Balooga Bull, the horse that has dominated racing news for two years at Assiniboia Downs because of his sizzling, jaw-dropping performances, is back in the news again, but not for the right reason.
He finished a dismal fourth in a five-horse field in the $30,000 Wheat City Stakes, a race that determined the best horse on the grounds.
At two- and three-years-old, Balooga won nine of 10 races, was hailed as possibly the best horse ever to race at the Downs and easily earned Horse of the Year honours both years. But his fourth place finish in the Wheat City after a dwindling nose victory in his previous race has his fans and connections scratching their heads. And the race wasn’t even close.
Balooga went to the lead in the one-mile test with pressure from the outside by Ran the Man and Pleasant Closing. As the horses were turning for home for the real running, leading jockey Paul Nolan checked him out of the fray and Balooga lost to Pleasant Closing by 16 lengths.
Pleasant Closing had been Balooga’s nemesis through his whole career, the only horse to have beaten him once in his first two years of racing, but Balooga’s dominance in the $75,000 Manitoba Lotteries Derby last year cast aside any doubt as to who the best horse was. Until this season.
Balooga lost to Pleasant Closing in his first race this year, then beat him by just a nose — and now this. It’s unfamiliar territory for Balooga’s owner, South Dakota cattle rancher Paul Brandt, and trainer Ardell Sayler. After basking for two years in gushing adulation, they’ve had to steel themselves to unsettling things said about their horse.
It’s said the Bull is a more relaxed horse this year than last, but appears unhappy and is not a good eater. And there are questions about his style of running — he appears to need the early lead. That could result in quicker fractions than the horse feels comfortable with, leaving little in the tank in the late stages.
But one clunker of a race doesn’t undo a horse’s greatness. In fact, Sayler and Brandt can take heart from the fact that a top horse in the U.S., Game On Dude, with a similar style of running to Balooga, finished a miserable 7th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall, only to bounce back with five consecutive wins including two Grade 1 events: the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Fans certainly haven’t given up and are looking forward to Balooga’s next race, whenever that is. And who better to have in your corner to reverse a horse’s fortunes than a 10-time leading trainer? Stay tuned.
Live racing continues Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.