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Thursday, July 5, 2018

Anniversaries, by nature, are specific times of remembrance scattered throughout one’s life calendar. For trainer Stephen Ulrich of the Charter Kennel, June 29th marked his fourth anniversary of taking over the reins at the flagship booking of one of the most successful kennel operations in the country. During the previous 48 months, he got to experience a number of high water marks, including kennel championships and a multitude of stakes victories. Some of those victories were by greyhounds destined to either be and All-American, or were currently one, although there have been trophy blankets hanging by those who were just good enough in the most important race on the most important day.

But none of them included a Southland Derby championship.

Not to say Charter Kennel, Inc. didn’t have a Derby championship blanket hanging from the proverbial “rafters”. They were the last kennel to produce a back-to-back Derby champion with the great CTW Buck Wild back in 2009 and 2010. Before this year’s installment of the Derby, Stephen Ulrich noted to those that would listen that “it would mean the world to get one of these (Derby) blankets. It is one of the most prestigious races around.”

In the vast majority of stakes races, it is indeed not only tough to get a win, but having the greyhound firepower talent-wise to have a realistic chance usually means many things have to line up perfectly. The weather and track conditions can definitely play a factor, but often times post position, who is running hot and who is not all come together to bake this “stakes race pie” that is tough to make and even tougher to master. Even the best trainers sometimes wait years to get one and then it can also come in bunches. Once the greyhound is in the starting box, it is ultimately determined by 32 paws on a sandy surface in roughly 32 seconds.

Good news though, was that the Charter Kennel had two opportunities in the championship to get it done. TUXEDO looked and smelled the part of a real threat to win a race like this. Fresh off nearly pulling off a Razorback Classic championship (led and ended up finishing third), this black male was just a half-length from going undefeated during Derby qualifying. He has a penchant for thrilling races near the finish as not only was his one loss close, but even his three wins were by less than two lengths each. The early speed demon had enough early getup to neutralize bad post positions and his eleven season wins were tied for second most in the field of eight.

His other ace in the hole resided on the far outside for the start of the race, a red male by the name of FGF CHISUM. Much like his kennelmate, he was one race shy of going undefeated himself during qualifying. Although he never got the lead in that third round runner up finish, he was never far behind the leader. His early speed out of the box, when he was on his game, reminded everyone of his great dad, iconic BELLA INFRARED, who’s name still surfaces around the West Memphis oval from time to time even though he ran his last race over five years ago now. Although loving the “bookend” post positions (#1 and #8), much like TUXEDO, when he breaks fast post position really didn’t matter. Although, trainer Ulrich felt much more comfortable with the #8 blanket for this race. “The race is full of speed,” he noted. “I’d much rather him be out there and just have to worry about his inside than worry about greyhounds on both sides of him at the start”.

And the race was indeed chalked full of early foot. DEL SOL ELLIS (David Blair Kennel) didn’t have the sharpest break in the world, but his rush to the first turn was noteworthy. When he got loose around the turn on the lead, he often laid it on the field. His third qualifying round win was officially charted at 5 lengths, but he was still pulling away until the escape turn came up again. FLYIN JIGGLYPUFF (Lester Raines Kennel) had been on a tear for the better part of the first half of the season. His sixteen wins were tops in the field on the season and he already had a stakes race title to his resume by winning the Hound Madness back in March. However, he had been running a bit erratic lately, needing every bit of his semi-final win to earn enough point to even compete in the championship race.

Darren Henry Kennel and trainer Gerald Love also pulled the “Derby Double” in terms of entrants. Quietly, ARKANS BD NATAL was making a mark on Southland Park, winning a stakes title back last Fall in the Festival of Stakes as an Arkansas Bred. Not so quietly, he was making his mark during Derby qualifying with two big wins, a second and a fourth place finish. This true rail/inside runner steps his game up especially from inside post positions, and wearing that red blanket on championship evening caused many bettors to consider including him on any tickets. Kennelmate ARTEX CRAB was not as well known. His qualifying record was solid (a win, two seconds and a third), but that lone victory was just his fourth on the season in nearly thirty trips. He had incredible closing speed though, which was on display during the Razorback Classic championship when he took a near last place start to a near victory, just missing by a length to eventual champion IMARK OCTANE.

Speaking of late closing speed, there may be none better than PAY TREE IT (say the name real fast and you will get it). For this red male, breaking last during a race was normal. Being last for the first half of a race is normal. But coming home during the last half of a race there may be nothing better than watching him winding up. While longer distances are more his forte, he was able to catch all his rivals and win in the semi-finals to go along with two second place efforts during the four rounds. His fourteen second place finishes jumped off the sheet at you, even if the five wins on the year didn’t say much.

