In the profusion of gripping backstories that often accompany the horse racing world, few have the sheer depth and sagacity of Andrew Bentley Stables' Edward Graham-trained Hardest Core. Little has gone to plan for the bay gelding -- except, of course, for his talent.
A son of Hard Spun -- best known for his wins from seven furlongs to 1 1/8-miles -- out of a mare by champion sprinter Housebuster from the family of sprinter/miler and champion juvenile Gilded Time, the late-blooming turf marathoner Hardest Core defied the odds from the beginning.
After winning three of his first eight starts, all in 2013, with trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and owner Ghostzapper Racing, the then-sophomore was sold at Keeneland November to steeplechase horse owner Greg Bentley for $210,000, who purchased the bay colt as a gift for his son Andrew. Ex-steeplechase trainer Rusty Carrier bought into Hardest Core and initially sent the charge to be conditioned by Paul Roland.
"It really is a crazy story," said Wendy Graham, wife and assistant to Edward Graham. "He was purchased for Andrew, Greg's son, who has Down Syndrome, and this horse means the world to him. When Rusty gave up training, his horses went to Paul, my husband's best friend. Paul had Mesothelioma and sadly passed soon after, but before he did, he made sure that Eddie was connected with Greg and got his horses."
The soap opera of the human side of the Hardest Core operation is matched only by that of the horse himself.
"After we bought him, he had a problem with his castration and fought for his life. He lost 18 feet of intestine, which was literally laying on the ground in front of him," Wendy explained. "He is a remarkable animal with such a great disposition. Any other horse may not have made it, but he recovered and the next day was banging his feed tub against the wall. It was unbelievable."
After recovering, the newly gelded and sutured Hardest Core slowly worked his way into a new training regimen. An ex-steeplechase jockey, Graham incorporates such prowess into the horse's conditioning.
"He trains on hills and gallops like a steeplechase, basically like a European, and it seems that the farther he goes, the better he is," Wendy continued. "The castration seems like it definitely helped him. He loves his training on the farm and gets turned out every day. We've been bringing him back slowly and not overmatching him and we're finding out that he may be as nice or nicer than we originally thought. It's pretty amazing, if you think about it. He has flourished."
Flourished, indeed. Hardest Core has yet to be challenged in his two starts for his new connections, including a sharp allowance victory at Parx going 1 1/16 miles and a win in the Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park on July 12 -- his first test at a marathon distance, which resulted in a sharp three-length acing. Since then, Arlington International Racecourse has been on the mind of Bentley, Carrier and the Grahams.
"We originally thought about the American St. Leger for him. It looks like the ideal spot for him because of the distance. He would love to go that far, but we also are looking at the Arlington Million," Wendy continued. "We also looked at the Sword Dancer (on Sunday) at Saratoga. I think everyone is going to try to sit down and make the right decision after we put the pieces of the puzzle together.
"One thing is for sure -- the horse is really special to us and especially to Andrew," Wendy concluded. "He hasn't been tested on the racetrack before, but has overcome so much already. He is just a beautiful horse and we look forward finding out how good he is."
When Festival pre-entries were taken last week, he was pre-entered in both the Million and American St. Leger. A final decision was to have been made Tuesday, but Daily Racing Form's Marcus Hersh tweeted Monday that Hardest Core would take his chance in the Million.