09/14/2011 4:36PM

Bad claim at Parx produces happy returns

Alyssa Spakowski/Equi-Photo
The 3-year-old Ann’s Smart Dancer, whose dam returned lame the day she was claimed for $7,500, is 5 for 5 at Parx, including three stakes.

Imagine you claim a horse for $7,500, watch as the horse pulls up lame, and are quickly told she has no chance of racing again. That was the dilemma facing Craig Donnelly and his family when Craig’s son Jeff, a trainer, claimed Bennington on July  4, 2006 at Philadelphia Park.

Bennington had raced 45 times. She had 6 wins, 8 seconds, and 10 thirds. She had earned $96,124. Her first start was at Arlington Park in Aug. 27, 2003. She got a best Beyer Speed Figure of 71. She had seven different trainers and had raced at seven different tracks, but mostly at Philly and Penn National, since early 2004.

Bennington looked like so many other workaday horses. She wasn’t particularly fast. She wasn’t terribly consistent. She did appear pretty durable. Then, she got hurt.

What would you do?

Donnelly, one of America’s best public handicappers, consulted with his father, Russ Harris, also a terrific public handicapper. Harris suggested they breed the 5-year-old mare and hope for the best.

Bennington, Donnelly noticed, was a full sister to 2001 Lone Star Derby winner Percy Hope. So, Russ, Craig, and Jeff decided to breed her to Maryland sire Dance With Ravens.

The foal was born at Mark Reid’s Walnut Green Farm in Chester County, Pa., on Jan. 23, 2008. It had been barely a year since Ann, Craig’s wife of 25 years, had passed away from cancer. So, they named the filly Ann’s Smart Dancer.

The filly made her debut against Pa.-bred maidens on April 2, 2011 at Parx Racing. She won by 5 1/4 lengths. Her Beyer was just 47.
Her next start was against older horses in an open allowance. It was not an easy spot with more experienced horses that had earned better Beyers. The cause really looked lost when the filly was caught in the middle of a pretty vicious speed duel. She was in between horses. How many horses have we all seen duck out of that situation and await an easier circumstance?

Ann’s Smart Dancer seemed to relish the competition. She emerged from the scrum, got the lead, and held on to win by three-quarters of a length. Her Beyer zoomed to a 75.

Trainer Butch Reid tried her next in a Pa.-bred stakes at Penn National. She beat all the horses she was supposed to beat, but was not in the same zip code as race winner Quantum Miss, who broke the six-furlong track record that night.

Since then, Ann’s Smart Dancer has run in three Pa.-bred stakes at Parx. And won them all. She got a 76 when she won the Caught in the Rain and a career-best 87 when she won the Power by Far. Last Saturday, she had to fight every step to win the Dr. Theresa Garofalo Memorial by a neck. She got a 76 Beyer.

In 6 starts, Ann’s Smart Dancer has 5 wins and a second. She has earned $216,480. The breeders, same as the owners, get a 20 percent bonus on earnings.

So it has been a pretty nice return for a $7,500 claim of a horse that could no longer run by the time she was led off the track.
Ann’s Smart Dancer’s full brother is in training at Penn National with Jeff. Craig has high hopes for him.

Meanwhile, Ann’s Smart Dancer keeps winning.

When the filly runs, it is about more than the money. It is about the name and the memories.

When the filly is about to enter the gate, Craig wanders down the apron by himself to watch. It is simply too personal to share.

Bennington was claimed barely two months after Ann got her terminal cancer diagnosis. It was a way for the family to get an escape from the treatments, the worry, and the inevitability of it.

They never got to see Bennington run for them. They have gotten to see Ann’s Smart Dancer run those six times from April to September. She has raced at six or seven furlongs. She is 5 for 5 at Parx with the one loss at Penn to a graded stakes winner.

With the purse money available to Pa.-breds, a well-managed horse can win a lot of cash without having to venture into deep water. Ann’s Smart Dancer has taken advantage of the Pennsylvania program, but when you watch her run, you really think she may have the heart and desire to win against even better competition.

But that is for later. There are more statebred races for her. There will be a time and place for her to try open stakes company.
Donnelly really thinks she can go longer. The way she relaxes in her races after breaking perfectly suggests he may be right.

So far, Ann’s Smart Dancer has done little wrong.

Who could have imagined a claim that looked so wrong could have turned out to be so right?