The notation on the past performances of Twilight Eclipse’s auction price naturally leads some to think, and even write, that the gelding is the quintessential rags-to-riches story. It’s only natural considering the amount on the line is $1,000-the absolute bottom price he could bring at the sale back in January 2010-yet it’s far from the start or the end of the story.
It’s a story with many chapters and another is in the offing in today’s $600,000 Sword Dancer Invitational, one of two Grade 1s on the fifth of seven Saturday programs at Saratoga. Twilight Eclipse, who races for West Point Thoroughbreds, is the 5-1 third choice behind Grade 1 winners Boisterous and Big Blue Kitten in the 1 ½-mile Sword Dancer.
Twilight Eclipse comes in with an interesting background. Born at John Langemeier’s and Dr. Clara Fenger’s Spooky Hollow Farm in Georgetown, Ky., the son of the Grade 1-winning Dynaformer stallion Purim was never destined for the sales ring. The bankruptcy of his breeder and Spooky Hollow’s client forced that hand and he wound up in the Keeneland January sale, not really prepped for public auction and perhaps still showing some effects of illness and growing pains foals deal with early in life.
When his time came in the sales ring during one of the middle sessions he elicited a single bid, from Langemeier, the man who foaled him and knew him best.
“He was not sale-prepped and didn’t look like the rest of the short yearlings,” Langemeier said earlier this year, after Twilight Eclipse made headlines with a world-record-setting victory in the Grade 2 Pan American at Gulfstream Park. “Conformationally he was very good. But a lot of people, when they buy horses at the sale, they want them to look like they can put the tack on them that day. They don’t want to wait.”
Langemeier, who trains a small string at the Thoroughbred Center in north Lexington, waited and didn’t race the gelding until early June of his 3-year-old season. He won back-to-back starts in the span of 17 days at Indiana Downs and caught the interest of bloodstock agents looking for ready-made racing prospects.
One was Kempton Bloodstock’s Steve Castagnola, who helped negotiate a sale to West Point Thoroughbreds. Twilight Eclipse went from training off the beaten path in Lexington to racing in Shelbyville, Ind., to the NYRA circuit when West Point sent him to Tom Albertrani. All the makings of a rags-to-riches tale, right?
“The story is overtrumped a bit, he didn’t look like death warmed over [when he sold as a foal],” Langemeier said. “He was a very good foal, kind of a standout actually in the crop that we had.
“If you look at his pedigree it’s kind of spotty, but we liked the horse quite a bit. It was a business decision to sell him. Of course during the whole time we had him he was a standout as being very coordinated and very athletic. The summer we were breaking him, Tom Evans, who I think the world of, would come to the farm and say he wanted to look at Twilight. He tried to get me to sell him, and I told him, ‘he didn’t bring $1,000 two months ago, what’s changed?’ “
Certainly plenty changed, a precursor to that information on the PPs being perhaps a bit misleading. Not incorrect mind you, just misleading when it comes to formulating an opinion of a horse.
Twilight Eclipse is now one of the favorites for the Sword Dancer. He makes his third start off a short layoff, one that came after he broke a world record for 1 ½ miles winning the Pan American in 2:22.63. Albertrani gave Twilight Eclipse a little rest after that win, most because of the limited opportunities at the gelding’s preferred distance during the late winter and spring months.
“We were thinking about longer races, a mile-and-a-half-type races, and there was nothing that was suiting for him so we thought, ‘let’s give him a break and have a good summer and fall campaign,’ ” Albertrani said Friday. “That’s when we’ll start seeing longer races, races he’s more suited for.”
Albertrani chose the Manhattan at 10 furlongs on the Belmont Stakes undercard for his comeback and when heavy rains the day before left the course yielding Twilight Eclipse floundered, finishing fifth. He bounced back with a good second, beaten 2 ¼ lengths by Boisterous at level weights, in the Man o’ War. He gets three pounds today, and a turf course that should be considerably more firm than it was earlier in the week and for his two comeback races.
“He doesn’t like it soft,” Albertrani said. “He ran bad in Delaware [in September 2012] and it was kind of boggy there that day. He never picked his feet up that day. It looks like he goes well on firm ground. It was a bit soft [Thursday] and I’m hoping with some sun today it will make it a bit firmer. Two more days of sun should help it.”
