Breeders’ Cup Saturday: Americans face tall order in Mile

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The European contingent for Saturday’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile features classic winners, Group 1 winners and other well-traveled stars with lofty credentials. The task facing the home squad certainly will be difficult in the $2 million Mile but the home squad is far from void of talent.

Uni, who upended males on the way to an Eclipse Award last year, leads the U.S. team and returns for trainer Chad Brown. Others in play include Uni’s stablemates Raging Bull and Digital Age, Shadwell Turf Mile winner Ivar, Factor This and Halladay.

Halladay makes his first start since winning the Grade 1 Fourstardave – at the expense of Mile entrants Casa Creed and Uni – at Saratoga Aug. 22. Trainer Todd Pletcher entered the 4-year-old son of War Front in the Shadwell Mile but was forced to scratch when the colt came down with a hind leg infection.

All-Star Outing. Halladay fends off defending champ Got Stormy in Grade 1. Written for Aug. 26 Saratoga Special by Terry Hill.

Trainer Todd Pletcher can read a Daily Racing Form as well as anyone, and coming into the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap he could see his entry Halladay looked like the clear speed in the race. He also had a jockey with a well-deserved reputation for success with frontrunners.

The strategy was obvious.

“It was our plan going in, establishing the lead and then getting him to settle. It worked,” said Pletcher. However while reading the Form he couldn’t have missed the fact that the course record for the Fourstardave distance was held by the mare Got Stormy, who set it in last year’s edition. She was back trying for a repeat this year.

“Yes, when she came at us at about the three-sixteenths pole I thought it was going to be very close at the end,” Pletcher said. “But he had something left and he kind of kicked it up a notch. We knew he’d be at his best; we could see it in the mornings in training. That and he’s learned how to relax on the lead. That’s a big difference between last year and this for him.”

Halladay’s winning jockey Luis Saez, who came into Saturday having won seven races the previous two days, said, “I was totally confident; I could feel it. He was real comfortable in the second quarter and then in the stretch when he could feel the competition coming he opened up a little.

“The hardest part was getting the lead. It’s a little soft out there and when he shoved off at the start, he slipped or sunk into the turf a bit. But by the second jump he was good.”

The 4-year-old son of War Front out of the Tapit mare Hightap actually broke fourth but after the first furlong of the 1-mile race he’d already taken a clear lead. 

He made it last, getting splits of :23.85 and :47.19 to start, covering 6 furlongs in 1:10.15 and turning aside Got Stormy’s challenge to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Casa Creed wound up third.

The final time for the race, on a turf course rated good, was 1:33.32, or 1.32 seconds off Got Stormy’s record.

Got Stormy finished second and her regular rider, Tyler Gafflione, was pleased with the effort. After winning $1,139,100 and finishing in the money in all eight of her races last year with four victories, the 5-year-old mare started this year 0-for-4. 

“We couldn’t get by the winner,” said Gafflione, “but it’s great to see her back in form. It’s a real step in the right direction.”

Agent Steve Young bought Halladay for $225,000 at Keeneland September in 2017, early in the sale’s opening session as Hip 22. His dam won the Iowa Oaks and Dogwood Stakes, both Grade 3, in 2009 and had produced winning full-siblings  to Halladay in War Of Ideas and Tap Of War.

Bred by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Gainesway Thoroughbreds, Halladay finished third in his only two dirt starts, at Saratoga in 2018, and has won half his 12 turf tries.

A real mystery in the race was the non-performance of the Chad Brown contingent. Brown, arguably the country’s leading turf trainer over the last few years, had four entries in the race, including the first two choices in the betting with Uni and Raging Bull. The Brown horses finished fifth through eighth, with none being a factor at any point in the running.

Uni, last year’s champion turf female and Breeder’s Cup Mile winner, was the beaten favorite in the Fourstardave for the second year in a row, finishing seventh this year to go with her third last year. 

At any other racetrack in America, the mention of the horse Fourstardave would probably elicit a response something like “Fourstar-Who?” But here, the horse is a part of the folklore of the meet and earned the title “The Sultan of Saratoga.”

The son of the undistinguished, but regally bred stallion Compliance (by Northern Dancer out of a Buckpasser mare), Fourstardave started an even 100 times, winning 21 for $1,636,737 in earnings for Richard Bomze and trainer Leo O’Brien. But it was at Saratoga that the New York-bred became a legend. For eight consecutive years the hard-working gelding won at least one race at the Spa. He raced in the Grade 3 Daryl’s Joy Stakes five times, winning it twice and finishing second twice.

