Week in Review: From Breeders’ Cup to Bullring

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By T. D. Thornton

Hardly anyone noticed over Labor Day weekend when a one-time competitor in a Breeders’ Cup race began plying his trade on the half-mile oval at the Eastern Idaho State Fair.

In terms of a career-spanning comedown, going from a million-dollar championship stakes to running for a $990 winner’s share on the Blackfoot, Idaho, bullring represents the most precipitous peak-to-valley class drop I’ve ever seen in North American racing.

Yet the decline of Chips All In (North Light {Ire})–a six-time stakes winner who was beaten only 3 3/4 lengths in the 2013 GI Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint–didn’t happen overnight. And even though one of his current owners, Ryan Hanson, told TDN that the 8-year-old horse has no physical issues that imperil competing him on the Western county fairs circuit, it seems like this sort of slide into equine obscurity should have been accompanied by a few red flags.

But before we recount the career arc of Chips All In, keep in mind two points: Do horses qualify as “at risk” just by the virtue of having a compelling “fall from grace” narrative, even if they otherwise meet commission-level safety standards, like passing multiple pre-race veterinary checks? And when top-level Thoroughbreds do drift downward through the class structure, is it fair to place the full responsibility of aftercare solely with the person who last purchased the horse via the industry’s “buyer beware” hierarchy of claiming races?

Overlooked at the KEESEP yearling sale in 2010 because he was on the small side, Chips All In turned out to be a bargain $4,500 purchase. He debuted as a 6-5 winner at Golden Gate Fields on June 10, 2011, for owners Dan Valdez and John O’Brien, then stepped up in class and won a starter-allowance at Del Mar followed by an even-money score in the $100,000 Gold Rush Futurity at Arapahoe Park.

At 3-for-3, the colt was transferred from trainer Adam Kitchingman to trainer Jeff Mullins in southern California. Briefly aimed at the Triple Crown preps early in his 3-year-old season, Chips All In lost the GII Robert Lewis S. to eventual GI Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness S. winner I’ll Have Another (Flower Alley) before filling out and finding his true calling as a grass sprinter.

By late 2013, the 4-year-old bay had won a pair of Grade III stakes over the 6 1/2-furlong hillside course at Santa Anita Park, and his ownership group (which by then had picked up additional partners Michelle Turpin, Jean Everest, and Julie Crandall) supplemented $100,000 to get him into the Turf Sprint, hoping for a home-course edge in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita.

Chips All In ran ninth in the Turf Sprint, but was hardly disgraced in defeat considering the entire 13-horse field was clustered at the wire in a blanket 5 1/2-length finish. Over the winter and into the spring he continued to hit the board in turf stakes at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. But on June 26, 2014, Chips All In suffered a “minor injury” of an undisclosed nature during a morning workout, and his owners announced that the then-5-year-old would no longer race.

The retirement was barely mentioned in the racing press after being initially reported in the Salt Lake Tribune (which ran occasional stories about Chips All In because his ownership group and trainer were from Utah). “He’s done more than we ever thought he would and we want to do what’s right by him,” co-owner Valdez was quoted in the Paulick Report at the time.

Yet one year later, Chips All In was unretired and back in training.

When he returned to the races at Santa Anita on June 6, 2015, new trainer John Brocklebank–who had first recommended the purchase of Chips All in as a yearling–ran him for a claiming tag for the first time since his career debut. Offered for $40,000, there were no takers, and Chips All In ran a strong second at 7-1 odds, earning the chart caller’s comments “fought back” and “willingly.”

Chips All In finally won in his sixth start off the comeback, remaining consistent but unspectacular while earning purse checks in mid- to high-range claiming races through 2015. On June 11, 2016, at Golden Gate Fields, he garnered historical footnote status after winning the $50,000 Albany S. at 9-10 odds. Although the public was unaware of the significance at the time, that win ended up being the final career stakes victory for Hall-of-Fame jockey Russell Baze, who upon completion of the next day’s card abruptly announced his secretively planned retirement from race riding.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer ran the horse that finished second in the Albany S. that afternoon. He must have liked what he saw in the winner because Hollendorfer claimed Chips All In for himself and partner George Todaro when the horse dropped back in for a $40,000 tag on Nov. 13, 2016, at Del Mar. The new acquisition won an allowance at first asking for his new connections, then faltered in subsequent, well-spaced starts over the next six months.

