IT WAS JULY 19, 2013, Rusty Carrier's 57th birthday.
Doing exactly what any former horse trainer should be doing, he was watching the first race from Saratoga at his Castleton, Va., farm when, suddenly, this gigantic horse, with these amazingly long strides, just appeared.
"You couldn't even see him on the screen," Carrier said last Thursday by phone. "All of a sudden, this huge stride went flying by everything to win. I said, 'Oh, my God, what is that?' "
That was Hardest Core, a son of Pennsylvania-bred Hard Spun, the 2007 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up out of the mare Lillybuster, a daughter of Bob Levy's racing Hall of Famer, Housebuster.
Carrier called his longtime friend Greg Bentley, the CEO of Bentley Systems in Exton, and said, "I've seen the horse for us."
Hardest Core, Carrier quickly found out, was not for sale. Fast forward to this Saturday at Santa Anita Park and the horse who was not for sale, the 2014 Arlington Million winner, will be running in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf for Andrew Bentley Stables LLC.
"It's such a feeling of unreality," said Andrew's mother, Caroline. "We are traveling through the racing world at the speed of light."
Most of the Hardest Core team gathered at the Bentleys' jewel of a farm in Chester County last Thursday morning - Caroline; Andrew; trainer Eddie Graham; Graham's wife, Wendi, who works in the racing office at Parx; exercise rider Jody Petty; overqualified groom/champion steeplechase trainer Brianne Slater; and Hardest Core, the massive 4-year-old gelding who fills up his stall, trains over hills on the Bentleys' farm and several other nearby farms and just keeps doing things he is not supposed to be doing.
So, how exactly did they get from that race at Saratoga to the Breeders' Cup? It certainly was not planned and nobody possibly could have scripted it.
Really, who scripts a story where a horse is bought as a 30th birthday present for the Bentleys' oldest of four children, Andrew, who has Down syndrome and is living proof that belief can overcome circumstance; a horse is trained by a man who took over the stable for his best friend after he got terminally ill with mesothelioma; a horse is found by his trainer in a field last November, 19 feet of intestine hanging out, unable to stand, death right around the corner until the trainer gets enough help to get him to his feet and into a van for a 10-minute ride to the New Bolton Center, where a gifted surgeon from Australia puts him back together so well that he is eating the next day and back in training by March?
The trainer befriends a virtually unknown jockey at a weekly basketball game at an LA Fitness in Bensalem. That jockey, Eriluis Vaz, who is 10th in the standings at Parx this year, tells the trainer if he ever has a horse at the track, he would love to ride for him.
The horse that was not for sale turned up in the Keeneland November sales catalog. Graham saw the horse listed and called Carrier, who called Greg Bentley.
"Off Eddie and I went to Kentucky," Carrier said.
Carrier had to outbid Kiaran McLaughlin, who trained Hardest Core last year as a 3-year-old. It is unclear why the owners decided to sell, but Carrier was asking no questions. The trainer liked him so much that he was bidding for another client. The horse went for $210,000. Carrier has a 30 percent interest. The Bentleys, in Andrew's name, own the rest.
Through the years, the Bentleys, who live in Unionville, had owned a few steeplechase horses. It was a diversion, nothing all that serious. Carrier had been their trainer until head seizures forced him to retire. The horses went to Paul Rowland until he got sick. Rowland, who passed away in June 2012 at the age of 44, suggested the Bentleys give their horse, Rainbows for Luck, to Graham to train. He eventually became their regular trainer. Rainbows for Luck's final race was a victory in the 2013 Radnor Hunt.
Caroline Bentley and Rusty Carrier both agreed on the goal when Hardest Core was purchased. They wanted to win the Maryland Hunt Cup, a spring staple in the horse country north of Baltimore, a 4-mile race over fences, up and down hills through the Maryland countryside.
When Hardest Core came back from Kentucky to Graham's stable, they all agreed that the colt would be gelded. The operation to castrate him seemed to have gone fine - until the day after, when Graham saw him laying in that field near where his horses were then stabled at Emery and Josh Taylor's farm.
"I was devastated," Graham said. "I was on my own. I don't really have any help. I was trying to get him in his stall. He was throwing himself down. He's in tons of pain."
