"He looked like a Hank Williams song," exclaimed Todd Phillips, when asked recently how the 2007 Arlington Million winner Jamablaya got his name.
Catherine Day Phillips with Arlington Million winner Jambalaya
Phillips purchased the horse for just $2500 in partnership with his wife, trainer Catherine Day Phillips, at the 2003 September Keeneland yearling sale for Kingfield Farms.
“He had these great big knees and ankles and feet," remembered the Woodbine-based conditioner fondly. "A big awkward puppy but he had this great walk to him.”
As the 'awkward puppy' grew into a racehorse, his life would mirror the peaks and valleys of the racing game with multiple stakes wins before suffering a cannon bone bruise that led to a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get the big gelding back to the track.
No doubt Hank Williams could fill several albums worth of highs and heartaches with material drawn from Jambalaya's journey.
Day Phillips lauched her career as a trainer in 1994, with the encouragement of her maternal grandmother, Janet Burns, who owned Kingfield Farms.
A curious bystander to the Kingfield logo
A competitive equestrian as a youth, the trainer grew up around the racing game.
Day Phillips’ late mother, Dinny Day, trained multiple Stakes winner Pax Nobiscum who won the 1983 edition of the Grade 3 Ohio Derby.
Day Phillips’ father James E. Day, a gold medal winner in the team equestrian event at the 1968 Olympic Games, conditioned the finest thoroughbreds in the country for Sam-Son Farms from 1978 through 1994.
As a teenager, Day Phillips galloped horses for her father working in the company of such well-remembered horses as Blue Finn, In My Cap, Regal Classic and Regal Intention.
Day Phillips stable blossomed from just four horses in 1995 into a winning operation over a few short years. However, the savvy conditioner soon realized that in order to compete at the top level she would have to become more involved at the higher end of the yearling sales.
“If we had $20,000 to spend, the horses we wanted went for $30,000 to $40,000,” stated Day Phillips. “We formed a syndicate named the Two Bit Racing Stable and from that we bought A Bit O’ Gold for $60,000.”
In 2004, A Bit O’ Gold would capture two-thirds of the Canadian Triple Crown. A year later, the gelding would run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park. The horse won Sovereign Awards for Champion Male Three-Year Old and in 2005 was Canada’s Horse of the Year and Champion Male Turf Horse.
Day Phillips' Dixie Chicken is hoping to scratch out a few wins
And yet, it wasn’t always about spending the most money. The 2003 September Keeneland yearling sale purchase of Jambalaya for just $2500 was a coup. Albeit, one that nearly didn’t happen.
“We went to see Jambalaya and he looked just like a big kid,” laughed Day Phillips.
Jambalaya's movement was a feature that caught her eye immediately.
“The most important thing I look for is how a horse moves,” explained Day Phillips. “How they walk is important and hopefully their legs are correct enough and their pedigree decent enough that it all comes together.”
There was a lot to like about Jambalaya. He was Canadian bred and related to Heat It Up - a mare Day Phillips had success with. There was one more key element.
“He was by Langfuhr and nobody at the time was interested in Langfuhr," commented Day Phillips. "He had a lot of runners but he wasn’t very commercial but I thought he was a solid sire.”
In the rush of the sales experience, the husband and wife team neglected to have a vet look over the youngster and were faced with an impossible decision when the horse entered the sales ring.
“There was this book detailing the horse’s history,” smiled Phillips. “Usually, you hope that there’s nothing in it, but we looked at Jambalaya’s page with the consignor and the whole page was full. I wasn’t quite as savvy then as to what this report said as I would be now.”
This Elvis impersonator fits in well with a stable home to musically monikered horses such as Van Lear Rose and Dr Funkenstein
Frantic, the pair stalled during the bidding and the horse was picked up by trainer Mark Casse.
“So Jambalaya walks in the ring and nobody bids on the horse,” stated Day Phillips. “Mark (Casse) puts his hand up and down goes the hammer. He was the only bid on the horse.”
