Eddie Graham and Jody Petty have taken plenty of walks like this in their lives with horses – coming in from the gallop or heading back to the barn from the track.
The horse is tired, breathing deeply and crunching out rhythmic steps to a beat only he can hear. Petty, in the tack, talks and laughs and jokes. Graham, on foot, keeps up while assessing the horse, kicking rocks off the horsepath and wondering.
“If they paid me $50 a day to ride this horse, 10 would be for riding the horse and 40 would be for putting up with Eddie,” says exercise rider Petty. “And I want a raise.”
Graham laughs, shakes his head, considers a retort, but then goes back to trainer mode.
“He looks great,” he says. “Knock on wood, he’s coming to himself. That was not that hard for him. He got a good blow, which was what I wanted. His hind end looks good. He’s solid in the shoulder, he looks good.”
He, of course, is Arlington Million winner Hardest Core.
The 4-year-old is perfect in three starts for Graham, a 43-year-old who oversees a small stable based on a farm in Pennsylvania. The horses, a mix of flat and steeplechase runners, have won eight of 13 starts this year. Graham, who worked for steeplechase horsemen Bruce Miller and Sanna Neilson among others, trains in fields, hills and bridle paths of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Graham rents a stall in a barn at Fair Hill Training Center to have access to the tracks, mostly for works or insurance against the weather, and brought Hardest Core in for a 5-furlong workout on the dirt Sunday morning.
With Graham at the wheel of a truck and trailer, they arrived at 7 and walked to the track with the sunrise and a cold wind rolling in from the northwest. Graham’s longtime friend Petty, a former champion jump jockey, was aboard as usual. They stepped on to the track, stood for a beat in front of a gradually lightening sky. Hardest Core – D-bit, leather figure-eight, white nylon bridle and white saddle towel with artsy blue-and-yellow G logo – pricked his ears and watched a few other gallopers.
When it was time, Petty steered Hardest Core to the outside rail and off they went. They jogged the wrong way back to the half-mile pole, turned and galloped nearly a full lap before unfolding into a 5-furlong workout. Hardest Core covered the distance in 1:02 and change by Graham’s watch and looked good doing it. Of course, he nearly ran off with Petty at a jog back to the gap to greet Graham.
“That felt like a pretty darn nice solid work to me,” said Petty, who rode steeplechase champion McDynamo in races and flat champion Animal Kingdom in workouts. “The first time I galloped him up a hill at the farm, he couldn’t finish. Now it’s different. He’s different.”
Petty raves about Hardest Core’s stride, and how he can use it.
“He has to have one of the biggest strides I’ve ever sat on in my life, I don’t know whose would be bigger,” Petty said. “McDynamo’s was pretty damn huge, there have been horses through the years who had huge strides but couldn’t get it all together. I’ve ridden horses with strides this big but they couldn’t control it. He can.”
From a distance, the dark bay looks like a nice horse. He’s balanced, well put together, handsome. Up close, he’s that and more. He seems bigger, more imposing.
“It’s funny because he just floats and I have a hard time working this horse because I couldn’t tell you what we went in,” Petty said. “I’ve worked horses and I have a pretty good idea, but this guy does it so easy. When he gets going, you can tell and you know but you’re like ‘Wow, I wonder what I’m really going in?’ It’s easy for him.”
Graham and Rusty Carrier bought Hardest Core for Andrew Bentley Stable at Keeneland last November and have gradually put together a Grade 1 winner. He was gelded, survived emergency surgery to remove several feet of intestine, and got fit on the hilly turf gallops in Pennsylvania. The Kentucky-bred son of Hard Spun has not lost in three starts for Graham – an allowance at Parx, the Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park and then the Arlington Million upset. Four in a row beckons against the best turf horses in the world in the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita Nov. 1.
Graham tries not to think about the lofty goal.
“It’s just another race. We’re just trying to keep focused on him, not the race,” he said. “The most nervous part of it is these last two weeks. It’s very easy for something to go wrong. I was very happy with him today. I always want to leave something in the gas tank. Time doesn’t mean anything to me. He’ll have another work after this. I just wanted to get him to use different muscles, different wind, make it something a little different for him. That’s why I wanted to do five-eighths today.”
Hardest Core will have another work this weekend – on the hills at home or at Fair Hill (depending on the weather) – and fly to California next Tuesday.
The Fair Hill sunrise Sunday morning.