St. Joe Bay ran quickly in December.
No, we are not referring to that certain body of water that dominates the local maps.

This would be St. Joe Bay, the four-year-old sprinting horse, named in honor of St. Joseph Bay and owned by a Florida farm.

St. Joe Bay ran quickly in December.

No, we are not referring to that certain body of water that dominates the local maps.

This would be St. Joe Bay, the four-year-old sprinting horse, named in honor of St. Joseph Bay and owned by a Florida farm.

On the last day of 2016, St. Joe Bay finished first in a Grade 3 stakes race, which in racing parlance is a pretty big deal, at Santa Anita Park in California.

That photo-finish, dead-heat victory followed a blowout win in a lower graded race earlier in the month in Del Mar, California, a track that will become important later in our story.

St. Joe Bay is one of some two dozen or so horses owned by Bonnie Heath Farm and its owners Bonnie III and Kim Heath.

The horse’s name evolved from love of place.

The couple has visited Gulf County from their Marion County farm the past 20 years and owned a home on Cape San Blas since 2002.

“We just love this place,” Bonnie said, then adding of St. Joseph Bay, “We’ve spent a lot of hours out there fishing.”

And St. Joe Bay is not the first horse the couple has named to honor this piece of paradise.

The farm had another, Cape San Blas, which showed promise before injury shortened its racing career.

St. Joe Bay, trained by Peter Miller, won the $100,000 Midnight Lute Stakes Dec. 31, winning in a dead-heat in the 6.5 furlong (about ¾ of a mile) race with Solid Wager.

Ridden by Kent Desormeaux, a Hall of Fame jockey and winner of multiple Triple Crown races, St. Joe set the early pace and held on against the late charge of Solid Wager.

Horse-race grades are based on purse and level of competition: the Triple Crown races, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, are Grade 1 stakes and the numbers move down from there.

Above the winnings, a Grade 3 stakes win permits a bit bolder print on the horse’s pedigree papers.

“It is a pretty big deal,” Bonnie Heath said. “We’ve bred some really nice horses.

“It’s like it is one of your kids. You are really proud.”

Earlier in December, St. Joe routed a group of sprinters at Del Mar, beating the favored Jazzy Times and five others by more than 6 lengths.

“There were a lot of things about that race that surprised me,” Miller said during an interview with Wire to Wire, a racing publication. “I didn’t expect him to be in front. I didn’t expect him to fight back and draw away in the stretch like he did and I didn’t expect that kind of number.”

Miller is reffering to the Beyer Speed Figure, which is based on time and the inherent speed of the track; fast, slow, firm, sloppy.

The higher the number, the better. Triple digits are excellent.

“A few more triple-digit Beyer numbers … and we’re talking about the Breeders’ Cup because those are Breeders’ Cup numbers,” Miller told Wire to Wire.

The Breeders’ Cup is the year-end Super Bowl of horse racing, a day of racing with events for across all thoroughbred disciplines; juveniles, fillies, sprint horses such as St. Joe Bay and turf specialists.

It is the NCAA basketball tournament, the College Football Championship of thoroughbred horse racing.

The final race is the Classic, featuring the best of the best and considered the top race of the thoroughbred racing calendar, consistently determining Horse of the Year.

And this year the Breeders’ Cup, come Nov. 4, will be held in Del Mar.

“He loves that track,” Bonnie Heath said.

Miller told Wire to Wire he always knew St. Joe Bay had talent, it was tapping the potential.

“Training is all trial and error,” Miller said. “We knew he had it in him, but we didn’t know what he wanted to do, we didn’t know how to get that talent out of him.

“You try some things and, if they don’t work, you try other things. We gelded him about six months ago, we tried him on the grass, we tried him around two turns … but now we know wants to run short on the main track … and that’s where he’ll stay.”

Prior to Santa Anita and the Midnight Lute, St. Joe Bay had won three of 19 starts while earning $217,175.

Bonnie Heath said the horse has been entered for the Breeders’ Cup though a decision will come based on performances in the spring and summer.

“If he continues to perform well,” he said, leaving the remainder of that thought for the imagination.

On noteworthy trend: Desormeaux has now been aboard St. Joe Bay for five of his last six starts and in those five starts St. Joe Bay has won three with a second and a third.

In many respects, Florida may not have the thoroughbred industry it has without Bonnie Heath Farm in Marion County.

The original farm, founded by Bonnie Heath III’s father and a partner, bred Needles, which in 1956 became the first Florida-born horse to win the Kentucky Derby, following it up with a win in the Belmont Stakes.

Bonnie III and Kim took over the farm in 1991, which they have now moved to other land in Marion County.

“I grew up around it and she was a horse crazy girl who grew up in Jacksonville,” Bonnie said.

A horse foaled just days after they took over the farm, Holy Bull, would win national Horse of the Year honors as a two-year-old and again as a three-year-old.

The farm has produced a long list of successful horses.

St. Joe Bay could be the next.