Hall of Fame stakes recap: Family Style

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John Hennig liked it. Wesley had taken four strides out of the gate in Monday’s Hall of Fame Stakes and Hennig liked how it was developing.

“Perfect,” he said, as Wesley eased to the back of the seven-horse field. “Perfect.”

Assistant to his son, Mark, Hennig joined his wife Pat and Willmott Stables’ racing manager Allan Lavin in front of the clubhouse big screen.

Above them in box A-38, Mark Hennig didn’t feel nearly as secure.

“I was a little bit concerned,” Mark said later.

Dad nailed it.

Wesley lagged in last as Thou Swell, Willsboro Point and Field Sport bartered for the lead as the field of 3-year-olds hit the wire the first time. Adriano split the field in fourth with Picou and Wesley lagging in the back through a quarter-mile in 24.17 seconds and a half in 49.38.

Javier Castellano began to get antsy and decided to engage Wesley leaving the backside. Rounding wide on the far turn, Wesley zoomed into contention as the previously undefeated Deal Making got hemmed in partly because of Wesley’s roundhouse move on the turn. Longshot Thou Swell dispatched Willsboro Point through 6 furlongs in 1:14.77. Thou Swell hung tough on the inside as Adriano loomed, Deal Making looked for room and everybody had a shot.

The Hennigs were on board at the big screen.

“Come on Wesley” became “Come on Wes” which eventually became simply, “Wes,” as Pat Hennig jumped to the front of the screen and John slapped his foot on the ground. Lavin stayed cool.

Wesley earned it, winning the Grade II stakes by a half-length over the stubborn Thou Swell and the unlucky Deal Making. The winner finished the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.22.

“I was a little bit concerned, three quarters in 14, ‘How fast are they going to finish?’ And they did, they came home in 11 and 3, we had a lot of work to do,” Hennig said. “I didn’t get quite as much work into him as I wanted to – he came up here, our first work, he’ll do this lost-in-space thing once in a while when he works in a new place. I said, right before the race, ‘I hope I’ve done enough with this horse.’ Then he was making a three-quarter-of-a-mile run, I was worried at the quarter pole.”

No need. Wesley upped his burgeoning turf career to 2-for-2 with the win. A $450,000 yearling purchase, Wesley ran into Coal Play, Ready’s Echo and Groomedforvictory in his first three starts. He ran hard and ran well but didn’t get the job done until his fourth start, going 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct in April. Hennig aimed high, taking a shot in the Barbaro Stakes at Pimlico on Preakness Day. Wesley faded to fifth, came out of the race with burned heels and Hennig knew what he was going to do.

“I was pretty disappointed. This horse always trained well, he ran into some good company in his first couple of races, the grass is sitting there in the background, but he trained well enough where we thought he was going to be a graded stakes horse on the dirt. We made excuses a time or two, then you’re snapped into reality when he run in a stake the first time. What really convinced me at that point was how much he struggled with the track at Pimlico.”

Hennig ended up in a seven-car pileup outside the Pimlico stablegate and Wesley ended up a turf horse. A good turf horse. He breezed twice on the turf at Belmont and Hennig aimed at a first-level allowance race. Wesley nearly ended up in the same kind of pileup when winning the 1 1/16-mile turf race at Belmont June 28.

“He didn’t just win, he was tons the best. All over the track, skiing, Ramon (Dominguez) went out to the six or seven path and nothing happened, then ducked all the way to the rail and came flying and nailed them,” Hennig said. “He relaxes on the grass, on the dirt, he wanted to be a little rank, pumped up, wouldn’t breath. Then he settled in last, I thought ‘is he going to do this every time, just drop out the back?’ ”

Why not, it works. Castellano, who rode Wesley twice on the dirt, was in the John Hennig camp during the race.

“I had a beautiful trip out there. I thought I was supposed to be a bit closer to the pace because when I rode him on the dirt he pulled me right into the race,” the jockey said. “But today on turf he settled beautiful and relaxed out there for me. I wasn’t too much farther back than I was supposed to be but when I asked him he really took off and he flew at the end.”

Castellano missed Wesley’s first turf start, but didn’t miss the explosive move he put on seven rivals that day.

“He beat me right on the wire with Ramon aboard. I said ‘Oh man, that was the horse I was supposed to ride.’ But it came back around today,” Castellano said. “He was traveling comfortably out there and I didn’t want to take him out of his game. I didn’t want to leave him too much ground to make up on the other horses but when I asked him on the backside he started picking it up and he pushed on for home. At the line it’s just a great feeling when you ask your horse and he responds. I just said ‘Oh man, I got this one.’ ”

The 2008 Hall of Fame class, led by Carl Nafzger and Edgar Prado, presented the trophy to Peter Willmott and Hennig.

“I told Carl, ‘Rub that jacket up against me, it might be as close as I ever get to one.’ He said, ‘Don’t you worry about a thing, you’ll be wearing one of these,’ ” Hennig said. “Standing there with those guys and this morning you’re watching the ceremony, you ponder it. You have to get older and a lot has to happen.”

Give Wesley time.