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Five months ago while dark hoary skies rolled past, Rick Hedge sat on a bale of hay on an early cold spring morning thinking much warmer thoughts.
“This one could be something special,” the veteran Alberta thoroughbred trainer mused looking directly into the wide, deep eyes of a dark bay, two-year-old filly named Big Hug, who has a white diamond between her eyes that trickles half way down her forehead and her nose.
Big Hug, who runs in Saturday’s Fall Classic program, was still months away from racing. Several weeks even from working. But the way Big Hug galloped - just the way she moved - Hedge was pretty sure he knew what he had.
A trainer since 1988 after retiring from a very successful 20-year career as a jockey - winning over 2,400 races and leading the rider standings in Alberta a couple of times - Hedge, 74, has seen enough horses - good and bad - to know the difference.
“Two-year-olds are different. You never know until they actually run in a race. Big Hug looked like a runner. But maybe I was just hoping. Some run fast in the morning and you can’t find them in the afternoon. So far, Big Hug has stepped up good in the afternoon,” he said of the filly he co-owns with Lori and Martin Neyka’s Empire Equestrian Farm that is two-for-two and looking very much the part of being just what Hedge thought - something special.
Making her first work on May 14 - a nice easy quarter mile in 25 seconds in company with Kystone, a two-year-old colt that had to be turned out for the year - it was Big Hug’s fourth career workout on July 4 that really sold Hedge. With regular rider Rafael Zenteno Jr. in the irons and working on her own, the clockers caught Big Hug running three-eighths of a mile in a very snappy 35 seconds and change.
The swift work vindicated Hedge’s belief. “She did it all on her own. She didn’t have to be pushed or anything. She just worked fast,” said Hedge. “I liked her a lot then.”
Five days later Hedge liked Big Hug even more. But not initially. Entered in a five-furlong maiden allowance race Big Hug got bumped and stumbled leaving the starting gate. In a seven-horse field while taking on males, she got away sixth. Hedge was anxious. Zenteno wasn’t. Still fourth at the top of the stretch, Zenteno asked Big Hug and she quickly soared to the lead passing everyone and striding on to a very easy three and three-quarter length victory.
Five weeks later Big Hug made her second career start in the Princess Margaret stakes. Once again fourth entering the final turn, Big Hug - suddenly and unexpectedly - dropped back at the five-sixteenths pole. Once again, watching from the tarmac, Hedge was anxious. Once again Zenteno wasn’t. “I didn’t know what was going on but it looked like she was backing up,” said Hedge. “I was plenty worried.”
For no reason as it turned out. “Raffy told me she just didn’t like the dirt being thrown in her face. He took her to the outside and she took off.” Did she ever. Under a hand ride, Big Hug went on to win by thee and a quarter lengths. “She came flying and won real easy. Raffy hit her once and just hand rode her to the wire.” Big Hug won by three and a quarter lengths.
Now comes Saturday’s six furlong Sturgeon River stakes - one of seven $50,000 stakes races for Alberta-breds that is Alberta’s version of the Breeders’ Cup. “She’ll probably be the favourite,” said Hedge of which there is no doubt. “She’s training well coming into the race. She’s done everything I’ve asked. She’s running against a few of the horses she’s already defeated. But there are a couple of horses she hasn’t run against that could run big. You just never know.”
But Hedge, as we’ve said, does know. “She trains like an old horse. She acts like an old horse. When you come up to pet her she wants to come over and give you a big hug. That wasn’t why her name is Big Hug. She was named before I bought her at last year’s Alberta Yearling Sale. But it’s a very appropriate name.”
Hedge bought Big Hug at that sale for just $3,400. “I was a little surprised. I don’t know how high I would have bid on her but I liked her plenty for $3,400.” Bred in Alberta by Chalet Stables, Hedge said “When I got to a sale to look at horses they’ve got to say something to me. Like ‘Take me.’ “That’s what Big Hug said to me. So I took her. She was well put together. She looked great. I liked he way she carried herself. I liked the way she walked. Everything looked great.”
Sired by Mr. Big, who just showed a little potential but is proving himself in the breeding shed, Big Hug is out of a mare, Temeeku, who broke her maiden for no tag at Del Mar, California. “Of course I pay attention to breeding and bloodlines but I really just trust what I see in a horse. And I really liked what I saw.”
If all goes well Hedge plans on running Big Hug in next month’s Alberta Sales stake. After that he is unsure.
“I’m taking four-to-six horses to Phoenix for the winter. Right now I don’t know what I’ll do with her. Mostly it depends on what she does on Saturday and then again in the Sales stakes. I might just turn her out for the winter and keep her at home. But I’d also like to take her to Arizona and spring train her. Right now I just don’t know.”
That’s about the only thing Hedge doesn’t know. Especially when it comes to Big Hug, who will oppose six other two-year-old fillies in the Sturgeon River.
STOCK REPORT - Post time for Saturday’s first race of the Fall Classic program is 1:45 p.m. Dance Shoes, high-weighted at 124 pounds, looks to atone for her last outing, in the mile and a sixteenth Fall Classic Distaff. Only three other aged mares chose to contest the race including Plum Blue, also trained by Hedge.
In the Alberta Breeders for aged horses Greek Geek, last year’s Alberta Horse of the Year, who has been bothered by foot problems, looks for his first win of the year. If right, Greek Geek, carrying top weight of 124 pounds, will be extremely tough to beat with Regal Max his main opposition and the second high-weight with 121 pounds.
In the Alberta Oaks for three-year-old fillies, Oneofthemgirls looks to carry her speed throughout the mile and a sixteenths. Oneofthemgirls has won five in a row and faces seven other rivals.
Mudinator, who finished second to Big Hug in his debut and won his last start most impressively, appears best in the Premier’s which drew eight two-year-old male horses including another Hedge entrant, Carrera Caballo.
The Beaufort, for three-year-olds, attracted nine horses headed by Boss Man Can, who has won all three of his starts extremely easily and now tries to carry his vicious speed a mile and a sixteenth.
And, finally, the Red Diamond drew a nice field of 10 sprinters with Wedge Pond high-weighted at 124 pounds after missing by a scant nose last time out and winning his previous engagement by two and a quarter lengths.
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