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Jay Bergman: Bargain buy He’s Watching has immense talent
As a racing fan, there is no better time of year than the summer. For most lovers of the breed, it offers us the best in 3-year-old racing.
The Meadowlands Pace just concluded, and the Hambletonian is less than three weeks away. The Standardbred sport also is in the midst of an explosion of talent in the aged pacing ranks, as Saturday’s awesome William Haughton Memorial final provided the thrills and drama that can only come when the best are matched against the best.
While fans rightfully focus on the stars of today, my favorite journey at this time of year has been to feverishly take an interest in the stars of tomorrow. Two-year-old racing has begun in earnest in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ontario. The Sire Stakes programs from the three states and one Canadian province generally provide a first glimpse of the next generation’s talent.
Since a majority of the sport’s top stallions reside in those four locales, it’s conceivable that the next great horse will emerge from one of these programs.
What’s always fascinating to me is the attention provided to many of the most expensive yearlings, especially during “baby races” at the Meadowlands. Those with six-figure spending habits are anxious to see just what they got for the big bucks.
Then there are those who will surprise us. They’ll surprise everyone.
Take He’s Watching, a colt no one noticed (he was a June foal and kind of small) when he sold through Steve Stewart’s Hunterdon Agency at Harrisburg last fall. Mind you, this was a horse bred and raised by Brittany Farms, a Kentucky nursery that is a giant in the industry. There should have been at least some fanfare when the New York-sired pacing colt entered the ring.
When the hammer struck down, Ontario’s Dave Menary picked up He’s Watching for just $3,000. That’s tip money to some of the sport’s heavy hitters, but on that afternoon in November, it was the price of entry.
“I usually try to spend a lot of time looking at pedigrees before the sale,” Menary said. “But it was a busy stakes season, and I just didn’t have the time to study.”
Instead, when Menary got to Harrisburg, he just stopped by the Hunterdon consignment and “asked them to show me everything,” Menary said. Though based in Ontario, Menary has looked for yearlings bred in New York and Pennsylvania over the years.
“We campaigned Tea Party Princess,” Menary said of the New York Sire Stakes 3-year-old pacing filly champion of 2011.
In He’s Watching, Menary bought a colt by American Ideal from the Real Desire mare Baberhood. The dam made only two starts on the racetrack in 2009, but she was a winner in 1:55 in one of those.
“I knew the mare,” Menary said. “Blair Burgess trained her, and I knew she had speed.”
What Baberhood also had was a distinct pedigree that includes the successful stallion Western Ideal, the sire of He’s Watching’s pop, American Ideal.
While few people were watching the colt at Harrisburg last fall, there’s a reasonable chance that every racing fan will want to see He’s Watching wherever he goes on the New York Sire Stakes circuit this year.
Anyone who has been fortunate enough to watch him in stakes events at Saratoga and Buffalo has to be amazed at his quickness and stamina. That’s because the colt has come from last in both New York Sire Stakes events and won.
Sure, coming from last and winning on a half-mile track is a rarity, and it’s more likely in early 2-year-old events, where horses can be mismatched.
That wasn’t the case in either of He’s Watching’s incredible performances.
At Saratoga on June 28, catch-driver Jim Morrill Jr. had his hands full when the field hit the first turn and He’s Watching made a break.
“That’s the first break he ever made,” said Menary, who claimed to be feeling a bit sick at the sight.
He’s Watching was nearly 15 lengths off at the quarter, and that was while trying to catch up to the field. The colt used a strong burst of speed down the backstretch to get into contention, and then just rolled by everyone, scoring in 1:55 over the half-mile track in his first pari-mutuel start.
“He’s for real,” Jim Morrill Jr. said of the colt the day after his Saratoga score.
Last Wednesday at Buffalo, He’s Watching drew post 7 in one Sire Stakes division, and once again, Morrill had to react quickly, with the colt taking several bad steps on the first turn. This time, he recovered in short order but was still at a major disadvantage when the quarter came up a soft 29 2/5 seconds and He’s Watching was at the back of the pack.
Then Morrill made a move with He’s Watching that has to be seen to be believed. He moved out from seventh entering the second turn and made a bull rush around that tight curve, nearly reaching the leader before the horses turned into the stretch. For a moment, he appeared to be moving so fast that he would have to make another break.
“I think the wheels of the bike came off the ground,” Menary said of how his colt handled the turn. “I thought he paced that eighth [of a mile] in 12 seconds!”
He’s Watching went on to capture the Sire Stakes event in 1:55 4/5, breaking Heston Blue Chip’s track mark.
The good news for New York-based harness fans is that they will have ample opportunity to witness He’s Watching in person or on simulcast throughout the stakes season.
“We might skip Monticello,” Menary said of the next stop on the circuit. But He’s Watching is likely to be at Tioga on Aug. 9, Yonkers on Aug. 22, and Vernon Downs on Aug. 31.
For now, Menary has a more pressing agenda for his potentially world-class bargain buy.
“I’ve got to qualify him,” he said. “They put him on the judges’ list for making two straight breaks. He’s the kind of colt that wants to go from second to fifth gear immediately. We’re going to have to school him a little.”
The trainer has another fine New York-bred juvenile colt in the homebred Major Trick. He captured a Sire Stakes leg at Buffalo in 1:57 3/5 after finishing second in the opening leg. He’s by Art Major.
Though Menary said that He’s Watching trained down among his better pacers all winter, he was not staked outside of New York as a juvenile. That could prove to be a major mistake or a blessing in disguise. Without the pressure of racing on the Grand Circuit, He’s Watching could prove that much better as a 3-year-old.
“With a $3,000 yearling, it’s pretty hard to dream that high,” Menary said of his decision not to aggressively stake the colt this year.
For Menary, the investment has already paid off since he was able to sell parts of his ownership share in the horse to longtime friend and owner Brad Gray and Michael Guerriero.
I’ll be watching He’s Watching. He’s worth watching.
So will we considering we bred sold and rebought his dam Baberhood in the January sale at the Meadowlands. There's a full brother on the ground and the mare will be one of the few to drop a Rocknroll Hanover next year.