hortly before he entered the Longacres winner’s circle after adding the $30,000 Doo-Dah Express Handicap, the opening day feature on April 4, 1990, to his already impression collection of triumphs and accolades, The Seattle Times paid homage to Hilco Scamper and his connections.
After all, bay gelding was the first stakes victor to be bred by John and Mary Roche, captured his debut with the fastest ever clocking for a two-year-old in Washington at five furlongs, was the even-money favorite in the 1985 Hopeful Stakes (G1), and recovered from two bows in the same tendon, founder and a nearly terminal bacterial infection before returning to his work.
Obviously only a handful of horses have ever overcome one of these dilemmas, but then again, Hilco Scamper was never just any old horse. He was always exceptional and his breeder as well as co-owner determined very early on in his career as to why.
“He’s got a big heart,” John Roche told reporter Sarah Smith. “And his heart’s still intact anyway.”
Roche’s words, however, although scathingly honest and directly to the point, turned out not to be merely an apt description of his horse’s most telling asset and actually could be viewed as an omen.
On September 15, a mere five months and 11 days from Roche’s statement, shortly after crossing the finish line in second place at Fairplex Park in Pomona, California, Hilco Scamper collapsed on the track with a ruptured aorta. His heart, which literally exploded in his chest, had at long last finally failed the Washington-bred to win graded stakes races on both coasts and who was ultimately one of the greatest Thoroughbreds the state ever produced.
Born on February 11, 1983, the son of 1978 Washington two-year-old champion Knights Choice – who would be the state’s leading sire in 1991 – and Lucky Sport, who would earn broodmare of the mare honors in 1985 due to her son’s outstanding exploits -- inspired fairly high expectations long before his racing debut. Roche sold part interests in the young horse to his brother-in-law Larry Wright and fellow fruit packaging colleague George Cross.
After The Jockey Club rejected the partners’ initial name for the horse, they were in Roche’s office racking their brains for a new name when Roche happened to lay eyes on a photograph of a Saudi Arabian freighter he had recently loaded with fruit and asked if that would suffice.
“I bet they never heard of that one,” Cross responded.
Before Hilco Scamper ever arrived at conditioner Mike Chambers’ barn, Roche talked him up to Jerre Paxton, of Northwest Farms, which stood Knights Choice, and Dale Leach, his farm manager.
“We always thought he showed a lot of life and ability,” Roche told The Washington Horse in September of 1985. “Of course he was a February foal. I remember one Sunday Jerre and Dale came out. I’d been telling them about this Knights Choice colt – there weren’t too many of them on the ground yet – so they came out and he showed them a ton of fire. You don’t expect anything like this, but we thought he’d be a very nice colt.”
Broken at H. R. Gibson’s farm, the gelding was sent to Chambers in November 1984, but it certainly was not the first time he had seen the young horse.
“The first time I saw him at John’s I really liked him,” Chambers recalled. “And at Homer’s I’d come in from California and watch him gallop. I liked him a lot.”
Even though they knew they had a nice horse on their hands, Hilco Scamper’s connections almost undoubtedly were not quite prepared for the tour de force they witnessed in his career and Longacres debut on May 18. The gelding came home by 15 widening lengths in :56 4/5 for five furlongs, the fastest ever time in Washington for a two-year-old.
“I remember getting chills on my arms that day,” Chambers later said.
The victory had also caught the eye of Scott Stevens, the brother of now Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who just a year earlier had established a season’s record for number of victories at Longacres, but was now riding in California.
Immediately Gary placed a call to his agent Ray Kravagna and told him to give Chambers a ring. When contacted, Chambers explained he had already considered putting Stevens up if the horse made it to California, which seemed likely as the gelding was not nominated to any local stakes events. Also, Chambers and Stevens had a history. Stevens had won his 200th race aboard a Chambers horse several years prior.
For his second start, Hilco Scamper won the Tanforan Kindergarten Stakes at Golden Gate Fields on June 19 with as much ease as in his first appearance. His 1:03 time for 5 1/2 furlongs was a track record and his closest competitor was six lengths in arrears.
His next trip to the gate was another facile 4 1/2-length victory on June 30 at Hollywood Park, with Stevens in the irons for the first time, in the Desert Wine Stakes in a time of 1:02 4/5.
