Jonathan Sheppard's hands were trembling as he held his binoculars to his eyes. Even after all the years and all his success, the Hall of Fame trainer could not steel himself from the emotion of the moment, from the scene that was playing out in front of him on Aug. 11 at Saratoga Race Course. This was something different.
With Anticipation, the gray gelding Sheppard trains for George Strawbridge Jr.'s Augustin Stable, was moving along easily under Pat Day on the lead of the Sword Dancer Invitational (gr. IT). To his inside pressing the pace was Slew Valley, an uncomfortable handful for jockey John Velazquez.
Sitting a stalking trip a couple of lengths behind the leaders was John's Call, the 10-year-old gelding, winner of the race in 2000, and Ela Athena, a world-traveler based in England making her seventh consecutive start against top-class males. At the back of the field of nine was the favorite, Centennial Farms' King Cugat, the multiple graded stakes winner trying 12 furlongs for the first time for trainer Bill Mott and jockey Jerry Bailey.
Starting from the outside, With Anticipation quickly made the lead, a position he never surrendered despite the constant challenge of Slew Valley and a sharp late rally by King Cugat. With Anticipation completed the three-turn Sword Dancer in 2:26.41, three-quarters of a length ahead of King Cugat.
Sheppard is steeplechase racing's leading money-winning trainer and it was his work with jumpers that earned him his spot in the Hall of Fame in 1990. Though he has won Saratoga's premier steeplechase event, the New York Turf Writers' Cup (NSA-I) 10 times, the Sword Dancer was his first grade I flat victory at America's oldest racetrack.
The Sword Dancer win took some of the sting out of With Anticipation's disqualification as the winner of the United Nations Handicap (gr. IT) on July 1 at Monmouth Park. In the United Nations, the son of Relaunch out of Fran's Valentine was DQ'd and placed second to Senure for drifting out in the stretch.
From his seat in the clubhouse, Sheppard watched as Day and With Anticipation--a dirt horse moved to the turf this year--cut early fractions of :23.61, :47.93, and 1:12.87. The times were rather quick, Sheppard said he thought, considering the length of the race and the tighter turns of Saratoga's inner turf course.
"But he is a fast horse," Sheppard said. "He won going a flat mile at Keeneland setting fast fractions. And he seems to be able to do it fairly effortlessly. More than the fractions almost, I was concerned when I was seeing how the race was shaping up a little bit. The horse we were running with is a legitimately good horse. It wasn't like some 50-1 shot that you figure is going to throw in the towel at the eighth pole. He is a nice horse.
"And I could see John's Call sitting right behind us getting ready to pounce if he could. And I could see King Cugat back there on the rail getting a ground-saving trip and he was obviously going to be a big threat. You always have to respect Mott and Bailey.
"But he actually seemed to draw off rather decisively. It was a great performance."
Day negotiated a clean trip, putting Slew Valley away at the eighth pole, while having enough left to withstand King Cugat's late charge.
"He was a little aggressive early, probably more aggressive than I would have liked him, but he was moving nice up underneath of me at all times and felt comfortable," Day said.
"When I came off the turn, he responded and was running on."
King Cugat answered any questions handling 12 furlongs, but he and Bailey had some traffic trouble. As they ran along the hedge, "he just kept getting in tight quarters," Mott said. "He had to check three different times during the race. That was enough to make the difference in the margin of victory. Getting a perfect trip on a course like this is tough.
"The distance didn't seem to be a problem," Mott continued. "The horse had a lot of run. I have to be happy about that. I'm not happy that we didn't reach the winner's circle."
Bailey couldn't find a path inside and was forced to bring King Cugat wide to make his run.
"We lost a lot of ground turning for home," Bailey said. "Maybe that cost us the race. He doesn't like to run inside of horses. He still finished up with a game run."
Jockey Gary Stevens told trainer Michael Jarvis that Ela Athena had some trouble with the footing in the last half-mile when the pace quickened. She finished sixth, about four lengths behind With Anticipation.
A few feet from the scale in the winner's enclosure, jockey John Velazquez gave trainer Michael Dickinson a lengthy description of his trip on Rich Meadow Farm's Slew Valley, who stayed on to finish third.
"He's still a very inexperienced horse," Dickinson said. "He surprised us by suddenly being a bit keen. So we need to relax him.
"Johnny said he was too rank today. The winner was just loping along on the lead and our guy was on the muscle. I think when we teach him to rate, he'll be one of the best grass horses in the country. He nearly is now."
John's Call was one of the big stories of the 2000 Saratoga meet with his victory in the Sword Dancer. He went on to win the Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT) and ran third in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT). He could not replicate the magic of last summer and wound up finishing last. His owner, Douglas Joyce, speculated the 10-year-old gelding might have been affected by the heat and humidity of the previous week.
Nonetheless, the Saratoga crowd of 31,209 gave John's Call a loud ovation when jockey Jean-Luc Samyn brought him back to be unsaddled.
"It's a thrill to come up here and have the horse that is the emotional favorite," Joyce said. "I'm sorry for all those people out there that we weren't able to pull through for them. It doesn't always happen that way and that's racing."
The morning after the race, trainer Tom Voss said John's Call bled during the Sword Dancer.
For Strawbridge, the Sword Dancer was another example of the vagaries of breeding and racing Thoroughbreds.
"To have a homebred win a grade I race is fantastic," he said. "It really is a trite word, but it's about the only word I can think of. The amazing thing to me is that we try fairly hard to get dirt horses because that's what I'd like to see, some dirt horses.
"This horse was a good horse, but he's obviously a superior turf horse. That wasn't the idea of the breeding program. I bred a grade I-winning mare on the dirt to a grade I-level horse on the dirt and come up with a turf horse. So I can't seem to avoid having a turf horse, no matter what I do. As long as they're this good, so what?" SOLID GOLD
Penny's Gold extended her unbeaten record in the U.S. to four races with a three-quarter-length victory over Babae in the Ballston Spa Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT) on Aug. 12.
Under Bailey, Overbrook Farm's homebred daughter of Kingmambo out of Penny's Valentine sat back off the early pace of :23.08 and :46.10 set by Gaviola. Penny's Gold moved to the front at the top of the stretch and completed the 1 1/16-mile turf race in 1:40.69. It was Bailey's eighth victory in the first 17 stakes races run in the meet. He won four of the first five turf stakes.
Irving's Baby had everything her way in the Glens Falls Handicap on Aug. 10. The 1 1/4-mile race was taken off the turf and the field of 10 scratched down to four runners, including Irving's Baby, who had won the Delaware Handicap (gr. III) on July 22. Bailey took the Quiet American filly to the lead out of the gate, she led at every call, and drew off to a 6 3/4-length victory.