08/01/2014 4:18PM

Plenty of racing history behind Heitai's rise

Coady Photography
Louisiana-bred sprint star Heitai has won six stakes so far in 2014.

On an August night in 2000, the racing world was focused on the old Evangeline Downs in Carencro, La. Hallowed Dreams was attempting to win her 17th consecutive race in the track’s $36,000 Millennium Stakes and break a tie for the longest modern win streak in North America.

At the time, the undefeated filly shared the then-mark of 16 straight wins with Cigar, Citation, and Mister Frisky. She had built her streak in her home state of Louisiana, winning stakes at each of its tracks by margins of up to 10 lengths. Hallowed Dreams looked like a lock in the Millennium.

But on that summer night, the streak would come to an end when she finished third to Sparkles of Luck, whose place in Louisiana racing history is still going strong on account of the recent success of the late mare’s son, Heitai. He’s won six stakes this year, using the speed he inherited from his mom. It was Sparkles of Luck who dared duel with Hallowed Dreams in their matchup before going on to a two-length stunner that night at Evangeline.

“We really couldn’t believe it, and nobody else could either,” said Frank Rowell, the 81-year-old Texan who raced Sparkles of Luck and bred and owns Heitai. “She beat Hallowed Dreams when nobody in America could beat Hallowed Dreams. Hallowed Dreams is probably the best sprinter that ever came out of Louisiana.”

Heitai is now sparking some of the same kind of talk. He popped the second 106 Beyer Speed Figure of his career in March, when he captured the $96,000 Duncan F. Kenner Stakes at Fair Grounds. And with his most recent start – a June win in the inaugural $300,000 Evangeline Downs Turf Sprint at the track’s new facility in Opelousas – he’s made Rowell, his wife, Barbara, and their trainer, Karl Broberg, start to at least think about the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Frank Rowell said on a recent afternoon from his home near Houston. “We could stay in Louisiana and stay with our folks, and I’d be proud to do that, and I’d be just as proud to go to Santa Anita and show a Louisiana horse can do it.”

Heitai is part of a sensational group of present-day Louisiana-breds. Their ranks include Vicar’s in Trouble, the Louisiana Derby winner set to run Saturday in the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby; Sunbean, who has dominated the division left vacant by the all-time richest Louisiana-bred, Star Guitar; and Ide Be Cool, String King, and Designer Legs, who are all headlining Louisiana Cup Day stakes Saturday at Louisiana Downs.

Heitai, who is getting some turnout time in Louisiana, is by Fusaichi Pegasus, the Kentucky Derby winner in 2000. His name translated from Japanese means “soldier,” and it reflects Rowell’s early life, when he served in the Korean War as a member of the U.S. Army. Rowell spent time living in Japan, where he learned the meaning of the word heitai, pronounced “hay-tie.”

“Sometimes people used the word when they were talking about a sailor. They could call them heitais,” he said. “But generally speaking, it’s referring to a soldier. That’s my perception of it. I lived in Dallas for a while and named horses after streets in Dallas. They never ran.”

Heitai was raised on a small farm between Opelousas and Lafayette, La., where the Rowells lived up until a few years ago. The star of their one-horse racing stable was just a first-level Louisiana-bred allowance winner at this time last year, but he has taken his game to a whole new level since last fall.

“It’s been an amazing run,” said Broberg, whose first start with the horse came Nov. 1. “I remember when [Rowell] first called to ask me if I’d be willing to [train] the horse. I thought he was way too proud of him, and he would be very disappointed. I could not have been more wrong.”

Heitai has gone 8 for 10 with Broberg, starting with an 18 3/4-length allowance romp at Delta Downs in his first start for the barn. The horse has since won the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Sprint, the $60,000 Costa Rising, and the Kenner, all at Fair Grounds; the $100,000 Premier Night Sprint in track-record time at Delta; and the $60,000 Need for Speed, $100,000 Louisiana Legends Sprint, and the Turf Sprint at Evangeline. Heitai has recorded five triple-digit Beyers during the span.

“He’s freakishly fast,” Broberg said. “And if he’s left alone on the lead, he’s really tough to beat.”

Rowell said a change in tactics has been a boon for Heitai, as the plan now is to let him run his race rather than attempt to harness his speed. The results speak for themselves, with the horse’s front-running wins coming on both dirt and turf, where he is 2 for 2.

“I’m still not sure whether he’s better on the turf or better on the dirt,” Rowell said.

Rowell said he and his wife got into racing in the early 1990s at the behest of a close friend, who invited them to purchase a piece of a horse who ended up winning a couple of races in Louisiana.

“We got hooked,” Rowell said.

The Rowells moved to buy more horses. Sparkles of Luck not only provided the couple with a memorable moment in the Millennium, but she also defeated another Louisiana kingpin, Sarah Lane’s Oates, in the $100,000 Red Camelia at Fair Grounds in 2001. Sparkles of Luck was 44-1.

“Things can happen during a race, and [other horses] blocked Sarah Lane’s Oates in, no question about it,” Rowell sad. “When she got loose, she was coming at us like we were tied to a post. I was sitting there praying for the finish line.”

Sparkles of Luck won by a nose. She was retired to the breeding shed after two more starts and produced the stakes winner Muffin, by Smart Strike, for the Rowells. Heitai arrived in 2010. (The Rowells later sold Sparkles of Luck, who died this year following the birth of a D’wildcat filly, Rowell said.) Other good runners for the couple have included Fuse It, a seven-time stakes winner who earned more than $500,000 during the early 2000s.

These days, the Rowells have a total of three horses: a yearling, a sidelined 3-year-old, and a soldier on the cusp of perhaps greater things in Heitai.