Mike Harris Kennel and trainer Victor Hall had the last entry in the field with MJ MAX FREEZE. The white and black ticked greyhound was the only female to make the field and was the poster child for “running hot at the right time”. She fell to grade “A” just a month prior and only had four wins in 28 starts prior to qualifying. Once qualifying began though, she rattled off two wins, including one in the semi-finals against fellow finalist ARKANS BD NATAL and talented KONOMI. She was rewarded for those efforts with the ever dreaded #5 box for the championship however and it appeared she would have to run the race of her life to pull off probably one of the biggest upsets in Derby Championship history.

And history was indeed made in 32 seconds flat during the 13th race on that Friday evening, although it wouldn’t be a longshot type of story. At least not in the traditional sense.

When the box opened for the Southland Derby, MJ MAX FREEZE did what gave her the only shot of winning the race, which was breaking fast and on top. However, she was unable to clear room as the field packed closer with ARKANS BD NATAL charging along the rail, TUXEDO nearly stride for stride and FLYING JIGGLYPUFF sandwiched in between. The one greyhound that broke well and had room to operate was FGF CHISUM, which was exactly what trainer Stephen Ulrich envisioned with that #8 post.

With all the room to run, FGF CHISUM hit a second gear going to the turn and edged into the lead. MJ MAX FREEZE offstrided just a little bit when ARKANS BD NATAL passed on her inside and the rest of the pack was nearly side by side a few lengths back going into that pivotal first turn. Once the dust cleared in that turn, it was apparent we had a three greyhound race for the championship. Few clearly saw who the third greyhound was though.

With FGF CHISUM assuming command going into the backstretch run by a couple of lengths, ARKANS BD NATAL felt comfortable in second along the rail. Although MJ MAX FREEZE was third a couple more lengths back, it was the sight of a blue blanket that got the attention of some. PAY TREE IT, who was inside the traffic of the first turn emerged better than expected in a battle for fourth place with his last burst of speed still waiting in reserve. ARTEX CRAB was also in that battle for fourth to the inside which would prove to be no match at the end while DEL SOL ELLIS, TUXEDO (with no late speed at all) and FLYIN JIGGLYPUFF all out of the race at this point.

The backstretch run saw little change in the field, but the far turn was a different story. FGF CHISUM still held a comfortable lead, but PAY TREE IT was within striking position at this time and you could see his motor wind up. ARKANS BD NATAL had valuable rail position in his favor but he wasn’t gaining really any ground on the leader and wasn’t known for having a late burst in him. MJ MAX FREEZE gave one heck of an effort considering post position, but was also prone on the rail and could do nothing but watch PAY TREE IT pass her by on the outside.

By the time the pack hit the homestretch, PAY TREE IT had assumed third place position and was just a few steps back of ARKANS BD NATAL for second. Although he was also gaining ground on the leader, FGF CHISUM, the bright lights of the finish line were just too close to finish the job. FGF CHISUM crossed the line a little less than a length and a half better than PAY TREE IT who got half his body ahead of ARKANS BD NATAL for second. Longshot (25 to 1) MJ MAX FREEZE did ride the rail and held fourth while ARTEX CRAB finished fifth. DEL SOL ELLIS traveled sixth the entire way around the track, TUXEDO ran a lackluster seventh while FLYIN JIGGLYPUFF finished an uninspired eighth.

Owner Kevin Fulton and his family were on hand to witness a lot of firsts that night. Although it was technically the second stakes championship for FGF CHISUM (he won the 2017 Texas Bred Championship at Valley in February that year) it was the first championship for him at Southland Park. Also, although with less fanfare, the Fulton family also got to walk onto the track for the second time that evening due to FGF ADAM (half-brother to CHISUM) won the Derby Consolation race just two races earlier.

Stakes race victories can sometimes be compared to the weather. Sometimes you are in a drought and can’t buy a drop of rain (or a victory) and others you can’t stop the rain (or the wins). In this case, trainer Stephen Ulrich not only broke his “Derby Drought” that evening, he drowned in victory by taking the “DERBY DOUBLE” by winning both the consolation and championship races. “I’m not trying to be greedy here, but hopefully we can keep this streak going in the Festival (of Stakes),” an elated Ulrich said afterwards.

CHRIS CHANCE MEMORIAL

The lone feature on the hot July calendar at Southland Park is the Chris M. Chance Memorial which will feature 16 of our best middle distance greyhounds competing in a “quickie” format of just one single preliminary round before the championship. The top four finishers of each of the two preliminary races will earn a spot in the finals that will feature $10,000 on the line.

The preliminary round is scheduled for Sunday, July 15th with the championship slated for Saturday evening, July 21st. $4,500 will grace the winner of this event named in honor of a longtime volunteer supporter of our local adoption program that passed away nearly a decade ago.

After the Chris M. Chance Memorial, the stakes race scene cools off for about a month and a half before the big event of the year kicks off in September, the Festival of Stakes program.

 

Shane Bolender