West Memorial a Star for Hancock, Now Points to Potential Ascot Bid with Weaver

West Memorial was the first winner for Crestwood Farm's
first-crop sire Caracaro | Katie Petrunyak


The storylines of “Thurby” can oftentimes get lost in the hubbub of the ensuing weekend of racing at Churchill Downs, but for trainer John Hancock, the Thursday before this year's Kentucky Derby was a day he won't soon forget.

Not feeling the greatest that afternoon, the veteran conditioner decided to stay back at the barn and let his family head to the paddock to saddle West Memorial (Caracaro) and Strummin (Flameaway) for the Kentucky Juvenile S. Meanwhile Hancock drove over to a spot on the backside where he had a good view of the starting gate. After the break, he began watching the five-furling race on his phone, but realized his video was delayed so he switched to simply listening to the roar of the distant crowd and Travis Stone's race call.

“Here comes West Memorial!” he heard Stone exclaim. “Down the center of the track, kicking away by two. And Strummin is on the scene late as well.”

As a boisterous crowd surged toward the winner's circle, Hancock sat back in the stillness of the backside and smiled. In a race that had eluded him for years, his horses had just taken the top two spots.

Last year Youalmosthadme (Oxbow), a filly that Hancock sold after training her to a winning debut a month earlier, had coasted to an 8 3/4-length victory in the Kentucky Juvenile. In the same race in 2019, Hancock's horses had finished second and third and back in 2017, his filly Amberspatriot (Awesome Patriot) was runner-up by a neck.

“This particular stake means a lot to me because it's a 2-year-old stake and that's what my family does,” the Henderson County, Kentucky native explained. “We put ourselves in a spot where we like fooling around with 2-year-olds, having them ready early and seeing what we can do. This particular stake I've had two or three seconds, three thirds and a couple of fourths. So it meant a lot to win it; it meant a real lot.”

In an interesting twist of fate, it was actually last year's Kentucky Juvenile victress Youalmosthadme that helped land this year's winner West Memorial in Hancock's barn. After Youalmosthadme broke her maiden at Keeneland, Hancock sold her to the partnership of Qatar Racing, Swinbank Stables, Steve Adkisson and Black Type Thoroughbreds and she moved to the Brad Cox barn.

Swinbank Stables' Reagan Swinbank was in Lexington shortly after they purchased the filly last April. One morning Swinbank's bloodstock agent and lifelong friend Jake Ballis of Black Type Thoroughbreds suggested that Swinbank should stop in and meet the trainer who had gotten Youalmosthadme started.

“I like talking to people and John likes talking to people and before we knew it, we had sat there in his office talking for 30 minutes,” Swinbank recalled. “Jake was there with me and afterward I told him that next yearling season, he could pick two horses out for me to buy and I would send them to John to do the same game that he did with Youalmosthadme.”

Flash forward a few months and Hancock was out with his daughter Ashley looking at yearlings that might be a good fit for their stable's model of buying yearlings, breaking them at their base at Ellis Park, and then pointing them to the early 2-year-old races with the goal of selling them after they break their maidens. West Memorial caught their eye as soon as they saw her. They tried to get a deal done several times last summer, but the breeder wanted to send her to public auction.

Trainer John Hancock | Katie Petrunyak

“We just couldn't get her off our minds,” Hancock said. “The way she looked, the way she handled herself, the way she was balanced.”

By the time West Memorial was set to go through the ring at the Keeneland September Sale, Hancock had already spent his budget for the sale, but he had told Ballis about how much he liked the daughter of first-crop sire Caracaro (featured here). Ballis worked with Maddie Mattmiller, his partner in Black Type Thoroughbreds, to purchase the Legacy Bloodstock-consigned yearling for $45,000 on behalf of Swinbank Stables.

Swinbank sent the filly on to Hancock and named her West Memorial after the part of Houston that he is from.

“From day one, she was very focused and she knew what her job was,” said Hancock. “She was well-mannered and had a great head on her. From what I hear, the Caracaros are all that way. There was something about the charisma about this filly from the first day and by March, we figured out that she could really run.”

Expectations were sky high when West Memorial debuted during opening weekend of the Keeneland meet, but she wound up settling for second by a head. Even so, she had displayed tons of heart in the stretch battle and plenty of potential during the gallop out, and the offers began pouring in. Even though selling her had been the goal from the start, Swinbank did not feel right about parting with her just yet.

