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Super Freak
Monday, March 23, 2015 - Dave Briggs

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To confirm her status as a "freak," it would be easy to point to her world-record mile last October in Lexington. Two-year-old trotting fillies are not supposed to put up 1:50.3 miles, even on The Red Mile’s lightning clay. Yet, driver Yannick Gingras said the performance Mission Brief posted in the Breeders Crown on a frosty New Jersey evening late last November was equally impressive, if not more so. A better word for it might be scary.


Mark Hall Photo
Mission Brief spent her winter at trainer Ron Burke's Florida operation in preparation for the 2015 stakes season.

Just 30 minutes earlier, older trotting mare Bee A Magician — the reigning Horse of the Year in North America and a world champion herself — gutted out a narrow 1:51.4 Breeders Crown victory over Classic Martine. Now here was Gingras rolling Mission Brief to a wrapped-up, 4-3/4-length Crown triumph in the exact same time. Mission Brief’s 1:51.4 win was faster than the 1:52.2 mile Shake It Cerry would record one race later in the Crown final for 3-year-old filly trotters, nearly two seconds faster than Pinkman would win the 2-year-old trotting colt Crown the next night and the exact same time with which Father Patrick would win the sophomore trotting colt division. Even the much-heralded European invader Commander Crowe was just four ticks faster than Mission Brief in the Open Trot.


“(Mission Brief) did it much easier than the aged mares and she was just a 2-year-old,” Gingras said. “They are both very impressive miles, but I think that (Breeders Crown) one was more impressive. In Lexington, they all can go fast.”


Trainer Ron Burke doesn't really do elated and he’s not one to work comfortably with superlatives or hyperbole, but even his mouth was agape after Mission Brief’s Breeders Crown performance. In a chilly Meadowlands paddock, the trainer was on the verge of gushing.


“She’s the fastest 2-year-old I’ve ever seen, not to mention the fastest 2-year-old I’ve ever trained,” he said. “I’ve never had a horse like her. I’ve had great horses, too. Nothing I have compares to her.”


Mark Weaver, who co-owns Mission Brief with Burke; his partner Michael Bruscemi of Weaver Bruscemi LLC; Jerry and Theresa Silva; and the Our Horse Cents Stables (Marcia Gingold, Stephen Springer, Richard Taylor and Eugene and Scott Kurzrok), said Mission Brief’s 1:50.3 performance at The Red Mile would have been off the charts using the runners’ Beyer Speed Figure.


“Her race at Lexington would be the highest Beyer Figure for harness racing ever,” Weaver said. “The way she did it, the amount of lengths she won by, the other horses. The track was not that fast that day. When you think about it, she went in 1:50.3. The fastest 2-year-old pacing filly ever was 1:50.1 (I Luv The Nitelife, Precocious Beauty, JK She'salady and Sassa Hanover share that mark.). So, when you look at it, two-fifths of a second slower than any 2-year-old pacing filly. It’s mind-boggling.”


Gingras said Mission Brief wasn't even tired after the world record mile.


“She went in [1]:50.3 and she sure wasn't crawling to the wire,” he said. “She came home in 27 and change. If I had gone to the three-quarters any faster, she would have gone faster.

Lisa Photo
Mission Brief won the Merrie Annabelle last year on Hambletonian Day.


“I’ve never had her tired. Breeders Crown, [1]:51.4 and I came home in :27.3. She’s coming these huge miles with huge last quarters. She’s got huge lungs and I don’t think that will be a problem for her as far as going forward or getting tired. She’s so good and has unbelievable lungs.”


Only five trotters — four of them male and three of them older horses — posted faster miles than Mission Brief in 2014. The next closest 2-year-old trotting filly was Jolene Jolene, who shared Mission Brief’s previous world record mark of 1:52.1.


