Suburban Handicap: Ode to Hymn Book

His first introduction was made via a whiskered muzzle snuffling for peppermints, and by curious ears pricked at the hubbub outside Barn 20 at Belmont Park.

There was 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird rolling off a Brookledge van, trainer Chip Woolley hobbling down the ramp on crutches, a media throng gathered to observe… and a dark bay 2-year-old peering from his stall window with bright-eyed expression. Hey, guys! What about me?

Suburban Handicap contender Hymn Book loves racing... and peppermints (Photo: Claire Novak)

No way to foresee his future that afternoon, but why not give treats to a colt who so obviously desired attention? This Saturday marks a second start in the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) for the now-seasoned 6-year-old runner, who will take on the likes of To Honor and Serve, Stay Thirsty, Trickmeister, Endorsement, and Mucho Macho Man in one of the nation’s most storied and prestigious races. Ah, Hymn Book. How far you’ve come.

Hymn Book wins the grade I Donn Handicap (Photo: Coglianese Photos)

By Arch out of Vespers–a daughter of champion European miler Known Fact–Hymn Book sports a pedigree that, at first glance, indicates a preference for turf. But his dam actually excelled in multiple off the turf events, winning the Memories of Silver Stakes on a muddy track at Aqueduct in 2002, and romping by 14 lengths in the Flying Concert Stakes at Calder in 2004 under sloppy conditions. Along with versatility, she bestowed her tenacious nature upon Hymn Book, her first foal and only progeny to race thus far.

“She isn’t really anything much to look at,” owner Stuart Janney III remarked. “She has sort of a short neck and if you’d looked at her in the paddock you would have said, ‘What is she thinking about doing, running against all these bigger mares?’ But she was absolutely the most honest, hard-trying horse you could imagine. She was a pretty nice racehorse, won more than $260,000, and she did it the hard way.”

Hymn Book's dam and Database, dam of pictured grade I winner Data Link, are sisters (photo: Equi-photo)

Although Vespers is a full sister to Database, the dam of 2012 Makers 46 Mile Stakes (gr. I) winner Data Link, there were no great expectations for Hymn Book when he joined Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey’s string from Claiborne Farm four years ago.

“He’s not big at all, he was fine, but he wasn’t anything that we got particularly excited about in the early days,” Janney recalled. “He didn’t come to the barn with a whole lot of advance accolades.”

Hymn Book’s first start resulted in a sixth-place finish going six furlongs on the turf, but after the colt was gelded, an off the turf event going 1 1/16 miles got the ball rolling Aug. 28 at Monmouth Park. He romped by 9 ¼ lengths.

“Shug and I kind of went, ‘Whoa, what have we got here, what’s this?’” Janney recalled. “We had a little different view about him after that.”

Fast-forward past five additional victories, three of them on the turf and two of them in the Three Coins Up Stakes and Firethorn Stakes on dirt at Belmont in 2011, and that view continued to get better and better.

Hymn Book has known he's great all along (Photo: Claire Novak)

Hymn Book’s progression could have been halted by an injury sustained in training, but a layup of almost a year from May of 2010 to April 2011 did nothing to squelch his competitive spirit. The Three Coins Up, for instance, was just his second start off the bench; he beat I Want Revenge by 1 ¼ lengths and a familiar face was back in third – Ron The Greek, who went on to win the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and the Stephen Foster (gr. I) this season.

Then it was on to the Suburban Handicap (gr. II), our boy’s first out in graded company. He finished second behind Flat Out, who went on to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).

“Through the years he’s become more and more of a natural racehorse,” McGaughey remarked. “He likes what he’s doing, he loves to train, he gives it his all when he runs. What more could you ask for?”

How about a grade I win? That’s what Hymn Book delivered this February 11 after running second behind To Honor and Serve in the Cigar Mile (gr. I).

More often than not, one race is remembered as a runner’s greatest effort, the perfect scenario in which everything comes together for the victory of a lifetime. The Donn may very well have been that race for Hymn Book. The classy field he upset at odds of 6-1 included 2011 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Shackleford, 2011 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) victor Ruler On Ice, Flat Out, Trickmeister, and Mission Impazible. He mowed them all down after tracking along in sixth, getting bumped hard at the eighth pole, and rallying five wide.

Hymn Book rallies outside en route to victory in the Donn Handicap (Photo: Coglianese Photos)

“He’s a tough little guy; all that kind of stuff doesn’t seem to bother him,” McGaughey said of the rough run in the Donn. “It just makes him more competitive, if anything.”

Not much bothers Hymn Book (Photo: Claire Novak)

But Hymn Book hasn’t been able to overcome rough trips in his past two starts. He was fourth in the April 14 Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) behind Alternation, Ron The Greek, and Yawanna Twist, then ran fifth in the Pimlico Special (gr. III) May 18 after getting bumped and squeezed and rallying wide.

“He didn’t have the best trip down in Arkansas; the pace wasn’t what we needed and it was kind of a difficult track to close on,” Janney said. “It was pretty speed-favoring, so that wasn’t too good, and  then he got a very bad trip at Pimlico where he got in a jam at the very beginning. Johnny Velazquez said with a better start and the ability to be up in the mix, he would have been awfully tough.”

Hymn Book has been training at Belmont, where he recorded a four-furlong move in :47.05 breezing July 1.

“He’s doing really well now, he’s had a couple good works recently, he likes Belmont, and we’re looking forward to Saturday,” Janney said.

According to Janney, Hymn Book is a wonderful horse to be around because “attitude and abilities are what kind of draw you to a horse, and he’s got both. He’s got ability but he’s also just got this wonderful attitude. He’s just like a gentle lamb when he’s not getting ready to race, but when he figures out he’s going to be racing, he’s a totally different animal.”

Grade I winner Hymn Book (Photo: Coglianese Photos)

Some horses are destined for greatness and find it with easy romps and flawless performances. Hymn Book has never been one of those. Rooting for him, you’re holding your breath, praying he gets through but knowing he’ll come running. Whenever he races, he gives it his all. 

“He’s an overachiever,” McGaughey said. “You know he’s going to go over there and run his race, all right.” 

For a complete preview of the July 7 Suburban Handicap (gr. I), click here.

Watch Hymn Book's Donn Handicap.


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