Trainer Todd Pletcher had a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend.
Pletcher not only set the record for earnings in a year at more than $19.5 million and counting, but also won a fistful of stakes -- some of them important guideposts to next year's racing.
Asked about setting the season earnings record, Pletcher said, "That's nice," preferring to talk about his clients and the horses he's handled.
"It's hard to put these things in perspective until later on," he said. "Sometimes you appreciate things more later on when you try to go back and do it again. It's been a great year. Everything clicked."
Pletcher's biggest pot of the weekend was Friday's $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. Magna Graduate pressed the pace early, got the lead after 6 furlongs, then battled with Suave through the final quarter mile before winning by a head. Perfect Drift rallied from far back to take third but was 4 lengths behind the runner-up. Magna Graduate, a 3-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Honor Grades, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.89 under John Velazquez. The colt is owned by Elisabeth Alexander. "Every time I asked him for a little bit more, he gave me that little bit more," said Velazquez. "I was confident in him."
In Saturday's $350,000 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, Pletcher saddled Purge to a 25-1 upset victory. Rallying from far back under Garrett Gomez, Purge weaved through traffic and got the lead at the sixteenth pole. The 4-year-old son of Pulpit was in full stride at the wire, winning by 3 3/4 lengths over Mass Media. Gygistar was third and the favorite, Badge of Silver, faded badly to finish eighth. Purge is headed to a stud career at the Vinery in Kentucky as the winner of six races from 15 starts and just over $900,000.
One race earlier, Pletcher had the odds-on favorite in the Remsen Stakes for 2-year-olds and delivered the goods again. This time it was Bluegrass Cat, who went quickly to the fore and valiantly battled with Flashy Bull until midstretch, then pulled clear to beat that rival by 1 3/4 length. Parkhimonbroadway was third. Bluegrass Cat, a WinStar Farm homebred son of Storm Cat, ran 9 furlongs in 1:52.20 with John Velazquez in the irons. "He's a nice horse and I look forward to next year," winning jockey Cornelio Velazquez said.
And one race earlier than that, Pletcher saddled the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers in the $200,000 Demoiselle Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at Aqueduct. Cinderella's Dream got within a head of eventual winner Wonder Lady Anne L before fading to lose by 2 3/4 lengths. Wait a While was third and Love Locket was fourth.
In other weekend events:
Alkaased picked up the pieces after a pace duel in Sunday's 2005 Japan Cup, but then just did hold on to win in a photo finish over Heart's Cry, which rallied from the back of the field and split horses in the late going to reach contention. Defending champion Zenno Rob Roy was third as his late bid flattened out. British star mare Ouija Board was fifth. "When I passed the post, I thought I had won," said winning jockey Frankie Dettori. "But the photo decision took quite a long time by Japanese standards. I didn't want to start celebrating until I saw my number up on the board." Dettori previously won the Japan Cup on Singspiel and Falbrav. Alkassed, a son of Kingmambo, trained by Luca Cumani, finished in the record 2:22.1. Other international runners were non-factors. Bago was home eighth, Better Talk Now 12th, Warrsan 13th and King's Drama 16th.
Kane Hekii, the favorite, had all he could do to win Saturday's sixth running of the Japan Cup Dirt at Tokyo. Under local favorite Yutaka Take, Kane Hekii surged to the front with about 300 meters to go and the crowd expected him to pull away. But first, the 3-year-old son of Fuji Kiseki (and grandson of Sunday Silence) had to dispose of an inside threat from Star King Man, with Kent Desormeaux aboard. And, as Star King Man's run stalled, another challenger, Seeking the Dia, ranged up alongside and even put a nose in front. Kane Hekii battled back, winning by the bob of a head. The three international runners -- Lava Man, Tap Day and Eccentric -- finished 11th, 13th and last. Kane Hekii has won seven of his eight starts on the dirt track, losing only when it missed the break in its last start and finished second.
The Asian Mile Challenge will be expanded from two races to four next year, with purse and bonus money worth about $12.6 million, racing officials announced Saturday in Tokyo. The 2005 Challenge included the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Champion's Mile and the Yasuda Kinen in Tokyo. For 2006, it also will include the March 4 Melbourne Racing Club's Futurity Stakes the Dubai Racing Club's Dubai Duty Free on March 25. The Hong Kong leg will be run May 7 and the Tokyo race is slated for June 4. Total purse money is about $8.6 million. A horse winning all four legs would earn a $4 million bonus. Three wins would bring $2 million and two wins, $1 million. Officials of all four jurisdictions indicated international competition is important to the future of racing. "We currently find ourselves in an era of international racing," said Dubai Chief Executive Officer Frank Gabriel. "Concepts such as the Asian Mile Challenge are the way forward. Cooperation among racing clubs around the world is paramount and the Dubai Racing Club is extremely pleased to be associated with this series." Lawrence Wong, chairman of the Asian Racing Federation and CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said cooperation of all venues was needed for "expansion of the series from two legs to four legs, the development of major multimillion-dollar bonus schemes for horses who can win multiple legs of the challenge and the commitment to a marketing and branding campaign."