 In her rookie campaign, the daughter of Muscle Hill out of Southwind Serena proved time and again that if she stayed flat she was going to put up a hellacious mile. That explains the freak part — freakishly fast or self-destructive, there was no in between. Mission Brief earned $591,070 winning nine of 13 starts — six of those in faster than 1:54. She made breaks in all four losing efforts. Two of those four breaks came in rich stakes finals in Canada — the $346,500 Peaceful Way final at Mohawk and the $412,960 Goldsmith Maid at Woodbine.


“When she made a break at Mohawk in the Peaceful Way, in the post parade she was really wound up,” Gingras said. “In the Goldsmith Maid, the same thing happened, but that day surprised me a little bit because she was relaxed.


“That’s the day we figured out that maybe the problem was that she couldn’t see them. She had that Kant-C-Bak bridle and she had screens in her face to try to keep the dirt away from hitting her. We kind of thought she didn’t want anybody in front of her, but that day she spooked as the other horse crossed over in front of her. We opened her up after that and she was much better. She could see them. She wanted to see more and we were having her see less.”


Gingras said being so far from home played a role in Mission Brief’s miscues in Ontario, but Burke believes it wasn’t being in Canada, but delayed post times that led to her breaks.


“A couple of times there they went way past post time; that was an issue,” Burke said. “She was scheduled to race and you start to parade her with that in mind and then they say, ‘Take five more minutes.’ For a horse like her who is a little nervous, it gives her five more minutes to think of something she doesn’t need to think about.”


Whatever the reason, they were costly mistakes.


“She could have earned a million dollars quite easily last year, instead of $500,000 and change if she didn’t break in the two finals up in Canada,” said Silva.


Had she stayed flat and raced to form, Weaver believes Mission Brief, the Dan Patch 2-Year-Old Trotting Filly of the Year, definitely would have been a strong contender for the Horse of the Year award, “the way she dominated.”


Instead, “Team Freak” is gunning for greater glory at age 3. Every step the filly takes this year is designed to put her on the gate at the Meadowlands the second Saturday in August for the Hambletonian, the sport’s premier race. Burke sees no reason why Mission Brief should have to settle for the Hambletonian Oaks.


“My full goal is to have her there for the Hambletonian,” he said with conviction, admitting not all of his fellow owners are as gung ho as he is to tackle the boys. But Burke said the caliber of Mission Brief’s male counterparts is partly what has him convinced she is up to the challenge.


“I looked at the trotting colts of last year and they’re going to have to make an improvement just to get where she was last year, honestly,” Burke said. “I had one of the better trotting colts last year in Habitat and him and her don’t belong on the same planet at this point. It’s not even close. I don’t see him finding three seconds and that’s about what he was behind her last year.”


Gingras said Mission Brief was clearly more talented than any of last year’s rookie colts.


“Last year, she would have beat them all,” Gingras said. “She was more intense than they were. Maybe the colts will catch up a little bit as 3-year-olds.


“Even if she doesn’t improve and they improve, they have a lot of catching up to do to get there.”


Weaver said gunning for the Hambletonian is more about maximizing opportunities.


 “I don’t consider myself or even our operation as a trotting operation,” said the owner. “Typically, we wouldn’t get this opportunity. Whatever (Burke) decides is good with me. I’m not against it, that’s for sure.”


Mark Hall Photo
The filly gets spunky for caretaker Kim Calenda in Florida.

Burke said, “This is the best chance we may ever have to do it. This is the best horse that we’ve ever had.


“It’s the biggest race in our sport. We won the Jug last year (with Limelight Beach). My father (Mickey Burke) won the Adios (with May June Character), which is our hometown race. It’s another race me and Mark (Weaver) would like to win. We’re running out of things we’d dearly like to do. We won a North America Cup last year (with JK Endofanera).


“It’s down to about the Meadowlands Pace and the Hambletonian. As great as the Meadowlands Pace is, it’s not as big, purse-wise, or as lucrative as it was for years. It’s still not the Hambletonian. The Hambletonian draws international interest. The only race I can think of like it is the Elitlopp, which is something else we’re aiming at. I’m already thinking down the road for (Mission Brief) on that. At 4 or 5, maybe she could be that type of horse.” Silva, who owned part of Mission Brief’s sire, 2009 Hambletonian champion Muscle Hill, said the filly’s Hambletonian quest


 is about, “going for the prestige, not the money. In the (Hambletonian) Oaks she would probably be dominant.”


