LEXINGTON, KY—The Phillips family is enamoured with the Manitoulin and Killarney region, it’s safe to say, so when the family of thoroughbred racers and breeders in Lexington, Kentucky saw a fighter of a colt brought into this world on their horse farm, they decided to keep him and name him Manitoulin for the area they hold so dear. Feisty Manitoulin, it turns out, born to champion parents, is turning into quite the prizewinner himself.
Last Friday night, Manitoulin, of Darby Dan Farms, owned by the Phillips family, took the Grade 2 stakes Hollywood Turf Cup in Del Mar, California—a 1/2-mile race—and with it, a $200,000 cash prize. This was Manitoulin’s first stakes win (there are three grades, 1, 2 and 3 with 1 being the top grade; think Kentucky Derby) and has so far earned almost $400,000 with his five wins in 17 starts.
Some may remember the famed racehorse Little Current that won two of the three races that make the Triple Crown in 1974—the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. This newspaper made much of Little Current at the time and his owner, John Galbreath, who just so happens to be the grandfather of John Phillips, of Darby Dan Farms.
“Little Current should have won the Triple Crown, he was very, very good,” Mr. Phillips said, recalling a trip to Little Current, the community, with his grandfather. A room was set up to show a film of Little Current’s wins and his grandfather answered questions from the crowd. “About 40 people were there,” Mr. Phillips said.
The Expositor spoke with Mr. Phillips on Monday of this week following Manitoulin’s Hollywood Turf Cup win. It turns out Mr. Phillips had been in the area just one week prior, bird hunting with long-time family friends the Beauvais family of Killarney. In fact, it was thanks to a friendship struck with the Beauvais that Mr. Phillips’ grandfather first made acquaintance with the area and soon fell in love, building a cottage on George Island, just outside of Killarney. Mr. Phillips spoke of a special family challenge which states that whoever can waterski from the Killarney lighthouse to the Strawberry Island light is worthy of having their name on a special plaque in the Phillips-Galbreath cottage. So far there are about 12 names on said plaque.
“Philip Edward Island is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Mr. Phillips said of the Killarney-area island, “and we’ve been very blessed to do a lot of travelling. It’s one of the most sacred places in the world for us.”
One of the reasons Mr. Phillips said he is so drawn to the area is due to the dynamic quality of the environment—the ebb and flow of the water levels, the change in seasons.
“We are the product of our nurturing, no doubt, both in terms of your incredible land and our love of horses.”
Mr. Phillips said that as a young man, he felt the need to do something professional, like become a lawyer, which he did, but it just didn’t fit—the call of the horse was much stronger, and more fun, so he reverted to his roots and stepped up at Darby Dan Farm.
This is actually Darby Dan’s second Manitoulin; the first Manitoulin was named by Mr. Phillips’ grandmother and raced in the English Derby in 1971. “He did not prevail, but my grandfather’s horse did win the English Derby, several years later.”
Mr. Phillips said they rarely keep colts, but in Manitoulin’s special case Darby Dan Farms made an exception and put together the group that would care for him and name him when he was a baby. Manitoulin was born of a risky caesarian section and in the world of thoroughbred horses, C-section foals have a 50/50 chance of survival. “It was a miraculous survival.”
Mr. Phillips gathered his fishing buddies, hunting pals and the veterinarian who delivered him when settling on a name and, as most of those people had vacationed at the Killarney family cottage, the name Manitoulin was decided. “He’s named for an area that’s brought us all together.”
Manitoulin first raced as a three-year-old colt.
“He has a very strong personality—he is a character,” Mr. Phillips said. “He is very much an energetic and playful horse. It’s why he went from a colt to a gelding. He didn’t want to train, he liked to play; he bucked, he walked on his hind legs. He wasn’t mean by any means, but he loved to play and get loose. He wasn’t very focussed.”
After he became gelded, he began to focus and soon discovered that running was fun.
Mr. Phillips likened thoroughbred race horses to dogs in the retriever family—they are born and bred to do what they love to do. In Manitoulin’s case, that’s run. “They’re competitive by nature.”
“It took us a while to figure him out, and now he’s a graded stakes winner,” Mr. Phillips added.
Manitoulin’s father, Awesome Again, and mother, Soaring Softly, were both Grade 1 stakes winners for the Darby Dan Farm. Interestingly, Manitoulin’s jockey, Mike Smith, has had the privilege of riding both of his parents.
Manitoulin’s speciality is the mile-and-a-half run, on firm earth. “He likes to hear his feet rattle.”
Following his Del Mar win, Manitoulin will return to Kentucky for some R and R. He’ll be walked for a few days, then let into a small paddock, then a larger one to play and mess about.
Manitoulin will then head to Florida until the end of January before he comes home to Kentucky to get ready for more turf racing next summer, hopefully in the stakes.
“A happy horse is a horse that goes out there and makes stakes,” Mr. Phillips said.
A charmed life indeed.