Feature: Workin for Hops 'Believes He Can Fly'

Workin for Hops faces a tall order as the 9-2 second choice coming off the layup into Saturday’s Grade III, $125,000 Fair Grounds Handicap at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, but his connections have learned to give the unassuming chestnut gelding a chance.

Standing in Barn 36 just days before saddling two contenders to the 1 1/8-mile turf event – 8-year-old Gran Estreno is also entered – trainer Mike Stidham said this son of City Zip may not be much to look at, but last year he ran beyond everyone’s wildest expectations.

“You’d never imagine,” Stidham said. “He’s a 4-year-old now, so think about when he was just getting started as a 2-year-old. He was narrower, even a little smaller. You’ve got this horse working good, not great, but you’d never think this was going to be a graded stakes winner.”

In spite of his slight build and unpretentious appearance, Workin for Hops brought home earnings of $446,176 in the past two years, much of that earned in stakes victories in 2010. He won the 75th running of the Arlington Classic, the first leg of Chicago’s Mid-America Triple, last May 22, ran second to Paddy O’Prado in the Grade II Colonial Turf Cup, then captured the second leg of the Triple, the Grade II American Derby, on July 17. Although he missed the third leg when he ran third behind Paddy O’Prado in the Grade I Secretariat Stakes on Aug. 21, he came back to run a game second in Delaware Park’s Grade III Kent Stakes in his most recent outing last Sept. 25. In 10 starts, he has a 5-3-1 record, and has only been off the board one time (he finished fifth after stumbling at the start of the American Turf at Churchill Downs this spring). Not bad for a runner whose first task was running for a $40,000 tag.

“As you can see by his past performances, we didn’t have very high expectations for him first time out,” Stidham said. “He worked well, but he never did anything to make us think ‘big horse,’ you know? But every time we raised the bar a little bit he just kept meeting the challenge and it was really amazing, the year he had and as good as he ran.”

Workin for Hops, who runs in the colors of Amy Bondon’s Estorace LLC and who Bondon bred in partnership with Tom McNally, had challenges to overcome even before he reached the racetrack. Foaled in Kentucky at Parrish Hill Farm, the same facility that raised 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic, he was meant to be sold at the Keeneland November Yearling Sale, but failed to pass the repository veterinarian’s examination when pre-sale radiographs displayed what were thought to be OCD lesions that would require surgery. When Bondon took her runner home to Florida and gave him time to grow, however, the OCD issues disappeared.

“He was somewhat of a problem child from the get-go; he looked like a little aardvark,” recalled Bondon, whose stable has campaigned runners such as Grade I winner Ermine, Grade II winner Freefourinternet, and Grade III winner Personal Legend. “He was so small he couldn’t get his head over the stall door, with this big baby belly. Then, because he hadn’t sold at the sale, I had myself a racehorse. Just what I needed, a horse I couldn’t sell.”

She named the horse Workin for Hops after a term coined during the Great Depression – “It meant just trying to get by, making enough money to go on to the next gig,” Bondon said. “At that point it was very hard for me to keep that horse in training, but everything happens for a reason.”

Tony Everard, a well-known horseman who selected 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide as a yearling, had been instrumental in Workin for Hops’ early education as well.

“He kept telling me, ‘That’s a runner, Amy, that’s a runner,’” Bondon recalled.

Turns out Workin for Hops isn’t the only one in the family who can run. His half-sister, a Candy Ride filly named Cryptocandiac, broke her maiden at Fair Grounds on Dec. 3. His dam, Citi Pearl, is in foal to Henry the Navigator and has been accepted to the first book of 3-year-old Champion Lookin at Lucky. But the chestnut gelding is definitely the current star of the Estrorace string, as he proved in that maiden debut when he smoked the competition by seven lengths and was, as the chart says, “much the best.” After running second in a 6 ½-furlong Keeneland allowance race, he got his next win by 4 ½ lengths in a one-mile event at Fair Grounds in the winter of 2009, after which he took the Grindstone Stakes here for 3-year-olds by five lengths.

“I remember when he ran huge that day; I had all these people trying to buy him and one guy asked me, ‘Is your horse really that teeny or was that just a really big horse next to him on the rail?’” Bondon laughed. “I said, ‘Both, but he doesn’t know he’s such a little horse, that’s for sure.’”

Fast-forward to 2011 and Workin for Hops is back – after that much-deserved downtime for the winter.

“It had just been a long year, he’d done a lot of traveling, and it was a case of choosing to do the right thing, giving him some rest,” said Stidham. “He came back strong and has been training very well, hasn’t missed a thing. He’s been on a steady weekly schedule and his works have been very good, solid works. I’m very pleased with the way he’s coming up to it.”

In the Fair Grounds Handicap, Workin for Hops faces formidable foes in Telling, winner of the Grade I Sword Dancer Invitational last summer at Saratoga, and 3-1 favorite Loup Breton, whose last win came in the Grade II San Marcos Stakes at Santa Anita back in January of 2010. Both runners, however, come off less-than-satisfactory efforts – Telling was sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf on Nov. 6 and Loup Breton makes his first start since running seventh in the Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar on July 24 of 2010.

Other contenders in the Fair Grounds Handicap include the likes of Paul McGee trainee Dubious Miss, who ran second to Gran Estreno last time out in the Grade III Colonel Bradley Handicap on Jan. 22, the David Carroll-trained Joinem, third in that race, and Ronny Werner trainee Le Grand Cru, who ran third in the F.W. Gaudin Memorial Stakes on that same day.

“I think we’re asking a lot of him coming off the layup to go right into a mile and an eighth against older horses, but it’s not as if he meets the conditions for an allowance race, and rather than shipping 14 hours to Gulfstream or Tampa, this is the race that fits him here,” Stidham said. “I think he’s up to it. Just going off last year, he was running really solid numbers on the Ragozin sheets. His last four races were all ‘sixes,’ and with this race coming up this weekend, those numbers really fit with these horses. He was running those as a 3-year-old, and hopefully as a 4-year-old he gets a little better. If he does, I think he’ll handle the competition well.”

“He’ll try his behind off,” Bondon said. “His heart is gigantic, and he’s very talented. Whether he needs a race, I guess we’ll find out, but I think this year he’ll continue to develop into a really nice horse. Paddy O’Prado is a tough animal and he ran very respectably with him. He’s very consistent and he’s my kind of horse, a regular guy, hard-working, with plenty of heart. He’s kind of like the kid who jumps off the roof with the Superman cape on – because he believes he can fly.”