The Best Two-Year-Old I've Ever Trained Was...

TROT reached out to some of the sport’s leading trainers and asked them to share their thoughts with us when it comes to the best two-year-old that they’ve ever trained. We asked for a behind-the-scenes story that most wouldn’t know, and to tell us if there was a moment that they realized the horse in question was a very special animal. This is what we learned. Compiled by Dan Fisher.

TROT asked some of the sport’s leading trainers who the best two-year-old they’d ever trained was, and if they could share a story about the horse from its early days or could recall the moment that they realized they had a special animal. This is what we learned…

Bob McIntosh: Western Shooter

We paid $205,000 for him in Lexington, but even though he was perfectly put together he wasn’t that big. As he trained down over the winter he kept growing and by spring he had turned into the most gorgeous colt. He just had so much speed and ability - I used to say that ‘he could probably pace a quarter in :26 seconds at the farm while looking at a bird in the next field over.’ He would’ve won the Metro but he made a break late in the mile. John [Campbell] came in and said it was his fault. He said that when he hit him, the whip caught his stifle by accident and it spooked him… that’s why he ran. John still blames himself for that. Then he won the Breeders Crown at Woodbine, and when he won the Governor’s Cup… John said that a horse just shouldn’t have been able to win that way with the trip he got. He paced his back-half in :53.4 after being parked out, and won by a couple of lengths… in November. And that was 20 years ago! Sadly, he died before he could race at three. He got this lump on his neck, and the sad part is that if it were any other horse in the barn we would’ve just kept him at the farm and had our own vet deal with it. But he was such a good horse that I sent him to Ohio State [University] for care. They had him on a lot of antibiotics, and those can kill off a lot of the good bacteria too. I don’t know exactly what happened but things went bad there. He eventually developed colitis and they couldn’t save him. It took a long time to get over losing him… like I said, if it was any other horse in the barn we never even would have sent him there in the first place. He was a perfect horse and he was out of Cathedra, so the pedigree was there on both sides. Alan Leavitt [Walnut Hall] had bought 10% of my share and 10% more from one of my owners [Kohler] for a lot of money… I think he could’ve been a great sire.

Ben Wallace: Totally Western

Taking everything into consideration, including the races he won, the full package, I’d have to say it was Totally Western. We got him in Harrisburg for just $25,000 - I owned half of him - and he really was perfect. He just always did everything right… he was really a pleasure to be around. He won a leg of the Dream Maker and he showed me that he was going to be a nice horse, but then he made a few breaks [in the Metro final and the Champlain] and I was going to quit with him. I took him up to Terry Ruch’s to see if there were any hidden issues that we’d want to know about and he said that other than his front feet stinging him that he was perfectly sound. Terry suggested we go ahead and race him in Lexington as that soft, red clay track down there would be great for his feet. So we took him down and he won the Bluegrass and was second in the International Stallion… then we came back home and he won the Breeders Crown at Woodbine. I told Mario [Baillargeon] that even though we were a big price I thought we were as good as anyone in there… Now no one ever had to tell Mario to leave with one (laughing), and he left out and got him a 2-hole trip. He won easily and it went for over $1 million Canadian that year. That’s actually when I realized how good he really was, the night he won the Breeders Crown. He made a lot of money in those last few starts at two after we decided not to shut him down. 

Some people probably thought that I’d say Blissfull Hall, and he was good at two as well, but he had something holding him back. He was a ridgling when we bought him as a yearling and he was locked on the right line his entire two-year-old year. He was such a fast horse it was incredible but he got on that line so bad there were times when he was literally undriveable. We tried everything to get him off of that line but nothing worked, so we were pretty sure it was that ball up inside him. I remember telling Daniel Plouffe that if it didn’t drop we’d have to get it removed… he seemed to have the ability but he wouldn’t be able to compete at the top levels with it up in there and bothering him. Then one day that winter he trained perfectly. I looked up between his hind legs and it had dropped… he came off of the line and the rest is pretty much history.

