The Magical Day In July Of 2022

After a storybook 2022, that capped-off a spectacular three-year run for Bulldog Hanover, the World Champion has earned his way into the hall of fame just a few months after his retirement from racing. There’s a number of accomplishments of course, that could be listed, but here TROT takes you back to relive the day of July 16, 2022 - when he became the fastest standardbred ever - from the perspectives of the five people that were most directly involved. By John Rallis.

(Lisa Photo)

In 2022, Bulldog Hanover and his connections provided the harness racing world with one of its most thrilling years in recent memory, and that was never more evident than during a 22-day run in New Jersey early that summer.

Beginning with the :24.4,  effortless last quarter in a Graduate leg victory on June 25th, that was followed by a 1:46 victory in the Roll With Joe a week later, tying the fastest mark in the sport’s history, the world could sense that something historic was on the horizon. A mega-talented two and three-year-old, Bulldog Hanover had transcended into an all-time great at four, and that 22-day period culminated at The Meadowlands on July 16th in the William Haughton Memorial.

Trot Magazine cover from June 2023, the Hall of Fame issue

Here we share the perspectives from that magical day, from the five people most directly involved in Bulldog becoming the fastest standardbred ever - his two caretakers, his two trainers and his driver.


John Mallia, assistant trainer to Jack Darling and Bulldog’s main caretaker, was back in Ontario where he was undergoing his normal Saturday routine in the Darling Stable. His mind, admittedly, was over 700 kilometres away in New Jersey, where all he could think about was his stable star.

JOHN: "I mean, it was a usual Saturday for me at the barn, working, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say my mind was elsewhere. Jack and I were talking about the race, what we thought would happen, and the kind of trip Bulldog would get. I was worried about someone putting the screws to him, but that wasn’t even my main concern that morning. 

"I just remember going through the motions as to what he would be doing ahead of the big race. I said ‘Ok, now he’s going to be loading to head to the D-barn, he needs to be there for this time’. From a scheduling standpoint, I was going through all of the things that I knew he’d be doing in preparation for that day. I was probably more of a nervous wreck about that than the race itself. If you didn’t know, Bulldog’s biggest issue is when it was time to load him onto the trailer. So just knowing that, it was in the back of my mind all morning. I just remember saying to myself ‘Oh my god, what if he doesn’t load and then doesn’t make it to the D-barn in time, then he won’t race’. Not to mention traffic… What if he was stuck in a brutal traffic jam on his way to the track, then what? I was out of sorts all that morning until I got word that he had made it to the D-barn in one piece. I was very worried because there was a possibility that Bulldog wouldn’t want to load – and if that happened he’d have to scratch. If that would have happened we wouldn’t be talking about that night right now. Once I got word that he loaded ok and arrived in time, I was relaxed, because I knew he was racing.

Trainer Jack Darling, as he recalls, seemed to be in a pretty good headspace. "I was fine, personally,  but I remember Johnny [Mallia] being nervous in the barn that morning because of a variety of things [laughing]. I wasn’t worried like maybe he was, I was just concerned with how he’d fair leading up to that night, after going huge miles in the three consecutive weeks prior. The Meadowlands is the most grueling race track you could race at. It’s very unusual for a horse to be that good for four consecutive weeks, but I was confident if there was anyone who could do it, it’d be him.

As Mallia had to work through some tense moments, mentally, on the morning of Bulldog Hanover’s record-setting night, Sonja Booth, Bulldog’s caretaker in the Noel Daley Stable, had an adventurous morning herself… in a more physical way.

