After 20 years of breeding and raising horses, Clarence "Buck" and Judy Chaffee of Vienna entered their first Breeders Crown with a horse that, three months ago, no one suspected of greatness. The horse, Caviart Sydney, placed an unexpected third.
Since September, "each time she was in a race, she shocked us," said Judy.
The Chaffees run pacers in harness racing, in which the horse pulls the driver on a cart, called a sulky. The term "pacer" refers to the horse's running style — harness racing consists of both pacers and trotters. They own 14 horses under the stable name Caviart Farms.
On Sept. 29, Caviart Sydney won the Bluegrass for two-year-old filly (young female) pacers, a top-tier stakes race that draws horses from all over the country, after starting from the forbidding 10 post, farthest from the center of the track.
"We thought she had lost when she drew the 10-hole," said Judy.
Going into the home stretch, said Buck, Sydney was still in dead last.
Then she passed everyone.
Her odds in the race had been about 132-1.
"It was just the most incredible thing I've ever seen," Judy said.
Early on in the season, Sydney's showings had been fairly mediocre. "When we saw her race the first time, we didn't think she was that good, but [her trainer] kept saying she had talent," said Buck. "It just took a while to show up."
"She has shocked everybody, because we never thought she'd be as good as she is," said trainer Jim Arledge Jr. "She always showed she had flashes of speed," he said noting that once she found her style of racing — coming from behind at the end of the race — "things started going her way."
"For the first half of the race, she's not really interested," said Buck. "She likes to pass them at the end." He said if she gets to the head of the pack early on, she seems to think the race is over. This method, he said, makes the Chaffees very nervous at every race.
"We would prefer her to be a leader, but as long as she's in front at the end, that's what matters," he said.
The Chaffees also noted that Sydney is considerably smaller than most of her competition, putting her at a disadvantage. "She is a tough little filly," said Buck. "Guts and drive — that's what does it for her."
Judy said Sydney's driver in the Bluegrass called her the gutsiest filly he had ever driven.
She also won her event in the Virginia Breeders Championship, a trophy the Chaffees have taken home four out of the last five years.
Sydney has now finished first in four of her last eight races. Buck also noted that she has run 16 races, almost twice as many as the norm for a first-year racing horse. After a few days off, said Judy, she wants to race again and becomes difficult to control.
Going into the Breeders Crown, which draws the best horses from across North America, Arledge said he was just hoping she could come in fifth.
Any horse can be entered in the Crown, as long as their owner has kept making payments into the pot to keep the horse eligible. However, the price for entry is $5,000, so no one enters who does not think they have a shot at the prize money.
Nine horses were entered this year, and one was pulled out because of an injury. Those who remained, however, were serious contenders. In fact, the first place finisher ended up tying the track record. This was at Meadowlands, which Buck said is considered to be the premier track in the United States, "and probably in North America."
Not only was Sydney smaller than her competition, said Judy, but she was the only horse in the race without immediate blood ties to horses that had finished first or second in previous Breeders Crowns.
The predictions for first, second and third place — which did not include Sydney — were considered fairly certain, said Buck.
At the top of the stretch, again she was in dead last, he said, before she rallied her strength for a third-place finish.
Buck estimated that about 1,200 pacing fillies are born each year on the continent.
"So we're thrilled with her third-place finish," said Judy. Placing in the Breeders Crown has been their goal for 20 years, they said.
With a $500,000 pot, it is one of the highest stakes in harness racing, said Buck. Sydney's take was $60,000, bringing her earnings for her first year of racing to $156,000.
"As far as prestige, I don't think there's anything higher," Judy said of the Crown.
Sydney is not the first horse the Chaffees have had that was good enough to race in the Breeders Crown, said Buck. Her mother, Caviart Sierra, was an excellent horse, but her career was slowed down by an injury, he said.
As a result of her performance in the Crown, not only has Sydney's value increased, but that of her brothers and sisters has also increased. The Chaffees own all of her siblings on the side of her mother, Caviart Sierra. The value of Sydney's future foals is also increased.
After next year, she will retire from racing and begin her second career as a brood mare, the Chaffees said. This is because races for two- and three-year-olds have the highest stakes, due to their unpredictable nature.
Meanwhile, with this stakes season at an end, Sydney is currently resting on a farm in Ohio. "We hope she enjoys her time out and eats a lot and gets bigger," said Buck. Her performance next year may hinge on that factor, he said. "She has talent. The only question is her size. She's competed against a lot of horses bigger than her and was successful, but these horses are going to grow. So if she doesn't grow, it's going to be a big disadvantage."
Arledge said he was less worried about her size than her style. "She's a real gutsy filly. I'm more worried about her racing the whole mile," he said. "It's going to be a lot tougher as a three-year-old to just race at the end."