It’s about 4:45 p.m. Sunday and the Saratoga Race Course paddock is loaded with a few hundred horsepeople and fans here to see the 2-year-old colts before the 112th running of the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes. The late-afternoon sun beats down on the scene, making the 81-degree heat unbearable for most. As the trees cast their organic, rounded shadows on the carpet of grass, they created dark, inkblot-shaped refuges for the droves to escape the sun.
As a puffy cumulous cloud drifted in front of the sun, it cast a comforting shade over the grounds. The crowds dispersed from their cool havens, flooding the paddock evenly like a cup of water poured into a pan. The sudden flux, which was soon followed by the call for riders up, came at the displeasure of Steve Asmussen’s runner, Copper Bullet.
The last horse in the parade of juveniles around the Saratoga walking ring, Copper Bullet began to shift his weight forward and back. Each oscillation became more aggressive. His front feet left the ground as his back legs coiled up like springs. He planted his front hooves down and kicked his back ones out. Over and over, he repeated his double-barreling routine, his body working like a seesaw as his head went up and hind end went down, and vice versa.
Finally, Copper Bullet calmed as Irad Ortiz Jr. jumped aboard, but as the tall and sturdily-built son of More Than Ready walked past the paddock entrance where a hoard gathered along the horse path, he issued one last parting salvo, kicking his back legs out in a sudden, brute force extension. Copper Bullet was the boss around here, and he wanted everyone around him to know it.
“He’s very professional. He knows what it’s about and he was ready to do his thing,” Asmussen said. “The walking over here at Saratoga, he knew what he was here for.”
Once on the track, Copper Bullet settled down under his rider and made an uneventful trip to the face up to the stalls positioned just before the 6 1/2-furlong marker on the backstretch.
“There’s a lot of crowd in there, probably he never see that many people,” Ortiz said. “He’d been running in Churchill, and all that crowd probably make him a little more nervous. After that in the paddock, he was acting really good. He didn’t do anything after that, he got to the gate perfect.”
When the latch sprung, Copper Bullet extended every sinew in his body. He raced to the lead in the first three strides as the colt stretched his massive frame to its limits. To his inside, Barry Lee, Mo Diddley and Bal Barnour all showed speed, too. Soon Barry Lee and Mo Diddley rushed up along the inside as Ortiz tugged on the left reign to bring Copper Bullet in from his outside position on the track.
Mo Diddley led Barry Lee by a half-length past a :21.73 opening quarter. Copper Bullet chased them 1 1/2 lengths behind in third while racing in the three path. Throughout the day, inside speed ruled the main track at Saratoga as Makealittlelove, Control Group, My Boy Tate and Victorias Fire all won their respective races on the lead and at the inside. Although aware of the bias, Asmussen wasn’t worried while watching his colt race wide on the dirt course. He thought back to Gun Runner’s victory in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes a week earlier, in which his horse had to make an early move at pacesetter Cautious Giant.
“It’s like with Gun Runner and the rabbit. Be who you are. Be who you are. Take care of what you can take care of, not the things that are out of your control,” the trainer said. “Being aware of how the racetrack was playing today, the horse broke well, they ran up inside of him, Irad treated him like a good horse. That’s how it ought to be.”
As the field raced around the midway point of the turn, Copper Point moved closer to his speeding rivals. He moved comfortably on a loose rein as Ortiz applied pressure to Mo Diddley and Barry Lee. The pacesetters showed signs of weakness past a :44.72 half as their riders began pumping their arms and delivering reminders. The efforts proved futile as Copper Bullet glided to the lead at the quarter pole.
“I got a good trip, I put him close, and he was there when I asked him,” Ortiz explained. “The whole way he was traveling perfect. At the three-eighths pole he started to pick it up on his own.”
Swinging into the stretch, Ortiz gave Copper Bullet a tap on his right shoulder and shook him up before grabbing the stick with his left hand and delivering one smack. He snatched the whip back into his right hand and dealt Copper Bullet another several strikes in quick succession. Copper Bullet picked it up at the furlong marker, running away from closing rival Hollywood Star by 3 1/2. Ortiz kept Copper Bullet to task in the final sixteenth and the colt responded, increasing the margin to 4 at the finish and stopping the timer in 1:16.45. Tempestad finished third.
