Sword Dancer recap: Command Performance

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Two years ago, Grand Couturier arrived in trainer Bob Ribaudo’s Saratoga barn. The English-bred, French-raced 3-year-old came with plenty to like (four wins and a 2-length defeat in a Group I) but did little to endear himself to his new trainer.

“It was very uncomfortable to be around him because he was so rank,” said Ribaudo. “When he came in, they brought a rider over with him. The French rider got on him in the morning – rank as hell, head up in the air. I thought, ‘uh-oh.’ ”

Off that training, Grand Couturier ran in the 2006 Sword Dancer and dragged jockey Richard Migliore all over the place. They wound up third behind Go Deputy and Silver Whistle after finding tight quarters and being forced to steady.

What a difference two years make.

Still a bear in the morning, Grand Couturier has learned to chill in the afternoon. He rates quietly behind horses, and responds like a fighter jet when asked. In 2007, he did just that to win the 2007 Sword Dancer under Calvin Borel. Saturday, with Alan Garcia at the controls, the bay horse did it again – charging up the rail on the turn and kicking clear to win the $500,000 Grade I turf stakes, finishing in 2:32.21 over a course labeled good. Better Talk Now (Ramon Dominguez) spun wide on the turn while trying to match Grand Couturier’s move, and finished second – beaten 2 lengths. Interpatation (Jose Espinoza) rallied for third.

Breaking from the 2 hole, Garcia settled Grand Couturier toward the back along with Interpatation and Better Talk Now as Presious Passion (with early company from Equitable) went a quarter-mile in 25.80 seconds, a half in 50.44, and 6 furlongs in 1:16.13. Up the backside, the winner crept into the race along the rail. For a sixteenth of a mile on the turn, the slow pace looked to be taking a toll as favorite Dancing Forever went after the leaders and the closers briefly coasted.

Briefly.

At the top of the stretch, Grand Couturier made progress on the rail, Dancing Forever flattened out and Better Talk Now tried to fight centrifugal force. All the while, Presious Passion (Eddie Castro) battled to stay in front. Just past the quarter-pole, he drifted out and the rail opened. Like Tony Stewart diving to the apron at Daytona, Garcia aimed for the clear path inside only to have it disappear.

“I said ‘Get in there!’ and then I said ‘No!’ I almost fell off,” Garcia said. “When I saw that hole in front of me it was big enough for two horses – the second I went in there, it closed right up.”

No matter. Grand Couturier floated out from behind Presious Passion, applied the afterburners, charged to the lead at the sixteenth-pole and held Better Talk Now safe.

“My horse was trying really hard and then I checked out of that hole,” Garcia said. “Most horses don’t try again. If they get stopped like that, they don’t try again. Most horses have only one try and if you mess it up you lose. This horse has a good heart, he had two tries today – that’s why he won.”

Ribaudo looks nervous even when he’s not and had no interest in watching the head-on replay at the Trustees’ Room afterward, but paid credit to his horse, his jockey and exercise rider Enrique “Kiki” Garcia for the win. The trainer even went back to last summer to single out Jose Velez, who rode Grand Couturier at Monmouth Park.

“I was having problems with him being so rank all the time so I told Jose about it,” said Ribaudo. “He’s a good old rider, and he dropped his hands leaving the gate. The horse dropped back to last and he came running. Sixth didn’t look that good on paper, but it was a great setup. Jose came back and said ‘Whoever rides this horse next, tell him to drop his hands; don’t fight him, cover him up and he’ll be fine.’ ”

Calvin Borel rode him next and won the 2007 Sword Dancer. Garcia got on this year and followed the same plan.

Purchased by Marc Keller based on the solid European form – which included a fourth behind Rail Link, Red Rocks and Sudan at Longchamp in July 2006 – Grand Couturier has made just 10 American starts but earned an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita this fall with the win and made Ribaudo’s scheduling easy.

“I was thinking, if he didn’t match up today, maybe Canada or something,” the trainer said. “But maybe we can get to the Breeders’ Cup now. We pointed for this, there was no question and he came up big. If he stays sound, we’ll keep him around as long as we can.”

Ribaudo, 56, has been training horses since 1976 and knows that “if” all too well. Grand Couturier, who gave the trainer his first Grade I win in last year’s Sword Dancer, deals with some ankle issues and still brings a rocky personality to the track most mornings.

“Every morning you come in, he’s the first horse you look at,” said Ribaudo. “Sometimes I don’t even put my hand down his leg, I just know by eye whether that joint is OK or not. It’s a sigh of relief when it is OK. Plus he’s very aggressive. He’s tough to be around – all business and not the kind you snuggle up to.”