“I’ve never ridden a horse as powerful as this one,” Stevens told Bill Christine of the Los Angeles Times following the race.
Hilco Scamper continued to grab more headlines subsequent to another hand-ridden triumph, this time in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship (G2) at Hollywood Park on July 25 in close to stakes record time (1:09 4/5).
“If they had run that race at a mile, he’d have won by 20 lengths,” Roche said after the contest.
Several days after the Juvenile score, Hilco Scamper shipped to Monmouth Park as a $10,000 supplemental entrant for the Sapling Stakes (G2) on August 10.
This event was certainly not as simple for the gelding as he was bumped severely exiting the gate, Stevens’ saddle slipped, he ran a slow last quarter of :26 2/5 and was closed in on in the stretch. Even with all the trouble, including a claim of foul by Danny’s Keys for the gate mishap, he still managed to hold off that one by three and stay up on the board. It was Stevens’ first victory on the East Coast.
“Maybe he was tired, or maybe he wasn’t contested,” Chambers offered. “I don’t know, but to watch that race from my point of view, it wasn’t his best by far. Gary told me not to worry. He had a lot left at the finish.”
Now a perfect five for five with $229,055 in the bank and the industry considering him as serious candidate for a classic win the following year, Hilco Scamper stepped into the gate at Saratoga on August 25 as the favorite for the Hopeful Stakes (G1).
Unfortunately, that would be the last race of his first campaign. Although he led at the top of the stretch, the gelding struggled home seventh over the muddy Saratoga dirt and bowed a tendon. Despite the dramatic end to scintillating year, Hilco Scamper was recognized as Washington’s champion two-year-old colt or gelding, champion two-year-old and horse of the year. On that year’s national Experimental Free Handicap, he was weighted at 125 pounds, behind only Ogygian, Tasso, Storm Cat, Snow Chief, Danzig Connection, Meadowlake and Pillaster, and would have certainly been an Eclipse Award contender in his division if not for the injury that curtailed his season.
A Close Call and Miraculous Recovery
After about four months of rest on the farm, Hilco Scamper began to show signs of colic, but the real issue developed from an anaerobic bacterial infection in his hip from an injection. He needed an immediate, invasive surgery to save him, and a sizeable amount of muscle mass was removed from that hip.
“We laid him down right on the lawn,” Roche told The Seattle Times. “They cut a huge slash in him. Otherwise he would have died within the hour.”
Hilco Scamper was rushed to the Washington State University’s veterinary clinic within hours and remained there for more than three months with drains inserted in his hip to clear out the infection. His weight plummeted to only 700 pounds.
“He damn near died twice,” Cross told The Blood-Horse on December 19, 1987. “He got a bacterial infection in his hind end. The put about nine drain holes in him and drained him out. He spent 90 days at Washington State University. Dr. Tony Smith of Yakima saved his life.”
In fact, when he actually returned to training in the fall of 1986 at Longacres, Hilco Scamper was still sporting one last drain.
“When I heard what had happened to him, I was sad,’’ Stevens told The Seattle Times. “You’re just hoping he survives. You don’t even think about him racing again. Then they started talking about him coming back (to the track) and I thought they were totally insane. I saw the scar tissue on him and I said, ‘No way.’ His hip was sunk in and the muscles were atrophied.’’
But that didn’t stop this champion.
He returned to action on December 26, 1986, more than 16 months after the Hopeful, in the Malibu Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita. He came home sixth, behind the race’s top two finishers and classic victors Ferdinand and Snow Chief, but was in contention at the top of the lane.
Return of the Sprinter
Hilco made two more appearances in allowance races at Santa Anita on January 9, 1987, and January 30, finishing seventh and second respectively, before traveling to Golden Gate Fields for a fifth place effort in the Albany Handicap on February 28, but maybe all he needed, like we all do from time to time, is a trip home to improve his form.
On April 26, he returned to the scene of his unveiling with a second place finish in the Renton Handicap and followed that performance with a return to the winners’ circle in the Speed Handicap at the same facility on May 10 in 1:08 2/5.
“He really started looking like the Hilco of old today,” Chambers said of the horse with scars covering the damaged left hip. “He still doesn’t look as good as he should. I know he’s still not at the very top of his game, but he started getting back to it today.”
