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Can a racehorse be clutch like a human athlete? Can he recognize the moment? Can she stand and deliver when it really matters? 

Don’t try to answer those questions. Nobody knows, though moments like the third race at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Ohio Dec. 30 will make you think about it.

On the second-to-last day of 2023, at a track she’d never raced over, Maryland-bred Divine Fashion walloped five rivals in an otherwise insignificant $5,000 starter allowance to post her 10th win of the year. The 91⁄4-length romp tied Midwest star Fayette Warrior for the national lead. Bred by Susan Wantz, Divine Fashion raced 17 times in 2023 – posting the 10 wins, plus three seconds and two thirds while earning $140,332 for owner Richard Burnsworth and trainer Anthony Farrior.

It nearly didn’t happen.

“She got real sick on me over the summer,” Farrior said. “They were upgrading the electricity in our barn at Laurel and we had to move out. We went to the receiving barn and I’m not sure if the feed got moldy or what, but she stopped eating and got sick. We treated her for two days, medicated her, and she wasn’t getting any better at all.” 

Farrior sent her to Mid-Atlantic Equine in New Jersey for possible colic surgery and a likely extended recovery period. Under the care of Dr. Janik Gasiorowski, the now 5-year-old mare spent a week or so at the clinic and missed two months of racing opportunities.

Gasiorowski didn’t do surgery, but thought about it. Hard. 

“With colic, the most important decision at the clinic is ‘Does the horse need surgery, does it not need surgery?’ ” he said. “If you have something on an exam or bloodwork that tells you you might be able to hang on a minute, you can work with the horse. The problem on the veterinary side is if you operate on a horse that doesn’t need to get operated on you’ve wasted the client’s money, put the horse through surgery and cost them training and racing time. On the flip side, if you should operate and don’t, you probably lose the horse.”

No pressure. Divine Fashion had a right displacement of the colon, which can be painful but can also be managed. Gasiorowski called Farrior, talked it over, asked for some time. The filly passed gas, got fluids, was hand-walked and observed closely. Her colon shrunk, went back to its natural position and – eventually – she returned to normal.

“About the fourth day, they said she started coming out of it, and they kept her a few more days just to make sure she was going to be OK,” Farrior said. “They put in a lot of hours with her to not do the surgery and it paid off. I didn’t care if she ever ran again at that point.”

She ran again, as well as ever. The daughter of Divining Rod had opened 2023 with restricted $5,000 claiming victories at Charles Town Jan. 7 and 14. She lost her next four (three to stablemate Dulcimer Dame), then won five of her next six through July 29. After the colic, she didn’t run until Oct. 6, and handled $5,000 starter rivals again. Fourth in the Maryland Million starter handicap at Laurel Park eight days later, she was beaten a head by Betcha by Golly at Charles Town Nov. 16, and avenged that defeat Dec. 7 to get to nine wins. She put the exclamation point on the season Dec. 30.

“She knows where the wire is,” Farrior said while trying to find a reason for her success. “She’s not hard on herself, she’s level-headed, doesn’t train hard. She doesn’t miss a meal either, that’s why we knew she was sick. She knows how to win. It seemed like the light clicked on for her in those starters, I don’t know. Maybe it was the competition, maybe it was just her.”

Gasiorowski called the success satisfying.

“I don’t know if we can take any credit for it, but had we had to operate on her she wouldn’t have had those races at the end of the year,” he said. “You agonize about the decision. To sit outside the stall and watch a horse colic while you’re telling the trainer to hang on . . . you don’t want to be wrong. In this case we were right and it felt good.”

Farrior wasn’t really thinking about the national leaderboard until late in the year. Fayette Warrior, racing in Nebraska and Wyoming, won his 10 early and didn’t run after Oct. 29. 

“I just try to put them in the best possible race they can win,” Farrior said. “When the wins start adding up, you think about it. In November, somebody told me she was close to the lead in the country, and I started thinking about it.”

