Workin for Hops at 9: On to the Next Gig
By Tom Ferry
He has never been much to look at. Often described as unpretentious and slight of build, some who were closest to him over the years have affectionately referred to him as “a ratty little horse.” Overcoming first impressions and challenges is something Workin for Hops has been faced with his entire life.
|Workin for Hops - Photo courtesy Tom Ferry|
Foaled on May 12, 2007 at Parrish Hill Farm in Kentucky, he was due to be sold in the Keeneland November Yearling Sale, but failed the repository veterinarian’s examination when pre-sale radiographs revealed what were thought to be OCD lesions that would require surgery. The OCD issues eventually disappeared after the horse was given time to relax and grow.
Co-bred and owned by Amy Bondon and Tom McNally, the son of City Zip out of Citi Pearl by Citidancer was named for a term coined during the Great Depression, defined by those who just tried to get by and make enough money to move on to the next gig. Trained by Mike Stidham and running in the colors of Amy Bondon’s Estorace LLC, Workin for Hops broke his maiden with an emphatic 7-length gate-to-wire triumph at Arlington Park his first time out during the fall of 2009.
After a second place performance at Keeneland and a victory at the Fairgrounds to wrap up a promising two-year-old season, the horse turned heads once again at the New Orleans track the following March with a convincing 5-length score in the Grindstone Stakes.
“I remember when he ran huge that day, I had all these people trying to buy him,” recalls Amy Bondon. “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.’”
The horse returned to Chicago and in late May, captured the first leg of the Mid-America Triple, the $100,000 Arlington Classic on turf, under jockey Robby Albarado. After a runner-up finish one month later to 3-year-old rival Paddy O’Prado in the (G2) Colonial Turf Cup Stakes at Colonial Park, it was back to Chicago where Workin for Hops was victorious in the 96th running of the $200,000 (G2) American Derby, the second leg of the Mid-America Triple. Suddenly, the small gelding had become the talk of the Chicago Thoroughbred racing world and moved on to Arlington Million day and an attempt at history. Hops entered the (G1) Secretariat Stakes and attempted to become just the fourth horse in history to sweep the Mid-America Triple. Having earned a reputation for giving 100 percent of his heart in every race, he ran valiantly but it wasn’t to be as he finished third in the contest behind winner Paddy O’Prado and Wigmore Hall. As 2010 and his 3-year-old season concluded, the connections could look back in pride as Workin for Hops won or placed in 6 of his 7 stakes races.
His 4-year-old season was highlighted with another graded stakes score in the $100,000 (G3) Hanshin Cup Handicap, a runner-up finish in the (G1) Maker’s Mark Mile at Keeneland, and a gritty third place performance behind future two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the (G2) Fayette Stakes. For those who surrounded and followed the horse, an engaging personality continued to emerge. At the conclusion of one race, Workin for Hops was convinced he won yet had not been told about the finer points of disqualification. He made his way to the winner’s circle and made his displeasure known when he was turned away. This fighting spirit was a constant across his 41-race career.
During the next three racing seasons, the heart was willing but the legs were not. Workin for Hops would never again achieve the level of success he experienced during his 3 and 4-year-old years and slowly descended down the claiming ranks. By March of 2014, he had changed owners and trainers a couple of times and after an 8th place finish at Gulfstream, his original owner/breeders Amy Bondon and Tom McNally reacquired the horse and promptly retired him. The 7-year-old had amassed $729,733 by winning 23 of 41 starts. The turf specialist won two graded stakes on two different surfaces and placed in six others.
Working for Hops lived at Bondon’s New Jersey boarding farm for about a year and began to demonstrate signs he might be capable of a second career. This caught the attention of Mike DeMent, commercial breeder and member of Hops’ team. In early 2015, DeMent worked with the ownership group and Erin Pfister, manager of Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue, and arranged to move Hops to the 1,000 acre farm in Pawling, New York owned by the family of the late owner, breeder and philanthropist, John Hettinger.
|Young Declan DeMent meets Workin for Hops - Photo courtesy Tom Ferry|
“In my opinion, they are the absolute best at what they do,” says DeMent, “and that is the ability to rescue, rehabilitate and re-home Thoroughbreds who are no longer able to race. They also have a have a wonderful retirement program for OTTBs which was perfect for Workin for Hops.”
Hops flourished at Akindale as he learned to trail ride while also frolicking in a shared paddock with horses of all ages. In October, he was adopted by Susan Aufrichtig of New York. “He is everything I could ask for,” says Aufrichtig. “He is sound, sane, athletic, kind and extremely intelligent. And I am constantly amazed by his unflappable demeanor. I was hand-grazing him one day when a bulldozer at a construction site next door started up and knocked a row of trees to the ground in a chorus of earth-shaking percussion. While I jumped five feet in the air, Workin for Hops looked up calmly, took the situation in, approved of the building plan and returned to grazing.”
The horse’s second career is underway as both Hops and Aufrichtig have begun dressage training with Courtney Bolender at CB Walker Stables in Brewster, New York. Bolender feels Workin for Hops is off to a great start.
“He’s not so sure yet what it means to be a dressage horse but his efforts always shine through,” says Bolender. “He tries every day to understand what is being asked of him and while he can be a little mischievous at times, in the end he always wants to please.”
In addition to dressage training, Hops has acquired the job of babysitting the more nervous horses at the farm during turnout. Between trail rides, dressage lessons and the babysitting gig, the 9-year-old puts in a full day. As time goes by, Susan Aufrichtig is witnessing the strong sense of calm and confidence Chicago racing fans saw for nearly five years at the track.
“I love that he is a horse with his own plans and he’s not at all afraid to share them,” says Aufrichtig. “Start a dressage lesson on a day when he’d prefer to trail ride and he’ll let me know. Hand-graze him at the bottom of the hill when he’d prefer the grass at the top of the hill and he’ll discuss that as well. He has his plans, but is always willing to negotiate. Especially when cookies and carrots are involved.”
What we often love most about our favorite athletes is when they showcase immeasurable heart and desire and find a way to surpass so many of the expectations we and others place on them. Workin for Hops embodies this and like those for whom he was named, it’s on to the next gig.