The Taylors came to help and called for more.
"We had like seven of us trying to get him to New Bolton and he wasn't getting up," Graham said. "They were talking like we might have to put him down. Emery said, 'You guys find a way to get this horse up.' "
Somehow, Hardest Core popped up. Emery backed up the trailer. Graham got in the back with the horse and "we flew down to New Bolton Center."
Waiting for the horse was Dr. Louise Southwood and the Penn Vet emergency team.
"When we know a horse like that's in that much trouble is coming in, a nursing team is on board ready to receive the animal," Southwood said, sitting in her New Bolton office. "We have our O.R. techs and our anesthesia team. Everybody was there ready to do a quick examination, get an IV catheter in and get him pain medication, antibiotics, get him asleep, get him on the table and get him fixed."
What happened to Hardest Core, according to Southwood, is uncommon but a "very recognized complication following castration."
When she and her team - which included her husband, also a vet - knew what they were dealing with, they went to work on what would turn out to be a 3-hour surgery to fix the hernia.
"Once the intestine starts coming out, it keeps coming out," Southwood said.
She has actually seen a loop of intestine down by a horse's feet. This was not nearly that bad.
"It wasn't hanging down on the ground," she said.
A horse actually has 60 or 70 feet of intestine, so the 19 feet that was eventually "resected" (cut out), while it surely sounds dire, was actually manageable. Once a horse loses 60 percent or more of bowel, he simply would not have enough left for digestion.
"He had plenty left," Southwood said. "We were able to get all the affected intestine out."
Then, they cleaned the affected body parts, put everything back together, sewed the horse up and waited to see how he would recover. Other than a mild fever the day after surgery, there were no complications.
"She was unbelievable, a lot of the doctors after they do surgery, there's not much communication," Graham said of Southwood. "She was awesome through the whole thing. If I had any questions, she answered. I was never a bother to her . . . She was fantastic. We're lucky to have her."
After the surgery, Graham got Hardest Core back at the farm and took it very slowly before putting him back into serious training in March.
"If there was nothing left in the gas tank, we were going to make him a jumper," Graham said.
Turned out the tank was full. And in horse racing, the big money is on the flats, not over jumps. And a $210,000 investment is serious money.
So, they ran Hardest Core on grass at Parx in June. He won easily. They ran him in the Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park in July. He won easily. They were deciding between several races for the horse's next start before choosing the Arlington Million at Arlington Park outside Chicago.
"If we were going to try, I thought we'd better try now," Graham said.
Hardest Core was third at the top of the stretch. Then, he was second, but Breeders' Cup Turf defending champion Magician was in front. Second would be nice. First was nicer. Hardest Core passed Magician and won by a length.
"I don't know that I've yelled that loudly for a horse in my life," Wendi Graham said. "I think we all embarrassed ourselves quite a bit that day."
Southwood was back home in Australia then. She did not even know the horse had made it back to the track. She got a few emails that Hardest Core had won the Million.
"You're always happy when you hear your cases do well, whether it's a backyard pony and the kids got to ride it again or something like this," she said. "I was just so happy for them."
The Arlington Million was Aug. 16. Hardest Core rode to Chicago in a van and rode back home in the same van. It was the first graded stakes win for trainer and jockey.
Graham has changed nothing since then, not the training, not the rider, nothing. Bigger-name jockeys were available, but he never wavered.
"Loyalty goes a long way for me and look at how it's worked out," Graham said. "Vaz and I are 6-for-6."
The other horse in the Bentleys' two-horse thoroughbred stable is Giant Shadow. The filly has won twice at Parx and once at Laurel Park this year, all with Vaz.
Hardest Core trains most days around 9 a.m. How and where depends on the weather and type of training. Last Thursday, after the rain finally stopped, Graham put the horse in a van that was driven from one part of the Bentleys' farm, past the Village of Gum Tree to another part of the farm.
There, Petty, who rode three-time steeplechase champion McDynamo in the final nine races of his Hall of Fame career, got aboard Hardest Core and they disappeared into a valley before coming into view while tearing up a giant hill at a speed climbing horses should not be able to attain. Then, they disappeared again and came up the hill again, just as fast.
