Charmed comeback at Keeneland

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Bret Calhoun went to Saratoga this past summer with his usual small string and two pretty large targets for Finley’sluckycharm.

The 4-year-old daughter of Twirling Candy made it to the first objective, nearly hitting the target square when she finished a game second to Paulassilverlining in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss. She never got the chance to take a shot at the second when a minor injury that Calhoun still doesn’t know the exact cause prevented the filly from running in the Grade 1 Ballerina.

Undeterred after Finley’sluckycharm fortunately only missed a little training time, Calhoun set out two more primary goals for the fall – the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America and hopefully the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

Finley’sluckycharm won the former Saturday at Keeneland to earn an automatic spot in the field for the latter next month at Del Mar, and helped erase some of the disappointment Calhoun and owner Carl Moore felt from missing the Ballerina.

“Whew, that was a relief,” Calhoun said as he walked back through the tunnel at Keeneland after Finley’sluckycharm showed a new wrinkle coming from off the pace to win the 6-furlong TCA under Brian Hernandez Jr. “It’s one of those situations where you knew this day would come. I wasn’t planning it was going to be today but we left it in Brian’s hands.

“I was initially concerned with the speed on the outside of her; I was afraid I might get jammed up in the middle. I felt like we were the fastest horse but you don’t know how much it’s going to take out of you, then you don’t get away sharp and end up seeing them get ahead of you quick, you see a :23 quarter and you’re like, ‘man, maybe something’s not right today.’ Brian has a lot of confidence in her, never panicked and did the right thing. She showed a new wrinkle.”

Finley’sluckycharm, who earned an automatic berth in the Filly and Mare Sprint through the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” program, won for the fourth time in five starts this year as the 4-5 favorite in the field of seven.

The only blotch on Finley’sluckycharm’s season was a neck defeat in the Honorable Miss July 26 at Saratoga. That race was designed as a prep for the 7-furlong Ballerina, also a “Win and You’re In” race and another chance to earn the filly a Grade 1.

That never materialized as Calhoun showed up at his string bedded down on the Oklahoma Training Track a few days after the Honorable Miss and noticed something amiss with Finley’sluckycharm. He sent the filly to Rood and Riddle Saratoga just outside the back gate on Henning Road for a full exam to get to the bottom of the issue.

“It was a minor injury in a hind leg and we never really cleared out what it was,” Calhoun said. “I think she strained a muscle, she had some edema insider her gaskin there, so we sent her over for there for a nuclear scintigraphy. Everything was negative, she didn’t miss a lot of training for a month but we decided to skip that race and think about this.”

The initial disappointment of missing the Ballerina was compounded a bit when Calhoun watched how the Ballerina unfolded with By The Moon – a mare who finished third in the Honorable Miss – setting a slow early pace and holding off a late challenge to earn the $275,000 payday.

“That was our whole summer plan and we were disappointed to not get to run, especially the way the fractions set up there,” Calhoun said. “But after the race I said maybe it was just meant to be, a blessing in disguise. Like I said, she didn’t miss much time going to the track but timing wise it was bad.”

The TCA was one of eight “Win and You’re In” races over Keeneland’s opening FallStars weekend and one of four run Saturday. The others who locked up spots Saturday were European import Suedois in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile (Breeders’ Cup Mile), Hopeful and Sanford runner-up Free Drop Billy in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity (Breeders’ Cup Mile), Zipessa in the Grade 1 First Lady (Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf). Indiana-bred and based longshot Bucchero upset the field in the Grade 2 Woodford Stakes and likely earned a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint field, although that prep is not an automatic qualifier

SuedoisSuedois capped the monster afternoon of racing – which unfolded in front of 28,763, second largest Saturday crowd for FallStars Weekend – with a come-from-behind victory over Heart To Heart and a strong field of 12 others in the Shadwell Turf Mile.

Trainer David O’Meara and jockey Danny Tudhope came up with a strategy before the race to track the early speed expected from Heart To Heart, and wound up with a little extra help when longshot Applicator applied just enough token pressure to the 2-1 favorite up the backstretch to possibly make the difference.

