Hanuman Highway Enjoys Second Career
If you’re old enough (or trivia-obsessed enough) to remember the Chuck Wagon commercials from the 1970s, then you might understand why I shuddered at hearing the word “racehorse” in the same sentence with the brand name of my cocker spaniel’s favorite dog food.
But I was pleasantly surprised to discover recently that a chuck wagon just might be the best thing that can happen to an ex-racehorse in Canada. And I was even more delighted to learn that one of my old racetrack pals from California — who had a brush with celebrity as a Kentucky Derby hopeful 12 years ago — has beaten the odds and gone on to even greater fame (if not so much fortune) in his racing afterlife.
To preface: I keep a list of ex-racehorses who caught my eye — and in many cases, stole my heart — during their long racing careers. The whereabouts of these horses, mostly geldings, are unknown. Where, for example, is Will Cojack, a turf champion in Panama who knocked around in cheap claiming races at Aqueduct during the early 1990s? Or the long-striding gray Diamond Anchor, who won 17 of 120 races and more than half a million dollars? How about Copelan’s Eagle, a towering, dark bay stunner who won 15 of 74 races and $390,014?
Despite the Herculean efforts of rescue groups such as the Communication Alliance to Network Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorses (CANTER), the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) and the United Pegasus Foundation (UPF) — all of whom work tirelessly to match suitable horses with prospective owners — most horses coming off the racetrack are, to put it bluntly, doomed. The numbers provided by the TRF are jarring: Approximately two-thirds of the more than 3,000 racehorses retiring each year are euthanized, slaughtered for their meat or simply abandoned.
While there are currently no horse slaughterhouses operating in the U.S., there are seven in Canada. And with some 40 racetracks spanning the True North … well, you do the math.
But for many of those Canadian ex-racehorses — even those who might not pass a vet check as a potential eventer or jumper — a second career as a chuck-wagon horse might be a possibility. That’s exactly how Hanuman Highway, who ran seventh in the 1998 Kentucky Derby, wound up being Highway, 2009 Champion Left Leader on the World Professional Chuckwagon Association (WPCA) circuit.
Bred in Ireland, Hanuman Highway began his racing career in England before being purchased privately by Syd Belzberg’s Budget Stables (so-named because Belzberg owns 75 Budget Rent-A-Car franchises in Canada). The pint-sized gelding was turned over to veteran trainer Kathy Walsh in Southern California, and pointed toward the Triple Crown prep races. Hanuman Highway lost the Arkansas Derby by a head to eventual Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop, and went into the Kentucky Derby as the “wiseguy’s” choice, a longshot handicappers deemed worthy of a bet because of his improving form. But after racing mid-pack, Hanuman Highway flattened out in the drive to finish 12 lengths behind the winner, Real Quiet.
Recurring ankle problems limited the gelding’s ability to train; he ran only 12 races over the next three years and retired in 2001 after a last place finish in a starter allowance race at the Bay Meadows Fair.
As Hanuman Highway’s racing career was waning, Jason Glass’ was just taking off. The fourth-generation chuck-wagon driver won his first World Champion Driver title in 2000, and added two more in 2008 and 2009. And as Glass, 39, tells it, he couldn’t have won the last two without the best little left leader in the business: The gelding formerly known as Hanuman Highway.
Glass, who has also worked as a stunt man on more than 150 film and television projects (including “The Hulk,” “Unforgiven,” and Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest effort, “Inception”), almost passed on Highway when the gelding was brought to his Alberta farm.
“He had a pot belly and his mane was down to his shoulders,” Glass said. “His ankles didn’t look like he’d be worth trying. But I took a chance.”
Chuck-wagon racing is a sport steeped in nostalgia. Original chuck wagons carried food and cooking equipment on cattle drives in the 1800s. The first chuck wagon races took place at the Calgary Stampede in 1923. Modern-day chuck wagon races, usually run in conjunction with rodeos, consist of four wagons pulled by four horses racing around a half mile oval, with a team of outriders assisting at the start and during the race. The WPCA circuit comprises 14 events run throughout Western Canada.
Despite its roots in Western lore, the breed of choice for a chuck-wagon horse is the thoroughbred. “You’ll see the odd quarter horse here and there,” Glass said. “But they just can’t run far enough. I would say 99 percent of our horses are off the track.”
