Pride and emotion

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Robbie Davis watched Ribbonite dash through the stretch to win the $116,775 Lady Fingers Stakes about two weeks ago and immediately flashed back nearly 18 years to one of his biggest wins as a jockey for one of the most respected horseman of all time.

“I’ve never been so happy to win a race,” Davis said Wednesday morning outside his barn on Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track, where he keeps a small string from mid-April to mid-November. “I’ve won a lot of races but that one was special. It was part pride and part emotion.”

Davis likened the emotional part to winning the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup aboard Wagon Limit for the late Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens. Wagon Limit upset eventual Horse of the Year Skip Away and three-time Grade 1 winner and $3,608,558-earner Gentlemen that day at 34-1 odds. Ribbonite wasn’t that long of a price, but she was a maiden who left four winners in her immediate wake at nearly 4-1.

“Now I know why Allen Jerkens had tears in his eyes when Wagon Limit won the Jockey Club Gold Cup,” Davis said. “He was like a dad to me, he always taught me so much. I went out in the paddock and was shaking in my boots. I was nervous, he was 30-1 but you’re riding in the Jockey Club Gold Cup against Skip Away, Gentlemen, horses like that. You’d think, ‘what am I doing here?’ No, you’re riding for the Chief. They have to beat you. Every time you ride for the Chief that’s the way it was.

“He’s like, ‘well, what are you going to do jock,” Davis added, giving his best shot at a Jerkens impression. “I said, ‘well, there’s a lot of speed in here, let’s get a check.’ He said, ‘that sounds good.’ So as the race goes I was counting and I’m 22 lengths back up the backside. I’m like, ‘oh, I’m dead. I might as well ride this horse back to the barn, he’s going to shoot me.’

“I’m so far back I’m counting the heads so I can be fourth, or fifth. I asked him to pick it up and he just pinned his ears, flipped me the bird. I was like, ‘oh, this ain’t good.’ At the half-mile pole I tapped him a bit and he jumped into it. I thought I could be fourth. Then at the 3/8ths pole, ‘oh good, I’m going to be third.’ They were still way in front of me, the two of them. At the eighth pole they hit a brick wall and I’m like, son of a bitch I’m going to win it.’ We won, he came back and I said, ‘hey Chief, how was that for a check?’ He’s like ‘you did it, you did it,’ he had tears coming out of his eyes. He was happy. I loved to see him happy. It made me feel so good.”

Ribonitte, a daughter of Griffinite Davis bought for $25,000 along with the partnership Paddock Proud at the OBS April 2-year-olds in training sale, served up her own good feelings winning the Lady Fingers.

She came into the 6-furlong stakes off two maiden races at Saratoga – a runner-up in her debut going 5 ½ furlongs Opening Day and a close fourth going 6 furlongs Aug. 15. Davis’ son Dylan rode her in both Saratoga starts and was aboard for the Lady Fingers.

Dylan Davis wasn’t available to breeze the filly in her last serious work before the Lady Fingers. Robbie Davis, who rode dozens of graded stakes winners and 3,382 winners during his career as a jockey, rode her that day and the filly went a half-mile in a bullet :48 on the Oklahoma.

“She really got fit on me after that first race, so I drilled her and let her go before we went to Finger Lakes,” Davis said. “She just zipped, 48 flat and maybe a little bit better if they caught her completely. I didn’t push her, just let her go. I wanted to make sure everything was tightened down good, no problems.”

“Dylan wasn’t able to breeze her that day, but I was. I said, ‘whoa, I wish I was 10 pounds lighter because I would be getting myself on this one.’ I told Dylan he needed to ride her, I said, ‘now don’t spin me because I know it’s a busy day at Belmont, it’s a Saturday and all.’ He said he wouldn’t, that he had a horse for Kenny McPeek, Pat On The Back, the same day. I said, ‘you’re going to win both halves. Nobody can beat you. This filly, just let her run down the backside, give her a breather on the turn and let her kick through the lane, just use the turn for momentum and let her punch.’ She won by 6 3/4. I was like, ‘yes.’ “

Davis, reflecting back Thursday while he finished up work with the blacksmith as his string cooled out, joked that he “could just hang it up right there,” after teaming with his son for the victory.

“To do it with my son, that was just the ultimate,” he said. “It was a dream come true, absolutely. You can really only dream about those things. It’s like David and Goliath out here. Some of these guys got 100, 150 horses, huge stables, and I’ve got one little 2-year-old.”

Davis said the pride he felt from Ribbonite’s victory came from the fact that he picked the filly out of the OBS sale and was able to buy her within his and Paddock Pride’s budget. Her hammer price was less than a third of the sale’s average of $79,211 and below the median of $47,000.

Ribonitte breezed an eighth in :10.20 during the second under-tack show, not far off the bullet work of :09.80 the session, but probably fell through the cracks because of her size and pedigree.

“Everybody sees them work so they know which ones are good and which ones aren’t,” Davis said. “She worked excellent but there was nothing to compare it to because there were no Griffinites. She was the only one. She’s kind of small. I thought, well, there’s nothing wrong with being small, I made a good living out of being small.’ And I rode some small ones that have big hearts. She showed me something that I liked.

“I said, ‘for $25,000 nobody’s going to get hurt, we can go for New York-bred maiden 25s and get a check.’ She looked like a sprinter, they run sprint races all year long. I thought I could develop her a little bit and my partners gave me free reign to just let me take my time. They’re really good about it. I inched her along as we got closer and closer she started doing a little better and keeps improving. It’s very exciting to develop a horse. You don’t have something that has somebody else’s problems. A lot of the owners think you’re magic man. It just doesn’t happen. You don’t need any help messing them up. It’s exciting to take a young horse and develop them into something.”