Mitole dominated North America’s male sprint division last year, a season highlighted by a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita Park. He retired after that win and Steve Asmussen and his loyal clients restocked the cupboard with more quality sprinters for the Hall of Fame trainer.
Asmussen hesitates when asked to compare Yaupon to Mitole but sometimes, and especially now that we’ve reached the next edition of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, it’s hard to avoid. He’s owned by the same connections, Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt, and he’s run some monster races like his former stablemate. Now he’ll try to duplicate him taking on older foes in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Speed Surplus. Asmussen adds player to deep sprint squad with Yaupon. Written for Sept. 2 Saratoga Special by Terry Hill.
William and Corinne Heiligbrodt won their first Breeders’ Cup race last year, the Sprint with eventual champion male sprinter Mitole, after a successful three-decade run in the Thoroughbred business.
Mitole’s retirement to Spendthrift Farm in Lexington left a void in the Heiligbrodt’s stable and in Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn but there might be a potential replacement in a colt bought last June as a 2-year-old just while their champion was revving up.
“I think they’re pretty happy with what they bought right now,” Asmussen said of Yaupon, bought for $255,000 at the OBS June sale and winner of Saturday’s Grade 2 Amsterdam. The 3-year-old Uncle Mo colt won the 6-furlong Amsterdam by 2 lengths over former stablemate Basin in 1:08.50, not far off Imperial Hint’s track record 1:07.92 set last year.
“He had a little trouble out of the gate, but then he got going,” said jockey Joel Rosario, who rode Yaupon to a Saratoga allowance win July 18. “He was trying right away and he had no problem with the mud.”
Yaupon, who only broke his maiden nine weeks ago, ran his record to 3-for-3. All of his races have been at 6 furlongs so far, but Asmussen thinks he’s capable of going farther.
“It’s early,” he said. “We held off getting him to the races at the start because of a few minor physical issues. Then we planned to run him over the winter, but something else cropped up. Again very minor, but when you’ve got a colt this talented – believe me, he’s extremely fast – well, you want to err on the side of caution.
“As always, we’ll see how he comes out of this one and go from there, but he could have a nice year.”
If Yaupon continues successfully in sprints, he could run up against other Asmussen-trained colts in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in Volatile, winner the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap in July, and Echo Town, winner of the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes in August.
Yaupon went off as the 7-5 favorite despite facing three stakes winners in the field of six. The crowd’s - the word is used euphemistically this year at Saratoga - second choice at 2-1 was last year’s Grade 1 Hopeful and Saratoga maiden winner Basin.
Resounding Win. Echo Town makes noise for L and N, Asmussen in Grade 1 sprint. Written for Aug. 1 Saratoga Special by Paul Halloran.
The four men who comprise L and N Racing haven’t been in the game that long, relatively speaking, but they are already well versed in the rollercoaster ride of emotions that comes along with racehorse ownership.
They reached the apex when Echo Town, their 3-year-old sprinter, rolled down the Saratoga Race Course stretch Saturday to capture the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths. The margin of victory was the largest in the Jerkens since 2015, when Runhappy – the presenting sponsor of the race – won by 4 lengths.
“That was amazing,” said Michael Levinson, the racing manager and part owner of L and N, a group that includes his father Lee, brother Andy and family friend Don Nelson. “It’s hard to put it into words. It’s like your kid winning an Olympic gold medal.”
For L and N Racing, an Oklahoma-based partnership formed five years ago, the victory in the Jerkens provided a first visit to the top step of the graded stakes medal stand. While the stable experienced the thrill of having a horse finish second in the Kentucky Derby, with Lookin At Lee in 2017, Saturday’s win was the first in 32 graded stakes starts. That it was a Grade 1 made it all the more gratifying.
“We finally got over the hump,” Levinson said. “I don’t think there’s anything harder in sports than to win a Grade 1 race. You’re facing the best of the best and everyone is trying to win.”
