All business in Sycamore

- -

Tom Proctor showed up in the Keeneland paddock Thursday with a suit jacket and tie.

Friends, clients, colleagues and savvy horseplayers took notice, knowing such a sign was an indicator the normally non-tie and sometimes mock-turtleneck-clad horseman might be anticipating a trip across the main track to the turf course for the trophy presentation bestowed only to the day’s graded stakes winner.

Ian Wilkes and Don Robinson chatted about it behind the grandstand after Thursday’s Grade 3 Sycamore Stakes, won by the Proctor-trained 3-year-old Big Bend. The joked about it even, knowing full well the effort turned in by Big Bend was really nothing to laugh at on a picture-perfect mid-October afternoon in the bluegrass.

Big Bend turned in a businesslike performance that matched his trainer, racing fairly close up for the first mile of the 1 1/2-mile turf test before taking the lead on cue from jockey Drayden Van Dyke and holding off a late run from Nessy. Big Bend, who runs for the Phyllis Wyeth-led partnership Union Rags Racing, won by three-quarters in 2:33.24 over the firm turf for his second straight stakes victory in front of 11,324 fans.

Proctor relished the scene near the winner’s circle and on the walkway across the track, watching the Union Rags colt and Van Dyke make the trip back and onto the turf course. Proctor snubbed Keeneland’s Mike Battaglia when he requested a post-race interview, perhaps the only un-businesslike gesture of the afternoon but standard practice for the veteran horseman.

Shaking his head, Proctor told Battaglia “no, no. Talk to Braxton, talk to Braxton,” pointing to Braxton Lynch, whose family’s association with Wyeth goes back many years. Lynch handled the post-race formalities, talking first with Battaglia and then walking back under the grandstand on the way to some celebratory champagne.

“It’s a little syndicate we put together, Phyllis Wyeth is the majority owner,” Lynch said of the partnership that owns Big Bend, a $105,000 buy at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. “She owned Union Rags. It was a way for her to have fun with her friends, race a couple Union Rags’, support him in the sales ring, and everything coming together and a way to have some fun. Thank goodness we were able to have some fun.”

Big Bend is proving to be a fun horse for the partnership, winning four of seven since being switched to the grass by Proctor this past winter at Tampa Bay Downs. He did show promise on the main track as a 2-year-old, finishing second to eventual Gotham winner J Boys Echo in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Keeneland. Big Bend ran spotty in his other three starts – all sprints on the main track – and showed signs he’d be better suited to grass and a longer distance.

“He ran pretty well here last year on the dirt,” Lynch said. “We kind of knew he had some talent we just had to find his thing, I think it worked out pretty well.”

Big Bend faced older horses in the Sycamore, and an accomplished group at that.

The field included distance specialist Manitoulin, last year’s winner Renown, Grade 3 winner Some In Tieme, Laurel Turf Cup winner Canessar, 2014 Arlington Million winner Hardest Core and John’s Call winner Infinite Wisdom. Big Bend came in off a victory in the Dueling Grounds Derby over 3-year-olds at Kentucky Downs, a three-quarter-length victory that came two months after a win over older horses in a 1 1/2-mile turf allowance at Delaware Park.

Big Bend’s other four turf races were at 1 1/16 miles or 1 mile. Since he’s stretched out to the 1 5/16 miles of the Dueling Grounds Derby and the two 1 1/2-mile trips he’s undefeated.

“We kind of figured out he’s a mile-and-a-half kind of horse,” Lynch said. “There’s not many places to go, and at some point, it’s the end of his 3-year-old year, you’ve got to start facing older horses. We didn’t know how he was going to stack up with those but obviously he did pretty well.”

Big Bend’s victory in the Sycamore, worth $60,000 to pad his earnings to $327,510, proved extra special for Lynch and her husband Damian. The couple own and operate Royal Oak Farm in Paris, Ky., where Union Rags was foaled.

Lynch is the daughter of the late Richard Jones, who partnered with his brother Russell in the successful Walnut Green bloodstock agency. Russell Jones serves as an advisor to Wyeth, who campaigned Union Rags to victories in the 2012 Belmont Stakes and 2011 Champagne Stakes. 

Wilkes also saw positive signs from Nessy’s runner-up performance.

The 4-year-old son of Flower Alley and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. essentially followed the winner most of the way, and cut into his advantage in the stretch to finish second best and 1 3/4 lengths in front of 3-1 favorite Canessar. Nessy also bounced back from a poor effort at Kentucky Downs and returned to his form that earned him a second in the John’s Call this summer at Saratoga.

Wilkes concedes that the gelding is still a work in progress. He talked about him this summer at Saratoga, saying he wanted to develop Nessy into a more seasoned competitor capable of traveling to California for another top-tier distance test on the grass.

“He’s getting better. He’s a different horse now, bigger, stronger,” Wilke said. “I always said he’s going to be better next year, as a 5-year-old. Really he’s ahead of schedule right now. Next year is going to be his best year. He’s a nice old horse. He’s cool. He’s a fun horse to be around. You couldn’t ask for a better horse to be around.

“(Owner) Ed Hudon, he likes the San Juan Capistrano. I don’t want to get ahead and I wouldn’t go out there this year because he wasn’t mature enough but everything I’m doing this year is for that race next year. That’s my goal. He’s growing, getting better, stronger, and he’s doing everything you want to see from a mile and a half horse. He’s only 4, he’s a baby in that group. Those mile and a half horses don’t get good until they’re 5, 6. He beat some nice horses today.”