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Sports Saturday

Mourning Illinois-bred Kadabra, who was a magical horse

Prolific sire produced long line of winning trotters

Kadabra
Harness racing in Chicago is a shell of its former self, but those who were there when the circuit was big-time are likely to have fond memories of Kadabra.
Tara Hill Stud

Kadabra, a last link to the glory days of Chicago harness racing and one of the most influential sires of trotters in the sport’s history, has died.

The “backyard-bred” Kadabra was an unlikely candidate to become the father of the 2013 North American Horse of the Year, Bee A Magician (the top money-earning trotter in history), and the 2019 Hambletonian winner, Forbidden Trade. Tara Hills Stud in Ontario announced that he had died last weekend at age 22, after having been retired from stud duty in January.

Harness racing in Chicago is a shell of its former self, but those who were there when the circuit was big-time are likely to have fond memories of Kadabra. The Cinderella story of how the Chicago-based Hochstetler family caught lightning in a bottle with the talented Illinois-bred and sold him in a deal that reportedly approached seven figures is the stuff of local racing legend. The colt’s mother, Quillo, had been given to Connie Hochstetler by longtime racing ambassador Buehla Dygert. Kadabra’s father, Primrose Lane, stood in Illinois and had no national cachet. But the colt emerged as the leading 2-year-old trotter on the Chicago circuit in 2001 and then became a top 3-year-old nationally. In the middle of his sophomore campaign, a well-heeled consortium headed by the late Peter Heffering purchased Kadabra from the Hochstetlers.

Heffering had made his fortune in the cattle business and planned to open a stud farm in Canada. I recall interviewing him at the time of Kadabra’s sale. Heffering said his experience in cattle breeding, sires of great influence had come from improbable bloodlines and he predicted that Kadabra would invigorate the trotting side of harness racing. Well, Heffernan proved to be Nostradamus.

After banking more than $1.8 million and winning 25 of 36 starts on the track, Kadabra indeed became a “foundation sire” over a 17-year career for Tara Hills Stud. He might have been a product of obscure breeding in a state little-known for producing quality trotters, but this draft-horse-sized equine would prove proficient in passing his freakish speed and stamina and easygoing temperament down to his sons and daughters.

He ultimately became one of the great trotting sires in North American harness-racing history, ranking eighth all-time with more than $91 million in progeny earnings. The leading trotting sire north of the border in every year since 2006, Kadabra was inducted into the Canadian Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.

“He’s one of these horses that only comes along once in a lifetime for a stallion farm and we’ve been really lucky here with getting Kadabra,” David Heffering, owner and general manager of Tara Hills Stud, told the media when the beloved horse was retired from stud duty. “He’s got a great disposition. His horses were always fairly levelheaded and were good to train. They always had a willingness to go forward. He not only made stakes horses, but he made racehorses and that’s what people were really impressed about him.”

Another poignant memory I recall regarding Kadabra came when, in a column in the Sun-Times, I called the prestigious Hambletonian, aka the Hambo, the “Shambo” because of its policy that forbade supplemental entries. I asked, how the Hambo could be the biggest event in harness racing when the best 3-year-old trotter in the sport, Kadabra, was not allowed to race in it? Kadabra would validate my question by later winning the Breeders Crown race as the odds-on favorite and being voted Trotter of the Year for 2002 by the U.S. Harness Writers Association.