Jim Dandy recap: Muy Macho

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“If you win, act like you’ve been there before.”

That was the advice given to West Point Thoroughbreds’ Terry Finley when he placed Seattle Fitz in the Whitney Handicap in 2004. It didn’t matter that day, the horse flopped. Everybody’s been there.

Four years later, Finley tried to stand by the advice. West Point’s Macho Again won a dramatic renewal of the Jim Dandy. Trained by Dallas Stewart and ridden by Julien Leparoux, Macho Again stopped, started, zigged, zagged, opened up and finally staved off Pyro to win the $500,000 stakes.

The West Point crew – about 50 deep – staked out the big screen in the clubhouse. They lurched, screamed, hugged, cringed and erupted with every stop and start from their upstart 3-year-old. It started rumbling as the field left the backside and accelerated from there. Pearl Jam concerts have less rocking.

A rival trainer even found it entertaining, “I love watching those guys.”

Finley grabbed the hand of his wife, Debbie, and stifled tears. As he marched to the winner’s circle (repeating the walk he made when Dream Rush won the Test here last year), he almost looked like he had been there before.

His West Point crew . . . they had never been there before.

Craig Peretz gushed tears. Josh Cooper talked to himself. Tom Bellhouse looked like he had ridden the last furlong with Leparoux.

By the time Macho Again had made his way to the winner’s circle, 40-plus West Pointers lined up for the picture. A woman snapped photos from the winner’s circle – she had never been there before.

Forgive her, the Jim Dandy had it all.

Da’ Tara shot from the gate and was quickly joined by Mint Lane, the duo dueled into the first turn, instantly giving the five other jockeys room to breath. The two frontrunners couldn’t have set a better table for the closers. Da’ Tara led into the first turn and then Eibar Coa engaged him from the outside with Mint Lane. They went the first quarter-mile in 23.51 seconds and a half in 46.94. Macho Again cruised along in third, about 5 lengths off Da’ Tara and Mint Lane. Edgar Prado maneuvered Tale Of Ekati to the outside of Macho Again as the field went three quarters in 1:11.82. Tiz Now Tiz Then circled outside, relegating Macho Again to fifth with Leparoux tapping the brakes. That’s when the West Point crowd weakened.

Then they got loud.

Tale Of Ekati turned for home with the lead, then Tiz Now Tiz Then took over. Leparoux angled to the inside of Tiz Now Tiz Then but had to alter course again, diving back to the outside. Tale Of Ekati stopped, Tiz Now Tiz Then flattened out and Macho Again roared to the lead.

The West Point crowd hit its crescendo. Then Pyro loomed to the outside. For a moment, the favorite looked like he had it timed to the second, but then he wavered, leaving Macho Again to grind it out by a half-length.

“I started sweating,” Stewart said. “I thought we were home free and then he swooped in there, I said, ‘oh no.’ The wire couldn’t get there soon enough. He’s a good horse and he was trying, that little horse wouldn’t let him by.”

The gray son of Macho Uno finished the 1 1/8 miles over a good track in 1:51.16.

Tiz Now Tiz Then held on for third while Tale Of Ekati finished fourth. Anak Nakal made no impact finishing fifth and Mint Lane straggled in sixth with Belmont Stakes winner Da’ Tara last of seven.

Leparoux guided Macho Again for the fifth time. They teamed up to win an allowance race at Fair Grounds this winter, upset the Derby Trial and beat everybody but Big Brown in the Preakness.

“He always fights. You get in a little trouble, a little bump, he always tries,” Leparoux said. “He’s tough. He loves to fight. In the Derby Trial, I got bumped five times in the straight and he kept going and won. I was really confident at the quarter-pole actually. I knew I had some horse and it was a matter of if I got through. He’s a cool horse, he doesn’t cheat, you can do whatever you want with him.”

Tell that to Stewart, who collected his first Saratoga stakes win. The trainer has stretched the Florida-bred colt from 6 furlongs to 12 furlongs this year.

He won an allowance race sprinting, then flopped in the 9-furlong Lane’s End at Turfway Park. Shortened up in the Derby Trial, he won the $115,000 stakes going 7 1/2 furlongs. Stretched to 1 3/16 miles in the Preakness, he closed like a bouncer at last call, falling 5 1/4-lengths short of Big Brown. Stretched to his limit in the Belmont Stakes, Macho Again never threatened, winding up fifth. Given seven weeks between races, Macho Again breezed three times at Churchill Downs and struck.

“I thought he had a good shot, he was training super,” Stewart said. “I didn’t even work him up here. I worked him two weeks ago, I was actually on vacation and Terry put it on YouTube, he had two horses in front of him and my man Chopper (Kenny Bourque) laid back, it looked like a race. That was all I needed to see.”

Next stop Travers. The 1 1/4-mile classic looms in a month.

“He’s not a big horse, but he’s a bad ass on the track,” Stewart said. “He’s beaten some nice horses, Kodiak Kowboy, all the horses other than Big Brown in the Preakness and he ran good in the Belmont. Will Big Brown come back? That’s the question. We’ll be looking good, we’ve got to get him back to the way he was here, it’s four weeks, it’s not six weeks, not eight weeks. But, he’s pretty tough, he’ll let you know how he’s feeling.”

And that he’s been there before.

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“He won going six furlongs and now a mile and an eighth, hopefully he gets a mile and a quarter. f you don’t have Big Brown, it’s open to everybody, he’d have a big shot. If Big Brown comes back good in the Haskell, he’ll be tough, but you never know, it’s horse racing.”

– Julien Leparoux, on Macho Again’s Travers hopes