien Award winner Poof Shes Gone, Chestnut Hill has Post 6 in the second $50,000 Hambo elimination on Saturday at The Meadowlands. Co-owned by Hartman and Liverman, Chestnut Hill is coming off a solid fifth-place finish to Ready For Moni in his Stanley Dancer division on July 18. After racing uncovered and towing Ready For Moni into the stretch, Chestnut Hill trotted his own mile in a personal best 1:52.1 for trainer Nifty Norman and driver David Miller.

"He is a nice colt that can go with the group but he needs a trip with cover and close enough so he can trot in the lane," offered McDuffee. And while he's realistic of his colt's chances, it's clearly a good time for him to ask what if like he did with Magical Mike heading to Delaware 26 years ago.

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