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Pure Bliss: Blissfull Hall wins 1999 Jug
Monday, September 21, 2009 - by Nicole Kraft, Hoof Beats executive editor

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This story originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Hoof Beats. To subscribe, visit http://shop.ustrotting.com/subscriptions.aspx.

"We'll have a third heat! That's what you wanted, you got it, in the Little Brown Jug!"

Roger Huston's voice was still echoing around the Delaware County Fairgrounds on Sept. 23, 1999, as Ben Wallace walked behind the sulky of Blissfull Hall, dust swirling while the bright bay colt headed into the paddock.

The trainer's head was bent like the sun now heading low on the horizon of the 71-degree day, and his mind was racing an hour ahead. If the just-completed race had gone according to script, Wallace's first-heat winning colt, the betting favorite in the Jug final, should have already been adorned with yellow roses, taking a victory lap around the track. Instead, he was outkicked by upstart Looking For Art, and now faced a third-heat race-off to determine the Jug winner.

Few trainers would welcome such a challenge. Some might have been struggling with strategy, or even pondering whether to put the horse on the track for a third race in the same afternoon.

But Wallace's mind went in a totally different direction when he looked up at Blissfull Hall's owner, Daniel Plouffe.

"I told him he had just won the Little Brown Jug," Wallace remembered. "I knew this horse could sit fourth and still win. I wasn't sure if he would, but I knew he could."

 

USTA Photos

Blissfull Hall leads the field of four into the stretch in the third-heat raceoff in the 1999 Little Brown Jug.
It has been exactly a decade since Ben Wallace proved prophetic that autumn afternoon. Blissfull Hall would, could and did win that Jug race-off and trophy with one of the most explosive third-quarter kicks ever seen in that race or any other. Just three weeks later, the son of Cambest rocketed to a two-heat win in the Messenger Stakes at The Meadows and became just the sport's ninth Pacing Triple Crown champion.

In those 10 years, however, much about Blissfull Hall seems to have been forgotten-from the dominance of his sophomore campaign to the glory of his Crown championship. But those who saw his amazing effort over Delaware's half-mile oval swear the scorch marks are still there.

***

Quebec native Daniel Plouffe headed south to the 1997 Tattersalls sale with $50,000 in his pocket and-like everyone who heads to a horse auction with money-dreamed of buying a champion. He and Wallace had looked at some good prospects, and even bid on one or two, but hip number 44 kept pulling his eye.

His name was Blissfull Hall.

The Walnut Hall Ltd.-bred son of Cambest was out of the Abercrombie mare Hundred Kisses, whom Plouffe, a student of racing and breeding, remembered having paced a 25.4 final quarter on Aug. 1, 1992-at the time the fastest ever at the Meadowlands.
"Daniel loves to have broodmares who did well on the racetrack," said Plouffe associate Claude Brault, who often speaks for the French-accented owner.

Wallace remembered the colt, hammered down at $47,000, as being "very powerfully built."

 
Trainer Ben Wallace conditioned Blissfull Hall throughout his career.

"He had a tremendous neck," the trainer recalled. "His most appealing feature was his hind quarters. He was not the biggest horse, but he had power."

Keeping the price down might have been the fact that Blissfull Hall was a ridgling, with one of his testicles remaining tucked in his abdominal cavity. The trainer had "no issues" with the condition, but admitted it did seem to affect the colt in his 2-year-old campaign.

"Whenever he was asked for high speed, he'd hook the right line and run in," said Wallace. "I assumed it had to be because of the testicle."

After a pair of qualifying efforts, Blissfull Hall debuted July 21, 1998, at Woodbine, finishing first in 1:56.1 with driver Rick Zeron. Three weeks later he won at Flamboro in 1:58.3, and earned himself a trip to the Metro Stakes, but was seventh in his elimination.

The colt came back to win the Metro consolation in 1:53.2, and followed up with a Champlain victory in 1:54. He ended the year with four wins and a second in eight starts and $141,829 in earnings-and his connections had a decision to make.

"I told Dan at the end of the year that if that testicle did not show up, and he expected Blissfull to be a division-one pacer, he can't do it the way he is," said Wallace. "We talked about the possibility, in the spring, of castrating him."

But in the middle of February, while beginning to train the colt down at the Meadowlands, Wallace looked underneath Blissfull Hall's belly one day and saw a pair of testicles where once there had been only one.

"He was a happier guy then," said the trainer. "It was a big turning point."

