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Wilkes ‘Happy’ to get meet off to good start

The only way you were a happy fella after Sunday’s fifth race was if you bet on Happy Fella. That was the story after the 3-year-old Northern Afleet gelding surprised even his trainer by legging out a dramatic victory under Jose Espinoza at 28-1.

“It was a nice surprise,” trainer Ian Wilkes said. “You’re always happy to win at Saratoga, especially this early in the meet.”

Wilkes went into the race thinking he had a chance to notch an early victory at Saratoga Race Course, but not with Happy Fella. Wilkes also trains Summit County, who finished ninth in the same race.

“I actually liked my other horse a little bit more in the race,” Wilkes said. “I thought [Summit County] had a real good chance, and Happy Fella had an outside chance.”

Fittingly, it was a late move outside that turned Happy Fella’s outside chance into an improbable victory. After languishing in seventh place for much of the race, Espinoza led the gelding on a furious charge past six others in the stretch. He was able to get a nose in front of second-place finisher Wildcatter moments before the finish.

“I saw he was in seventh, not too far out of it,” Wilkes said. “He was a long way back, but I thought he was in a nice position. The horse looked to be traveling well.”

Wilkes said Happy Fella was a different horse during the race than he had shown in training.

“He’s not a very good work horse,” Wilkes said. “If you watched him work you wouldn’t like him at all. He works like a $5,000 claimer but he runs above that. He’s not a morning boy, but he comes in the afternoon and he steps up to the plate.

Wilkes characterized the gelding’s recent breezes as “slow, but steady,” adding that “he’s an improving horse. He looks to be getting better.”

The win was Happy Fella’s second in nine starts, and his first of 2013. The fact that victory came at Saratoga made it even more special.

 “It’s a great meet here,” Wilkes said. “It’s the toughest meet in the country. It’s not easy here. People like to win here, people like to race here.”

Wilkes was glad to get the win out of the way on opening weekend and can look forward to the rest of the meet. What’s ahead is big with Fort Larned working toward the Aug. 3 Whitney Invitational, a race he won last year.

Fort Larned will be one of the favorites into the Whitney, but Wilkes knows  he must be weary of an upset. Such is the nature of Thoroughbred racing, just look at Happy Fella.

“I wish there was  an exact science to it,” he said.

But Sunday it was the inexact science of racing that sprung Happy Fella to victory.

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