River Dog runs away with Mike Lee

Monday, May 31st, 2021

River Dog scores in Monday’s Mike Lee. NYRA Photo/Joe Labozzetta

By Joe Clancy

Last summer, River Dog was a promising 2-year-old on the verge of his debut at Saratoga Race Course. And then he wasn’t. Trainer Jeremiah Englehart didn’t like what he saw, stopped with the colt and sent him back to Webb Carroll Training Center in South Carolina.

And is getting paid back.

Bob Hahn’s now 3-year-old blasted maiden foes in a 7-length laugher at Belmont Park May 7, and returned Monday to become a stakes winner in the $125,000 Mike Lee Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-olds. Giving away experience to all five rivals, the son of Twirling Candy accompanied Excellent Timing through early fractions of :22.32 and :44.84 before taking over and seeing out a 1 3/4-length victory as the 4-5 favorite. Ridden by Jose Ortiz, River Dog covered 7 furlongs in 1:23.38 as Market Alert rallied for second and Lobsta closed from the back to take third over a muddy track on Big Apple Showcase Day.

The winner collected $68,750 to get to $110,000 in earnings from just two starts. Patience pays, as they say.

“We had a handful of horses that had some immaturities, inflammation here or there, just things holding them back and he was one and looked like he had to continue to grow,” said Englehart of his thinking last summer. “It was a strange year, too. You just didn’t know when to bring them off the farm, with Covid and things. Should you work this week or not? When were they going to open the barn area at Saratoga? There was a lot going on.”

Englehart sent River Dog, foaled at Dutchess Views Farm in Pine Plains and named for a craft brewery in South Carolina, back to Durr and the work toward 2021 began Jan. 1. River Dog breezed four times at the training center in February and March, came to Belmont in mid-March and shined in that maiden win May 2. He prepped for the Mike Lee at Saratoga, and dazzled again. Hahn, watching from home in Hilton Head, S.C., thought of the decision to hit the pause button last summer.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I think a lot of owners don’t trust what they hear and they say go on with it. I trust these guys with everything. They’ve always done right by me, and they said he just needed a little more time to grow and mature. That’s why we decided to wait with him.”

Hahn’s phone rang with purchase offers after the maiden win (accomplished in a quick 1:09 for 6 furlongs), and it’ll probably happen again this week, but he’s going to enjoy the ride for now.

“I just said, ‘Can’t I enjoy this for a little while?’ ” Hahn said of the offers. “Now he’s a stakes winner. It’s a great feeling.”

Hahn breeds to race and to sell (two half-sisters to River Dog have brought six figures in the sales ring), but listened to Durr’s advice when it came time to make plans for River Dog.

“He was one we were going to sell,” Englehart said. “Travis said, ‘You look for these kinds of horses to race. I wouldn’t sell this one.’ He’s very good at seeing that potential.”

Hahn’s first horses were with trainer John Tammaro III and the duo won 13 races (11 stakes) and $520,269 with Maryland-bred Secret Prospect in the mid-1990s. She became a broodmare and her daughter Tangier Sound won eight races (five stakes) and earned $265,970. Tangier Sound’s daughter Sterling Forest never raced, but produced River Dog. Hahn and his wife Faith own two mares, who foal at Dutchess Views Farm in Pine Plains. The breeding game keeps Hahn, retired from a career in pension administration, involved in racing – and days like Monday make the work worth it.

“It’s a challenge to figure out if I’ve got the right sire for the mare,” he said. “It helps me mentally to stay on top of things because it’s so hard. The New York program is a great opportunity. We haven’t won a stakes in what feels like 30 years. It hasn’t been that long, but it’s been a long time. To have a horse nice enough to participate in this type of event, even if he hadn’t won, is special. It’s what we’re trying to do all the time.”

River Dog made Hahn and Englehart sweat through some anxious pre-race details as the trainer reset the tack in the paddock and Ortiz had the gate crew do it again just before loading.

“I broke out more than the horse did,” said Englehart. “Any time something changes you always get worried as a trainer. I was surprised because I thought I had fixed it in the paddock. When I went to pull the overgirth over, I think the saddle just slid to the right side a little bit too much. He had the gate crew fix it the proper way after I fixed it the wrong way.”

Not that it mattered. River Dog broke running from the outside stall, listened to Ortiz and let Excellent Timing have the lead from post three. The Damon Runyon Stakes winner in March edged away by a length – briefly – as Ortiz leaned against River Dog early. By the half-mile split, River Dog drew alongside and eased away. Ortiz took a look behind him coming to the quarter pole, saw no challengers and let the winner stride away. He got a little tired late, but had plenty left.

“You worry about them coming off a big race like that,” Englehart said. “You worry they might bounce or whatever. He likes to play. He’s a gamer. I think he ran through the bounce. That’s him. He knows he’s the boss.”

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