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Twenty Hawks: The Iron Horse

Taylor Richardson and Gene Ward were childhood friends from Harvard High School in Los Angeles. They talked every day about things like the stock market, USC football or trips to Las Vegas. Neither one carried a cell phone or knew how to use a computer. They were “old school”, but they were like brothers and they were best friends.

One day Taylor, Gene, my brother Greg, and I were fishing out of Newport Beach on a boat called “Bongos” and we were talking about the summer horse racing at Del Mar. Gene looked up at my dad as though he had the idea of all ideas. “Hawk, why don’t we get one of those suites at Del Mar and invite all of our friends for a day at the races?” My dad looked up and said, “great idea Cherry, let’s put Brian in charge.” I nodded in agreement and told Gene and my dad that if they got me a list of twenty guys, I would do the rest.

Six months later, the first Cherry-Hawk event in the luxury suite at Del Mar would take place. It was an incredible success complete with betting, a fully utilized open bar and a delicious, Mexican buffet lunch. My dad always insisted on the Mexican buffet because it was his favorite. For the next seven years, we would host the event in August and every year we would have a long waiting list of guys who wanted to attend this prestigious event.

Then in 2008, Taylor and Gene wanted to take Cherry Hawk one-step further. They wanted to get this same group of guys together to buy a horse. They called their high school buddy Biff Naylor, who was good friends with Buddy Johnston, the owner of a horse ranch in Sanger, California called Old English Rancho. Buddy was an honest, well-respected horseman with a great reputation in the horse racing industry and we knew he would be the right partner for our group.

Within a few months, Biff and Buddy had secured a yearling colt for us. After several weeks of recruiting friends and family to be a part of the ownership group, we ended up with 20 partners and $60,000. We wanted a nice horse, so the money we raised was only enough to

purchase 50% of the colt and Buddy Johnston would maintain the other 50% ownership. We would use $45,000 for the horse and have $15,000 in reserve.

The next order of business was to name the stable and the horse. Taylor’s nickname was “The Hawk” and Gene’s nickname was “Cherry” so we named the business Cherry-Hawk Stables, LLC. As for the horse, since there were 20 partners in the group, we thought it was appropriate to name the horse “Twenty Hawks.” We just didn’t feel “Twenty Cherries” was masculine enough.

As Twenty Hawks trained on the farm for a year, the partners were excited about what the future might hold. This colt looked to have a lot of promise and came from tremendous breeding, a top California sire by the name of Unusual Heat. As the managing partner, I would send out weekly emails giving updates on the progress of our racehorse. Everyone was waiting with eager anticipation for Twenty Hawk’s first race. The day finally came and the outcome was encouraging – a fourth place finish. It is extremely difficult for a horse to win his first race so we were happy with how our colt performed.

The next race we thought would be the one where he would claim his first victory. Twenty Hawks had a race under his belt and knew the routine. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be and he finished in next to last place. The next four races were disappointing as well and we began to realize that Twenty Hawks looked to be a very mediocre horse. We dropped him to the claiming ranks, which meant that we were willing to sell him for a fixed price after the race.

However, we were quite sure nobody would buy him.

After a last place finish in the next two races, the partner’s attendance was dwindling at an alarming rate. We went from fifteen partners attending to maybe two or three and my dad and I were always two of them. I don’t know how much my dad really enjoyed horse racing but I do know that he came to every race but one. He knew that I loved it and that was enough for him.

My dad would say, “Bri, Twenty Hawks is still young, he’ll get better. He might just need to mature a little.” He was the eternal optimist. Unfortunately, the 8th place finish that my dad and I saw at Santa Anita would be the last race that we would see together. My dad was diagnosed with liver cancer in January of 2010. He passed away about six months later on June 30, 2010. I would be going to the races by myself from here on out.

On March 12, 2011, Twenty Hawks was scheduled to run his fifteenth race at Santa Anita in Southern California. Out of the previous fourteen races, he had only finished in the money twice. Our reserve cash was down to about $2,800 and this was Twenty Hawks’ last chance to put a little money in the bank so I wouldn’t have to reach out to the partners for a capital call.