***

Wallace brought Blissfull Hall back to the track for a pair of Mohawk qualifying efforts-in 1:56 and 1:54-before handling the lines back to Zeron for a conditioned race at Woodbine. Blissfull Hall rocketed home from ninth at the half and 10th at the three-quarter pole to finish second in 1:52.3.

A week later, just hours before the sport's best sophomores would line up at Woodbine for the North America Cup, Wallace's colt went postward for the 3-year-old Open that kicked off the card-and promptly gave racing notice there was a new star on the horizon. Blissfull Hall paced second-over to the half in 55.4, and kicked home in 27.2 to beat Island Fantasy in 1:51.

"I had told Dan I would not have him ready early enough for the North America Cup," said Wallace. "We didn't know we'd have such a nice horse, but I knew if he was going to be a player, it would be later in the year. Nobody races in the North America Cup and races easy."

 
Blissfull Hall and Wallace warm up at The Meadows.
Blissfull Hall's explosive display earned him a trip south to the States for the Meadowlands Pace, and placed him in the hands of a new reinsman. Although Plouffe had sought the services of fellow French Canadian Luc Ouellette, that driver was committed to Mystical Shark. His suggestion for the mount: Ron Pierce.

"Luc got a hold of me and told me he had a really nice colt who was wicked fast, but he was doubled up in the race," Pierce recalled. "I didn't have anything in the eliminations, so I said I would drive him."

Despite his recent win, bettors found little to like in Blissfull Hall's lines and sent the colt off at 27-1. It appeared to be money well saved as the colt left the gate eighth and sat there through the half. But coming around three-quarters Blissfull Hall was on the move, and he virtually flew down the lane. With a 25.2 final split, he caught and passed favored The Panderosa in 1:51.1.

"He was wicked fast on the end of the elimination mile," Pierce admitted. "It was an amazing effort."

But not amazing enough for Pierce to stick with his mount; he had promised to drive in the final fellow qualifier Badlands Hanover, with whom he had won the freshman Breeders Crown the year before. Wallace put Daniel Dube in the sulky and figured fortune had found him in New Jersey when, while pulling the post-position pills during the race draw, the trainer selected the rail for his horse and post 10 for The Panderosa.

That, however, was where their luck ended. Blissfull Hall sat sixth and ninth for much of the race before closing in 26.1 to finish seventh behind dominating winner The Panderosa. Badlands Hanover was just ahead of him in sixth.

"My horse was buried from the time the gate folded," said Wallace. "The earplugs were still in when he crossed the wire, because Dube could never let him go. People thought after his elimination win he must be a flash in the pan. I knew he was loaded and never had opportunity."

Like Horace Greeley, Blissfull Hall's land of opportunity proved to be out west, as Wallace next sent the colt to Illinois for the American-National elimination and final. Paired with Dale Hiteman, the colt was second favorite behind Art's Conquest when he went first-over to win his elim by 3-1/4 lengths in 1:51.2. A week later in the final he was still second choice, this time behind Mystical Shark, but Blissfull Hall left no doubt who was the best. He romped to a four-length victory in a lifetime best 1:49.2 and seemed to barely break a sweat doing it.

"About an hour after the race I went back to see him in the ship-in barn," Wallace recalled. "It was like 110 degrees. The other horses were still blowing. My horse was standing in four alcohol bandages, tearing into his feed bucket. I told his groom, Gilles Roy, 'We have a good horse.'"

***

Now stamped as one of the best of his class, Blissfull Hall teamed again with Pierce for the Adios, where he won his elimination in 1:53.1. He was, however, outkicked in the final by Washington VC-a loss that taught Pierce a valuable lesson.

"The one thing you could not do with Blissfull Hall was shake him up before the race-you need to be nice to him," said Pierce. "I shook him up before the Adios-just gave him a little slap before the start to get him up on the bit and make sure I had his attention. He pulled the bike up underneath him, and he was kicking the left stirrup the whole mile. I couldn't rate him, and Washington VC got up to beat him.

"That was the last time I ever shook him up before a race."

But there was no doubt Blissfull Hall was starting to come into his own-and his timing could not have been better.

On Aug. 28 the colt went postward for the Cane Pace eliminations, romping wire-to-wire in 1:53.4. In the final a week later, the strategy was repeated with the same result, as Blissfull Hall won in 1:51.4 to take the first leg of the Pacing Triple Crown. And he did it the hard way.

Blissfull Hall pulled a shoe-and part of his right front hoof with it-while warming up for the elimination, and farrier Mitch Kelley had to patch him together just before post time. As the gate sprung, however, the shoe did, too, and the colt raced the mile with one foot bare.

"That scared the hell out of me," Wallace admitted. "Mitch did a remarkable job building a new foot and getting the shoe fitted, and the horse set a track record in the final the next week."

