Countdown to the Cup: A Classic Pick 3

It is safe to say that never before have three consecutive graded stakes on a single card – at a mile, 1 1/8 miles for fillies and mares, and 1 ¼ miles – produced the three favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Beginning with Uncle Mo’s brilliant victory in the Kelso Handicap (gr. II) and continuing with Havre de Grace’s Beldame Stakes (gr. I) romp and Flat Out’s dominating score in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), it was if one layer at a time was being stripped away to reveal a potentially new Classic favorite.  

The remarkable turn of events of Oct. 1 concluded with Flat Out’s victory in the Gold Cup, in which he established himself as a true mile and a quarter horse, something the other Classic contenders have failed to do. That left Flat Out’s trainer Charles “Scooter” Dicky feeling good about his chances at Churchill Downs Nov. 5.

“They’ll make the mare the favorite,” Dickey said after the Gold Cup. “I’m glad to have the extra eighth of a mile. I’ll see if I can catch her. I think I can. I was slowly getting to her (in the Woodward).”

For the 70-year-old Dickey and his wife of 48 years, Dana, this was the pinnacle of a career that is defined by hard work and little glory on the national stage. That is why when he was interviewed by ESPN following the race he was unable to get a single word out and had to walk away until a later time when he was more composed.

Dana was equally emotional and couldn’t control the tears welling in her eyes.

“We don’t normally get this emotional,” she said. “We’ve never won a race like this before. He couldn’t even talk. I can barely talk now. I’m just so happy for Scooter. This is a once in a lifetime experience. I’ve never been this excited in my whole life. I mean Scooter has worked his entire life for this; it means everything to him. It gives all the guys hope who think they don’t have hope. I know, because we didn’t think we had hope either. But we do. Faith in God gets you there.”

Dickey, a former rider at Sunshine Park in Florida, among other tracks, started training in 1963 at Centennial Park in Colorado.

“Everyone back home in Anthony, Kansas, a town of 2,800 people, follows me,” Dickey said. “All my classmates know I was running today and they were all watching. They have a little half-mile track there. That’s where I learned how to ride at age 12. Back then there were 53 racetracks in Kansas and I’d hitchhike to a lot of them.”

In Flat Out, Dickey has found his once-in-a lifetime horse that could carry him to glory and riches he could only dream about.

“This is my first grade 1 win; you wouldn’t believe how big this is,” said Dickey, who three months ago won his first graded stakes after 48 years of training when Flat Out won Belmont’s grade 2 Suburban Handicap by 6 ½ lengths on July 2. “It’s tremendous. It’s hard to fathom, but I like it.”

It’s also been a long time between stakes victories for owner Art Preston, who operated Prestonwood Farm with his brothers Jack and J.R., but dispersed the horses after the death of J.R.

“We had a shutdown for a few years,” Preston said. “We sold our farm after our brother died. That caused us to have to do some estate planning. We’re back racing now; no breeding anymore. We have about 30 horses in training, including 10 2-year-olds.”

It’s been a long, frustrating road with Flat Out, who looked to have a bright future at 3, but came down with a series of physical ailments that sidelined him for 20 months.

“We got discouraged by the problems he had, but we thought they were fixable,” said Preston whose top horses with Prestonwood include Victory Gallop, Da Hoss, and Ermine. “He had a shoulder problem and then had a series of quarter cracks starting in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III). “We tried to patch it and ran him in the Arkansas Derby and he didn’t run well, so we gave him time off. When he came back and won his first race going away, a good allowance race that was pretty amazing that after a year he could do something like that. That’s when we knew we had something pretty special.

“He’s an unusual horse. I’ve never had a horse like him. He’s got what Tesio called morale. That was his description of what we’re all looking for, but can never find. You have to get lucky. This is a horse you can race every week if you wanted. He loves it. He comes back after a race and cleans up all his grain. He has an amazing constitution.”

Flat Out, a big, raw-boned individual who made an excellent appearance in the paddock, once again showed his affinity for Belmont Park, making his move on the far turn, taking over at the quarter pole, and drawing clear under Alex Solis to defeat last year’s Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Drosselmeyer and this year’s Belmont runner-up and Travers and Jim Dandy winner, Stay Thirsty. The 6-5 favorite over Flat Out, who was sent off at 7-5, lost his position on the turn, but swung to the outside and launched his bid. He was unable to match strides with Flat Out, however, and was just nailed near the wire for second by Drosselmeyer.

Flat Out, who shipped in from Monmouth Park the morning of the race, covered the 10 furlongs over a sealed muddy track in 2:03.17.

Although this was not the strongest Gold Cup field, and they didn’t come very fast, the track looked as if it was getting a bit deeper as the day went on, and from a visual standpoint, it is difficult to find any flaws in Flat Out’s performance.