I was there along with Biff, Buddy and our trainer, Don Warren. A few days before the race, I had talked to one of our Partners, Kyle Yost. Kyle had been in the horse business for about ten years and had several horses stabled at Charles Town, West Virginia. In desperation, we had discussed the possibility of moving Twenty Hawks to Charles Town to try his luck there. We discussed the fact that it was a dirt track, lesser competition and decent purses; however, we both knew that a horse just doesn’t get better overnight.

When I mentioned it to Buddy before the race, he seemed to ponder over the thought for a few seconds and casually said, “I think he needs to stay here where we can keep an eye on him.” I shrugged it off and turned my eyes towards the track where Twenty Hawks was about to race. The gates opened and Twenty Hawks jumped out like a rabbit on hot cement. ‘He must sense the pressure of winning’, I thought.

He continued to lead around the far turn and the other horses started to gain on him. He dug into the dirt with every step and didn’t want to give up the lead. But then, I sensed that Twenty Hawks was getting tired. I was right; he faded down the stretch to finish a disappointing fifth. Buddy looked over at me and said, “let’s send him to Charles Town and I’m going to give you my half of the ownership.”

I wasn’t sure if Buddy was serious, but the next day I got a fax with the Bill of Sale for 50% of Twenty Hawks in the amount of one dollar. Buddy had tried to get us the best possible horse, however, in this sport; there are simply no guarantees. We accepted the fact that we had a mediocre claiming horse that was about to travel over 2,000 miles to likely have the same results in West Virginia that he had in California.

The shipping cost to Charles Town, West Virginia was $2,750. That would leave us with $50 in the Cherry Hawk Stables account, which wouldn’t even pay for a day at Ronney Brown’s barn, whom we knew because Kyle had worked with him years before. He was one of the leading trainers at Charles Town year after year, he was honest, and he always put his horses first.

We knew that it was a big risk to send Twenty Hawks back east, but because nothing else was working, we figured we’d give it a shot. I sent an email out to all 20 partners with a thorough explanation of “the Twenty Hawks trial.” I gave everyone the option to walk away from this horse without spending another dime or stay in with a high probability that they would have to open their checkbooks soon. It didn’t surprise me that 14 partners wanted to stay in for the ride because guys like Moiso, Bonesteel, Underwood, Frandson, Kostlan and Naylor were old friends of my dad and Gene and they were doing this for fun anyway. They weren’t really worried about contributing a few extra bucks.

Just three weeks later, Twenty Hawks ran his first race at Charles Town. I must admit that I felt a lot of pressure because ultimately I had made the final decision to send him there. Of course, it was about 50 degrees colder than beautiful Southern California and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Twenty Hawks.

A few moments later, eight horses jumped out of the gate and were jockeying for early position. Twenty Hawks had stumbled at the gate and was in next to last place. My heart fell to my ankles. ‘Not a great way to start this race’, I thought, especially since Twenty Hawks was a frontrunner and has never done well from behind the pack.

Then, I saw something that I’d never seen before: Twenty Hawks began moving by other horses and was improving his position rapidly. He was in 6th , 5th , 4th and then 3rd. A final short burst from Twenty Hawks at the wire and he edged out another horse for 2nd place!

I was ecstatic! His $6,000 earnings had earned him another 4 months without having to ask the partners for money. More importantly, he actually showed the desire to win a race! I was greatly encouraged by Twenty Hawks effort in his first race but I didn’t know what to expect in his second one. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that my dad had passed away before Twenty Hawks was shipped to Charles Town. He got to witness a lot of last place finishes, but here Twenty Hawks was with a second place finish under his belt and ready to go again.

I had such a nervous energy before his next race. Was the first race a fluke? When the gates opened and the announcer said “racing,” my heart started pounding at an accelerated rate. Twenty Hawks had broken from the gate cleanly this time and sat in second position most of the race. He had now gained the lead but several horses were coming to take him on. It looked as though Twenty Hawks would throw in the towel, but somehow he kept battling with every ounce of energy he could muster. There was a furious rush of horses that all seem to hit the wire together.

Twenty Hawks had won! I ran around the house giving fist pumps and screaming, “that’s what I’m talking about!” As much excitement as I felt, I also felt a great sense of relief that the move to Charles Town looked to be a good one. Needless to say, it was difficult to explain how a horse could finish in the money twice out of 15 races and he gets shipped off to the east coast and he’s finished second and first in consecutive races.

