Don’t blink. Saturday’s $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint is full of speedsters and at 5 furlongs at Santa Anita, this year’s entrants will by flying. A full field of 12 entered (with two on the also-eligible list) and range from 8-year-old Purse Sensation to 3-year-olds Stubbins and Legends of War. Saratoga saw its share of turf sprinters this summer, and they drew plenty of attention as Purse Sensation, Shekky Shebaz, Leinster and Final Frontier all made Spa starts. A few wound up in the pages of The Saratoga Special.
Stakes Double. Leinster keeps Arnold barn rolling. Written for the Aug. 4 Special by Brandon Valvo.
The field for Saturday’s Grade 3 Troy Stakes, the first of five stakes on the Whitney card, sauntered into the paddock like they’d been there before. And they had, over and over.
Trainer Christophe Clement’s duo of Disco Partner and Pure Sensation, with 63 starts between them, carried their heads low and their ears up. Rocket Heat, with 39 starts, and Wet Your Whistle did the same.
Leinster was another story. The 4-year-old hopped and skipped more than he walked, bouncing into the walking ring on his toes. Head high and ears flicking back and forth, the bay sprinter stayed in control and listened to his groom, but carried plenty of energy as he waited to be saddled. Trainer Rusty Arnold loved it.
“We felt he was going to run his race, we just didn’t know if it was going to be good enough. He had never faced competition like this,” Arnold said. “He was ready. It wasn’t a nervous energy, it was a good-feeling energy.”
Although Leinster brought the most energy into the paddock, Rocket Heat brought the most speed out of the starting gate; the 7-year-old broke with Pure Sensation, but powered away to a 1 ½-length advantage through a :20.82 quarter. Pure Sensation was another 1 ½ lengths in front of Leinster, who raced outside of Disco Partner.
Around the turn in the 5 ½-furlong turf sprint, Rocket Heat cruised along under Chris Landeros while Kendrick Carmouche urged Pure Sensation. Tyler Gaffalione edged Leinster three deep and gave him two smacks on his right shoulder, paused briefly before giving another, and shook up his mount. Disco Partner advanced up the hedge.
Rocket Heat straightened away with the lead and got a half in :43.01, but Clement’s two gray millionaires took aim. Disco Partner angled out and struck the lead at the furlong marker. Leinster answered, reached out, drew even with Pure Sensation and took aim at Disco Partner.
Leinster put his black-blinkered face in front at the sixteenth pole and although Disco Partner battled on, he never rallied back. Leinster grinded out the win in a course-record 1:00.23 while winning by three-quarters of a length.
“They were flying, you knew Christophe’s horses were going to kick on and I didn’t feel good until they hit the wire, actually,” Arnold said.
Owner Amy Dunne beamed alongside husband Ciaran in the winner’s circle after getting her picture taken. The $200,000 Troy was her first stakes victory and the feeling still hadn’t sunk in.
“I don’t know yet,” she said when asked how it felt. “It’s all still fun. It’s a dream come true. We’re having a great time. Now we’re going to go have some champagne.”
Before heading to the Saratoga Room Dunne praised Arnold, a close friend for decades. Although Leinster was making his stakes debut, the Dunnes had faith.
“Rusty is our trainer. He’s our man. He says go, we go. I don’t question him, I don’t handicap,” Dunne said. “I learned a long time ago, if you put your horse with somebody, don’t ask questions, don’t give your opinion. If you trust him enough to give him your horse, do what they say to do. If he believed that much, I’m all in. It was a great day.”
Leinster started his career with D. Wayne Lukas, going winless in his first 11 starts. When the Hall of Fame trainer went to Oaklawn for the winter, the Dunnes decided to make a change.
“They wanted to go to grass,” Arnold said. “Wayne went to Oaklawn where they have no grass, so I got him.”
Leinster arrived in Arnold’s stable in Florida in December. After a ninth going 7 1/2 furlongs on the Gulfstream turf January 6, Leinster shortened up to 6 furlongs Feb. 21, but had to go back to the dirt to get the distance and finished second.
“I ran him long first time out, he didn’t want to do it,” Arnold said. “I ran him on the dirt. He didn’t run a bad race, he just didn’t run a winning race.”
