For Chicago Black Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, September means the start of training camp, and the beginning of a Stanley Cup Championship defense. It also means something much more sobering, something that this year, Belmont Park’s racing calendar will make all the more poignant.
Quenneville is part of a Thoroughbred ownership group named Team Power Play; one of the horses that he owns in part is Aces Mark, named after Ace Bailey and Mark Bavis. Bailey and Bavis were scouts for the Los Angeles Kings, and they were aboard United Airlines flight 175 when it crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11.
Aces Mark is a six-year-old bay gelding; he’s made 20 starts, compiling a record of 4-3-3, and his last race was at Saratoga on August 22. His next race will be at Belmont this Saturday, September 11.
Quenneville was in Saratoga to see Aces Mark’s races; a long-time racing fan, he has “season tickets,” as he put it last month, to the Saratoga meet. “Some meets I’m here 20 days, some I’m here two days. I wasn’t planning to be here any days this whole meet, but I’ll probably make it four times.”
The day before his trip to Saratoga, Quenneville was on official business at Arlington Park; the Stanley Cup-winning coach presented the trophy to the connections of this year’s winner of the Arlington Million, Debussy.
“It was fun, it was cool, it was great,” said Quenneville, standing in the Saratoga clubhouse. “It was a perfect day. I was honored to get a chance to do that, and I got to meet some of the great jockeys of all time. It was a great race, and there were a lot of Black Hawk fans there, too. It was cool.”
It’s been a summer of trophies for Quenneville; when he got the Stanley Cup for a day, he brought it home to Windsor, Ontario, he toured it around the town, sharing it with relatives and friends. When reminded that former Black Hawk player and current Black Hawk announcer Eddie Olczyk had brought the Cup to Belmont, Quenneville recalled, “I saw that picture of him feeding the horse. I would have liked to have done that.”
The greatest picture, he said, that’s been taken with the Cup all summer is the one of Andrew Ladd sitting in the Canadian mountains with the trophy next to him. “That picture was wild,” he said. It’s hard to argue with that assessment.
Aces Mark finished a distance third in his start at Saratoga, but Quenneville didn’t seem disappointed. A glance at the horse’s past performances reveals a couple of long layoffs, and a history of physical problems has plagued the gelding. Quenneville is philosophical about the vagaries of being a Thoroughbred owner.
“Yeah, I like owning horses for about two minutes,” he laughed. “It’s been fun to watch him because of the hurdles that he’s faced. Like any other owner, you go through times when it looks like everything is great, and then you can’t explain what can happen next. It’s part of the challenges of the business. At the same time, you get a chance to see your horse win, and that’s a great thrill.
“There’s good and there’s bad, like in any business. Racing’s a fun thing to be a part of. I mean, everybody’s competitive in any field you’re in; you always want to win, you always want to do the best you can do. You also know the reality is that things can go wrong. But it’s fun.”
His best memory of Saratoga, he says, is when Great Navigator won the Hopeful in 1992. “He was on the outside,” Quenneville remembered, “and he went wire to wire. He was the eight horse, and I hit the Pick 6.
“It was a three-day carryover, and I walked out of here with about $122,000 cash.”
[What is it with Black Hawks hitting the Pick 6? Olczyk did it, too, last summer.]
Quenneville talked hockey for a while, noting the difficulty of operating in a “cap world,” as he put it; the Hawks have lost ten players from their championship team, including fan favorite and playoff producer Dustin Byfuglien; goalie Antti Niemi; and Andrew Ladd, he of the spectacular Cup photograph.
They’ve retained their young stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and Quenneville is optimistic about the season. “We have a lot of the core guys that made us successful and they’re still young, and we’ve got a chance of some new guys coming up. It’s going to be fun to see where we’re going to get to,” he said.
The Hawks will visit the Rangers at the Garden on Monday, November 1, and despite a sincere and generous offer on the part of one New York Rangers season ticket holder, Quenneville politely declined to switch sides and coach the Blueshirts this year.
But before hockey season starts, Quenneville’s horse will race this weekend. Last month, he talked about the horse’s namesakes.
“I knew Ace, I didn’t know Mark very well. I think everybody in hockey knew Ace. He was one of those guys where he’d always come by, and you’d immediately look at him and laugh, and smile.
“I worked against him when he was with Los Angeles, and he was just one of those guys in that scouting fraternity. He was definitely one of the boys,” Quenneville recalled, smiling.
Aces Mark is trained by Gary Gullo and will be ridden by John Velazquez in Saturday’s eighth race; the horse is 6-1 on the morning line. Given his story and given the date, perhaps those odds will be driven lower by post time, driven lower by those who would like to see this horse win on this day.
Many, many thanks to Mike MacAdam of the Schenectady Daily Gazette, who introduced me to Quenneville and who has written extensively about Aces Mark (I’d link to the stories if they weren’t behind a pay wall); and to Stu Hackel of the Slap Shot hockey blog at the New York Times.
David Grening has written about Aces Mark at Daily Racing Form.