Joe Bravo and Danny Nied faced a difficult decision a year ago. Jockeys and jockey’s agents face choices like this all the time, ride one horse over another, stay good with a certain owner or trainer and pass up another mount, stay closer to home or go out of town. Some choices go the right way, while others go the wrong way.
The decision before last year’s Sword Dancer Invitational went the wrong way when they opted to ride Turbo Compressor in the Grade 1 fixture at Saratoga instead of traveling to Chicago to ride Little Mike in the Arlington Million. You know the rest of the story, even if you don’t. Turbo Compressor wilts on the lead, finishes last of nine. Little Mike dominates on the lead, wins the Million and two starts later the Breeders’ Cup Turf with another rider.
A year later Bravo returned to Saratoga and rewarded the continued faith of trainer Chad Brown and owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey with a flawless ride to win the 39th edition of the $600,000 Sword Dancer aboard Big Blue Kitten.
“It was kind of funny, winning this race this year,” Bravo said, signing hats, T-shirts and programs as he walked back to the jockey’s room. “It was just the wrong situation. Eh, welcome to the world of horse racing. One day you’re on top, one day you’re not. It’s all about zigging and zagging.”
Bravo didn’t zig or zag too much in the Sword Dancer. Didn’t really need to.
He did save ground, plenty of it around the three turns of the 1 ½-mile journey. Big Blue Kitten raced at the back of the pack through the first 6 furlongs, moved up a bit with about a half-mile to run, and weaved the 5-year-old son of Kitten’s Joy through some seams in the stretch. Bravo and Big Blue Kitten didn’t get the lead until deep stretch, wearing down Twilight Eclipse and French import Nutello inside the final sixteenth to add the Sword Dancer to their victory in last month’s Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth.
“What a ride; three turns and he barely needs to get off the rail,” said Brown, who gave the call to Bravo first in the June 9 Monmouth Stakes, where he finished second to beaten Sword Dancer favorite Boisterous. “He fit the horse so well. Even in his first start, when he got beat he came back and was so positive on the horse. He told me, ‘Consider running this horse in the United Nations. If he comes out the race and you can have him back, because I know this horse now, early in the race I was too far out of position, now I now what this horse can do.’ I said OK, talked to Mr. Ramsey, pointed him in the United Nations and put Joe back on and it worked out great.”
Using Bravo at Monmouth is always an easy call; he’s won 13 riding titles there. Using him for the Sword Dancer was “a no brainer” too, Brown said.
“Joe is a world-class rider,” Brown said. “He happens to make Monmouth his home. I’ve never had any hesitations about riding him anywhere. I’ve used him in Florida quite a bit. He’s a great decision maker and obviously he’s got a ton of experience. He’s a veteran and he gave me a Grade 1 ride today.”
Big Blue Kitten’s victory was part of a Grade 1 smorgasbord for the Ramseys, who won the 2013 Million with Real Solution, also trained by Brown, after the disqualification of The Apache, and the Grade 1 Secretariat with Admiral Kitten, trained by Mike Maker.
Big Blue Kitten and Real Solution work together, although it usually looks like the younger of the two sons of Kitten’s Joy, the Million winner, uses his elder stablemate as a punching bag. The two breezed together for their last three workouts before the Grade 1 engagements Saturday, with Real Solution getting the better each time. Half-mile on dirt July 27, 5 furlongs on turf Aug. 3, and 5 furlongs again on the turf Aug. 11.
Morning workouts are what they are, morning workouts. Money is on the line in the afternoons and that’s when Big Blue Kitten puts it together. He put it together in a big way Saturday.
“The horse did everything today,” Bravo said. “He’s going to do all the talking. Just look at what he did against good horses. It was pretty fun. That’s why I love riding, horses like that.”
The Sword Dancer was Big Blue Kitten’s 10th win from 17 starts, to go with two seconds and four thirds. The only time he was off the board was a 10th in the Group 1 Prince of Wales during the 2012 Royal Ascot meet. The winner’s share of the purse pushed him into seven figures, with a bankroll of $1,058,530. For the record, a bit more than the $671,175 earned by Real Solution, not that anyone’s counting.
Big Blue Kitten certainly started humbly, winning two of his first three in claiming company, then a starter allowance and an allowance before taking the Grade 2 Hall of Fame at Saratoga as a 3-year-old. The claiming races were essentially dictated by the horse’s poor efforts in the morning.
“He started out in the claiming ranks this horse, way back,” Brown said. “I ran him three times for a tag. He never trains good. This horse, if anybody watched his works the last two weeks, if you watch him compared to the horse running in the Million, the horse in the Million has been crushing this horse. I don’t think this horse has ever won a workout.
“The first time I ran him maiden claiming, he got beat. Ran him back maiden claiming and he won. Ran him for 50 at Keeneland and he won easy and then Mr. Ramsey said ‘Don’t run him for a tag anymore.’ I said he runs in the afternoon but he never runs a workout. Just works, eh. Now with Real Solution, I guess that will be a big play later, everybody will say, ‘oh, this horse won,’ but the other horse is generally a good breeze horse, and a good horse. But this horse is not a good breeze horse. But he runs in the afternoon.”
Twilight Eclipse and Nutello, the second- and third-place finishers, respectively, fared pretty well after being up close early
Twilight Eclipse, second in the Man o’ War last time and a world-record setter earlier this year at Gulfstream, sat just off the leaders and looked like a winner until Big Blue Kitten uncorked his late rally. He finished a length behind the winner on the wire and 1 ¾ lengths in front of Nutello. Tannery, the lone filly in the field, also closed from well back and missed third by a head.
“We’ll just have to regroup and try again next time,” trainer Tom Albertrani said. “Great trip, in the right spot the whole race. He was just one little bit better than us today. Very, very, very happy with the race. We’ll regroup down to Belmont.”
Nutello, third in the 2012 French Derby as a 3-year-old and making his first start in the U.S., looked equally good in the stretch even after being rank, checking and steadying at the top of the stretch.
“He’s not used to running that way and I had to check a couple times in the stretch,” jockey Jose Lezcano said. “I got free in the stretch and he kicked, but they finished a little faster.”