A late-morning rain storm threatened to spoil the Ocala Breeders' Sale Co.'s Day of Champions races in Ocala, Fla., Jan. 21, but the fast-moving system failed to dampen the enthusiasm of an energetic crowd willing to brave the elements for the 25th anniversary edition of the festive day of racing.
Once the inclement weather cleared following the first race, the day belonged to trainer Wesley Ward and jockey Kent Desormeaux, who teamed to win two of the four Thoroughbred stakes events on the five-race program.
The well-traveled Here's Johnny, owned by David Reid's Ice Win Stable, captured the colt and gelding division of the $100,000 OBS Champions Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the Ocala Training Center SafeTrack synthetic surface.
The recipient of a well-timed ride from Desormeaux, Here's Johnny tracked the early pace from third, ranged up three-wide around the far turn, and engaged pacesetter Canzoni in the lane. Canzoni proved a stubborn foe along the inside, but Here's Johnny got his nose in front when it counted most and prevailed by the slimmest of margins in 1:45.80.
"I had a few anxious moments, but I'm always anxious," Ward said. "There's a reason (Desormeaux) has more than 5,000 wins."
After breaking his maiden sprinting five furlongs on the turf in his Churchill Downs debut last June, Ward sent Here's Johnny to France for the Prix de la Vallee d'Auge Stakes at Deauville. The Florida-bred son of Colonel John finished a close fourth under David Flores.
Since returning to the United States, Here's Johnny has notched a couple of stakes-placings on the turf. He finished second in both the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Stakes and the Juvenile Turf Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Bred by Rick Sutherland, Here's Johnny sold for $220,000 from Beth Bayer's consignment to top the 2012 OBS August selected sale of yearlings.
Content to stalk pacesetter Sliver of Hope from second down the backstretch, Ruslana moved to engage that rival at the head of the lane. Ruslana put away the early leader and held at bay late runs from Henny Jenney and Epic Story to win clear by 1 3/4 lengths. She stopped the clock in 1:10.80 for six furlongs.
Ward was counting on the synthetic surface agreeing with his charge because Ruslana broke her maiden in impressive fashion at Keeneland last October.
"She has trained her whole life at Keeneland," Ward said. "She just loves the synthetic. We've been pointing her to this race."
Ward indicated the Beaumont Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland could be next for Ruslana, who was sold for $70,000 by Wavertree Stables (Ciaran Dunne), agent, at the 2013 OBS spring sale of 2-year-olds in training. Bred in Maryland by Ned Williams, Mike Matese, and Dr. Morgan Dove, the daughter of City Zip now sports a 5-2-1-0 record and has earned $76,115.
The filly division of the $100,000 OBS Championship Stakes went to William McCarty's Naughty Holiday. Ridden by Javier Castellano, Naughty Holiday rallied between horses on the far turn, and despite drifting in the stretch, shook clear late to score by 1 1/2 lengths over runner-up Babe's Ruler. Holiday Magic closed ground late to finish third.
Trained by David Fawkes, Naughty Holiday covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.60.
"It obviously didn't bother her," Fawkes said of Naughty Holiday's first start on a synthetic surface.
Sold for $40,000 by Niall Brennan Stables, agent at the 2013 OBS spring sale of 2-year-olds in training, Naughty Holiday is now a winner in two of three lifetime starts and boasts earnings of $92,400–more than double her purchase price. The daughter of Harlan's Holiday was bred in Kentucky by Totem Thoroughbreds.
"She had a great shoulder when I saw her at the sale and nice presence," Fawkes said. "But she looked a little immature. We sent her back home with Niall, and he did a wonderful job with her. Once I got her back at the track she had grown up a ton."
Rustlewood Farm's homebred Prudhoe Bay saved ground along the rail in the stretch and got up late under Paco Lopez to win the colts and geldings division of the $50,000 OBS Sprint Stakes. Trained by Eddie Plesa Jr., Prudhoe Bay traveled six furlongs in 1:10.
Prudhoe Bay broke his maiden at first asking last November at Gulfstream. He finished sixth in his previous start after prompting the early pace in a Gulfstream allowance race at one mile.
The Florida-bred son of Songandaprayer was consigned by Summerfield, agent to the 2012 OBS August selected sale of yearlings but was scratched due to bucked shins. He is now a two-time winner and has earned $56,535.
"If you go to place a bet on a horse and you get the wrong ticket, you don't turn it back in," George Russell, who owns Rustlewood Farm with wife, Karen, said in explaining the turn of events that kept the couple from parting with the colt. "We think highly of him. This was a big race."
This year's Champions Day marked the first time pari-mutuel wagering was available for fans in attendance. Patrons were able to place bets on the card's first two races–a Quarter Horse allowance race at 220 yards and the filly division of the $50,000 OBS Sprint Stakes–both races run under OBS' Quarter Horse permit.
According to Equibase charts, $9,391 was wagered to win, place, and show on the OBS Sprint Stakes, and $3,422 to win, place, and show on the Quarter Horse race that kicked off the card. Total handle on the first two races, according to OBS, registered $15,939.
"It turned out to be a very nice day," OBS president Tom Ventura said. "It's nice when horses can sell well for us, but it's even better when they can run."