Williamson, proprietor of Hillsbrook Farms, was born and raised in Georgia but found his way to Canada in 1967 - - the year his adopted country celebrated its 100th birthday.
Given Canada’s harsh winter climate, one might think Williamson was crazy to leave the warmth and sun of the ‘Peach State’, but he quickly explains the decision was simply nuts.
“I moved to Canada in ‘67 and started a nut business, all types of nuts,” says Williamson.
Williamson worked his way from the ground up in the peanuts game and quickly grew Trophy Foods into one of the most successful producers and distributors of foods in the country.
“I sold it and retired about three years ago,” says Williamson. “I have similar businesses in the States, but Trophy Foods is still the largest nut company in Canada today.”
While Williamson is modest about his business success, he comes out of his shell when the conversation switches to horse racing.
“I’ve always liked horses,” he says. “I grew up in Georgia as a kid many years ago and we never had horses but we always had animals. We had mules to plow the garden with…but if you grow up in the country, you had to have something that paid its way, and a horse just didn’t pay its way back then.”
Hard Not to Like, his gorgeous grey Oaks contender, is part of a family Williamson has proudly supported for a number of years.
The breeder raced Hard Not to Like’s dam, Like a Gem, with great success winning six of 18 lifetime starts including three added-money events. Like a Gem, also a grey, is out of Williamson’s mare It’s a Ruby (Rubiano-Likeashot) who hit the board twice in five lifetime starts.
Williamson speaks fondly of Like a Gem, who won the last three races of her career including a gutsy curtain-closer taking the mile and a quarter Maple Leaf Stakes on the engine.
“If you look at her first win, it was at five furlongs and she won up to a mile and a quarter,” he laughs. “We didn’t think there was any limitation on her distance. We thought she could go a mile and a half, we just never got her ready to go a mile and a half.”
That versatility seems to have been passed on to Hard Not to Like, a winner from six furlongs up to a mile and a sixteenth in her young career thus far, in a variety of ways.
Like a Gem could run on anything,” says Williamson. “She won on turf, Poly and dirt and we’ll hope to take Hard Not to Like and do the same thing.”
Hard Not to Like raced exclusively on turf during her two-year-old campaign, winning three of five starts including a pair of victories over the boys in the prep for Summer Stakes as well as October’s Cup and Saucer Stakes, at Woodbine.
The Hard Spun filly, known as ‘Lila’ around the barn, completed her season with a rallying fifth-place finish in the Grade 2 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf won by Stephanie’s Kitten.
Hard Not to Like’s three-year-old debut came over Keeneland’s synthetic surface in the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes and, just like her mum, ‘Lila’ proved she could run on anything closing in a jiffy to finish second to Karlovy Vary, keeping Stephanie’s Kitten in her rear view mirror.
“We hadn’t run on synthetic until the Ashland and now, if all goes to plan, she’ll try dirt in the Oaks,” smiles Williamson. “She trained on the Polytrack at Woodbine for months last year and we didn’t see any issues in her running on Poly and there were no issues (in the Ashland).”
But can she handle the dirt at Churchill Downs?
“She started back in training in January (at Payson Park) and all of that training in Florida was on a dirt track so we don‘t have any concerns about her running on the dirt,” says Williamson. “You’re never 100 per cent sure until you get out there and try it, but she certainly trains well on it.”
Keen to continue the surface survey, Williamson takes the questioning one step further.
“As for the next question you might ask, about a wet or sloppy track at Churchill Downs, that’s an unknown right now,” admits Williamson. “We don’t think it would bother her but you never know until you try it. I believe she can run on anything, but we have one more surface to determine with her.”
Robby Albarado, who piloted Hard Not to Like for the first time in the Ashland, retains the mount in the Oaks and will receive his pre-race instructions from trainer Gail Cox.
“Gail’s doing an outstanding job,” says Williamson. “She’s a very hands-on individual and that’s what you have to be in this business. You have to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s.”
While Like a Gem was clearly a game horse, there’s also much to like about ‘Lila’s sire, Hard Spun. The Danzig-Turkish Tryst bay won the Grade 1 King’s Bishop sprinting seven furlongs but also carried his speed a long way as proven by place finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Hard Spun’s versatility intrigued Williamson.
“First off, I like the Danzig line,” says Williamson. “He (Hard Spun) could run short, he could run long…Between what Jack Werk (the late bloodstock consultant) had to say and our analysis, we thought it was a good move.”
On Friday, Hard Not to Like will take part in her fourth graded race in just seven lifetime starts. The tenacious filly has lived up to her bloodlines thus far and Williamson is grateful for the opportunity to compete at the highest level.
