Friday, February 8, 2013

Well, Rich, Anyway

 With the passing of Rich N Elegant on November 16th, some great stories and memories rushed back to my mind. All of them only indirectly relate to her. Such is always the way with me.
I have never seen her, touched her, met her, and I barely remember watching her race. As a racehorse,  she was okay, but nothing special. As a mother, and producer, she will go down in history as one of the best ever.  

 Rich N Elegant, originally named Armbro Literal, born on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1990 was bred and raised by the iconic Armstrong Bros. organization in Canada. There was very little in her formative years which would lead one to believe that she would achieve the greatness that ultimately came to her. Although she was sired by the successful Direct Scooter and came from a noted family brought to prominence by the late Bill Shehan and subsequently carried on mostly by both Kentuckiana and Brittany Farms. She was a relatively bargain priced yearling selling for $22,000 to trainer John Kopas acting as agent for Vincent Li.

-from Standardbred Canada article on her passing. 

Those of you who are not horse racing fans would have no clue who Rich N Elegant was. You probably think I am speaking of Lady Di or someone like that. Most of you who are racing fans probably don't either. I certainly do. I am both a student of breeding and a big fan of horse racing. Rich N Elegant is widely considered to be the greatest broodmare of all time in harness racing. That could be debated, but there is no doubt she is one of the greatest. I can't think of another mare who produced on the level that she did. 
As it relates to me, she was also owned in her younger life by a guy I met at the horse races one night. He didn't own her at that time, but shortly after I met him he bought her as a yearling. That was Vincent Li. Vince to me.
I will do a separate entry with some history of her breeding, and her production if you want to read it another day. Safe to say, she was a superstar making machine. Her name will likely never be removed from prominent breeding due to the popularity of her son RockNRoll Hanover. Not in my lifetime anyway. 

RocknRoll Hanover in action as a racehorse.
I was in Sudbury, racing some horses the night that RockNRoll Hanover became the first harness horse in racing history to break the 1:50 barrier as a two year old winning the Metro Pace. It had been talked about for a long time, and most of us knew it was coming, but he was the first to actually do it.
I was up in the lounge where they have the restaurant and you could get food after the races and many people were there. Everyone was a buzz over the race. It is a great memory in what was probably just one of many ordinary nights spent racing very cheap horses in Sudbury, a place I did not enjoy going to.

But RockNRoll Hanover, although probably Rich N Elegant's best foal, wasn't her first foal. That was Rustler Hanover. He also won the Metro Pace, making her a two time dam of Metro winners. An amazing feat. And both were extreme longshots. I was there the night Rustler did it at 45-1, while I was in Sudbury, as mentioned above, as RocknRoll did it at 31-1. 

In addition to those two Metro winners, she also produced Red River Hanover, a horse that won the North America Cup in 2002. RockNRoll Hanover also won the NA Cup,  making her a two time dam of NA Cup winners. I watched that race on TV, and Red River was captivating in how he crushed that very good field. He didn't last to be as good or as consistent as Rustler or RockNRoll, but he was a champion nonetheless.
In addition to those 3, she also had Righteous Hanover, Richess Hanover and RoyalFlush Hanover. All great horses in their own right.