Silva also owned a piece of Continentalvictory, the last filly to beat the boys in the Hambletonian. Continentalvictory died earlier this year, but Silva remembers her Hambletonian triumph vividly.


 “I remember it like today,” he said. “It was an amazing race, with her battling down the stretch with Lindy Lane.”


 He joked that if Mission Brief does tackle the boys he hopes she wins more like her sire than Continentalvictory.


“I hope we’re ahead by four lengths at the top of the stretch like Muscle Hill was. I enjoy the space,” he said, laughing.


Between now and then, Burke and his crew will have some work to do to try to eliminate Mission Brief’s proclivity for breaking stride.


 “I don’t think she trotted a flat mile (last year) until she qualified,” Burke said. “She would trot fast for parts of miles. She was very hard to keep flat. I knew it wasn’t a malfunction of gait, but was just her being put in spots she didn’t like or didn’t understand. It was getting her used to those things.


“You could tell right from the beginning that she had extreme high speed. It was just a matter of whether she was going to settle down enough to harness it.”


After winning the Breeders Crown on Nov. 21, Mission Brief spent some time at Chris Coyle’s Olive Branch Farm in North Carolina before heading to Burke’s Florida stable. She returned to the track on Feb. 16.


“She’s light years ahead of where she was last year,” Burke said, referring to the breaks that plagued her much of the year. “She’s not a horse that made me nervous last year. I realized she needed put it all together. This year will probably be worse if she does make the breaks. I’m kind of hoping it’s not going to be a problem. Buck I St Pat (Burke’s ageless winner of more than $2.3 million) grew out of it. It took her a year or two to figure it out. They’re very similar to me. They’re a little bit anxious.


“We just have to make sure we keep (Mission Brief) going the right way and not regressing. Hopefully, she’ll do special things.”



 'Big Brain’

Steve Stewart likes to tease the customer that let Mission Brief get away.


“I won’t say which client it was, but a prominent client,” said Stewart of Paris, Ky., who bred Mission Brief along with Black Creek Farm of Grabill, Ind., and Andrea Lea Racing Stables Inc. of Lakefield Gore, Quebec. “We were going down the barn and I showed him the colt that sold for $450,000 and I showed him a few other ones and I said, ‘I really, really like this filly.’


“It was Mission Brief. He said, ‘I don’t like her. I don’t like the way she does this and that.’ Now we have a pretty good laugh because I said to him after she started racing, ‘Can you tell me which one you don’t like in the barn and that might help me?’”


That said, even Stewart said Mission Brief wasn’t a perfect specimen.


“She was always a filly that had extremely high expectations of, but she was not perfectly conformed,” Stewart said.


He said he knows it’s a cliché, but Mission Brief was a leader in the field. “


She, like her sister that we sold (in 2014), was extremely athletic. They were in perpetual motion. When everybody else was just lying around and taking it easy, they were always moving. They were very, very similar in the sense that they were high-energy horses. Not high energy in the sense that they were nutty and stupid, but high-energy, athletic-wise.”


He credits Mission Brief’s energy to her dam, Southwind Serena, a winner of $385,088 who capped her racing career with a 50-1 upset victory over Pampered Princess in the 2007 Breeders Crown for 3-year-old trotting fillies at the Meadowlands for Gingras (see sidebar titled “Improbable Victory”) and trainer Per Henriksen. Stewart said Muscle Hill gave Mission Brief a big brain.


“What we’ve seen from the Muscle Hills is — and I use the word and everybody laughs — they’re very cerebral,” Stewart said. “Obviously, he gives them talent to trot, but he always gives them a brain. Most of the Muscle Hills have a brain. I think that helps. They’re not goofy, they’re not stupid. They’re usually the friendly ones in the group. They have people skills. So, they are much easier to deal with and that comes across with the yearlings quite a bit.”


