Yonkers, NY — Monique Cohen will start two horses in the eliminations of the Lawrence B. Sheppard Pace Saturday night (July 6) at Yonkers Raceway in homebred Han Solo and the purchased Level Up. While the latter’s journey to the races was smooth sailing, Han Solo narrowly survived a brush with death to become the 8-5 morning line favorite in an elimination of the first Open 2-year-old stake of the season.
By Mister Big out of the Jet Laag mare Leah, Han Solo is Cohen’s first homebred. Cohen owned Leah in partnership and campaigned the mare across the East Coast from 2007 through 2012. When the partnership dissolved, Cohen kept the mare who won 27 of 181 starts and earned $124,264.
“She did it the hard way,” said Cohen in regards to her bank account. “She was my pet and every time she raced in a claimer, I was cringing that she would get claimed. When the partnership dissolved, I bought her out and we traded a pretty expensive trotter for a piece of her for just so I could keep her.
“She was just a little ATM machine. She didn’t make a lot of money, but she was always sound, she was always wanting to do her job, and she was just an all-around good little mare. She’s not a big mare, but she was just a friendly little mare that was my pet.”
After retiring Leah to her farm in 2013, Cohen decided to give the gray mare a chance at a second career as a broodmare. On March 24, 2017, ‘Princess Leah,’ as Cohen affectionately calls her, had her first foal, Han Solo.
“He looked like a donkey,” she said. “He was pitch black and had so much hair. The only gray was around his eyes and his muzzle. He had the thickest hair you’ve ever seen and he was huge, huge. I felt so bad for this mare.
“That summer, he started shedding that black fuzz and he started getting lighter and lighter as the summer went on. By September, he was pretty gray. He was still dark gray, but not that black.”
When it came time to wean Han Solo from Leah, Cohen sent the colt to the farm of nearby owner Nick Vamvilis of Seafood Delight Stable.
“[Nick] had a yearling when he was a weanling, Seafood King, and he said, ‘Can you bring your baby over here? Because our baby is alone and needs a friend,'” Cohen said. “He’s only 15 minutes from our farm, so we turned him out there. Nick was going to switch Han Solo from one paddock to another paddock. He said he just went down and he couldn’t get him up and he called me to come out there.”
Cohen and her daughter raced to Han Solo’s side and tried in vain to get the horse back on his feet. After some time, the vet arrived and pulled blood, but nothing physically wrong could be found.
“My daughter, Sheena McElhiney, who’s a trainer said, ‘Let’s throw everything and the kitchen sink at him, anything. At this point, what does it matter?’ ” Cohen said.
The team began administering strong antibiotics in a last ditch effort to save Han Solo.
“My daughter and I sat in the field with him overnight,” Cohen said. “He was trying to get up the whole night and he was just throwing himself 30 or 40 feet in the field. We put a tent over him the next day because it was so hot. In the morning the vet came and the blood work just showed a little elevation in his white count, but he had no clue. He was calling doctors in Kentucky, New Bolton, everywhere trying to figure out what this was.”
About 30 hours after Han Solo collapsed, Cohen made the difficult decision to euthanize the colt. Preparations were made and the vet summoned. Just before the injection was administered to end Han Solo’s suffering, Vamvilis made a final plea.
“By 4:30 or 5 o’clock that night, I called the vet back and said, ‘I can’t see him like this anymore,’ ” Cohen said. “We called everybody and we got the flatbed ready to haul him away. The doctor came and his assistant was getting ‘the blue shot’ ready. He had his head on my lap and Nick came over and just grabbed his halter and said, ‘Come on Han, just get up, one more time.’ ”
Han Solo leapt to his feet.
The somber crowd stared mystified as the colt’s legs trembled under his weight once more. After about five minutes of standing, Han Solo was steady again and walked across the paddock to the fence to see Seafood King.
One month after his near-death experience, Han Solo began training alongside Seafood King and Level Up. Although he had a tricky disposition, Han Solo took to his work well.
“He has a personality,” Cohen said. “He was good line-driving in only a couple days and then we put him in the cart. He likes to jog with other horses because he likes to play with them and plod along with them. As fast as they go, he’ll go. He loves his work. In the barn, he’s kind of rambunctious, but as soon as you put the harness on him, he’s ready to go. The first thing when you pull him out of the stall, you throw the harness on him.”
By June 1, Han Solo was ready to qualify. He won his first qualifying race on the front end in 2:03.1 at Saratoga Casino Hotel and returned to the Spa the following week to score in another trial in 2:01.2. The results encouraged Cohen.
“We qualified him up at Saratoga and he’s a little bit lazy,” Cohen said. “He’ll go as fast as he needs to go. I knew he could go faster because he’s gone faster at home on our five-eighths track. He had to get experience behind the gate, and he wasn’t afraid of the gate, he got right up on the gate, so that was nice to see.”
On June 19, Han Solo made his pari-mutuel debut in a $5,750 2-year-old maiden event at Saratoga. Han Solo raced 4-3/4 lengths behind 1-5 favorite Herecomesbullville early and stuck to the pylons behind a :57.3 half-mile. As rival Shade Thrower took on Herecomesbullville nearing the three-quarters, driver Bruce Aldrich Jr. put Han Solo in gear.
Angling three-wide around the final turn, Han Solo ranged up within two lengths of the leaders. Fully extended, Han Solo stormed down the center of the track and surged past Herecomesbullville in the shadow of the wire to win his debut at odds of 5-1.
“That was very exciting. Everybody who knows him is so happy,” Cohen said. “He’s got a good following around here and they’re just so happy to see him on the track. After what happened to him, we just didn’t know what to expect.”
After finishing second to 3-year-old Fargo Hanover in his second start at Plainridge Park Casino on June 28, Cohen entered Han Solo in the Lawrence B. Sheppard Pace. The colt drew post one in the first of three $25,000 eliminations. The top two finishers and the two fastest third-place finishers in each elimination will advance to the estimated $120,250 final July 13.
“The only thing he’s eligible for was the Massachusetts Sire Stakes, so we wanted to get him a little more experience,” Cohen said. “We thought this was a good race. After this, we’re going to give him a little break and then bring him back for the Massachusetts Sire Stakes. He’s just Massachusetts-bred, so there’s not a lot of races for him. We wanted to get a little more mileage under him and he’s doing well and competing well, so we thought, why not, let’s take a shot.”
Cohen will also start Level Up in the second elimination of the Sheppard. The Art Major colt drew post two and is 3-1 on the morning line.
Vamvilis purchased Level Up out of the 2018 Standardbred Horse Sale for $55,000. After two impressive qualifiers at Saratoga, a 16-3/4 length win in 1:59 at first asking and a 3-1/2 length score in 1:57.3 second time out, Level Up finished on the board in two legs of the New York Sire Stakes at Yonkers and Monticello June 20 and July 1, respectively.
“He likes to do his job,” Cohen said. “He can leave; he’s an easy one. We were really happy with getting him. He’s been doing well in the New York Sire Stakes. We’ve been really happy with him.
“Both of them have been drawing really well so far. We’re just so excited that we have two babies we can really go out there and compete with.”
Saturday night’s card also features the weekly $46,000 Open Handicap Trot and Open Handicap Pace, along with the $37,000 4-Year-Old Open Handicap Pace.
First post time is 6:50 p.m. Yonkers Raceway features live harness racing Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. For entries to the races, click here.