Sneak Attack. Spy In The Sky upsets Turf Writers

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As Dalucci took over from tired pacemaker Slip Away on the final turnof Thursday’s New York Turf Writers Cup steeplechase, jockey BernieDalton looked over and saw Liam McVicar aboard Spy In The Sky.

“What, did you just jump in line?” Dalton asked. “You’re cruising.”

The 20-1 shot had gone 2 miles like the other horses, it just didn’t look like it.

McVicar smiled at Dalton, waited another half-furlong and galloped off to win by 10 1/4 lengths for Randleston Farm and trainer Jimmy Day. Sermon Of Love (Danielle Hodsdon) finished second with Dalucci third in 4:34.16 for the 2 3/8 miles. The Grade I turned into a laugher as the longest shot on the board scored easily, 9-5 favorite Slip Away was pulled up and highweight Mixed Up struggled home last of five finishers.

McVicar, a Scottish-born apprentice who works for the Day stable in Virginia, enjoyed the view when he pulled alongside Dalton.

“I didn’t want to hit the front too early because I had a ton of horse all the way around,” he said. “I was trying to bring him back, hold him for 10 or 12 strides on the turn. Then it was time to kick on and win the race.”

Spy In The Sky – whose last win came at Saratoga a year (to the day) earlier – lit up the tote board at $43 but did not surprise his jockey and chief exercise rider. The 5-year-old son of Thunder Gulch had an excuse in all four jump starts this year, despite finishing no better than fifth.

“This season has been hard but I don’t think it’s been any fault of the horse,” McVicar said. “Each time he ran, there was a problem. At Aiken, he got rank in front. At Atlanta, I fell off him. At Radnor, the ground was against him. Here the last time (Aug. 13) he jumped the first fence badly and sat last going 2 1/16 miles.”

Things didn’t start out much better this time around. First, his owners Jim and Melinda Carter and trainer stayed home (Day had a runner at Charles Town Thursday night); second, he survived a hairy trip north. The journey included a ship by commercial carrier from Virginia to Maryland, where Spy In The Sky joined Turf Writers rival Swagger Stick on Jack Fisher’s rig.

A few miles into the trip Wednesday morning, Fisher slammed on the brakes to avoid a deer on Falls Road in suburban Baltimore. Spy In The Sky hit his head – hard – on the metal post dividing the stalls in the trailer. The post is dented. The horse is fine.

And none of it mattered.

At entry time, the Turf Writers looked like a showdown between Mixed Up and Planets Aligned, first and  third in the A.P. Smithwick Aug. 6. Then trainer Jonathan Sheppard hesitated about running Mixed Up. Then Tom Voss scratched Planets Aligned. Then Mixed Up came back in. The moves caused a series of jockey changes, a conversation with the stewards and confusion among pretty much anyone paying attention. At the first tote flash, Sheppard-trained lightweight Sermon Of Love opened at 4-5. Coming off a flat win here Aug. 3, he drifted some to 2-1 while the far more accomplished Mixed Up went off at nearly 3-1. Spy In The Sky, fifth in a restricted stakes two weeks prior, stayed the outsider – until the race started.

“You always know what he can do at home so I’m always disappointed with him when he doesn’t run the way he can,” said McVicar, who was headed back to Virginia Thursday night to ride morning work Friday. “Today, that’s who he is. I know he can run like that, he sure picked a good day to do it – a win for the little guys.”

Spy In The Sky didn’t start life as an underdog. Bred by Gainsborough Farm, he hails from a rich family. His dam Monaassabaat is a half-sister to the dams of Grade I winner Storming Home and 2009 Ballerina starter Music Note. Spy In The Sky’s granddam It’s In the Air was a champion for Harbor View Farm and trainer Laz Barrera.

Part of the Kiaran McLaughlin barn as a 2-year-old in 2006 (and galloped by Dalton), Spy In the Sky broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park in 2007 but didn’t quite live up to his breeding on the flat and was sold to Day as a jump prospect. Since then, he’s won three times and earned $146,480 over jumps while just missing several times on the flat.

McLaughlin checked on his former pupil in the paddock, and smiled afterward.

“It’s fun to see – Grade I, Saratoga,” he said. “We had him as a 2-year-old, they sent him to Gainsborough and they moved him on. It’s great to see that they have other lives.”

Trainer of Horse of the Year Invasor and a stable full of stars, McLaughlin missed the steeplechase potential – though he did recognize one trait.

“He was slow – he wanted 2 miles and you could tell that early,” he said. “I wish I knew which ones wanted to do that. They don’t tell you.”