Morning Fire Captures Pasco Stakes

-By Nikki Sherman for Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association

Friesan Fire was bred to be a star and his early racing career certainly backed that up. The son of A. P. Indy was a $725,000 RNA at the 2007 Keeneland September Yearling Sale who went off as the post-time favorite in the Kentucky Derby (G1). He unfortunately ran a clunker and wound up eighteenth, while Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Pioneerof the Nile finished second to longshot Mine That Bird. The winner would inspire a feature film called 50 -1 while Pioneerof the Nile would go on to sire the first Triple Crown hero in 37 years, American Pharoah.

Friesan Fire is not quite on that level yet but the farm standing him is definitely not one to ignore. Josh Pons’ Country Life Farm hit the jackpot sixteen years ago when they purchased 50% of Malibu Moon from B. Wayne Hughes. Malibu Moon began his stallion career for just $3,000 and after siring more than 85 stakes winners, now stands at Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky for $95,000.

Pons is now marketing Friesan Fire just as heavily and breeders can already see promising results from less than a full year’s crop of racing age. Headlining those runners is Morning Fire, a striking chestnut colt who not only was his sire’s first winner but was also his first stakes winner.

Cynthia Hipple, whose sister is longtime Pennsylvania horsewoman Victoria Herlinger, bred Morning Fire in her home state of Pennsylvania. Hipple bred her first horse in the late 1990s with a mare named Romantic Affair that her sister had purchased at Philadelphia Park. Since then she has tried to keep a small band of five or six broodmares. She is a big supporter of Country Life Farm and has experienced success with their stallions going all the way back to Allen’s Prospect.

“I’m very hands on,” Hipple says. “I do all the work myself, from doing the stalls to foaling out the mares. There has never been a greater joy to me than foaling out a nice, healthy foal after all the hard work and dedication that goes into it!”

She also notes that choosing Friesan Fire as a mate for her broodmare Four Star Morning was a “no brainer”. The mare won five career races and is a half-sister to stakes winners Five Star Deputy and Time to Dream. Crossing her with Friesan Fire not only made sense for their pedigrees, but it also meant that is their foal would be eligible for both the lucrative PA-Bred bonuses as well as the rich Maryland Million races.

“I have to give all the credit to this great mare though, Four Star Morning,” says Hipple. “Whatever she produces will go on to run and win.”

Morning Fire made his career debut for trainer Keith Nations and owner Stony Brook Stables in June of 2015. After an educational third-place experience, the colt was ready to roll in his second start one month later with was one big difference – the addition of blinkers – and boy did the equipment change work. He broke well from the gate under the guidance of rider John Bisono and quickly engaged Spillwright for the lead. At the top of the stretch, Spillwright drew away by two lengths but began to drift out greenly. Morning Fire took advantage of his rival and immediately pounced, slipping through on the rail en route to a hard-fought neck victory over Spillwright. Finishing third was Bird of Trey, a promising PA-Bred out of a stakes-winning mare.

Morning Fire came out of his maiden victory so well that his next race was the $50,000 Strike Your Colors Stakes at Delaware Park. It turns out that if not for this stakes debut, he would be 100% in the money. The colt was moving smoothly close to the pacesetters when he suddenly veered out and clipped heels with another horse, causing a chain reaction of rivals to fall in the stretch. Morning Fire would recover and cross the wire in second, but the stewards ultimately decided to move the colt into last place for interference.

Four additional starts during his juvenile campaign saw Morning Fire finish no worse than second, including earning black type in the $75,000 Mark McDermott Stakes for PA-Breds at Presque Isle Downs as well as the $75,000 Christopher Elser Memorial Stakes and $100,000 Pennsylvania Nursery for PA-Breds at Parx Racing. He also romped impressively while earning a 103 Beyer in an allowance race during the Fall Festival of Racing at Parx, defeating Bird of Trey yet again.

This winter marked the first that Parx Racing closed for racing in the track’s history. While many horsemen chose to stay at home during the break, trainer Keith Nations shipped most of his barn south to Tampa Bay Downs. Morning Fire excelled over the new surface and grabbed the bullet of the sixty-two horses that worked four furlongs on January 16. It was at this Florida racetrack one week later that Morning Fire commenced his three-year-old season.

However, there was one difference for the colt’s team in the $100,000 Pasco Stakes. Morning Fire’s two-year-old campaign had caught the eye of Ernie Moody, who runs Mercedes Stables, LLC, and he purchased the colt from Stony Brook Stables.

The Pasco Stakes would be a test of tenacity for Morning Fire as he found himself on the lead right from the start, a break from his usual running style. Recent maiden winner Epic Journey as well as Canadian Juvenile winner Awesome Slate pressured him throughout the race. The Tampa Bay Downs surface can sometimes be deep, making it difficult for frontrunners to hold on, but Morning Fire kept right on going, drawing away from Epic Journey in the final sixteenth to capture his first stakes victory by a length and a half.

“That wasn’t exactly what we had planned,” admits trainer Nations. “We obviously thought he was a little bit better off the pace, but (jockey Daniel Centeno) made the call and it was obviously a winning call.”

Morning Fire’s victory in the Pasco Stakes propelled him onto the early Triple Crown Trail, so the colt was given an opportunity to try a route of ground in the $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) on February 13. He again returned to the lead, bravely setting the pace as his toughest field of competitors to date followed him around the final turn. Though Morning Fire weakened in the stretch, he courageously dug in to hold onto third place.

All of his connections were ecstatic with the result, including his breeder. “He ran a great race especially for his first time going long,” says Hipple. “Other articles about him have mentioned that it was a lot of ‘firsts’ for his connections . . . but they forgot that it was also a first for me in that he was my first stakes winner and also my first graded stakes placed horse!”

Nations said, “He came out of (the Sam F. Davis) great. We’ve had to push him to get him to sprint and we put the blinkers on him to hustle him a little bit, but he has a big stride and I think he is bred to go two turns. If all goes well he will go in the ($350,000 Tampa Bay Derby [G2]) next.”

Shortly after Morning Fire broke his maiden, a local racing publication included a photo of the colt as a foal on Hipple’s Pennsylvania farm. The caption predicted a future of immense potential: “destined for greatness”. Should the chestnut colt continue to follow his indicated fortune, he certainly will be a formidable foe in the Tampa Bay Derby. And so it is possible that yet another PA-Bred could be well on his way to a chance at participating in the most prestigious series of horse races in the world – the Triple Crown.

Copyright © 2021 Nikki Sherman