On the track, and in the fans’ hearts, he owned the Saratoga meet. So after he retired in 1996, the Daryl’s Joy Stakes was changed to the Fourstardave Handicap and has since been upgraded to its Grade 1 status. In perhaps an even higher honor, the track’s first floor grandstand bar was named the Fourstardave Saratoga Bar.

After his death in 2002, Fourstardave was buried in Clare Court on the backstretch of the main track. Only two other horses have been so honored. 

For Pletcher, winning the Fourstardave marked the 23rd consecutive year the trainer has captured a Grade 1 stakes.

For Halladay, who won for the sixth time in 14 starts, the victory not only bumped his lifetime earnings to $517,485 but also earned him a “Win-and-You’re-In” spot in Breeders’ Cup Mile at Keeneland Race Course Nov. 7. On his way there, he may start in the $750,000 Shadwell Turf Mile, also at Keeneland.

“We haven’t made a decision, but the distance, the surface and the date all look about right,” Pletcher said. 

Ace horse Halladay makes pitch for Harrells. Written for Aug. 26 Saratoga Special by Paul Halloran.

Connor Harrell was a standout baseball player at Vanderbilt who played in the Detroit Tigers system for four years. Though he never crossed paths with Roy Halladay, a phenomenal pitcher for the Blue Jays and Phillies, Harrell admired the Hall of Famer’s accomplishments and his reputation for giving back to the communities in which he played. 

When it came time to name the horse Harrell Ventures bought as a yearling in 2017, Connor and his father, Curtis, decided to honor the career and legacy of the pitcher, who died Nov. 7, 2017 when the plane he was flying crashed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida. Thus, the son of War Front would be called Halladay.

“I have a baseball background and everyone I talked to said he was a really good guy. To have a career like that, he deserved to have a horse named for him,” said Connor Harrell, who manages the family racing operation.

When he was with Toronto, Roy Halladay had a private box at SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) to which he invited patients of the Hospital for Sick Children. He started the Halladay Family Foundation to benefit children’s charities, hunger relief and animal rescue, and he was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award for outstanding citizenship several times. 

Curtis Harrell admitted that the racing partnership, which also includes his wife, Elizabeth, son, Clay, and daughter, Hannah, hoped Halladay the horse would remind people of Halladay the pitcher.

“Roy was an incredibly competitive, talented, aggressive athlete,” said Curtis, also a pilot. “Those are the kind of character traits you would love to see in a racehorse.”

That’s what was on display in Saturday’s Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga, when the equine Halladay put up a performance on par with the human Halladay’s perfect game for the Phillies May 29, 2010. The Todd Pletcher trainee led at every call in easily defeating an all-star field that featured five Grade/Group 1 winners. Among them were the 2019 Fourstardave winner, an Eclipse Award winner and a four-horse phalanx from trainer Chad Brown’s barn.

Halladay entered the Fourstardave with five wins, but his only stakes scores came in ungraded races in Florida late last year and this spring. His $297,485 in lifetime earnings were a little more than 10 percent of favorite Uni’s nearly $2.4 million.

“Saturday was pretty amazing,” said Connor Harrell, who knows the feeling of excelling on the biggest stage, having hit a home run for Vanderbilt in the 2011 College World Series and being named to the All-Tournament Team. “This was the closest (feeling) to that.”

“We were very excited,” Curtis Harrell said, admitting that it would have been even better to witness it in person. “We do enjoy being there, that’s why we do it. We’re in this business to race. We’re not breeders and we don’t own a farm in Kentucky. Our joy comes from being part of the racing environment.”

While the Fourstardave victory marked the first graded stakes win for Harrell Ventures, the Harrells owned a 75-percent share of the Alto Racing partnership that campaigned 2015 Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes runner Materiality. Credit for the family’s involvement in racing goes to Curtis’ late father, Eddie, who ran claimers at Ruidoso Downs long before there were any dreams of graded stakes wins.

“We had more success than we deserved,” Curtis said. “We have had a taste of running in some big races.”

As part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, the Fourstardave is an appetizer for the main course that is the Breeders’ Cup Mile, to be run at Keeneland the first weekend in November.

“It’s such an exciting situation,” Curtis Harrell said. “This was a ‘Win and You’re In’ for the Breeders’ Cup Mile and we are looking forward to that.”

Connor Harrell, a 4-year starter at Vanderbilt and seventh-round draft pick of the Tigers in 2013, hopes Halladay brings his best stuff again.

“It’s going to be a fun fall,” he said.