To Paul Saylor, this year's Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) is a "pinch yourself situation on a daily, if not hourly, basis." Saylor is the owner of Fleet Indian, a top contender in the $2-million race. He also was a member of the partnership that raced Ashado, who captured the Distaff in 2004 and finished third in the 1 1/8-mile event in 2005.
"Who the hell in his right mind would ever envision you would have another really good mare, so soon anyway, after Ashado?" Saylor said. "To be honest, you don't plan for these things. I'm in a pretty unusual position."
Saylor purchased Fleet Indian, through Dapple Bloodstock, for $290,000 at this year's Keeneland January sale. Since then, the 5-year-old daughter of Indian Charlie
has reeled off six consecutive victories, stretching a win streak to eight that dates back to last November while running mostly on or near the lead.
"People have told me, 'What an astute purchase you've made,' but I attribute it to dumb luck, frankly," Saylor said. "I was at Keeneland blindly walking along. I looked up on the hill, and there she was. She looked about 10 feet tall, and I said, 'Man, who is that?' When I bought her, I thought, 'OK, she's a New York-bred; we should have some fun in the New York-bred stakes.' "
But Fleet Indian has exceeded, by far, that modest expectation. She rolled to a 5 1/2-length victory in the Delaware Handicap (gr. II) in her fourth race this season, and followed that win with a 4 1/4-length romp in the Personal Ensign Stakes (gr. I) over Balletto. However, Balletto almost got her revenge in the Beldame Stakes (gr. I); Fleet Indian beat her by only a head.
"She broke terribly, and Balletto had, for her, what was a dream trip, but Fleet Indian still prevailed, so we're pretty enthusiastic," Saylor said. "While I didn't want to necessarily see her have to work that hard, it answered the question, 'If somebody looks her in the eye, is she going to wilt or not?' She didn't wilt."
While Saylor wishes Fleet Indian would handle the starting gate better--she's had problems there in the past--he doesn't think much can be done to improve her behavior.
"Because she's such a large horse--she's got to be 17 hands or extremely close to it--I just think she's really uncomfortable in there," Saylor said. "I noticed, watching the reruns of the Beldame, that she was moving around a good bit right before the break. I think it's something we just have to contend with unless we chop six inches off her butt. Her trainer, Todd Pletcher, is good, but I don't think he can do that."
Balletto is scheduled to challenge Fleet Indian again in the Distaff, and there will be a new major rival from California, Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (gr. I) winner Healthy Addiction, who finished last in the 2005 Distaff. Another threat is Alabama (gr. I) and Gazelle (gr. I) Stakes winner Pine Island, who is managed by the same team--the Phipps Stable and trainer Shug McGaughey--that scored in last year's Distaff with Pleasant Home. The Phipps family and McGaughey also have notched other Distaff wins with Inside Information in 1995 and Personal Ensign in 1988.
Saylor thinks Happy Ticket, who was 11th in the 2005 Distaff, and Fleet Indian's stablemate, Spun Sugar (a homebred for Stronach Stables), will be tough even though they recently were beaten over Keeneland's Polytrack surface in the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (gr. I) by Asi Siempre, who is also pre-entered.
"Happy Ticket always scared the hell out of me when we were running against her with Ashado, and Spun Sugar has been so tough," Saylor said. "Anything can happen, especially in the Breeders' Cup, so I refuse to get cocky."