The following article, written by ST’s Tom Law and the winner of the Bill Leggett Breeders’ Cup Writing Award in 2005, is reprinted from the November 6, 2004 issue of Thoroughbred Times.
The day that started out with so much promise was not going well for J. Paul Reddam, and it certainly did not give the impression it was going to get any better with about a quarter-mile left to run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) on October 30 at Lone Star Park.
Reddam, who has enjoyed plenty of recent success as a Thoroughbred owner and even more as the founder of the Ditech.com mortgage company, missed the mark with his first three Breeders’ Cup starters, who on paper appeared to have a chance to earn at least minor awards in their respective races. Elloluv was the first one off target (seventh in the Distaff [G1]), then there was Sharp Lisa (sixth in the Juvenile Fillies [G1]), and finally Pt’s Grey Eagle (eighth in the Sprint [G1]).
Wilko, a fairly unheralded European-based colt in whom Reddam purchased a 75% interest from owner Susan Roy earlier this fall, would not let his new co-owner down. He not only produced the second-biggest upset in the Juvenile’s history but also perhaps the most surprising victory on the 21st World Championships card.
“I had four bullets that I came with,” said Reddam, whose growing stable has also included Grade 1 winners Ten Most Wanted and Swept Overboard in recent years. “I fired three and was basically down on the ground with one left, and I was going to fire it with Wilko.”
The son of Awesome Again hit the target squarely as he upstaged a talented quintet of American-based two-year-olds with Frankie Dettori in the saddle at odds of 28.30-to-1. Wilko and Dettori rallied in the middle of the Lone Star stretch to finish three-quarters of a length in front of unlucky Hopeful Stakes (G1) winner Afleet Alex. Sun King was another neck back in third in the 1 1/16-mile Juvenile, which was run in 1:42.09 on a fast track.
Wilko’s $58.60 payout was the second largest behind the $62.20 mutuel for Anees in the 1999 Juvenile at Gulfstream Park and slightly larger than last year’s $55.60 produced by Action This Day.
The payout was impressive, but not more so than the fact that Wilko earned the win and possibly an Eclipse Award as champion two-year-old male in his first start on dirt against a field that included the winners of nearly every major American prep for the championship race.
The victory was also the first stakes win for Wilko, who had placed in five stakes on the grass in England. Shortly after Wilko made his second career start, a seventh-place finish in a six-furlong race at York racecourse, trainer Jeremy Noseda got the impression the colt would be more effective on the dirt. Nine starts later Wilko got the chance to show he was better suited on the main track and left the talented Juvenile field in tatters.
“He’s run against some of the best two-year-olds in Europe and clearly on turf in England he’s seven to ten pounds behind the top two-year-old,” Noseda said the day before the Breeders’ Cup. “So you would expect he’s going to be seven to ten pounds behind the top American two-year-old. We’re realistic about it.”
Noseda’s apprehension was no doubt caused by the fact that Wilko would be squared up against Roman Ruler, arguably the best two-year-old on the West Coast from trainer Bob Baffert’s barn, Champagne Stakes (G1) winner Proud Accolade, and the gritty Afleet Alex, whose only loss from five starts came in the Champagne.
The bettors settled on Roman Ruler as the 2-to-1 favorite in the field of eight, with Proud Accolade and Afleet Alex right behind in the wagering at 2.60-to-1 and 3-to-1, respectively. Twice Unbridled, whose only accomplishment in two starts was a third-place finish in a maiden race at Del Mar, was the only member of the field to get less respect than Wilko at 33.20-to-1.
“He had the last chance of anyone,” Reddam said when asked what he thought the chances of Wilko would be compared to his three other runners.
Twice Unbridled would be the Juveniles early pacesetter as jockey Victor Espinoza sent the son of Unbridled’s Song through relatively soft early fractions of :23.54 for the opening quarter mile and :47.49 for the half. Consolidator, winner of the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (G1), and jockey Rafael Bejarano were just off the pace in the early stages, with Wilko running a surprising third.
Dettori, who had three prior Breeders’ Cup wins but never one on the main track from nine attempts, had worked Wilko for Noseda at Newmarket in the weeks leading up to the Juvenile and was also surprised the colt raced up close after his clean start.
Afleet Alex did not enjoy the same luxury; the son of Northern Afleet bobbled slightly at the start and bumped Roman Ruler to the inside and Consolidator to the outside. He eventually recovered but was forced to run four wide around the first turn and was still in sixth after the opening half-mile. Roman Ruler had similar troubles after the break and raced at the back of the pack to the chagrin of Baffert, who had a heated exchange with jockey Corey Nakatani near the winner’s circle after the race.
