Breeders’ Cup: Sweet Legacy

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Jimmy Crupi always said Vino Rosso would make a better 4-year-old.

He said it when the son of Curlin left Crupi’s New Castle Farm in Ocala, bound for New York and trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn. He said it to Pletcher and Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola, who teamed up to buy the colt for $410,000 at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale.

Repole and Viola listened, like they often did to the man who helped send the likes of Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty and Liam’s Map to success on the racetrack. And they continued to listen this spring, summer and fall, even while Crupi’s voice could no longer be heard after his passing in late May at age 79. The words, like Crupi’s strong legacy, continued to resonate while Vino Rosso showed flashes of potential while searching for a signature win to move from close to racing’s peak.

Then came Saturday. Vino Rosso reached the summit and proved Crupi right at Santa Anita Park, saving his best performance for last in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., Vino Rosso topped Whitney winner McKinzie by 4 1/4 lengths in front of the 67,811 that turned out for the 36th World Championships and 10th beneath the San Gabriel Mountains. Vino Rosso’s victory capped his career, highlighted a monstrous weekend for his jockey and put a merciless end to a topsy-turvy season marked by notable disqualifications and a rash of breakdowns at Santa Anita that attracted national headlines and opinions by everyone from federal lawmakers to grandstanding animal-rights activists.

The Classic, the richest event on the two-day Breeders’ Cup card, could not escape that shadow with Mongolian Broom suffering a fatal injury in midstretch of the 1 1/4-mile event. Supplemented to the race at a fee of $200,000, Mongolian Groom suffered a fracture to his left hind ankle and could not be saved after being vanned off the track as the winner’s were feted in the fading Southern California sunlight.

Mongolian Groom’s breakdown was the lone blemish on an otherwise clean Breeders’ Cup, which remained at Santa Anita despite concerns after 30 horses broke down during racing or training at the track’s winter-spring meeting.

Vino Rosso raced at Santa Anita in the spring, venturing west from Pletcher’s main string at Belmont Park to win the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita going 10 furlongs in late May. The victory came four days after Crupi passed away in Maryland after attending the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May 2-year-olds in training sale that week.

Pletcher sent Vino Rosso to California to get a gauge on how the colt would handle the track and because “we knew he would love a mile-and-a-quarter.” Vino Rosso won the Gold Cup, staying in the clear on the outside and grinding out a three-quarter-length victory over Gift Box. The win, his first in a graded stakes since the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in early April 2018, also stamped Vino Rosso as a top contender for the Classic.

Vino Rosso followed that victory with a third in McKinzie’s Whitney at Saratoga, a track he’s never really relished training or racing over, and a front-running victory in the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup taken away by the stewards for interference with runner-up Code Of Honor.

The disqualification stung Viola and Repole, billionaires who refreshingly haven’t lost too much of their gritty New York City edge, and Pletcher. They didn’t change course, however, and set their sights on the Classic with Vino Rosso.

Vino Rosso thrived in the five weeks between the Gold Cup and the Classic, turning heads in breezes on the training track at Belmont and during training Breeders’ Cup Week at Saratoga.

“I can’t remember the last time coming into a race of this magnitude with a horse that we felt like was doing so well and just training unbelievably,” Pletcher said. “He put in some perfect work at Belmont, shipped in great and was galloping over the track like he loved it.”

Vino Rosso did so well in the days leading up to the Classic, where he went to the post as the 9-2 third choice behind McKinzie and Code Of Honor, that Repole, Viola and Pletcher couldn’t contain their enthusiasm.

“We were kind of group texting with these guys for the last five weeks, and it’s just like we’re on pins and needles because he was just doing so, so wonderfully,” Pletcher said. “We couldn’t wait for the moment to get here.”

Viola, who races in the name St. Elias Stable with his wife Teresa, sensed something big from his trainer.

“Todd is a very efficient communicator; so you have to pick up on his signals,” Viola said. “So when you get texts that are un-Todd-like, I turned to Teresa and said, ‘I think this horse is really going to run a special race.’ ”

Vino Rosso delivered on those understated expectations under a textbook ride from Ortiz, who also won Saturday’s $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf aboard Bricks And Mortar and $1 million Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile on Spun To Run and Friday’s $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint aboard Four Wheel Drive.

Ortiz took over for John Velazquez, who chose to ride Travers winner Code Of Honor, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Vino Rosso raced on the lead throughout that Sept. 28 event, and finished a nose in front of Code Of Honor, but were taken down for interference in the stretch. Ortiz kept Vino Rosso close again in the Classic, racing in fourth through the opening stages while Preakness winner War Of Will carved out the pace just ahead of Mongolian Groom and McKinzie.

The opening fractions – :23.09, :47.16 and 1:10.71 – over the deeper and more tiring surface than usual at Santa Anita took their toll on the frontrunners and 5-2 favorite McKinzie and Joel Rosario took command around the far turn. Ortiz countered every move, keeping Vino Rosso in his preferred outside position around the far turn. McKinzie led past a mile in 1:36.36 and into the stretch but Vino Rosso looked every bit the winner turning for home.

McKinzie swished his tail a few times outside the eighth pole, didn’t respond to Rosario’s right handed whip and yielded in the final furlong while Vino Rosso rolled past. Vino Rosso won in 2:02.80, with McKinzie 4 1/4 lengths clear of Higher Power for the runner-up spot. The mare Elate finished another 2 1/4 lengths back in fourth with 7-2 second choice Code Of Honor seventh of 11.

Vino Rosso’s connections pocked $3.3 million for the win to more than double the colt’s career earnings to $4,803,125. He heads to a stud career Spendthrift Farm in Lexington with six wins in 15 starts. The past-performance lines evoke a baseball pitcher finding and losing his best stuff – he’d pitch a shutout, then get knocked around, then find it again and get back to winning. As a 2-year-old in 2017, he didn’t race until November but won both starts. As a 3-year-old, he sputtered through two early losses in the Sam Davis and Tampa Bay Derby then won the Wood Memorial to make the Kentucky Derby field. He finished ninth there, was fourth in the Belmont Stakes, third in the Jim Dandy and a dull fifth in the Travers. Then came 2019, which started with a win in Aqueduct’s ungraded Stymie in March and finished with a blanket of purple and yellow flowers at the Breeders’ Cup.

“There (was) unfinished business with this horse since he was a 2-year-old,” Repole said. “When he was a 2-year-old he was 2-for-2. He kind of disappointed a little bit in Tampa. Then he won the Wood Memorial, and we said, ‘Oh my God, we got the (Kentucky) Derby winner. Then he had the Derby and the Belmont didn’t work out the way we thought it would. We were disappointed when he (ran in the Travers). He doesn’t like Saratoga. He’s 0-for-3. We put him away. Vinnie and I’s easiest decision to be made. He went to Jim Crupi’s . . . As a 4-year-old he’s had a great campaign.”

Just like Crupi said he would.