Fair Hill Day at Keeneland

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Opening Day of the Keeneland fall meeting featured a little bit of what everyone of sound mind and spirit would want – great racing, beautiful weather, an enthusiastic crowd and plenty of time to socialize and soak in the spirit of the season. It also featured at bit of Fair Hill flair, as the winners of the day’s two feature races raided in from Cecil County, Maryland, and punched their respective tickets to next month’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

A. P. Indian and Dancing Rags led the way for Team Fair Hill, winning the Grade 2 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix and Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades, respectively, before a sun-splashed record fall meet opening crowd of 19,882. The Phoenix and Alcibiades are two of the nine stakes that make up Keeneland’s Fall Stars Weekend, which continues with five big stakes Saturday and two more Sunday.

The two races also offered automatic qualifying spots for the Breeders’ Cup, although A. P. Indian already earned a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint for winning the Grade 1 Forego in late August at Saratoga.

The Phoenix, the oldest race in the U.S. and second oldest in North America behind only the Canadian classic Queen’s Plate at Woodbine, wound up as a solid back-up option for A. P. Indian after a rainstorm last weekend in New York forced his connections to skip the Grade 1 Vosburgh for the 6-year-old Indian Charlie gelding’s final prep for the Sprint.

The backup option worked wonders for A. P. Indian, who won his fifth straight, and dealt runner-up Limousine Liberal the toughest of beats.

A. P. Indian beat Limousine Liberal by a nose in a track record 1:08.43 for 6 furlongs, .15 faster than champion Runhappy scorched the same distance in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

“You have to respect the horse,” winning trainer Arnaud Delacour said of the decision to scratch last week and go for the $250,000 Phoenix. “He didn’t run well in the mud last year so there was no point to do it again. It was a no brainer as you said.”

Ben Colebrook, who trains Limousine Liberal for K.K Ball of Donamire Farm, wore a look of equal parts satisfaction and frustration as he chatted with jockey Jose Ortiz after the 4-year-old Successful Appeal gelding finished second in a graded stakes for the fifth time in his career.

“A rainstorm in New York cost me a Grade 2,” Colebrook said, walking through the tunnel to the paddock to saddle Caroline Test in the Alcibiades. “He ran great, to break a track record and still get beat? And he’s ahead before and after the wire. Oh God, I don’t know what I need to go to get a graded stakes with this horse.”

Delacour, his wife Leigh and owners Green Lantern Stables certainly have racked up plenty of graded stakes success with A. P. Indian this year.

Undoubtedly one of the leaders – if not the outright leader – of the male sprint division, A. P. Indian won his fourth straight graded races in the Phoenix after two Grade 1s at Saratoga in the  Forego and Alfred G. Vanderbilt and the Grade 3 Belmont Sprint Championship. He also won for the first time at Keeneland in three starts, improving on a second in allowance company at the 2015 spring meet and a sixth in last year’s Phoenix behind Runhappy.

Limousine Liberal made A. P. Indian earn it though.

A. P. Indian and jockey Joe Bravo broke well and raced second early behind The Great War. They eventually got shuffled back a bit and were third behind The Great War and Limousine Liberal approaching the quarter-pole through a strong half-mile in :44.94.

Jose Ortiz sent Limousine Liberal to the front in the stretch and they a half-length in front at the eighth pole past 5 furlongs in :56.47. Bravo, aboard A. P. Indian for every start on his current win streak, didn’t panic and angled the bay gelding out a few paths into the stretch and got the response he needed in deep stretch to get alongside Limousine Liberal. Those two slugged it out inside the final sixteenth, trading the lead several times, before A. P. Indian got his nose down when it counted most.

Delacour said he was “quite a bit” concerned watching the race unfold, especially when A. P. Indian found himself behind rivals around the turn.

“When we got shuffled back a little bit and (Limousine Liberal) ended up in front of us I knew he’d be hard to pass,” he said. “That was something, probably a year ago, he might not have been able to overcome. He’s got so much confidence that he got it done. I was a little bit concerned.”

Delacour, who was able to breeze A. P. Indian on Fair Hill’s Tapeta training track the morning after the Vosburgh, said he’d being the gelding back to Maryland to prep for the Sprint Nov. 5 at Santa Anita Park.

“It makes more sense to me. I can manage the weather a bit better over there,” Delacour said. “There’s a Tapeta track, that’s home for him and for me. It’s a little easier for me to assess his form being at Fair Hill.”

Graham Motion did an equally good job assessing the form of Dancing Rags in the weeks leading up to the $400,000 Alcibiades and the 2-year-old daughter of Union Rags rewarded his and owner Phyllis Wyeth’s decision to step the filly up to Grade 1 company off a maiden win at Laurel Park in her last start.

Motion said the decision to run Dancing Rags, who Wyeth bought for $210,000 in the name of her Chadds Ford Stable at the OBS March sale of selected 2-year-olds in training sale, came “at the last minute.”

“It was last minute in as much as it was this week,” he said, “I hadn’t planned on it, but then I got to looking at it and realized, ‘you’ve got to take a shot.’ Especially with 2-year-olds, you’ve got to take a shot this time of year. She’s just kept improving and I guess that’s what’s going to happen to the Union Ragses.”

Motion said winning the Alcibiades, a race he tried to win last year for Wyeth with 10th-place finisher Lookout Sister, was especially satisfying because his owner bred and raced Union Rags, the 2011 Champagne and 2012 Belmont Stakes winner.

Dancing Rags won the 1 1/16-mile Alcibiades by 1 length over the late running Daddys Lil Darling with the somewhat troubled Fun another 2 lengths back in third in the field of 14. The final time was 1:44.69.

Angel Cruz, who took off three Friday mounts at Laurel and made the near 9-hour drive with his family from Maryland, rode Dancing Rags for his first Grade 1 and graded stakes victory. Cruz also was aboard for Dancing Rags’ career debut, a third in a 5 ½-furlong turf maiden race Aug. 5 at Laurel and again for her maiden-breaking win going 1 mile on the dirt Sept. 17 at Laurel.

“He drove here; that’s the most impressive thing,” Motion said. “Angel did a great job. I think she’s the only horse Angel’s ridden for me.”

Dancing Rags earned an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies should her connections opt to send the filly to Santa Anita.