Michael Matz stood in the paddock and stared intently at the toteboard priorto Saturday’s King’s Bishop. To his left, a giant mass of people slowly funneled onto the walking path like a herd of cattle called to fresh hay. The trainer digested the odds and then left, trailing a safe distance behind the swarm. He signed three autographs, shook many more hands and proceeded through the clubhouse into a box near the finish line. Matz eased into his seat seconds before the start of the 7-furlong contest for 3-year-olds.
Moments later, Visionaire mimicked his trainer’s every move en route to a last-to-first score in the $250,000 Grade I stakes.
Visionaire (Alan Garcia) broke last in the 10-horse field and things didn’t improve from there. Gentleman James, Golden Spikes, J Be K and Salute The Sarge sped to the front through a pressured quarter-mile in 22.39 seconds. Visionaire looked like a stock car that had lost the draft, trailing ninth-place Lantana Mob by 9 lengths. The half went in a scorching 44.73 and J Be K poked his head in front of Golden Spikes and Gentleman James. I’m So Lucky and Desert Key drew into contention from mid-pack while Visionaire began to break his shackles.
J Be K led the parade turning for home, I’m So Lucky picked up the chase in second and Lantana Mob and Kodiak Kowboy made wide, sweeping moves. The field bunched coming out of the turn and Visionaire swung into action, swooping the group from in behind while moving to the far outside. I’m So Lucky tightened things up on Salute The Sarge who then played bumper cars with Lantana Mob, who was thrown off stride. Still last at the three-sixteenths pole, Visionaire gained momentum with every stride.
Inside the eighth-pole, J Be K succumbed from the early pressure while Desert Key dove to the rail. I’m So Lucky stuck a nose in front and a resurgent Lantana Mob rejoined the fray to the outside. Farthest out in the center of the track, Visionaire rolled. He drew abreast in one stride and then clear in the next before pulling away to a 2 1/4-length win in 1:21.94. Desert Key (John Velazquez) won a three-way photo to be second with I’m So Lucky (Robby Albarado) third and Lantana Mob (Ramon Dominguez) an unlucky fourth.
“We were way back, but I knew they were really flying up front and that they would come back to me. I was just biding my time on him,” Garcia said. “I rode him last time, got to know him a bit and rode him the same way today. Mr. Matz deserves a ton of credit, he did a great job getting this horse to run long and then cutting him back to sprinting.”
Owned by Team Valor International and Vision Racing, Visionaire was a major player on the Triple Crown trail earlier this year. The son of Grand Slam took a one-turn allowance in January at Gulfstream Park and finished third behind Pyro in the Grade III Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in February. Visionaire headed to Aqueduct and took the Grade III Gotham to officially announce his candidacy for the Kentucky Derby.
Matz opted for the Grade I Blue Grass as Visionaire’s final Derby prep, but he struggled over Keeneland’s Polytrack and finished fifth. Visionaire ran a troubled 12th in the Derby. After a brief respite, Matz tried Visionaire at two turns one final time and he ran third, again to Pyro, in the Grade III Northern Dancer at Churchill June 14.
Matz brought Visionaire to Saratoga, added blinkers, and started him in an optional claimer at 6 1/2 furlongs July 24. As he did in the King’s Bishop, Visionaire trailed the field until the stretch before uncorking a big rally on the inside to win going away by a length. Though Saturday’s stakes unfolded in similar fashion, Matz was more concerned early.
“When I saw 22 today, with him dropping way out of it, I wasn’t too sure (he could get up). But when they put up 44 for the half I thought he would be OK. He really showed some turn of foot in the lane,” Matz said. “We came to Saratoga this summer thinking the King’s Bishop, even before he won the allowance earlier in the meet. His pedigree suggested it and he did have a big one-turn win at Gulfstream this winter.”
Team Valor’s Barry Irwin rehashed Visionaire’s sophomore season and marveled at the versatility of the newly minted Grade I winner.
“He’s come a long way from going in two-turn races on the Triple Crown trail in the spring to being a Grade I sprinter at Saratoga in the summer,” Irwin said. “That was impressive out there today. He beat a nice group of horses and looked good doing it.”
Irwin pulled Matz aside amidst a jubilant celebration in the winner’s circle and remarked through bated breath: “What a thrilling stretch run.”
Matz agreed. He turned one last time to the big-screen TV in the infield and watched a replay of Visionaire’s biggest career victory. Satisfied, he exited the winner’s circle with son Alex in tow and walked to the trustees’ room to enjoy the celebration. All while trailing the hoopla a safe distance behind.