On June 10, 2017, Hanson, a jockey-turned-trainer, dropped a $32,000 claim slip at Santa Anita to take a chance on Chips All In. But the gamble didn’t pay immediate dividends, as the former Breeders’ Cup turf sprinter next ran seventh for a $40,000 tag at Del Mar on July 28 and then fifth when switched from turf to dirt for a lifetime-low $12,500 claiming price on Aug. 24. In that last effort, Chips All In at least showed some early spark–he forced a strong pace of :22.04 through the opening quarter of a 5 1/2-furlong sprint, and was outbobbed in a three-way finish for third.

Considering that try wasn’t so bad, it was a bit of a shock 10 days later when Chips All In resurfaced in the Sep. 3 entries for the mixed-meet fair in Blackfoot, drawing the rail in a four-horse $1,800 allowance restricted to non-winners of three lifetime or non-winners of a race in 2017. Beyond the chasm-like drop in class, this off-the-beaten-path choice of a next-race venue is not as unorthodox as it might seem, because Hanson’s family has long been involved in Idaho racing. Ryan’s father, Jim, was listed as a part-owner of Chips All In on the day he was claimed, and his brother, Mark, was listed as the new trainer when Chips All shipped to Blackfoot (the horse’s official ownership, according to Equibase, reads confusingly as “Jim or Ryan Han Robin Dunn”).

The competition Chips All In faced in his first foray to a half-miler included a 1-for-15 mare who had recently been luckless at the White Pine fair in Ely, Nevada, a 1-for-24 gelded 5-year-old who hadn’t raced in nearly a year, and a 4-for-24 gelded 7-year-old who last started in July 2016 at the Great Falls, Montana, fair.

You’ve heard the phrase “won by the length of the stretch,” right? That’s closer to a literal description than you might think at the Blackfoot bullring, where the margin of victory for Chips All in was a commanding nine lengths at 2-5 odds (mutuel pool $790). There are no publicly available online video replays of the races at Blackfoot, but it borders on the absurd to envision how far the field was strung out in this five-furlong, two-turn dash: It was another 16 1/2 lengths back to the third-place finisher, then a further 24 1/2 lengths back to the last-place horse, resulting in a massive, 50-length gulf from first to fourth.

The morning after Chip’s All In’s Blackfoot win, I phoned Ryan Hanson and asked if he could shed some light on his decision to race his once-classy sprinter at such a low level and what future plans he had for the horse. I also queried if Chips All In had any physical issues that were preventing him from being competitive in southern California.

“We claimed him at Santa Anita and ran him twice at Del Mar. This horse just acts like he needed a little confidence, so we sent him to the Idaho fair circuit to try and do that,” Hanson said. “It’s not [about] not being competitive. I think he just hadn’t won a race in a long time, and I wanted to send him somewhere where he could win a couple of races. And if he can win a couple and build up his heart a little bit, we’ll take him back to Santa Anita. We’ll evaluate him, give him a couple of days, and let him talk to us.”

Hanson said he was unaware that Chips All In had been previously retired then unretired. When I asked if he could understand why, in this era of hyper-vigilance about aftercare, the plunge in class from black-type stakes to the Blackfoot fair could be considered a “red flag” by some people, Hanson politely but firmly said this:

“That’s the problem with too many people, is they draw too many [conclusions about] red flags. There’s nothing wrong with horses running on half-mile tracks. Maybe he’s just not as competitive as he once was….I think the best thing you can do as an owner or a trainer is to find the best place that your horse can be competitive, and if he’s not competitive at Santa Anita and Del Mar, maybe he can be competitive somewhere else.”

It needs to be underscored that the current connections of Chips All In have violated no rules by claiming and racing their horse where they see fit. California is considered a fairly thorough state when it comes to commission-mandated veterinary checks and balances, and Chips All In presumably passed a similar pre-competition exam for his race in Idaho.

“Racing horses,” Hanson reminded me as we ended the conversation, “is my job.”

It’s some 935 miles by van from Del Mar to Blackfoot, Idaho. But the journey from the bullring circuit to back big-league racing will be a lot farther and harder than that for Chips All In if he attempts it, judging by how few Thoroughbreds ever make that return trip.

 

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