He had rewarded our group with an $18K paycheck with his victory and training expenses for the whole year! Needless to say, the partners had a renewed excitement about Twenty Hawks. I even heard from two “former” partners that wanted back in the group. Well, unfortunately for them, that horse train had already passed.

Twenty Hawks continued to surprise everyone and finished in the money in the next four of six races including an impressive victory at 9-1 odds. Then, on October 12, 2011, tragedy again struck Cherry Hawk Stables. Gene Ward, the co-founder and inspiration to our group, passed away suddenly. I had been close to “uncle” Gene my entire life and this was a devastating blow not only to me but to everyone who knew him.

The funeral was scheduled for October 28th , incidentally the same night that Twenty Hawks was entered in an allowance race at Charles Town. I had never missed watching a Twenty Hawks race, either in person or online, but this was going to be an exception. The time of the race would be smack in the middle of the reception, which was being held at the Hyatt Hotel in Burbank.

Many of the partners of Cherry Hawk Stables were also Gene’s close friends, so they were all in attendance. In fact, they were all sitting at the table with me as the race time approached. I assured everyone that Twenty Hawks had virtually no chance to win this race and that we had entered him because we hadn’t been able to get him in a race for several weeks. He was also the longest shot in the field.

With just minutes before the race, my curiosity got the best of me. I couldn’t wait for the results; I had to get the play by play while the race was unfolding so I called my friend Kyle. What I didn’t know at the time was that he was out to dinner with his wife with a laptop on the table watching the race.

“They’re off,” Kyle announced with enthusiasm. For the next minute, I couldn’t really follow what he was trying to tell me, although he never claimed to be a seasoned race announcer. Essentially what I heard was that Twenty Hawks did not go out to his customary early lead; instead he was the early trailer. He had mentioned before the race that it was a muddy track and we really didn’t know if Twenty Hawks would like the surface. At any rate, I attempted to keep the partners informed as to what was happening during the race to the best of my ability.

What I heard in the next few moments would forever be ingrained in my memory. The intensity and excitement in Kyle’s voice started to rise as he burst out, “Twenty Hawks is making a move on the rail. He’s battling down the stretch with the favorite. They’re neck and neck…….he’s fighting……he’s battling….I can’t believe it……I think he won!” I suppose the look on my face told the story, because as my eyes darted around the table full of partners I had noticed that they were all celebrating the most unlikely of victories for Twenty Hawks.

I got very emotional after the race and had to step outside for a few minutes. My dad and now my uncle Gene, two lifelong friends who had decided to get into the horse racing business, never got to see the incredible success that Twenty Hawks was enjoying. I believe that the two of them willed our horse to the finish line in front of all their friends on that memorable night.

For the next year, Twenty Hawks continued his amazing turnaround at Charles Town racking up four third place finishes, a second and another victory. His earnings were continuing to pile up and the partnership was profitable for yet another year.

On October 19, 2012, a Stakes Race called the Governor’s Handicap was scheduled at Charles Town. Typically Stakes races attract the highest caliber horses. By all means Twenty Hawks proved to be a good horse, but we never felt that he was a stakes-caliber horse. Nonetheless, our trainer Ronney Brown assured us that he was training well and he could be competitive in this race. With a $50,000 purse, this would be the biggest race that Twenty Hawks had been in so far.

The race was 1 1/8 th mile long and we knew that Twenty Hawks had the stamina so we figured we would just roll the dice and let him run. Race day finally came and Twenty Hawks sauntered onto the track like he belonged there. When the gates opened, Twenty Hawks zipped out with confidence and settled into second place behind another long shot named “Working Man Blues.” The two of them circled the track together never more than a length apart.

As they reached the top of the stretch, my heart began to beat wildly. I kept looking for the favorites to make their mad dash and come from behind, but it never happened. Twenty Hawks and Working Man Blues were neck and neck as they stormed down the stretch. Twenty Hawks would put a head in front and then Working man would answer with a surge. As they hit the wire together…….Twenty Hawks put a head in front!

In the most dramatic fashion, he had won the Governor’s Handicap! I can’t explain the incredible feeling of exhilaration that came over me. This race was extra special because it was Ronney Brown’s 2000th victory. For the rest of his career, Twenty Hawks would be known as a “Stakes Winner,” which accounts for less than 1% of the racehorses in the country.

