Monday: Neil Howard and Allen Jerkens

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Neil Howard sat in a clubhouse box, staring at his phone, a few minutes before Monday’s opener where Howard’s 3-year-old Wilkinson was due to make his turf debut. Howard was due to commentate the race to Wilkinson’s owner, Ed Gaylord. Make no mistake, Howard is no Tom Durkin, but he delivered good news to Gaylord as Wilkinson rallied from fourth in the four-horse race to win comfortably over Chad Brown’s pair Asphalt and War Hoot. Sent off the longest price in the field, Wilkinson won for the fourth time in his career and first time on the turf, finishing 1 1/16 miles over soft turf in 1:47.85.

Owned and bred Gaillardia Stable, Wilkinson dabbled on the Triple Crown Trail this spring, winning the Lecomte at the Fair Grounds, finishing sixth in the Louisiana Derby and 10th in the Blue Grass. Dropped back to an allowance race, the son of Lemon Drop Kid won a two-other-than off-the turf allowance at Churchill Downs and then finished last in the Ohio Derby June 4.

Two days after the Ohio Derby, Wilkinson underwent throat surgery and came to Saratoga with an agenda. He finished fourth in a tough three-other-than optional claimer July 29 before Howard decided to finally give the well-made colt a chance on the turf.

As the fain fell Sunday, Howard figured he would wind up in a short field on the main track. He called the racing office and track superintendent Glen Kozak who moved the race from the inner turf to the Mellon turf and convinced Howard that everything would be all right.

“I thought it was going to come off but when I called the racing office and I talked to Glen, there was no doubt in their mind, they put me at ease, they said with the race being move to the Mellon, the course is in good shape. I only walked out there as a matter of policy, when I walked out there, I had to agree with them, the course was in great shape. It’s hard to differentiate walking on it yourself as opposed to a thousand-pound horse being on it.”

Wilkinson glided over it like he was the weight of Howard; relaxing comfortably for Julien Leparoux before moving around War Hoot, Asphalt and Followmyfootsteps in systematic rhythm.

“We had been talking about this turf thing for a while,” Howard said. “I would say we’d stay on that avenue and see where it takes us and if it comes off, you have the best of both worlds.”

Howard has plenty of confidence in Wilkinson but was disappointed in how things went this spring, especially after he finished last in the Ohio Derby. Throat surgery, two days after that loss, seemed to put Wilkinson back on track. 

“When we discovered that he needed to have throat surgery, we felt like we had something to hang our hat on,” Howard said. “It’s been good ever since. You know when something’s bugging them, when you’re around these horses every day, all day. He’s one of those horses that gets a little hot anyway, that comes from inside him because he’s a real good, sturdy sound horse, but he’s much happier in the paddock, ready to go, happy to be there, all those little things you look for.”

Just don’t ask Howard to announce it.

– Allen Jerkens upset the seventh when American Angel rallied to nail second-choice World Harmony in the 7-furlong maiden for fillies and mares. Sent off third choice behind second-time starter Vivere and World Harmony, American Angel relaxed in sixth before wearing down World Harmony to draw off to a 1 3/4 length win for owner/breeder Irving Cowan. Vivere attracted favoritism but pulled early and wound up a tired fifth.

By Ghostzapper out of Society Selection, American Angel finished fourth in her debut at Belmont July 3, ninth on the turf here July 24, fourth going a mile and an eighth August 8.

“She’s learning how to run a little bit,” Jerkens said. “She didn’t like the turf, the jock said she’s got to like the grass and she didn’t, she just galloped around there. She did run better the last time, even though they ran the last eighth of a mile in a two-minute lick, they ran a mile in 1:40 and a mile and an eighth in 1:56, I’ve never seen that. This time, she beat the other six, she might come around.”

Jerkens and Cowan campaigned Society Selection to win the Frizette, Comely, Test, Alabama and Shuvee in a six-win career that garnered $1.9 million.

“It’s hard to compare them,” Jerkens said. “Society Selection was workmanlike.”

Society Selection won her debut at Saratoga going 5 furlongs August 18 and won her second start, the Frizette, going 1 1/6 miles October 4.

“Maybe the most phenomenal thing of all the things I think of that have happened, training wise, for her to win going five eighths here and two months later to win the Frizette going a mile and a sixteenth, that was great, she came rolling along, it was unbelievable,” Jerkens said. “We wanted to run her in between but the race didn’t go and we figured a six-furlong race wouldn’t help her, so we worked her in company with two other horses a couple of times, Ray (Ganpath) put her right in between horses and it worked out. That was a big thrill. I didn’t win that many 2-year-old races, the Cowdin twice, we got taken down in the Spinaway, Kelly Kip won the Sanford, not too many.”

– Six horses were claimed on the 10-race card including winners Sensational Sam, Networking, Al Muhtasib and Orsonian.