“We were dumbfounded by what had happened," exclaimed Day Phillips. "Mark hadn’t seen him till he walked by but the horse was good enough looking that he was worth taking a chance on for $2500. Mark said, ‘he’s worth a shot if you want him he’s yours. If not, I’ll take him’.”
Casse's kind offer gave Day Phillips and her husband a shot at a horse they now treat like family.
“So, we took him and both of us were convinced his legs were going to fall off the minute we turned him loose,” laughed Day Phillips. “But, obviously he worked out fine.”
That would be an understatement. Despite racing just once as a two-year-old and some less than stellar dirt starts, Jambalaya blossomed with a switch to turf winning the Breeders' Stakes by eight lenghts.
With important wins in the Saranac Handicap and the Pan American Handicap, Jambalaya became a respected force on the turf.
Jambalaya reached his peak in the 2007 Arlington Million and in victory Day Phillips became the first female trainer to ever win the race.
Me-oh My-oh, it doesn't get much higher than that.
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But soon after that victory, the heartache began.
On September 17, 2007, a report on Day Phillips website advised that Jambalaya was diagnosed with an acute bone bruise at the end of his off fore cannon bone necessitating full stall rest.
Subsequent updates on the website detailed the road to recovery.
April 13, 2008 - "While the Arlington Million winner has healed radiographically, we still have a long road ahead of us. The handsome bay gelding is just jogging at this point, but all is going well. We are hoping to have him back mid to late summer."
September 29, 2008 - "We are happy to report that Jambalaya is training well. He is galloping daily at Woodbine Racetrack. He looks super and he is in a great frame of mind. We were sidelined early this summer when it appeared that he pulled a gluteal muscle in his backend. He seems to have put that behind him, and he has been back galloping regularly since mid August. We aim to start breezing him in the next 2 to 3 weeks. We hope to have him back to the races for a winter campaign at Gulfstream."
January 26, 2009 - "Jambalaya, breezed a solid 5/8ths at Gulfstream Park in company. Jambalaya, reunited with Javier Castellano, posted fractions of 24.1, 36.3, 101.2 galloping out in 115.2, and up in 129.2."
Finally, after the long layoff, Jambalaya returned this past September to score a two-length victory at Woodbine.
No doubt, the Kingfield team breathed a sigh of relief as the dappled gelding came out of the race in top order.
Most recently Jambalaya was boxed in on the rail, full of run, scampering to a fifth-place finish in the Red Smith Handicap at Aqueduct.
It's worth taking a look back at the excitement of the Arlington Million victory.
"It was so cool to have been there" recalls Day Phillips of her time at the 2007 Arlington Million. "Even walking over there was an experience to remember. All the great horses he ran against and the owner and trainers we were up against. To go there with our little horse that we brought there on our trailer, it was the ultimate feel good story."
Who wears Short Shorts? Another neatly named nag under Day Phillips care poses with her teddy bear
The Tin Man was the 2-1 choice over Bowling Green winner Sunriver. Irish shipper Danak and the well-travelled Doctor Dino made for an impressive field.
Sunriver set very slow fractions of 26.34, 50.88, and 1:16.15 while being stalked by The Tin Man and Jambalaya. Sunriver held the lead into the stretch, but jockey Victor Espinoza tipped The Tin Man wide gaining the lead with 3/16 to go.
However Robby Albarado and Jambalaya, who had been boxed in early in the stretch, found an opening at the 1/8 pole and launched a furious late run.
"During the course of the race, I was thinking, it looks like we could be third," smiled Day Phillips. "And then he a nice little burst and I thought 'oh my gosh, we’re going to win it.' It was so amazing."
Jambalaya tracked down The Tin Man to score a 3/4 length in a time of 2:04.76. Doctor Dino got up for third, while Sunriver and Stream Cat dead-heated in fourth spot.
Jambalaya jinking jog to victory in the Arlington Million
Whether or not Jambalaya has another million-dollar miracle left in his legs remains to be seen. Day Phillips and her racing family are along for the ride wherever it takes them and no doubt it will be a rollercoaster of a journey.
"Forget about writing a story on Jambalaya," laughed Day Phillips. "Someone needs to write the book."