Echo Town, a $100,000 Keeneland September purchase in 2018, had given an indication that he was ready to break through with a second in the Grade 1 Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Though he lost by 3 3/4 lengths, he closed from fourth in the five-horse field in a race in which winner No Parole got an uncontested lead and was never in serious jeopardy of being caught.
While the Stephens was run less than a month after Echo Town won an allowance at Churchill Downs, trainer Steve Asmussen had six weeks to prepare for the Jerkens.
“Steve thought the timing was better coming into this race,” Levinson said. “He and Scott (Blasi) loved the way he was training. He was on point Saturday.”
That’s for sure. Echo Town, by Speightstown out of the Menifee mare Letgomyecho, was seventh in the field of 11 after a quarter-mile in :22.67. He was 4 1/2 lengths back, in fifth, after a :45.31 half, at which point jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. started asking for more, and Echo Town gave it.
Santana made a move between horses on the far turn, splitting Captain Bombastic and Eight Rings and taking aim at the leaders, No Parole, Mischevious Alex and Tap It To Win. Echo Town took the lead just inside the sixteenth pole and rolled to the convincing victory, covering the 7 furlongs in 1:22.53 and setting off a raucous celebration at Fair Meadows Race Track in Tulsa, where the Levinsons and Nelson watched the race. They may have had some win tickets, worth $16.40 for every $2 wagered.
“It was exciting. I lost my voice,” Levinson said.
Tap It To Win, cutting back after leading and fading to fifth in the 9-furlong Belmont Stakes, held second while Shoplifted, another Asmussen trainee, was third. No Parole, sent off as the 2-1 favorite, faded to ninth after getting hot in the paddock (information shared candidly by his trainer Tom Amoss on the Fox Sports broadcast).
“It was great to see him put it all together when it matters so much on this stage,” said Asmussen, three hours removed from Midnight Bisou’s upset loss to Vexatious in the Personal Ensign. “The horse trained beautifully here.”
The $165,000 winner’s share boosted Echo Town’s earnings to $375,320 in a career in which he has never finished off the board in seven starts (four wins, two seconds and a third). Unraced at 2, he broke his maiden at Fair Grounds in January and finished third, first and second in three Oaklawn Park starts before the Churchill allowance score that prompted Asmussen to point for the Woody Stephens.
“He ran so well at Churchill Downs and that was his last condition,” Levinson said. “It was a natural progression to go and run in a graded stakes.”
Running in – let alone winning – graded stakes was a distant dream when L and N bought its first horse in 2014, an Oklahoma-bred son of Pioneerof The Nile named Smart Pioneer, who needed 11 starts to break his maiden. The first big yearling purchase yielded vastly different results.
L and N spent $70,000 for Hip 382 at the 2015 Keeneland September sale. Lookin At Lee, by Lookin At Lucky out of the Langfuhr mare Langara Lass, finished fourth in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and became the only horse to compete in all three legs of the 2017 Triple Crown, highlighted by the runner-up finish in the Derby and a fourth in the Preakness.
“That was dumb luck,” Levinson said. “We had no idea what we were doing. We were fish out of water, but we went with the flow. He took us so many places. We learned so much through that experience.”
Lookin At Lee remains in training as a 6-year-old, though with more than $1.3 million in earnings and eight straight off-the-board finishes, Levinson said they will likely retire him.
L and N has had other stars, including Retirement Fund, who was on the Kentucky Derby trail in 2018; Tone Broke, an Ontario-bred who won two-thirds of the Canadian Triple Crown last year; and Rowdy Yates, fourth in this year’s Ohio Derby. They have a 2-year-old son of Galileo, Hidden Enemy, who has worked six times, including twice on the Oklahoma turf at Saratoga, and should show up in the entries in the near future.
Then there is Visionit. Three days after War Of Will won the Preakness last year, L and N paid $260,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May 2-year-old sale at Timonium – the most they have ever spent on a horse – for his half-brother, out of the Sadler’s Wells mare Visions Of Clarity. They had high hopes for the son of Tapit, who was training earlier this year at the farm in Laredo, Texas, run by Asmussen’s parents, Keith and Marilyn, when he cracked a sesamoid, according to Levinson, ending his racing career before it started.