SONJA: "Bulldog’s routine was normal for that morning. He needed to be at retention for twelve [noon], so the plan was for me to be on the road before 10 that morning to avoid any obstacles. He came to us with a little bit of a warning that he’d be a handful to load, but you’re never really sure how bad it is from one day to the next. The week before it took a coworker of mine, Laura and I, two hours to load him after the races, so I knew I had to give myself extra time that morning. I remember the instructions being that you had to load him up nice and easy, preferably just one person,  let him feel the ramp and he’ll walk into the trailer. Jack and John had advised us not to push him towards the trailer, to let him do it himself. When he eventually loaded up onto the trailer, I hooked his head up. Immediately after, before I could get out and raise the ramp, he pulled back and broke his halter. Next thing you knew he exited the trailer… and I was freaking out! I remember, I saw my coworker Laura and I told her ‘The ‘dog is loose!’ I was so worried he was going to find himself on the training track, without a halter, and just start going laps. Instead, thankfully, he just stood there peacefully in the field, just eating grass. There I am, in a state of panic, and he’s there, without a halter, calm as can be. Eventually we got another halter onto him and got him onto a different trailer this time, and got him to retention. I spent some time with him in there… it took me some time to relax and calm myself down from the emotions. I mean, it was a really stressful situation!"

Noel Daley, who took over training duties for Bulldog Hanover during his four-week tenure at The Meadowlands, was just going through the same motions as any other Saturday morning. 

NOEL: I was busy that morning training some of my other horses. I knew Bulldog had to be in retention for noon, so I had Sonja take care of that for me… I remember telling her to allow a good four hours to get him loaded and shipped in - just in case. Bulldog was a handful to load and he certainly gave Sonja an eventful morning, that’s for sure. They had said he loaded best if it was just one person doing it, and like I said, I was training other horses that morning, so I was kind of oblivious to what was occurring at the moment. It’s kind of funny to look back at it now, knowing what he accomplished that night. We never talked to Jack or John that day, really. Funny enough, I don’t think that Jack knew the actual specifics about his loading mishap from that morning until the TROT piece on the Oral History of Bulldog Hanover came out a couple of months ago [laughing]. We didn’t bother telling him, because he was on a need-to-know basis, and I guess we figured he didn’t totally need-to-know… but I’m sure he noticed he had a different halter on when he shipped back home [laughing]. I had to call Sonja a couple of times while she was in retention though, to make sure she was alright. I didn’t really think about how disastrous it could’ve been until after the fact. But, like I said, it all worked out. I guess it was destiny."

Dexter Dunn, North America’s leading driver, had piloted the son of Shadow Play (part of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall Of Fame’s Class of ‘22) to three dominant victories in a row, and was preparing for his Saturday night as well.

DEXTER: "That day was just like any other day for me, truthfully. There were no qualifiers that morning, and no races during the day at other tracks that I partook in, so I likely just slept that morning. I just wanted to make sure I felt as good as possible going into some stakes races. I find it pretty draining to think about a certain race or horse when I wake up throughout the day, so I always choose to keep my mind clear and hope for the best when the card starts. I was relaxed going into the night, just as I always am."


JOHN: "That night I went to Mohawk to watch because I wanted to go there as a spectator for once. Usually, whenever I’m there, I’m racing, but it was a big night and I wanted to be around people interested in racing, so I opted to go there. Jimmy Demetrious, a very good friend of mine, has a table in the dining room, so I went up there a few races prior to see if he was there to watch the big race. Fortunately he was there, and that’s where I met you for the first time, and the three of us were able to witness history together. I remember Jimmy introducing you to me and saying ‘This is my nephew John, he’s Bulldog’s biggest fan [laughing]. I’m just glad you had a Meadowlands program on your hands that night and were kind enough to give it to me to keep as a keepsake. I still have it at home, by the way. As I was walking down the dining room stairs afterwards, to go into the grandstand, I remember people stopping me to congratulate me. It was surreal. I remember seeing Justin Fisher, who works in the race office, and we were talking about that night, relishing his achievement. He just kept saying every few minutes ‘I can’t believe it!’ He was just as excited as I was, it was great. He was working in our shedrow for quite some time [for the Anthony Beaton Stable], so he knows Bulldog very well. He loved the horse and we developed a friendship during our time at the farm, so we were catching up a little bit that night. It was really cool. I thought Bulldog was going to break the record, personally. I mean, he had a mark of [1]:48 before he even went there. I figured he could drop three seconds going there. Adding the top driver, racing on a one-mile racetrack, I figured that was the recipe for it to be done. Actually, Chris Christoforou told me before we shipped to The Meadowlands, that he was going to dominate over there. Hearing a Hall Of Fame driver say that gave me some reassurance that he could do it. I predicted that he’d go in [1]:45. Sometimes you make a dumb remarks, but I knew what this horse was capable of, so I didn’t think it was that stupid to say [laughing]."

