LAST TO FIRST
Trainer Tom Skiffington couldn't believe his ears when Janet Aron asked him to try and buy her a horse from her native South Africa. Skiffington, who met Janet and Robert Aron through the show horse world--their daughters both compete--was happy to help them purchase a Thoroughbred. But from South Africa?
Skiffington knew two things about South Africa: he used to sell a few stallion prospects there, horses that didn't work out for Shadwell Farm; and it was the birthplace of Hawaii, one of the few South African horses he could even name.
Fate must have been working overtime on this one.
A call to an agent not only revealed there was a horse for sale in South Africa, but she was a champion filly who as a 3-year-old defeated older horses in a race in which she beat a track record set by Hawaii. What's more, if Skiffington didn't purchase Spook Express, her owners were sending her to Bob Baffert in California.
Skiffington was impressed with the information, but he wanted to see a tape of Spook Express' races. When he viewed it, "I fell in love with her," the trainer said after saddling the 7-year-old mare to win the WinStar Galaxy Stakes (gr. IIT) at Keeneland Oct. 5.
The easiest thing to notice on a Spook Express tape is she runs only one way, from extremely far back. Which is what brought Skiffington to the decision to run in the WinStar.
"Of the four races that were options, this one figured to have the fullest field," he said. "Her last two races, she's 15-20 lengths off England's Legend, who is galloping along on the lead. Plus, in her last start (the Beverly D, gr. IT, at Arlington), the turf was boggy."
In the 1 3/16-mile WinStar against eight other fillies and mares, Spook Express was in her familiar spot for much of the running. But jockey Mike Smith said, "She was last, but last in hand."
Spook Express was last until the field turned for home and all the early leaders--Crystal Sea, Doubly Fun, and Megans Bluff--began to back up. Spook Express shot to the lead earlier than usual, then fought off a challenge from Solvig to get her biggest win to date.
The daughter of Comic Blush, who covered the distance in 1:54.24, was winning for the 11th time in 20 races. Spook Express would have to be supplemented to the Breeders' Cup, but Skiffington wouldn't rule it out. More likely, he said, is the Matriarch Stakes (gr. IT) at Hollywood Park Nov. 25.
Either way, Spook Express will be looking for a new owner in November. She is slated to be sold in the Keeneland November sale. DECISION TIME
There may be a clear favorite now for the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT). Or maybe not.
Hap was a solid winner of the Shadwell Keeneland Turf Mile (gr. II) on Oct. 7, but trainer Bill Mott said he is inclined to stick with his "first instinct."
That instinct is to run Hap in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) over 12 furlongs.
"We've just won at a mile, so that would be the conservative and easy thing to do," Mott said. "I know he can get a mile but I don't know that he can get a mile and a half. Still, a lot of the time, you're best off going with your first instincts."
Last year, Mott's instinct was the Mile, in which Hap finished ninth, but was beaten less than five lengths by War Chant.
Hap has had five starts this year, the first three handicap wins at 1 1/8 miles: the Dixie (gr. IIT) at Pimlico, the New Hampshire Sweepstakes (gr. IIIT) at Rockingham, and the Bernard Baruch (gr. IIT) at Saratoga. He then tried 10 furlongs, running second by three lengths to Silvano in the Arlington Million (gr. IT) over a yielding turf course.
The difference at Keeneland, jockey Jerry Bailey said, was Hap "really got a hold of this turf course." The 5-year-old Theatrical horse had never won in four previous starts at a mile, but Bailey said, "he really put himself in this race."
Hap broke sharp, and Bailey eased him back as North East Bound, who led every step of last year's Breeders' Cup Mile except the last one, took the lead while trapped by Where's Taylor.
The leaders went in fractions of :23.88, :47.41, and 1:12 before North East Bound gave up the fight and longshot Where's Taylor looked like he might get away under Craig Perret. Brahms began to make a run on the inside, but had to take up when a tiring North East Bound backed up in front of him.
Down the stretch, Hap caught Where's Taylor as Aly's Alley also made a challenge. Gary Stevens had steered Brahms out of trouble, but it was too late. Hap won by 1 1/2 lengths over Where's Taylor, who finished a determined head in front of Aly's Alley. Brahms wound up fourth. Favored Hap ran the mile in 1:35.98. He is owned by the Allen Paulson Living Trust.
ISN'T IT SIPHONIC?
"Congratulations," Churchill Downs chairman of the board Carl Pollard said to trainer Dave Hofmans after Starrer finished second in the Spinster. A day earlier, Hofmans had saddled Siphonic to win the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. II) in just his second start. Siphonic was bred in partnership by Pollard's Hermitage Farm and sold by the Thoroughbred nursery as a yearling at Keeneland for $210,000.
The 2-year-old Siphon colt broke his maiden at Del Mar on Aug. 26. With Chris McCarron in from California for the ride, Siphonic was impressive in the Breeders' Futurity, winning by six lengths. Owned by John Amerman's Amerman Racing, he ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.79.
Hofmans said both Starrer and Siphonic were headed to the Breeders' Cup.
TAKE A LOOK
"She was the look of the paddock," trainer Eoin Harty said after the Walmac Alcibiades Stakes (gr. II). He was speaking of Take Charge Lady, the second straight Alcibiades winner trained by Ken McPeek. Take Charge Lady, by Dehere, is undefeated in three starts and is another headed next to Belmont Park for the Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup.
A large, good-looking filly, Harty was not alone among those who thought Take Charge Lady resembled a mature woman racing against young girls. Harty's Jilbab finished sixth.
"She's just a class act. She's shown it from the beginning," said McPeek, who picked Take Charge Lady out and bought her for $175,000 for Jerry and Faye Bach's Select Stable. The couple also owns Repent, who won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile (gr. III) on Sept. 22.
Under Tony D'Amico, Take Charge Lady beat Never Out by a length, covering the 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.23. YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE
David Holloway celebrated his 71st birthday at Keeneland with relatives and friends. He got the birthday present he wanted, a win by his Bet On Sunshine in the Phoenix Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. III). The 9-year-old Bet Big gelding earned his third trip to the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I). Bet On Sunshine finished third last year in Kona Gold's record-setting performance, and also ran third in the 1997 running when he was "just" five.
Trained by Paul McGee and ridden by Calvin Borel, Bet On Sunshine won the Phoenix by 1 3/4 lengths. It was the fifth year Bet On Sunshine had run in the Phoenix.