At this point, Twenty Hawks had racked up over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in purse earnings and it was burning a hole in Cherry Hawk Stables bank account. We decided to purchase another colt by the name of Celebrity Status. Celebrity would have a very successful year in 2013 and was a very good horse, but needless to say, he was no Twenty Hawks.

Just a few months later in February of 2013 was the Winter Handicap. This was a $35K Stakes race held at Charles Town. It was a longer race, which was fitting for Twenty Hawks; however, the quality of horses in this race would be even better than the Governor’s Cup. Needless to say, we weren’t overly optimistic about his chances. Twenty Hawks would go off as the fourth choice in a field of 7. There was again no respect for our hard-knocking horse.

Fortunately for us, nobody told Twenty Hawks that he wasn’t supposed to win. In his trademarked, front running fashion, he went wire-to-wire and won easily by two lengths. Twenty Hawks had now won back to back Stakes races, which would make him a Multiple Stakes Winner, a title only very few horses can claim.

For the next two years, Twenty Hawks would continue to race at Charles Town under the mastery of our trainer Ronney Brown. Twenty Hawks would amass another one hundred and fifty thousand in purse earnings and scored five 3rd place finishes, three 2nd place finishes, and four impressive victories. He was king of the barn and this honor came with all the peppermints he desired. During this time, Cherry Hawk Stables was able to acquire a third horse to our stable, Contemplate. We now had a thriving stable of three horses thanks to the efforts of Twenty Hawks.

Most horses have a very short racing career. Two to three years is very typical due to the fragile nature of racehorses. Most are done racing by age 5-6. Twenty Hawks was an anomaly. In his six years of racing, he only had a slight cut on his leg and a head cold. He rarely missed a day of training and was never scratched from a race. I called him the “iron horse.”

But when Twenty Hawks turned 8 years old, we had a feeling that his retirement would be coming soon. He had raced 64 times spanning over six years and we knew that was a heavy load for any horse to carry. The Frank Smith Jr. Memorial was coming up on May 13, 2015. This was 1 1/16th miles and it would attract the cream of the crop from Charles Town. This race would also draw the most successful horse to ever race at Charles Town. A horse that had won 23 out of 37 races, a 62% win percentage, which is unheard of in this sport.

The colt went by the name of Lucy’s Bob Boy. Lucy collected stakes victories like they were carrots in the barn. He was known as “Superman” and unfortunately for us, Twenty Hawks would have to race against him. When the eight-horse field came out the week before the race, Lucy was the even money favorite. Kyle, Ronney, and I contemplated on whether or not to scratch Twenty Hawks because he was over his head but in the end, we decided to let him race. We hoped he could get second or third, but we certainly weren’t racing for first.

When the 8th race came up, Twenty Hawks did his darth vador-like entrance onto the track. He had an arrogant confidence about him. He didn’t know who Lucy’s Bob Boy was or what he had done. Lucy could’ve been a lead pony as far as Twenty Hawks was concerned. When the horses were called to the gate, Twenty Hawks calmly walked into the number 6 post. Four spots to the left was Superman.

The flag was up and away they went! Lucy shot out to his customary lead and Twenty Hawks went right with him, flanking him from the outside. The two of them kicked several lengths clear of the field and it was shaping up to be a two horse race. Twenty Hawks kept the pressure on the heavy favorite as Jose Montano, Twenty Hawk’s Jockey, didn’t want to give Lucy an easy lead. When the two horses hit the top of the stretch, I was elated that Twenty Hawks had stayed with Lucy that long. “I’ll be happy with a second place finish,” I thought, “but there is no way we are going to beat this horse.”

As the thundering sound of hooves rounded the far turn, I watched our horse give every ounce of energy he had. At that moment, I became quiet and suddenly couldn’t move a muscle. I just stared at Twenty Hawks gracefully moving towards the finish line like he was in slow motion. I thought about my dad and his courageous battle with cancer, I thought about Uncle Gene, who passed away unexpectedly just a year after his best friend. I thought about the passing of Bill Tilley, Herb Kostlan, Buddy Johnston and Skip Wohl, who were all original members of Cherry Hawk Stables and now had become known as the “Fallen Hawks.” This Seabiscuit-like horse that carried the name of my dad as well as the 19 other friends was running in what would be perhaps his final race.

