Saturday, October 15, 2011

Could Rahystrada climb to Canadian International glory?

Rahystrada has always been a game horse. But the stakes of the game have changed as the chestnut matured from hard-knocking gelding to a graded stakes specialist. The unlikely hero, now aged seven, will be big-game hunting in Sunday’s $1.5 million Pattison Canadian International, at Woodbine.

Rahystrada with Assistant Trainer Byron Hughes Jr.

He broke his maiden by a nose in his first lifetime start at Ellis Park on July 29, 2006, and through the next 20 starts of his career, up until he won an allowance race at Keeneland on October 24, 2009, proved to be a very consistent fellow, having won seven races all told, in the optional claiming ranks.

In the midst of that good string of allowance races, Rahystrada changed hands. As a four-year-old, the son of Rahy-Ministrada moved from trainer Frank Brothers to current conditioner Byron Hughes. Towards the end of that string, the horse was sold by former owner James Carrion to Robert Courtney. It was a homecoming of sorts as Rahystrada was foaled and raised on Courtney’s Crestfield Farm.

There’s nothing wrong with being a good AOC horse, but things changed for Rahystrada approaching the 2009 edition of the River City Handicap.

“‘Rahy’ was a decent claiming fifty or allowance horse but he’d never shown top horse ability,” explains Byron Hughes Jr., assistant trainer to his namesake father, from Rahystrada’s temporary residence at Barn 15 on the Woodbine backstretch.“They (The Carrion Estate) offered him to Robert (Courtney), and he talked to my dad, and my dad said he’s worth it.”

Boy, was he ever worth it.

“We bought him and the next race he won a claiming fifty and he won real impressive, won it easy,” recalls Hughes Jr. “Robert asked the guy if he still wanted to sell him and he said, ‘a deals a deal’…then he won an allowance at Keeneland at 15-1 and then he won the River City when he was 55-1.”

Rahystrada wins the 2009 River City Handicap

That River City win appears to be the tipping point for Rahystrada.

It’s a race that Woodbine patrons might recall, as the horse that Rahystrada beat to the wire that afternoon at Churchill Downs was none other than Rahy’s Attorney - - oddly enough, the now-retired Rahy’s Attorney was once stalled in the very barn that Rahystrada currently occupies.

“He had a real good trip up the rail that day and ever since he’s been firing real good,” understates Hughes.

The added-money results kept coming. Up next, a respectable third in the Tampa Bay stakes behind Karelian and Gio Ponti. An allowance win later, Rahystrada would finish third, defeated less than two lengths in the Grade 2 Dixie at Pimlico. A win in the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap propelled Rahystrada to a fourth-place effort in the Grade 1 Arlington Million, three lengths behind a victorious Debussy.

Hughes Jr attributes the turn in form to a significant change in Rahystrada’s daily routine that sees the horse boarding at the Thoroughbred Center, located 20 minutes outside of Keeneland.

“He trains in a field five days a week and the only time he ever goes to the track is when he breezes on a Saturday,” explains Hughes Jr. “He likes to go on the up-and-down gallop on the back of the training centre where we are. He loves it out there. He just loves it. It’s all grass up and down hills.”

He could win by a neck...

The hills have added significant stamina to Rahystrada’s repertoire. Just like Rahy’s Attorney, the horse he defeated in the River City in 2009, Rahystrada has a high-cruising speed and prefers to be forwardly placed.

“When he gets shuffled back, he’s not going to win,” says Hughes Jr. “He’ll still fire. He always has that fire. He has a small burst of speed but he can outlast everybody.”

A change of scenery seems to have suited Rahystrada just fine and the fitness he gains while climbing Kentucky’s rolling hills is paying off in significant graded victories. Through five starts in 2011, Rahystrada has earned in excess of $460,000 with victories in the $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup and the Grade 3 Kentucky Turf Cup.

Rahystrada wins the 2011 Colonial Turf Cup

Despite the recent big-money scores, Rahystrada is listed at 12-1 in the morning line for the Canadian International, and the odds might climb higher, should sceptical handicappers point to a recent fifth-place effort, over yielding ground, in the Arlington Million as a sign that Rahystrada wants firmer going than a rain-soaked Woodbine lawn might offer.

Rahystrada wins the Grade 3 Kentucky Turf Cup

But the younger Hughes says the bluegrass-covered hills tell a different story.

“Rahy’s up those hills every day,” he says, eyes widening. “He jumps around and plays. Especially when it’s soft. He loves it soft…this should be good for him, he loves it.”

A closer look at the Arlington Million reveals that the gelding didn’t get the best of trips that day, when shuffled back behind horses, and still managed to close within four lengths of Cape Blanco. That winner came back to win the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic by a nose over Dean’s Kitten, the third-place finisher in the Arlington Million.

A difficult Arlington Million trip for Rahystrada

Just how key a race is the Arlington Million?

The second-place finisher, Gio Ponti, won the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in his next start, and the Arlington Million’s Fourth-place finisher Wigmore Hall traveled to Woodbine and won the Grade 1 Northern Dancer.

It stands to reason that this game old warrior, who has made waves this year on undulating courses at Colonial and Kentucky Downs, might find the European-style E.P Taylor Turf Course just to his liking on Sunday.

The addition of jockey Julien Leparoux, who captured the Woodbine Mile with Turallure earlier this meet, should be a huge plus.

“We felt in these big races we should get the best rider we can get and Julien is proven,” says Hughes Jr. “He won the Woodbine Mile up here already. He fits the horse well. He’s not aggressive and ‘Rahy’ likes someone sitting quiet on him.”

Ultimately, it will be up to Rahystrada to fire on Sunday. His Kentucky Cup score proved he has the stamina to get the distance and his Arlington Million points to his abundant class.

But, even those close to the horse will watch with an incredulous expression should the seven-year-old find the wire first on Sunday.

“He surprises me every time he runs, especially this year,” smiles Hughes Jr. “It’s a shocker, it baffles me how he has come from ‘claiming $50,000’ to where he is now…to be nearly a million dollar horse. You just don’t see that. I’ve never been around a horse like this before.”


You can follow assistant trainer Byron Hughes on Twitter at @CamelManHughes.

Why CamelMan?

“In high school I got the nickname Camel,” starts Hughes Jr sheepishly. “We had a school uniform and one day I went to school with khaki shirt, khaki pants…corduroys, a khaki-coloured jacket and brown, khaki-coloured shoes on.”

Rahystrada snorts in the background as Hughes completes the story.

“One of my buddies said I looked like a camel and it stuck ever since. I don’t know why it stuck. It was just one day…” he trails off.

Perhaps we'll get to see the return of that sandy ensemble should Rahystrada make it to the winner's enclosure on Sunday!

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