Peachtree Stable’s founder John Fort glanced at his program prior to Sunday’s Fourstardave Handicap and couldn’t help but think of the one statement that offered more questions than answers.
“Ten months is an awfully long time to be away from the races.”
It took only 1:41.93 to alleviate Fort’s worries.
Fort’s Red Giant (John Velazquez) ran down a gallant Stalingrad (Channing Hill) in the shadow of the wire to win Sunday’s $150,000 Grade II Stakes in an effort that stamped the 4-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway an important newcomer in the turf division.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Red Giant was making his first start since finishing second in the Grade II Jamaica Handicap Oct. 6 at Belmont Park. A reoccurring ankle injury ended his 2007 season, prompting Pletcher to stop on the son of Giant’s Causeway and prepare for a summer campaign. He entered Red Giant in an allowance race prior to the Fourstardave at Belmont, but the race didn’t fill. The backup plan suddenly loomed front and center.
Red Giant broke alertly and Velazquez immediately took advantage of his rail draw, settling in fourth on the hedge as Inca King (Shaun Bridgmohan) sprinted off to a 7-length lead through a first quarter in 23.95. Thorn Song (Alan Garcia) kept a measured distance from the leader while Stalingrad raced in third, just to Red Giant’s outside.
Bridgmohan reined in Inca King and the pair eased back to a 4-length lead after rattling off a half-mile in a testing 47.81 seconds on a course downgraded to yielding after an afternoon downpour. Thorn Song drafted up in second while Stalingrad and Red Giant traveled together in tandem in behind. Well-backed War Monger raced in mid-pack while race favorite Danak trailed the compact field of nine. No more than 9 lengths separated the group.
As the field approached the top of the stretch, Inca King began to feel the effects of his enterprising pace and Thorn Song moved first, ranging up outside the leader as the field turned for home. Stalingrad followed that rival three-wide and left Velazquez at the rail, holding his breath and waiting for a seam as the leaders straightened away in the lane.
“Turning for home I just wanted to keep my position with him out there,” Velazquez said. “I wanted to save my spot and hope to get some daylight to let him run when it opened up for me.”
As the field hit mid-stretch, Stalingrad took charge with a quick acceleration that put 2 lengths on a game Inca King, who battled on resolutely from the rail. Thorn Song couldn’t match strides with the new leader, War Monger flattened out and Danak was eased inside the final furlong.
Meanwhile, the seam Velazquez hoped for on the inside never developed. Sliding outside of a tiring Inca King, Velazquez put Red Giant into the clear and locked onto Stalingrad. Making up ground with every stride Red Giant drew even and then clear of Stalingrad just a few yards from the line to score by a neck with Thorn Song back in third.
“Nearing the eighth-pole I couldn’t go inside. I took him to the outside of Inca King and we got some daylight,” Velazquez said. “When I straightened him out he really kicked in for me. He responded right away when I asked him.”
Purchased for $350,000 at the Keeneland 2005 yearling sale, Red Giant started his career with a pair of main track starts at Aqueduct in the fall of 2006, running fifth and then third.
Pletcher sent him to Florida for his 3-year-old debut, again on the dirt, and Red Giant paced fourth against maidens at 9 furlongs. After nearly three months on the sidelines, Red Giant returned to Aqueduct for his turf debut, where he drew off by 5 ? lengths. After a pair of allowance races and a neck victory in the minor Restoration Stakes at Monmouth Park Pletcher took a shot in the Grade II Virginia Derby. Red Giant rewarded his trainer’s confidence with a score at 37-1.
A tough half-length loss in the Grade I Secretariat at Arlington Park preceded Red Giant’s final 2007 run in the Jamaica.
Fort stood in the winner’s circle and thought of the horse Red Giant was at the end of 2007 and the one that entered the Fourstardave off the longest layoff of his 10-race career.
“I thought if the race had been run last November against this field we would have been the favorite, but 10 months to be away is a long time. I was just really pleased with the way he ran off that layoff and it really sets us up for an exciting rest of the year,” Fort said. “The horse really perked up when we put him on the turf last year, but I can’t really say we were thinking turf when we bought him. Obviously there was an immediate change when we made the switch with this horse and it looks like we have a nice turf horse for the second half of the year.”
As he headed underneath the clubhouse to watch the replay one last time Fort threw out one more statement that had more questions than answers.
“Giant’s Causeway has a reputation for producing both turf and dirt horses and Red Giant trains extremely well on the dirt,” Fort said. “So if we were trying to get an edge on the stallion market I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing if he’ll like the dirt.”