I met Vince Li one night at the horse races. I don't remember exactly what night. I was definitely still in University. I remember that much. It was either 1987 or 1988. I know that it was summer and that it was Greenwood. It might have been one of those nights that I went with my grandmother. Certainly, one of the nights I went with my grandmother Vince was there. I remember that for some reason.
That first night we met, I was having a very good night betting wise. Picking lots of winners. That happens to all of us. That night when no matter what choice you make, you win. A lot. I was having a night like that. He wasn't. Of course, as I came to find out very quickly, what I thought was a significant bet was not the same as what he did. Vince was a high roller. A very big bettor. The kind that Vegas gives rooms and free meals to when he is in town. I was a 2 dollar better, and when I was really out on the limb, 10 bucks a race at most. I still am that way to this day.
That night, I probably won about 60 or 70 bucks. He usually bet 500 to 1000 on every race. So, I am sure he knew that I was not in his league. But Vince was the type that didn't care. He could mix with Bay Street types, and then go out that night and have a beer with a bunch of illiterate grooms. He was a man for all types. 
He was also very Chinese. He still had a very heavy accent and also had just immigrated about 10 years before. He was also super intelligent, educated and came from a family that had serious money.
After that first night, I saw him many times at the track,  which was Greenwood. Once we got talking, I realized he only lived 5 minutes down the road from me in Thornhill. From then on, we went to the track together most nights that we both could. Sometimes I would meet him downtown, he would pick me up, and we would go from there. Other times, we would go to the smaller tracks. I had been a very steady attendee of the horse races for many years by that time, but had never been to a "B" track until I went with him. We went to all of them. London, Orangeville, Barrie, Flamboro, Elmira. It was also the first time I ever crossed over to the other side, the backstretch. 
The backstretch at any track is a whole different world that nobody understands until they spend some time there. The mystique of the horse races is revealed there. Like being in the locker room of a professional baseball or hockey team. You see what it is really like. What really goes on apart from the field, or in the case of the races, the racetrack. I learned that what I thought I knew, I did not.
Vince had been an owner of racehorses before he met me, but had sort of phased out of that by the time we met. He had two horses left. One was a broodmare that he owned in part as a racehorse. She was his first horse, one that did well enough as a racehorse that he decided to keep and breed for sentimental reasons. The guy he owned her with, Paul Simko, would actually train the first racehorse we ended up owning together. The second horse was a cheap claimer named Harrowsmith. 
Vince had bought Harrowsmith a couple of years before with the idea that he would be a better horse than he ended being. My first trip to Elmira was with Vince to watch Harrowsmith, who was supposed to be a cinch to win that night, finish a dull fourth. While I might have been angry about that,  Vince took it in stride. He was like that. He just carried on with his night and we went to bet more races, then headed home. I learned a lot about the racing game from how Vince conducted himself.
That summer, as mentioned, we hit all the smaller tracks. It seemed Vince knew all of these people that raced there. He told me things about each of them that went far beyond the program. The stuff you don't see. The stuff I learned and experienced when I became a trainer myself about 10 years after.
After he sold Harrowsmith, he began to get interested in buying more horses again, but much higher quality. Vince had the money to do that. The first horse in that bunch was a horse named P J Blaze. He bought (claimed) him for $50,000, which seemed like a lot of money to me, but was really nothing to Vince. Immediately, P J Blaze did very well, and he gave me my first chance to ever visit the winners circle, one night when P J Blaze won the last race of the night. We also both cashed a very large ticket on him. For me, large was a 20 dollar win ticket. For Vince,  he had the win, place, show, exactor and triactor, which I found out later when they gave him a cheque, amounted to over $30,000. Yes,  you read that right. In those days, and probably still today, when you win that big, they don't give you cash, they give you a cheque.
He also owned a horse called Kintyre, which had been racing for many years and I knew of well. Vince made about $30,000 in purses and probably as much betting on him in about a month before he sold him. With all that money, he bought a few more. Many of them did not pan out. But one did. That horse was called Jagger Hanover. 
Vince paid a lot of money for Jagger. My memory was that it was somewhere between $60,000 and $90,000. He had claimed him. There were not many guys who had the guts to claim horses for that amount in those days. Vince did. And it paid off. Jagger Hanover went from being a pretty good horse to one of the best horses in Ontario. My memory is that Vince made about $400,000 on him in about the two or three years he owned him. Jagger Hanover had a sad ending though. He died in a very horrific barn fire at Mohawk Raceway in 1991. By then, I owned a horse with a young guy, who was an assistant trainer to Vince's main trainer, named Nat Varty. Her name was Oma Express. She was also at Mohawk that day, but was not in one of the many barns that burnt down. She survived.
