By Alan Carasso
Fact: no horse from the United States has managed a victory in the G1 Longines Hong Kong International Sprint.
Also true is that only two U.S.-based runners have won at the international meeting, but not since Val’s Prince landed the spoils in the Hong Kong International Cup fully two decades ago.
The collective braintrust at Rockingham Ranch–principle Gary Hartunian, racing manager Brian Trump and trainer Peter Miller–knows that you can’t win if you don’t play, and the team will try to make some history this Sunday at Sha Tin with GI Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint hero Stormy Liberal (Stormy Atlantic). The 5-year-old is campaigned in partnership with David A. Bernsen
“Pete and his team have done a tremendous job preparing this horse for this race,” Trump said last week. “There is nothing else from an ownership standpoint that we can do. At this point it all comes down to a bit of racing luck, really. The horse could not be more prepared. We know that no U.S. horse has ever won this race and we’re happy to be the underdog. We thrive at being overlooked–that’s exciting for us. Any day, any horse can win a race and hopefully Dec. 10 that day is for us again.”
Sometimes it’s better to be good than lucky and full marks are owed to Rockingham, who had the foresight to claim Stormy Liberal when he was dangled by Success Racing Two and trainer Doug O’Neill for $40,000 at Santa Anita a little over a year ago. Stormy Liberal took that down-the-hill test by 2 3/4 lengths at the 13-5 favorite.
“Gary and Pete watch the Form daily and I think they saw what appeared to be a horse that was overclassed,” Trump recollected. “It appeared that the trainer was trying to steal a race and we thought it would be a good opportunity. We are very active claimers, we’re always looking and we thought it was a good shot. And it’s panned out.”
That is an understatement of monumental proportions. Having finished runner-up in an 8 1/2-furlong allowance in his first run for the new connections, Stormy Liberal returned to shorter trips thereafter and it wasn’t long before he established himself as the pre-eminent turf sprinter on the West Coast. He would go on to register four consecutive black-type successes over the hillside course, including the GIII Daytona S. in late May. The Miller barn isn’t averse to sending a horse or two across country when appropriate spots arise, and Stormy Liberal made the trans-continental journey to Belmont Park for the GIII Jaipur S. on the Belmont S. undercard June 10. But things didn’t go according to script for the first time in a long time.
“I don’t think anything went wrong with travel or anything like that,” said Trump. “He really didn’t break out of the gate and then he rushed up, and at that point it was already over. We learned that if he ever doesn’t break, he needs to sit back and relax and have that one shot. Hopefully we don’t have that happen again.”
Stormy Liberal was only eighth that afternoon and having kept busy during the first half of the year, was given a freshen-up by connections. He came back into training over the summer and a somewhat audacious plan was launched to contest the Turf Sprint without the benefit of a prep. Slowly but surely, Stormy Liberal began to show signs that he could be equal to that task, despite a layoff that would be close to 150 days.
“I can tell you that Peter was very confident in the horse,” Trump said. “I would go down weekly to see the horse and you could see that he was continuing to improve. I think that short freshening that he had helped tremendously and each week, Pete would tell me that ‘Stormy’ was looking better and better.
He continued, “In the couple of weeks prior to the Breeders’ Cup, Pete said, ‘I really am happy with this horse. I think you’re going to be surprised.’ Gary went in betting [eventual Turf Sprint runner-up and 13-1 shot] Richard’s Boy (Idiot Proof) and Stormy came in and made us proud. Our confidence was a function of Pete telling us how good he was looking on the track.”
Positive vibes aside, Trump admits that the five-furlong trip of the Turf Sprint was a real concern heading into the race and there was a sense of shock when Stormy Liberal managed to find the line first over a distance that was clearly on the sharp side.
“It very much surprised us from an owners’ standpoint,” he said. “We have always been told that the 6 1/2-down-the-hill horses always do better at a mile, so we expected [the five-furlong trip] to be a little bit short for him, but again, he surprised us. The six furlongs [of the Hong Kong Sprint] is definitely a better fit for him. He’s been training absolutely terrific for this. We feel very confident about him.”
Traveling horses overseas is not a new phenomenon for Rockingham Ranch. The operation had a pair of runners at the Dubai International Racing Carnival over the last two seasons, with the speedy X Y Jet (Kantharos) finishing a bang-up near-miss second in the G1 Dubai Golden Shaheen, while Richard’s Boy was a highly creditable fifth with a bit of trouble in this year’s G1 Al Quoz Sprint. Those positive results have contributed to an increasingly ambitious broadening of the horizons for Rockingham Ranch.
“We’re definitely looking forward to next year with these horses like Stormy, Richard’s Boy, X Y Jet and Roy H. that we look forward to shipping to a variety of spots around the world,” Trump suggests. “Whether it’s Dubai or [Royal] Ascot or wherever. We even had a discussion the other day about sending a horse to Australia.”
There has been a decided uptick in American participation in places like England and France and to a greater extent in Dubai, where dirt racing provides something of a built-in advantage for U.S.-trained runners. Rockingham Ranch embraces the challenge of racing beyond the borders of the United States and is primed to continue to do its part.
“For us, it’s everything you could hope for,” Trump said.