Farm general manager Bruce Hill was at home, alone because his wife doesn’t want to be a jinx, when he sat down to watch Live Oak Stud homebred Win Win Win compete in the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga Race Course Saturday.
If the 7-furlong stakes, run on a sloppy track in a driving rain, were an amusement-park ride it would have come with legal disclaimers: “not suitable for children . . . may cause undue stress . . . riders with heart conditions should consider the carousel . . .”
Hill withstood every confidence-rattling climb, all the twists and turns, even the high-speed drops.
“I went through a range of emotions,” he said Tuesday morning. “From being mad at him for breaking slow, then to being worried that maybe he had injured himself and then just hoping everything was all right. I looked at the floor and quit watching the race and wondered what was going on and then I looked up and thought that horse just tagging the group at the back was him . . . No, that’s not him . . . and then he’s in the picture, and then it’s like he’s going to make a huge run and get beat. If he’d just broke anything close to normal he could have won.”
Hill even planned conversations he would have with owner Charlotte Weber, trainer Mike Trombetta and farm trainer Joe Ambrosia afterward. They weren’t going to be pretty, and they would go something like “OK, there’s no more excuses, it’s not the jockey’s fault, it’s not the track’s fault, it’s not our fault, it’s his fault.”
And then it was his race. Hopelessly beaten at just about every part of the $300,000 stakes, Win Win Win rallied from 16 ¼ lengths behind after a half-mile to win by a half-length in a half-way-to-Schuylerville wide, muddy, wet, ridiculous rally. Hill, Ambrosia, Weber, Trombetta, probably even jockey Javier Castellano couldn’t believe what they saw.
“You have all those conversations with yourself, all those thoughts, and the race doesn’t last a minute-and-a-half,” said Hill with a laugh. “We were quietly optimistic that he was training well and he had a chance to run well. We’re not surprised. We’ve known he had that kind of talent. It’s been frustrating that he didn’t get a chance to show it.
“Then he wins like that and you don’t even get to be excited. Normally you’re tired, your throat is scratchy, you’re hoarse. I sat there quiet as can be, as quiet as a mouse. I had no emotion left. My balloon was completely empty of air.”
Such is the thrill of Thoroughbred racing, and a good horse. Even watching on television from 1,200 miles away in Ocala, Fla. Hill, who has known Win Win Win since he was born went along for the ride. So did the whole Live Oak team. Trombetta and his people in Saratoga. Fans and bettors. Anybody. It was Flutie to Phelan, Greg LeMond’s Tour de France comeback, Kris Jenkins draining that three-pointer for Villanova, all of it – in a horse race. If you left disappointed, even if you wagered on another horse, you missed the plot. The 2020 Forego, the improbability of it all, is why horses race and why people care.
Live Oak foals 15-22 mares a year in Florida, raises them, gets them started, sends them on to trainers. Win Win Win goes way back to Icy Warning, a Maryland-bred purchased by Live Oak as a broodmare at Keeneland November in 1997. Her daughter Devotion Unbridled won four races and, when bred to Smarty Jones, produced Miss Smarty Pants. She won once in three starts in 2011, and joined the broodmare band.
“She could run,” said Hill in 2019, before Win Win Win ran in the Kentucky Derby. “She had some EPM that knocked her back, but she had some ability. We would not go to the sale and buy one like that if somebody said that to us, because you don’t know. When we know at the farm a mare really had talent, but we didn’t get there for whatever reason, we tend to give them a little chance.”
Miss Smarty Pants made the most of it. Her first two foals, both by Congrats, won a single race each. Then came Win Win Win, a nearly black son of Hat Trick, in 2016. He’s her last foal. She died giving birth the next year. She’d be pretty proud of her son.
“That wasn’t breaking your maiden somewhere in a maiden claimer,” Hill said. “That was the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga with a good group of horses. For him to be able to do that is incredible.”
Even if Hill couldn’t believe it at first.
“The good reality finally did sink in,” he said. “I was proud of him, proud of everybody here, happy for Mrs. Weber and Mike. What a race to watch and be a part of.”
Published in the Sept. 2 edition of The Saratoga Special. Read more here.