Pentland and its ray of light
Posted: Jan 22, 2022 1:51 PM ET
Stonebridge Helios was a horse John Pentland never expected to train. Less than a year later, he is now a horse that the longtime conditioner has been looking forward to returning to his stable.
In 2021, two-year-old Stonebridge colt Helios shone brightly with a perfect record on the board by going 4-2-1 in seven starts while banking $295,710. These feats resulted in an O’Brien Award nomination for Sunshine Beach’s son – Ken Doll J.
While Pentland wasn’t so surprised to learn that his rookie star was a 2021 O’Brien Award finalist, he was quite surprised to get the call about the colt’s training ahead of his two-year-old season.
“John Fleischman asked me to take this horse that was about to qualify,” Pentland said. Initiated at the trot. “I was a bit full, but I wasn’t going to refuse a colt that could run even in the [Ontario Sires Stakes] The base. But then he said he qualified in a day or two, and then he qualified really well for Dirk Simpson…then it was like, ‘I’m going to find a pit here. No problem.'”
After a 1:59 qualifying at The Meadows on June 15, Stonebridge Helios headed north and qualified for their new conditioner 10 days later at Woodbine Mohawk Park. That performance, a 1:55.3 mile with Bob McClure at the controls on June 25, set Pentland on target for the first OSS Gold event on July 3.
“I thought he was a golden colt when he crossed the wire in that qualifying when Bob and I qualified him. But he had to step on a rock or something in the paddock at home, and he ended up with some sort of bruise around his dress on one back foot.”
This setback prompted Pentland to pivot to Plan B: the first Grassroots event three days after the gold medal. “I just didn’t have time to prep it for gold and asked John and Dirk – I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes – if we could go to the first Grassroots. That would give me some more days and wouldn’t put as much pressure on the colt and both guys have been great about it.”
A second-place finish for Stonebridge Helios in that first Grassroots event was followed by a lifetime best score of 1:51.4 in its first gold test on July 16. Two more gold wins would follow, then the colt moved on to Grand Circuit competition and captured his $213,170 Champlain Division in 1:52.1. This mile from Stonebridge Helios was the one that stood out the most for Pentland of his student’s rookie season.
“Oh, it must be the Champlain. He rode on it. Like some of the other efforts, where he came from last – and I’ve watched that race a bunch of times… Jody [and Erinwood Yves] cut those real pedestrian fractions and he got up for the win – but I’ll tell you, when he took care of that field in the Champlain…he looked as good looking as any horse around.”
Unfortunately for the Connections, the only time Stonebridge Helios didn’t finish in the top three was in their biggest purse run of the season – the $225,000 Ontario Sires Super Final. 2021 Stakes. The betting favorite finished a solid third, just half a length behind winner Bob Loblaw. Pentland didn’t blame the colt, saying he “just didn’t have him on his toes” after a five-week break ahead of what would always be his final start of the year.
“He had a tough trip. It was probably his toughest trip. Like it wasn’t a brutal and horrible trip, but he had to do a lot of work until halfway through and yes, he was a bit short. But other people have good horses too…we just lost the race. Fair and square.”
Suffice it to say that while there are other “good horses” at Pentland’s point, he is absolutely thrilled with the colt he conditions and co-owns with Fleischman and breeder Angie Stiller. In fact, he would place Stonebridge Helios among the best he has had the privilege of sitting behind. When asked to describe her best attribute, Pentland hit the proverbial “everything” button.
“He doesn’t miss any. He’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever trained. He’s got good manners, he has a nice gait, he’s big and strong, he’s focused on what he’s doing, he’s easy to ride… there’s nothing this colt doesn’t have, there’s no flaws in him and he shows it to you right away.
“You just program him where you want to go and he does it. Dirk has done a great job training him and getting him ready to race. He’s just such a great horse.”
Pentland took part in the 2020 virtual O’Brien Awards gala and enjoyed her evening thanks to an award-winning season from rhythm filly Lauras Love, will look forward to attending this year’s virtual awards show on Sunday February 6th, but confessed he had instead spent an evening celebrating with the harness racing industry in person.
“Oh, it broke my heart to tell you the truth,” Pentland said with a smile and simultaneous regret. “I was excited to take [my girlfriend] and I was hoping that the Stillers and John [Fleischman] would be able to go. It would have been great fun. But this virtual thing… they’re doing a great job. The people who do it, I couldn’t imagine how they could come up with the right ideas to do it and make it inclusive. They do a brilliant job, but it’s not there. And you are with people who are all celebrating their success. It’s a happy place, you know, and everyone there has obviously had a great year. It’s so much fun.”
Of course, some people prefer the virtual setting and it opens up the night for more people to attend in the same way. But nothing can replace the opportunity to make personal or professional connections like the traditional setting of the O’Brien Awards. It was at the O’Brien Awards over 15 years ago that Pentland first had the opportunity to meet and discuss a serious personal matter with one of its co-owners.
“I remember when I went there for Luck Of Michelle. My son had a little heart murmur a long time ago, and Dr. Stiller was there. It was the first time I met him, and I had the audacity to walk up to the man and say, “Doctor Stiller, can I tell you just a moment about my son? Oh, he probably only gave me five or ten minutes of his time, but he gave me his home number and talked to me for an hour on the phone. as classy as any guy i’ve ever met. you know? you can’t make those connections at home.
On Feb. 6, 2022, Stonebridge Helios and fellow runner-up Betterhavemymoney connections will be watching from home to find out who voters have chosen as the Canadian Colt Two-Year-Old of the Year for 2021, one of 18 awards to be presented during of the virtual O’Brien Awards Gala.