Happy Day

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Dell Hancock walked toward the Saratoga Race Course winner’s circle after Saturday’s Alabama Stakes, let out a satisfied sigh, smiled and spoke of another milestone to her family’s lifetime of Thoroughbred involvement at Kentucky’s Claiborne Farm.

“I’ve always wanted to win this race,” she said. “It’s just a filly race that’s always been very close to my heart.”

And one run 136 times without a Claiborne-owned winner until Elate stormed home by 5 1/2 lengths Saturday. First run in 1872, three years before the first Kentucky Derby, the Alabama counts among its roster of winners racing’s biggest names – Beldame, Maskette, Top Flight, Vagrancy, Busanda, Gamely, Shuvee, Summer Guest, Our Mims, Love Sign, Go For Wand and so on. Elate, owned and bred by Claiborne and Adele Dilschneider, joined the honor roll by throttling eight other 3-year-old fillies.

The dark bay/brown filly paid no attention to a rammy Mopotism one stall to her right and broke well from post seven for Jose Ortiz. It Tiz Well and Unchained Melody went to the front and Ortiz set up four wide while making sure he held his spot going into the first turn with a look to his right. Wide around the turn, Elate trailed It Tiz Well, Unchained Melody, New Money Honey, Holy Helena and Mopotism through a first quarter in :23.46. California shipper It Tiz Well built a clear lead up the backstretch, and was followed by two sets of three horses. Elate was in the second flight, between Salty on the rail and Mopotism. Fifth after a half in :46.96, the winner advanced to fourth after 6 furlongs in 1:10.92 and set sail.

Exiting the final turn, It Tiz Well clung to her lead. Unchained Melody backed up on the inside, Queen’s Plate winner Holy Helena ranged up like she might do something. All the while, Elate churned toward the front. Given some rein by Ortiz, she advanced to second like a racing sloop bearing down on a Sunfish and struck for real at the quarter pole.

“On the backside, I was very confident,” said Ortiz. “She was ready 110 percent today. It’s taken a little while to mature, but she did, and you see what she can do. When she won her maiden (at Aqueduct in November), I thought she was going to be a really good filly, I breezed her from the gate before the race and I thought she was going to be this kind.”

Mott was convinced even before that 12 1/2-length debut win.

“We liked her before she ran,” he said. “I told the Claiborne guys, ‘Get your coat and tie,’ when she was a 2-year-old in the summer. She had some sore shins so she missed Saratoga and actually got her started a little later than I wanted, I was going to try to get her started in September but she wound up with a little fever, I didn’t get her started until the end of November, that put us behind from where I was planning to be, then she broke her maiden.”

Early this year, Mott backed off some early thoughts of trying the Kentucky Oaks.

“I took her down to Payson and turned her out in a paddock, I started her back and she kind of let down on me a bit,” the trainer said. “We cranked her up, everybody was thinking Kentucky Oaks, I thought, ‘You know what, she’s really more of an Alabama filly than the Kentucky Oaks.’ ”

She proved it as the Alabama reached its crescendo Saturday.

Elate ran past It Tiz Well when shaken up by Ortiz coming off the turn, drifted in slightly while clear and widened once she got to the rail to complete 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.19. It Tiz Well hung on for second by a head over Salty. Trained by Bill Mott, Elate won for the third time in eight starts, adding the Grade 1 to a stakes victory in the Light Hearted at Delaware Park in June and avenging a game defeat to Abel Tasman here in the Coaching Club American Oaks July 23.

The Californian and Hall of Famer Mike Smith won the battle, crowding Elate on the rail in deep stretch and scoring by a head. Ortiz said things could have been different.

“She was ready to win the Coaching Club and then what happened happened,” Ortiz said. “Mike gave a great ride, I thought she should have won. Mike was in the middle of the track on the turn, I had five paths to go, I went, Mike had to take his whole repertoire out to beat me that day and he did, he did it good. But that’s done, you have to deal with it, if you were only going to win one of them, this is the one.”

The victory in the $600,000 stakes also erased any lingering questions about the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro, who was pulled up as the favorite in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland in April. Ortiz thought she took a bad step. The rest of the team wondered, worried and thought about Saratoga.

“At the Ashland when Jose pulled her up we went back to the barn and we were all befuddled,” said Hancock. “What happened? Adele and Bill and I were there and I thought, ‘I’ll trade the Alabama for this.’ ”

Will she ever. Hancock’s grandfather, Arthur B. Hancock Sr., started Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. in 1910 and turned it into the country’s leading Thoroughbred farm. A list of Claiborne-based stallions and homebreds would make a formidable Hall of Fame all by itself with Sir Gallahad III (sire of Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox), Blenheim II (sire of Triple Crown winner Whirlaway), leading sires Princequillo, Double Jay, Round Table, Nasrullah, Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Danzig, Mr. Prospector, Swale, Forty Niner and right on up to the current roster led by War Front. Twenty-two actual Hall of Famers were foaled or raised at Claiborne. Much of that history came under the direction of Arthur “Bull” Hancock Jr., Dell Hancock’s father, who succeeded his father at the helm. Bull Hancock’s son Seth (Dell’s brother) assumed the leadership in 1972 and in turn handed the management to his son Walker in 2015.

Saturday, Dell, Seth and Walker were in the winner’s circle after the Alabama, along with longtime partner Dilschneider (who took off her shoes and led in the filly barefoot). Bull Hancock would have loved it.

“He’d be so proud of Seth and Walker and all of us and the filly too, he’d be tickled to death,” said Dell. “It’s just a great thing to be part of.”

The path to Elate began with the $1.025 million purchase by Seth Hancock and Dilschneider of broodmare Wild Applause at Keeneland November in 1992. The daughter of Northern Dancer and the star Graustark mare Glowing Tribute won graded stakes for her breeder Paul Mellon. Carrying a foal by Forty Niner, Wild Applause became a link to excellence:

  • Her half-brother, Sea Hero, won the 1993 Kentucky Derby.
  • The Forty Niner foal of 1993 was Roar, who earned $487,507.
  • Her 1994 foal, Praise, produced Congrats and Flatter.
  • Her 2000 foal, Yell, earned $598,903 and produced stakes winner Cheery, who (in 2014) delivered Elate.

And that’s the Cliff’s Notes version. Cheery is at Claiborne, so is Yell.

The latest star of the family looks the part. She strolled into the paddock Saturday with dapples for days, the buckle of the long leather reins placed on her withers as if painted by Munnings. She strolled around the paddock trees, surveyed the scene while getting tacked, went back to the walking ring as Mott saddled stablemate Lockdown. Across the way, the Alabama blanket of flowers hung on a fence near the paddock bar. If Elate noticed, she didn’t let on. A half-hour later, they were on her shoulders.

“All those fillies looked well,” said Dell Hancock of the Alabama field, which included five graded stakes winners and a Canadian classic winner. “She’s got a look about her though that’s old time and says, ‘I’ve got it under control.’ ”

Like all those Alabama winners before her.