Harness racing's grand old man

Yannick Gingras guides Foiled Again to victory in the TVG Free For All Pace at the Meadowlands. Lisa Photo

There are traits that make some horses rise above the rest, and only the rare ones have it. They are toughness and heart, a combination that makes them durable and unrelenting in a stretch duel. These characteristics don't become evident in any one race or year but over time.

John Henry had it. Forego had it. In harness racing, there is a horse that has proven himself worthy of joining their ranks.

At age 9, Foiled Again may be better than at any time during his long career and he just beat an All-Star cast in the TVG Free For All Pace at the Meadowlands, a race that put him in the running for Pacer of the Year. Whether he wins the award or not, he's the coolest horse out there.

Like John Henry, a non-descript claimer during the early part of his career, Foiled Again didn't show much of anything when he first hit the track. A $20,000 yearling buy, the gelding won 7 of his first 27 races.

His career didn't turn around until he was bought privately by the Burke Stable, then run by Mickey Burke. They paid $62,500 for him, buying him from owner Patrick Lacey in the early summer of 2008.

"We thought he'd be a nice $50,000 claimer," said Ron Burke, who has since taken over from his father, Mickey.

The Burkes dominate the sport and have improved many a horse, but no one could have ever expected what they would go on to accomplish with Foiled Again. He won 13 times in 2008, earning $337,139 and just kept getting better. He wouldn't win every race and he performed better on half-mile and five-eighths mile tracks than he did on the one-mile tracks like the Meadowlands, but he always showed up as the Burkes rarely passed a major pacing race.

In 2011, at age seven, the gelding had his first million-dollar year, winning 14 times and making $1,405,747. Last year, he won seven times and made $1,207,429.

Foiled Again kicked off his 9-year-old season in the Levy Series at Yonkers and got off to a decent start, but by mid-year it appeared that age had finally caught up with him. Heading into October he had lost 10 straight and regular driver Yannick Gingras bailed on him to take another horse from the powerful Burke stable.

Halfway down the lane I quit watching him because I knew he had it won. I started looking for my other horses in the race.

-- Ron Burke, owner/trainer

Out of nowhere, he completely turned his year around. He won a small stakes at Batavia Downs on Oct. 5 and then went on a tear, racing better than he ever has. He won the Breeders Crown, harness racing's version of the Breeders' Cup, and then finished second twice in a row to the top 4-year-old in the game, Pet Rock.

It was a nice resurgence but it appeared sure to end. The only important race left on the calendar was the $500,000 TVG Pace at the Meadowlands and Foiled Again had been dismal at the track through his career. He was 1 for 35 at the sport's top track when Burke put him in a preliminary round of the TVG Series one week before the final. But he had gotten so good that even the Meadowlands couldn't stop him. He won the prelim and then the TVG final. In the latter he was hooked in the stretch by a horse named Golden Receiver but would not let him by.

"Halfway down the lane I quit watching him because I knew he had it won," Burke said. "I started looking for my other horses in the race. He's not going to let a horse go by in the last 100 yards. He's just a great horse."

At age 9, Foiled Again had had his fastest ever race (1:48), had made $1,404,984 ($763 shy of his richest one-year total) and become the first American-based standardbred to surpass $6 million in earnings. He's doing the impossible, racing better at 9 than he did at 4 or 5.

With a top thoroughbred, a full career usually lasts for about 15 races. Foiled Again has started 198 times and has won 76 races.

Foiled Again won't race again until the Levy Series kicks off next spring at Yonkers. In the meantime he'll get some rest and gear up for a 10-year-old campaign, which Ron Burke believes will be another stellar year. He says his hope is that Foiled Again will race as a 14 year old.

That may be a lot to ask but there's something different about this horse and he continues to defy conventional wisdom. There really is no telling what he will or won't do going forward.

In standardbred racing, there have been better horses, faster horses. But there's never been one quite like Foiled Again.