“You’ve got to be aggressive with this horse,” Baffert told reporters after Roman Ruler checked in an unthreatening fifth in the worst performance of his five-race career. “You have to put it to him. He’s got to be ridden a certain way.”
Nakatani said the son of Fusaichi Pegasus did not handle the track, which was listed as fast but still had some moisture from a brief shower the evening before the race.
“He was slipping the whole way. It was just too slick for him,” Nakatani said. “He’s way better than that. This horse obviously is a good horse, but when they’re slipping like that, there’s nothing you can do.
While Roman Ruler and Afleet Alex were languishing toward the rear, Edgar Prado guided Sun King down the inside to snatch a narrow lead after running six furlongs in 1:11.25. Sun King battled on gamely from that position just ahead of Consolidator and the steadily progressing Afleet Alex. Wilko had started to retreat while running three wide around the far turn and looked out of the race at the quarter pole.
Dettori did not panic as Afleet Alex and Sun King continued to slug it out, tipped Wilko out a bit more in the stretch, and gave the colt an aggressive ride in deep stretch.
Wilko snatched the lead from Afleet Alex with a sixteenth to run and inched clear in the end to join Johannesburg and Arazi as European-based winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
“One thing that he does, he always tries,” Dettori said. “Around the turn he didn’t go anywhere. I switched him back to the outside, and all of a sudden a dream comes true. He started to pick it up, and I knew I was going to win. It was great, absolutely fantastic.”
Sun King hung on gamely to be third, 1 ¼ lengths in front of Consolidator. Roman Ruler, Proud Accolade, Twice Unbridled, and Scandinavia completed the field.
Trainer Tim Ritchey, who arrived at Lone Star 12 days before the Juvenile to acclimate Afleet Alex to the surroundings, was pleased with the colt’s performance despite suffering traffic problems for the second consecutive race.
“He tries every time, right from the word go,” Ritchey said. “He kind of stumbled leaving there and had to check a little bit. Then he was a little farther back than usual and Jeremy [Rose] had to use him a little bit on the backside to get in position.”
Wilko earned $780,000 of the Juvenile’s $1,375,500 total purse and improved his record to three wins in 11 career starts and boosted his bankroll to $880,494. The final time of the Juvenile was the fourth fastest in the race’s history but slower than the 1:41.65 clocking turned in by two-year-old filly Sweet Catomine in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1).
“You know, I believe, and Jeremy believed, and Paul, and [Reddam bloodstock consultant] Jamie [McCalmont] believed that we had a chance,” Dettori said. “But if you don’t have a ticket, you can’t win.”
Reddam got his opportunity to land his first Breeders’ Cup winner after purchasing a 75% interest in Wilko from Roy in a private transaction just weeks before the Juvenile. McCalmont, a bloodstock agent based in London, has worked on behalf of Reddam on several transactions and brokered the deal to purchase Wilko.
Bred in Kentucky and one of two winners on the Breeders’ Cup card for Awesome Again, who also sired Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Ghostzapper, Wilko is out of the Indian Ridge mare Native Roots (Ire), whose lone career victory from 11 starts came on a sloppy racetrack at Turfway Park.
Reddam said the colt’s experience was a factor in the purchase, and McCalmont indicated that Wilko was eligible to improve on the main track based on his American-style pedigree.
“He’s a pure dirt horse,” McCalmont said. “That was really our feeling about buying this horse. We thought he would improve switching to the dirt.”
Reddam said before the Juvenile that Wilko was bought with the specific intention of racing on the final Saturday of October in the Breeders’ Cup and not necessarily with an eye on the first Saturday in May for next year’s Kentucky Derby (G1).
The one catch to the transaction forced Noseda to relinquish Wilko’s training to the Southern California-based Craig Dollase, who conditions many of Reddam’s top runners. Noseda, a 41-year-old who previously worked for the Maktoum family’s Godolphin Racing operation, said the victory was bittersweet because the Juvenile was his last chance with the colt.
“I wouldn’t mind being rehired,” Noseda quipped during the post-race press conference. “I had nothing to lose. I thought we could get a piece of it, but never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d get the whole of it. That was the deal. This was my last chance, and he has come up for me. I hope it works out in the future, and I’m sure it will. He is a tough hard-knocking horse.”