St. Elmo Hero: 'All I Need Is a Pair of Wheels'
Whatever higher power was responsible for creating St. Elmo Hero clearly had a flair for the dramatic, if not a budding screenplay in the works.
Borrowing bits and pieces from the life stories of Secretariat, John Henry and Zenyatta, the script virtually writes itself. An unproven broodmare and her unbroke two-year-old colt bought from a killer buyer for $700.
The colt (now a gelding named in honor of the trainer’s late father) winning his first race and getting claimed for $8,750. The gelding going on to win 23 more races without a loss and becoming the undisputed star of harness racing.
Based at Balmoral Park just outside Chicago, St. Elmo Hero notched career win number 24 on Feb. 26 over his home track. After leading the field through splits of 27.4, 55.1, and 1:21.4 over a wet surface listed as “good,” Elmo hit the wire in 1:50 flat, the second fastest mile in the 5-year-old Indiana-bred gelding’s career.
Elmo, who has bankrolled $202,950 in career earnings, was scheduled to ship to Woodbine Racecourse in Toronto for yesterday’s Cam Fella Stakes series, but owner John Barnard was forced to scratch when the gelding spiked a fever mid-week.
With an eye on Bret Hanover’s record of 35 straight wins, St. Elmo Hero is an accidental superstar whose popularity is reminiscent of harness racing legend Rambling Willie, a hard-knocking gelding who won 128 races in an 11-year career and was known as “The Horse God Loved” because his owners tithed 10 percent of his earnings to their church.
Barnard, a resident of Orland Park, Ill., who has owned standardbreds since 2003, is enjoying the ride so much he has taken a sabbatical from his ATM maintenance business to travel with Elmo.
“My employees think I’ve retired,” Barnard said, laughing.
Barnard, who donated the $5,450 winner’s purse from Elmo’s last race to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation for children’s cancer research, balks when asked to compare Elmo with his thoroughbred racing counterparts — especially 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta, who was undefeated in 19 races before losing the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Blame by a long nose.
“They both started when they were a little older, and they both have four legs, that’s about it,” Barnard said. “One thing I will say is that this is not the same horse we claimed last year. He’s continued to improve. We’re just taking it one race at a time.”
Elmo was bred by Carl Becker, a retired track announcer who owns the gelding’s sire, Western Hero. Becker, 73, called races at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield and the Red Mile in Lexington, Ky.; his son Kurt is the track announcer at Keeneland Racecourse and has called the races at Stoneybrook.
Becker breeds standardbreds for sale, and sold the mare Crystal Crickett in foal with Elmo. He lost track of her, but got a call in 2008 from a man who was planning to send Crystal Crickett and her 2-year-old colt to slaughter if they couldn’t be sold.
“The mare hadn’t thrown anything, and the colt wasn’t broke,” Becker said. “Elmo was one phone call away from going to the killers.”
Becker paid $700 for both horses, and had the colt sent to an Amish farm, where he was picked up by trainer Shawn Nessa. Nessa suggested getting the colt broke — and gelded — and bringing him to the races the following spring as a 3-year-old.
Nessa christened the coffee-colored gelding “St. Elmo Hero” — not as an homage to the 1985 film starring Rob Lowe in all his mulleted glory — but as a tribute to his late father, who hailed from the rural town of St. Elmo, about 70 miles south of Decatur.
“When Shawn named him, he didn’t realize the horse would honor his father quite so much,” Becker said.
Elmo was “a little off” early in his 3-year-old season, so Nessa recommended turning him out and bringing him back as a 4-year-old. When Elmo did return to training, his works were “reasonably impressive, but nothing you’d get excited about,” Becker said.
Nessa detected something in the horse’s movement that suggested he might benefit from a round of treatment for equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), a neurological disease. He responded well to the treatment, so Becker and Nessa decided to run him in an $1,800 maiden claiming pace at Balmoral on July 14.
“I thought, well, let’s put him in a race where we won’t have to use him so hard,” said Becker, who had planned to race Elmo in Indiana and sell him at the Standardbred Horse Sale in Harrisburg, Pa. “I thought we might as well steal a race.”
Elmo won his first race in 1:55.3, but it was his last race for Becker. Barnard had heard Nessa speak highly of the gelding, and decided to drop the $8,750 claim slip.
“I’d had a chance to see him warming up on the track, so I’d gotten a pretty good look at him,” Barnard said. “We’d watched a couple of his qualifiers on the Internet, so we knew what we were getting.”
Certainly, Barnard never harbored any illusions that his new acquisition may wind up being an all-time great. And he tries to keep a level head when questions arise about the gelding’s place in history.
“The winning streak is nice because it’s getting some publicity for the sport,” Barnard said. “People have compared him to (three-time Horse of the Year) Bret Hanover because of the streak, but I don’t really think it’s a fair to compare horses from different eras in harness racing. And Bret was just a fantastic horse.”
Elmo, who is nominated to stakes on the East Coast and the Midwest, will face stiffer competition as he runs through his conditions, according to Balmoral Park director of publicity Tom Kelley.
“Once he starts running against those horses with 60, 70, 80 career starts,” Kelley said, “then we’ll have an idea just how good he is.”
It isn’t uncommon for standardbreds to race past 10 — Rambling Willie, who was voted aged pacer of the year three times, was retired in 1983 at 13 with more than $2 million in earnings — so Elmo may stick around long enough to create a similar fan following. Even in retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park, Rambling Willie was a star attraction who took part in meet-and-greets twice a day.
“The key with racing standardbreds nowadays is not to race them too hard,” Barnard said. “The good ones go so fast these days it’s hard to keep them sound. Every race could be their last.”
Becker insists he has no regrets over running Elmo in the claiming race that would be his last as the gelding’s owner. He is anxiously awaiting the birth of Crystal Crickett’s 2011 foal by Duneside Perch.
“Last year, she was just another mare,” Becker said. “This year, because of Elmo, she’s got her own paddock and anything she wants. We treat her like a queen.”
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