By this time, I had just graduated University. But not before I had gone with Vince many times to the races. One night, Vince and I were sitting around and he said he wanted to bet the next nights races, however he couldn't go. In those days, there was no internet and no wagering from your phone or at home. So, I said I was likely going down. He promptly handed me 500 bucks and said bet it all on a horse called Karries Leader to win. And then if she won, bet all of that money on a horse called Kestrel Hanover.
I looked at the program all night, and I could not see Karries Leader winning that race. She looked like a 40-1 shot. But Vince told me they changed something about her,  and nobody would know about that. She hadn't won a race in two years previous. When I got to the track, the race came within 10 minutes, and she was even money. Something wasn't right. Anyway, I bet the whole 500, as Vince told me to, and she won very easily. I now was holding $1000, which was a lot of money for a University student working nights at UPS to make enough money to eat lunch the next day. The race with Kestrel Hanover was 3 races later, and I could not stay to watch it. I could bet the money in advance, but I did not. I looked at the program, and I could not see anyway that horse could win. He was the longest of longshots. Vince knew nothing about this horse. He just wanted to parlay onto him. He did stuff like that. Sometimes he would make very intelligent bets like the Karries Leader or P J Blaze ones, and other times he would just bet anything. The money never seemed to matter to him. Kestrel Hanover looked like at least a 40-1 shot. So, I booked the bet. And off to work I went. I couldn't find out the results until the next day in the newspaper, but I was sweating bullets all night. But Vince wasn't.
Kestrel Hanover finished a distant and well beaten ninth. When I talked to Vince about it, he didn't even remember giving me the money to bet on that horse,  or to parlay it. He was like that. I was sweating bullets, he was out doing something else and had already forgotten about it.  
After that night though,  I never booked another bet, no matter how crazy I thought the persons bet was. I saw that backfire once on a friend, and I just always knew it was a bad idea to even try it.
With all the success Vince was having, and now being out of school, I decided I wanted to own one myself. Our first stop was the yearling sales. I knew nothing about anything, but again, I learned a lot from Vince there. We were there to get something, but Vince explained the facts of life to me where horse racing and owning was concerned. What did I learn that day? There are always more horses. If you don't get one that day, you can always get another the next day. I never forgot that.
We were there to buy a mare named Arresting. She looked good on paper, and we had hoped to pay about $15,000. When the bidding reached $20,000, Vince said to just forget it. She wasn't worth that. It turns out she was, but he never flinched or regretted that. I had another experience two years later with Vince and Arresting, and my first racehorse, Come By Chance.
Also that day, the big sire was Coal Harbor. We were thinking of getting one of those. But all the Coal Harbor's at that sale were of poor quality, and we didn't end up getting anything. He knew I was sort of disappointed. and he suggested a few months later that we should get a racehorse together. Vince was well connected, and he knew a guy, Gary Rivest, who he had done business with many years before. We bought a horse off of him, privately, for $15,000, which was just a bit more than we wanted to pay. Vince said she was still probably worth it, and I said I was game, so I was now a horse owner.
That same week,  Vince also bought two fillies at the big sale in Harrisburg Pennsylvania. I don't remember the name of the other one, but Rich N Elegant was one of them. It was his first foray back into the yearling game. 
When we bought Come By Chance from Gary Rivest, she was race ready. We gave her to Vince's old friend, Paul Simko, to train. Her first race, she got a very good second place finish. It was a very good start for me. And it got better. 
Because she was good enough for the big track, we gave her to Vince's main trainer, Rick Fife. Rick was the hottest trainer at the time, and I came to find out a short time later why that was. Immediately, Rick told Vince that she was a cinch to win her first race, and the odds were very good. We bet her, and she just got beat and got second again. We were way ahead and she was doing very well for us. We decided to up her in class, as I was told that if we left her at $15,000 we would lose her and then have to find another one. 
That night, she seemed like a pretty good fit, but things didn't go well and we finished out of the money. That was the reality of the horse business, something I had to get used to.
As the weeks went on, she still did very well and each week she was competitive, but not winning. One night, we were on our way to the track together, and Vince got a call to tell him that she had to be scratched that night. However, there was nothing wrong with the horse. The trainer had been caught with some items that suggested he was cheating, which he was, and any horse under his care had to be scratched. I was not happy. Vince was not happy, but that was just something to deal with. I was told by his assistant trainer, Nat Varty, that she was actually very good that night and would have won. That certainly didn't make me feel any better.
