The showdown between AQHA World Champion Heza Dasha Fire and multiple AQHA champion Moonist was one for the ages, as Moonist led from start to finish while holding off a strong challenge from his rival to win the Grade 1, $139,700 Los Alamitos Winter Championship on Sunday night. Ridden by Cesar De Alba from post five for trainer John Cooper, Moonist beat Heza Dasha Fire by a half-length to earn an automatic berth to this year’s Champion of Champions to be held on December 10.
"I'm 76 years old and I've owned horses since I was 16, but this is without a doubt my greatest win ever," said Moonist's owner Ron Hartley. “I’m breathless right now. This was round three of this matchup between two champions and all I can say is that it was a great race. Moonist got ahead of Heza Dasha Fire at the start and the two ran like champions from there. When I saw those two running like that, I have to tell it pumped my heart pretty good. I should say, super good. Moonist has outrun a great world champion twice now. Wow, all I can say is wow. I guess this is what horse racing is all about.”
Heza Dasha Fire vs. Moonist in the Winter Championship was round three of the sport's biggest matchup right now. The two first met in last year’s Champion of Champions, a race that resulted in Heza Dasha Fire sealing the title of AQHA World Champion with a breathtaking daylight victory over a tremendous field. The rematch went to Moonist, as the 5-year-old gelding by Separatist held off S-Quarter K LLC’s Heza Dasha Fire by a half-length in the Winter Championship trials. With the rivalry tied at a win a piece and an all-important early berth to the Champion of Champions up for grabs, the Winter Championship final had the potential to be an unforgettable contest. It did not disappoint.
“There’s never been a better one for me,” Hartley added. “When Moonist was 2-years-old, Jaime Gomez came up to me and said ‘I’ll buy your horse.’ I said ‘no, thank you.’ Look at the way he entered the winner’s circle tonight after the race. He just looked so calm. He’s one in a million I think.”
Bred by Vessels Stallion Farm LLC, Moonist earned his 22nd win in 32 career starts. Out of champion Your First Moon, Moonist earned $58,674 for the win to take his career earnings to $864,168. The win makes him only the eighth Quarter Horse to reach 12 stakes victories at Los Alamitos. He is currently tied with Ransom and Chingaderos in the all-time list of stakes winners at the Orange County oval. Kaweah Bar and Charger Bar are tied for first with 18 stakes wins each.
And Moonist will not rest on his laurels according to Cooper. He’ll remain on the grounds and is expected to run at least one more time before the trials to the Vessels Maturity on June 12.
“As long as they’re hot, let them stay hot,” Cooper said. “He’s good right now. You never know how a horse will come back from a break. We’ll take it easy with him, but we’ll find him a little overnight stakes race before the Vessels Maturity trials.”
Cooper trained champions Separatist and Chingaders and legendary distance champion Sign Of Lanty, but Moonist might the dandiest of them all.
“I tell you, he’s a dandy,” Cooper said. “I have to say Moonist is the best horse I’ve ever trained. When he goes out to the track to train I tell everybody to stand up and take their hats off. The only time a rider gets on him now is on the day of the race. When he goes out in the mornings he just gets ponied around the track.”
Cooper said it after the Winter Championship trials that if his horse and Heza Dasha Fire squared off 10 times, that they would probably win five times each.
“That’s a nice horse,” Cooper said of Heza Dasha Fire. “Put them in the gate 10 times and we’ll each win our share. Next time Moonist faces Heza Dasha Fire that horse might kick our butt. That’s because he’s a great horse. If he would have beat us by the same half-length margin tonight I would have been tickled to death by Moonist performance in all honesty. When great horses face each other you are happy if your horse gives you his all. Where does this win rank in my career? It’s easily top five for sure. Anytime Moonist wins, it’s pretty special for me.”
Winning rider Cesar De Alba said “I'm very lucky and honored to be a passenger on this awesome horse. Hats off to the other 9 horses and connections most importantly to the connections of Heza Dasha Fire.”
Ridden by Cruz Mendez from post six for trainer Jose Flores, Heza Dasha Fire finished 2 ¼ lengths ahead of his closest pursuer, the third place finisher Walk The Catwalk. The 3-5 favorite in this race, Heza Dasha Fire earned $23,749. A winner of 11 races, the Walk Thru Fire gelding has now earned $1,714,487 in his 14-race career.
"It's like Bird vs. Magic when those two (Heza Dasha Fire and Moonist) race against each other," said Shawn Meneely of S-Quarter K Racing. "Two greats facing each other. It was a great competition. That’s what it’s all about. I hope everyone in Quarter Horse racing was delighted with that race. Heza Dasha Fire lost to a great champion. There’s no shame in that. There’s still a while until December and hopefully we can be there (Champion of Champions) again."
“Heza Dasha Fire didn’t break tonight,” Kathy Meneely added. “You can’t give a great horse like Moonist a big head start. Heza Dasha Fire was coming on, but Moonist wasn’t going to give it up. If he doesn’t give him a length early on, who knows what happens in the race. We were hoping to win this race and take some of the pressure off about qualifying to the Champion of Champions. We’ll back up and come back again and see how things turn out.”
Heza Dasha Fire will be shipped either Tuesday or Wednesday to Rick and Mindy Overly’s Lazy Creek Ranch in Murrieta, California for some time off according to his trainer.
“He’ll be there two to three months,” Flores said. “We’ll bring him back and start him again and see what we need to do. When he lost in the trials it did not sting that bad, but this one stings a lot more. It kills me to see him run second, but he got beat tonight. The Hartley and Cooper and great people and I’m happy for them.”
Steve Burns’ Walk The Catwalk, third in both the Grade 1 Southern California Derby and PCQHRA Breeders Derby last year, finished a half-length ahead of 2014 AQHA South American champion Jake Gold BR. Walk The Catwalk, voted the 2015 PCQHRA 3-year-old colt of the year, earned $16,764 for his third place finish in the Winter Championship. Fourth place finisher Jake Gold BR was followed across the wire by Fiery Kimbo, Dr Jess, Jiffy James, French Fury, Sugardaddy B, and Wilmas Alright Now.