Snow was falling on Woodbine Tuesday last as I ventured around the backstretch to catch up with some returning friends. Paramount to my visit was a stop at Audre Cappuccitti's barn, which is home to the speedy Essence Hit Man. Entering the barn, a familiar figure raised his head and then laughed.
"Come! Come and see how he has grown up," said Earl Marriott with a wide smile. "This year he will go two turns no problem."
Essence Hit Man and his best pal Errol
The Hit Man's groom is well pleased with how his best horse has grown up over the winter months. Indeed, there is a presence to the animal and an intelligence as he interacts with his keeper. Marriott was one of three grooms honoured at the conclusion of the 2010 meet by the HBPA during Backstretch Appreciation Day for the special attention they offer the equine athletes under their care.
His trainer is equally pleased with the now four-year-old Essence Hit Man.
"Danny Vella (Woodbine trainer) saw him and said 'oh, he grew up. He's not a boy anymore he's a man now'," said Cappuccitti. "He has grown up. Not that he is a big horse, but he has grown into himself."
Essence Hit Man made a name for himself winning three stakes at Woodbine last season including the Woodstock, Queenston and Achievement. As well, the son of Speightstown finished third in both the Marine and the King Corrie. However, it was his blazing performance in the G2 Amsterdam at Saratoga where he finished second to Discreetly Mine that resonates.
Essence Hit Man and his main man Errol...one year ago
"I thought it was a great race. He was way ahead of a lot of nice horses," recalls Cappuccitti. "We cut all the fractions and it was phenomenal."
Sent to post at odds of 8-1 that day, Essence Hit Man bolted out of the gate and zipped a 21.45 quarter and a 44.07 half in style. Although Discreetly Mine would swoop to finish the fractions with a swift 1:14.27 final time for six and a half furlongs, the Hit Man ran through the wire second.
Through rain and snow and sleet and ice...
"When I came back home, the trainers here were saying to me 'did you hear what they said about Audre's horse on the TV? That this little horse from Canada really had his work to do'," laughed Cappuccitti. "When they opened the gate and he started hitting fractions, well, I guess they won't say that again about a horse they don't know. Of course, Discreetly Mine came along and ran on by, but we were still well ahead of the rest of the field, and the rest of that field was nice horses. I was just thrilled with how he ran."
The famous Cappuccitti colours
Although Essence Hit Man will start his campaign in a likely spot, there are a few notable changes as the speedster tries to re-invent himself in 2011.
"I nominated him for the Jacques Cartier so that's where you'll see him first," said Cappuccitti. The Cartier is a six furlong sprint for four year-olds and up and was won in 2010 by recent Sovereign Award winner Hollywood Hit, who is also back at Woodbine.
With Essence Hit Man's regular jockey, Chantal Sutherland, plying her trade on the west coast, Cappuccitti has reached out to Patrick Husbands to handle the riding duties.
"Iím going to try and see if Patrick can just rate him a little," said Cappuccitti. "He's very sharp out of the gate, as you know, so if he can just try to control a little bit of that energy."
Harnessing some of that natural speed is key to Essence Hit Man's season.
"I was looking at the sheets and he'll be finished again in the summer (if restricted to sprints)," said Cappuccitti. "Last year there was nothing for him. I ran him against older horses like Hollywood Hit. I ran him a longer distance and he couldn't do it because he's so quick getting out...so if we can just stretch him out there will be a lot more spots for him."
The pursuit of opportunities to earn a little more green may even see the chestnut return to the green.
"I really want to try him back on turf," said Cappuccitti. "His mother (El Prado Essence) didn't like it but I want to try one more time."
Essence Hit Man finished seventh on the turf as a two-year-old in a race won by Stormy Lord. His mother, a daughter of El Prado (IRE) won 10 of 34 lifetime starts winning the Seaway and the George C Hendrie Handicap (twice) for a bankroll of nearly $900K. Cappuccitti is fond of her star broodmare.
"Essence is a big help to us," said Cappuccitti. "They came from Kentucky twice to buy her when she was running and I took them over to her stall and they would say 'look how small she is...or she's a little bit off on one knee'. They would always find something wrong with her but she has been great."
I can't decide which side is his good side
There is certainly a fondness that still shines between the trainer and her former protege.
"She's on this wall many times," said Cappuccitti, gesturing at an office wall covered with framed win photos. "She's like a cat. She doesn't mix with the other horses. Even here in the stall, she wasn't one to come over for a pet or look for mints. She was really just all to herself. She's a bit anti-social and just likes to be by herself."
Audre's Wall of Fame
Perhaps that desire to be alone was passed along to her bold son who is in such a hurry to separate himself from his fellow competitors once the gate opens. Even in training, horse has an edge. Having spent a winter at Classic Mile, Essence Hit Man returned to the Woodbine poly on March 29th and sped through a five furlong work in 59.60, third best of 31 works on the day.
"He worked good," understated Cappuccitti. "It was his first five eighths. I had to use my own guy as Patrick wasn't back yet. and I said to him I wanted a real slow work and he went five eights in 59."
The conditioner just laughs at my suggestion that old habits die hard.
"It is going be tough to change, but maybe this year he will be a little more settled," said Cappuccitti.