Eventually, she did win a couple of races. The second of those was my favorite memory of all my time in harness racing. By now, it was two years after that yearling sale when we didn't buy Arresting. She was a very good 2 year old,  and had earned $80,000 that year. As a 3 year old, she didn't come back well at all,  which wasn't surprising, as her sire Willow Wiper, had many that followed that pattern. That night, she was in to race against Come By Chance. It was a fairly tough and evenly matched field, and although Come By Chance had won her start two before that, she wasn't expected to win that night. This is the memory that reminds me that Vince was there at least once when my grandmother was. I had taken my grandmother that night to the races, something I did every now and then. To that point she had not seen my horse race. It was a very nice summer night. We were sitting with Vince and his wife, Rosita. My grandmother had gone to the races for about 60 years by then, but had never owned one nor been in a winners circle. As the horses hit the top of the stretch, it was clear that Come By Chance was going to win. And she did. Arresting finished last and barely raced after that night. Things had come completely full circle. My grandmother was not very mobile at that point, and it was a long way down to the winners circle. Vince told me they would wait. He was really good like that. He was a family guy. I think it was one of the biggest thrills of my grandmothers life, and certainly one of mine.
But with every up, or high, there is a down. 5 days later, in London, Ontario, there was a very big race. Jagger Hanover was by then one of the top horses around, and he was entered to race there. In addition, they entered Come By Chance to race. A race she should have won by 10 lengths. She did not. She got interfered with, had her legs cut out from under her, and barely finished. And she was injured and out of commission for two months. After that night, she was never the same horse. Jagger Hanover won that night, the biggest win of Vince's career. It was his biggest high and one of my biggest lows. That is life. 
By now, Rich N Elegant was a two year old and she was okay, but not doing well as a racehorse. Vince, however, being the type that was never deterred, bought two more American breds at the Harrisburg sale. One was an Amity Chef horse named Celebrity Chef who they expected very good things from but ended up being very ordinary. The other was an Abercrombie colt, who was purchased for about $20,000. By the spring, he looked like he was going to be a world champ. Vince was offered $400,000 to sell him before he ever raced, but he decided to keep him. Of course, with great highs come great lows. That horse broke his knee and had to be laid off, not making any money. Vince ended up selling him two years later for a huge loss, as he did with that Amity Chef horse, and P J Blaze, who became a very bad bleeder and was almost worthless by that time. Come By Chance also didn't pan out and we sold her as well. Jagger did well and he made some money on him, but lost a lot of money on many others. As Rich N Elegant was not doing terribly well either, he sold her. That is how she ended up in other hands.
My final experience with Vince was also not a good one. Once Come By Chance was sold, I wanted to get a better quality horse. I suggested a claiming horse named Mathers Harbor. Vince said he was a poor buy and not to do it. I had a friend,  Ian, who also wanted in. Mathers Harbor won his next 3 races and got sold for an additional $5000 dollar profit. Vince suggested a horse named Summerjin,  which I did not like at all. But Vince knew the owner/trainer from London, and said he was a good claim. On the night we went to claim him, I watched him warmup and I said I did not want him. Vince was not there, so he left it up to me. Since we were there, I just decided to go ahead and get him anyway. Which was a huge mistake. The horse raced okay that night. But then the roof caved in. When they got him back to the barn and took him out the next day, the horse could not walk. He had a huge crack in his knee. He was a cripple. It took a few weeks,  but we got him back to the races. He got 4th for us that first race.
The next race was two weeks later. Ian and I were going on a double date, a first blind date for me with a girl named Carmen.
 We got to the track that night with the girls and we expected the horse would do well. When he went to warmup it was apparent something was very wrong. He didn't even make the whole warmup. He went halfway, then the groom brought him back in. He was scratched due to extreme lameness, and never raced again for us. Two months later, we sold him for $7500, after we had bought him for $31,250. To Vince this was no big deal. He shrugged it off. To Ian and I, it was a very big loss. That night at the track, it was not a fun ride back to town and out to dinner. Never saw Carmen again either after that night. The whole night was a mess.
I lost touch with Vince, although I still bought horses and went in and out of the business for many years, until finally getting out completely in 2006. Vince also got out of it, and I heard he lost all of his fortune on bad investments and excessive gambling,  while Ian, my high school friend, did very well for himself in the ticket selling business and had some very good horses after that, and to this day. 
Vince Li was never Rich and Elegant. He was rich, anyway. I never cared either way. He was a good guy who I learned a lot about life from. The death of a great mare like Rich N Elegant brought that back for me. 
Rest in peace Rich N Elegant. 


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