There’s a certain feeling of déjà vu around Barn 38 on the backstretch of Santa Anita Park. If Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owner Tom VanMeter II have the funny feeling they’ve been here before, they’re right.
The team will send out Be Smart in Friday’s Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). Five years ago, when the World Championships were last held in Southern California, the pair walked the 2-year-old filly Be Gentle over to the paddock. Adding to the memories of the 2003 Breeders’ Cup, VanMeter also owned Victory U.S.A., who finished third to Halfbridled and Ashado in that running of the Juvenile Fillies.
And Lukas — Mr. Breeders’ Cup — has been here before more than a few times. He owns a record five wins in the Juvenile Fillies: Twilight Ridge (1985), Open Mind (’88; and running second and third with Darby Shuffle and Lea Lucinda), Flanders (’94), Cash Run (’99), and Folklore (’05).
In Be Smart, Lukas and VanMeter have a filly from the first crop of Smarty Jones who comes to the $2 million Juvenile Fillies off a runner-up effort in the Oct. 3 Darley Alcibiades (gr. I) over the Polytrack at Keeneland following a first-out maiden win at Saratoga at 49-1.
“If you look back over my history, my horses as 2-year-olds — especially the fillies — usually in their third or fourth, out run pretty big, so I look for her to move forward,” Lukas said. “We jumped into the deep end of the pool from a five-and-a-half-furlong maiden race to the grade I Alcibiades. That was a hell of a quantum leap. I was thrilled with her effort. It was against a good bunch. We feel like she earned her way in.”
She earned her way in and showed plenty of promise galloping over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface Wednesday morning.
“She galloped today, and then he let her run down the lane the last eighth just to let her know that last part is where she needs to put her nose down,” VanMeter said, then added with a sly grin: “She could run really well here; I’m not a real overconfident guy. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I think she could run really, really well here.”
“She seems to handle it well,” Lukas said, noting rider C.T. Lang was aboard. “In my experiences with the synthetic tracks, is that it’s not the gallops or even the short breezes, it’s the last three-eighths when they go two turns when it seems like it gets to them. It’s hard to judge how the horses are doing just training over it until you ask them to run over it in a two-turn race.”
Be Smart was on the front end of the Alcibiades, and held well down the lane for the runner-up spot at Keeneland. It was 3 1/4 lengths back to the third-place finisher. In the Breeders’ Cup, the two main dangers, Stardom Bound and Alcibiades winner Dream Empress, both come from off the pace.
“I was looking at the chart of every race on Pro-Ride this month and, it looks like to me, the overwhelming majority of the winners are forwardly placed,” VanMeter said.
VanMeter was forwardly placed when he bought into Be Smart. Lukas purchased the filly at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $325,000, but didn’t have a client for her at the time.
“When she came up at the sale, I was standing with a couple of other guys and I said, ‘Wow, what’s this here? I love this one. I’m going to have to follow this one up,’ ” Lukas said. “They said, ‘She’s a Smarty Jones.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter what she is; this one is the real deal. She fits all of my parameters.’ So I bought her.”
Two weeks after the sale, Lukas was preparing to ship his purchases out to Florida, and VanMeter caught a closer look at Be Smart.
“I said, ‘What have you done with that chestnut filly?’ ” VanMeter asked. “He said, ‘I haven’t done anything with her. I’m going to divide her up.’ He wanted to get four owners in on her. I said, ‘I’ll take her.’ ”
VanMeter owns 75% of Be Smart. He put one of his old KA fraternity brothers, Ken Meng, in on the other 25%.
“She’s a big, striking, imposing filly is what she is,” VanMeter said. “Her dam, Eishin Bridle (by Unbridled), is a half-sister to Buddha (by Unbridled’s Song); the grandmonther is Cahooters, and the family gets really good down in there. She’s bred to go and she has the look.”
On Friday, Lukas and VanMeter might be looking a lot smarter.