Michael Yates couldn’t resist having a little fun after he helped saddle a horse for longtime friend Kathleen O’Connell in a race at Saratoga Race Course last week. O’Connell was asked after Kanturk Kid won a starter-optional claiming race about what prompted her to bring the Act of Duty gelding north from Florida by way of her summer base at Monmouth Park.
Yates, a proud Floridian and owner of Shadybrook Farm in Ocala, took a little offense and came to his friend’s defense, partly serious and partly in jest.
“The guy says, ‘So you’re based in Florida, what prompted you to come to Saratoga?’ ” Yates said last week, dodging raindrops in the stakes barn at Saratoga. “She gave him a nice answer. Something like, ‘Well, I’m based at Monmouth.’ So I said, ‘Hi, my name’s Michael Yates. I just have a question for you. What makes you think these New York horses can compete with these Florida horses?’ “
The questions will be asked again in today’s $200,000 Saratoga Special Stakes and by the time the Grade 2 race going 6 1/2 furlongs is complete a little before 6 p.m., Yates and everyone else will know the answer.
Yates brings a pretty good study guide to this test in the form of Lunarwarfare, a colt he bred by War Pass out of the late Silver Ghost mare Lunar Star. The dark bay/brown colt was an authoritative winner in his only start, taking a 4 1/2-furlong maiden special weight July 14 at Gulfstream by 6 ½ lengths.
Juan Leyva, the regular rider of champion female sprinter Musical Romance a few years back, rode Lunarwarfare that day and was instrumental in the colt coming north to answer the question of whether he’s good enough to compete with the likes of Sanford winner Wired Bryan and a group of maiden winners from high-profile connections.
“His trip up here kind of depended on his work the Friday before I shipped,” Yates said of a half-mile breeze Aug. 2 at Calder. “Leyva worked him for me. The clockers got him in :48, I got him in :47, [5 furlongs] in a minute and a fifth, out [6 furlongs] in 15. That’s a really big work at Calder. I’ve watched Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners work like that prior to running in the Breeders’ Cup. David Fawkes with Big Drama. I’ve watched them closely.
“It was a big move. Not necessarily how fast he went but they way he did it. So I said, ‘Well, pack your bags.’ I called Bobby and said ‘Get your suitcase, we’re going to Saratoga.’ “
Yates and Bobby Eversole are here in Saratoga with both Lunarwarfare and Tripski, who goes in Wednesday’s Troy Stakes going 5 ½ furlongs on the turf. They own multiple stakes-placed sprinter Cajun Breeze together and while they’re here Eversole handles the riding duties in the morning.
None of the four were actually even supposed to be here.
Yates runs the family-owned and operated Shadybrook Farm as a full-service breaking and training operation, taking on outside clients and breeding for the commercial market himself. The national economic downtown, which hit all parts of the commercial breeding world in the U.S. and abroad, forced Yates to change gears slightly six years ago and instead of mainly targeting the OBS April 2-year-olds in training sale, he dipped his toe into the private-selling market.
“Rather than sell and take them all to the April sale, I decided that it would probably be more profitable for me to take them, get them ready to run and sell them privately,” Yates said. “So that’s what I started doing. I still sell horses in the 2-year-old sales. And I sell a lot of the horses, the young horses, privately. This year the 2-year-old sale was wonderful. We had a handful in there and did well, no home runs.”
Lunarwarfare wasn’t targeted or entered in any sales, but after his stylish victory in a track-record time of :51.39 for 4 ½ furlongs the calls started coming in from agents, trainers and owners looking to buy.
“I’m in the selling business and I didn’t get him sold after the maiden win though,” Yates said. “There was a lot of interest, but people are skeptical off a maiden win. Everything has to be 100 percent right for them to spend top money for a maiden winner. Not so much what I’m willing to take but what they’re willing to do to step out of the box, because it’s a big gamble. Until you see them run against winners.”
Lunarwarfare gets that chance today in the Special and Yates is content with his decision to ship north for the opportunity.
“This horse, he ran a big number first time out,” he said. “He had trained well and has a great mind on him. It appeared we would have a short field, which we do and we figured it was worth taking a shot.”
Other trainers are taking a shot, too, and a few are running back on fairly short rest by today’s standards.
Twang runs back on the shortest rest of the six others in the field after winning impressively going 6 furlongs here July 27 for Al Stall Jr. Corfu, one of two entries for leading trainer Todd Pletcher along with Danza, topped the Barretts March sale earlier this spring won his debut here July 25. The Malibu Moon colt cost $675,000 and won by a half-length at 1-2.
Wired Bryan was hugely impressive winning the Sanford opening weekend and comes back on three weeks rest for Michael Dilger. The New York-bred Stormy Atlantic colt bounced back from his 5 1/4-length win in the Sanford well enough for Dilger to consider a start in the Special. That and others running off even shorter rest.
“He’s doing well, and if you look at the rest of the race we’re coming back in 21 [days], Corfu’s back in 16, Twang is back in 14,” Dilger said Saturday morning at his barn on the Oklahoma. “He had a nice work last Sunday, and his energy level is very high.”
Ogermeister, who won a state-bred maiden race in mid-May at Belmont then finished 15th of 24 in the Windsor Castle Stakes at Royal Ascot for owner-trainer Wesley Ward, and the impressive Churchill maiden winner Candy Dandy for Steve Asmussen complete the field.