While it might not come as that much of a surprise given his on-track record in the past few seasons,
was the kind of horse that even at the age of 11 no one would count out. Trainer and co-owner Rod Hughes is steadfast in his belief that the bittersweet decision is the right one for the horse, and one he's been sitting on since Spring.
"We tried to bring him back there last Winter and qualified him a few times as would have liked to have brought him back and have our youngest boy get his picture taken with him one last time before we retired him but it just didn't come together for him," Hughes told Trot Insider.
The issues facing San Pail, thankfully, are not so serious that the trotting titan is facing any major obstacles heading into his new-found life of leisure. In fact, far from it. Hughes still takes 'Pail' out for a light jog from time to time, and feels he still could race, but not at the level he feels San Pail should race at after a career with 114 starts, three O'Brien Awards and two Horse of the Year trophies.
"You could do things to keep racing him, I figured if I couldn't be in the top three in the Preferred or Open at WEG, I wouldn't bring him back," stated Hughes. "No chips, no cartilage damage, no bone-on-bone, not a bad joint...just I think maybe he's gotten old and a little arthritic. He's been through a lot of wars. The wear of tear over the years of hard racing has kind of showed itself this year."
The dedication, patience and care Hughes exhibited with San Pail may have scared off owners that could have placed horses in Hughes' care -- thinking their horse would be neglected by such a doting trainer -- but that meticulous attention to detail was not lost on and is thoroughly respected by San Pail's longtime driver, Randy Waples.
"It goes so far back with Rod Hughes and that horse; everything that horse needed, Rod gave it to him," Waples told Trot Insider. "The one time he was going into the Final of the Glorys Comet, I think he was five or six years old at the time and he was so much the best it was scary. He ran a temperature a few days before, not a bad one...scratched the horse. He never took the risk. He just scratched him out of a $100,000 final. He probably could have got the temperature down, he probably could have waited to scratch him, he never took risks. He looked after the horse and the horse looked after Rod."
In 2006, Rod Hughes first agreed to acquire a 75 percent interest in a two-year-old gelded son of San Pellegrino. The colt's owner, Glenn Van Camp, didn't enter San Pail into the 2005 yearling sales because the horse had a noticeable bump on one of his legs after being kicked by another horse. He instead turned him out, offered the same deal with San Pail to other trainers: 75 percent of the horse, no training bills. Hughes, a customer of Van Camp’s son, Robert, who owns Brooks Feed, took the deal.
While San Pail may not have been the most perfect individual in terms of his appearance, there was some pedigree on the maternal side. San Pail's dam, Village Beauty is a full sister to 39-time winner Village Beretta -- a winner of more than $820,000. Village Beauty also foaled the exported Donna Wallbanger, a trotting filly with a mark of 1:53.3.
“I crossed my fingers that it would all work out because I knew it was a really nice mare that he was out of,” admitted Hughes. “And I just waited.”
Hughes took his time with San Pail, with the trotter debuting as a three-year-old on April 1, 2007. The horseman handled the driving duties himself for the majority of that season, including an eye-catching 1:54.4f score at Kawartha Downs in an Ontario Sires Stakes event in June.
“I drove him for almost all of his three-year-old year because he was too hot and I didn’t want to hand the lines over to anybody else,” said Hughes. “I think he’s a horse that could have been easily ruined if you got after him too early or tried to leave with him or were rough with him. We had a lot of hard times. We made breaks. We had a few mistakes along the way, learned from them and carried on.”
Later that season San Pail would first find himself acquainted with driver Randy Waples, who had no prior connection with Hughes as a catch-driver.
"I came out on the qualifying sheet one day, I really don't know," Waples told Trot Insider. "I might have had two four- or five-word conversations with Rod like 'hey, your horse raced good' but I didn't know Rod at all. And all of a sudden, boom I'm down to qualify him.
"He said basically he was looking for somebody that would stick with the horse, and I had nothing else in the class at the time, that's how it happened."
San Pail finished off the year chasing the likes of Arch Madness and Laddie, grabbing cheques with Waples in tow in a OSS Gold elim, final and the Super Final. Waples was immediately impressed with San Pail and saw potential for a gelded horse that was set to return to the track as an older horse.
"He was a monster. He was a little more erratic as a three-year-old than what he was as a six, seven and eight-year-old. He was just a fantastic animal, there was a lot of power there," Waples gushed. "The only thing with him is that he kind of had a mind of his own at that point, he wanted to do things his way and that's that. He'd fight you in the mile a little but here and there, but the power and his gait and that...he was an amazing horse.