"This is nothing," said Graham, who proved it a bit later in the morning when he showed off the hill at nearby Fat Chance Farm where the horse does his serious workouts, typically once a week. If you are driving on Route 82 just south of the Village of Doe Run, you can see the hill. Hardest Core goes up that hill twice, too, working, according to Petty, from "the bush to the tree in 53." Hardest Core's final pre-Cup workout was on that hill Sunday morning.
Graham does not train by distance. He trains by hills. It is definitely not the racetrack with all the horse traffic.
"Here I have to worry about bald eagles, tree limbs, deer, foxes, even a fox hunt," Petty said.
After the horse got back to the barn Thursday morning, Caroline arrived, followed a few minutes later by Andrew.
If ever a horse parallels lives, Hardest Core does. Greg Bentley grew up in Wilmington in an engineer's large family, went to the Wharton School at Penn, undergraduate and graduate in 4 years. Caroline grew up in the Far Northeast, went to Nazareth Academy, Temple and the University of Chicago to study social work.
Carrier said the Bentleys "got married and went to a campground for their honeymoon and started their business on Caroline's Sears charge card."
Greg Bentley elaborated on the Sears deal by writing in an email, "After being laid off by a failing programming firm, I started a software business financed by buying one of the first personal computers on our Sears credit card."
Bentley Systems was a University City startup 3 decades ago, with two employees. Today, it has 3,200 employees, offices in 50 countries and $650 million in annual revenues. The company supplies architectural and engineering software for massive worldwide commercial projects that include nuclear power plants, bridges, railroads and water-control plants. In addition to his business, Greg is a Drexel trustee. Greg's brothers are the engineers. He has the business background.
Hardest Core was a gift for Andrew, who, according to his mom, "loved horse racing from the time he was really young."
"It is thrilling," Caroline said. "He's so happy."
After Hardest Core won the Million, Andrew wrote an essay about his feelings and sent it to Jean Allegrotto, his speech therapist. His mother cried a bit when she read it, writing in an email "sometimes the depth of feeling Andrew expresses takes me by surprise."
"I love sense of urgency our horse Hardest Core storm the field we won our race," Andrew wrote, in part. "I always love Arlington Million. It makes me famous to win a race I always want to win . . . It makes me a winner of the horse race. I'm famous to be a owner of Hardest Core that's me . . . I was doing great job as owner of Hardest Core making him to feel courage to win the race and to cherish him."
Andrew works at Bentley Systems, lives in his own apartment nearby during the week with his companion, Molly Brown, another Bentley Systems employee. He stays with his parents on weekends.
"I'll brag a bit and tell you Andrew has a black belt in karate, participates in Special Olympics bowling, plays tennis and sings in choir at Trinity Episcopal Church in Coatesville," Caroline wrote. "He loves opera and is a diehard Phillies, Eagles and Flyers fan. And he can ride a horse."
And he owns a horse that has won a $1 million race and might win a $3 million race.
"I've loved the races since the '90s," Andrew said. "We got a big trophy at Arlington."
Andrew studied it all and, as Hardest Core was recovering from the surgery, sent the team an email, Wendi remembered, saying "this horse needs to run on flat, no jumps."
And when the trainer is "shaking and nervous," Andrew always tells him, "Don't be nervous, Eddie. It's just business.' "
Graham worked for Carrier and was a 10-year assistant for Bruce Miller, trainer of five-time steeplechase champion Lonesome Glory. He knows how to get a horse fit. Hardest Core, living up to his name, is definitely fit. To win the BC Turf, Hardest Core will have to beat some of the top European horses. They train like he does - on grass, in the country, building up stamina one day at a time. Stamina will not be an issue for Hardest Core in the mile-and-a-half race.
"It's all surreal," said Graham, who grew up in Coatesville watching his father ride steeplechase horses. "I know Paul has been looking after me. I'm having the best season ever. All the horses are running well, the jumpers and the flat horses. I know he'd be proud and happy."
"I just want to say how grateful I am to all the landowners that have allowed Eddie to train the horses on their place," Carrier said.