Head of the Class

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From The Saratoga Special, Aug. 7 Edition.

Eight words. 

That’s all WinStar Farm’s Elliott Walden needed to sum up latest tour de force in Saturday’s Grade 1 Whitney in front of 39,478 sweat-soaked, then rain-soaked and finally sweat-soaked fans at Saratoga Race Course. 

“Best horse going in, best horse coming out,” Walden said in Saratoga’s paddock 15 minutes after the Whitney. 

Life Is Good, owned by WinStar and CHC Inc., proved best again with a front-running score over what’s been a demanding main track the whole 2022 Saratoga meet. He won by 2 lengths under Irad Ortiz Jr. over stablemate Happy Saver, racking up a third Grade 1 victory and seventh graded stakes from 10 starts. The victory further solidified his spot atop the older male division on the East Coast, and arguably North America with the 95th edition of the $925,000 Whitney coming at the expense of Grade 1 winners Happy Saver and Hot Rod Charlie and multiple Grade 2 winner Olympiad. 

The margin and winning time – 1:48.97 – were decisive but the win didn’t come without anxious moments. 

“My biggest concern has been the track,” said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. “It’s been so demanding, then we get that storm come through and you wonder what kind of condition it’s going to leave the track in. The heat and humidity. I thought, ‘man, we’re throwing a lot at him,’ you know? And Happy Saver, he made it interesting. He tried to the wire like he always does.”

Life Is Good answered the latest challenge just like he’d done in almost all the others before. 

The son of Into Mischief started unbeaten in three starts for Bob Baffert in Southern California before going to the sidelines and missing the 2021 Triple Crown. Transferred to Pletcher around the time Baffert came under fire for Medina Spirit’s positive drug test in the Kentucky Derby, Life Is Good returned last summer at Saratoga and gave eventual champion sprinter Jackie’s Warrior everything he could handle in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens going 7 furlongs in a comeback race. 

Life Is Good rattled off three straight destructions from there – the Grade 2 Kelso at Belmont and Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar to end the 2021 season and the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup going 9 furlongs to start 2022. He stubbed his toe in the $12 million Dubai World Cup at 1 1/4 miles, finishing fourth by 2 1/4 lengths after leading with a furlong to run. He bounced back from that with a 5-length win in Belmont’s Grade 2 John A. Nerud going 7 furlongs in 1:21.70.

“He’s an incredible horse,” Walden said. 

WinStar, through its Mavering Racing buying entity, and China Horse Club bought Life Is Good for $525,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September yearling sale. He made an immediate impression on the WinStar team, including one of the men involved in his early training. 

“He was always just a special horse,” said David Hanley, WinStar’s general manager. “His best attributes are his action and his speed; such a natural athlete.”

The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at Saratoga and others betting elsewhere respected Life Is Good’s abilities and past success, sending him off the 4-5 favorite in the stacked field. Olympiad, winner of four straight graded stakes including the Grade 2 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs last time out, went off the 9-5 second choice with 2021 Pennsylvania Derby winner and 2022 Dubai World Cup runner-up Hot Rod Charlie next at 4-1. Happy Saver, never off the board in 10 starts, went off 13-1; and Zoomer, making his first start for Mark Casse after being claimed by Gary Barber for $50,000 July 17, was the outsider at 22-1. 

Life Is Good caught a flyer at the break and cleared by a length just after the field passed the finish post for the first time on the 9-furlong journey. Ortiz kept Life Is Good a few paths off the rail while Flavien Prat guided Hot Rod Charlie to the inside and Junior Alvarado stayed four paths out with Olympiad heading into the bend. 

Ortiz took a long hold around the turn and into the backstretch, clicking past the opening quarter-mile in :23.64 over the good track that took a significant amount of rain during a 20-minute shower about an hour before the Whitney. 

“Great” Ortiz told himself heading to the backside, before Life Is Good switched leads and opened 2 lengths on Olympiad and Hot Rod Charlie running past the 6-furlong pole. 

“In two jumps he was gone, so after that I don’t want to fight too much with him,” Ortiz said. “He surprised me … and I just let him do his thing.”

Pletcher, watching from his usual spot in the box seats above the finish line, saw it unfold first through his binoculars then with a glance at a nearby monitor tuned to the head-on. 

“Irad said he relaxed going around the first turn, had him on a long line and then said when he turned up the backstretch he took off,” Pletcher said, watching the replay from the paddock before saddling his three runners for the Saratoga Derby. “He didn’t want to fight it, but spread the race a little bit right there.”

Life Is Good opened up even more heading to the half in a sharp :46.84, with Hot Rod Charlie still chasing and Olympiad coming under a bit of pressure from Alvarado. Happy Saver started to engage on the turn, while his stablemate Life Is Good rolled past 6 furlongs in 1:10.93 well within himself.

Life Is Good spun about five paths off the fence turning for home as Prat finally tipped Hot Rod Charlie to the outside to make a run. Happy Saver and John Velazquez cut the corner and threatened from the inside. Ortiz took a look over his left shoulder, saw Happy Saver, threw a few crosses and tapped Life Is Good on the shoulder before turning over his stick. 

Ortiz hit Life Is Good right-handed outside the eighth pole and received an immediate response. The lead Happy Saver had cut to less than a length quickly increased again, to 1 ½ lengths with a furlong to run and widened. Life Is Good swerved to the inside approaching the sixteenth pole, and Velazquez guided Happy Saver off the inside to try one last futile run.

Ortiz flashed Life Is Good the stick several times approaching the wire, put it away in the last two jumps and cruised home. 

“He’s a nice horse, man,” said Ortiz, adding the 2022 Whitney to prior wins aboard Improbable in 2020 and Diversify in 2018. “He makes it look easy, but he was running all the way, from the three-quarters to the wire. … It means a lot, this is a great race to win. I’m happy for the connections and for the horse, too.”

Happy Saver, an allowance winner at 3 and second in last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup at 4 at Saratoga, bested Hot Rod Charlie by a head for a fourth straight runner-up finish. Olympiad saw his five-race win streak come to an end when he finished 9 1/4 lengths back while Zoomer finished last. 

Life Is Good took home $535,000 for his connections and boosted his earnings to $4,086,700. WinStar campaigned 2020 Whitney winner Improbable with China Horse Club and SF Racing. Pletcher won his fourth Whitney, after sending out Left Bank in 2002, Lawyer Ron in 2007 and Cross Traffic in 2013.

“To me it’s the premier older horse race in the country outside of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. So, it means a lot,” Pletcher said.