There is nothing quite as humbling on the Derby trail as attempting to set off two fireworks on the same day, especially when you light them minutes apart. Len Riggio, who hasn’t exactly been a familiar face on the Derby trail, not only attempted this on Feb. 1, he attempted it with New York-breds, both of whom went off as the favorite in their respective graded stakes, despite having previously won only state-bred races.
What is it like watching your two horses go into battle over a thousand miles apart with only precious minutes to either celebrate a victory or anguish over a defeat?
There is a scene from the movie Buck Privates where Costello is about to get in the ring for a fight. Abbott tells him to give his opponent “the ‘ol one-three, one-three.” When Costello asks him what happened to two, Abbott says, “Two you get.”
That’s racing in a nutshell. Whenever you’re lucky enough to land a good punch, be prepared to get one right back at you.
Or to rephrase Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners, “Enjoy yourself on the way up, because you’re soon going to be heading on the way down.”
That certainly applied to Riggio and his entourage, as they celebrated the thrilling victory of Samraat in the Withers Stakes (gr. III), and less than 20 minutes later had to endure the dismal performance of 9-5 favorite Noble Cornerstone in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs.
So, Riggio landed “one” at 5:20 and got hit with “two” at 5:39.
After getting the first one out of the way, Riggio and company felt confident that at days end they not only would have two leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), but a pair of top New York-breds by Riggio’s stallion Noble Causeway, both of whom grew up as paddock buddies on Riggio’s My Meadowview Farm near Water Mill, N.Y.
As they squeezed into the paddock judge’s office, everyone was still on an emotional high after witnessing one of the most exciting battles seen on the Derby trail in years, in which their undefeated and untested Samraat, coming off a 16 3/4-length romp in the state-bred Damon Runyon Stakes, earning a 95 Beyer Speed figure, outdueled the brilliant Uncle Sigh, coming off a 14 1/2-length victory in a state-bred maiden race, earning a 93 Beyer figure.
The pace-setting Uncle Sigh tried to battle back after being passed by Samraat, but Riggio’s colt held tough, winning by one length, with a gap of 10 1/4 lengths back to the third-place finisher, Scotland. coming off a third in the grade II Jerome Stakes Jan. 4. To show how close the betting public felt these two colts were, they sent them off as co-favorites at exactly 1.15- 1.
Having only a few minutes to rejoice over their big win, the Riggio group quickly turned its attention to Tampa Bay, where Riggio was thrilled when Noble Cornerstone, trained by Wesley Ward, jumped into slight favoritism over the Todd Pletcher-trained Harpoon at 9-5.
But you could feel the balloon deflate when Noble Cornerstone broke awkwardly, falling way off the pace. He never ran a lick and staggered home in seventh, beaten a dozen lengths.
As disappointed as everyone was, they at least had Samraat’s performance to fall back on, and in racing, it is necessary to look ahead and focus on the positive and not dwell on the disappointments if you wish to remain relatively sane in this emotionally taxing sport.
Riggio, who is chairman of Barnes & Noble, at first reacted to Samraat’s victory by stating in text book fashion, “That was a nice race. What were the splits?” He then asked trainer Rick Violette and jockey Jose Ortiz why the colt didn’t change leads.
Violette and Ortiz both explained that Samraat was leaning in on Uncle Sigh and it wouldn’t have been wise to risk having him lose his momentum trying to get him to change leads when he was giving his all and already getting the better of his opponent.
The person who was feeling the most emotion was Tawnia McKenzie, who, as manager of the broodmares and foals at My Meadowview, raised both Samraat and Noble Cornerstone and watched them become inseparable as babies.
“This is very emotional for me,” she said after the Withers. “These are my boys. When Samraat was born he actually came out right in my lap. The mare had gotten in a bad position and was ready to have him, so we couldn’t do anything and out he came right in the middle of the barn in my lap.
“These two were so close growing up, one never went anywhere without the other. Samraat’s barn name was Cool Hand Luke, because he was so cool and laid back. He just kind of stepped back and watched everything. He checked you out, and if he liked you he liked you and if he didn’t just don’t mess with him. Noble Cornerstone was in your pocket, in your face, ‘Here I am, pay attention to me.’ But you wouldn’t take one out without taking the other out.”
As if having both her babies running within minutes of each other wasn’t stressful and exciting enough, McKenzie said they have an A.P. Indy mare who was ready to foal any minute.
In the Withers, Uncle Sigh broke from the rail, and although Samraat outran him early, Pablo Morales, on Uncle Sigh, was intent on taking advantage of his post and took a narrow lead around the first turn. From that point on, the pair raced as a team while continuing to put distance between them and the rest of field. It was a match race, with everyone watching to see who cracked first.
“It was a long drive,” Violette said. “Uncle Sigh was kind of tested in his first race, while we hadn’t been tested at all in three starts. Hats off to both horses. They ran a huge, huge race today, and I think they'll show up later in the year. We broke really well. The only thing was, we weren't going to just surrender the lead, because then it would have been a quarter in :25 and it would have been no contest. If Uncle Sigh's connections were going to go, they were going to have to step on the gas. That was the plan: make them commit, and then we can lay off of them, and that's what happened.”
Gary Contessa, trainer of Uncle Sigh, said, “Maybe he got me on experience today; I look forward to Rocky II. That's how I feel after a race like this; this was Rocky, I'm ready for Rocky II. I think the difference was that I, having the No. 1 hole, had to set the pace. My horse isn't very experienced and I think he's really going to mature off this effort. He never stopped running. I look forward to the rematch.”
That might not be for a while, as Uncle Sigh is headed to the Gotham Stakes (gr. III), while Samraat may wait for the Wood Memorial (gr. I) unless he starts tearing the barn down.
So, it is onward on the Derby trail for Samraat, and as for Noble Cornerstone, he showed what he is capable of with his fast-closing second in the Springboard Mile in December. Between his awkward start and appearing not to handle Tampa’s sandy and quirky surface, he likely will be given another chance at another track.
Perhaps one day Samraat and Noble Cornerstone will meet up on the track and renew old acquaintances. Just don’t ask Tawnia McKenzie to root for one of her boys over the other.