Bittersweet Score

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Junior Alvarado got a push, a little extra help as he guided Strapping Groom to victory in Saturday’s $500,000 Forego Stakes at Saratoga.

The natural and obvious inclination is to think maybe he got a little something from the spirit of Saginaw, who he rode for a final time Friday when the popular gelding suffered catastrophic injuries in a horrific incident. He said he felt that, too, but it was a little advice from fellow rider and friend John Velazquez that aided Alvarado’s and Strapping Groom’s 15-1 upset of the Grade 1 event.

“It was my first time on him, but I was familiar with him,” said Alvarado, who was visibly upset after Friday’s incident surrounding Saginaw suffered fractures to both sesamoids in his left front leg. “I was a replacement for Johnny, but he explained to me a little bit about him. I asked him how I can get comfortable with him and it worked out good. The horse ran huge.”

Whatever Velazquez, who rode Justin Philip to a third-place finish in the Forego, told Alvarado must have worked because the 6-year-old son of Johannesburg was relaxed early and tenacious late. He won the Forego by a half length over 2011 winner Jackson Bend, running the 7 furlongs in 1:22.27 over the well saturated, sloppy and sealed surface. Justin Philip was three lengths back, three-quarters of a length ahead Lea. California shipper Fast Bullet never made the lead and checked in seventh of eight as the 3-5 coupled betting choice with Justin Philip.

Alvarado hustled Strapping Groom, fifth in the opening-day James Marvin and winner of the restricted Kid Russell 19 days before the Forego, from the gate and beat Fast Bullet to the spot on the lead. He kept Fast Bullet and Luis Saez down on the inside as they sparred through the opening quarter. Fast Bullet was narrowly in front through the opening quarter-mile in :22.92, but the lead didn’t hold up and Strapping Groom retook it passing the half-mile pole and heading into the turn.

Alvarado gave him a little push midway around the turn, past the half in :45.22 and Strapping Groom took the cue, gapped the backpedaling Fast Bullet and set sail for the stretch. Velazquez moved Justin Philip past Fast Bullet near the quarter pole but never really looked like he’d threaten.

Strapping Groom drifted a bit into the lane and as Fast Bullet started to retreat Jackson Bend came alongside with a strong rally. The multiple Grade 1 winner was really the only serious threat, but Strapping Groom held him off for his first graded stakes victory.

“The thing that happened yesterday, with the big horse, I kind of put it together and I think there was something there [in the Forego] that helped this horse move on,” Alvarado said, walking back to the jock’s room after finishing a gallant second to Alpha aboard Flat Out in the Grade 1 Woodward. “I believe that. I believe in everything. Like I said, he ran a hell of a race. I knew he was running good lately, but what he did today was a little extra.”

Whether there was an divine intervention from the great beyond might depend on one’s level of faith.

The win did provide a significant spark to the staff at trainer David Jacobson’s barn and others associated with the 21-time winner, who were still reeling from the death of Saginaw 24 hours earlier and in the waning days of the Saratoga meet.

“That was great,” said Mike Sellitto, Alvarado’s agent. “It was great for Junior, especially after yesterday.”

Paul Wilson, who handles saddling duties for Jacobson, subbed for his boss while he tended to business downstate. He agreed that Strapping Groom’s victory, his eighth from 22 career starts, was a significant boost for the barn and for fans of Saginaw.

“Let me tell you something, in the last 24 hours, after what we went through, this was special,” Wilson said. “We continue to see people cry and be out of shape about what happened, they’ll tell us about what Saginaw meant to them. It hurts everybody. I’m not really surprised, because know that he meant a lot to a lot of people.

“I’ve got grooms and hotwalkers that have cried all day about Saginaw. When they put him down it hurt them. We’ve got to continue to move on. And make sure that we continue to improve and get another horse … but it hurts. He wasn’t just another horse to us. He was like family.”

Strapping Groom joined Jacobson barn in late May when he was claimed from the Steinbrenner family’s Kinsman Stable, who bred him in Kentucky out of the Silver Deputy mare Something Silver, and trainer Carl Domino for $35,000. He won his first start for Jacobson, the $100,000 Lion Cavern a month later at Belmont with Velazquez aboard. Then came the two Saratoga starts.

Strapping Groom’s win was the 16th at the meet for Jacobson, good for a tie for third with Kiaran McLaughlin in the standings heading into the final two days of racing.

To many, from Alvarado to Wilson to the hotwalkers and grooms back the barn, the win was so much more than a number.

“Out of the clear blue sky, and I said this to people, if this horse can win a race like this today it would mean so much,” Wilson said. “When he dug in it meant so much. When we had to put Saginaw down yesterday it hurt me. It hurt a lot of people. I thought about that a lot today and I might have looked a little crazy in the paddock when I gave him a big pat and said, ‘this is for the big horse, for Saginaw,’ but that’s how I felt all day.”