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Southwind Frank: Top of the Heap
Wednesday, March 23, 2016 - by James Platz

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Southwind Frank arrived in the early morning hours of March 3, 2013, 14 days overdue, and weighing 124 lbs. Laura Young, general manager at Southwind Farms, noted that the eventual Dan Patch and O’Brien Award winner was a friendly foal, but did not stand out from the group at the New Jersey farm.

USTA/Mark Hall photo
Southwind Frank may have had a mind of his own, but he won 11 of 12 starts and divisional honors in 2015.


“We sometimes made fun of him because he was a goofy foal,” Young said of Southwind Frank, by Muscle Hill out of the Cantab Hall mare Flawless Lindy. “He was kind of a gangly colt that took a while to mature. We knew he could trot when he wasn’t rubbernecking over the fence or acting like a complete nitwit in the field.”


Raised and sold for $100,000 at the 2014 Lexington Selected Sale, this “nitwit” went on to take harness racing by force in 2015. Owned by Burke Racing Stable LLC, Weaver Bruscemi LLC, Our Horse Cents Stables and J&T Silva Stables LLC – the same group behind standout trotter Mission Brief – Southwind Frank turned in a nearly flawless campaign, winning 11 of 12 starts. With a 1:52.2 world record to his credit, the colt pulled in $786,419 in earnings, capping the year with a dominating victory in the $600,000 Breeders Crown. The performance reinforced his standing as the early favorite for the 2016 Hambletonian.


As easy as Southwind Frank made it look each time he lined up behind the gate last season, trainer Ron Burke doesn’t pull any punches when recalling the colt’s early challenges. In a stable where the strong survive and the weak are quickly dispatched, the then-2-year-old didn’t make the grade early.


“He was absolutely horrible until 2:30. The only reason he didn’t get Amished was because he was a $100,000 yearling,” the conditioner said. “He couldn’t really trot that well. His gait was horrible. He was laying on one shaft; it really just wasn’t good. The only thing that you could like about him is that he tried to trot even though his gait was horrible. He just did not seem like a horse that was going to have any chance of making it.”


Despite the struggles, one quality that Burke liked about Southwind Frank was the colt’s attitude. While other colts trained down better and showed more progress for the stable, this trotter continued to log miles in Florida. Once the 2-year-olds shipped north, the connections of this colt named after legendary performer Frank Sinatra were in for a surprise.


“He kind of snuck up on us,” said Mark Weaver, who, with Michael Bruscemi, form Weaver Bruscemi LLC. “I know training down he was not top three or four as far as our trotters. Other horses like Mission Brief came highly touted. As soon as they came north from Florida they had a buzz around them.”


Southwind Frank got his first taste of competition in a qualifier held at Gaitway Farm. Starting on the outside in a field of seven on the morning of June 8, 2015, the colt closed out the mile with a 28.2 last quarter for driver Andrew McCarthy to finish a nose back in second in a time of 2:00.1. Yannick Gingras witnessed the performance from the seat of another Burke trotter that day, guiding Edinburgh, a freshman that was thought to be stronger than Southwind Frank.

When Southwind Frank lined up behind the starting gate at Gaitway two weeks later, Gingras was the driver. That day he once again kicked home in 28.2, this time reaching the wire first in 1:55.3.


“I got off the track and told Ronnie, ‘This horse is really good.’ I really loved him,” Gingras said. “He was a little bit of a surprise for them, I think, at that point. He had gotten better and better throughout the winter, but I don’t think they thought he was what he turned out to be at that point.”


USTA/Mark Hall photo
Southwind Frank gets rambunctious in the Red Mile backstretch for trainer Ron Burke.

Burke had witnessed the progress of his pupil in training leading up to his Gaitway debut and noted that the colt had come a long way. But the two qualifying races showed the trainer all he needed to see.


“The last time that we trained him to the bike we were like, ‘Wow, he’s come a long way,’” said Burke. “The first qualifier was special, but the second qualifier we were like, ‘This colt is way better than we ever imagined.’ After the second qualifier my expectations for him were very high. I felt like he was better than anyone he was facing.”


That’s a big statement for a 2-year-old that had yet to make a purse start. Like his namesake, though, Southwind Frank was poised to top the trotting charts with one impressive performance after another. Opening the campaign with a start in the first leg of New Jersey Sire Stakes at the Meadowlands, Gingras and the colt were sent off as the 1-2 favorites. The duo would deliver a 1:56.3 victory, with a final quarter timed in an unbelievable 26.3. 


“He was a little bit immature with his speed early on,” said Gingras. “I raced him the first week and he was really good, but at the top of the stretch when he switched gears he threw in a few steps on me. Even though we came home in 26 and change, I had to hold him together.


“He didn’t feel like he wanted to make a break, but you just had to hold onto him a little bit just to let him get to the next gear and then he was fine. He did it a few times throughout the year, but he grew into himself, and by the end of the year he was over all of that.”