Casie Coleman: Sportswriter

I’ve been lucky to have some great horses, but as far as two-year-olds go it has to be Sportswriter, and the story behind how I got him is pretty amazing. I was going to the Harrisburg Sale and Robert Hamather had told me to pick out a yearling for him. He said that the price didn’t matter, he just wanted to buy my top pick, and my top pick was Sportswriter. I told him that I thought he’d bring $150,000 and after he looked at him he loved him - he said he was in. Sports was selling late on the first night - really late. I was going for dinner with some people and had to tell them I’d be late. The day was really dragging on and a few hours before he eventually went into the ring, Bob [Hamather] told me he was getting tired. About an hour later he told me that he didn’t want to wait any longer and that he was going back to the hotel. I told him that I’d bid for us but he said that he wanted to do the bidding and that we’d buy one the next day instead. I was shocked… I loved the horse and really wanted him but I had no real money. Earlier that morning I had been talking to my owner, Steve Calhoun, about some of his horses, and he had laughed at me for even buying yearlings. We had a lot of claimers and good overnight horses at the time, and the purses were huge - Steve had asked me why I’d waste my time on babies when the money was so good with claimers at the time. Steve and I had bought one yearling four years earlier [Luxury Seelster] and had done ok with her, but he said that he was never buying another one. Anyway, Sports goes into the ring and I want him, but like I said earlier, I have no money. But it was so late and everyone was gone, so the bidding stalled. I think the bid was $47,000 and I said “[email protected]# it’’ and put my hand up. I just bid once and I got him for $50,000. I almost shit myself (laughing) because I didn’t know how I was going to pay for him. I ran back to the stall to see him, thinking that I had missed something… I didn’t know why he went so cheap. A little later on, Steve [Calhoun] called me. He saw the results online and asked why it didn’t say ‘Agent’ beside my name, so I told him the story. He said that he’d take half, even though he was making fun of me that morning for buying babies. He said that I had loved him so much and said he was worth $150,000, so he figured he was a good deal at $50,000. I guess he was right because he made us $1.6 million on the track and now he has tons and tons of babies both here and in Australia and New Zealand. Bob Hamather has been a great owner for me. He’s given me lots of horses to train and he’s always quick to pay his bills, but if he hadn’t changed his mind I never would have owned Sportswriter, and the money I made with him allowed me to own parts of other great horses after that like Betterthancheddar and Betting Line. That night in Harrisburg was a really big moment for me. 

Nifty Norman: Poof Shes Gone

It probably sounds crazy to hear me say that a filly like Venerable is only the second best two-year-old that I’ve ever trained, but I’ve been lucky. We paid $170,000 for Poof Shes Gone in Harrisburg in 2008, but she didn’t have a stellar pedigree really… the price was that high because she was just such a perfect individual. She was by Kadabra, and we were in Canada a lot in those days… she won the Breeders Crown at Woodbine at two, so that was quite fitting also. And it was my first Breeders Crown, so that whole year made for a lot of great memories with her. She really just was the purest trotter you could ever imagine, right from the start. Venerable was the same really, but last year when we were training her down everyone kept asking about Delilah Hanover, because we paid all the money for her [$440,000], so at first Venerable flew under the radar in a lot of ways. But she was perfect from the start too. It was great to beat the boys in the million dollar race up there [Mohawk Million] but it would have been nice to win the Breeders Crown with her too - finish the year off right. It was so disappointing when she made that little skip in her elimination, but it was a long year and it’s tough to stay undefeated. Both fillies kind of took the same route now that I think of it; they both went through Canada with the Peaceful Way and stuff. Poof Shes Gone was the one that comes to mind first though, when you asked about my best two-year-old ever. The difference is probably just that she [Poof] won the Breeders Crown and finished the year off the way she did, but that takes nothing away from Venerable. You know, only three trotting fillies have ever made $1 million at two, and Snow White turned out to be transgender, so Poof Shes Gone and Venerable are really the only two if you think about it, and we’ve had them both.