The 2006 Kentucky Derby
As 2005 racing winds down in North America, thoughts turn to the first Saturday in May and the twin spires of Churchill Downs. Historically, Kentucky Derby winners have some experience as 2-year-olds and time's short to get that. Some weekend action among the potential derby contenders:
-- Private Vow, a dismal last in the recent Breeders' Cup Juvenile when his jockey's reins broke, rebounded with a convincing victory in Saturday's $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. The Kentucky-bred son of Broken Vow sat behind pace-setting High Cotton early, took the lead at the top of the stretch and won by 2 1/4 lengths. High Cotton held second and Hyte Regency was third. Private Vow, with Shaun Bridgmohan up, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.80 over the track that will be the site of not only the derby but also next year's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. "Nothing will make up for the lost opportunity of the Breeders' Cup," said winning trainer Steve Asmussen. "But now he's a multiple graded stakes winner in five lifetime starts. He has a two-turn win over the Churchill surface and now, without a doubt or other ideas, you figure out how do you get back here the first Saturday in May with the most horse possible."
-- Bob and John, the overwhelming odds-on favorite, was home first easily in Saturday's $100,000 Real Quiet Stakes at Hollywood Park, beating Genre by 6 lengths. But the stewards ruled the favorite had interfered with third-place finisher Kissin Knight in the stretch run and set Bob and John down to third. Genre, promoted to the win, is a British-bred son of Orpen, owned by David and Paul Mueller and trained by Ben Cecil. Martin Pedroza rode Genre. Victor Espinoza was up on Bob and John, a Bob Baffert trainee. "This was just not right," Espinoza said of the DQ. "Not for the horse. Not for the public. I could have won by 20 lengths, by half of the stretch, if I'd wanted. Maybe even longer than that." Nonetheless, he said, Bob and John "is going to be unbelievable. I think he's going to be going to the Kentucky Derby."
-- As noted above, Bluegrass Cat handily won Saturday's $200,000 Remsen at Aqueduct.
-- Seaside Retreat sat near the back of the pack early in Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Display Stakes at Woodbine near Toronto, came four-wide into the stretch and went on to win by 3 3/4 lengths over Ports N Porsches. Bridgeout was third. Seaside Retreat is a Kentucky-bred son of King Cugat, owned by Will Farish Jr. Patrick Husbands rode the colt over 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.90.
-- Nine Best fought for the lead in Saturday's $75,000 H. Steward Mitchell Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland, got the advantage after a half mile and went on to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Dancehall Fever. Creve Coeur, the favorite, was third. Nine Best, a Kentucky-bred son of Crafty Friend, got 7 furlongs in 1:26.45 under Rodney Soodeen.
The 2006 Kentucky Oaks
Not to forget the fillies with visions of lilies dancing in their heads ...
-- French Park, with Mark Guidry riding, rallied from mid-pack to win Saturday's $200,000 Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs by 3/4 of a length over She Says It Best. Lady Danza was third. French Park, a daughter of Ecton Park, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:47.26, enduring some bumping while working toward the lead. She remained unbeaten, having earlier broken her maiden by 12 1/2 lengths at Keeneland and won the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill. "She never gave up," said Guidry. "Just never gave up. ... She's a real gutsy filly."
-- Wonder Lady Anne L rallied to win Saturday's $200,000 Demoiselle Stakes at Aqueduct by 2 3/4 lengths from Cinderella's Dream. Wait a While was third. Wonder Lady Anne L, a daughter of Real Quiet, ran 9 furlongs in 1:52.85 with Cornelio Velasquez up. "I told Cornelio that I didn't want her to go out to the lead," said winning trainer Richard Dutrow. "We wanted her to relax in the first part."
-- Balance led most of the way to a 1 3/4-length victory over Sweet Fourty in Sunday's $100,000 Sharp Cat Stakes at Hollywood Park. Blance, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Thunder Gulch, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.58 for Victor Espinoza. Talullah Lula was home third.
-- Celestial Legend dueled for the lead in Saturday's $75,000 Toddler Stakes at Laurel Park, got it leaving the turn and took charge in the stretch, winning off by 3 lengths. Sea Pines was second and Painted Rose third. Celestial Legend, a Maryland-bred filly by City Zip, got 7 furlongs in 1:23.73 with Ryan Fogelsonger aboard.
