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Magical Karma

Trot Feature - Forbidden Trade

On August 3, 2019 Serge Godin’s ‘Team Determination’ captured the 2019 Hambletonian with the Ontario-sired Forbidden Trade - the second year in a row, and third time in the last four years, that trotting’s biggest prize went to a Canadian trained, driven, and at least partially owned competitor.

In the days and weeks following the historic win, TROT sat down with driver Bob McClure, and breeder Steve Stewart of Hunterton Farms, to chat about some behind the scenes stories, and find out what the win meant to them.

KARMA ISN’T ALWAYS A BITCH. By Dan Fisher

Bob McClure’s first pari-mutuel start behind a trotter came on January 23, 2009 at Flamboro Downs. He was driving Muchacho Grande for his cousin, and best friend, Ryan McClure, and they were 131/1 on the tote board. From post #7 the horse made a break behind the gate, one of three charted breaks he’d make in the mile, and the pair would finish the dash in a sporty 2:07.3.

When confronted with this statistic, at the beginning of an interview to discuss an historic victory in the Hambletonian, Bob looked a bit confused. “That sounds right,” he smiled, “but didn’t I also get my first win with that horse?” His memory was good, as he did also get his first win with that horse - that trotter - about two months later at odds of 20/1. Then, when asked if he knew who Muchacho Grande’s sire was, a large smile spread across the face of the young reinsman, and his eyes lit-up. “He was a Yankee Paco - the first Canadian-sired winner of the Hambo.” And Bob McClure and Forbidden Trade were only the third. “That’s pretty cool,” laughed McClure. “There must have been some good karma there or something.“

“That horse represented a lot of firsts for me. He was my first win, and also my cousin Ryan’s first win as a trainer. We grew up together in the barns, working for dads and uncles - we were as close as brothers. So that first win was really special for us both. And that horse was my first drive here [at Mohawk] too. I drove him up the inside and shook loose late to be second. I have a lot of great memories with him.”

Trotters, in fact, have always played a big role in McClure’s career. “Before winning the Hambo last week, my favourite win ever was in the Dream Of Glory at Hanover. I was in the final three times before I was able to win it with Mister Muscle for Mark Etsell. The people at Hanover do such a great job. There’s so many people there, especially that night, and so much atmosphere. It’s always such a great night.”

Speaking of racetrack atmosphere, it was exactly one year to the day after his win in that 2017 Dream Of Glory Trot at tiny Hanover Raceway, when McClure found himself under the spotlight on racing’s biggest day - 2018 Hambletonian Day. Race #13 saw Canadians Scotty and Rick Zeron make an entire nation proud with their Hambo win by the filly, Atlanta.

“I don’t know Scotty well but I used to drive against him here when I was just starting up. That was my first time being live at the Hambo. I had won at the Meadowlands before, but compared to Hambo Day that’s a completely different scene. It was really cool to be there to see them win that race.”

Then, minutes later came Race #14, the Steele Memorial for older trotting mares, and with it, what was maybe McClure’s first big moment in the sun. Surely he must have been nervous driving in that race?

“After the Hambo this year, someone said to me, ‘When you win a big race with a favourite it’s a feeling of relief, because you were supposed to win.’ Well when you win a race with a longshot it’s pure joy, because nobody had expected much anyway. You have to remember that at that time Emoticon [Hanover] was the darling of the barn… so I wasn’t nervous in the least. Dream Together is easy to drive, she’s great gaited - we were fifty-something to one. She didn’t just fall into it either, she `raced great. And then she went out two weeks later and did it again [at Tioga]. That was big for me, because with the Americans coming up here for a lot of races after that, it kind of put my name on the radar.

“It was a really great day overall because Mr. [Serge] Godin was there… I had never met him in-person until then, we had just spoken on the phone and stuff… he’s a very busy man. But he’s so easy to drive for because he truly believes that I’m a very good driver, whether I do [believe it] or anyone else does, he does. He has so much faith in me that there’s really no pressure. When I was hurt this past spring he was checking in on me all the time - not to see when I’d be back driving, but just to be sure that I had everything that I needed. We have a great partnership and I really appreciate the faith that he has in me. It gives me all the confidence in the world.”

When asked what the partnership entails - for example, if he’s listed on a Determination horse at 40/1 and something else that will be 2/5, McClure cuts off the question immediately by answering, “I drive Mr. Godin’s horse every time. It’s them. Every time.”

