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ITHA News

Bahena's Racetrack Dreams | Robertson Report | Sunday Replaced by Extra Races

CHICAGO – Some kids growing up on the backstretch at Hawthorne Race Course and Arlington Park might dream only about getting out of the racetrack life. About leaving behind the cold, pre-dawn mornings, the seven-day weeks, the toil and the struggle that earns many families their daily bread and not much more.

Fernando Bahena had dreams – racetrack dreams. Born in Cook County, born into the Chicago racing world, Bahena is the son of Mario and Lara Bahena, who worked years and years for the late Harvey Vanier, overseer of one of the leading Thoroughbred operations in Illinois.

“Since I was a little boy, I told my mom I was going to train. She would point out there and say, ‘There’s other stuff you can do,’” Bahena said.

Reached by phone the afternoon of May 17, Bahena was in Collinsville, IL, to saddle a horse in a race at FanDuel Sportsbook and Horse Racing, the former Fairmount Park. The horse, Mon Amie Fuzzie, finished a non-contending fifth. You win some, you lose more. But the fact is Bahena was saddling a horse he himself trains. He’s had his trainer’s license since 2018, fulfilling his childhood dream.

There haven’t been too many better training days so far for Bahena, 31, than May 14 at Hawthorne, his home base. In the $75,000 Robert S. Molaro Stakes for older Illinois-bred sprinters, Bahena sent out 19-1 shot Huey Attack. The 5-year-old gelding paid no heed to the odds on the tote board, rallying relentlessly under Orlando Mojica to get up by a head over 5-2 second choice W W Cookie Monster. It was the second stakes win as a trainer for Bahena, who trained Cowgirl Kimmie to win the $56,000 Debutante during December 2019 at Hawthorne.

Huey Attack’s stakes score had extra resonance. Bahena trains the gelding for owner Jose Rodriguez, who is married to Bahena’s sister, the former Nancy Bahena. Rodriguez and Bahena claimed Huey Attack for a mere $6,250 in October 2020, and Huey Attack has since earned more than $125,000.

Huey Attack is one of many Illinois-bred floating around by the somewhat obscure sire, Forest Attack, whom Dr. Donald McCrosky owned and bred to his own broodmares. The offspring of Forest Attack performed surprisingly well racing on Arlington Polytrack, and when Bahena claimed Huey Attack, he had in mind grass and Polytrack races the next year at Arlington. But in his last start of 2020 and first in 2021, both dirt sprints at Hawthorne, Huey Attack tipped his hand, winning both races like he’d found his calling after running turf routes much of 2020.

“I just liked the way his body looked when we claimed him. We always try to look for some cheaper claimers and get lucky,” Bahena said. “The way he was working in the morning, we thought, ‘Why not try him on dirt?’”

Bahena did some grooming for Vanier while he still was going to school, then worked for Vanier’s successor, his son-in-law, Brian Williamson. He groomed for Doug Matthews, still training on the Chicago circuit, and worked as an assistant for trainers Leroy Hellman and, more nationally known, Robertino Diorodo. Now he has 30 head under his care and like everyone at Hawthorne, which is hitting pause on Thoroughbred racing this year between late June and late September, Bahena is figuring out what to do with his stock. He said he plans to set up shop at FanDuel for the summer, then haul everything back to Hawthorne for the fall-winter season.

The disrupted 2022 season comes a year after Bahena really came into his own training, winning 30 races, more than double his previous top annual win total, with stable earnings of more than $530,000. You have to think Bahena is going to figure something out going forward. He’s come this far and has the best horse he’s trained in his barn – a pretty solid foothold in the sport for a child of the backstretch.

“My mom and dad met at Arlington and my mom passed away at Arlington,” Bahena said.

One way or another, her son will try to keep training in Chicago.

Robertson report

Not out with the old and in with the new, but in with the old and also in with the new.

That’s the story in the Hawthorne barn of veteran trainer Hugh Robertson, who welcomed 6-year-old stable star Two Emmys back to Chicago a couple weeks ago, and who on May 13 sent out a very promising 3-year-old maiden winner, Omaha Red.

Two Emmys is the best Thoroughbred currently residing in Illinois – or Indiana, Minnesota, and Iowa, for that matter. The gelding, purchased for a pittance, $4,500, by Robertson at Keeneland’s sprawling September yearling sale, won the Grade 1, $600,000 Mr. D Stakes, the former Arlington Million, last summer during Arlington’s twilight. In March, cleverly managed through a winter campaign in New Orleans, Two Emmys produced another peak race when it mattered most, winning the Grade 2, $300,000 Muniz Memorial.