Stay Thirsty had a strange trip, losing his position on the turn and then swinging wide to launch his bid. But that is not his style of running. As a one-paced grinder, he needed to be head and head with Flat Out at the quarter pole or in front of him and then try to outstay him down the stretch rather than try to catch him. He doesn’t have the kick to do that and was basically taken out of his game.

Drosselmeyer ran a good race to get up for second and could go for either the Classic or the Marathon. The main question with him is whether he’s fast enough and shifty enough to handle top-quality horses going 10 furlongs at Churchill Downs as opposed to Belmont Park.

Havre Gun Will Travel

Havre de Grace’s trainer, Larry Jones, admitted he was concerned about the track condition for the Beldame Stakes, but the daughter of Saint Liam – Easter Bunnette, by Carson City, showed once again there is little she can’t handle, as she continues to steamroll her way to the Breeders’ Cup, likely the Classic.

Facing only four opponents, including the Alabama (gr. I) winner Royal Delta and last year’s Beldame winner Life At Ten, who was trying to regain her 2010 form, Havre de Grace, racing over her sixth different racetrack, showed her dominance by cruising to an 8 ¼-length victory over Royal Delta.

She rated beautifully behind solid fractions of :46.71 and 1:10. 69 before taking over with ease at the five-sixteenths pole and drawing off with ease under Ramon Dominguez to complete the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.39.

Jones pulled no punches after the race, saying Havre de Grace likely will run in the Classic.

“I’m sure we’ll go for the Classic,” he said. “Uncle Mo looked very impressive (in the Kelso) and he should make it very interesting. As of right now I’d have to say that’s where she’ll run. She and I are still learning about each other. I’m still trying to dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’. I think she’s got me trained. She’s dead fit, and we don’t have to do anything to get her ready; she’s already ready. I don’t think we had to ask her for her best. Ramon was wrapped up the last eighth. We’ve got five weeks to recoup. I got eight ponies. If I have to pony her into the race, I can get it done.”

Owner Rick Porter, who has stated already they want to run Havre de Grace in the Classic, didn’t seem quite as emphatic about it after watching Uncle Mo’s performance.

“Did Larry really say she was running in the Classic?” Porter said. “Well, he and I will have to talk that over. But there is a good chance we’ll go there. Uncle Mo was awfully impressive. Originally I planning on watching Tizway in the Gold Cup, but Uncle Mo was a lot to watch., I just don’t know whether he can go a mile and a quarter. He looked like he could get anything today. It sounds like Larry has already made a decision. If he says we’re going he’ll probably be able to talk me into it. He’s pretty persuasive with that cowboy hat on. I really think we’ll enter in both races and see the post positions.”

What makes Havre de Grace so special is her brilliant cruising speed and ability to dictate her own race and not be dependant on pace. She also happens to be improving at an alarming (to her opponents) rate, and there’s no telling what she’ll be capable of at Churchill Downs.

Mo on the go

Even with five grade I stakes on the Oct. 1 card, it was the grade II Kelso that had everyone abuzz after Uncle Mo put on a dazzling display of speed to win by three lengths in a blazing 1:33.82 over the sticky, muddy surface. And he did it by setting all the pace, turning in a :22.56 second quarter and then turning back the serious challenge of the 4-year-old Jackson Bend, winner of the recent Forego (gr. I) at Saratoga.

Bred in Kentucky by D. Michael Cavey, the son of Indian Charlie – Playa Maya, by Arch came home his final quarter in a sharp :24.48, which is very impressive for a horse setting all the pace. But that is Uncle Mo’s strength – the ability to cut out rapid fractions and still come home fast – as he did in the Champagne.

And credit must be given to Todd Pletcher for having Uncle Mo looking spectacular in the paddock. You won’t see a better looking or more finely tuned horse. It is not an exaggeration to say you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

Uncle Mo’s performance even impressed owner Mike Repole, who believes the colt can walk on water (he may be right).

“When Jackson Bend came through on the rail, I was thinking are we going to lose by five or are we going to lose by 10?” Repole said. “But Johnny found another gear. That’s what makes this horse so special. He’s not only brilliant, he’s not only fast, but he’s got the mind to go with it.  He’s back. As an owner you always want to do the right thing by your horse. That’s why in May when he was losing weight I was thinking maybe it’s the right time to retire the horse. Getting him back in the winners circle is such a great feeling. It’s really special.”

Now it’s on to Classic, where Uncle Mo will run as an entry with Stay Thirsty.