Unable to find a suitable maiden on the grass, Arnold took an unorthodox approach. He entered the winless Majestic Warrior colt in an allowance at Keeneland April 18 going 5 ½ on the grass. Leinster finally connected, scoring by 3 3/4 lengths at 10-1. He repeated next out in an allowance optional over the same trip at Churchill Downs June 28.
“They didn’t have maiden turf races at Keeneland and (the Dunnes) were so adamant about running him on the turf, that’s all we could find,” Arnold said. “He was doing well, so we ran him in an allowance race. We ran him back in a two-other-than because the date worked. So, we brought him here.”
Stepping up in company Saturday, Leinster improved to 3-for-16 and 3-for-4 on the grass while putting gup $300,111. Bred in Kentucky by Gryphon Investments, he was an $85,000 yearling purchase at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky in 2016 and did not meet his reserve when consigned by the Dunnes’ Wavertree Stables at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic the next spring.
Leinster gave Arnold his third win of the meet (from nine starts) and second stakes of the weekend after Concrete Rose romped in the Saratoga Oaks Friday.
“I’ve had some good meets here; I had Centre Court and I had Victory Ride. And I’ve had some horrible meets here,” Arnold said. “It’s a lot more fun when you have a good meet. I’ve figured that out. This is a good month, this is a good weekend. I hope it’s not over, we’ve got a few more to run.”
Step Up. Recent claimer Shekky Shabazz wires field in Lucky Coin. Written for the Aug. 31 Special by Brandon Valvo
Jose Ortiz stood in the winner’s circle after Friday’s Lucky Coin Stakes, a bright spot in the yellow and pink silks of Michael Dubb as the setting sun draped the enclosure in the shadow of the clubhouse. Ortiz’s daughter Leilani stood to his right, reaching up and grabbing her father’s pinky, which fit snugly in the palm of the 2-year-old’s hand. Ortiz’s wife Taylor and her mother stood to his left and the quartet stared at in the infield board.
They watched the replay that showed Shekky Shebaz break on top, cruise around the bend unpestered and kick away in the stretch to win the $97,000 stakes by 1 3/4 lengths.
Ortiz’s brother-in-law Adam Rice bought Shekky Shebaz for $5,000 at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale.
“He thought he was his best horse,” Ortiz said of the son of Cape Blanco’s trainer and owner. “Two years ago, he thought he was his best 2-year-old. He’s got a good eye for babies. He picked this one, he liked him, he did good with him.”
Shekky Shebaz won on debut for Rice, taking a Presque Isle Downs maiden special by 6 1/2 lengths under Jeremy Rose June 26, 2017. A fortnight later, Shekky Shebaz RNA’d for $72,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July horses of racing age sale.
Rice made the buyback look wise after Shekky Shebaz connected in his second start at Presque Isle Aug. 6, taking an optional claimer by 2 3/4 lengths. Although he raced for a $62,500 tag, nobody bit. Ortiz got a leg up for the first time in Shekky Shebaz’s third start in allowance company as the New York-based jockey took a dark-day trip to the western Pennsylvania track.
“I went for Adam Mondays and Tuesdays,” Ortiz said. “Leilani was kind of small and her grandpa is there and her two uncles. We try to get together and see the family as much as we can and sometimes, we go up there and if the horse was running, I would tell Adam I would go.”
Shekky Shebaz finished second in that start and was again runner-up in his final start as a freshman in the Fitz Dixon, Jr. Memorial Juvenile Stakes Oct. 5, 2017. As Rice continued to campaign Shekky Shebaz at Presque Isle at 3, Ortiz kept riding. They finished second twice last summer.
When Rice finally brought Shekky Shebaz to Saratoga to run in a claiming race July 27, Ortiz got the call. Shekky Shebaz made his first start on the turf after competing solely on the synthetic Tapeta at Presque Isle in his first 13 starts. Something clicked. Shekky Shebaz broke on the lead and kicked away to a 1 3/4-length victory. In doing so, he posted strong figures, raised eyes and opened wallets.
No one claimed the gelding for his $25,000 tag, but Adam Rice’s phone rang. Michael Dubb, Madaket Stable and Bethlehem Stable partnered to buy the horse and transferred him to trainer Jason Servis.