“To breed a horse that can be competitive in a Grade 1 calibre race, that’s what you look for and what you strive for,” says Williamson. “When you’re a small breeder, the lottery is very much against you as need a lot of horses in order to be able to do it. But as a small breeder we’ve had some success over the years. We ran a half brother to Like a Gem (Cool Gator) in the Florida Derby, ran against Big Brown, and finished fifth. He sprung a shoe or he’d have been closer to Big Brown, but I don’t think anybody would have beaten Big Brown that day.”
Big Brown, of course, went on to win the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and now Williamson has arrived in Louisville with a filly he hopes won’t get caught in a jam as she was in November’s Juvenile Fillies Turf.
“We expect to be competitive but make no mistake about it, when you’re running against those kinds of horses you need to get some breaks,” he says. “You can’t make mistakes against that calibre of horses. You can overcome a little mistake but not lots of mistakes. In the Breeders’ Cup we were late leaving the gate, ran up the backs of horses and pulled back and then circled the outside…”
“We’ll take on 13 head of horses in the Oaks and whoever wins the race will need some racing luck there’s no question about that. As an owner it’d be great to win it. To run one-two-three would still be good, but I’d rather win it!”
Hard Not to Like may have been bred at a small Ontario farm built on the peanut, but her talent stems from rock solid breeding of speed and tenacity.
“Both of them are gutsy horses,” says Williamson of Like a Gem and Hard Spun. “When horses come up to the back of them, they fight hard not to let those horses pass.”
And when it’s suggested that tenacity could be a factor in the Oaks, the ‘Southern Gentleman’ who now calls Ontario home laughs, “We already have the tenacity…if you have any power, get us some racing luck. How about that!”
Quote of the Week
“I was so proud to be inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame at the minimum age of 60. Now to be honoured to go into the US hall as well when I have so much pride and respect for the sport means a great deal to me. I am absolutely ecstatic, especially to be inducted at the same time as so many people I have respected over the years, Johnny Velazquez rode for me, and Frank Stronach I have known for years, and admire and respect him. It is a wonderful honour and I am very touched by it.” - - Roger Attfield, on his induction to the U.S Racing Hall of Fame.
Race Call of the Week
"Strait of Dover, tougher than a $2 steak, defeats Patrioticandproud..." - - Dan Loiselle impressed with the tenacity of the Danny Vella trainee. Bonus call: Read up on Bob Tiller's favourite race call of last week when Hoof Ain't It won the Sunday finale.
Tweet of the Week
- - Trainer Graham Motion gets the 'Hertz Donut' treatment...
This and That
Toronto Sun columnist Rob Longley says that multiple Hall of Fame conditioner Roger Attfield's legend keeps growing:
Though in his 70s, Attfield still trains a full stable at Woodbine and is expected to arrive here this weekend after finishing up the month at the prestigious Keeneland meet in Lexington, Ky. His accomplishments in Canada are second to none: Eight Queen’s Plate victories (tied for the most ever), eight outstanding trainer awards here and more than 1,730 wins including 368 stakes races. Of the seven Canadian Triple Crown winners, Attfield has trained three of them. While he has long had success in the U.S., winning multiple major stakes events, Perfect Shirl gave him his first Breeders’ Cup victory, certainly his highest-profile accomplishment south of the border.
The DRF's Jay Hovdey tells the story of the horseplayer who claimed the horse responsible for his biggest score:
Beychok, a political consultant by trade, won his million-dollar contest pot when the 4-year-old filly Glorious Dancer got up in the last jump to win by a nose at 3-1 in his final bet of the tournament. His winning margin was a dollar. “I’ve claimed horses before,” Beychok said. “But they’ve all been business decisions. This is the first sentimental claim, but obviously this filly has a special place in my heart.” Beychok claimed Glorious Dancer out of her March 11 start at Golden Gate for $6,250 and turned her over to Steve Sherman. Beychok swears he was not inspired by the intervening episodes of “Luck,” which he saw, but could not recall the specifics of the parallel plot. And since he is a Louisiana-based political consultant, we believe him without pause.
The Palm Beach Post advises of the Fearless retrainer helps retired horses learn anew - - and SHE'S ONLY 13-YEARS-OLD!:
"I trust these horses with my life," she said. "I love them so much. Sometimes, when I get frustrated, I turn it into bravery and I make the horse do something." Taylor relies on her fearlessness while helping her sister train racehorses. "When a horse comes off the track, they don't know how to stop," she said. "When you pull on the reins at the track, it means go. You have to retrain them. When the jockeys are up in the two-point (position), that means go. So you have to make sure you sit back."
Don't you dare miss it! Join the Queen's Plate Fantasy Challenge sponsored by Woodbine Entertainment Group and put together your own fantasy stable for races from May 2 through Queen's Plate Day on June 24. Play it right and you could reach the winners circle and claim a share of $17,000 in prizes. As usual, it's FREE so you've got nothing to lose! The Queen's Plate Fantasy Challenge is back - - and now on SportsNet!!
Still Need More?
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.
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