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The Professor & Serena

Trot Feature - Southwind Serena

2007 Breeders Crown winner, Southwind Serena just entered the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y. If you’re not familiar with her, you’ve probably heard of her offspring

- Mission Brief and Tactical Landing for example. And surely you know of their breeders at Hunterton Farms in Kentucky. But what about the co-owner (formerly the full owner) of Serena, and the co-breeder of her star progeny? Meet George Lowenfeld of Andrea Lea Racingstables, a retired university professor from Concordia University that lives in the Quebec countryside, and a man who loves the racing game. By Melissa Keith


MISSION BRIEF

On July 7, 2019, a trotter with Quebec connections became the latest mare to enter the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, N.Y. And although Southwind Serena won the $500,000 Breeders Crown for three-year-old filly trotters in 2007, she was inducted into the hall on the strength of her production record. All of her offspring who raced have earnings in excess of their sale price as yearlings. Only one of her six living foals has sold for less than six figures as a yearling, and one sold for $800,000 (U.S.). From four starters, Southwind Serena has produced four sub-1:55 winners, two of them sub-1:51 winners. Collectively, her sons and daughters have won over $3.2 million to date, with promising starts in stallion and broodmare careers now underway.

George Lowenfeld, a Canadian of Romanian descent, and a retired professor from Concordia University in Montreal, currently owns one-third of Southwind Serena, in equal partnership with Steve Stewart of Paris, Kentucky and Black Creek Farm of Grabill, Indiana. The Lakefield Gore, Quebec resident made the original purchase when she was a yearling, on the recommendation of a veteran horseman. “She was acquired at auction, in Lexington,” says Lowenfeld, who races and breeds Standardbreds under the Andrea Lea Racingstables name (Andrea and Lea being the middle names of his two daughters). “Dustin Jones was the trainer that went down and he was supposed to find a horse in the range of $30,000-$40,000… he called me all excited. He says, ‘This filly is an athlete, but you should know she’s by Varenne.’ I didn’t know much other than what Varenne meant to the trotting world, and I said, ‘Well, why not? We’ll take a chance.’”

Jones was the successful bidder, purchasing the yearling filly for $45,000 - “which was the uppermost limit I told him that he could go to,” recalls Lowenfeld. Unfortunately, when it came time to face the starting gate, Southwind Serena did not seem to care for her trainer/driver, a fact observed by her new owner the following year.

The high-spirited trotter would eventually make just three purse-starts at age two, after starting her career at Hippodrome de Montreal with a pair of June 2006 qualifiers for trainer/driver Jones. She broke stride and was distanced in each attempt, leading Lowenfeld, who was an accounting professor, to avoid the sunk costs fallacy* and switch to a new trainer. (*The tendency to stick with a previous decision, even when it is not yielding profitable results.)

“When I saw in a qualifier that she really, really disliked taking orders from [Jones], I changed trainers to Per Henriksen,” explains Lowenfeld. “I don’t know what Per did, but the first time I saw them together, I saw them in love, and the filly was about as disciplined as you can ever find a horse, anywhere, and she listened to him.”

Despite Southwind Serena winning her next qualifier with Henriksen in the bike at Mohawk (in 2:02.2), the love affair became more tenuous at pari-mutuel post time. “I remember being at Mohawk once, and they were in the [post] parade,” says the mare’s long-time owner, looking back on a rare racetrack visit. “Then [Henriksen] turned her, to go around the track. She decided, ‘That’s not what we’re going to do tonight! We’re going to go back into the stalls.’ And she took off at high speed, into the paddock.”

The Varenne daughter did not hit the board in three stakes tries that year, but did pick up $8,560 for a 4th place finish in the $107,000 Champlain Stakes, and took a two-year-old mark when she was a going-away winner in a 1:59 Mohawk qualifier on August 21.

In 2007, after making breaks in a start at Woodbine and a qualifier at Mohawk, Southwind Serena put away conditioned rivals in two May victories at Kawartha Downs and Mohawk, but found less success over the summer, against a crop of three-year-old stakes fillies Lowenfeld calls “out of this world.” In her Moni Maker elimination at Lexington’s Red Mile in September, the Quebec-owned trotter nearly ended her stakes drought, finishing second by a neck to Gerris Joy in a 1:54 mile, for new driver Yannick Gingras. After a disappointing seventh with Henriksen driving in the Moni Maker final, Southwind Serena was once again teamed up with Gingras in the $91,000 Bluegrass Stakes.

