04/12/2017 4:05PM

Bergman: Obrigado keeps improving with age

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Derick Giwner
Obrigado won the Dan Patch award as the best Older Trotter in 2016.

Athletes, even equine ones, don’t often improve with age. Despite what many have claimed, all too often horses become more infirm over time and have difficulty maintaining levels of success. The grueling freshman and sophomore seasons have a way of harming the future ability in so many horses that we often marvel at those that have achieved greatness at a later time in their careers. Such is the case of Obrigado, a horse that didn’t have his best taken from him at a young age and now as we move into the stakes season for older trotters may finally be ready to tackle the best and beat them with more consistency.

“He’s training back great,” said trainer Paul Kelley from his Florida outpost. “He’s getting ready to go and mentally I’ve never seen him better.”

Obrigado is coming off a career year that saw him earn in excess of $800,000. He could be on the precipice of international stardom should Kelley choose that route.

“I’ve been thinking about the Elitlopp,” Kelley said in regard to the prestigious event in late May in Sweden. “Lennart Agren (SRF Stable) is from there and it would be great if he could see the horse in that race. We’ll see how it goes.”

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Kelley understands what it may take for Obrigado to make it to the Elitlopp and he also recognizes the difficulties in getting a horse ready and then the recovery time necessary for a horse after returning from Europe.

“I’m going to qualify him soon. I wish I could take him to Pompano, but I think the track is a little too hard there and I’d rather not risk it,” Kelley said. “Instead I think we’ll go up to Southern Oaks Training Center.”

Kelley’s concern over track condition suggests just how long term his thinking is when it comes to his stable’s star. Under his watchful eye Obrigado has accomplished something rarely seen in the sport. Obrigado has shown improvement in each and every year he has raced. From 2012 until 2016, his annual earnings increased. From 2012 until 2016, his personal best proved faster than the year before.

Kelley took over the training and part-ownership of Obrigado after a perfect 13-for-13 season in Maine as a sophomore in 2013. It’s been an interesting path since then, with last year’s finale, an upset victory in the $400,000 TVG finale at The Meadowlands, perhaps showing the horse at his absolute finest.

Expect Obrigado to be qualified a few times before shipping to The Meadowlands for the first major race of the year, the Arthur J. Cutler Memorial on May 6.

 “I’m very happy with him right now. He’s sharp physically and he’s sharp mentally,” said Kelley. “I’m pretty sure he’s going to be ready for his first start.”

While Obrigado sits atop the stable, Kelley is hoping that he has a pair of sophomore trotters that could be primed for major action this season. The New York-bred Such An Angel didn’t finish up his freshman campaign the way Kelley would have liked, but the trainer thinks he’s turned the corner. “He’s definitely matured over the winter. He’s bigger and stronger,” Kelley said.

Such An Angel is full brother to Archangel that earned $145K in his first season on the track.  The son of Credit Winner won four of his first five starts as a freshman but also lost his last five with the trainer suggesting a constant battle with sickness as partial reason for the lack of wins.

“We’ve got him staked for everything,” Kelley said of Such An Angel. “Of course he’s eligible in New York but I think he’ll fit the Grand Circuit.”

The Muscle Hill-sired Catch The Game was a favorite of Kelley’s last spring, but that affection didn’t turn into victories during his first season on the racetrack.

“I know he has the speed but he was a bit bull-headed and most of the year was spent trying to teach him how to race,” said Kelley of Catch The Game. “All winter I’ve been training him from behind and I think he’s starting to the get the hang of it.”

Catch The Game has the pedigree to be a top quality horse. His dam is a full sister to the International star Adrian Chip, a $1.1 million career earner.

“It’s so hard to find a top quality aged horse,” said Kelley. “You know I think Catch The Game is the type of horse that will be a much better aged horse.”

The trainer is actively preparing his 2-year-olds for their first season of battle and likes a host of trotting fillies. Thus far he’s been impressed with a number of New York-sired fillies. “I’ve got a couple by Muscle Mass, a Credit Winner and a Chapter Seven that I like. It’s Muscle Mass’s first crop in New York,” Kelley said.

Outside the Empire State, Kelley has a Muscle Hill filly out of Quick Credit that he spoke highly of, along with an Explosive Matter half-sister to the accomplished Crazy About Pat.

Kelley is a trainer that is well aware of the current “Beard” issues the sport is dealing with. He took exception to our solution to the problem.

“I’m concerned about retribution,” Kelley said in regard to actual trainers speaking out against “Beards.”

Kelley’s concerns are legitimate and it’s understandable that anyone with a successful stable would be careful not to risk it all and be willing to let the saga play out through conventional means. In other words, have racing commissions investigate.

My feeling is that there are a lot more Paul Kelley’s out there than there are “Beards” and only when the majority speak up for the profession will things truly change. We can wait for Racing Commissions to find the rules and the courts to weed out the problem in the next 10 years or have the majority of hard-working horsemen figure it out in the next 10 minutes.