Burke may argue with Stewart about Mission Brief being easy to deal with given her lack of maturity at 2. Burke is the one that plunked down $150,000 — the most he had ever spent on a yearling at that time — to buy her at the 2013 Lexington Selected Sale.


“I was a little surprised it was Ronnie Burke and a trotting filly,” Stewart said. “But, obviously, she will help the breeders’ cause tremendously. When you buy the most expensive yearling you’ve ever bought and it turns out to be the best horse you’ve ever had — the one with the most talent, anyway — that bodes well for future purchases.”


The connection was a familial one. One year prior, Burke purchased Southwind Spirit, a Muscle Hill brother to Mission Brief’s dam, for $105,000. Southwind Spirit earned $377,495 and was a top 2-year-old in 2013.


“We love Muscle Hill and we really wanted another Muscle Hill,” Burke said. “It’s the same family and she was much more athletic looking than Southwind Spirit was. Southwind Spirit was just much classier as a 2-year-old. He didn’t make mistakes. He was more of a total package.”


Two days before Mission Brief obliterated her own 1:52.1 world record with a jaw-dropping 1:50.3, 16-length, under-wraps triumph on Oct. 2, 2014, in an $80,550 International Stallion Stakes division in Lexington, Stewart and company sold her Credit Winner half-sister, Earn Your Wings, for $260,000 to Swedish agent Robert Lindstrom.


One can only imagine what Earn Your Wings might have sold for if she had gone into the ring after Mission Brief torched The Red Mile.


“I was in Lexington when (Mission Brief) won by 16 and broke the world record. It was amazing,” Silva said. “Obviously, she dominates the field, so that’s easy, but to dominate in that time frame is what’s really exciting. She’s never been tested. She’s done everything on her own.”



Improbable Victory

Before Vicki Gingras made a trip home to Maine in the fall of 2007, she asked her husband, Yannick, if she should come back to New Jersey in time to go to the Breeders Crown at the Meadowlands.

“I had a bunch of 30-, 40-, 50-1 shots that night. I said, ‘No, come on. I’m not going to win any of them. Don’t bother,’” Yannick said.


That night, one of the 50-1 shots came in when Yannick upset the great Pampered Princess with a well-timed victory aboard Mission Brief’s dam, Southwind Serena. It was the first Breeders Crown victory of the driver’s career.


“The race just unfolded perfectly,” Yannick said. “I made the front and slammed the brake right away because I didn’t want to cut it. The mare was not that kind of horse. But, Pampered Princess came and I sat in the two-hole right behind her. It was really easy fractions. They were going :29.3 to the quarter, a half in :59, 1:28.1 and just sprinted home. I really had watched Pampered Princess a lot in her last three starts. It was the end of the year. She was getting a little bit tired at that time of year and the last 200 yards she was a little weak there. Photo Credit Photo Caption


Mark Hall Photo
Southwind Serena's upset win over Pampered Princess in the 2007 Breeders Crown final for 3-year-old filly trotters was the first Crown win for driver Yannick Gingras, and one his wife, Vicki, will never let him live down.

“I stayed right on her back until halfway down the stretch. Even though I had a lot of trot, I never pulled her until halfway down the stretch. When I started to feel (Pampered Princess) was getting a little weak I went. My mare really had 50 yards. That’s all she had. She had one brush. That day I just timed it perfectly. It worked out that nobody else was outside of me and I was able to wait as long as I wanted and it worked out.”


Vicki was happy her husband won his first Breeders Crown, of course, but not thrilled she wasn’t there to see it. “It was congratulations at first. Then when I got home she said, ‘You didn’t think you had a chance? You said you weren’t going to have a good night.’ I said, ‘Well, she was 50-1. I really didn’t think I had one,’” Yannick said, remembering how quickly he had to back-pedal. “That was one of the first good nights I had.”


To this day, Vicki doesn’t take Yannick very seriously if he says he doesn’t have much of a shot in a stakes race.


 “She still shows up,” Yannick said, laughing.

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