Lowenfeld remembers it well: “I get a phone call from Per saying, ‘Well, you’re not going to get a cheque because she jumped, but she had it won, had Yannick not used the whip on her.’”

She fared better for Gingras in the Kentucky Filly Futurity, finishing second in her elimination and fourth in the final. “Lo and behold, I think she made about $30,000 in the two races [she actually made $32,949]. She made the final, and showed what she can do,” says an approving Lowenfeld, “Then, that November, she proved what she can do.” His longshot filly upset divisional champion Pampered Princess in the Breeders Crown final, concluding her racing days on a high note. The 1:55.2 performance at The Meadowlands was Southwind Serena’s lifetime-best, a mark she would never have the chance to improve upon.

Retirement from racing was the beginning of Southwind Serena’s road to the Hall of Fame. “Little did I know what I had,” reflects Lowenfeld, who was unable to watch many of her early races due to living in “the middle of the forest” in rural Quebec. (He now watches racing channels on satellite TV to follow his stable.) “I was just beginning in this business, and I did not have time to do enough work on pedigrees and things like that. Had I known what I know today, I would [still] own 100% of her, but the world is different.”

Southwind Serena’s outcross bloodlines made her an unusually intriguing broodmare prospect, a fact which he did not fully appreciate at the time. Her late dam, Pine Chip daughter Spice On Ice, also produced Southwind Spirit (2,1:54.1; $377,495) and The Ice Queen (3,1:55.2; $66,936), dam of 2018 O’Brien Award winner The Ice Dutchess (3,1:52; $521,265).

“The Pine Chip in the line did not hurt,” shares the Quebec breeder. “When you have Pine Chip and Varenne, you have an extremely interesting combination because Pine Chip was extremely fast, and Varenne was extremely durable. He was going any distance and he didn’t care.”

Immediately after the 2007 Breeders Crown, Lowenfeld was approached with an offer: “An agent called and said, ‘Do you want to sell the filly?’ And I said, ‘no.’ But he mentioned a number, and I said, ‘As long as I can keep part of her.’ He said, ‘They were looking for a partner anyway.’”

That agent was Ole Bach, and George’s new partner would be Steve Stewart of Hunterton Farm and Sales Agency. Hunterton holds the distinction of being the world’s largest Standardbred breeding operation which does not stand stallions. “Steve basically deals with the crème de la crème in this world of trotting and pacing,” notes Lowenfeld. “He owns a lot of broodmares in partnership with other people.” Breeding decisions about Southwind Serena were shared from the start: “Steve and I discuss it, and we pretty well agree on where we should go. I think that we never had any disagreements on which stallion to go to.” At age four, the mare was bred to 2007 Trotter and Horse of the Year Donato Hanover, delivering a colt who sold for $120,000 at the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale. His name was Commandant, the first of the military-themed names Stewart assigned to Southwind Serena’s offspring.

Exported in 2012, Commandant’s first European owner, Euro-Vets AB of Halmstad, Sweden, sent the colt to Norway with their other horses in training. “After six months of training he was sold to a Norwegian trainer called Øeystein Tjomsland,” veterinarian Per Spångfors informs TROT via e-mail. “As far as I know he was never raced and did not sire any foals.”

Lowenfeld purchased Southwind Serena’s next colt, a $65,000 Andover Hall yearling named Exemplar. “He did pretty well, and in fact, we were excited, looking forward to the Hambletonian, when he got hurt in the stall... although he recovered, his accident was such that we missed the Hambletonian,” says his former owner/breeder. Currently owned in-part, and trained by Richard Moreau, Exemplar (1:53.1s; $476,263) has earned respect racing mainly at Woodbine Mohawk Park. “Even today, he’s racing, and I think just last week [June 24] he was timed in 1:51.4, which is not shabby. He was a good racehorse, and he still is.”

Southwind Serena’s next foal was a Muscle Hill filly, born in 2012, and given the name Mission Brief. She was a $150,000 yearling at Lexington, a figure the mathematically-minded Lowenfeld found unpleasantly educational. “That’s an example of what I learned: If you want to protect your horses from being taken away from you for peanuts, you should be at the auction and bid until the price hits the level at which you say good-bye to the horse. I didn’t do that, and Mission Brief was gone.”