Dr. Ian Moore: Malicious

Shadow Play had made a bunch of money for us in 2008 so we went to Harrisburg looking to spend some of it, and I wanted a Bettors Delight… I had never really had one up until then. I was walking by the Vieux Carre consignment and they had Malicious out - he caught my eye. I went over to see him and Mark Egloff told me that he was heading for the back ring in just a few minutes. He looked perfect so I called my partner [Ron McLellan] and told him to come see him. He told me he’d be over in 40 minutes and I told him that he’d be 35 minutes too late (laughing). I only put two bids in on him and we got him for $45,000. He never wore a boot and he was perfect from day one. The only thing that he ever did wrong at two was that he hated having dirt hit him in the face. He’d get throwing his head and stuff. I made a little homemade contraption that we attached to the noseband on his bridle that had these rubber strands hanging down from it. They’d bounce off of his nose while he’d pace along and once he got used to it it would take his mind off of the dirt that might fly up. Protecto makes something like it now called the Nose Flipper. Anyway, he won his first seven in a row including the Dream Maker final and the Nassagaweya I think. He won his Metro elimination and the same for the Governors Cup. The only horses that could really beat him on the Grand Circuit that year were Schnittker’s horse, One More Laugh, and Rock N Roll Heaven. Arthur Blue Chip was a great two-year-old also, and Shadow Play got good later on the year he was two. We were actually thinking of selling Shadow Play at two… he had talent but he was too aggressive and immature. We gave him a bit of time off in the fall and the next time I trained him he went in :54 off of a half in a minute. He was really good that morning so I told them that we’d better keep him. I’d say that my top-three two-year-olds were Malicious, Arthur Blue Chip and Shadow Play in that order. The year we bought Malicious, we bought Wellthereyougo as well. We changed both their names… I forget what they were but they both had stupid names. We paid $45,000 for each of them and between them they made almost $1 million at two and three… that’s not too bad!

Ron Burke: Mission Brief

We’ve trained horses that have held, and still hold, a bunch of two-year-old World Records for a number of years, so you might think this is a tough one. It’s not. Mission Brief is the best two-year-old I’ve ever trained and the best horse I’ve ever trained, and it’s not even close. It’s not even close. [Southwind] Frank, {Sweet] Lou, Warrawee Ubeaut, Sheer Desire… they were all great two-year-olds. But Mission Brief was a complete freak. Training down as a baby, all she ever did was make breaks. In fact, she never went a flat mile the entire time she was in Florida that winter. We never even considered giving up on her though because she’d run every time, and no matter how far back she was she’d catch up and finish right with them. Sometimes we’d look at each other and say things like, ‘What she just did was impossible right? There’s no way she just did that!’ She was just goofing around all the time out there; she needed to mature. Finally, one morning after we came north with them, I just took all of the equipment off of her one day and threw her in the race bike. She went a mile in :56 off of a half in a minute. Tony Alagna saw her go and when I was pulling up he said ‘Please tell me that’s not a two-year-old.’ I told him that she was a complete freak. The only times she ever got beat at two was when she made a break. It’s such a shame that she got hurt training down for her four-year-old year because I’m certain that had she raced at four she would’ve won in :48 and change. I just know it.

Blair Burgess: Real Desire/Glidemaster

Most of the good horses I’ve had were decent training down early but not outstanding - they just ended up being pleasant surprises. When a trainer tells me that he has a ‘good one’ I usually just roll my eyes, but my best two-year-olds really did show their talent early. It’s a pretty easy question to answer because both of mine went on to win Horse of the Year. Real Desire was scary-good right away - in January/February. You can never be sure though, with pacers especially, because a lot of them can go fast, but you never know if they’ll carry their speed, stay sound, have good breathing, heart, etc. Glidemaster was also scary early. In February he was easily 10 seconds ahead of anything else that I had, but he had pretty much done nothing but gallop until the end of January. Then one day I got mad at him and we went a big mile; when I pulled him up after, I was letting him walk alongside Billy Rapson [second trainer] and I told him that this was ‘the Real Desire of trotters.’ The only other superlative early athlete that I had was Amity Chef. He was also scary fast and smooth very early on. He became the fastest two-year-old ever in Canada, breaking the track records at both Greenwood and Mohawk… with ME driving! 

