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Ariana G: Potra Grande
Thursday, March 30, 2017 - by Rich Fisher

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Marvin Katz and Al Libfeld already knew they had something special in Ariana G.

But after what their trainer had to say about the trotting filly, bred and owned by Katz and Libfeld, as she comes back for her 3-year-old season, even being cautiously optimistic becomes an exercise in restraint. 

“I’ve done this long enough to be guarded and cautious,” Katz said. “But I have the greatest respect for Jimmy Takter; he has great insight for horses. He knows what he has and how good they are—particularly if they’re of high talent. He’s uncanny.”
“He knows her better than anyone else on this earth and he’s arguably the best trainer in the world,” Libfeld said. “So I have a big smile on my face just hearing what he had to say.”

Takter told the partners that Ariana G is not only the early favorite on paper for August’s Hambletonian Oaks, but could be a contender for the Hambletonian--although no discussions have taken place yet about whether she will compete against the boys in trotting’s premier event for 3-year-olds. 

But don’t count it out. The daughter of stallion Muscle Hill out of stakes-winning mare Cantab It All, Ariana G was the 2016 Dan Patch 2-Year-Old Filly Trotter of the Year after winning nine of 11 races and earning $743,967 in purses. With Yannick Gingras in the sulky, Ariana G won the Breeders Crown for 2-year-old filly trotters, the Jim Doherty Memorial, the Peaceful Way Stakes and New Jersey Sire Stakes championship.

If that’s not enough to whet the appetite for 2017, anyone chatting with Takter for five minutes about Ariana G will have their interest piqued a few notches when it comes to watching the horse race this year.

USTA/Mark Hall photo
Ariana G is the sixth Dan Patch Award-winning 2-year-old filly trotter for Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter.

Sitting behind a well-organized office desk at his East Windsor, N.J., farm while waiting to take her out on a blustery March morning, Takter calmly discussed what could be a season where none of her connections stay calm at an Ariana G race.

“If nothing goes wrong with her, she’s going to be one of the horses to watch,” he said. “She’s probably one of the three top fillies and 2-year-olds ever. She’s a unique horse. She’s a serious contender this year.

“She’s looked amazing so far. She’s coming back great. She’s grown some and filled out a little bit. She looks good. I don’t think I ever had a better 2-year-old trotting filly.”

This from a man who has had some great ones, including five previous Dan Patch Award-winning 2-year-old filly trotters: Shake It Cerry (2013), Pampered Princess (2006), Passionate Glide (2005), Solveig (2004), and Armbro Prowess (1996).

“You can race her any way you want,” Takter said about Ariana G, who is paid into all the major trotting filly stakes this year. “She’s got gate speed; she can race from behind. It doesn’t matter. She really doesn’t care what kind of trip. She’s mentally very strong.”

Ariana G trotted a career-best 1:51.4 at Red Mile last year, the fastest clocking of the season by a 2-year-old filly trotter by more than a second, and Gingras said he did not push her.

“He told us ‘If I turn her loose, she goes in (1):50 and change,’” Katz said.

“She could easily have gone below (1):51 that day,” Takter said. “She just has such an effective way to trot; there’s no waste of motion. She’s really saving a lot of energy to go forward.”

Aside from all the major filly races, Takter has staked her to July’s Earl Beal Jr. Memorial at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono to see how she fares against male competition. There will be discussions about putting her in the Hambletonian, but that remains to be seen with the looming specter of Walner—the Dan Patch 2-Year-Old Trotting Colt of the Year. He also won in a world-record 1:51.3 at Red Mile last October and won the Breeders Crown with a Meadowlands- and stakes-record time of 1:53. Driven by Tim Tetrick, Walner enters this year as the top 3-year-old trotter in North America. 

“There will be a conversation I’m sure, because Walner is pretty special as well,” Libfeld said. “We had dinner with Tim Tetrick in Lexington and he was telling us about Walner’s strength and how he never gets tired. We’ll have a long, hard discussion about whether to put her up against the boys in that race.”

While Takter spoke about how special Ariana G can be, he tries not to let high expectations stall the process.

“I just do my work,” he said. “I know there are so many disappointments that can happen in this game. You keep your feet on the ground all the time; you deal with it day by day each day. Of course you’ve got to plan ahead what you’re going to do, but basically you’ve got to deal day by day with these horses.”

The planning has not gotten ahead of itself. Races like the Hambletonian are thoughts for the future. In April, the connections are just hoping for a continuation from 2016.

“She traveled very good last year,” Katz said. “She really only beat herself; she was never beaten by anyone. The primary goal is for her to come back and take on her division; come back and reach her potential. That would be very exciting.

“And then who knows? She has unlimited potential.”

USTA/Mark Hall photo
Ariana G's co-owners and co-breeders, Marvin Katz (holding Breeders Crown trophy, wearing glasses) and Al Libfeld (far right) have built a powerful trotting broodmare band.

Ariana G is the latest prize for the Toronto-based owner-breeder team of Marvin Katz and Al Libfeld, who won Canada’s Armstrong Breeder of the Year Award for the second straight season in 2016 while also winning Dan Patch Breeder of the Year. Their “overnight success” was 20 years in the making.

