TORONTO, June 6, 2023– The handsome figure in the grey coat has become somewhat of a must-see training sensation at Woodbine.
Trainer Nigel Burke knows exactly what to expect whenever his beloved 6-year-old Rockcrest heads towards the track ahead of an early-morning work.
The multiple stakes-winning son of Old Forester always manages to put on a popular show at the Toronto oval without ever taking a stride.
“He stands at the wire for an hour when he is training,” offered Burke, who also owns the Ontario-bred. “I think that’s why he is so popular with fans and people on the backstretch. This horse, he just stands out there. Other trainers will send out two or three sets, and he’s still standing either at the wire, pony shack or the eighth-pole on the training track. He’s out there for an hour and there are times he will fall asleep standing up on the track. I joke all the time and tell people, ‘The world could come to an end and Rocky wouldn’t budge.’ Everybody knows Rocky because he’s the big grey horse, and he’s standing in the same spot for an hour whenever he goes out for training.”
His morning partner comes in the form of exercise rider Dylan Dunn, who works for hall of fame trainer Mark Casse’s Woodbine operation.
Burke has rave reviews for Dunn, not only for his talents on the racetrack, but also for the bond he has forged with Rockcrest.
“Rocky’s training method is that he goes out as part of my last set. I have to wait for Dylan to come from Mark’s barn because that’s who he gallops for in the morning and the winters. So, whenever he’s done at Mark’s and with his team, Dylan comes over to my barn and takes out Rocky. Dylan has all the patience in the world for him, and that keeps Rocky happy. Dylan has done an extraordinary job with him, and I think that has a lot to do with his success.”
Dunn is happy to be along for the ride.
“Besides being a really cool horse to work with, his heart is what makes him such a good racehorse. Heart and desire can’t be bred, it’s just something he naturally has.”
Bred in Ontario by Northern Dawn Stables Inc., Rockcrest, a $13,170 (U.S.) purchase at the2018 CTHS (Ontario Division) Canadian-bred Yearling Sales, launched his career in winning style in the summer of 2019 at Woodbine. His first stakes success came one race later in the Simcoe, a 6 ½-furlong main track engagement for 2-year-old colts and geldings foaled in Canada.
Overall, Rockcrest has compiled a career record of 6-5-0 from 25 career starts to go along with $397,042 (U.S.) in purse earnings.
“Rocky, he’s kept my training career noticeable,” said Burke. “He’s definitely a horse that tries all the time when he goes out there. He’s not the most talented, but he’s going to give it all, and that’s all you can ask of them. He was my first winner in Canada, and he was my first stakes winner, and he has made me feel comfortable to go to places, even though we haven’t won, like Keeneland and Indiana. He hasn’t disgraced himself. I think that’s why he’s special to me. I’m a small operation but he makes me feel like I compete with the big ones, to a certain extent.”
On April 29, he did just that when he went up against a salty field of rivals in a 5 ½-furlong tilt, a race that included Filo Di Arianna (BRZ), Canada’s champion male sprinter of 2022 and finalist for Horse of the Year.
Burke handed the reins to Jason Hoyte after regular jockey Keveh Nicholls had to serve days for a racing violation.
“Keveh was going to get the mount back regardless because he has always done a great job with him. Jason is Keveh’s best friend, so we knew there wouldn’t be any hard feelings either way. When I spoke to Jason, I told him the only way we can beat this horse is if we are in front of him at the top of the stretch. I said that if he is sitting level with him when they hit the stretch, he’s going to explode by us. I have so much respect for that horse and I know how much of a talent he is.”
“Jason rode Rocky very well. (Track announcer) Robert Geller noted that Rockcrest went an opening quarter in :23 and change, which isn’t fast for him, and that’s where the race was won. We broke fast, we were able to settle things down, and the other horse was stuck in a bit of a pocket. By that time, the race was over. So, some racing luck, some winter training, and we were able to get the win.”
On June 4, Rockcrest and co. were back in the winner’s circle again, this time in the inaugural running of the $100,000 Pink Lloyd Stakes.
Sent off at 6-1 in the six-furlong Tapeta race for Ontario-sired 4-year-olds and up, Rockcrest and jockey Keveh Nicholls got away quickly and led their 10 rivals through early splits of :23.46 and :45.53. At the top of the stretch, the duo dashed away from their rivals en route to a two-length win.
Burke was emotional in the post-race interview.
“As you saw, he puts his heart out on the table all the time and that’s all I could ask of him. I did promise that if I ever made it across again to this green horseshoe – you guys gave me a lot of credit for Rockcrest – that I would thank Dylan Dunn, his exercise rider, who has done a tremendous job with him. His groom, Brian (Alleyne), too. You couldn’t ask for a better team behind him.”
A team that was still all smiles the morning after the wire-to-wire score.
“He’s a great horse to work around,” said Alleyne. “I was so happy to see him after he won the Pink Lloyd. He’s a little grouchy in the mornings when I first go in the stall to see him, and he’ll try to give me a little bite, but that’s probably because he just woke up. But after that, he’s happy and playful. Whenever he hears a voice that he knows, he will stop and look to see where you are coming from. When you get to know him and he gets to know you, he’s the nicest horse to be around.”
Alleyne, also a member of the Woodbine gate crew, didn’t get to see the race unfold, but loved what he saw when he sat down to watch the replay.
“Working on the gate, I didn’t get to it, but when I did, I thought, ‘Wow! What an effort.’ He’s an awesome horse.”
For Burke, the win prompted recollections of Rockcrest’s early days in his barn.
Plenty has changed since those times.
“When he first came to the track at 2, he was a little bit quirky being an Old Forester. With age, he has matured, and he is very quiet now.”
Rockcrest is also fastidious.
“He loves his mints, and he loves his carrots. There is a groom, Alfredo Ramos, who works for (dual hall of fame trainer) Roger Attfield at the other end of the barn. Every time Rocky walks by Alfredo, he’ll stop because he knows he’s going to get a carrot. He’s also close with Andrea Arsenault, who works on the gap to the training track. She has a treat or two for him every day. He’s a laid-back horse but he also knows when it’s time to go. He gets on the muscle in some moments, but most of the time, he’s very chill. We knew he was going to be a special horse when he was 2, so we spent a lot of time with him and got to know him. But he doesn’t like new things. He likes things in a routine.”
Including whenever he’s on the training track.
Horse people have come to know the do’s and don’ts associated with Rockcrest.
“It’s funny, if he’s standing on the track and somebody new comes by and tries to pet him, his ears go straight up,” noted Burke. “He likes it when you look at him, but if he doesn’t know you, he doesn’t like you touching him. But he likes his people. His only thing is don’t change the routine, don’t change the exercise rider, don’t change the rules.”
Rockcrest does, however, enjoy a spirited tussle come post time.
Win or lose, the grey never manages to disappoint the man who knows him best.
It makes every Rocky moment a treasured one.
“He’s one of the smartest horses I’ve ever been around. He’s also one of the toughest. Rocky goes up against the big boys and he doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms