Arthur, Ont., is a town of 2,450 people. Humble and charming. You can buy a truck there, visit the goat dairy, get uplifted at the York Soaring Association, treat yourself to organic food. Gasoline prices are the best there. There used to be a restaurant in Arthur called Post Time, with photos of all sorts of racehorses on the walls.
Sadly, it’s gone now, but not the spirit of the town. It seemed as if the entire village of Arthur flooded into the winner’s circle at Mohawk Park on Saturday, after its favourite child, Desperate Man, won the $1-million North America Cup in an upset.
Trainer Kathy Cecchin had never started a horse in the North America Cup. She formed a small stable in 1996 alongside husband John Cecchin, a regular on racing circuits in the province, churning out wins the hard way. This season at Mohawk, Kathy had only eight starts, with one win.
Driver Trevor Henry, who lives just down the road from Arthur, has started three times in the North America Cup, winning none, his best finish a fourth in 2017. He had moved full-time to Mohawk/Woodbine only in 2014, but didn’t lack for experience.
Known as the king of the half-milers, Henry has been leading driver at Grand River, Western Fair, Hanover, Georgian Downs and Clinton Raceways as he logged 80,000 kilometres on his truck every year to race at all of them. Perhaps people forget this, but he competed at the world driving championships in 2013 in France. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, he led all Canadian drivers in total wins. He knows his way to the winner’s circle.
So ignore this man at your peril.
And ignore Desperate Man, at your peril, too.
A week ago, Desperate Man, driven by Henry, finished second in his North America Cup elimination to Bulldog Hanover, a crackerjack of a horse, who seemed to have gears and more gears. Most of all, he engendered goosebumps in the arms of anybody who watched him: a grand-looking horse, who bows his neck. His tail plumes out behind at top speed. Driver Jody Jamieson said he hadn’t been able to see the horse tire yet. He’d pace through the wire like a locomotive, no matter the disadvantage.
Bulldog Hanover had overcome a slow half in the elimination, but split the wind with a final half in 52.2 seconds. Desperate Man came at him that day and was gaining with every step, with his own back half in 51.3 with a final quarter in 25.4. That was a sign. He had been a 13 to 1 shot in the elimination, and 7 to 1 in the final.
Bulldog Hanover was 3 to 5.
From post four, Jody Jamieson and Bulldog, went after the lead but didn’t clear until after the turn in the backstretch to a first quarter in 27.3 Doable for him. Henry figured he had to get Desperate Man away better than he did last week – he was last off the gate – but the son of Shadow Play was “funny” behind the gate. Last week he ran, and Henry got him pacing again. He didn’t want to rush him off his feet. This time, Desperate Man lagged behind the gate as others took off. He settled into fifth on the rail.
After a half in 55.1, Henry took Desperate Man to the outside, and managed to follow the cover of the other elimination winner, Perfect Sting, the colt who was undefeated in 10 starts last year. In harness racing, there isn’t a better trip.
At the head of the stretch, it was evident that Bulldog Hanover was in trouble. Jamieson said he had full confidence at the final quarter-mile mark, but the son of Shadow Play just didn’t fire. Jamieson looked over as Desperate Man sailed past to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:49.3, with a final quarter in 27.1
Bulldog Hanover finished only fourth, behind Perfect Sting, driven by Dave Miller, and Whichwaytothebeach, which powered up to nip the favourite at the finish.
Desperate Man took in the winner’s circle craziness without a problem. Cool, collected. Trusting in his people.
The horse is owned in partnership: John and Kathy Cecchin and their daughter, Nikki and her husband Paul Davies. Their partnership was formed when the Cecchin parents offered – as a wedding present – a down payment on a house or an interest in a horse that hadn’t even raced yet: Desperate Man. Paul and Nikki were married on Dec. 8, 2018.
Paul and Nikki took a chance: they went with owning a horse. Kathy picked Desperate Man out of a Lexington sale, because his mother was a sister to another good horse they had: Outlawgrabbingears.
Henry was at the sale, along with others, and looked him over. They purchased him for $20,000. He has now earned $853,014 with five wins in 15 starts.
Bulldog Hanover was a $28,000 yearling purchase. Another colt, Lawless Shadow, won the Meadowlands Pace (through disqualification) and the Hempt Farms Pace. But he had to withdraw from the eliminations with a fracture. He, too, was a son of Shadow Play, who stands at stud for $5,500 at Winbak Farms at Inglewood, Ont.
“The 3-year-old Ontario Sires pacing colts are really strong this year,” said Jack Darling, trainer of Bulldog Hanover. Darling has won one North America Cup in three previous tries: with Gothic Dream in 1997.
His luck with Canada’s signature race hasn’t always been the heart-warming kind. Gothic Dream had won one of the North America Cup eliminations, while Darling’s other colt, Northern Luck, won the other. Darling considered Northern Luck the better horse.
But Northern Luck got hurt in the trailer going home and “took half his foot off,” Darling said. “I couldn’t race him in the final. But I’m pretty sure he would have won the North America Cup. I could easily have finished first and second that year.”
Gothic Dream went off as the favourite. That was 24 years ago.
Since then, Darling had Pearl River Matt, who went off at 4 to 1 in the final. But he broke his foot behind the gate and couldn’t finish.
Then there was Twin B Champ, another favourite for the final, after having won an elimination very easily. “He was actually the strong favourite in the final,” Darling said. “But he tore his suspensory at the quarter pole. He came off the track, he couldn’t even walk. I’ve had a little bit of bad luck in it.”
He had hoped Bulldog Hanover would get the chance to show what he can do. “There’s something about him,” he said. “He’s just a special kind of horse.”
He will be back. Desperate Man has defeated Bulldog Hanover before: In one of his other losses this year, Bulldog Hanover finished third to Desperate Man and Lawless Shadow at an Ontario Sires Gold Stake race at Georgian Downs on July 25, after seeming to spin his wheels in the footing of the track.
For what it’s worth, Desperate Man’s barn name is “Slick.” A toddler wearing a shirt “I’m with Slick” entered the winner’s circle, too. The name seems to fit now more than ever.
The rest of the season sets up a rivalry between the two, both of them with an enviable turn of foot.
But for now, Arthur folk are bursting their buttons.