Asmussen trains Copper Bullet for Winchell Thoroughbreds and Willis Horton Racing. Winchell bought the son of the Unbridled’s Song mare Allegory at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale. Winchell bought 19 horses at the sale that year, far more than the typical one or two of years past. The buying spree was the culmination of a visual inspection and improved scientific analysis, as Equine Analysis Director of Bloodstock Catlyn Spivey detailed.
“We do a heart analysis, a photo-select conformation analysis, so we had all these variables and genetics as well and we put them together,” Spivey said. “We talked to Mr. Winchell and we said, ‘between our bloodstock agent picking out the horses and then adding the scientific analysis to it, we could find some real, serious horses at the sale.’ He decided to buy quite a few more with that in mind.”
Spivey recalled her impressions of Copper Bullet as a yearling. Much like his display of power in the paddock before the Saratoga Special, the bay horse stunned her at the sale. Spivey expected to pay more than the $200,000 the colt hammered down at.
“He’s huge, he’s got tons of leg, he’s built beautifully, and he had that as a yearling, too,” she said. “He’s always been super precocious looking. Bigger than the rest. An easy mover, well conformed. He was a pretty easy purchase, honestly.”
Spivey, 29, feels lucky to be involved with horses like Copper Bullet. In addition to the 19 yearlings purchased last fall, in one of her first dealings with the Winchells and Asmussens, she was involved in buying Gun Runner.
“I grew up in the industry on the backside of Delaware Park working for my grandfather who was a trainer and never thinking that we were going to make it to Saratoga and win those kind of races,” she said. “It’s kind of surreal because I worked for The Special, and I was galloping horses for Graham Motion, and I was the paper girl, but then just a few years later to be involved with horses like Gun Runner and Copper Bullet is just insane to even think about. I’m so honored that Mr. Winchell and the Asmussen team even let us be a part of it.”
After buying Copper Bullet, Winchell brought Willis Horton on as a partner and sent the colt to Steve Asmussen’s father Keith to break and train in Laredo, Texas. Steve Asmussen gushed, eyes wide and his smile wider, when he talked about his father.
“The majority of the horses that we have, I’m fortunate enough to get from my father and I think that this is another successful one and they’ve definitely spoiled us with how they act and do things,” Asmussen said. “Him and my mom are the beginning, the middle, and the end of it. It’s impossible for me to explain the talent level that he has that I don’t have. He is unbelievably intuitive.”
Copper Bullet came to Steve Asmussen’s barn at Keeneland in April. Soon after, Copper Bullet finished second to favored Todd Pletcher trainee Salmanazar in a 4 1/2-furlong baby race April 26. Copper Bullet won next time out in a 5-furlong maiden special at Churchill Downs May 25 before finishing 1 1/2 lengths behind odds-on Ten City in the 6-furlong, Grade 3 Bashford Manor Stakes June 30. Copper Bullet’s run in the 6 1/2-furlong Saratoga Special is his most inspiring performance to date.
“He’s been very straightforward,” Asmussen said. “Obviously it looks like the further we go, the better. This time of year, that’s a good thing.”
Copper Bullet’s Saratoga Special win is only the second of the meet for his Hall of Fame trainer. Gun Runner got the stable off the duck in the Whitney and another nine of the stable’s 31 runners have finished second or third.
“We’ve had a few tough trips and stuff, but we’re blessed with some fabulous horses and things always seem to level out,” Asmussen said. “That it’s more than battle tested and I can’t tell you what it means to have success on this level. Gun Runner in the Whitney and then a nice 2-year-old to follow it. It’s just perfect.
“Dr. Lambert, David Fiske and Mr. Winchell purchased him as a yearling. Brought Mr. Horton in as a partner, and what a great partnership that’s been. He went to my dad’s place in Laredo. They loved him there. They loved him every step of the way and he’s as advertised, the real deal.”
Asmussen isn’t sure where Copper Bullet will run next, but the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes run over 7-furlongs Closing Day is a leading contender.
“We’ll see how he comes out of it and stuff,” he said. “We’re aware of the Hopeful being at the end of the meet. There’s several possibilities for him out there.”