NOEL: "He was the only horse I had racing that night, so it was easy in that regard. Leading up to the race, I thought there was a good chance he’d break the record. He went quicker each week, so it became a real possibility. Obviously, our main priority was to win the race, but breaking a record was in the back of my mind, for sure. That night  capped off what was an amazing 23 or so days for all of us. Watching him stay that good, after all those quick miles he went, week after week, was special. You worry sometimes how a horse will come out from doing that for 3-4 weeks in a row, but he was just a different animal. He was easy to deal with… he put in all those wicked miles in a row and he still had enough to go [1]:45. After the race I stayed behind with Sonja and Laura to make sure he got on the trailer to head back [to Canada by way of Mark Ford’s]. He only took 15-20 minutes to load that night, which was a relief [laughing]. It was such a blur of a night. Getting that horse for a month and being a part of that ride was special. Jack and John built the foundation, the credit goes to them, but it was amazing to be a part of history as well."

SONJA: "I watched the race from a TV that was just outside. A bunch of us gathered there to witness him make history. It was an incredible moment. I don’t want to sound cocky or anything, but I knew he was going to set a world record that night. Well, I was a lot more confident before what happened in the morning [laughing], but I just knew he would do it. Horses like that just accomplish unthinkable things. Aside from winning, the coolest thing for me was what took place after the races. After the card was complete, the drivers all came over to acknowledge Bulldog before he left. Even the drivers competing against him were in complete awe of him. I remember Dexter and Andrew [McCarthy]  just feeding him bananas and black liquorice after the race. Bulldog was surrounded by all of these great drivers, who competed against him over the four weeks, just appreciating what he was able to accomplish. It was greatness appreciating greatness, and it was just so cool to see the impact this horse had on everyone there."

DEXTER: "Breaking the record was in the back of my mind going into the night because we got really close those last couple of starts. It’s hard not to think about it when you have people coming up to you in the paddock as you get set for the night saying ‘So do you think you’ll break the record?’ [laughing], so you can’t really escape the thought of it. My first priority was to win the race, but when I was just about to hit the line I knew there was a real chance. Personally, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do it because I thought the time at the 3/4 pole had to be quicker than what I put up, so I had a bit of doubt. At the top of the lane I was working Bulldog a bit to get separation from Rockyroad Hanover, who was on my back. When I knew I was clear of him I was working Bulldog a little bit to try and get him there in a record time. I was watching the seconds tick on the teletimer and when we hit the line and saw the number it was amazing. I didn’t even find out until later that he had thrown a [front] shoe during the race. Usually you hear or see it fly back past you but he must have flicked it out to the side because I didn’t even know it was gone. It’s pretty cool to be paired up in the record books with a horse like that. I’m just happy he came out of the race okay and was able to keep being his dominant self for the rest of the season." 

JACK: "I know people were talking, leading up to that night, that the horse could go faster than [1]:46, but I didn’t really care if he did that or not, I just wanted to win the race and have him come out of it well. I had faith in the horse, faith in the driver and faith in Noel. I watched the races with my wife at home that night… we were thrilled and it was exciting. I went to bed shortly after the race to a lot of text messages congratulating me, and woke up to even more. It was incredible."

* * * *

Many people, throughout different generations, recall exactly where they were during momentous times in history - both good times and bad. More often than not though, for some reason, it seems to be the bad times that stand out in this way. Many sadly know where they were when President Kennedy was shot, or during the tragic morning of 9-11, but hopefully, many also remember where they were when Niatross went sub-1:50. Now you know where Bulldog Hanover’s closest connections were, and what they were thinking, the day that the new member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall Of Fame went sub-1:46. What about you? Where were you watching from on that historic night? What’s your story? 

 This feature originally appeared in the June issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.