FIVE years ago, he should’ve already won his first Triple Crown.
The handsome colt was named Ibarra, and he had won every race he had entered including the first two jewels of the 2007 Triple Crown. Like any good story, there was some controversy, as his connections opted to drop his young rider for a more experienced one after taking the Cojuangco Cup, but this was forgotten once Ibarra breezed to another convincing victory in the Ongpin Cup.
But Antonio Alcasid, Jr. was actually Ibarra’s first handler, so it was a sort of a reunion for both. Jockey and horse were very familiar with one another, which was why Alcasid readily knew something was amiss after a workout at the San Lazaro Leisure Park. True enough, the consensus among the veterinarians was Ibarra had bone chips in his upper right knee. He could run, but it was risky.
So the owner did the only logical thing – he scratched his entry and thus, forefeited the opportunity to win the prestigious championship series for three-year-olds.
That singular act showed Ibarra's owner Benhur Abalos, who is also mayor of Mandaluyong City, truly loved the sport and the equine athletes around which it revolved. Some other owner might have risked permanent injury to his horse by going for it, but not Abalos. He wasn’t in this for the short haul, obviously.
And over the weekend, he was given his richly deserved reward.
Abalos’ latest track sensation, a magnificent chestnut colt named Hagdang Bato, became the country’s first horseracing Triple Crown winner in 11 years, outlasting a host of solid contenders on July 15 at the SLLP – the same track where five years earlier Ibarra’s hopes had been dashed.
“It is a dream come true, no, more than a dream come true,” said Abalos, who has now won five legs of the rich stakes series from the offspring of Fire Down Under, one of 12 broodmares he keeps in his farm.
It is like lightning striking twice for the former MARHO president. Although this brings Hagdang Bato’s career winnings to nearly P10 million in less than a year of racing, this is not what makes Abalos truly proud.
“Hagdang Bato is a locally bred horse,” said the mayor. “I bred him myself. It’s not easy being a breeder, because it takes so long for you to see the result of your research and study. A mare is pregnant for 11 months before it gives birth, then it’s at least two-and-a-half years before the horse is ready to race.
“You really need patience to be a successful breeder,” added Abalos.
Fire Down Under was already in foal to Yoneguska when Abalos purchased the mare from Mar Tirona, who had bought her at Keeneland in Kentucky, which is acknowledged as the center of the thoroughbred racing universe. Her son was Ibarra, so Abalos can only credit his keen sense to buy the mare from her owner.
For Hagdang Bato, the first Philippine Triple Crown winner with a Tagalog name, his sire was proven stud Quaker Ridge, owned By Hermie Esguerra with some partners, and more than four years after breeding, a Triple Crown champion completed what seems like destiny for the horse owner.
Abalos though, still hopes for bigger things. He is sad that there was little fanfare given the magnitude of Hagdang Bato’s win, overshadowed by many other events that took place over the weekend.
“We need more effort to promote horseracing. It’s a difficult business and admittedly, revenues are not where they were many years ago,” Abalos said.
“I dream of the time when we can send our horses abroad to compete – maybe not in the US, Australia or even Japan, but maybe Singapore and Malaysia.
“Maybe form a sort of Philippine team with our best horses, trainers and riders working together to show our neighbors and even our own people the great strides horseracing has made recently.
“You see, like in other sports, horseracing needs heroes, too. Years ago, we had the likes of Skywalker, Time Master, Sun Dancer and Silver Story. Now it’s the turn of Hagdang Bato,” said Abalos. “Let’s see if like Wind Blown, Hagdang Bato can capture the public’s fancy and become racing’s newest hero.”
When your heart is in the right place, most anything is certainly possible.