Ballston Spa. German import pulls shocker

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As German filly Salve Germania lunged and plunged around the Saratogapaddock before Saturday’s Ballston Spa Handicap, gasps came from alldirections. And that was nothing compared to Maren Hennig and OlgaHickst. They were really surprised.

“She is never like that at home, she is like a pony,” said Hennig, wife of groom Radik Hennig. “We don’t know why she acted that way. We have rain at home in Germany, we have umbrellas at home in Germany, we have crowds at home in Germany. She was just wild.”

Bred in Ireland and raced in Germany and France, the 4-year-old filly made up for the shocking behavior with a last-to-first rush to win the Grade II stakes. Salve Germania (Javier Castellano) came out from behind horses in deep stretch to get the last last run and catch Rutherienne in the final strides. The winner scored by a head after passing five horses in the final quarter-mile while covering the 1 1/16 miles in 1:47.25 over a soft turf course. Rutherienne finished second with My Princess Jess a half-length back in third.

Owner Manfred Hellwig will leave the daughter of Peintre Celebre with trainer Todd Pletcher for an American campaign and perhaps a date with a stallion in 2010.

Trained in Cologne, Germany by Waldemar Hickst, Salve Germania won her career debut last June at Dusseldorf, but lost her next seven starts including three in France. She finished fourth in her most recent start, a listed stakes at Hamburg, July 4 and came to the U.S. in search of firm ground and a fresh start.

“We did not expect very much, especially with this ground,” said Hennig. “She hates soft ground. We especially came for hard ground, because in Germany it is so soft. All night, it rained and rained and rained. We were crying about it all night.”

The emotions were quite different Saturday afternoon. Olga Hickst, wife of the trainer (who was running horses at Baden Baden) speaks very little English, but came up with “Super, just super!” in the winner’s circle.

Their filly was just that. Sent off at 24-1, she dropped back to last in the field of seven but was never more than 5 lengths from the front. Captain’s Lover set a slow early pace of 25.83 and 51.92 seconds, just ahead of Cocoa Beach and Teamgeist. Favorite Rutherienne bided her time in fifth and sixth.

Exiting the turn, all seven looked to be in with a shot – Teamgeist dove to the rail, Captain’s Lover hung on, Rutherienne drafted, My Princess Jess motored into position outside. At the furlong pole, Rutherienne lowered her head and dove between Teamgeist and Captain’s Lover to take a short lead as My Princess Jess made steady progress.

Meanwhile, Salve Germania kept pace. Fifth at the eighth pole, she eased out from behind My Princess Jess, accelerated and passed everyone in less than a sixteenth of a mile without feeling Castellano’s whip.

“I had her behind horses and she loved that,” said the jockey. “She was just galloping and keeping track of all the horses in the race. When I moved, I was going to come between Cocoa Beach and (Captain’s Lover); I asked her and she hesitated a little bit so I decided to switch and move outside and I think that was the key to winning the race. She took off very impressive. She was in gear.”

Castellano and Salve Germania also found high gear warming up for the race. He let her open gallop a quarter-mile in hopes of settling her; she pulled up and walked calmly after that but acted up at the gate and sent the jockey to the ground for the third time. Once in the gate, she acted fine and she did everything right in the race – a long way from the paddock scene.

“Oh, she was a little crazy. The key was to keep her moving,” Castellano said. “As soon as you stopped, she wanted to flip. They had throw to me up twice before I stayed on. When we got to the track . . . she was very good and relaxed. As soon as we got to the gate, she acted up again and I came off.”

In the box seats, Hennig and Hickst fretted. They came in with low expectations, but everything went wrong – until the filly made it right again.

“Before the race, she tried to make the jockey jump off, she was so bad,” said Hennig. “We told the jockey not to be in last place, to make a good start, second or third place would be good. She was last, she is never last at home and then, oh my, she really ran a good race.”

Salve Germania came into the race off a typical hurried international travel schedule. She did her last piece of serious work in Cologne a week earlier, left for America Sunday, spent two days in quarantine, arrived in Saratoga mid-week and went to the track just twice prior to running. Bedded down in the Pletcher barn, Salve Germania liked her new surroundings – despite the raceday angst.

“It was very nice,” said Hennig. “We told the groom who takes care of the horses next to her that she would be his horse, so that he would take care of her and he did. Todd Pletcher we know is a top-10 trainer in America. He was very helpful and always asked us if we needed anything. This is all very exciting for us. I hope she can run good for him too.”

Additional reporting by Karen Johnson.