08/16/2014 10:31AM

The unconventional Hardest Core ready for Million

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Brianne Slater was doing up Hardest Core’s legs about 9 a.m. Friday in a corner stall of the Tom Proctor barn at Arlington. Slater pointed to the adjacent stall.

“His rider is right there,” Slater said, pointing to Jody Petty, who smiled and introduced Keith Cooper, the van man who had driven Hardest Core to Arlington on Wednesday.

Hardest Core, Cooper, Slater, and Petty drove through the night from Maryland, arriving here near dawn Thursday. Hardest Core was bedded down and settled in, and after a couple hours, the decision was made to take Hardest Core to the track for a bit of exercise.

“Why not let him stretch his legs, come back, and relax in his stall?” said Petty. “Which is what he did.”

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Most Arlington Million shippers fly to Chicago. It’s rarer still that a ship-in would get here in the morning and train the same day. But there’s little conventional about Hardest Core.

Promising 3-year-olds rarely come up for sale at auction, but the partnership that owned Hardest Core last year put him in Keeneland’s November sale, where Greg Bentley bought him mainly as a steeplechase prospect for $210,000. He gifted the horse to his son, Andrew, and turned Hardest Core over to trainer Eddie Graham, a former steeplechase rider and mainly a trainer of jumping horses.

The first thing Hardest Core did for his new connections was nearly die when his castration shortly after the sale went wrong. But Hardest Core bounced back and by early this year was in light training for Graham, who is based at a little farm near Unionville, Pa., where he jogs his horses on roads and gallops them up and down hills. When a horse needs a work, they board a van and drive to Joy Slater’s Fat Chance Farm to breeze.

“It’s really just a mowed strip of grass they work over,” said Petty, who rides many of the work horses. There’s no official clocker at Fat Chance, no stopwatches clicking off splits. “I always say, ‘Tell them we went from the tree to the bush in 53,’ ” Petty said.

The jump-racing game knows Petty’s name well: He still race-rides and has been a steeplechase champion jockey. He rode the great McDynamo to three of his five wins in the Breeders’ Cup Grand National for trainer Sanna Hendricks. His name also should ring a bell for flat-racing folks, since Petty was the regular exercise rider for Animal Kingdom before the colt won the Kentucky Derby. It was Keith Cooper who drove him to Kentucky for the race.

Petty started riding Hardest Core in late winter, after Graham had gotten him sufficiently fit for more strenuous gallops, and it was love at first ride for Petty, who knows the feel of a good horse.

“He just gives you an amazing feeling,” he said. “You don’t get that feeling very often.”

Petty, of course, wants Hardest Core to do well in the Million. At the same time, he casts an eye toward the future: Hardest Core eventually will start running in steeplechase races. Petty already has started schooling him over short obstacles at the farm. Presumably, he will ride him in races when Hardest Core makes the transition.

For now, Hardest Core’s jockey is the Parx Racing-based Eriluis Vaz, a 100-1 shot to pick up a Million mount. Vaz was aboard for Hardest Core’s two impressive wins this year. He has ridden 5,000 races, two of which were graded stakes. But he has won all three of his rides for Graham, who was not about to switch to a bigger-name rider.

That would go against the grain of this mom-and-pop operation. Just as Petty started talking about Hardest Core at Proctor’s barn Friday, three more human connections walked around the corner. Rusty Carrier is a former steeplechase rider and trainer. He discovered Hardest Core in the Keeneland catalogue and has an ownership stake in the gelding.

Accompanying Carrier were Andrew Bentley, the owner, and his mother, Caroline Bentley. Andrew Bentley has Down syndrome. He also has poise and manners to match those of Hardest Core, a gentle giant of a horse. Bentley loves Hardest Core. He has a speech ready if Hardest Core should spring an upset Saturday, and even in a race like the Million, Bentley will apply his mantra for watching his family’s horses race:  Get excited, don’t get nervous. Indeed, a journey this unlikely should only be enjoyed.