But things went amiss in Emmyland last month at Keeneland. Two Emmys, the favorite, set the pace in the 1 ½-mile Elkhorn Stakes but fell tamely back to finish a distant seventh. The afternoon was unseasonably hot and humid, and Two Emmys, Robertson reported, was found to have suffered a heatstroke.

Two Emmys walked and grazed until leaving Kentucky with the string trained by Robertson’s son, Mac. Hugh has him back galloping over the Hawthorne dirt track, hopes to breeze the gelding again soon, and, if all goes well, this diminutive, unassuming, and excellent racehorse will grace the Hawthorne turf course in the $75,000 Outbound Ike Stakes on June 19.

“I’ll probably just keep him here. No need to ship and run right now if we don’t have to,” Robertson said.

Robertson won a first-level, dirt-sprint allowance race May 14 with a 3-year-old named Coyote Road. He’s one rung farther up the class ladder than Omaha Red, who has only a maiden victory on his resume, but apparently lags behind the less accomplished horse in the talent department.

Coyote Road debuted with a Hawthorne maiden win this spring before his recent allowance success, yet over the winter at Fair Grounds the Robertson crew took to calling Coyote Road “The Pony” – namely because he reminded people of a stable pony.

“They said he could pony horses because he never picked up his head. But at the end of the meet, he started coming around,” Robertson said. “He’s gotten pretty good.”

Robertson liked Omaha Red from the start. No one called him names, but he, like Coyote Road, needed time to find himself. Omaha Red was decent, if soundly defeated, in his Arlington debut over Polytrack last summer and showed little turf-sprinting at Keeneland in October. Back in action April 3 at Hawthorne, Omaha Red was beaten a nose in a maiden sprint, but no one came close to beating him May 13. Omaha Red whistled six furlongs in 1:09.48, a stakes-level raw time that produced a strong 88 Beyer Speed Figure, and won a maiden race by more than 12 lengths.

“I think he’s going to be a pretty nice horse. He was a little bit of a slow learner, just needed to grow up,” said Robertson, born and raised in Nebraska (not Omaha) and a graduate of the state university there. Robertson owns Omaha Red with Randall Wolfe, same partnership as Two Emmys, but to buy this colt at auction cost $62,000. Robertson said he was especially interested in acquiring Omaha Red because the colt’s dam is a sister to Hotshot Anna, whom Robertson trained and owned through a career that netted just shy of $1 million purses. Mac had given a thumbs up on the colt after viewing him at the 2020 Keeneland yearling sale. And that Omaha Red is by a relatively obscure sire who stands in Louisiana, Daaher, likely only enhanced his appeal to Robertson, who loves buying horses by unfashionable stallions.

Robertson has battled health issues the last couple years; he almost didn’t go to the Mr. D stakes after a bout of diverticulitis had laid him low. Reached by phone this week, he sounded grounded and strong, the Robertson shedrow at Hawthorne still churning right along.

Sundays replaced by extra races

The Illinois Racing Board on Thursday unanimously voted to approve Hawthorne’s request to drop the last five scheduled Sundays of racing during the ongoing Thoroughbred meet. The ITHA didn’t oppose the request because Illinois horsemen won’t lose many, if any, racing opportunities.

Sunday cards had recently consisted of seven races, and using that as a guide, Hawthorne will run 35 fewer races the rest of the meet. But the track has committed, starting with the Saturday, April 21 card, to running at least 10 races per day.

Including Saturday, there are 12 days left in the meet, and an additional three races per day comes out to 36 races, using seven-race cards as a guide, and 24 using eight-race cards. That means fewer racing days, but nearly the same number of races.

Hawthorne is bowing to intense pressure for entries with so many regional tracks in operation. Canterbury Park opened its 2022 season this past week, joining Prairie Meadows, Horseshoe Indianapolis, Fanduel Sportsbook and Racing, and Churchill Downs on an already crowded Midwest circuit.

Hawthorne had been averaging 6.46 starters per race during the early part of the meet with two-day race weeks, and that number dropped to a troubling 6.21 with the start of three-day racing weeks. Sure, it’s easier to win a race in a short field. But when fields get too short, bettors stop playing, and before long there may be no racing at all.

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