“I love the Classic,” Repole said. “I grew up watching the Classic. In my opinion, if you run Uncle Mo in the Sprint (gr. I), he’s the favorite. If you run him in the Dirt Mile (gr. I) he’s the favorite. If you run him in the Classic he’s probably going to be the favorite. I want to run in the Classic. Some people say I already have Stay Thirsty in the Classic. But if Mo was to run in the Dirt Mile and win by eight and Stay Thirsty is third in the Classic, it would be a decision I’d regret the rest of my life. So why not take two shots at a race everybody would love to win.”

Although he’s not proven at 1 1/4 miles, and some have question marks about his ability to get the distance, he has shown no indication he can’t, and there’s no reason why he couldn’t pull a Ghostzapper and just keep going, especially if his opponents have those same question marks about him.

Uncle Mo, Havre de Grace, and Flat Out in approximately an hour’s time formed a strong nucleus for the Classic. These are three totally different types of horses who are all coming up to the Classic in excellent form.

You probably have to add Game On Dude after another of his gutsy performances winning the Goodwood (gr. I). This is one horse you do not want to hook at any point in the race. He loves to battle and never backs down from a fight. And his two best Beyer figures going into the Goodwood were at 1 ¼ miles, so he can carry the fight a long way. And of course there is Tizway, who is still very much in the Horse of the Year picture if he can handle the 1 1/4 miles and overcome a three-month layoff.

And what can you say about the 8-year-old warrior Awesome Gem, who has no idea he’s 8-years-old? He turned in one his strongest stretch runs of his career in the Goodwood, flying home in :12 flat and falling just a half-length short of Game On Dude. This was a good as he’s looked since his victory in last year’s Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I).

Finally, don't forget about So You Think, who is not an Arc type of horse, preferring 1 1/4 miles, but sliced his way through the majority of the field from the back of the pack to finish a good fourth, narrowly beaten for second. And that is not the way he wants ro run. If he runs in the Classic, he definitely is a serious contender if he handles the dirt.

Superman’s Cape

Regardless of what happens in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I), how can anyone deny Cape Blanco the Eclipse Award for Male Turf Horse? It’s just too bad he won’t be able to be there.

By scoring a gutsy nose victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT), the son of Galileo – Laurel Delight, by Presidium, owned by Mrs. Fitri Hay and Coolmore’s Derrick Smith, Michael Tabor, and Mrs. John Magnier, has now made an unprecedented three consecutive transatlantic flights from Ireland to win three grade I stakes for trainer Aidan O’Brien. His other victories came in the Man o’ War Stakes and Arlington Million. And he won the Turf Classic despite an injury, which forced his retirement.

Of course, Acclamation boasts championship credentials heading into the BC Turf after another big score in the Clement Hirsch Handicap (gr. IIT), but he still hasn’t achieved what Cape Blanco has. A victory in the BC Turf certainly would get him votes. And Clement Hirsch runner-up Champ Pegasus should be tough again, having run huge at Churchill Downs last year.

Bred in Ireland by Jack Ronan and Des Vere Hunt Farm Co, Cape Blanco had to call on all his reserve over a deep yielding turf course to turn back the late challenge of Dean’s Kitten.

“Oh, man, he’s some tough horse, isn t he?” said Coolmore Charlie O’Connor. “There not much tougher than him around.”

Jockey Jamie Spencer agreed. “The ground was totally against the horse,” he said. “It’s just because he’s such a good horse and has such a big heart. That’s the reason he won today. The ground was kicking up; it was a horrible surface, and he hadn’t run in seven weeks. He gets his head down low and gives a hundred percent.”

Despite all his traveling, running over ground he disliked, and suffering an injury, he still turned in one of the gamest performances of the year. The fact that he didn’t change leads down the stretch showed he won on guts alone. Start engraving the Eclipse Award already. He deserves it.

In other Breeders’ Cup preps

There were too many races over the weekend to mention all of them, so we’ll hold off on some of them until next week.

The BC Ladies Classic (gr. I) is now a totally wide-open race with the shocking performance of Blind Luck in the Lady’s Secret. It is apparent she was beaten before she entered the starting gate. It is hoped at some point we find out what was ailing her – physically or mentally.

First it was Turbulent Decent who was considered the leader of the 3-year-old filly division, then it was Plum Pretty, then it was Zazu and It’s Tricky, then it was Royal Delta, and now it’s either Plum Pretty again or Zazu again. That alone should make the Ladies’ Classic an intriguing race.

Flower Bowl (gr. IT) winner Stacelita proved she is as a good a turf filly as we have in this country, and demonstrated just how strong the European fillies and mares are, as indicated by the girl’s 1,2,3 finish in the Arc de Triomphe.

Although he went off at 12-1 in the Vosburgh Invitational (gr. I), and was no doubt aided by Euroears’ horrible start, costing him all chance, let’s not forget that the winner, Giant Ryan, has now won six in a row.

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