Horses

Stephen Foster’s ageless wonder Majestic Harbor still finding his best stride

Majestic Harbor is doing some of his best racing at 8 years old entering Saturday’s Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Majestic Harbor is doing some of his best racing at 8 years old entering Saturday’s Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. Coady Photography

Among his human comrades, Majestic Harbor is known as — and still responds to — the call name “Rocky.” It was a nickname born as a nod to his late sire, Rockport Harbor. Yet, seven seasons into his Grade I-winning career, it is a moniker that has become more fitting than anyone could have fathomed for the 8-year-old bay horse.

Like the famed, cinematic boxing character, the equine “Rocky” keeps coming back for sequel after sequel, almost always as the endearing underdog. Each time one gets lured into thinking his prime has passed, he lands a blow that lets his competition know the old man is still capable of knocking foes to the canvas.

“It seems to be more resonant every year,” laughed Loren Hebel-Osborne of Prospect, Ky., who along with her husband, David, are managing partners of the ownership group Gallant Stable. “How many versions of Rocky were there? Six or 10? It seems to suit him now more than we thought it ever did.”

Fresh off his 10th win in 41 career starts, Majestic Harbor is climbing back under the ropes Saturday night for another title shot, so to speak. The Paul McGee-trained warrior sits as the 5-1 co-second choice on the morning line in the Grade I, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

David Osborne jokes that anyone who doesn’t think they are looking for a Grade I winner when they peruse the Keeneland September Yearling Sale “is a little deluded.” Still, no amount of fantasy could foretell the ride Majestic Harbor has given his adoring connections since he was purchased for just $20,000 at the 2009 September auction.

We’re kind of known for running older horses and … we have definitely learned a lot in that the talent is there and you just have to keep them happy. ... It is absolutely a team effort with him. We have massage therapists … he gets more massages than I do.

Loren Hebel-Osborne

There were scores of giddy participants on Kentucky Oaks day this past May 6, yet the joy that radiated from the Osbornes and their partners as Majestic Harbor sauntered into the winner’s circle following his 2½-length victory in the Grade II Alysheba Stakes was most blinding. After winning just two of 11 starts last season, the venerable runner has looked as right as ever in taking two of four outings in 2016 including the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds on Feb. 20.

When he got his head down over fellow Stephen Foster entrant, Eagle, in the Mineshaft Handicap, it marked the first graded win for Majestic Harbor since his upset triumph in the 2014 Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita Park. Where he would have every right to be losing a step at this stage in his career, he is throwing down bullet moves like the 5-furlong work in 1:00.40 on June 9 and doubling down on his status as the barn’s resident big man.

“He’s a ham. He’s a total ham. He loves the attention,” Hebel-Osborne said. “He knows he’s the big horse in the barn. He goes out there and trains like a bear and you can literally drop the shank almost when he goes out to graze.

“We’re kind of known for running older horses and … we have definitely learned a lot in that the talent is there and you just have to keep them happy. The mental state and their confidence level is a huge part of that and we’ve had a great team. It is absolutely a team effort with him. We have massage therapists … he gets more massages than I do.”

Patience and pampering have served Majestic Harbor well to say the least.

Though he flashed talent as a juvenile — he raced against eventual 2011 Preakness Stakes hero Shackleford and 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned in his second career start — a cracked knee following his run in the 2011 Louisiana Derby sidelined Majestic Harbor for nearly a year.

It took a couple seasons after that for the friendly bay to find his mojo. After being shifted from McGee to the barn of Sean McCarthy for a West Coast campaign in 2014, something also shifted within the horse as he started becoming a major player in graded stakes.

His first graded score came when, as a 6-year-old, he won the Grade III Tokyo City Cup Stakes at Santa Anita Park in March 2014. When he torched a field that included multiple Grade I winner Game On Dude by 6¼ lengths in the Gold Cup two starts later, it was equal parts validating and mind-blowing.

“He was coming off a layoff at that point (when he went to California) and we kind of looked at the handicap division and the older horses were a little bit thinner out West at that moment,” David Osborne said. “But I think it was a little bit of everything. I think it was a change of scenery, I think it was a little time off, the change of competition, change of surface. Everything kind of came together for him at the right time.

“I think the big thing is we’ve learned to listen to him. We watch him and watch his body language. He’s just an extremely happy horse and when he’s a happy horse, he’s a good horse.”

Reunited with McGee last season, Majestic Harbor kept proving he belonged at the highest level, finishing second or third in three graded stakes in 2015 and running fourth in last year’s edition of the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster.

In his 41 starts, Majestic Harbor has gone to post as the favorite only three times. But he keeps coming back, resilient as ever with a supporting cast that has enough faith in him for everyone.

“You look back at almost all of his races and he rarely gets the nod to be the favorite,” Hebel-Osborne said. “So, we always know going in he’s going to run well but we never know what that means. Then when he puts in a performance like he does, you just look at each other like ‘Did that just happen?’

“I know Saturday is supposed to be a white party (at Churchill Downs), but I’m thinking I might not wear white because (if Majestic Harbor wins) ... I’m getting in the mud with him and throwing my arms around his neck.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

Saturday

Stephen Foster Handicap

What: Grade I race for 3-year-olds and up

Where: Churchill Downs

Post time: 9:39 p.m.

TV: TVG

Purse: $500,000

Distance: 1  1/8 miles

Favorite: Effinex (1-1)

Stephen Foster field

1-International Star (6-1)

2-Bradester (5-1)

3-Effinex (1-1)

4-Majestic Harbor (5-1)

5-El Kabeir (12-1)

6-Are You Kidding Me (10-1)

7-Eagle (6-1)

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