Last summer, talented pacer Western Hill showed promise of becoming a top stakes 3 year old. The Tony Alagna trainee finished second in his North American Cup elimination and fifth in the final the following week. After failing to make the Meadowlands Pace final, the son of Western Ideal again finished second in an elimination of the Adios and earned a fourth-place check in the final.
Despite the potential he showed, Western Hill fell out of form in the fall and began to toil in the conditions at Yonkers. After two seventh place finishes at the non-winners of eight level in November, owner and breeder Tom Hill called trainer Andrew Harris.
"When I worked for Casie Coleman back in the day, Tom had a lot of horses with Casie and so obviously I had known him well through them because I took care of Western Silk on and off when she had her," Harris said. "Over the years, we’ve talked on many occasions and it seemed like they were going to give me an opportunity here or there, but nothing ever came to fruition until all the sudden this horse. They said, ‘We want to continue on as a 4 year old with him; we just want to give him a shot.’ Who’s going to turn down a shot on a horse like that?"
When Western Hill arrived, Harris saw a sharp-looking, speedy individual. However, it soon became clear the gelding had lost his confidence amid the string of losses and tough trips, which saw him try to close from well off the pace on Yonkers’ half-mile oval.
"When I first got him, the first thing I noticed was, even though he was in a brand new barn that he had never seen before, he got in the stall and put his head in the corner," Harris recalled. "He was a little pouty and he just wasn’t happy.
"We turned him out in the field every day with other horses and let him go out and be a horse a little bit," he continued. "I know that Alagna likes to train a little bit harder than some, so I backed off on his training and didn’t train him as hard and just tried to freshen him up that way. Not that that would work on every horse, but it seemed to happen to work on this horse."
In his first start for Harris, Western Hill drew post three and picked up top driver Yannick Gingras. After a pocket trip, Western Hill finished second by a nose in the $22,000 overnight. The following week, Gingras put Western Hill on the lead and the gelding scored a one-length win in 1:53.2.
"I think Yannick was a huge factor in bringing that confidence back because he put him onto the lead and he liked it," Harris explained. "When you lose form, drivers don’t put them in play."
With his confidence and attitude improving off two good races, Harris took Western Hill to Harrah’s Philadelphia Dec. 17 and the gelding posted a blowout win. He again set the pace an opened a 6 1/4-length advantage in the stretch in a 1:51.3 mile.
"When he went to Chester he was just in total command and looked like his old self where he was wanting to be a big horse. He’s not a big horse, but he wants to be a big horse," Harris said.
Off his impressive performances, Western Hill will get a shot against Open pacers at Yonkers Raceway. An 8-1 longshot in the field of six, Western Hill will make his 4-year-old debut against the likes of 2-1 favorite Gokudo Hanover, who ended his 2017 season with a win in the local Open, as well as the runner-up and third place finishers from that race, Killer Martini and Thisjetsabookin. Take It Back Terry, who won the Preferred Pace to close the season, returns in the Open as the 3-1 second choice and Shane Adam completes the lineup. The $40,000 feature is slated as race six on the 12-race program.
"The group that he’s in with, I actually like this spot," Harris said of the step up. "The horse on the rail of Scotty Di’s is a really nice horse (Gokudo Hanover). Hopefully we’ll sit close to that one and hopefully get a shot at him down the lane. He fits with that group."
Despite fitting the non-winners of $30,000 condition, Harris entered the Open ranks in hopes of facing his age group. With the 4-year-old Open failing to fill at this early point in the season, Harris was happy to take a shot in the older ranks.
"I did enter for the 4-year-old Open because I was hoping he could race against horses his own age. I thought that I’d have a clear advantage over them with how sharp he is right now," Harris said. "The non-winners of 30, I think that’s as tough as the Open anyway. I knew he probably wouldn’t get handicapped the outside in the Open, he’d probably have a better shot at the inside where the non-winners of 30 is an open draw and he could have gotten the eight-hole."
Like his five rivals, Western Hill enters the Open Pace off a month layoff. Harris feels the time away from racing helped Western Hill’s soundness.
"I didn’t really let him down. We jogged him all the way through and trained him up all the way through," Harris said. "He’s fairly sound right now, so I think that way it helped him out a lot." (SOANY)