Topping a Hambletonian and Horse of the Year-winning campaign is a mighty task, but Forbidden Trade is determined to do just that when his four-year-old season gets off the ground.
"He's coming back the way he's supposed to," trainer Luc Blais told Trot Insider. "He's bigger, stronger, more mature, more everything. All the qualities he had at three, he's got more. You can see the difference; it's good."
The son of Kadabra made a strong account of himself last season among one of the deepest three-year-old crops in recent memory, winning eight of 14 races -- including his 15-1 upset in the $1 million Hambletonian as well as the $225,000 Ontario Super Final -- and banking just over $1 million with the aid of runner-up finishes in the Goodtimes and Yonkers Trot as well. He was named Canada's Horse of the Year at the 2019 O'Brien Awards.
But after fading to a seventh-place finish in last October's Breeders Crown at Woodbine Mohawk Park, Forbidden Trade was due for a rest.
"I gave him a good break this year after the season," Blais said. "I think he needed that; he was tired at the end."
Looking ahead to the current season and the challenges of tackling older company, Blais wants to ease Forbidden Trade back into competition gently -- to start, anyway.
"My plan was to do the first Graduate at Mohawk, not the first one at The Meadowlands," he said. "I did not pay for the Cutler because I did not think he was ready, but now I think he would be ready. But when it was time to pay the nomination, my plan was to get ready for the Graduate.
"It's a different game ... from three to four is a big step. That's why we're going to try to race in the beginning with the four-year-olds — the Graduate, the Hambletonian Maturity. He's got good staking at the end of the year, too. We're going to see how the competition goes."
Connections of Forbidden Trade receive the Somebeachsomewhere Horse of the Year trophy at the 2019 O'Brien Awards
Management of a horse's season is an art form, to say the absolute least. But to have to negotiate the challenges of tackling older company and the reality of a compressed stakes schedule are bound to make it a taller task altogether.
"People don't realize how tough it is at that level," said Blais. "It's not like overnights. I can see after the races...the day after, they're not the same. It's tough; you need good horses."
Blais believes that another son of Kadabra — Port Perry — is developing into a championship-calibre colt that could potentially use Forbidden Trade's 2019 schedule as a blueprint for the coming season.
"He's eligible to the Hambletonian and Breeders Crown," indicated Blais of his plans for Port Perry. "We're going to do the Ontario circuit; it's a good circuit. He's going to go the same schedule that Forbidden Trade went last year...we'll keep him fresh and try to make it to Grand Circuit competition. I'm excited about it; I've got a good feeling."
That good feeling didn't exactly pan out during Port Perry's rookie campaign. Soundness issues limited him to two wins in nine starts, but both of those wins came in Ontario Sires Stakes Gold events at Woodbine Mohawk Park.
"I had big hopes for him," Blais admitted. "In the beginning, I wasn't sure if he could do the whole season. He was not always sound and never 100 per cent, but he had a big engine. I think he finished the season very well."
And finish well he did.
Port Perry battled gamely in the Ontario Sires Stakes Super Final in a narrow runner-up finish behind Moon Bridge before being outmatched in the Breeders Crown. Now, after six months -- and counting -- away from the races, Blais indicated that Port Perry is starting to come around.
"This year, I gave him a really good break, and he came back more sound," Blais said. "When they're sound, they feel better. He's not the same horse he was last year. I went a mile around 2:06 with him the other day. I didn't need the hopples. I'm very pleased with him...very happy about the way he's come back."
In addition to Forbidden Trade and Port Perry, Blais has roughly 30 other horses in his care — including 13 two-year-olds and seven other three-year-olds.
"I've got a few three-year-olds who raced last year and they were ready to qualify before they stopped racing," said Blais. "I raced Steuben Hanover in the (Pepsi Trotting Series) at Mohawk, and after that he shut down. But the rest, I figured on them getting ready for the Ontario Sires Stakes. When they start to qualify, I think my horses are ready. My three-year-olds and aged horses are ready to qualify first and get ready to race."
As for his legion of two-year-olds, Blais has good reason to be optimistic.
"I've got a nice bunch of Ontario-breds that I'm pleased with," he said. "They train well; do everything right. They don't move fast, but I've got a good feeling. We've had good luck with (the progeny of) Kadabra, that's for sure. They're very smart horses, very intelligent. They're easy to work with. They've got a good head, very easy-going."
Ultimately, Blais' best laid plans are fully dependent upon his horses' ability to compete, and owner Serge Godin (of Determination) concurs that the horses have the final say.
"That's the way we think ... I'm good with that," said Blais. "I've got a good owner who understands and likes that. We're ready when the horses are ready. We've got a plan, but we consider the horse too with the plan. We don't have a big, big number of horses, but we try to give them a chance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
"Like I say all the time in the barn, you don't need bad luck. If we don't have bad luck, we get a chance to go ahead and win races. But at the time of the race, you need luck."