10/28/2014 10:00AM

Farm-trained Hardest Core brings little-known trainer to big stage

Jim Dunleavy
Hardest Core and Jody Petty head out to the field where they will begin their morning exercise.

Hardest Core’s out-of-the-blue win in the Arlington Million was the feel-good story of the summer. A little-known horse – owned, trained, and ridden by obscure connections – takes on the big guys and wins a $1 million race, defeating the reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf champ, Magician, fair and square.

Now things get a bit sticky. Hardest Core is preparing for an even greater challenge, the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf. Was the Million a fluke, or is Hardest Core for real?

The answer lies in rural Pennsylvania, where trainer Eddie Graham goes quietly about his business. Hours after the Million, Hardest Core was hauled by van back to Graham’s base. He has not raced since, disappearing from public view nearly as quickly as his Million stretch run put him front and center.

Graham trains Hardest Core on a drop-dead-gorgeous farm in the heart of Chester County horse country. Nearby property owners include Jonathan Sheppard, George Strawbridge Jr., and Michael Matz.

Graham and, for that matter, everyone associated with Hardest Core is from the steeplechase side of the Thoroughbred world. To them, preparing a horse to race off a farm that doesn’t have a track is the rule rather than the exception. It’s been done that way for generations.

“In steeplechase, everything is done on people’s farms and in their yards,” Graham, 43, said. “Everybody has different programs. Mine might be doing less with the horses than others. I try to make sure they have fun. I think they don’t have to gallop a mile and a half every day.”

Graham’s methods have been working, as his win percentage reflects. He was 2 for 4 in 2012 and 4 for 9 in 2013. This year, he has won with 8 of 13 starters. Thanks largely to Hardest Core, his purse earnings of $780,000 this year are more than what his horses earned from 2001-13.

Training a horse of Hardest Core’s quality is a terrific opportunity for Graham, who has just five other horses: Giant Shadow – who has won three straight races and is being pointed to the Long Island Handicap at Aqueduct – and four jumpers.

“There were lean times. I would get up at 4 and do up my horses, then go work for another trainer, and then come back and train mine,” Graham said. “I’ve struggled. Thought I might just have to call it quits. Leave my passion and love of training.”

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Graham is married to Wendi Starritt-Graham, who works in the Parx racing office and has a jockey-silks business. The Grahams have two sons, Mason, 7, and Chase, 6.

“My wife always backed me up 100 percent,” Graham said. “During the tough times, she’d just say, ‘Don’t worry about it, Eddie. You’ll get it done.’ ”

Graham’s father, Lester, was a steeplechase rider. Eddie used to get up and watch his father exercise horses before he went to school. Graham rode a bit, but he soon found that his true calling was to train.

Graham worked as an assistant for F. Bruce Miller for nine years. Two of those years coincided with Miller’s best horse, Lonesome Glory, a five-time Eclipse Award winner between 1992 and 1999 who set an earnings record that McDynamo eventually broke.

“After his assistant, Trish Daniels, passed away, Bruce took me under his wing and showed me his knowledge as a horseman,” Graham said.

The people surrounding Hardest Core have a history. You can trace much of it to Keeneland Race Course on April 24, 1998.

The sixth race that day was the inaugural Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings Hurdle. Its purse of $167,000 was the highest ever for a steeplechase race, and Princess Anne was on hand to present the trophy. The 21-1 winner was Clearance Code, owned by Gregory and Caroline Bentley, trained by Rusty Carrier, and ridden by Jody Petty. Eddie Graham was the exercise rider.

The Bentleys, along with their son, Andrew, and Carrier, now own Hardest Core. Petty, semi-retired from a remarkable riding career, exercises him.

Greg Bentley, 58, was assigned horse racing as a hobby by his wife in the mid-1990s. Bentley Systems, founded by five brothers, designs computer software for engineers. The business had taken off, but Greg was working too hard.

Caroline convinced him to get a horse or two. That their son, Andrew, who has Down syndrome, enjoys the races cinched the deal. Last January, the Bentleys furthered their commitment to the sport by purchasing the 550-acre main section of Runnymede Farm, where Hardest Core resides.

Carrier, 58, retired from training due to health issues in 2007 and lives in Virginia. When he retired, his horses went to Paul Rowland, his assistant. Rowland became ill with mesothelioma. Before he died, he told the Bentleys they should give their horses to Eddie Graham.

Graham is a serious fellow. Petty is quick with a joke. Assistant trainer Brianne Slater has known them both a long time.