Suedois, winner of the Group 2 Solonaway Boomerang Stakes at Leopardstown last time out in his only win from six starts on the year, caught Heart To Heart in deep stretch to win by a half-length. Ballagh Rocks finished a head back in third with multiple Grade 1 winner Divisdero fourth, 2016 Arlington Million winner Mondialiste fifth and 2016 Shadwell Turf Mile winner Miss Temple City sixth.

“No deliberate change in tactics, it looked like there were some confirmed front-runners in the race with Heart To Heart, Miss Temple City and Ballagh Rocks,” said O’Meara, who also trains Mondialiste. “So we thought we’d track those horses.”

Brian Lynch, trainer of Heart To Heart, took the loss in stride after chatting with the press and a member of Keeneland’s management team.

“We’ll bang one out one way or another before it’s over,” Lynch said after Heart To Heart lost in his fifth attempt to win a Grade 1 stakes. “You feel for the horse because he runs his eyeballs out every time, but you have to be humble and gallant in defeat as hard as he tries every time.”


Opening Day action

Another strong crowd took in Opening Day as 19,204 turned out on a warm and sunny afternoon highlighted by a victory from another veteran who runs hard every time for Ron Moquett.

Whitmore is on the way to Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint after he ended a two-race losing streak with a narrow victory over Awesome Banner in the Grade 2 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes. The 4-year-old Pleasantly Perfect gelding won in 1:09.90 for the 6 furlongs while Moquett watched from the stands.

After Whitmore, who won five in a row to end 2016 and into this season, hit the wire Moquett made his way to ground level. He stopped behind TVG’s set near the winner’s circle, waiting quietly with friends and employees to see if Whitmore’s No. 11 would light up on the infield tote board.

“I can’t tell,” he said when asked if the chestnut gelding won his fourth stakes of the year.

A few seconds later the No. 11 lit up, Moquett dashed to the track and met the gelding and Manny Franco. Sent off as the 3-1 third choice in the field of 11 behind Limousine Liberal and Threefiveindia, Whitmore won by a nose. Limousine Liberal was a neck back in third with Threefiveindia a half-length back in fourth. The first six finishers for America’s oldest stakes race were separated by just 2 1/2 lengths.

WhitmorePhoenix“I’m superstitious so I wasn’t going to celebrate until I saw his number go up; after that it’s surreal for me, to grow up where I grew up, to win a race like this,” Moquett said.

The Phoenix victory completed a bit of a comeback for Whitmore, who won his fifth in a row in the Grade 3 Maryland Sprint on the Preakness Stakes undercard before a third in the Grade 2 True North three weeks later.

Shipped to Saratoga and bedded down with Moquett’s string in the Clark Stakes Barn, Whitmore didn’t make the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt early in the meet with a foot issue, shipped back to Kentucky and didn’t resurface until he finished third at 1-2 in the Grade 3 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park Sept. 16.

“We tried to get him here undefeated,” Moquett said. “We had a few setbacks but I’m not mad. If you can run a bad race and run a 95, 96 Beyer speed figure, then you’re not doing that bad. The horse has carried us and we just hope he keeps doing it.”

One race later Debby Oxley’s homebred Heavenly Love earned an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with a victory in the Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades in her stakes debut. Trained by Mark Casse and ridden by Julien Leparoux, the daughter of Malibu Moon cruised to a 5 1/2-length victory over 3-2 favorite Princess Warrior in the 1 1/16-mile stakes.

Heavenly Love is the 10th foal produced by Oxley’s Grade 1-placed stakes-winning Deputy Minister mare Darling My Darling. Oxley frequently sells the foals out of Darling My Darling, but opted to keep Heavenly Love was rewarded for that decision first with a 5-length win on the turf at Kentucky Downs last month and in the $400,000 Alcibiades.

“We’re real fond of Malibu Moon, he matches up really well with her,” Oxley said. “I was thrilled when I got the filly. I sell a lot but I kept her. Darling is getting older, so this is really exciting to have a Grade 1 winner as Darling My Darling’s daughter. Darling is getting a little older … sometimes you just have to have fun.”