In the Chinese calendar, this is the year of the snake. But to horseplayers at Assiniboia Downs, this has been the year of the Bull.
More precisely, this has been the year of Bull drama.
That’s because Balooga Bull, described by longtime veterans as the best horse ever to race at the Downs, has produced a roller-coaster of emotions, both for his connections and his fans.
He came into his four-year-old year with two Horse of the Year titles and victories in the three most important stakes races at the track: the $50,000 Winnipeg Futurity, the $75,000 Manitoba Lotteries Derby and the $50,000 Gold Cup. Only one horse beat him in one of his first 10 races, Pleasant Closing, but Bull vanquished him by 10 lengths in their next race, the Derby.
But this year has been different. He didn’t seem quite himself in his first few races, getting beaten twice by his nemesis, Pleasant Closing — even finishing a highly-uncharacteristic fourth in one of them, way behind the others.
Bull-lovers wanted to know just what was going on. He was their horse and in one race they even bet him down to odds of 1-9 (a mere $2.10 return on a $2 investment). And the Bull camp, consisting of 10-time leading trainer Ardell Sayler and his owner Paul Brandt, a Montana cattle rancher, really felt the heat. There was talk around the backstretch that Bull wasn’t eating well, that he wasn’t happy.
So what to do? Send the Bull down to Nebraska for a full vetting — scoping his innards to see whether something physically was wrong. Thankfully, they discovered the problem: stomach ulcers and a colon issue. That gave the trainer a chance to do something about it: After his fourth place finish in the Wheat City Stakes July 6 — at less-than-even-money odds — he disappeared, then suddenly burst onto the scene six weeks later, posting a jaw-dropping workout of 59 seconds for 5/8ths of a mile.
As trainer Sayler said later, this race was more important than winning the Derby last year, so when his Bull utterly demolished the field, the trainer was almost speechless. "I had an apple in my throat after the race," Sayler said. What a relief!
Then his great horse came back to win the Gold Cup for a second time to now be considered for an unprecedented third Horse of the Year title. Yet, said Sayler, the horse is "just 70%" and will continue to be treated down at his South Dakota ranch through the fall and winter. Does that mean fans will see an even better Bull emerge next season? Now that’s an exciting — and scary — thought!