In other weekend racing:
In Thursday's $300,000 Falls City Handicap for fillies and mares, Indian Vale stalked the pace set by Flying Glitter, took the lead on the turn for home and drew clear to win by an easy 6 1/2 lengths. Pampered Princess was second and Miss Fortunate was third. Indian Vale, a 3-year-old, Ontario-bred filly by A.P. Indy, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:50.25 for jockey John Velazquez. Indian Vale has won five of its six starts, losing only in the Cotillion Handicap at Philly Park under Angel Cordero Jr. "It's a shame she got a late start to the season," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher, "because I think she's probably one of the best -- if not the best -- 3-year-old fillies around.
On Friday's undercard, Strength and Honor led from gate to wire in winning the $70,000 Distorted Humor Handicap. At the line, the 6-year-old Carson City gelding bested With Distinction by 3/4 length. Social Probation was third, 4 1/2 lengths farther in arrears. Strength and Honor ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.90 under Garrett Gomez.
Stellar Jayne, a disappointing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff a month ago, rallied through the stretch to win Friday's $150,000 Top Flight Handicap by 1/2 length over Bohemian Lady. Seeking the Ante was third. Stellar Jayne, with Jerry Bailey in the irons, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.94. She is a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Wild Rush, owned by Godolphin Racing. Before the Breeders' Cup, Stellar Jayne won the Ruffian at Belmont on Sept. 11. "We were a little disappointed we finished fourth in the Distaff," said Rick Mettee, assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor. Now, the filly will be retired for breeding.
On Thanksgiving Day, Attila's Storm, the fourth-place finisher in the recent Breeders' Cup Sprint, led from gate to wire in winning the $100,000 Fall Highweight Handicap by a neck over Voodoo. Super Fuse was another neck back in third. Toting 126 pounds, Attila's Storm ran the 6 furlongs in 1:09.30 with Pablo Morales in the irons, subbing for Ramon Dominguez, who was caught in traffic on his way to the track. The 3-year-old Forest Wildcat colt was bred in Kentucky and trained by Richard Schosberg. "He's a good, young rider," Schosberg said of Morales, a 17-year-old apprentice. "The instructions were that he is a real fast horse and he's going to come out on top."
Golden Gate Fields
Trickey Trevor started in front in Friday's $100,000 Forty-Niner Handicap and stayed there, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over Melanyhasthepapers. My Creed was third. Trickey Trevor, a 6-year-old, Florida-bred son of Demaloot Demashoot, ran 1 1/16 mile on a wet-fast track under Russell Baze in 1:41.32.
Premier Dance battled gamely the whole way 'round in Friday's $80,000 Eddy County Stakes for 2-year-olds, exchanging the lead before edging clear in deep stretch to win by 1/2 length over Wait in Line. Might Be Hooked, the third member of the pace brigade, held on for third, another 1/2 length back. Premier Dance is a Florida-bred colt by Premiership.
Thursday, Blue Song took the early lead in the $75,000 Chaves County Stakes for fillies and mares, surrendered the advantage midway through but came again to win by 1/2 length over Show Me Your Glory. Good Humor Gal was third. Blue Song is a 4-year-old, Florida-bred filly by Sultry Song. It run the 1 mile in 1:37.20.
Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs
Zarb's Dahar stalked the pace in Thursday's $75,000 Thanksgiving Handicap, came wide into the lane and took off, winning by a thankful 5 1/4 lengths over Rodeo's Castle. Premier Performer finished third. Zarb's Dahar, with Gerard Melancon aboard, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.07. The winner is a 5-year-old, Louisiana-bred gelding by Zarbyev.
Saturday, More Than Promised delivered on its even-money offer in the $75,000 Pago Hop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. After trailing most of the field, the More Than Ready filly got through between rivals at the top of the lane and eased clear to win by 3 lengths over Enduring Will. Leestown Fantasie was third. More Than Promised, with Luis Quinonez in the irons, ran 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:42.98.
News and notes
Hall of Famer and movie star Gary Stevens has retired from riding for a third time and this time says it's for good. The Idaho native rode what he says will be his last race on Saturday at Churchill Downs, finishing second aboard the favorite, Louve Royale. Stevens, who won more than 5,000 races in a 25-year career, hung up his tack for the first time in 1999, citing chronic knee pain, but returned to action the following year. His second retirement, during parts of 2002 and 2003, allowed him time to play jockey George Woolf in the motion picture "Seabiscuit."