Blissfull Hall tuned up with a five-length, 1:51.2 romp in the Simcoe Stakes at Mohawk before heading back south to Delaware, Ohio, in quest of the Little Brown Jug and a rematch with nemesis The Panderosa. The Panderosa, with John Campbell, was a popular second choice in the wagering behind Blissfull Hall, despite a pair of high-profile breaks and some questions about his ability to get around a half-mile track.

The two colts drew side-by-side, with Blissfull Hall in post 7 and The Panderosa in the 6 hole. That proximity nearly spelled doom for both of them, as The Panderosa made a nasty break right off the gate.

"I knew Panderosa had a kink in his armor and might not make the first turn if John sent him out," said Pierce. "I kept my eye on him, because I knew I was going out of there myself. When Panderosa made a break, he jumped right into Blissfull, and I was ready for it. I jumped the bike sideways a couple of feet to avoid hooking him."

"If Ronnie hadn't slid the bike sideways, we wouldn't be talking now," added Wallace. "That horse made a dirty break and would have put a wheel right under us, but Ronnie slid the bike over, and we got around. The rest is history."

History shows Blissfull Hall heading straight for the lead and never looking back; he and Pierce coasted to the wire in 1:53 to beat Seven Card Hanover and Power Of Art.

"Blissfull Hall, that had to be his dream come true," said Dave Bianconi on the television broadcast. "Once The Panderosa was out of the way, the race was his to take."

The bettors clearly thought Blissfull Hall the best in the final, as he was sent off from post 2 at odds of 3-5-but no one told long shot Looking For Art. With a 28.3 final quarter, he caught Wallace's bay colt in the stretch and forced a race-off between the four heat winners.

Even 10 years later, Pierce accepted total blame for the loss.

 
Driver Ron Pierce takes the traditional victory lap after winning the 1999 Jug.
"I dropped my guard, and Jack Moiseyev tricked me [with Mystical Shark]," he admitted. "Jack looked over his right shoulder and acted like he took a big grip on his horse to let me cross over. I put Blissfull Hall in gear, and Jack took off. Now we had to race for the lead. I paced around him, but it took something out of my colt, and Looking For Art just got up and beat us. I told Ben that I blew it. I was very mad at myself for letting Jack trick me."

Wallace, however, passed no judgment on his driver and believed, even in the minutes after Blissfull Hall's loss, that it was simply a delay of the inevitable. He said as much to Plouffe.

"I knew that horse could sit last and still outkick them home, he was that much the best," said the trainer. "Hell, there was such a long time between the second heat and race-off that I jogged him again."

The four-horse field went postward right around 7 p.m., with Looking For Art at the rail, 4-5 favorite Blissfull Hall in post 2, and the entry of Royalflush Hanover and Mystical Shark in posts 3 and 4, respectively. Mystical Shark was fastest off the gate and took the field through splits of 28.2, 57.3 and 1:28.3. Blissfull Hall, proving Wallace prophetic, sat third, and then fourth-and in any other Jug, that would have bode poorly for his finishing chances.

But not in this Jug.

"Down the backside they go," called announcer Roger Huston. "The leader is Mystical Shark, on the outside Royalflush Hanover. Racing third is Looking For Art. He'll need some daylight. Out comes Ron Pierce and Blissfull Hall. They are at three-quarters in 1:28.3-now they're pacing!

"Blissfull Hall, moving on the outside, goes right on by!"

Blissfull Hall, using the brushing speed of a Thoroughbred, pulled three-wide and rocketed past his competition for the lead. When

The winner's circle celebration included (from left) Tom Wright of the Delaware County Fair, groom Gilles Roy, Ron Pierce, Ben Wallace, owner Daniel Plouffe and Ohio governor Bob Taft.
the wire came, he was in front by a length, using a 26.3 final split to win in 1:55.3.

"If people really want to watch a remarkable performance, they should watch that race," said Wallace with admiration. "He caught them sleeping, but it was an amazing performance. I don't think it has gotten the respect that it deserves."

"In the race-off, I knew I was much the best," explained Pierce. "All I had to do was give him a chance. Looking For Art looked bright, and I knew he was the one to beat. I let them have their way, but going around the back the second time it was time to pull the trigger. Blissfull Hall was an extremely fast horse with a lot of class, and you could use that speed whenever you needed it.

"I know it looked very impressive the way he went right by them. It felt as good as it looked."