Many of the chuck-wagon horses have been rescued from feedlots, and Glass knows of several instances where a horse was bought straight off a slaughterhouse-bound cattle car. And Highway isn’t the only Glass-owned horse with a decorated past. Fly Esteem (Bear) won the 2004 Alberta Derby and $236,399; Alexandersrun (Alex) won the 2005 Emerald Downs Derby and $274,376. Fellow driver Troy Flad used 1988 Canadian Derby winner Elmtex (Old Tex) on his wagon for 12 years before retiring him at the age of 20.
Most chuck-wagon pros-pects come with assorted battle scars from the racing wars, most commonly bowed tendons and ankle issues. “We give them a full year off before we start training them to the wagon,” Glass said. “A lot of these horses have injuries where they might not stay sound if you put a rider on their backs. Pulling a wagon requires them to use completely different muscles. A horse is supposed to carry his weight from his back end, and that’s what pulling a wagon forces them to do.”
Before he begins working with his thoroughbreds, Glass puts two horses together to buddy up. “Once they get comfortable, I’ll take them to the round pen,” he said. “I do several different things, but mainly ground driving. Once they’re comfortable with that I hook them to a Ben-Hur type of chariot.”
Glass will first pair a new horse with a more sedate type of work horse, such as a Clydesdale. “I’ll hook the new horse to the work horse until he’s comfortable with the harness and the pull and tug touching his legs,” Glass said. “I’ll normally start a first-year horse on the back end of the wagon and keep him there for a year. They’re a lot more comfortable following the horses in front.”
Highway actually began his chuck-wagon racing career as an outrider horse, one whose rider assists with the wagon loading at the start and then gallops behind the wagon during the race. “He loved doing that,” Glass said, “but one day he pulled up a little sore in one of his ankles, so we moved him to the wagon.”
Until this year, Highway worked as a “left leader,” a horse on the front end closest to the rail. But Glass decided to take advantage of the gelding’s natural agility by moving him to the right front this year. The right leader is the most important component of the team, according to Glass, because the race begins with a figure-eight turn around barrels to the right.
“The right leader is the hardest horse to build,” Glass said. “When the horn goes off, if the right leader takes a step too early to the right or the left, it will throw all the horses off. The right leaders tend to be a little more athletic.”
Glass maintains five or six teams, and typically travels with 12 wagon horses and four outriding horses. At the 10-day Calgary Stampede, which ended July 17, Highway’s team qualified for the final event, the GMC Rangeland Derby. Unfortunately, Glass drew the fourth-barrel, which meant starting from the far outside. Highway and company still made a race of it, and finished third, beaten by only half a wagon length.
Not surprisingly, the sport — whose governing body can be reached at the website www.halfmileofhell.com — has routinely been criticized by animal rights groups. Four chuck-wagon horses died at this year’s Calgary Stampede, two wagon horses (from heart attacks after racing) and two outrider horses (one after breaking a leg and another after breaking a shoulder, both during races).
Billy Melville, a chuck-wagon racing historian and archivist for the WPCA, said the loss of two horses in 1,728 trips over the Stampede Park oval, while tragic, is not excessive. “Of course two horses are still too many to those of us who love these horses,” Melville said. “But the race itself really had nothing to do with it. I’ve seen it happen on the prairie, a horse running around just takes a bad step.”
In 21 years of chuck-wagon racing, Glass said he has lost only one horse, a statistic not too many top thoroughbred racing trainers could claim. He recently retired one of his best horses, Kurt Cobain, at 19, even though the gelding was “100 percent healthy.”
“He looks like a 6-year-old but at 19, the chance of him having a heart attack or something is too risky,” Glass said. “It’s worth it for me to be able to watch him hang out for a few more years in the pasture.”
At 15, Highway seems to be in the prime of his career. He races once a week, occasionally twice during longer events. At home, he shares a pasture with several buddies, including his old partner, Tycoon County (Tycoon). “They were a lead team for five years,” Glass said. “I couldn’t separate them.”
Highway’s happy ending gives me hope that my other long-lost geldings are thriving somewhere, perhaps living under assumed names so as not to attract paparazzi such as yours truly. If you’re out there, Mr. Thrifty, and you see Bit of Petrone or Dedicated Don, tell them Highway’s on the wagon.
But best of all, he’s off my list.
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