TORONTO, Janurary 12, 2024 - Willys Home Run was one of the breakout success stories of the 2023 OSS season, capturing five Gold Series victories in her debut season.
The ease with which the brown filly won made it seem as if she was born to race.
Only, that wasn’t the initial plan.
Following in his father’s footsteps, owner/breeder of Willys Home Run, Jake Higgs, the son of longtime breeder Reg Higgs, was initially just looking to keep Willys Home Run with the intention of breeding her after making the decision to withdraw her from a sale a few years ago.
“It was funny because when my wife and I got in the business we had a talk and said, ‘We’re not going to start racing horses, we’re not going to keep them. We’re, basically, just going to breed them and sell them.’ That was the plan that my father had done for forever,” said Higgs. “I said, ‘That’s what we’re gonna do.’”
The logic was sound. A full sister to Canadian record holder Logan Park, the Archangel-Rite Outta The Park filly looked to have the pedigree to become a fantastic broodmare for Higgs who, despite having an industry veteran father, was just getting his own feet wet in the business at the time.
And then she turned out to be the fantastic racehorse most know her as now.
Willys Home Run didn’t only win five Gold Series races, she went a perfect five-for-five in those races she participated in, then followed that up with a win in the Super Gold Final.
Higgs gives a lot of credit to the Ontario Resident Mare Program for his success, helping him, a newer breeder, get his feet off the ground.
“In Ontario, as the breeder, you pay a very small amount and the money you can get through the program is second to none,” he said. “And, obviously, it pays people like us where our horse just so happened to win all the golds, but even if you are successful at the grassroots level or for a couple races, the breeder can expect some money back for that, which is amazing.”
The support Higgs received from the greater community also made things easier for him to jump into the business.
“Whether it comes to me e-mailing somebody from Standardbred Canada or Ontario Racing or talking to people about who to breed to, everybody’s been very open,” said Higgs. “It’s amazing to walk into the barn at Mohawk or wherever it is and people will remember you and they’ll say hi and they’re always looking to help even though we’re all competing against one another.
“I just found that the camaraderie between all the people that are in the horse business is amazing.”
Winning, of course, also didn’t hurt matters, either.
But far more important than what she accomplished on the track, however, is Willys Home Run represents the fulfillment of a promise made.
Dr. Sara Gatchell, Higgs’s wife, is a veterinarian who grew up with the sport of harness racing, spurred on by her father’s love for it in Truro, N.S. As a young girl, Gatchell promised her father that if she were to ever become a vet she would buy a racehorse and name it after him.
Flash-forward more than 40 years later, and that promise was kept when Reg Higgs sold Gatchell and Jake their first broodmare in foal. When she delivered, she was then promptly named after Gatchell’s father, William, becoming Willys Home Run.
At the time of Willys Home Run’s birth, Gatchell’s father had just turned 90 and was overjoyed to see the childhood promise kept. Unfortunately, however, right as Willys Home Run was dominating the 2023 OSS season, he was diagnosed with dementia and now no longer remembers that fateful promise that was made.
Still, William Gatchell did still tune in to see his namesake tear up the track as the Gatchell family would tune in and stream all of Willys Home Run’s races, much to the delight of William, even if he no longer remembered the personal connection he had with the horse.
Sara remembers, however. And that’s far sweeter a victory than anything that may happen on the track.
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