"After his three-year-old year when we brought him back as a four-year-old, Rod and I were talking one day and I told him then that we're going to have to reprogram him because at the class he has to race in -- the Open trot -- we're just going to cutting miles out for other people, he's going to have to come from off the pace," continued Waples. "And it took pretty well his whole four-year-old year to get him to learn to sit in a hole and be comfortable doing it.
"By the end of his four-year-old year, he became a different horse and then as a five-year-old and six-year-old, we never let him ahead of us...we'd race him from off the pace every now and again and we'd race him in front when we could. And he became a completely different horse. Two fingers, as nice a horse as I've driven."
San Pail did progress as a four-year-old, banking $179,120 in 28 starts without stakes competition. He concluded the year in the Open Trot ranks at Woodbine, winning a pair before jumping into stakes competition in early 2009. It was the start of a meteoric rise. Although he didn't win the Glorys Comet Final, he did win a leg and then continued on in the Open ranks. Of his next 13 races in the top class, San Pail won six, finished second twice and never missed a cheque. The stage was set for San Pail to face the best trotters not only in North America, but the world, in the 2009 Maple Leaf Trot. This was the race that Hughes first felt he didn't have just a special horse, but a phenomenal one.
"I think, really, as far as the international stage and taking on the world, it's that first Maple Leaf Trot that really stamped him as legit," said Hughes. "You can beat a bunch of them here in Ontario but when you beating the U.S. horses and Swedish horses, then you know you've got something."
Even though he had yet to face that kind of test, Hughes was confident his horse would be up to the challenge of Lucky Jim and Arch Madness.
"I was pretty confident, I was sure we could win the final. And I told Randy going out for that race that we're here to win and we're not taking a back seat," admitted Hughes. "In the elimination, although we got beat, I said on the ride home we'll have them next week. Luckily we went into the race 110 percent and gave Randy what he needed to get it done."
San Pail wins Maple Leaf Trot 2010.
"The first Maple Leaf Trot I think we were all a little bit shocked that it happened," Waples stated. "He raced so good that start. Arch Madness went by him at one point in the lane, and he came back on and he won. But everyone at that point was Lucky Jim, Lucky Jim, Lucky Jim... I still watch the replay every now and again and I think [Lucky Jim] made a break because [driver Andy Miller] was asking the horse to trot every lick that he could and he wasn't gaining and he ran him off his feet."
Lucky Jim exacted his revenge in their next encounter, the 2009 Nat Ray Invitational at The Meadowlands. It was a rare road trip for Team San Pail, and one that Hughes would have to hear about as San Pail returned home to race in the Opens on the WEG circuit, and not the Grand Circuit.
"One of the biggest problems with 'Pail' all the way along is I've had so many armchair trainers pick apart every move I've made or not made with this horse," confessed Hughes. "And that's probably one of the most frustrating things about having 'Pail' as good as he's been all these years is that people still think I should have done or not done the odd thing with him and I don't really know where -- I don't want to sound harsh -- they think they had the right to criticize what I did or didn't do with Pail over the years...because he was not a very easy horse to manage."
San Pail's driver completely agreed with Hughes' sentiment, knowing first-hand how conscientiously Hughes cared for his prized pupil.
"He started out as the horse nobody wanted, and then he was the horse everybody could better with! It's crazy," stated Waples. "[Rod] stuck to his guns throughout that horse's career, he's still sticking to his guns and I applaud him for it.
"It was a very refreshing thing to come across a guy like Rod and Glenn Van Camp and Rod's dad, Jerry. They're basically the ones that managed that horse's whole career. It was so refreshing to be involved with people like that."
San Pail concluded his five-year-old year with a 12-4-1 summary from 24 starts, more than $730,000 earned on the season and millionaire status. He was nominated for an O'Brien Award as Canada's top older trotting horse, an award he won handily.
In his six-year-old season, San Pail was even more impressive. From 15 starts, he only lost twice. Of his 13 wins, only one came by less than a length. He repeated in the Maple Leaf Trot, in a lifetime best 1:51.3, and won a second O'Brien Award as top older trotter in the country.
"The second Maple Leaf Trot I had a pretty good idea then," said Waples of his confidence in San Pail. "I respected everything he was in against but nothing scared me."
But again, San Pail stayed close to home. It likely hurt the trotting star in Horse of the Year voting as San Pail finished second to pacing mare Dreamfair Eternal.