At the time of the Atlanta Hambo victory, Forbidden Trade stood in his stall at trainer Luc Blais’ farm in Campbellville, Ontario. He had made two lifetime starts at that time, both in OSS Gold events - winning the first and finishing fourth in the next. Five days after the 2018 Hambo, the Kadabra colt, a $110,000 yearling purchase bred by Hunterton Farms, won another OSS Gold event. So, fresh off of seeing his first live Hambletonian, did McClure allow himself to daydream about the 2019 edition?

“I really didn’t even think that Forbidden Trade was Luc’s best two-year-old at that time, he had another colt [Steuben Hanover] that seemed to have more ability. He’s had issues, however… I’m still hoping that he proves to be a good older horse. But we did think that we had two possible starters for the [2019] Hambo… if everything went well. I just thought it would be great to even just race in it.”

Two more Gold wins would follow, in the colt’s freshman season, followed by a victory in the $225,000 OSS Super Final. Next it was off to the Meadowlands for the $435,900 Valley Victory. “We should have won the Valley Victory too… I drove him bad,” McClure shakes his head. But it was a learning curve for the young trotter and driver alike, and the season still ended with the 2018 O’Brien Award for two year old colt trotters.

“He started back a bit slow this year, when I was still hurt,” says McClure, but then he just got better and better every start. He won his Goodtimes elimination and then he was a good second in the final… then when he beat those aged trotters so easily, I really thought that he might have a shot in the Hambo. B Yoyo was second in that race [July 22 at Mohawk]... he’s a very nice older horse, and my colt just did it so easily.”

When it was insinuated that maybe he truly believed he could win the $1 million Hambletonian, even though he had downplayed that to media both before, and even right after he had done so, the driver who resides in Rockwood, Ontario with wife Jody and son Ryder, shared, “I really thought that if we, or anyone, had a true shot at beating Greenshoe, it would be with him going two trips. He [Greenshoe] is just very tough on himself, so going forward I don’t know if anyone can beat him again, but I really thought that if he was vulnerable at all, it would be when he had to race twice in one day. And a person could say, ‘Well if they didn’t go two heats maybe Greenshoe would have won.’ But we did go two heats, and Forbidden Trade won. My horse is just so easy on himself, and he’s such a professional.

“The post-parade for the final was very long… I jogged him, and scored him, and walked him, and then I had to score him again because he kind of fell asleep. Then, after all of that, he just turns and trots up and puts his nose on the gate, ready to go. You talk about nervous, but it’s hard to get nervous with a horse like that because he’s going to get you where you need to go. He helped me relax.”

When asked if he believes that Forbidden Trade has received the respect that comes with being the Hambletonian champion, the expression on the face of the affable young horseman noticeably changes. There have been a lot of social media posts, and even industry publication stories that have seemed to make excuses for the runner-up, and huge pre-race favourite, Greenshoe. Not much about why or how Forbidden Trade won, but more about what happened to prevent Greenshoe from winning.

“What pissed me off was that Ron Gurfein never really gave Forbidden Trade a mention before the race. We had beaten a lot of good horses [in the Goodtimes] but he never gave us a mention. But that’s fine, because then when we won I said ‘Well at least now we’ll get some recognition because we won the Hambo,’ and then he just comes up with a story only as to why Greenshoe got beat - nothing about how Forbidden Trade won. Then he says something about Marcus Melander… a lesson to young trainers for resting the horse too much and that he came in too high-strung. I think that Marcus has done such an amazing job with that horse - that’s not an easy horse. He’s very rarely been beaten and a few of the times he has been beat it’s probably because Marcus and Brian [Sears] are trying to educate him and teach him to be a good horse - a great horse. I think that they both deserve a lot of credit for that and I don’t think that anyone should be bashing them or questioning their methods. Marcus Melander had four horses in the Hambletonian that day, so I don’t think anybody should be telling him what to do - at all.”

Still beaming almost two weeks after his historic win in the Hambo, McClure is obviously very proud of his horse - and rightly so. The best horse, on that day, won the race. But there was another big race at the New Jersey oval that took place three weeks earlier - a race whose results, one might think, if they didn’t know Bob McClure, might have somewhat upset or frustrated him.