“I was only in for $45,000 plus training bills,” he explained. “We turned down an amount of money that everyone said was insane to turn down, but I wanted to let her run in John Hancock's name in the Kentucky Juvenile. Normally most of his good horse get sold prior to that race, including Youalmosthadme. She didn't even breeze under Brad. It was all John's doing. John told me, 'Let me have her for one more race and we will win it.' And I believed him. I said that if we were going to win it, let's win it together.”

Hancock knew there were some classy juveniles in the race to contend with, including 'TDN Rising Star' Shoot It True (Munnings) and Resolute Racing's $740,000 Fasig-Tipton Digital purchase Mensa (Complexity).

Hancock instructed jockey Reylu Gutierrez before the race, “Let her get away and lay right there to look at whatever is up in front of you. At the quarter pole, let's see where we're at.”

The game plan was a success. Off at 17-1 odds, West Memorial chased the two favorites and then blew past them in the stretch.

Hancock was thrilled about his stable's accomplishments, but the main thing he remembers as he looks back on the day is how proud he was of the filly.

“Nothing fazed her,” he recalled. “We shipped her in from Keeneland. She'd never been to Churchill Downs in her life. With the crowd and the tunnel, she never turned a hair.”

As has been the plan from the get-go, West Memorial departed from Hancock's stable after her maiden-breaking victory.  But the juvenile has not been sold, as was the original idea. Instead Swinbank has decided to send her to George Weaver and perhaps follow a path that led the owner to the top of the sport last year.

In a partnership that included Swinbank Stables and Black Type Thoroughbreds, the Weaver-trained Crimson Advocate (Nyquist) claimed last year's G2 Queen Mary S. at Royal Ascot. Swinbank is hopeful that West Memorial may take to the turf and target the same race.

West Memorial's dam Vita Bella (Super Saver) is a half-sister to GI Hollywood Derby winner Mo Town (Uncle Mo) as well as SW Justique (Justify), who was second in her last start in the GIII Royal Heroine S. over the Santa Anita turf on April 27.

“I'm not saying for sure that we're going to Ascot, but I think the plan is to get her to Weaver's barn and try her over the turf,” Swinbank said. “She has a lot of turf in her pedigree. It was very hard to tell John that we were going to move the horse. He got emotional. I got emotional. He and his family are all great horsemen, but we thought that with a chance to go to Ascot we need to move her to Weaver, who has success at winning at Ascot literally last year for us. If she doesn't take to the turf, she's already in Saratoga and we can run her in the dirt stakes up there.”

West Memorial wins the 2024 Kentucky Juvenile S. | Coady Media

West Memorial arrived in Saratoga only a few days before it was announced that Weaver faces a suspension of up to two years because a horse in his care tested positive for a metformin, a banned substance used to treat Type II diabetes in humans that Weaver's attorney Drew Mollica has said was being taken by the horse's groom during the time of the positive test. Although many factors are up in the air for Weaver's stable going into the summer season, Swinbank is continuing to send horses to the veteran trainer.

“With George's uncertainty now, it added some thought to our plan but we're going to support George and his team,” he said. “I believe his assistants can manage the shop while the uncertainty is in play and we're loyal to the Weaver team.”

Swinbank has expanded his stable in big ways in recent years. He started out in 2019 as a shareholder in Black Type Thoroughbreds to support his friends managing the syndicate, but last year he decided to get more involved with his own stable. Swinbank Stables began partnering with many of Black Type's horses as well as going out on its own for a few more. Swinbank said that he currently owns 15 to 20 racehorses, including those owned in partnership with Black Type Thoroughbreds, and he is also getting involved in the breeding business with a handful of his own broodmares.

As for Hancock, while he may no longer have West Memorial in his stable, he is just as excited about another promising 2-year-old in his care. Kentucky Juvenile runner-up Strummin (Flameaway) has placed in all three of his career starts by flying home late in the stretch.

“He just needs a little bit more ground, but he's a really nice colt,” Hancock said.

Owned by Hancock's longtime client Randle Glosson, Strummin will make his fourth lifetime start on Sunday at Churchill Downs and Hancock has high hopes for his future.

“Don't fall asleep on that man because he's the real deal,” he said. “The owners had an opportunity to sell him and they kept him. When he taps his wires together, you'll be back doing a story on him.”

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