Nancy Takter: JK Shesalady

I had just gone out on my own [2013] and that fall Alan Katz of 3 Brothers Stables reached out to me about taking some babies for them. They had already bought one yearling by Rock N Roll Heaven, and they had some homebreds, and apparently they had a falling out with their trainer. They needed to find someone to give the horses to and I had just had a pretty good year with Western Vintage - he won in :49.4 as a two-year-old. That’s still a great mile today but this was almost 10 years ago and it was still a pretty rare thing. So I took the horses and JK Shesalady was one of them. I’ll never forget it, she was so fat at the start that we could barely get her into the jog cart (laughing). She’d jog two rounds and she’d be absolutely exhausted. But she also had an effortless gait and a quick turn of foot. What you can’t tell for sure, that early, is if they have the will to win. I’ve had some very talented horses that didn’t have the heart to do it… they almost look for excuses to get beat it seems. This filly definitely had the heart and the will to be great. It’s funny, but it was Easter of that year [2014] and I was at my parents’ house. I asked my Dad if he had any good two-year-old pacing fillies and he said ‘Yes’ and asked why? I told him that he may as well just leave them all at home because I had a great one (laughing). He looked at me like I was crazy and said something along the lines of ‘Easy now little girl.’ But I was right. I didn’t really know the Katz brothers that well then, but I guess that they had raced in the New York Sire Stakes a lot. Alan mentioned something about that for her one day and I said there was no way I was racing her in the sire stakes. I told them that she was much better than that and that I wasn’t going to risk hurting her on a half-mile track… They looked at me like I was crazy too (laughing). Well she never lost a race at two [12-for-12] and she was named Horse of the Year in both Canada and the United States… how often does that happen! The other neat thing was that it was my Dad’s horse, Shake It Cerry, that was Trotter of the Year in the U.S. that year. In the end, that’s who we beat out for Horse of the Year!

Jack Darling: Gothic Dream

I’m a firm believer that today’s horses are just far superior to the horses from years ago, so with that in mind I’d say that the best two-year-old that I’ve ever trained is Bulldog Hanover… the one that had the biggest effect on the North American two-year-old class that he was part of though, and for that matter, the biggest effect on my training career, was Gothic Dream. He was a Jate Lobell… we bought him for $27,000 in Lexington and he was just perfect from day one. He was mild mannered, he had a perfect mouth on him, you could do anything with him that you wanted, and he was fast. I was still in Windsor then and my place was right beside Bob McIntosh’s farm. Bob has a really nice half-mile track at his place and I used to go my faster training miles there. I clearly remember the first time that I realized he [Gothic Dream] was a pretty serious horse because I was going a mile at Bob’s with him and down by the wire I asked him to pace. It was the first time that I had ever really asked him for another gear when he was already going at a decent speed, and sure enough he had it. He took off, and he was pacing so fast when we hit the turn past the wire that we almost blew the turn. He really showed me something that day that I’ll never forget. He and that entire group of two-year-olds that I had that year really made a big impact on my life. It was only the second or third year that I was buying yearlings, and that year we bought just six. All six [American Angel, Armbro Parkway, Decor, Gothic Dream, Im No Brat and Northern Luck] were two-year-old stakes winners - it was quite the thing. The colts [Gothic Dream and Northern Luck] were the best two, but we took all four of the fillies to Hoosier - I think it was the first year that they were open - to race in the Standardbred Stakes. John Campbell came down to drive three of them… each of the three divisions went for $100,000 and John and I won all three. I think the other filly came fourth… I guess she was the weakest link (laughing).

