If the Donn was Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte," the following day's Deputy Minister Handicap (gr. III) enlarged a more modern work of art: "Sunday Afternoon at Gulfstream With Mark and Jerry."
When Istintaj crossed the wire first in the 6 1/2-furlong race, it marked the third consecutive Sunday--and fifth time overall in the meet's first five weeks--that Bailey and trainer Mark Hennig had posed together in the winner's circle following a stakes race.
It also continued an equally remarkable streak for the 43-year-old rider of booting home four straight stakes winners. He had swept the track's features the previous weekend by winning the Hutcheson Stakes (gr. II) aboard Yonaguska and the Forward Gal Stakes (gr. III) for Hennig on Gold Mover. Then, after being honored as the country's best jockey in 2000, he repeated the feat.
"I'm not doing anything differently; it's just a matter of being on the right horse," said Bailey, who noted each of the wins was aboard a favorite, "You don't win four stakes races by looking up on the board and seeing 15-1."
Sitting astride Shadwell Stable's homebred son of Nureyev in the moments before the Deputy Minister's start, however, Bailey was simply doing his best to stay in the saddle. Just like in the 5-year-old's last race, a victory in the Mr. Prospector Handicap (gr. III) on Jan. 15, Istintaj was pitching a fit in the starting gate.
"We school this son of a gun in the gate between races and he does it perfectly," exclaimed the perplexed but not dissatisfied trainer. "I guess we'll have to do it some more."
Should Istintaj continue with equally good results through the remainder of his campaign--Hennig mentioned the Carter Handicap (gr. I) as the key goal for the first half of the year--his pre-race antics will be quickly erased by his performance once the running starts. When Istintaj was turned over to Hennig's care from brother-in-law Kiaran McLaughlin upon McLaughlin's departure for Dubai in November, he had been winless against stakes company. Now, after enjoying his stay in South Florida as much as any spring-breaker, the horse's position among the ranks of East Coast sprinters is in inverse proportion to his size.
Istintaj is, to put it mildly, diminutive. Small. Undersized.
"Yeah, he is a tiny little thing," Hennig smiled after the race. "But it helps him maneuver around the race the way that other horses can't. In the last race Jerry was going for a hole at the same time as other riders and he was able to hit it first."
Istintaj encountered no such traffic in the smaller Deputy Minister field. He behaved gentlemanly once the gates sprang, sitting a perfect stalking trip in third within a couple of lengths of dueling pacesetters Fantastic Finish and Silver Jet. Bailey sat chilly in that position until the turn when, giving Istintaj a right-handed crack, the horse exploded, passing Fantastic Finish near the eighth pole and drawing away, holding off a late charge from Fappie's Notebook for a half-length win timed in 1:16.08.
The win pushed Istintaj's career earnings to more than $300,000 and makes him a winner of half of his 14 lifetime starts. Excepting his maiden win as a 3-year-old while racing in Great Britain, all of his wins have been under the expert guidance of Bailey, who is now six-for-seven riding the horse.
"He makes a huge difference," Hennig noted. "He gives him a perfect ride no matter what the circumstances."