Twilight Eclipse raced over the same inner turf course he’ll compete on today shortly after he was sent to Albertrani last summer, finishing sixth in the Equalize going a mile. Albertrani didn’t quite know what to expect when the gelding arrived. Langemeier remembers Twilight Eclipse as a “relaxed, cool customer,” a horse he described as “generous,” but also one that could get a little warm in the mornings and in the paddock on raceday. Albertrani agreed.
“He’s always gotten washy in the paddock on me,” Albertrani said. “It seems like that’s just him. And he gets that way in the morning, too. That’s just his makeup, I think just the way he is.
“I know he likes it a little cooler, so that will probably help him a little bit. I noticed every time he goes to the paddock he wants to get a little warm. I don’t know why, he’s a pretty quiet kind of horse back at the barn. When you lead him over there though, things start ticking. The good thing is he tries hard. I’m glad how well he’s progressed. He’s really turned out to be a really nice turf horse.”
Twilight Eclipse will need another top effort if his connections hope to defeat Boisterous and against a strong group that includes graded stakes winners Optimizer, Al Khali, London Lane and the Grade 2-winning filly Tannery. The Arlington Million always attracts the lion’s share of summer imports from Europe-and got six for this year’s renewal-but the Sword Dancer carries some international appeal with French import Nutello.
Owned and bred in Kentucky by Gerard and Alain Wertheimer, the 4-year-old Lemon Drop Kid colt was a close third in last year’s French Derby at 59-1. Trained in France by Carlos Laffon-Parias, Nutello arrived in Saratoga Thursday afternoon with traveling lad Stephan Duprey after spending 48 hours in quarantine in Newburgh.
Duprey got the big bay colt out for about an hour Friday morning-a little less than his usual 1 ½-hour routine back home-and toured the paddock before the lightest of gallops on the crown of Saratoga’s main track.
“We schooled him a little bit with Mr. Graham,” Duprey said, referring to Graham Motion, who will train Nutello in the U.S. after the Sword Dancer. “He’s learning the American way.”
Duprey said Nutello should prefer the firm ground compared to the soft courses he’s caught in nearly all his starts this season. Nutello’s two wins this season from five starts came on Deauville’s synthetic surface in early March and on good-to-soft ground in a small stakes at Toulouse in late April.
Boisterous handles just about any ground and has been first or second in six starts since finishing ninth in last year’s Arlington Million for Shug McGaughey. The 6-year-old by Distorted Humor is the Phipps Stable’s torchbearer in the male grass division with Point of Entry on the comeback trail from an injury.
Second to Successful Dan in Keeneland’s Ben Ali on synthetic in his 2013 debut, Boisterous then won the Grade 2 Monmouth and Grade 1 Man o’ War at Belmont. McGaughey sent him to Fair Hill the night of the Man o’ War, where he joined Kentucky Derby winner Orb and a few others. The trainer wanted to get him away from the track, away from the hectic pace that comes with the end of the Belmont meet and the start of Saratoga’s.
McGaughey breezed him over Fair Hill’s Tapeta Footings synthetic surface and Boisterous responded, same as he did this spring training on Polytrack at Keeneland. He breezed twice on the Oklahoma turf after shipping up from Fair Hill, including a sharp half-mile Aug. 5.
“He’s done well, he did great at Fair Hill and he’s come up here and had two great works,” McGaughey said. “He hasn’t been overcooked by any means. As of starting out right now, he’s having the best year he’s ever had. I was never able to win a Grade 1 with him. At one time, he looked like maybe he was just going to be a (Grade) 2 or 3 kind of horse. He was pretty dominant against those kind of horses. I was tickled to death for him to win a Grade 1, just because I thought he deserved to.”
Boisterous was third in the Manhattan and ninth in the Arlington Million in 2011 and third in the Man o’ War and fifth in the Sword Dancer in 2011 in his previous attempts in Grade 1 company. McGaughey had his doubts, not because of the horse’s ability, but other things that slowed him down a bit.
“I didn’t know if this horse would step in Grade 1 company, he never had before,” McGaughey said. “I just think everything has come together for him. His feet used to bother him a little bit, that’s it, he’s been sound as a dollar.”
The remainder of the field includes Man o’ War third-place finisher Exclusive Strike, Tahoe Lake, Star Channel and Stormy Lord.