The starter allowance condition can create winning streaks, and Divine Fashion took full advantage. In 2022, Farrior claimed the bay filly for $25,000 out of a maiden win at Timonium. After three losses, she won a $10,000 non-winners-of-two claimer in November and closed that year with a loss in early December. Dropped in for the $5,000 tag to start 2023, she won twice and dodged would-be claimants. 

“No one took her,” said Farrior. “I was a little surprised, but they were the non-winners of three and non-winners of four conditions and Dulcimer Dame was winning the starters at that time so you weren’t sure what races [Divine Fashion] might have to run in. I’ve lost some horses I never thought I’d lose so you never know. I’m just glad we got to keep her.”

For breeder Wantz, the success has rewarded long-term faith. She bought Divine Fashion’s third dam Feelin Better for $3,500 in 2000. The daughter of Dancing Count produced three winners for Wantz including Copper Fashion, who produced two winners led by the stakes-placed Easter Fashion. A daughter of Kela, Easter Fashion is up to four winners as a broodmare. Foaled at Country Life Farm, Divine Fashion spent about a year at Wantz’s farm in Taneytown, Md., before going to the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic fall yearling sale in 2020. Country Life bought her for $20,000 and she made five starts for trainer Mike Trombetta, the last that maiden claimer at Timonium.

“She’s not mine anymore but she’ll always be mine,” said Wantz, a former event rider whose racing stable included Grade 1 winner Dance to Bristol. “When you watch her do it with such ease, it’s great. I don’t have two-legged children. I love horses and I love dogs, and horses just give me goosebumps. It would be like if I were a parent and watched a child do really well in a concert or sports or something.”

Wantz makes sure to tell Easter Fashion about her daughter’s success and was looking forward to a Mo Donegal foal due Feb. 8. The 14-year-old mare was booked to Maximus Mischief.

“She is a tough mare, an alpha mare, who could run too,” said Wantz. “She produces nothing but runners. Divine Fashion was the smallest foal she’s had, but she’s just been a superstar. I hope I have another one that’s like that someday.”

Farrior wasn’t planning on a quick start to 2024 with Divine Fashion, but a $5,000 starter filled at Charles Town Jan. 5 and she was part of it. She won by 51⁄4 lengths at 1-9. The trainer will utilize multiple condition books – Charles Town, Mahoning Valley, maybe Laurel – while plotting a schedule this year. She’ll stay eligible for the starters, if they fill, all year and could still fit a two-other-than allowance condition as well.

“She’s better at Charles Town and Mahoning,” said Farrior. “I don’t think she likes the track at Laurel as much, but she’s smart and is a great horse to be around. Training her is pretty easy.”

And she’s pretty clutch.

Mid-Atlantic Milestones

Divine Fashion wasn’t the only Mid-Atlantic horse high on the list of 2023 winners. Florida-bred Uncaptured Storm won nine races, all in the region for Farrior and Mario Serey Jr. The trainers traded claims of the now 4-year-old Uncaptured gelding who started 18 times last year. He won his final start of 2023 at Laurel Dec. 22 (a $40,000 claimer) while racing for Farrior and Burnsworth.

“I tried to get him in one more in December [to go for 10 wins], but the race didn’t go,” said Farrior. “When he runs, he loses about a hundred pounds so you can’t run him too many times. He’s a cool horse, too, one of the barn favorites. If I still have him after his career, he’d be a great pony for someone.”

West Virginia-bred Never Compromise tied Uncaptured Storm for second with nine wins – all at Charles Town. The son of Graydar and the Indian Charlie mare Ghost Canyon spent time with four trainers in 2023. Joan Reynolds lost him for $6,250 in January. Between Feb. 1 and Nov. 8, Ollie Figgins III won eight races (in 11 starts) with the dark bay gelding before losing him for $15,000. For trainer Stephen Murdock, Never Compromise won Nov. 22 and tried to create a three-way tie at the top with a 10th win Dec. 16 before settling for third. Again risked for the $6,250 level in that start, Never Compromise was claimed by Michael Sandoval but had yet to run back (through Jan. 16).