On May 25 he was seventh in the Northwest Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap before returning to Hollywood Park on November 29, after a freshening, with a second, beaten by a nose, in an allowance race. In his next start, the National Sprint Championship (G2) on December 12, also at Hollywood Park, Hilco Scamper rebounded with a win over Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) third and fourth place finishers Elusive Enough and Zabaleta in a time of 1:09 3/5.
“They said he bowed a tendon,” his jockey Corey Black said, following the race. “Horse’s don’t usually come back from that alone, [let alone] come back and win a stakes.
“It’s scary to think,” Black continued, when discussing just what might have been. “When the gates opened, Pine Tree Lane went. I reached up and took hold, but I wanted to keep my position. He took the bit and dragged me right past her. Once he got a neck in front he relaxed. It’s hard to believe a horse can pull past Pine Tree Lane. He was getting a little tired because he was running fast fractions, but he was digging in at the end. Reconnoitering got within about a neck of me with 50 yards to go, then my horse saw him. He had his chance to beat us.”
The gelding tipped his hand at how ready he was to run with a three furlong bullet of :34 4/5 only two days prior to the race.
His final trip to the post that year was in a strong second in the Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita on December 27.
Face-offs with Another Kind of Speed
Given another vacation, Hilco Scamper came back in an allowance race at Del Mar on August 8. He was eighth, but rebowed the same tendon he had injured as a juvenile and it was off to another lengthy recovery period. He remained in California under the care of Bobby Mitchell at his ranch. It was Mitchell who told the gelding’s connections they should consider racing him at nearby Los Alamitos against Quarter Horses at 870 yards or roughly four furlongs.
Making yet another comeback from a 10-month layoff, the gelding finished second in his first Quarter Horse contest on June 3, 1989. He raced eight times throughout the year, strictly against Quarter Horses, and compiled a record of five victories, with four in a row, two seconds and one sixth with more than $120,000 in purse money.
“He did so well in his first few races against Quarter Horses that we just kept going,” Chambers told the Washington Thoroughbred in May of 1990. “He won a lot of money without ever having to go over a 1,000 yards. It was incredible.
“He’s lucky he’s alive,” he continued about the horse he nicknamed “Old Scar.” “He went through a lot with tubes sticking out of him all over. He’s had every kind of sickness known to man.”
Stevens traveled from Del Mar to Los Alamitos to ride Hilco Scamper, who became the first Washington-bred Thoroughbred to capture a Quarter Horse stakes in California, in his second Quarter Horse race. “They said, ‘What are you doing wasting your time riding him? He has no chance against those Quarter Horses.’ He’s a real intelligent horse though. Once he figured out what was going on, he started beating them out of the gate.”
“Everyone thought I was crazy to drive all the way up there to compete for a $30,000 purse,” Stevens said.
Racing at Seven
Hilco’s owners then decided to bring him back to Longacres for his first engagement of 1990 in the Doo-Dah Express Stakes and even though he had been training well, they were concerned with how he would handle the return to Thoroughbred competition and the longer distance.
“I almost had a tear in my eye,” Chambers said. “I just did this (crossing himself) and told him good luck.”
It seemed their fears were unfounded as Hilco Scamper bounded from the gate, put the field away and was never threatened.
After a dull showing in the April 29 Speed Handicap over the same racing strip, Hilco Scamper made the remaining four starts of his career at Los Alamitos and Fairplex Park with three seconds and a fifth.
Upon his dramatic passing, which was just as intense and frustrating as his entire career, the gelding was the seventh leading earner in Washington history. From 17 starts he possessed eight wins and three seconds with $353,705 in purse money.
“Winning Colors is on one side of my heart and he’s on the other,” Stevens said to The Seattle Times on April 4, 1990.
“Hilco Scamper was one of the fastest sprinters I’ve ever ridden,” he continued in his book, A Perfect Ride. “He had more natural speed coming out of the starting gate than any Quarter Horse I’ve ever been on. He was not only quick out of the gate, but responsive as well – you could do whatever you wanted with him. He was strong and also a very honest horse.”
Kentucky resident Kimberly French is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Thoroughbred, Standardbred and Quarter Horse publications. She also freelances as a production assistant for ESPN’s horse racing broadcasts.
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