By Ben Massam
Sunday’s GII Bessarabian S. at Woodbine saw the lightly raced 4-year-old filly Moonlit Promise (Malibu Moon) claim her third stakes victory in as many starts this year–a significant accomplishment considering she did not begin her 2017 campaign until mid-September. The Josie Carroll trainee’s win streak also represents both a payoff for a shrewd private purchase by one of the most recognizable names in the breeding industry, as well as the emergence of a new ownership group with the potential to become a large player in the racing game for years to come.
Moonlit Promise’s breeder and co-owner, John Sikura’s Hill ‘n’ Dale, has of course been a mainstay in the industry for decades, but the farm’s partnership with the fledgling Windsor Boys Racing is one that has emerged in recent months. Borne out of an intersection between hockey and horse racing among high school friends from Windsor, Ontario, the group of eight has achieved remarkable early results, notching four wins from six starts.
Faheem Hasnain, a Southern California-based biotech entrepreneur and a native of Windsor, explained that the group grew acquainted with Sikura through the Hill ‘n’ Dale owner’s days playing hockey on the OHA’s Windsor Spitfires.
“It’s super fun for us,” Hasnain said of his initial foray into Thoroughbred ownership. “There’s a group of eight guys, and we’re all from Windsor, Ontario, right across the river from Detroit. John played hockey in Windsor, so he’s kind of an honorary Windsorite. Ever since we’ve been in high school, we’ve enjoyed the horses and been real fans of it. Through John, this group got together, and it was a fun way for us to enjoy the sport and be a part of it. We’re connected with John and all the great things he’s doing.”
Among the crew of eight is Joel Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winner as head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks.
In addition to Moonlit Promise’s three stakes wins, Windsor Boys Racing also ran third in Thanksgiving’s GII Falls City H. with Faithfully (Smart Strike).
“We’ve known each other since high school, so it’s fun from that perspective,” Hasnain said. “I’m actually [currently living] five minutes from the track in Del Mar, so I get a great exposure to the sport living so close.”
Hasnain has had an extensive career in the biotech industry, most notably heading Receptos Inc., which sold to the larger Celgene Corp. in 2015. He is currently chairman of four other biotech companies and is in the process of launching a fifth venture. While Hasnain is well-acquainted with success in his line of work, he admitted that the syndicate’s immediate early achievements in the racing industry are rare and worth savoring.
“It’s a little surreal for us,” Hasnain said. “We’ve been involved with John and Hill ‘n’ Dale for a couple of months and we’ve seen Moonlit win three races…I think that we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of success and we know it’s a tough sport. We’re not taking this for granted–we know it’s pretty special.”
Moonlit Promise’s success story began well before Windsor Boys Racing was formed, however. The Hill ‘n’ Dale homebred is a daughter of Smart Surprise (Smart Strike), a regally bred mare who was purchased privately by Sikura as a 4-year old maiden of 10 starts in the summer of 2008. Transferred to the care of Carroll at Woodbine, Smart Surprise responded immediately and reeled off four wins in her next five starts, including a score in the 2008 renewal of the Bessarabian. Her 2009 campaign was similarly as impressive, with the mare winning four times from eight starts, including a career-top win in the GIII Hendrie S. in Toronto.
“She was a maiden when we got her,” Sikura said. “We sent her to Canada. Josie Carroll did a great job with her and she continued to progress with time–she won the same race as Moonlit Promise. She’s a very good mare from the family of A.P. Indy. I bought her on pedigree and hoped she’d win a race or two, but she continued to get better and better and emerged as a top-class racehorse. It was a pleasant surprise.”
As it turned out, the pleasant surprise is one that continues to yield fruitful results for the Hill ‘n’ Dale team. Despite the fact Moonlit Promise did not debut until May of her sophomore season in 2016 and was sidelined for the majority of 2017, the bay has made the most of her abbreviated campaign. Sikura said it is particularly satisfying to see a family win graded stakes across multiple generations.
“When these things happen, two things strike you. One is that you’re very fortunate to have the second generation perform like that. And two, you must be getting really old,” joked Sikura, who was celebrating his 60th birthday Monday. “The ultimate reward for a breeder is if you can breed, raise and race offspring through your program. It’s the hardest thing to do, but it’s the most rewarding.”
Sikura is keenly aware of how quickly a positive can be canceled out by a negative in racing, and the family of Moonlit Promise provides a somber example. One of Windsor Boys Racing’s winners was Early Light, a juvenile full-sister to the filly who captured her debut at Woodbine by 2 1/2 lengths Oct. 28, only to collapse and die as a result of a heart attack the following morning.
“You take the good with the bad, triumph and tragedy,” Sikura said. “She broke her maiden very impressively and acted like a very special filly. She died of a heart attack the next day on the racetrack. We were very deflated. It just shows you how difficult it is for everything to go in your favor.”
Sikura said he believes in any other year, Moonlit Promise would win a Sovereign Award, but fellow Josie Carroll trainee Ami’s Mesa (Sky Mesa) has the edge in all applicable categories by virtue of three graded stakes wins and a narrowly beaten runner-up finish in the GI Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Moonlit Promise will be given some time off ahead of a 2018 campaign, where Hill ‘n’ Dale and Windsor Boys will set their sights on another major milestone.
“We’ll leave her in training, and the goal is to win a Grade I race,” Sikura explained. “She’s now a Grade II and Grade III winner. It’s a supreme challenge and not easily done, but that will be our goal. She’s lightly raced.”
As for Smart Surprise, the mare is back in foal to War Front on a late cover–a mating that Sikura said he is hopeful will produce a versatile runner who can be successful on multiple surfaces. She is also responsible for a weanling colt by Tapit.
When asked about his outlook for the future, Hasnain said he hopes Windsor Boys Racing will continue to have a strong presence in the racing industry through a continued partnership with Sikura and Hill ‘n’ Dale.
“We have an arrangement with Johnny with a dozen horses,” Hasnain said. “Some of them are still yearlings. We’re going to be in this for quite a while, and we’ll see where it goes from there. We’re just enjoying the ride right now. We’re all pretty excited about it.”