Hardest Core wins the Arlington Million against a top-class field. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)
Originally cross-entered in the $400,000 American St. Leger and the $1-million Arlington Million, Hardest Core’s connections’ high-risk move to run in the Million paid off when the gelding won the $1-million race.
Winning his third race in three starts for Andrew Bentley Stables and trainer Edward Graham, Hardest Core didn’t just win $594,000, he also earned a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Turf only months after nearly losing his life.
Hardest Core suffered complications after undergoing a gelding procedure after being sold last November, and he had 18 feet of his intestine removed in order to save his life. But he returned to the races in late June and proved that he had rebounded from the ordeal by winning that race by three lengths.
A true fairytale story, Hardest Core was purchased at the 2013 Keeneland November breeding stock sale as a birthday present for Andrew Bentley by his father, Greg, who owns steeplechase horses.
“It really is a crazy story,” said Wendy Graham, wife to Edward Graham. “He was purchased for Andrew, Greg's son, and this horse means the world to him. When [Greg Bentley’s trainer] Rusty [Carrier] gave up training, his horses went to Paul [Roland], my husband's best friend. Paul had Mesothelioma and sadly passed soon after – but before he did, he made sure that Eddie [Graham] was connected with Greg and got his horses.”
But who is this horse who seems to have become an overnight star, and what are his chances in the Breeders’ Cup Turf? Let’s take a look.
Bought for $87,000 as a yearling, Hardest Core spent his early career racing for Adena Springs’ Ghostzapper Racing. Losing to future Grade 1 winner Verrazano on the dirt in his debut, the then-3-year-old transferred to turf and put in much better showings. Stepping up to 1 ¼ miles in his fourth start, Hardest Core finally broke his maiden, beating eventual Grade 3 winner Unitarian in the process.
Since that maiden victory, Hardest Core hasn’t been worse than second in seven starts. In those two second-place finishes, he lost to Grade 1-placed Stormy Len at 1 ¼ miles in an allowance race and multiple graded stakes winner Balance the Books in the Stroll Stakes in August 2013.
Since then, Hardest Core has put together a four-race winning streak that has seen him win from 1 1/16 miles to 1 ½ miles. He won his final race as a 3-year-old at Belmont Park last year by a head before Ghostzapper Racing dispersed its stock in the November sale and he sold for $210,000 to his current connections.
While he had to fight for his life early in the year, Hardest Core showed marked improvement when he returned to the track this summer. Hardest Core scored then-career-best 109 Equibase Speed Figures in his two victories before the Million this year, including the 1 ½-mile Cape Henlopen Stakes. He took another big leap from those races’ figures in the Million, jumping up to a 117.
OWNER ANDREW BENTLEY (RIGHT) WITH MIKE DITKA DURING THE TROPHY PRESENTATION
Photo by Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing
While Hardest Core’s figures show that he has developed into a better racehorse since getting the ultimate equipment change, he needs to jump up even more to be among the top figures for turf males.
His 117 figure is nine points under the year-high 126 earned by Five Iron in the Fort Marcy Stakes at Belmont. However, it needs to be noted that the Fort Marcy dominates the Equibase top turf-figures list (six runners from the race earned figures between 120 and 126). Looking at the overall picture, Hardest Core is only a few points below the top American turf horses with Main Sequence and Real Solution having figures of 119 and 120, respectively.
The one thing people need to consider when looking at Hardest Core’s figures is that the 117 is his only career figure above 109. While he has shown marked improvement this year, it remains to be seen if he can continue to stay in the 110s or if this is a one-time performance.
From a running style perspective, Hardest Core has shown that, if needed, he doesn’t have to run near the lead. While his four wins during the current streak all have seen him around the front of the field, he has been able to win from the back of the field and midpack. The gelding definitely looks like he is most comfortable when close to the leaders or on the lead, but the fact that he can win from farther back is an asset many horses lack.
Looking at how his running styles compare with the other U.S. Breeders’ Cup Turf “Win and You’re In” race winners, it looks like a mixed bag for Hardest Core.
Between the other two horses to win U.S. Breeders’ Cup Challenge races, Main Sequence has won his two American starts after racing in the back but Big John B is a wild card. While Big John B ran in sixth and seventh during part of his win in the Del Mar Handicap, by the mile marker he was in second. Before the Del Mar Handicap he had never run in a graded stakes race but he has won previous races at the lower levels, mostly from the front in the later part of his races, so he could be a challenge for Hardest Core if he does decide to be closer to the pace.
As the field develops in the coming months, the pace scenario should become a little more clear. Personally, my biggest concern about Hardest Core isn’t his running style but instead is his ability to repeat his Million performance.
HARDEST CORE PASSES 2013 BREEDERS' CUP TURF WINNER MAGICIAN IN THE ARLINGTON MILLION
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
By Hard Spun and out of the Housebuster mare Lillybuster, Hardest Core is continuing his sire’s stellar year.
Hard Spun had the tough luck of racing in 2007 against horses such as Street Sense and Curlin. He was consistently in the money and hit the board in two of the three Triple Crown races, but wasn’t able to escape the shadows created by that stellar crop. Hard Spun’s big career win came in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop Stakes, a sprint, but don’t let that convince you he was only a sprinter.
Hard Spun finished second in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic and seems to be passing stamina on to his foals. From four crops to race he has 32 stakes winners and one champion from 424 starters through Aug. 26. Surface doesn’t seem to matter for his offspring with pretty equal numbers of graded stakes winners on both the dirt and turf in the route ranks.
While Hard Spun was a dirt horse on the racetrack, he is the sire of two of the three U.S. “Win and You’re In” horses for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Del Mar Handicap winner Big John B is also by the stallion.
Hardest Core is the only graded stakes winner out of his dam but his extended family has held its own at the stakes level. His half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) Calla Lilly is the dam of Grade 2-placed Side Road, keeping the trend up of a strong female line.
Lillybuster’s half-brother Gilded Time was a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and the 1992 champion 2-year-old male. But while he could go the 1 1/16 miles of the Juvenile, he also was fast enough to set a six-furlong track record in the Sapling Stakes and finish third in the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Their dam, Gilded Lily, was a winner on the track, but her half-brother High Echelon is the one that made the family famous by winning the 1970 Belmont Stakes and finishing third in that year’s Kentucky Derby.
Overall, both sides of Hardest Core’s family provide the gelding with speed and stamina, a dangerous combination when used correctly. If Hardest Core can continue to improve as he has done in his early starts this year, he’ll be an interesting piece of the puzzle in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
For bettors, he could provide a unique opportunity, as it is very likely he’ll go off at odds higher than the 11.50-to-1 that he won at in the Arlington Million. However, depending on who shows up to the race, Hardest Core might have to run the race of his life if he hopes to repeat his Aug. 16 win.