Gone, like she was in every winning start at age two. The Ron Burke trainee toyed with her competition when she stayed flat, a going-away winner in two New Jersey Sire Stakes, the Merrie Annabelle elimination and final, a Peaceful Way elimination, her International Stallion Stake division at the Red Mile, a Goldsmith Maid elimination at Woodbine, and her Breeders Crown elimination and final at the Meadowlands. Her 1:50.3 clocking at the Red Mile set a World Record for two-year-old trotters (regardless of sex) which has not been equalled.

Gone, as in “going, going, gone,” the way she often won her races at age three: a 1:51.4 Zweig victory at Vernon Downs by 2 lengths; a 1:51.3 Hambletonian elimination win, by 4 3/4 lengths (she was beat by ¾ of a length to Pinkman in the final); a 1:54.1 romp in the slop in an Elegantimage elimination at Mohawk, winning by a margin of 15 open lengths; a 1:52.4 win by 5 ½ lengths in the Elegantimage final; a 4 ¾ length jog in the Bluegrass at the Red Mile, and so on. Mission Brief also established a new World Record that still stands, for distaff sophomores on a 5/8-mile track (1:50.2) in the Matron Stake at Dover Downs; a mark that equalled the standard set by Father Patrick for colts. The Continentalvictory Stake at The Meadowlands would prove to be her final race; she and constant pilot Yannick Gingras dispatched with closest rival Wild Honey, trotting away by 5 lengths for the 1:51.3 win.

When the 2015 O’Brien and Dan Patch divisional champion was injured training back at age four, Lowenfeld purchased 25% of her for his children. Mission Brief (3,1:50.2f; $1,657,399) has had two foals so far; her Father Patrick yearling filly will be sold at public auction this fall.

Southwind Serena’s next foal was Earn Your Wings. “After Mission Brief, $260,000 [at the Lexington sale] was a letdown; she was a Credit Winner but she wasn’t a big filly. She was purchased by people that believed in Credit Winner,” notes Lowenfeld. “She was never one of the best fillies out there, but she did ok.” Earn Your Wings retired with a record of 1:54.4s and earned $314,530.

In 2015, Southwind Serena would make history. Tactical Landing, full brother to Mission Brief, became the second-highest-selling Standardbred yearling of all time. “One could be a pig about it and say it would have been nice to get $826,000, just to beat Detour Hanover’s price,” quips the Quebec breeder. “But I thought that the $800,000, whoever put the money on the table - was insane. Because you have to be realistic about the world we live in: $800,000 is enough money for you to have to worry about making it back. And the purses are not as significant in North America today that you can easily make back that money; it has to be a super-horse. And little did we know what Tactical Landing was.”

Outsiders disappointed by the blue-blooded colt’s slow start did not have the full picture, according to Lowenfeld: “That is what the world knows, but that is not what the facts were.” He bought back 10% of Tactical Landing on sale night. “The horse trained very, very well,” he tells TROT. “In fact, Steve [Stewart] was elated by the way he trained - except when he was asked to go at high speed, he couldn’t do it. There was something that was bothering him, but basically no one paid very much attention to it. He didn’t do much at the age of two.”

Tactical Landing debuted that year, with a July 15 qualifying victory (timed in 2:00.4) at The Meadowlands, but struggled with breaking problems in subsequent qualifiers and a pair of Kentucky Sire Stakes starts. “We decided to stop [with] him,” recalls his co-owner/breeder. “He was then trained at three - same story. We think we have the Horse of the Century; when he went to the racetrack, he couldn’t do it.”

Eight different partners shared ownership of Tactical Landing, including Lowenfeld, Stewart, and Black Creek Farm. Bob Stewart, Steve’s brother, originally trained the high-profile colt; but the owners later turned to a Hall of Fame conditioner “out of desperation” to solve the $800,000 trotter’s issues. “I wasn’t there, but apparently Jimmy Takter took one look at the horse; called the vet; asked the vet to say if what he was saying was correct; called the blacksmith; told him to change shoes,” reports Lowenfeld, “The next thing we know, the horse qualified at The Meadowlands.”