“It was awful,” Levinson said. “He just took a bad step. It’s never fun when that happens. We think of these horses like family. But, he’s alive and healthy and his pedigree is so good we hope to breed him.”
The highest of the highs. The lowest of the lows. This is horse racing.
Blasting Off. Frank’s Rockette runs 6-furlong record to 3-for-4. Written for Sept. 12 Saratoga Special by Paul Halloran.
Frank Fletcher was a 29-year-old manufacturer’s representative for Walmart when Sam Walton called him into his office to deliver some bad news.
“He told me they were going to get rid of all the manufacturer’s reps,” Fletcher said this week. “I asked him why and he said, ‘Because we need your commission.’ ”
The Walmart founder, whom Fletcher first met in 1967 when he was selling DuPont paint, did throw him a lifeline. “He told me, ‘Go back and make something and I’ll buy it if it’s a good product.’”
Fletcher started making lamps and built Cheyenne/Silverwood Industries into a $100 million company. Over the last 30 years he branched out into car dealerships, restaurants and hotels, achieving a high degree of success that carried over to racing.
Fletcher bought his first horse in 1989 and has owned some good ones, including C Z Rocket, who was claimed from him at Oaklawn Park in April and has since won four in a row, including the Grade 2 Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar Aug. 29. His latest star was on display at Saratoga Race Course Sept. 5, when Frank’s Rockette cruised to a 2 1/2-length win in the Grade 2 Prioress Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.
“That was her best race,” Fletcher said from Arkansas, where he lives. “We’re real pleased. She’s gained weight and she’s beautiful physically. She’s better this year as a 3-year old.”
And she was pretty good as a juvenile, finishing second in three consecutive graded stakes after breaking her maiden at Churchill Downs. Two of those placements came at Saratoga, in the Grade 2 Adirondack and Grade 1 Spinaway, when Frank’s Rockette managed to beat everyone except Perfect Alibi.
Coming in with three wins in four starts this year, the Bill Mott trainee kept it going in the Prioress, as Junior Alvarado sat just off pacesetter Hello Beautiful, took the lead on the turn and left no doubt in the stretch, covering 6 furlongs in 1:08.89 while improving to 5-4-0 from nine starts with $523,603 in earnings. Reagan’s Edge and Center Aisle followed her home, matching the finish in the Victory Ride at Belmont July 4.
“She made my job easy,” said Alvarado, who rode the Into Mischief filly from Fletcher’s Indian Charlie mare Rocket Twentyone for the first time. “At the five-sixteenth pole, I knew I had a ton of horse.”
The success of Frank’s Rockette bodes well for Fletcher, whose Rocket Twentyone foal by American Pharoah was born a few months ago. The mare is in foal to Into Mischief again, so a full-brother or sister will arrive next year.
As for the rest of Frank’s Rockette’s campaign, Fletcher said Mott will pick the spots, with the 7-furlong Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint a possibility. Though she has finished second at 7 furlongs, Fletcher thinks 6 furlongs is her best distance, and he is backed up by the filly’s three wins and a second in four starts at the trip. If they are inclined to take on the boys, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint is run at 6 furlongs.
“I know one thing, I won’t be scared of any sprint,” Fletcher said.
So what’s with all the “Rocket” names?
“I had a German Shepherd named Rocket that went with me everywhere,” he said. “When he died we had a funeral procession. I’m on my third one – Rocket 3. I’ve had 150 horses named Rocket.”
That includes Lady Rocket, who broke her maiden in an impressive debut at Saratoga Aug. 28, stumbling at the start and coming off the rail in the stretch to get up at the wire.
“She ran an amazing race,” said Fletcher, who owns the filly in partnership with Ten Strike Racing. “She stumbled to her knees and still nipped them at the wire. She has the same kind of speed as Rockette. I’m anxious to see her next start.”
