Training fields

A deeper dive into Mohawk’s attempt to fill the fields

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by Melissa Keith

Classifying horses when there are fewer to classify is the ongoing challenge of the Woodbine Mohawk Park racing secretary. Inflows are affected by a series of factors, little more important than the exchange rate. On Wednesday, the Canadian dollar was worth US$0.78, making even Canada’s top exchanges harder to sell.

“Yeah, there’s no doubt. It’s a business, right? said Tony O’Sullivan. “I first came here in 2000 with Ross Croghan, and Canada was ‘the boom’. Our dollar was stronger at times in the mid-2000s, it was even stronger or at par. So I think that’s a factor, and there’s also money in most jurisdictions in the United States. Yonkers is obviously very big. Ohio is growing. Kentucky has an influx of money.

Writing conditions suitable for regular Mohawks meet this growing demand for running gear.

“It’s a juggling act. I mean, we kind of have our core people coming here to run. We try to be creative with the condition sheet and add these new series and change the conditions a bit,” he said. “Some weeks it’s really good. Some weeks it’s light, but you just have to keep trying. You obviously can’t put anything on it that is completely off the wall.

“I talk to the coaches. Most of them, you know, call once in a while or text, and obviously [racetrack] management talks about things. We talk to COSA, the riders association, and just try to get a sense of what people are thinking, and try to accommodate as many trainers and horses of all calibers as possible.

Although some owners have expressed dissatisfaction with online Mohawk courses, the sentiment is not unanimous.

Doug Polley Jr. of Amherst, NS is co-owner of recent winner Wind Blown (p, 5, 1:49.4s; $172,391) with his father Doug Sr., and Gordon and Joann McComb of Paris, ON. The free-legged Mach Three–Wind Warning gelding took on a new lifelong mark at the Campbellville track last Friday (June 10).

“At Mohawk, they’re based on your last five money wins, and so his last five, he gets to the non-winners in the $29,500 class, because he’s got more than $16,000 over his last five,” said said Polley Jr., who wouldn’t hesitate to bring his stock back to the Maritimes if he thinks it suits him better.

Wind Blown is a Saturday night horse, however, on Canada’s biggest stage. He progresses through his class in the June 18 North America Cup undercard, after his big win over the “$8,600 non-winners of the last 5 starts or the $19,000 non-winners of the last 10 starts also non-winners eligible for $90,000 lifetime.

Polley Jr. observed that his horse stepped up to win at a higher ranking than he ideally matched.

“He could have even been in another class beyond that, but they didn’t have a class to give him, so he won that. [higher] to classify. He was under $8,000 [in earnings for previous 5 starts]. Usually they have a different class for it, but he won, so we can’t complain.

Ben Hollingsworth’s intern will now face “non-winners of the last 5 starts at $16,000 or non-winners of the last 10 starts at $29,500; also eligible $60,000 claimants; non-winners $120,000 lifetime. Polley Jr. said Wind Blown’s latest win puts him “just above that, for cash prizes.” He has about $17,000 won. The experienced owner takes the class jump in stride: “I guess we win every four or five races, probably. There’s not much we can say bad about it.

Finding places for his young horses is more difficult, he says.

“Most of them just aren’t good enough for Mohawk,” Polley Jr. said, assessing not just his own stable, but the horse population in general. “It’s very, very tough at Mohawk,” which makes the win all the more special, according to the rider who had considerable success there with the recently retired Rockin In Heaven (p, 6, 1:49.2s; 854,552 $). “He’s been a top class horse all his life, so again [classification is based on] cash earnings. His were still quite high.

For low-income horses, the best place to run is not necessarily a smaller track.

“Grand River attracted [last Tuesday] and they were as short” as Mohawk, O’Sullivan told HRU, adding that all tracks face the same problem.

“In a nutshell, I think it’s a supply and demand issue: we don’t have enough horses to sustain the number of race days we have. I think in the short term, with the 2 year olds coming in and throughout the season, it should pick up for sure and give us some leeway in what we can do.

He pointed out that horses competing at The Raceway at Western Fair had mostly migrated to smaller, not Mohawk, tracks after competition ended at track No. 2 in Canada last month.

“Now we have Clinton, Hanover, Dresden and Grand River, so that doesn’t really help because there are other places these horses can run,” the former trainer said. “We don’t get much from this region. They seem to be a little on their own, but we certainly get a few, and of course we welcome them.

There are also fewer Grand Circuit horses than when O’Sullivan himself was training.

“As far as the guys from the United States coming in, I think the personnel issues that every industry faces is a huge problem,” he said. “It used to be that a trainer could send a bunch of horses somewhere and know they had enough staff to take care of them. It now appears that is not the case. They send a person and they hire help for race nights.

Horses from jurisdictions with lower purses often improve on the seven/8-mile track, which benefits both their connections and the size of the terrain.

“We send texts and tweets and stuff on the website, but from Mohawk’s perspective, I write terms that accommodate just about every horse possible,” O’Sullivan said. “It would be nice for people to bring them in and see what they can do on the big track, instead of thinking they just can’t do any good.”

Polley Jr. doesn’t know O’Sullivan personally, but agreed it’s worth rolling the dice to see if, and where, a horse belongs in Campbellville.

“You can always find a class, whether it’s the right class or not. It snowballs from there, right? Once they have a little confidence in themselves, they often improve with each race. Mohawk is very fair, really.

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