The patience that Hughes showed with San Pail on the track, however, would reveal itself in San Pail's behaviour off the track in 2011. After tearing through WEG's Open class trotters with the same ruthless appetite he had for the two previous seasons, and winning an unthinkable third straight Maple Leaf Trot, Hughes took San Pail on a tour of the Grand Circuit. The Meadowlands, Vernon Downs, The Red Mile. Nat Ray. Credit Winner. Allerage Farm. Victory. Victory. Victory.
"He got a lot better; the last few road trips we took him on he was eating and drinking and handling the trucking a lot better. But compared to what we has like when he was three, four and five, he was just a lunatic in the trailer," stated Hughes. "I think it was something he learned to manage. We always tried to do the best job possible for all the horses, no matter what they need -- whether it's somebody riding with them or whatever. I think he basically just matured."
With the top trotters on the continent constantly vanquished, San Pail's season was set to conclude in the 2011 Breeders Crown. European sensations Rapide Lebel and Commander Crowe accepted invitations to face the Face of Canadian harness racing in the end-of-season showdown. San Pail did not disappoint the legions of fans that packed Woodbine Racetrack, winning the Open Trot on a cool October evening in 1:51.4.
"To this day, I have never, ever heard a crowd respond like they did to [San Pail] in the Breeders Crown," said Waples. "Every time that horse's name got mentioned, you could hear the crowd screaming over Kenny Middleton."
The 2011 Breeders Crown win capped off a dream season for San Pail and his connections. In 16 races, San Pail won 14 and finished second in those other two, and banked more than $1.2 million. He was the unanimous choice as Canada's Older Trotter of the Year and runaway winner as Canada's Horse of the Year. The harness racing industry honoured him accordingly, as he was named Horse of the Year stateside as well. Not only was San Pail recognized by the Standardbred side, he was also named Canadian Bred Horse of the Year by Equine Canada.
An injury curtailed San Pail's 2012 season, and kept him off the track for most of 2013 as well. He did return to the winner's circle on October 7, 2013, a win that would prove to be his last. Showing that patience he showed throughout the champion's career, Hughes never rushed San Pail back or asked the horse to do more than he wanted. He can rest knowing that week in and week out, his horse raced clean -- as evidenced by his trainer's spotless record.
"To me, as a trainer and personally as a horseman, that's so gratifying."
The sting of San Pail's retirement isn't as a sharp for Waples now as it was when that realization first set in that he wasn't going to come back as the San Pail of old.
"It hurt more when he first had his issues. I kind of knew in the back of my mind it was coming to an end, and I really didn't want to see it come to an end," the driver confessed. "He's one of those horses that you just don't want to give up. I'm glad it never got any worse, just minor issues and they've decided to shut him down. I'm glad that he's going to have a good clean, sound life."
San Pail retires with a career summary of 52-19-9 in 114 starts, earnings in excess of $3.1 million and a 1:50.4 speed badge taken at The Meadowlands in the 2011 Nat Ray, one of many personal favourites Hughes has from his pupil's highlight reel of a resumé. Accomplishments that, both trainer and driver agree, should surely land San Pail a spot in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
What exactly made this horse nobody wanted a world beater? It something like the the bump on his hock anyone could see, but something no one could see.
"His heart, it was all his heart. There were trotters out there that were just as fast as him, there were trotters as good-gaited as him, there were trotters out there that had the manners he did. But his heart, that's what made San Pail San Pail," said Waples. "He would not give up. If a horse poked a head in front of him, he'd fight the whole way. If he was coming from off the pace -- maybe I played my move a little too late and he had too much ground to make up -- he'd still fight, right to the wire. That's something you can't teach a horse and that's what he had in him."
With a stellar career concluded, Hughes does wonder 'what if?' about one opportunity that may not come again.
"It's not even a regret, because I think it would have been absolutely the wrong thing to do for the horse, but going to Europe would have been a dream come true for me. But he wouldn't have handled that trip very well. I know that he would have handled that style of racing very well, and it would have been awesome for us to go as a family."
Hughes & Co. may find themselves going on a trip of a different sort. The family farm north of Lindsay, Ont, is now for sale, with Rod and wife Emily considering something closer to the hub of harness racing in South-Western Ontario.
And though San Pail wasn't the biggest fan of road trips, he certainly did his part transporting fans through one thrill ride after another as an ambassador for the sport through the I Love Canadian Harness Racing Fan Club.
"He definitely took a lot of people on a lot of good rides," said Hughes, with pride evident in his tone.
"San Pail, to this day, is the greatest horse I've ever driven," stated Randy Waples without an iota of doubt. "I might be able to experience a horse that was just as good as San Pail, but I'll never experience a horse that was better."