02/11/2015 12:55PM

Hovdey: Finnegans Wake finds his stride and a home

Benoit Photo
Finnegans Wake's victory in the San Marcos was his third straight.

The best grass horse in California is a beefy bay son of Powerscourt with a small white tornado between his eyes and two hind stockings. He was named by his breeder and co-owner, Jerry Crawford, for an incomprehensible Irish novel that is widely praised but rarely read, and his success has been a head-shaking surprise to the folks back at the farm who first saw him stand and nurse on legs that were less than perfect.

On Tuesday morning, Finnegans Wake was hooked to the back of his stall in Peter Miller’s barn, posing quietly in a pair of royal blue ice boots strapped to his forelimbs. His trainer, off to one side, was asked to pick his horse apart.

“Leg-wise, he is a little crooked, a little offset at the knee,” Miller said. “He’s got kind of a paddle to his action. He’s quite sound, though – knock wood – and his body is great, with a great shoulder and a great hip. On top of that, he’s all heart.”

As if on cue, the object of Miller’s admiration responded to a nose rub with an attempt to bite his trainer. He missed, but not by much.

“He’s just started doing that, taking a nip at us, wanting to play,” Miller said with a grin. “But let’s face it, when they win, they get more love from their people, telling him what a wonderful horse he is. It’s human nature for us to act that way, and he’s really enjoying himself.”

He is not alone. The victory by Finnegans Wake last Saturday in the Grade 2 San Marcos was his third straight in five starts out West for Miller and owners Gary Hartunian of Rockingham Ranch and Crawford’s Donegal Stable, dating back to a second-place finish in the 2014 running of the John Henry Turf Championship. Prior to the San Marcos, Finnegans Wake won the San Gabriel in January and the Hollywood Turf Cup in December at Del Mar. His only poor West Coast effort was a 10th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, as long as “poor” is defined as being beaten about five lengths by Main Sequence and Flintshire.

Three out of five sounds a lot better than three wins from 22 tries, which is the record Finnegans Wake brought to California from the Midwest, where he won more than $600,000 under Dale Romans. Miller scoffed at the idea of a miracle turnaround.

“Trainers love to brag about what they did to make a difference,” he said. “We didn’t do anything special. I mean, Dale’s a great trainer. He’s won way more races than me. And basically, we’re all doing the same thing anyway. It’s not like some of us feed bananas instead of grain. They all get hay. They’re all on either straw or shavings. They live in a box and train six days a week.

“But winning begets winning, too,” Miller added. “A horse starts winning, they like it. At least I sense that, but that could be me and not him. He does seem to be more like, ‘I’m the guy now.’ Just the other day when we took him to the gate, he went to turn around and got up on his hind legs, he was feeling so good. First time he ever did that.”

Three straight wins at the Grade 2 level these days separate any horse from the pack. At age 6, it is even possible that Finnegans Wake is coming into his prime, after starting out life running in dirt races like the Gotham Stakes and the Louisiana Derby before grass became his game.

“When it comes down to it,” Miller said, “I think the horse really likes being here.”

“Here” is the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, a 500-stall facility owned by Santa Anita Park that hums along in splendid North San Diego County isolation, four miles from the nearest interstate and some 10 miles from the closest town of any size. For an older horse like Finnegans Wake, it might be the atmosphere he’s longed for.

“Clean air, quiet living,” Miller said. “No loud speakers going 24-7 and trucks driving by all the time. He’s really been relaxed – that can make a difference. And then perhaps the competition’s been a little bit easier out here.”

He’s got a point. In a previous life, Finnegans Wake found himself in the gate with such monsters as Wise Dan, Game On Dude, Will Take Charge, Magician, and Point of Entry. And, truth be told, calling a horse the best going a distance on turf in California, at least in recent years, is like finding the smartest cow in a small herd. It has been a while since runners like Meteor Storm, The Tin Man, and Johar have emerged from the Santa Anita winter events to make a mark on the national stage.

Which is why Miller is inclined to recommend a conservative route, at least for now, for Finnegans Wake. The San Luis Rey Stakes looms next month, then the Whittingham Memorial in May. After that, if the horse is still on a roll, it would be hard to resist another crack at the Arlington Million, a race in which Finnegans Wake finished fifth in 2014 and fourth the year before.

Besides, he’s a California horse now, and California horses used to win the Arlington Million all the time.