Some of that immaturity with speed manifested itself in his next start. Matt Kakaley steered Southwind Frank in the next leg of NJSS action, and his inexperience with the colt’s tendencies resulted in the trotter’s only loss of the season. In the stretch, Southwind Frank made multiple breaks late in the mile to finish fourth. He was placed sixth by the judges.


“He was just a little green. We can forgive him for that one,” said Weaver. “Maybe it was a blessing in disguise.”


After that lone blemish, the remainder of the 2015 season consisted of one victory after another. Southwind Frank and Gingras teamed to win the $100,000 NJSS final with a dominant front-end effort, winning in 1:53.4. They did so as the second choice in the race to $390,000 yearling Brooklyn Hill, the only time during the year they were not tabbed the favorite when the gate folded.


Two weeks later, in their Peter Haughton Memorial elimination, Gingras and the colt drew the rail. Taking control after the quarter, the tandem extended to a nearly three-length advantage at the wire, winning in 1:54.1.


USTA/Mark Hall photo
From left at Lexington: Michael Bruscemi and Mark Weaver of Weaver Bruscemi LLC, caretaker Kim Calenda, Mike Klau of Southwind Farms, Burke, Jerry Silva of J&T Silva Stables LLC, Kevin Smith, and driver Yannick Gingras.

Heavily favored in the $349,850 Haughton final, Southwind Frank turned in another stellar effort for Burke. With the harness racing world focused on the Hambletonian Day card, the freshman brushed from fourth to the lead on the backstretch, pulling away by 2-1/4 lengths in 1:53.4.


“He’s the type of horse that actually does wait for them,” Gingras said. “He waits on horses a little bit, but when they get to him, he’s full of fight.”


The next stop for Burke’s blossoming trotter was the $34,244 W.N. Reynolds Memorial Stakes at Tioga Downs. Southwind Frank turned in a gate-to-wire victory, trotting the mile over the five-eighths configuration in 1:54.2.


Shipping to Canada, the freshman made three starts at Mohawk Racetrack. Favored in his $88,055 Champlain division, Southwind Frank opened up by 4-1/4 lengths at the wire, one of his largest margins of victory in the 2015 campaign. He marched through his William Wellwood Memorial elimination in 1:56.3 before returning to capture the $283,480 final by 1-1/4 lengths in 1:55.4. Southwind Frank wasn’t winning by gaudy margins, and that was OK with Burke.


USTA/Mark Hall photo
Southwind Frank won the Breeders Crown 2-Year-Old Colt Trot in 1:54.2.

“It speaks to the maturation of Yannick,” Burke said. “These horses only have so many miles in them. He couldn’t have done a better job managing this colt.”


Returning to U.S. soil, Southwind Frank’s next start would elevate his already lofty status as not only one of the best freshman trotters, but one of the elite in harness racing history. Drawing post 3 in a six-horse International Stallion Stakes division at Red Mile, Gingras switched up tactics and took the favorite off the pace. Three-deep on the outside at the three-quarter pole, the trotter dashed home in 27.1 to win in a world-record 1:52.2. The victory was not only impressive because of the final time, but also because it showed a new dimension for the division leader.


“All along we thought he would be vicious that way,” Burke said. “You don’t know until you have the opportunity to do it, and once he did, we thought this makes it so much harder to race against him. You can’t just crank up underneath him and leave at a thousand miles per hour and think you’re going to sit in the two hole. When he has the ability to race off the back, you never know what Yannick’s going to do. With a versatile horse you have such an advantage.”

Shipping north of the border once again, Southwind Frank used his Lexington momentum and again flexed his muscle, romping by five lengths in his Breeders Crown elimination. One week later he capped the season with a 1:54.2 victory in the slop at Woodbine. Moving to the top at the quarter, the freshman easily controlled the fractions on his way to a 1-3/4-length advantage.


“He could turn out to be better than his father. That’s what we’re hoping for,” said Jerry Silva, part of the partnership behind the 2009 Hambletonian-winning sire. “He was dominant last year and we just hope he’ll be as dominant as a 3-year-old. I think we have a very good chance to win the Hambletonian.”


The victory wrapped up Dan Patch honors as the sport’s best 2-year-old trotting colt, and it made him a shoe-in for the O’Brien Award, which he collected in February. It also helped seal the deal on a transaction in which Diamond Creek Farm acquired an interest in the champion.

USTA/Ken Weingartner photo
Southwind Frank wintered at Gaitway Farm in New Jersey with caretaker Emmanuel Lopez.


Targeted as a Hambletonian favorite, Burke took a different approach with Southwind Frank this winter than he has with other horses in the past. Instead of shipping the trotter, and the rest of his Hambo hopefuls, to Florida, he remained in the northern climes. He is hedging his bets that the change in philosophy will help him break through for his first Hambo title.


