Zagora zooms to Diana win

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Chad Brown won his first Grade I stakes as a trainer Saturday and thought about everything – coach/mentor/boss Bobby Frankel, the location of the trustees’ room for the ceremonial toast, his pregnant wife Terrill, the introduction to owner Martin Schwartz via Michael Dubb here last year, all of it.

And then he needed a Band-Aid.

“I pounded on that table in the box so hard rooting for her, I cut my thumb,” he said, wiping blood off his hand and program. “That’s probably the first time that’s happened.”

Head usher Joe Vernon confirmed that yes it was the first time he brought Band-Aids to a trainer after a stakes triumph, but you only win your first Grade I once.

Brown collected his milestone courtesy of an emphatic stretch run by Schwartz’s French import Zagora in the $500,000 Diana. The turf stakes for fillies and mares turned into a sprint late and Zagora (Javier Castellano) rocketed through the stretch to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Aruna, who had a neck on Bay To Bay. Zagora covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.19 to claim her first American win in five tries.

Frankel, the Hall of Famer who died in 2009, would have loved it as his former assistant ably prepared a European import to take down a Grade I turf stakes in Saratoga.

“This is a race Frankel loved,” said Brown, 32. “To win this race, he’d be smiling, but maybe not if I beat him because he would have probably been training Aviate. He taught me everything I know, especially about European horses. He was the master. I picked up everything I could. I listened, I learned, I tried to pay attention.”

Brown put the lessons to good use with Zagora, a diminutive chestnut who arrived in the United States last fall for a try at Keeneland’s Grade I Queen Elizabeth and finished second behind Harmonious. The daughter of the Green Dancer stallion Green Tune came into the Diana off three quality starts – a second in the Grade II Hillsborough at Tampa Bay Downs in March, a third in the Grade II Jenny Wiley at Keeneland in April, another second to Giants Play in the Grade II New York at Belmont June 25.

Despite the losses, Brown liked what he saw and stuck to the plan – leaving Zagora at Belmont until mid-week.

“I don’t have any complaints about her three races, I liked all her races, I just think she got bad trips,” said Brown, a native of nearby Mechanicville. “I didn’t change anything for this race. Sometimes with these fillies, you go to Saratoga and I’ve seen it before with Bobby and with my horses. Certain fillies, you take them up here, they back out of the tub for a week, they take awhile to get used to it or something. She was doing SO good at Belmont I wasn’t going to change anything.”

Zagora came to Saratoga Wednesday, went for a light gallop or two and headed to her first American Grade I as the fourth choice in a wide-open field of nine. Unbeaten Unbridled Humor, sent off the favorite at just shy of 2-1, took the lead from the rail and set a slow, pressured pace of 25.20 and 50.31 seconds over the good course. Bay To Bay tracked in second, followed by Dyna Waltz, Giants Play and Zagora. Second choice Aruna dropped to eighth early, just behind third choice Aviate.

“It worked out great, I was able to cover up a little bit in the first turn,” said Castellano. “At the half-mile pole, they started to back up a little bit and I put her in daylight, gave her some room. I waited a little bit to ask her for that kick and she took off.”

Bay To Bay went after Unbridled Humor first, and brought a train with her. Zagora swept three wide, reached Bay To Bay at the top of the stretch, lowered her head and pulled away late as Aruna rallied for second without making much impact on the winner.

“She relaxed, that’s important,” said Castellano. “She’s tiny, not big, but she’s got a big heart. When she made that kick, she loaded up a little bit, got lower and zjhoom – a good feeling.”

Brown watched the stretch run, and compared it to the filly’s other races.

“I just noticed in all three prior races she seemed to swap on to her left lead in the heat of battle for no apparent reason,” Brown said. “Today she didn’t do it so that probably helped us. She’s sound, nothing wrong with her, she just did it. I’m wondering if she’s finally acclimated over here. I’m thinking she’s better about everything, she’s adapted.”

Schwartz purchased Zagora through bloodstock agent (and co-breeder) Michel Zerolo of Oceanic Bloodstock and was rewarded with his first Diana win – a race he’s coveted since Angara finished third to Sand Springs in 2005 and won the following year after Schwartz sold her to the Sangster family.

“Six years I’ve wanted this race,” he said to no one in particular upon stepping into the winner’s circle. “Saratoga is everything, winning here is like winning the French Oaks or something. To do it in front of everybody, all the horse people who are here, it means something. I only keep a six- to eight-horse stable so I have to outsmart everybody.”

He looks wise in choosing Brown, whom he met through owner Michael Dubb at Saratoga last summer. They talked horses, met a few more times throughout the season, talked some more. Halfway through the 2010 meet, Schwartz sent Brown a horse. The rest of the stable – which now includes stakes mare Stacelita and 3-year-old Bowman’s Causeway – soon followed.

“I met him a year go here at Saratoga, he was more or less interviewing me,” said Brown. “The more I won last year the more he interviewed me. He’d come over to my box, we’d talk – what about this? what about that? By mid-meet he sent one horse to me, then he sent the rest.”

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Hey Chad Brown, what makes Zagora good?
“She reserves her energy. She’s a very calm horse. You can’t rattle this horse. European horses can be so quirky. This filly is so calm and composed. With turf racing it comes down to reserving energy. They all run the last part of it. If you can save your energy until you need it, you can be pretty tough.”