Cappuccitti, who won her first race in 1996, is happily settled into her own Woodbine routine.
"It's a tough game and you've got to love the horses to stay in it. That's for sure," smiles Cappuccitti. "My friends say, 'how can you do this every day with no days off!'They're going out at eight o'clock and I'm going to bed. But I love it!"
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You can see a previous Essence Hit Man photo essay by clicking here.
As an extra tidbit...while the barn is currently filled with stable veterans there are a few babies on their way to Cappuccitti's care that are currently wintering at Webb Carroll's.
"I don't know anything about them yet because they haven't breezed," said Cappuccitti cautiously. "I've got a Lemon Drop Kid filly, an Alphabet Soup and I've got a Discreet Cat colt I like."
That trio, purchased at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society 2010 Canadian-Bred Yearling Sale will race as Dolce Lemone, Deco Drive and Discreet Kid in 2011.
"Dolce Lemone means lemon ice in Italian," offered Cappuccitti with a twinkle.
Ice was an appropriate word for this day.
When my alarm went off sometime before 6AM, I jolted out of bed and was well on my way to Woodbine before I even had a second thought about what I was wearing. After all, it had been relatively warm all weekend. So, as I sauntered into Carolyn Costigan's barn mostly shivering in a spring jacket as snow flakes darted about. I suppose I earned my greeting.
"What are you doing in white running shoes on a day like this," laughed Costigan.
In fact, Cappuccitti's first words were, "you need a toque" after I strolled into her office dripping wet. Suffice to say, standing there drenched in a spring jacket and my shoes caked with mud I felt a bit stupid!
Welcome to spring time in Ontario. It's no wonder Chantal Sutherland decided to make a go of it in California.
Costigan wintered in sunny Palm Meadows and returned to Woodbine this spring with triple her previous numbers growing from six stalls to eighteen. With Mac Benson retiring from the training game, George Strawbridge has moved the Canadian portion of his Augustin Stables under her care and, of course, she will be supported by her parents Robert and Nora Costigan who have figured prominently in Canadian racing most recently with Oaks winning filly Roan Inish. The web-savvy Costigan discussed the upcoming season, along with a list of her new owners, in a recent news post.
One horse who caught my eye immediately is the attentive Carolyn's Best who surveyed his domain with confidence.
"Carolyn's Best is from out west," starts Costigan. "She's by Best of the Bests and is owned by Barry and Maggie McLeod who are from Calgary. They are lovely people and very involved with their filly. We talk all the time about how she is doing. We are pointing her toward some Ontario-sired races and hopefully we'll get the owners out for a couple races later on in the year."
Carolyn's Best has her eye on you
All this is imparted under the watchful eye of Carolyn's Best.
"She's a talented filly and she watches everything going on around her like she's been here before," says Costigan.
Given the conditioner-friendly spelling of her name, it is not a stretch to ask if she was named with special intent given that her mother is Classic Caroline.
"It's funny because I went out to visit the McLeods before they sent her to me," says Costigan. "I like to meet with clients before we sign on so they have the chance to meet me and ask questions about how I do things. It's an interview for both of us. But, the thing is, I had to laugh when I heard the name of the filly because she was named before they knew anything about me because she is a three year-old."
Conditioner Carolyn Costigan cracks a smile
Carolyn's Best has had some light training at Palm Meadows and she will race later on in the year. A little further forward is a Successful Appeal colt purchased by an Arravale Racing partnership last fall.
Successful Appeal was second in his debut...can his son go one better?
"The furthest along I have is My Bonny Boy," says Costigan. "He'll be among the very first two-year-old races of the year."
Successful Appeal was successful in sprints taking the G2 A.G Vanderbilt, the G2 Kentucky Cup Sprint and the G2 Amsterdam at a distance of six furlongs. However, he also stretched that speed to eight furlongs to win the G2 Withers and a third place finish in the G2 Dwyer at a mile and a sixteenth. Successful Appeal is the sire of J P's Gusto, who won four in a row in 2010 including the G1 Del Mar Futurity. Not to suggest My Bonny Boy is in that class just yet.
"He's very forward and has a lot of natural muscle to him," says Costigan. "He's very flashy looking. Successful Appeal can get you any type of horse. We're excited about him."
A sleepy Roan Inish woke up when she heard the voice of her groom, Bob
A pair of Arravale homebreds returning to action in 2011 are Oaks winner Roan Inish and Lisvernane who finished second in the Princess Elizabeth stakes last fall. Both are recovering from injury and will be in no rush to return to the races - - a degree of patience that is customary with this thorough trainer of thoroughbreds. Don't be surprised if both Roan Inish and Lisvernane make a splash later this summer at Woodbine.
Roan Inish shows her groom who the boss is!
And so ended a cold, wet, snowy, muddy and brilliant morning on the backstretch. And also the end of one pair of white running shoes.
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In case you missed it, Nick Kaklikos, an exercise rider at Woodbine, is City TV athlete of the week! There are a few familiar faces in the video shot at Ian Black's barn...to watch the video, click here.
As always, keep track of the latest goings on in the world of horse racing by clicking into TripleDeadHeat's Woodbine News page or join in on the conversation by following TripleDeadHeat on Twitter.