“Jimmy (Takter) stays in the North--he wins the Hambletonian. My colt stays in the North,” Burke said. “I kept all my trotters up here. I want them on a schedule that doesn’t vary. When you make the change from south to north I think sometimes it throws you off your schedule. I want to keep them on as close to a perfect schedule as possible.”


Regardless of what happens in 2016, Southwind Frank has already made his mark in harness racing. The question is how much more he will add to his legacy as a sophomore.


“He’s such a professional,” said Burke. “Mission Brief is probably more talented. I’ve probably never had a horse more talented than her in my life. But he’s flawless. It’s hard to compare generations, but right now he’s one of the best 2-year-old trotters ever.”


Looking for That ‘Defining Moment’

The ownership team behind Mission Brief--Burke Racing Stable LLC, Weaver Bruscemi LLC, Our Horse Cents Stables and J&T Silva Stables LLC--fell short of a Hambletonian win last season when the filly finished second to Pinkman. In 2016, their hopes are pinned on Southwind Frank to follow in his sire’s hoofprints.


In 2009, Muscle Hill shattered the Hambletonian stakes record and tied the Meadowlands all-age mark with a 1:50.1 display. Now, his son may help to deliver a second Hambletonian title to Muscle Hill as a sire (Trixton was his first in 2014), and first to Ron Burke as a trainer and Yannick Gingras as a driver, placing them in rarified air.


“Racing trotters at this level, we’re learning. I didn’t get $100,000 trotters before,” Burke said. “Gene (Kurzrok, Our Horse Cents Stables) and those guys are a little more aggressive and they spend more.”


Burke knows that to win he cannot simply send one trotting superstar into battle against the likes of a Jimmy Takter-trained armada (as was the case in 2015). Instead, he has to come armed with a barn full of combatants of his own. The trainer has a few candidates including Valley Victory co-winner Make Or Miss, who finished in a dead-heat with Dog Gone Lucky.


“You have to have three or four of your own,” Burke said. “I think I have a pretty good one-two punch.”


Gingras is looking for redemption in the sport’s pinnacle event. After breaking stride with Father Patrick as the favorite in the 2014 Hambletonian, he finished second last season with Mission Brief. He’s hoping the third time is a charm, but he also feels that Southwind Frank might be the right horse at the right time.


“He reminds me a lot of Father Patrick,” Gingras said. “Father Patrick had that intimidation factor. I see that with this colt.”


Burke wants to see Gingras, who he considers the best driver in the sport, win harness racing’s most prestigious race. And he wants that victory to come with a horse he trains.

“My whole goal is for the Hambo. It’s very important to me,” he said. “A win would probably be the defining moment of my career. It’s a big thing for both of us.”

’Hunk of Burning Trot’

When Southwind Farms purchased Flawless Lindy , they did so because the Valley Victory lineage present in her pedigree appealed to them and how it might cross with Muscle Hill, whose sire, Muscles Yankee, is a son of Valley  Victory.


It also didn’t hurt that the top producing mare Classic Casette was in the mare’s pedigree. The Cantab Hall mare was purchased privately, and she was bred to Muscle Hill that first season.


“Everyone keeps saying the Cantab Hall mares bred to Muscle Hill is the golden match,” said Laura Young, general manager of Southwind Farm. “I think you have to look a little deeper and not judge the cover. Flawless Lindy caught right away to Muscle Hill. In fact, she came off the trailer on Feb. 18 (2012), I ultrasounded her and she had a 50mm follicle, so we bred her that day and she got in foal.”


Photo courtesy of Kim Calenda
Southwind Frank as a foal.

Despite his quirks, Southwind Frank developed into a yearling that caught the attention of many at the 2014 Lexington Selected Sale. As Burke noted, he looks at all Muscle Hill babies for one reason.


“I think he’s unequivocally the best stallion in the business,” he said.


Aside from clients at the sale looking for pacers, Young said interest in the colt was brisk.


“’Frank’ was on everyone's list. We had another colt in the barn that was receiving more attention than Frank initially, and I believe that was because he had a much better pedigree, but he was younger than Frank and less mature,” she said. “Buyers liked him, but when Frank came out they liked him more.  It seemed like overnight this goofy little 124-lb. foal was now this 900-lb. hunk of burning trot.  He was definitely eye candy, even though his pedigree was not as good as the other colts.”


Southwind Frank was the best 2-year-old colt trotter in 2015, and the sky is the limit for him in 2016. But Young and the staff at Southwind Farm will always remember him as the goofy, gangly foal that they knew before he put it all together.


“We figured he would make it to the track if he was placed with a good groom and a good trainer to bring out the talent that was born into the goofball,” she said. “But from what we saw at the farm we wouldn’t have guessed him to be a top performer today.”

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.