After meeting at a family function for one of Libfeld’s cousins in the early 1980s, the two became fast friends. Katz had already dabbled in the racing business and Libfeld was always interested in it, so Marvin brought his friend on board within five years of their meeting.

“I don’t think the horse business is for everyone,” Katz said. “But Al has the right temperament and personality for it.” 

“It was a comfort because he knew what he was doing,” Libfeld said. “But we quickly learned neither of us knew enough to be really successful in the business. We spent a lot of time experimenting, changing directions.”

The two struggled for the first 10 years and because they were not realizing the mega-success they enjoyed in their respective real estate businesses, frustration set in.

“We bought horses, but didn’t do well,” Katz said. “We struggled to stay in the business and several times we were disheartened and saying ‘What are we doing here?’ Because there were two of us, we would pull each other up from time to time when the other became dejected.” 

The late Bart Glass, a renowned livestock expert and sales company consultant, eventually entered the picture. With Glass on board, Libfeld thought breeding should be the next step.

“We were paying these obnoxious dollars for yearlings, so we figured maybe we could create some for ourselves,” Libfeld said. “Previous to that, Bart was selecting our yearlings for us. He being a world-class livestock man in more than one breed, he saw it as a natural and loved the idea.”

Noticing that much of the American trotting livestock, particularly fillies, were being exported to Europe, the team decided to do something about that.

“It was evident to us there was going to be a real drop-off in trotting livestock in North America,” Katz said. “We started bringing them back. We were buying well-bred fillies and had very little success on the racetrack with them. But we were assembling top families and top fillies. When Bart came along, we began to develop a game plan and a coherent direction, with breeding becoming a much bigger part of the equation.” 

Success came slowly, accelerating after the duo hooked up with Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter and renowned consultant Perry Soderberg.

“The seminal change started with Jimmy and Perry,” Katz said. “We’d known them for a long time, but were never involved with them. About 15 years ago we started working with them.”

After enjoying steady success, things have exploded over the past five years. The group, which includes Bart’s son, Jimmy, and Kentuckiana Farms partner Bob Brady, discusses which fillies to keep and sell, but all colts are sold. Katz and Libfeld have also gone their own way on occasion, purchasing horses separate from each other and enjoying success.

Lynne Katz, Marvin’s wife, watched in admiration as their harness careers went from aggravation to exhilaration.

“They are masterful in how they continuously improve every aspect of their business,” said Lynne, who joined in the newest family tradition of naming a horse, in this case Ariana G, who’s named after singer Ariana Grande. “Whether it’s the breeding side or the racing side, they are intuitively masterful businessmen. Even though one might think this is a business with so many variables, many of which are imbedded in nature and therefore not easily controllable, these two men continually refine the way they do business, and the team they put around them to do that business to perfect the way they do things.

“You put Jimmy Takter, Perry Soderberg, Jimmy Glass and Bob Brady together, they have that same commitment and drive. The results are the Ariana Gs and All The Times of the world.”

Vicki Wright photo
Full sisters Ariana G (left) and All The Time were a formidable one-two punch during the 2016 stakes season.

Ariana G and 2016 Hambletonian Oaks champion All The Time are full sisters. Their origins through Katz and Libfeld came from Bart Glass’ fascination with Ah So, a mare that had little success on the track, but was the dam of Workaholic, who was a divisional winner in the U.S. and influential stallion in France; and Hambletonian Oaks champion and international success Working Gal. 

“Bart had long been a fan of Ah So,” Katz said. “He thought it was a great family.”

Cantab It All came from that family, which led to Katz and Libfeld purchasing her from Takter.

“It wasn’t happenstance,” Katz said. “There was a strategy there. It was a family we discussed many times in the past that we thought would be a helpful family that we wanted to have some daughters of. We had brought Working Gal back from Europe because we liked the pedigree so much. When we had the opportunity to buy Cantab It All, we were interested in that.”

Because they wished to expand the bloodline, the group’s game plan was to keep any daughters produced by Cantab It All once she came off the track. She did not catch the first time she was bred to Muscle Hill, but the breeders were still convinced it was the right mating. The second attempt produced All The Time 3, Q1:52.1 ($931,366).

Like Takter, Katz sees a better version of All The Time in her sister.

“Ariana G is even a little more dynamic,” he said. “As great as her sister was, when [Ariana G] was born, she was a little leggier, a little more individual than All The Time was from the outset. That’s in no way to diminish All The Time--she’s a super horse.”

Libfeld raved about the effort that All The Time gives every time out, but conceded, “It comes to Ariana G a little more naturally. She has great conformation. She’s the total package.” 

Takter calls Libfeld and Katz “super guys” and feels that Ariana G was a product of their hard work and research.

“Her sister got better as a 3-year-old and I think it’s going to be comparable with Ariana G,” Takter said. “She’s like her in a lot of ways, but she’s probably a couple notches better. She’s just a touch more gifted. I had more problems with All The Time.”

Takter said he appreciates being part of the Libfeld-Katz team now that all their hard work and research is starting to pay off.

“They purchase the best possible mares and breed them to the best sires,” he said. “The last few years they’ve been very successful. They had a bumpy road to get to this level, and now they’re breeding the best horses in the country. For private breeders, they probably have the best broodmare band in the world.”

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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.