Ray Schnittker: Check Me Out

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a lot of them, but I’d probably have to say Dewey [Deweycheatumnhowe] was the best. He was the first horse that I ever had with Ted Gewertz. I bought him for $80,000… I probably would’ve gotten him for $40,000 but Ted was bidding against me. He had owned every foal out of that mare until then and after I outbid him he came over and asked me if he could buy in. I said ‘Sure’ and we’ve been partners on horses ever since. You can’t always tell early with pacers, but when you can train a trotter down with the pacers, like I did with him, and they can keep right up at all stages, you know it’s a good one. I did that with Check Me Out too though, and now that I think of it I’d have to say that she was probably the best pure two-year-old that I ever trained. Right in January you just knew she was special… she was perfect from the start. My longtime partner, Charles Iannazzo, bred her with Steve Jones and sent her to me to train. He bought Steve out and he let me buy 25% of her when she was a baby. She was just an incredible two-year-old [16-14-2-0; $898,343]. Steve eventually bought back in and we still own her together today… Charles passed away four or five years ago. Steve and I put her babies through the [sales] ring every year and the first one that I ever bought back was King Of The North - he’s been pretty good too (laughing). I do have to mention Huntsville as well… like I said, I’ve had a few good ones I guess. There were other fast ones like Riggins… he broke the track record at Saratoga in his third lifetime start but he didn’t have the heart like these others. Huntsville was just a man among boys from day one - he was huge. And not only was he bigger and stronger than the rest, he was very coordinated at the same time… he also had the desire. I think that all three of them [Check Me Out, Deweycheatumnhowe and Huntsville] won Dan Patch Awards at two.

Julie Miller: Designed To Be

I’m not really the kind of person that thinks about the money they’ve won or even, really, the specific races. I probably shouldn’t even say this but I don’t think that I could even tell you how much money some of the horses in our barn made last year. To me it’s not just about the stats, but to a degree it’s about the individual horses, the obstacles some of them have to overcome, and the impact that they’ve had on our lives. When I told Andy [Miller] the question you’d asked he said ‘You’d have to say Venerate wouldn’t you?’ And Venerate was a great two-year-old for sure, but when I really thought about it I have to say that it was Designed To Be. I had just been given a contract to train some horses for Marvin Katz and Al Libfeld, and she was one of the babies we got from them. We always vet them out when they come in, just to see if there’s any added obstacles that we’re up against. Designed To Be had a cyst in one of her stifles and a hairline fracture on a front pastern. I remember telling Marvin and he asked if it was even worth trying her… he wondered if they should just wait and breed her. I told him that it didn’t mean that she couldn’t race but it did mean that she would take some extra time and that maybe the odds were a bit stacked against her. We agreed that we should try her. She ended up being a great two-year-old [8-4-3-0; $286,186] and a great three-year-old, after we had actually discussed the possibility of not even breaking her. Now she’s also the dam of Greenshoe. She’s done so well. To me it’s not always the most expensive one that everyone wants at the sale and expects the most of, but sometimes it’s the one they all expect very little of… the one that overperforms. You can’t be in this business - getting up when we get up every day and going to bed late most nights - if you don’t have the dream of getting that horse. Another two-year-old that I had, that comes to mind, is one that many people have probably never heard of - her name was Happy Dreamer. She was a Mcardle filly that we got kind of late. She was in 2:30 and was being trained on the trot! The owners didn’t expect much but the first thing I did was put the hopples on her. I actually drove her in her first few lifetime starts at Freehold… I won with her in her third start by almost 10 lengths and that’s when Andy fired me as her driver (laughing). In November of her two-year-old year we won the [$231,650] Matron with her. Those are the kind of stories that stay with me, and the kind of things that make our game so great.

 This feature originally appeared in the May issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.