In the last 100 yards Twenty Hawk’s eight year old body simply hit another gear. With a tap of the whip by Montano, Twenty Hawks responded and left a bewildered “Superman” in the dust. The late closers tried to catch Twenty Hawks but the iron horse had his mind on one thing…winning the race. He kicked away with a sudden burst of speed that seemed to come out of the clouds and Montano had to hold on for dear life. Nobody was going to catch him as he effortlessly crossed the finish line several lengths in front of the runner up. It was simply the greatest upset of his career.

He continued around the track as if to tell the crowd that he wasn’t even tired yet and when Twenty Hawks finally got around to entering the winner’s circle, he acted like he belonged there. In fact, he even stopped and posed for a few pictures along the way. Twenty Hawks had created quite a following during his career and he loved the attention.

The iron horse ran his last race a few months later, just three weeks shy of his 9th birthday. It was a bittersweet day for a great champion. In the end, he amassed 12 victories; including three stakes victories, 12 seconds, 10 thirds and almost $350k in purse earnings. Out of his 69 starts, he was the favorite in only 3 races, which truly exemplified his “long shot” reputation.

There was a good reason he was always an underdog and it was that Twenty Hawks never looked good on paper. His unorthodox front running style didn’t appeal to the oddsmakers or the Daily Racing Form. However, the Daily Racing Form doesn’t have a rating for heart, courage and effort, because if it did Twenty Hawks would’ve been the favorite every time.

From a $60,000 investment to eight incredible years of memories, Twenty Hawks will never be forgotten for what he was able to accomplish on the racetrack. This horse touched so many lives and brought unity and excitement that will last a lifetime for those twenty friends.

For me, Twenty Hawks meant so much more. He was an extension of my dad and a direct connection to all his best friends. Twenty Hawks represented hard work, dedication and hope. He was a spiritual symbol who ran for the loved ones that we lost and was a reminder that legacies never die. So how does a lowly, second-rate claiming horse all of a sudden become a multi-stakes winning champion? My guess is that a couple of “Hawks” in the sky know that answer.

The Cherry Hawk Group

It’s been more than thirteen years since Twenty Hawks made his racing debut at Del Mar and almost five years since he ran his final race at Charles Town. His career was not picture-perfect; he was often running at the Allowance level and more often than not, he didn’t get to the wire first. Still, his story reminds us of the incredible power horses have to bring people together and create lifelong memories.

Even off of the racetrack, Twenty Hawks brings joy to people’s lives. The gelding first retired with Nicole Brown, his trainer Ronny Brown’s wife. She gave him time off and then put him into training as a jumper. He absolutely excelled in his first job off the track. “He is naturally athletic and loves to jump!,” Nicole said. “After a year in the jumper ring, we tried the hunter ring as well. He loves to show and be the center of attention.”

Twenty Hawks lived a wonderful life with Nicole, making the transition from a life at the racetrack to one in the show ring. His beauty and natural athleticism made his change in lifestyle a pretty easy one.

“Oh! And he LOVES peppermints!!,” Nicole continued. Some things never change!

After some time with Twenty Hawks, Nicole decided to give him to her friend Erin so he could try his hand at the eventing world. He has been with Erin since March. Thus far, they competed in jumpers where he received a 4th place out of nineteen riders, as well as a combined test where he got a 32 in his first time ever competing in dressage.

While he has been performing very well, Erin points out that he is a hard horse to ride and the rider must be experienced. “He will give you his whole heart and more, but only on his terms”, Erin said. Nicole also pointed out that Twenty Hawks is “very opinionated and likes things a certain way”.

“He doesn’t like to jump on grass without studs,” Erin described. “If he doesn’t like the hay he will pull it out of the bag and stomp on it.” He adores his fan and his grain.

Though opinionated, Twenty Hawks (“Hawk” or “Hawkie” around the barn) makes a wonderful partner and competitor. “I couldn’t think of a better partner as he makes me think and gives me his whole heart,” Erin said.

For Brian and his partners, Twenty Hawks was a beacon of light. He brought joy to them in tough times and reminded each one of them to never give up, even if everyone thinks you’re a longshot. Today he still represents the hope and dedication Brian spoke of as he and his teammate soar over jumps, dance in the dressage ring, and gallop through the Cross Country course.

The Twenty Hawks story encapsulates everything this sport is all about - dreams, family, friendship, and winning against all odds. He is horse racing.

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