Claiming the Crown: Digital is a real gem for Kentucky President Rick Hills – Horse Racing News | Pawleck report
Rick Hills, longtime Kentucky HBPA president, knows how important it is for rank and file riders to participate in the Crown Race, the big money suit racing series for horses that have been or have been in demand.
Helles is one of those “everyday” riders – his words. While he had a barn full of horses, today he trains five horses at Churchill Downs. One of them, Digital, will compete in Saturday’s Crown Jewel claim, a 1/8-mile race that carries a $175,000 core purse, with another $25,000 available to Kentuckians through the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund (KTDF).
After 10 years of racing in Florida’s Gulfstream Park, the claimed eight-race crown came to Churchill Downs for the first time and to Kentucky for only the second time. It was erected at Ellis Park in 2007.
“The demanding crown gives the daily working horse — and the trainers and owners — a chance to be recognized,” Hills said. “Not everyone can own a Kentucky Derby horse, you know. It’s a real honor to have one of those horses running there. These are the blue-collar working class horses that make the industry go. They get out of here and they put it down. They’re not like the elite horses that run five or six times.
The Claim Crown was created by the National Equine Charitable Association and Thoroughbred owners and breeders to provide a Breeders’ Cup style event to celebrate horse racing warriors.
Hiles has never had a horse in the Breeders Cup, last week’s world racing championships in Keeneland, but this is his second to claim the crown. First up was the mare Sugar Cube, who finished second in the 2017 Glass Slipper. Ten of the Sugar Cube’s 17 wins (out of 63 career starts) were for Hiles, who said people often ask when she’ll be working again.
“These horses give the fans something to rejoice,” he said. “People relate to them and follow them.”
“That’s great for me,” said Helles, estimating the number of horses he trained at one time was the number of 28 he owned at Ellis Park one summer. “I haven’t had any ‘big’ horses over the years, although I’ve owned some good horses that have made good profits and won some tiered bets.”
When Hiles puts in the saddle on a digital Saturday, that in and of itself is a victory. He has been suffering from esophageal cancer for the past two years, had major surgery and recently finished his last chemotherapy treatment. Given only months to live, Helles says he is now cancer-free, although recurrence remains a threat.
“I was supposed to die by October of last year,” he said. “Then they said I would make it to May this year. Now they say ‘We don’t know.’”
Helles believes that continuing to train horses all the time helped his recovery, saying, “My doctor said, ‘You are the strongest old man we have ever dealt with. We can’t believe you’re still going the way you do. She gets up every day and works. I said, “I’m not going to let her put me down.”
He continued, “…I couldn’t even saddle my horses for a long time.” “I couldn’t lift a bucket. But I work with a weight every day (to strengthen his arm). I’m really blessed. I’ve had so many people all over the country praying for me, and I believe in that.”
Hiles is proud to have the 2022 claim crown held under the Twin Spiers, with hosts Churchill Downs and Kentucky HBPA. The Crown Prince also received a significant increase from 2021.
“I’m really excited to own the claimed crown here,” Helles said. “I really want it to be a great event and be well received across the country. Hopefully we can get it back again…. With the historic horse racing machines we have a very good purse account. We were able to increase the portfolios and then add KTDF money to it as well. He made it Very attractive. And we are in a central location. It’s easy to get here from Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Minnesota, Iowa or Arkansas and the cost (of shipping) should be less than the cost of shipping to Miami.”
Hiles said he wasn’t thinking of claiming the crown when he ordered Digital for $32,000 in June. He wasn’t the only one with this idea, as there were many riders involved in the rides, and Hills won the “jolt”.
“It was a horse that had never run for a ‘mark,’ and we were looking for a horse of that caliber,” he said. “I think there were five or six people for it, but we got lucky and got it.”
While Digital has had success in both sprints and two-turn races, Hiles said, “We figured early on that this horse didn’t want to rush it. It just wants you to sit on it and run. We started it a long time ago. We’ve run it three times, and it runs really well.” Very. It’s getting better all the time.”
Digital won its first start for Hills and owner R. Townsend Sparks, jumping the class into a tier two allowance race as he battled for a $62,500 claim option. He finished third in a similar race (while claiming $80k for the price) around a mile, then was second with a header in the same level but was running the 1 1/8 mile gem.
He’s getting paid really well for himself, and he’s just a pretty cool horse to be around,” said Helles, who will bring Cory Lannery back to Digital. “He’s entering this race really, really well. I know it’s going to be a tough place. But I think he’ll give a good account of himself.”
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