After a few overnight victories at the Meadowlands, Mission Brief’s younger brother won his Hambletonian elimination for trainer/driver Takter in 1:52.1, but was upstaged by filly Atlanta in the final, finishing third and trotting in 1:51 flat. He recorded victories in a Kentucky Sires Stake leg, a Bluegrass Stakes division, and his elimination for the Kentucky Futurity (in 1:50.2), all at the Red Mile. Improving as the season continued, Tactical Landing dominated in his Breeders Crown division at Pocono, taking both the 1:52.2 elimination and the 1:52.1 final by open lengths over Mets Hall. He impressively bested aged rivals in the Meadowlands TVG Free-for-All Trot, closing out his year, and his career as it would turn out, with another open-length romp, in 1:51.4.

Then a non-hereditary muscular problem flared up, forcing a difficult but necessary decision: “After the November race, the TVG final, we had four different vets take a look at him, and each and every one of them said, ‘We can get him back to 80% of what he should be, but you will destroy the horse.’ So the decision was made to syndicate,” says Lowenfeld. Tactical Landing (3,1:50.2; $812,300) retired to stud, and has proven himself a remarkably fertile stallion.

Although a statistical wonder, Southwind Serena’s mortality came into plain view in 2015. “Unfortunately, when she gave birth to Tactical Landing, she had major medical issues,” remembers her original buyer. “She gave birth by Caesarean and then colicked. We nearly lost her.” The mare’s subsequent foal, a full sister to Tactical Landing and Mission Brief, was an embryo transfer. Lowenfeld wishes he had retained that filly, named Primary Target, although she stood poorly and it was evident she would not race. She was instead a six-figure private sale for breeding purposes.

Southwind Serena lost her last foal, by Father Patrick, during the pregnancy. At press time it was too soon to say if she was safely in foal to Walner.

The Hall of Fame producer has spent her breeding career at Hunterton Farms in Kentucky. She is destined to live out her days there, and at age 14, is still young enough to pass on the genetic gold in her veins (via embryo transfer). “She’s fine, she’s bouncing around the farm,” notes occasional visitor Lowenfeld. “Whether we’re lucky enough this year or not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are going to get one or two others out of her.”

In advance of the 2017 Dan Patch Awards, Lowenfeld says he made a prediction, telling Stewart, “I don’t know whether we’ll get Trotter of the Year [with Tactical Landing] because of Six Pack, but I wouldn’t be shocked if someone would nominate Southwind Serena to the Hall of Fame.” Stewart reportedly called the latter notion “insane”, which now delights Lowenfeld: Not only was Southwind Serena recognized by the Hall of Fame this year - Stewart was the partner who attended the Goshen awards dinner to accept the honour.

With due respect to the accolades earned by Southwind Serena and her foals, the mare has brought her connections a satisfaction that doesn’t depend on public perception or votes. “[Stewart] would give up the award and the right to give a thank you speech in exchange for her being healthy and in foal, expecting another baby. He, like everybody else, is looking forward to what she can produce,” remarks Lowenfeld.

After he retired from Concordia University and sold Chemical Computing Group, the specialized software company he co-founded, Lowenfeld had more time to indulge his passion for harness racing, a sport he was never introduced to in his Romanian birthplace. He left that country with his family 55 years ago, at one point living in Israel, where he spent some time in the military. But if he wasn’t exposed to harness racing in Romania, what originally stoked his interest in the game?

“A father who grew up with horses, who loved horses,” he shares. “When we arrived in Canada, he and I would go to Blue Bonnets and basically not bet on horses, because we didn’t have much money.”

The non-bettor currently enjoys ownership of four Ontario Sires Stakes competitors: trotting filly Protostar; trotting gelding Fingals Wave; and July 5 Mohawk Grassroots winner One For Julius, a special pacing colt named in honour of George’s late father. “And I have another one who will start racing probably on July 30, because Per Henriksen is a trainer who likes to hurry up slowly,” he adds with a chuckle. Lowenfeld also co-owns three-year-old filly trotter Aim High Hanover, and on the breeding side, takes pride in his broodmare Serenas Genie, dam of three OSS Gold winners.

As he approaches his 73rd birthday, the ups and downs of harness racing continue to thrill and humble Lowenfeld. “This is not a game in which I have any control - other than the amount of money I spend,” he reflects with amusement. With the accomplishments of Southwind Serena now enshrined in the Goshen Hall of Fame, her original owner says another milestone in the great mare’s life still makes him happiest: “We’re lucky to have been able to save her and her baby, Tactical Landing. At the end, the story ends well.”

This feature originally appeared in the August issue of TROT Magazine.
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