Never Compromise comes by his success honestly as his dam Ghost Canyon also produced nine-time winner Hidden Canyon, eight-time winner Bullets Fever and six-time winner Ghost Fever. All were bred by John McKee. 

West Virginia-bred Coastal Mission won eight of 10 in 2023, running the table at Charles Town for owner/trainer Jeff Runco and only tasting defeat in out-of-town stakes starts. The son of Great Notion and the Crowd Pleaser mare Smart Crowd is a half-brother to multiple stakes winner Lewisfield so brought plenty of expectations. The gray gelding won his debut at Charles Town in September 2021, and placed in two stakes that year. He won two of four starts in 2022, spending just shy of seven months on the sidelines between May and December. The 2023 schedule was considerably busier as he won his first two, finished fifth in Laurel’s Not For Love Stakes in March, then reeled off six in a row topped by the Russell Road Stakes and Sam Huff West Virginia Breeders Classic. Runco aimed high, and Coastal Mission finished fifth of 12 in Aqueduct’s Cigar Mile-G2 Dec. 2.

He earned the chance, and was far from disgraced while beaten 10 lengths at 15-1. 

“He ran real well,” Runco said. “He had the one hole, and was standing in the gate a long time. He got off flat-footed, the jock had to use him early to get a position and that might have cost him third.”

Sitting at 11 wins and $586,653 in career earnings, Coastal Mission earned a winter break and will be pointed for stakes this spring. 

“He’s in light training and I might take him out to my place for a little while,” Runco said in mid-January. “It depends on the weather and the footing. The Mid-Atlantic tracks in January and February can be a little tricky and you just have to play it by ear a little bit. He had a good campaign and a little break won’t hurt him.”

Runco credited a light schedule as a 2- and 3-year-old with at least some of Coastal Mission’s good form in 2023.

“He got a little time off when he was young because he had a minor setback,” Runco said. “He got to mature, didn’t have to run too much as a young horse. That helps him hold up now. He’s become a good horse, that’s the simplest way to put it.”

Coastal Mission’s roots run deep in the region – through breeders Kim Firestone, Thornmar Farm, Marjorie Francis and Jim Lewis. New Jersey-bred Ten’s Testamony (by Deputed Testamony) lost all six starts for Lewis. Her son Duckhorn won graded stakes and earned $747,812. Her daughter Smart Crowd won twice and turned into a star producer as the dam of five winners for Lewis, his wife Linda Zang and now the Coleswood Farm banner of Runco and his wife Susan. After producing Lewisfield in 2014, Smart Crowd went four years without a live foal, but produced Coastal Mission in 2019 and added a Street Boss filly in 2020, a Competitive Edge colt in 2021 and a Unified colt in 2023 before she passed away. She gave Lewisfield, Coastal Mission and the others ability, and a competitive streak.

“They’re just good horses and they don’t come around very often,” said Runco. “The mare was pretty quiet and he’s easy going and easy to deal with compared to Lewisfield. He was a tougher horse to deal with so this one is a lot different that way.”

West Virginia-bred Little Roo Roo also won eight races in 2023 while making a dozen starts, all at Charles Town, for owner/trainer Michael Jones Jr. Bred by Sherwood Bryant, the son of Limehouse and the Bop mare Pepper Bay rose from maiden winner to three-time stakes winner by midsummer with scores in the Coin Collector, It’s Only Money and Robert G. Leavitt. 

Kentucky-bred Grand Wiser piled up his eight wins (from 14 starts) at Penn National and Laurel for trainer Jorge Maymo and owner Alberto Santiago. The son of Flat Out won six starter allowances or optional claimers and captured four in a row in April, May and June. Eight-time winner Runaway Harry showed his affinity for the Tapeta Footings track at Presque Isle Downs, winning six of seven starts at the Pennsylvania track. Rejuvenate collected his eight wins (from nine starts) at West Virginia’s Mountaineer Racetrack. Second in his 2023 debut in July, the Kentucky-bred won his next eight starts. One more eight-time winner, Florida-bred Big and Classy, is a son of Maryland-bred The Big Beast.

 

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