Tough Guy. Veteran Whitmore returns to scene of 2018 Forego triumph. Written for July 25 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.
Laura Moquett and her star mount came almost face-to-face with an 18-wheeler walking out of the paddock back to the stakes barn on their first morning training at Saratoga Race Course this week.
Moquett, a one-woman Saratoga team and assistant to her husband Ron, stopped at the closed gate and didn’t encourage the security guard to open the gate while another guard chatted with the driver of the big rig.
“I’ll just take another lap,” she said, turning her compact chestnut horse around and going for another spin of Saratoga’s flower-laden paddock.
Eventually the truck rolled along, toward the clubhouse entrance and out of sight by the time Moquett returned.
“I didn’t want to challenge the semi,” Moquett said, walking over the stone dust path, across Frank Sullivan Place and back into the stakes barn. “He’s tough, but not that tough. With my luck he’d end up bolting and wind up somewhere over there.”
Bolt? Maybe. Back down? Not likely considering the he Moquett referred to was Whitmore, whose tough reputation comes well earned.
Whitmore, part of a stacked field of five for today’s Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt, showed some of that grit and toughness a few minutes later after he cooled out from his two-lap jog on Saratoga’s main track.
Whitmore picked at grass and nibbled on clover while his polar opposite barn mates for a few days – steeplechasers in town for their races – kept a close eye on the Grade 1-winning sprinter. He munched on whatever sticks he could find, tried to rub against nail heads on posts and playfully led Moquett around the small grass patch in the middle of the rectangular, courtyard-style barn.
“I guess it tastes better when you’re head is under a board,” Moquett said.
Whitmore, who beat City Of Light in the Grade 1 Forego late in the 2018 meeting, returned to Saratoga this week seeking another victory at the top level. He’ll likely need a big effort to get it, facing fellow Grade 1 winners Firenze Fire and Mind Control and the speedy, late-developing Volatile in the 6-furlong Vanderbilt.
Whitmore almost ran in the 2017 edition of the Vanderbilt, but his connections pulled him from the race with a foot issue. Ron Moquett shipped him back to Kentucky, where he resumed the season and ended it with a eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Del Mar. He’s made the last two editions of the Sprint, finishing second in 2018 at Churchill Downs and third in 2019 at Santa Anita Park.
Moquett hopes to make the 2020 running at Keeneland, where Whitmore won the Grade 2 Phoenix Stakes in 2017 and finished second in the same race in 2018 and 2019.
“He’s happy here and he’s happy at Keeneland,” said Laura Moquett, who gave Whitmore a gallop and trip to the starting gate Thursday and a light one-lap jog Friday.
Whitmore, the 2-1 second choice on the line behind 4-5 favorite Volatile, brings at 2-for-3 record in 2020 to the Vanderbilt. All three starts came at the Moquetts’ winter base at Oaklawn Park, a second in the King Cotton to start the year and victories in the Hot Springs Stakes and the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap.
Nine of Whitmore’s 14 career wins have come at Oaklawn, dating back to the 2016 season when he earned a spot in the Kentucky Derby after a third in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.
Laura Moquett, who rides him most mornings, marvels at the Pleasantly Perfect gelding’s fan following, intelligence and unique personality after he looked suspiciously close to going for a roll in the courtyard Wednesday morning.
“The year he won the Forego we had a sprinkler out here to try and get the grass good,” she said. “He was out here grazing in the afternoon, it was hot and the flies were on him and he was looking at that water like, ‘I think that’s for me?’ The thing is the water was coming right over toward him so he was standing over the sprinkler. He’d reach over and play in it and it would run all the way down his body.
“He’ll be a water horse one day I guess and I’ll have to build him his own pond someday. The Whitmore Beach I’ll call it. … If I did that in Hot Springs I could make so much money. People would come from all over to come visit him out in a field. Everybody rallies behind a guy that does it pretty much the hard way. His personality and being kind of a toughie make people kind of dig him, too.”