Hightstown, NJ — Prior to Saturday (Aug. 3) afternoon, Luc Blais’ fondest memories of a Hambletonian were from a race 24 years earlier, when Tagliabue won America’s Trotting Classic at The Meadowlands. By Saturday evening, the events of the prior 24 hours would change that.
Blais, who was a groom visiting the Meadowlands when Tagliabue captured the 1995 Hambletonian, watched Saturday at the Big M as his colt Forbidden Trade won the $1 million Hambletonian final, upsetting 1-5 favorite Greenshoe by a neck. Forbidden Trade, trained by Blais and driven by 28-year-old Bob McClure, was the 2018 O’Brien Award winner for best 2-year-old male trotter and became the first Canadian champ to win the Hambletonian in the award’s 30-year history.
“It’s amazing,” Blais said. “I used to watch the race before, when I was not in it, and it was always exciting. And now, just to be in the race, it is exciting. To win, it’s, I don’t even know how to say it. It’s a good, good, good feeling.”
Blais had started a horse in the Hambletonian once previously, sending Jake to the race in 2017. Jake finished sixth in his elimination and did not advance to the final. This time, Forbidden Trade was a strong-finishing third in his elimination before returning 90 minutes later to win the final.
“I had confidence; I had a good feeling,” said Blais, who conditions the son of Kadabra-Pure Ivory for Serge Godin’s Determination Stable. “But we needed to be in the final first.”
The 57-year-old Blais is a native of western Quebec, not far from Ottawa. He got hooked on racing at an early age, watching his father, a salesman, race his own horses on the Quebec fair circuit. He worked for several stables, including Canadian Hall of Famer Yves Filion’s Bayama Farms, before going on his own.
“I always liked horses,” Blais said. “My father had horses. He bought a classy horse with big legs. We needed to tub him and put time on him. You need to put time on the horse. A classy horse, if you put time on the horse, they’re going to give back to you. That’s my thinking.”
Blais’ pick of Tagliabue’s win in the Hambletonian as a favorite was due in part to the horse being unraced at 2 and brought to peak for the race.
“I like that kind of story,” he said.
Blais said he planned to celebrate the Hambletonian win with his brother and friends before returning to work on Sunday.
“Maybe we’ll drink a few beers and just relax,” Blais said. “After (Saturday) you have to go back to work. I think that’s the only way you can be there, it’s the work. You need to be there and work. And you need to have the passion, both work and passion.”
Blais and McClure have forged a successful relationship in the two years since McClure left Canada’s ‘B’ tracks for the main stage of Woodbine-Mohawk. McClure’s Hambletonian victory marked the third time in four years that a driver younger than 30 captured the sport’s premier race for 3-year-old trotters. Scott Zeron won in 2016 with Marion Marauder at age 27 and two years later with Atlanta.
“We were looking for a regular driver for the barn and he had just come from the ‘B’ tracks, where he was very good,” Blais said. “He’s a young guy, but he is a very mature guy. Very professional. He’s got the talent to be a good driver. It’s been a good partnership. To me, to have success, you need to work together.”
McClure, an Ontario native, finished second in purses in Canada in 2018 and third in wins. He led Canada in wins in 2017 and 2016 and was third in 2015.
He was making his Hambletonian debut with Forbidden Trade.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, maybe in a few days it will,” McClure said Saturday about the win. “It’s certainly been career changing in the last four years. I have a lot of people to thank for that, I’ve had a lot of support behind me. The icing on the cake was the Determination Stable, I owe them a lot. I couldn’t have done it without the people who supported me along the way.”
McClure admitted to some anxiety prior to the Hambletonian but was at ease when he hit the track with Forbidden Trade.
“It probably didn’t show on the outside in the paddock, but there were nerves,” McClure said. “But whenever I hit the track, they all go away. And he’s such a quiet horse, a push-button horse to drive, which makes it a lot easier on me being kind of green to this.
“I would say he definitely led me. He did a very good job for me.”
McClure, who missed a month of action in the spring because of a broken pelvis, gave credit to Blais for having Forbidden Trade in top form for the Hambletonian. The colt entered the Hambletonian off three consecutive wins, including a prep against older foes on July 22 at Woodbine-Mohawk Park.
“I do think he was underrated,” McClure said about Forbidden Trade, who has won 12 of 19 career races and finished off the board only once in his past 14 races. “I think it’s pretty great that the Meadowlands Pace winner (Best In Show) and the Hambo winner are Ontario-sired horses. It’s really great for Ontario and Ontario racing. I think we do fly under the radar somewhat, but I think this shows we are competitive on the world stage.
“Maybe we flew under the radar. I don’t think we’ll get away with that anymore.”