“He ran huge. The number that he popped up first time on the turf, it caught the attention of some owners and trainers,” Ortiz said. “My brother-in-law being a little guy, the horse cost him $5,000, he made over $130,000 with him, and got offered some kind of money for him. It’s a tough decision to not sell.”
Although happy for Rice and the new connections, Ortiz was dismayed to think his time with Shekky Shebaz was likely over as he is not a first-call rider for Servis like his brother, Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Lezcano. However, when the Lucky Coin figured to include Disco Partner and Final Frontier, Jose Ortiz held onto the mount.
“I’m very happy that I got to stay on him,” Ortiz said. “Since I don’t ride for Servis much, I was a little – not afraid – but I was thinking, ‘I’m probably off.’ Since Irad had Disco Partner and Jose had Final Frontier, they let me stay on.”
Ortiz also expected the horse to be even sharper in the Lucky Coin than he was in his claiming win. Shekky Shebaz broke in stride in the 5 1/2-furlong turf stakes and assumed the lead up the backstretch. He ran the opening quarter-mile in :22.40 as Strike Power, Final Frontier, and Square Shooter chased. Disco Partner, the 7-year-old earner of nearly $1.5 million, dropped to the back of the field.
“I knew he is a very good horse out of the gate and with Jason, I was expecting him to break a little bit quicker, which he did,” Ortiz said. “He put me there very easy and from the half-mile pole, I just let him get comfortable and roll.
“He’s very fast. You feel like a winner every step of the way. When he got out of the gate, he came out like a shot and he takes you all the way to the quarter pole. He leans out a bit always, but that’s just him.”
Shekky Shebaz opened a 1 1/2-length advantage around the turn en route to winning by 1 3/4 over Final Frontier in 1:01.18. Disco Partner rallied past Square Shooter for third.
Ortiz walked back to the jockeys’ room with Leilani still clutching his finger and reflected on Rice’s sale of the horse and Shekky Shebaz’s new connections.
“(Adam) did the right thing and . . . I hope they do well with him,” he said. “That’s good. When you sell one, you don’t want them to be bad. You sell them, hope they do good and maybe they come back for some horses in the future.”
Ortiz also won Friday’s finale in gate-to-wire fashion as Short Pour stayed the mile on the turf for owner Alan Brodsky and trainer Mark Hennig. Ortiz’s 55 victories give him a five-win advantage over his brother with three days remaining.
Final Frontier, who won an allowance Aug. 4.
If a Tom Albertrani-trained, Godolphin Racing-owned horse by Ghostzapper out of Sahara Gold making a trip to the winner’s circle sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
That’s happened nine times, first with $1,278,950-earner Better Lucky and now with her full-brother, Final Frontier.
Albertrani watched the replay of the win in Sunday’s seventh race and discussed the similarities between the colt and his Grade 1-winning sister.
“He’s a little bigger built horse,” he said after Final Frontier won the 5 1/2-furlong optional by 2 lengths from Pagliacci. “They are both kind of plain, brown. He’s a little different. They are both just very talented horses. I see the same in him as I saw in her. She was versatile, she won long, short, dirt, turf. But this horse, since we shortened him up on the turf, that’s what we found was his best stride.”
Final Frontier broke his maiden at Tampa Bay Downs in his second start followed by a sixth on the dirt at Belmont Park, a disqualification at Saratoga Sept. 1 and a fifth at Belmont Oct. 4, the latter two starts on turf. Albertrani and Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin America, decided to run the colt in turf sprints after those starts last year. He won a 6-furlong allowance on the grass at Aqueduct in November and finished third in late May at the same distance at Belmont.
“I was a little disappointed in his races going longer,” said Albertrani. “So I ran him short and he ran a powerful race. He knew that he definitely wanted to go short on the grass and he showed that today.”
Bell seconded Albertrani’s decision to give the horse some rest and try a new approach.
“You can never give a good horse enough time off and if you’re patient enough, they’ll come back,” said Bell. “(Sunday) he kept going and leveled off down the lane, that was visually very impressive as well as fast on the teletimer.
“It doesn’t matter weekday or weekend, any race you win at Saratoga is very treasured, very coveted. They don’t give away too many easy spots up here. Everybody is bringing what they think is their best and we’re no different. We’re always very grateful to be in the winner’s circle.”
– Catherine Galbraith and Ben Gowans