Hired to drive Best In Show for Richard and Joanne Young, for the season, in both his Canadian and U.S. starts, McClure boarded his flight to New Jersey at 10:30am on July 6, to go drive the colt in his Meadowlands Pace elimination. “We taxied out to the runway and were ready to take off, then we literally pulled over to the side and let plane after plane after plane go by us. Apparently there was a big storm in Jersey and it wouldn’t be safe to land. Forty minutes later they told us it was now safe to land there but there were dozens of planes circling in the sky there, so we wouldn’t even be taking off until they had all landed. I didn’t really need to be there until 8pm, so although it was a pain, it never crossed my mind that it would be an issue. We sat there until 3pm, and I still wasn’t worried… and then they actually came on and said that our flight had to be cancelled - my heart just sank. I got on Expedia right away and there were no flights. I called Richard Young and he couldn’t find a flight. I called a private plane here - no luck. I tried everything, and then I said,’It is what it is. Why worry about what you can’t control?’ There was no sense dwelling on it.”

After the horse, driven by Brian Sears, qualified for the final, a conversation did take place between Young, trainer Linda Toscano, and McClure. “I’m a firm believer that if someone gets a horse into a final that they should have the option to drive him. Brian got him in, he finished a loaded third, and he looked good going into the final. I said that it was probably best for everyone if he [Brian] drives him in the final. Don’t get me wrong… they didn’t come right out and offer me the drive. I’m not saying that if I would have stuck my toes in and insisted on driving him in the final they would have listed me… but we did have a conversation about it. I respect them for that. And it didn’t surprise me when he won. People suggested to me that must have been really depressing for me, but it wasn’t at all. I was honestly thrilled for them. They have all been very good to me… Richard and Linda and Joanne. They’re all great people. Through the whole thing I wasn’t upset at all. I thought it was great for the horse too… the recognition. You know that a Canadian horse has now won the Hambo three of the last four years [Marion Marauder in 2016] and now this year an Ontario-sired horse won the Meadowlands Pace with Best In Show [Bettors Delight] and the Hambletonian with Forbidden Trade [Kadabra]. I think that’s amazing.

“You know, before the Hambo, the judges [in New Jersey] called me, because I still had to get my licenses and stuff. They said, ‘What time is your flight down?’ and I said, ‘I’m not ready to talk about it yet.’ (laughing). One of them said that they thought it was nice, doing what I did [in regard to the drive in the Meadowlands Pace]. He said that ‘Good karma usually gets you further than good luck.’ After winning with Forbidden Trade last Saturday, someone said to me that must be true, because Brian got my Pace but I got his Hambo.”

A ‘MAGICAL’ ACQUISITION. By Justin Fisher

Following the pep talk he gave Forbidden Trade on the morning of August 3rd in the Meadowlands paddock, just hours prior to the son of Kadabra becoming Hambeltonian champion, Steve Stewart knew that the horse he hadn’t seen since November of 2017, in Harrisburg, PA, had a chance to win the crown jewel of trotting. “He probably didn’t remember us, but he was extremely calm and he seemed like he was where he wanted to be.”

The Ontario-sired colt, out of O’Brien Award winner Pure Ivory, bred by Stewart’s Hunterton Farms, is only the third Canadian-sired champion to win the most sought-after trophy in trotting, following in the footsteps of Balanced Image sons Yankee Paco (2000) and Amigo Hall (2003).

“He’s the star of Canada at the moment. If you took Hunterton Farms out of it, it would be a 100% Canadian win,” Stewart says.

So, just how did Hunterton Farms join the equation?

On the heels of an illustrious racing career, Pure Ivory was sold and exported to Europe, following her retirement in 2007. Trained by Brad Maxwell and mainly driven by Steve Condren, on the track she had earned $1,442,888 and took a mark of 1:53.1 (in the 2006 Simcoe Stakes at Mohawk).

“It’s easy to look up her credentials, she was sorta the queen of Canada for a few years,” Stewart explains.

Her European vacation was short lived however and she was on her way home to North America by the fall of 2009, in foal.

“After her four-year-old season, she was sold to Ahti Vilppula in Finland and eventually bred to Muscles Yankee via frozen semen... she arrived here [at Hunterton] in the fall of 2009, in foal. We got her due to my relationship with Marti Ala-Seppala, a longtime friend and business partner. Marti called me and told me that he had this mare, Pure Ivory, and she was being sent back to the States, in-foal, and then we would breed her to Muscle HIll next. ‘Great,’ I told him… She lands on our doorstep and we foal her, and do the subsequent work that comes with it.

“She’s bred to Muscle Hill for foals two and three but unfortunately, those foals and the Muscles Yankee were extremely bad individuals. They were small with poor conformation.”

