Sword Dancer preview: Dancing Old School

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On closing day last year, a steeplechase guy stopped by Shug McGaughey’s barn; gave the trainer his card and said, “Whenever you’re ready.”

McGaughey wasn’t ready.

A year later, he’s ready to win the $500,000 Sword Dancer with Phipps Stable’s Dancing Forever.

“You were getting close,” McGaughey said to the would-be buyers out there. “I wasn’t going to give up on him yet, but Mr. Phipps was kind of like, ‘Don’t give him too many more chances,’ so, yeah, you were getting close.”

At the end of Saratoga last summer, Dancing Forever had sleepwalked through a 13-race career. Two wins were intermixed with a bunch of inexplicable losses. The rugged son of Rahy would come running most days, but couldn’t break through. A mile and a quarter on the turf proved too short for the homebred.

In his last race at Saratoga, he made up some ground but wound up sixth in an optional claimer.

“I was a little disappointed with his race here, but I kind of knew what the excuses were, so I don’t think I was as down on him as maybe other people were, but I knew we had to get it together,” McGaughey said. “I felt like he could, I had seen some signs where he was better than sometimes he showed. (Kent) Desormeaux won on him (in a Churchill Downs allowance before Saratoga) and he liked him too, he said he just had to learn and that’s really what I thought, he just had to learn.”

McGaughey enrolled him in old school in the fall, blowing him out the day before he ran in a two-other-than allowance at Keeneland. The light bulb flickered, and Dancing Forever rallied from 11 lengths out of it to just miss by a head. He returned 20 days later and put in another strong effort, finishing second again under today’s jockey Rene Douglas.

“He started doing good after Saratoga, I sent him to Keeneland and his two races were good there,” McGaughey said. “How good, I didn’t know, he got beat in both of them, but Douglas rode him the one time and said, ‘This is a pretty nice horse, I just made a mistake on him.’ ”

Freshened until Dec. 26, Dancing Forever won the My Dear Peg, a $45,000 stakes at Calder, for his third career victory. That effort prompted McGaughey to swing at Grade I competition in the Gulfstream Park Turf, where he rallied at nearly 38-1 to just miss against Einstein. Since that breakthrough race, Dancing Forever has won the Grade II Elkhorn at Keeneland in April and the Grade I Manhattan on Belmont Stakes Day.

Yeah, he’s a long way from being a jumper.

“He’s learning, all the parts are starting to fit together. He’s a great big horse, he had a curb early on, just little things like that, just trying to get all the parts to work, because he’s so big. So big,” McGaughey said. “He’s gotten a lot bigger and stronger, all the parts came together, his back end works now, it used to not. We never could figure out what it was, but I guess it was just more growing pains than anything else. Once that all got behind him, everything’s been good.”

On Friday morning, just as he did at Keeneland last fall, Dancing Forever blew out 3 furlongs. Exercise rider Phil White guided him through the 37.88-second drill. Blinkers on, the big chestnut kicked into his high gallop over the Oklahoma track, he looked better than a jumper. McGaughey pays at least partial credit to the new work pattern.

“That’s helped, but I don’t think it’s something we need to do now, but I’m not going to stop,”McGaughey said. “He’s a big strong horse, so it doesn’t matter, it’s not like he’s a finnicky eater, but I do think it’s helped.”

The Sword Dancer lost its morning-line favorite when trainer Mark Hennig said he intended to scratch Red Rocks, who knocked off Horse of the Year Curlin in last month’s Man O’ War at Belmont Park. Hennig blamed a touchy hock for the departure of the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner.

In addition to Red Rocks’ departure, Bobby Frankelentered Champs Elysees but planned to scratch the three-time winner, leaving the Grade I stakes with six runners.

None more accomplished than Bushwood Stable’s Better Talk Now.

The $4.1-million earner has put together two solid efforts since returning from Dubai where he finished ninth in the Dubai Sheema Classic. Trained by Graham Motion and ridden by Ramon Dominguez,Better Talk Now closed ground to finish third in the

Man O’ War – behind Red Rocks and Curlin – in his latest start. Dancing Forever vanquished him in the Manhattan. In that one, Better Talk Now was in the midst of his patented late rally but had to slam on the brakes like he was playing Grand Theft Auto.

Owner Marc Keller and trainer Bob Ribaudo upset last year’s Sword Dancer with English import Grand Couturier, who ran down heavy favorite English Channel in the stretch after getting through on the inside behind a quick pace. Grand Couturier returned to finish third in the 2007 Man O’ War (then still a fall fixture) in September and then placed sixth behind English Channel in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Given nearly eight months between races, the 5-year-old returned in the restricted Academy Award Stakes and closed willingly to nab third. Ribaudo didn’t want to shoot for big game in his next start but had no other choice. Grand Couturier closed again, but never threatened Red Rocks, Curlin and Better Talk Now.

“The first race worked out great, it was paceless, he still closed into it, and he came back good. The last thing you want to do is a Grade I as your second race back, but he needed to do something before the Sword Dancer,” Ribaudo said. “He shows some excuses but they were insignificant. He made his run, in the last eighth of a mile he didn’t follow through, he needed it.”

Ribaudo didn’t fly below the radar last year – he wasn’t even near the screen. Grand Couturier went off at nearly 16-1 against eventual champion English Channel but stunned his seven rivals, roaring home by 3 lengths.

“We’re in a different situation now, it was less pressure last year, the horse was doing well, we knew it, nobody else knew it,” Ribaudo said. “We were hoping for a positive race, we had been running against English Channel so it’s less pressure when you’re running against a superstar. You’re just hoping to be second or third . . . when that was all said and done, it was great. This year, we had some issues all winter, dealing with ankles, and they’ve resolved themselves. He’s really doing well.”

Like Better Talk Now, Grand Couturier only has one option in today’s 12-furlong stakes. He’ll drop out the back under Alan Garcia and hope for a pace scenario similar to last year’s when the fractions were hot – 46 2/5, 1:11 1/5 – and he skipped up the hedge to win his fifth career race.

“It’s strange this year, coming off the win, everybody’s taken notice. It’s a little different, a little more pressure this year, we’re trying to get a repeat performance,” Ribaudo said. “We feel very confident he’s going into the race well so we know he’s going to run well. We’re never going to get the pace scenario as last year, unfortunately, but at least we’re bringing a horse that’s doing well physically and mentally. I’m still worried about Better Talk Now, he’s the best older turf horse in the world.”

Providing the pace in the Sword Dancer falls on one horse. Presious Passion will be the pace in an otherwise paceless race. The Monmouth Park-based 5-year-old wired seven rivals in the Grade I United Nations on his home turf and then tried to come off the pace in the Oceanport Aug. 3, failing to make an impact on Silver Tree in the Grade III stakes. Trained by Mary Hartmann, owned by Patricia Generazio and ridden by Eddie Castro, Presious Passion has won eight races from 30 starts and would eclipse the $1 million earnings mark with a win or a second.

Bill Mott entered Equitable, the only 4-year-old in the stakes and the least experienced horse in the field. Pin Oak Stable’s homebred son of A.P. Indy has never been beaten more than 1 3/4 lengths in his career and comes in off a decent third in the United Nations. Kent Desormeaux rides.

Interpatation rounds out the field for Elliot Mavorah and trainer Bobby Barbara. The 6-year-old son of Langfuhr is winless in seven tries since September and finished sixth behind Dancing Forever in the Manhattan. Jose Espinoza takes the call.