In a place known for classic winners, Breeders’ Cup heroes, Grade 1 stars and barns owned by some of the biggest names in racing, one horse stood out at Maryland’s Fair Hill Training Center in 2017.
The now 4-year-old colt made 10 starts. He won five, finished second in four. Only the first one, back in January, was a clunker. He finished fifth, then reeled off nine consecutive exacta finishes. The success made him the winningest horse at Fair Hill last year, even if he trailed the likes of Irish War Cry, Ascend and some other graded stakes performers when it came to earnings and/or attention.
“Really? Wait until I tell his owners their horse won more races at Fair Hill than anyone,” said trainer Kelly Rubley of Gunpowder Farm’s Tom Keithley and Ericka DeVinney. Gunpowder bred Monongahela, who is by their stallion K One King (a son of Apalachee who stands at Kentucky’s Millennium Farm) and out of the Touch Gold mare Record High.
Saving Rubley the phone call, we called Keithley who laughed and then told a story – there’s always a story behind a good horse.
“We were just buying our first broodmares when I bought his dam and people told me not to buy her,” he said of a visit to Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s December sale in 2012. “I was standing in the back and she was walking around the ring. Every time she came to where I was standing, she stopped and turned her head and looked right at me.”
Keithley turned to his wife DeVinney and said, “What the heck is all that about? We’re buying that mare.”
They paid $8,000. The Silver Train foal Record High was carrying at the sale became Pennsylvania-bred stakes winner Lucabunny. Monongahela was born the next year, and quickly became a barn favorite.
Rubley loves her horse’s competitiveness, and his success, but fights an urge to call him a pet.
“He’s the best,” she said before offering an apology that he was on a short break at the farm and unavailable to prove his actual status. “He was in the first stall and basically everybody had to stop and see him. You’d love him.”
Coming off back-to-back stakes losses at Laurel Park this year, Monongahela will get a 30-day vacation before cranking up for some Pennsylvania-bred stakes this spring/summer. For the moment, he’s all about the time off.
“He’s having a ball,” Rubley said. “The first day I was a little nervous because he was a bit coltish. He’s out with a retired gelding and he was screaming and running around. But now he’s fine.”
Better than fine, actually. While holding 3-year-old filly Eighty Six Mets for blacksmith Mike Lopata Thursday morning, Rubley reached for her phone and pulled up a photo of a turnout shed across a field with what looked like some loose hay scattered about on the ground. One lump of hay was not hay, however. There’s a horse in there somewhere.
“This is Monongahela right here, lying down in the shed,” Rubley said. “My other horse is standing there watching over him. It was one of those moments where you don’t want to be that crazy little horse girl who runs out in the field to make sure he’s not dead.”
Monongahela is alive and well, and apparently without a care. Racing can wait.
His 2017 campaign included nine consecutive races at Penn National. In state-bred maiden company, he was fifth Jan. 12, second Feb. 24 and second again March 18. On April 8, he broke through with a win going a mile. He made it two in a row with a state-bred allowance win June 29. Stepped up to open allowance company July 22, he lost by a nose after rallying from last in a six-horse field. On Sept. 1, he secured that condition with a 3 3/4-length romp before settling for second in an open two-other-than Oct. 12.
Monongahela saved his best two races for last. At Penn Nov. 16, he trounced eight others in an open two-other-than. That win set up his first race outside of the Keystone State, a tough open three-other-than at Laurel Dec. 4. He spotted seven rivals a little at the start, then came running off the turn. Six wide, he got up in time and won by a neck. Stakes horses Final Prospect, Wake Up In Malibu, Bodhisattva, Ghost Bay, Flash McCaul and Fellowship finished behind him.
Rubley called that her favorite race.
“Open three other than at Laurel, that’s pretty tough,” she said. “I got hustled into it, didn’t really particularly want to go there and then he comes up and wins it.”
Monongahela benefitted from the state-bred conditions early in the year for sure, but also developed as 2017 progressed. The success earned him 2018 stakes tries at Laurel – in the Native Dancer and John B. Campbell – and the 1-2 streak ended. Monongahela finished fourth in the former, fifth in the latter.
He’s been on the farm since.
“Do we really want to bash his head in in an open stakes right now or do we want to wait for something that makes a little more sense for him?” Rubley asked. “I think this is the type of horse who just keeps getting better and better. The more mature he gets, the better he gets.”
NOTES: Behind Monongahela, Fair Hill’s 2017 report card included four-time winners Dattt Melody for trainer Carl Doran, We Deer You for Mike Trombetta and Just Howard for Graham Motion. Doran’s Faire Mi led the way with 14 starts (three wins and three seconds). Trombetta’s In The Navy Now matched Monongahela with nine top-three finishes, but collected just one win to go with six seconds and two thirds . . . Monongahela takes his name from the 130-mile river which flows south to north and joins the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River . . . Gunpowder Stable also takes its name from a body of water – the Gunpowder River in Maryland – and not actual gunpowder . . . Keithley and DeVinney, who live in Landenberg, Pa., raced their first horses in 2013 and have steadily increased the success rate thanks in part to early stakes winners Breaking Lucky and Divisidero. The 2017 report card included 33 wins and more than $1.6 million in earnings. Grade 1 winner Divisidero, a $250,000 yealring purchase at Keeneland September in 2013, is in training at Fair Hill with Rubley.
Monongahela on vacation at the farm last week (photos by Kelly Rubley).