This was reflected in both the declining sales price of the foals, which severely dropped from the first to the third, and in their on-track performances. Their sales prices dropped from $170,000 for the first foal, to $135,000 for the second, and a mere $5,500 for the third. On the track the foals combined for 10 starts, $6,185 in career earnings, and zero wins.

Stewart jokes that he thinks its harder to sell a Muscle Hill foal for $5,500 than for $100,000.

With little success coming from the first trifecta of foals, Stewart realized there was another problem - payment.

“By this time I realized we had never been paid. Somebody told me they had googled him [owner, Vilppula] and he was some industrial type who was involved in multi-million dollar construction projects in the Amazon Rainforest. He seemed like a recluse and the kind to disappear.

“And sure enough he had,” chuckles Stewart, reminiscing about the past. “It was crazy, the guy literally disappeared, and I’m sure this mare wasn’t very high on his worry list.”

After years of never getting paid for the work they had done, Stewart enlisted the man who brought him the mare, Marti Ala-Seppala to right the ship in 2014.

“We ended up with her on the books because he just disappeared and never paid us. Marti was able to [eventually] get the signatures from overseas and that’s how she ended up in my name.”

Even to this day, Stewart wonders what could have happened to his former business associate. “I even asked Marti recently if he [Vilppula] had resurfaced at all since 2014... he hasn’t. Nobody has seen or heard from him in nearly five years. He never paid anyone. I believe that Jimmy Takter had a filly for him, and apparently he never got paid either.”

Now with Pure Ivory in his name, Stewart chose to breed her, inexpensively, to Holiday Road, which resulted in a filly named Tusk. “Tusk brought $50,000 at Harrisburg. Which helped get most of our money back.”

“By this point Marti was telling me to breed her to Kadabra. I had reservations concerning fertility issues with Kadabra at the time, and had become frustrated due to being owed thousands of dollars, which I took out on the mare... which wasn’t smart.”

When finally choosing a sire for Pure Ivory’s next foal, a year-and-a-half before collecting the $50,000 for Tusk, Stewart decided to follow the advice of his friend and went the way of Kadabra.

“You have to hit me over the head a few times before I do things, and finally I bred her to Kadabra, and boom! We get Forbidden Trade… There’s a good breeding lesson to be learned from this, a teachable lesson, you might call it,’’ states Stewart. “A lot of the time when you have a mare and breed them to the king of trotting, which is Muscle Hill, you assume that if she doesn’t produce anything then she must not be any good.

“How in the world could you breed your mare to the great Muscle Hill and not get anything? That’s a knock against the mare. But the lesson is, sometimes the mix of genes don’t mix with the leading sire, it doesn’t mean you can’t go to another sire and strike it rich.”

Stewart knew long before Forbidden Trade stepped on the racetrack or entered a sales ring that he had a potential great horse on his hands. “He was dark and beautiful, and took a great video,” states Stewart.

“Luc Blais and Determination deserve a lot of credit... they paid $110,000 for him. Even though she was a great racehorse, the mare was zero-for-four, and two of those were Muscle Hills. I take off my hat for anybody that is willing to stick their necks out a little to buy something like that... it’s easy to spend a lot on a Chapter Seven, but on a colt who is un-American, out of a mare who is zero-for-four and has two Muscle Hill foals that didn’t turn out, it’s a hard sell.

“It begs the question, ‘why in the world would anyone spend that kind of money on a colt like him?’” as Stewart puts it.

However, the price tag didn’t truly surprise a seasoned breeder like Stewart.

“I wasn’t surprised that he brought as much as he did just because he was so good looking.

Brad Maxwell tried to buy him privately before he went to auction for around $75,000, but I thought I was better off to try my luck in the sale.”

A clearly-wise business decision by Stewart. Another good sign prior to auction was when Determination asked to x-ray the colt.

“Potential buyers will now ask if they can x-ray the horse before auction, and Determination had asked to x-ray, which I thought to be a good sign,” he tells TROT.

“Anybody looking at the pedigree and the mare, would have said, ‘Oh my god, $110,000, now how did that happen?’ But if you had gone to see the horse or watched his video you could understand how it was possible, not probable though.”

Tapping into Kadabra wasn’t a one time occasion either, the clearly successful cross has lead Stewart to dip back into the well. “There’s a full sister to sell in Harrisburg this fall, another full sister on the ground, and she’s back in foal again to Kadabra, so I’ve definitely heard what they told me… Once you hit me over the head a few times, I’ll listen and do the right thing.”

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


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