Blissfull Hall had a week off before heading back to the racing wars with a third-place finish behind Grinfromeartoear in The Red Mile's Tattersalls Pace. The effort was a mere tune-up for his next major task-the Messenger Stakes and fulfillment of the Pacing Triple Crown. His connections had enough faith in the colt, and respect for the Crown, that Plouffe put up a $35,000 supplement to pay the ineligible Blissfull Hall into the race.

"To this day, I never had so much pressure in my life as going into the final of the Messenger," Pierce recalled. "I knew I had the best horse by far. It was just a question of me getting to drive him right and how he showed up. He was feeling the effects of the Jug in Lexington, but Ben Wallace was my captain, and he is a great, under-appreciated trainer. I knew he'd have him ready.
"I watched him warm up, and after he did, I sat down in the drivers' room and took a 20-minute nap-he looked that good. I had no worries in my mind, no doubt that he would win."

And Blissfull Hall validated his driver's confidence with a convincing two-heat victory in 1:51.1 and 1:51.2 to become the sport's ninth Pacing Triple Crown champion.

"It felt like someone took the grandstand and lifted it off my shoulders," said Pierce.

***

Though he would win three more races on the year, the Messenger was the last stake final captured by Blissfull Hall. He ended his championship season finishing third, third and second, respectively, in the Breeders Crown at Mohawk, the Progress Pace at Dover Downs and the Provincial Cup at Windsor Raceway, after capturing an elimination for each. The last loss proved to be the most painful for Wallace.

"I was real disappointed," he admitted. "I went to the University of Windsor and had some friends there. I had the heralded horse. He got beat. I felt bad as much for the horse, not winning his last race."

Two weeks later, Blissfull Hall had his shoes pulled and was loaded on a trailer headed for retirement in the land of his birth, Walnut Hall Ltd., which had been the successful bidder for stallion rights-although Plouffe declined to sell any portion of his best pacer.

"Daniel had a big decision at the beginning-do I syndicate or not?" said Brault. "A syndicate will support a horse every year, and when a horse is not syndicated, you have to work harder to sell breedings, but Daniel was committed to keeping control of Blissfull Hall and supporting him."

Racing showed much support for the 1999 Pacer of the Year in his first book, sending 158 mares his way. Blissfull Hall responded with Camelot Hall p,3,1:49 ($856,639) and Blissed Out p,3,1:48.4s ($564,595). A year later, however, Walnut Hall Ltd. decided to disperse its pacing mares, and Plouffe felt that did not bode well for his pacing stallion.

He opted to move the pacer to Nandi Farms of Pennsylvania, under the control of Winbak Farms, and watched as Blissfull Hall hosted books of 220, 161 and 156 in his next three crops. The pacer's top performers came from those breedings, including Marnie Hall p,4,1:49 ($1,175,113), and Armbro Dancer p,4,1:48.4 ($865,157).

Despite stellar fertility, Blissfull Hall's book started to wane through the middle part of the decade, as he bred between 117 mares in 2005-the same year he began dual-hemisphere breeding in Australia-and 62 mares in 2008. He was on the move once again in 2009, as Plouffe sent him to Winbak's Canadian facility, under the direction of Larry Drysdale and his wife, Jackie.

"With Daniel being a Canadian, and having been trained by a Canadian, people throughout the years have been bugging Daniel, 'Why not bring the horse to Ontario?'" said Brault. "It was in the back of his mind to do it. We knew Pennsylvania was not going to get easier; it was going to get tougher. We saw an opportunity.

"Since we moved the horse, the bookings we are getting are out of sight. It's amazing."

Amazing is a word easy to associate with Blissfull Hall.

It can be used to describe his meteoric rise from relatively humble beginnings to racing's pinnacle.It can be used to describe the luck of his relatively unknown trainer and owner, who took racing by shock and by storm with their pacing phenom.
It can be used to describe his one incredible quarter mile in the race-off of the Little Brown Jug.

And it can be used to describe how quickly he seems to have faded in racing's rear view mirror, as other champions come and go.
But those who know him say racing had best remember the bright bay colt, for history will prove his place among the very best.

"I've been in business many, many years, and I think because Daniel Plouffe owned the horse, he is underrated," said Brault. "Daniel was just some little guy from Quebec. There wasn't a big syndication that owned him. He was trained by a good guy, and owned by a good guy. They did not see it. He beat some great horses. He was a great horse. And it is just a matter of time before he throws a champion like himself."

"Unfortunately, because of the lack of appreciation for what the horse did, he has been overlooked to a degree," added Wallace.

"I'm not blaming anyone. But if anyone looked at the third heat of the 1999 Jug and was not impressed with his performance, compared with any other Jug, they'd be lying."

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