Slater is a former assistant to Sanna Hendriks, the trainer of three-time Eclipse Award winner McDynamo, a five-time winner of the Grand National – formerly the Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase – at Far Hills, N.J.

Petty was the leading steeplechase rider by wins in 2005 and earnings in 2006. He guided McDynamo to three of those Grand National wins consecutively (2005-07).

Graham, Petty, and Slater speak the same language when it comes to horses. On a recent morning, Graham instructed Petty to give Hardest Core a gallop and do one of the hills on the farm. On another day, Hardest Core might be given a longer warm-up and do two hills. Graham laughs about the day he told Petty to take Hardest Core on a “happy” jog, to the amusement of Caroline Bentley.

“We know each other and how we like things done,” Graham said. “I rely heavily on Brianne and Jody’s feedback. I don’t make up a schedule for my horses. I don’t map out their gallops, walks, or works. I go day by day and talk to Jody. Brianne has the same opinions on horses as I do.”

It was Carrier who first spotted Hardest Core last year. “When I saw him, I said, ‘What is that?’ He had this big, beautiful stride, and I started following him.”

Carrier contacted the horse’s owners and asked if they would sell. The answer was no.

A few months later, Graham noticed Hardest Core cataloged in the Keeneland November sale and called Carrier with the news. Carrier contacted the Bentleys to see if they would be interested. They were, and Carrier and Graham headed to Lexington, Ky. The final price, $210,000, was a bit over budget, but they brought Hardest Core home.

“I’ve been friends with the Bentleys as much as anything,” Carrier said. “I’ve owned half of every horse I ever had for them. I put my money where my mouth is. But this one was a bit much. I put in $70,000.”

Carrier has bought more than a few horses in his day but admitted that his hand was shaking when he signed for Hardest Core at the sale.

“I wanted this horse more than anything,” he said.

Hardest Core, a son of Hard Spun, had a solid 3-year-old season in 2013, going 3 for 8 and earning $190,000 for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. McLaughlin would have liked to have kept him.

“We thought he was a very nice horse,” McLaughlin said. “He was part of Frank Stronach’s horse-racing league and had to sell at the end of his 3-year-old season. We were hoping the owners were going to buy him back, but he went for a lot of money.”

The Hardest Core story nearly ended tragically over the winter, when complications arose after Hardest Core was gelded, but he recovered and started into light training early this year. Hardest Core was purchased as a steeplechase prospect, but Graham knew he still had conditions and suggested the owners try him on the flat. Everyone agreed.

“I thought we should see if he had the gas in his tank to race on the flat,” Graham said. “If he didn’t, we could jump him.”

In his first start for Graham, Hardest Core won an optional-claiming race in June at Parx Racing, and before he won the Million, he took the $50,000 Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park going 1 1/2 miles in July. The jumping career was officially on hold.

But Hardest Core still trains like a steeplechaser, or a European flat racer. His days begin with a two-hour turnout in a large, wood-fenced paddock with his buddy, Rainbows for Luck, a 13-year-old retired jumper.

It is then exercise time. Hardest Core trains exclusively on turf at the farm. And rather than hanging left turns every quarter-mile or so over a flat surface, as racetrack-based horses must, he and Petty spend mornings cutting through open fields and traversing hills of varying slopes. When a timed breeze is required, Hardest Core is vanned 20 miles to the Fair Hill Training Center.

One technique Graham uses that also was a mainstay in Carrier’s training is the hill at nearby Fat Chance Farm. There is a pasture at the bottom of the hill, then a long rise that eventually levels off about halfway up. There is then a steep climb to the top.

“Not that it matters, but it measures about seven furlongs,” Carrier said. “We send them up twice, the first time easy, and the second time harder. The horses get a lot of wind work out of it. It’s not as hard on them as galloping on the flat. It opens up the pipes.”

Hardest Core knows the hill well, and his fitness for the Breeders’ Cup should not be a concern even though 11 weeks will have passed since his one-length victory in the Million. Hardest Core was tired after returning from Chicago, and Graham decided to train him straight to the Turf.

Hardest Core’s summer race schedule is remarkably similar to two of his top overseas adversaries. Magician has not raced since finishing second in the Aug. 16 Million, and Telescope’s last race was a third in the Juddmonte International on Aug. 20.

Aidan O’Brien trains Magician, and Michael Stoute trains Telescope. Those are legendary trainers with international reputations. Then there is Eddie Graham, with a handful of horses in Pennsylvania.

“This has been a dream year for me,” he said. “I’m living the dream.”

Graham’s dream will continue in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, which begins halfway up the turf hill at Santa Anita. That should make Hardest Core feel right at home.