Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: West Point Wows 'Em Again

Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: West Point Wows 'Em Again
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Lear's Princess
Portions reprinted from The Blood-Horse

Many have attempted to dethrone racing's supreme monarch, Rags to Riches, this year, from the fairest of maidens to the bravest of knights. They all failed. But then, in the Sept. 15 Gazelle Stakes (gr. I), came a stately, kindhearted damsel named Lear's Princess, who dared to look the “Belle of Belmont” in the eye. And when their brief skirmish was over, the Princess was being hailed “Queen Lear” by her large gathering of subjects from West Point Stable.

The following morning, however, it was learned that Rags to Riches’ brief, but historic, reign had come to a temporary end when it was discovered she had suffered a hairline fracture of the right front pastern during the running of the Gazelle that will keep her out for the remainder of the year.

It cannot be said the daughter of A.P. Indy didn’t go down fighting, as she gamely battled back to be beaten a half-length by the much improved Lear’s Princess. Rags to Riches was courageous in defeat, as she was courageous in victory when out-battling the brilliant Curlin in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

But that was followed by an eventful 3 1/2-month layoff, during which it was announced she had come down with a fever on two occasions, and also was pulled up shortly after the start of a workout. It was reported that a complete examination at New Bolton Medical Center, and a follow-up examination by Dr. Paul Thorpe, the attending veterinarian for owners Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, revealed no physical problems, and she was put back in training. But, because of all the adversity she had to endure, no one knew quite what to expect when she returned.

Although she still was sent off as the 2-5 favorite in the Gazelle in the belief she could walk on water, there was a ton of late action on Lear’s Princess. But based on her remarkable performances all winter and spring, many felt even a less-than-100% Rags to Riches could handle this, or any other field of fillies.

When Rags to Riches was defeated, while trying to lug in through the stretch, it sent up a red flag. The following morning, the fears became a reality when trainer Todd Pletcher released a statement that the daughter of A.P. Indy had suffered a non-career ending fracture. The Gazelle likely will be remembered as the race in which Rags to Riches was injured, but what should not be forgotten was the performance of Lear’s Princess, who still had to run the race of her life to defeat a truly great filly.

What often goes unnoticed in races, especially one involving partnerships such as West Point Stable, are the countless human interest stories surrounding the partners, who put up relatively moderate amounts of money in order to follow a dream and partake in the magic carpet ride provided by syndicate founders such as West Point’s Terry Finley.

That is one of the reasons why Finley became so choked up after the Gazelle that he was unable to speak. “All these people here…” was all he could get out.

“I normally don’t get this emotional,” he said a short while later. “But when they turn for home and you see all these people around you, who come from all walks of life, cheering and getting excited, how can you not get emotional? For most of their lives they’ve loved horse racing and they’ve been on the outside looking in. To give them a chance to be part of that is a very important part of our business, and it brings tears to my eyes to see them get that excited. If you don’t get emotional winning a grade I and beating the Belmont winner, then you should be selling insurance instead.”

Earlier in the day, one of the West Point partners, Clyde Haugan, was at trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn with his grandson Zach, who was attending the races for the first time. Haugan, who has been battling three different kinds of cancer, watched Lear’s Princess getting shod and proudly showed off a photo of the large wooden sculpture he had made up of Awesome Gem, another West Point horse in which he owns a share. As Lear’s Princess was getting the last nails of her new shoes put in, Haugan asked assistant trainer Artie Magnuson if he could have one of her old shoes. It would bring him more luck than he could have imagined.

“I just take a positive attitude,” he said regarding his cancer. “No problem. Just don’t let the bastards get you down.”

Also at the barn with Haugan, who has only been with West Point for a year and a half, was Rich Cristiano, executive vice-president of East Coast operations for West Point. Eventually, the discussion turned to the Gazelle and the prospects of meeting, and possibly defeating, Rags to Riches.

“Oh, my God,” Cristano said. “If she could beat the Belmont winner that would be off the charts.”

The way West Point Stable has been going, you could excuse any of its partners if they expressed confidence that Lear’s Princess could pull it off. After going 16 years without a grade I winner, West Point, prior to the Gazelle, had won four grade I stakes in the last three months with three different horses – Flashy Bull, Dream Rush, and Irish Smoke.

If there was one horse who deserved to be added to that list it was the barn pet, Lear’s Princess, who was coming off heartbreaking defeats in the grade I Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama Stakes, in which she was beaten a half-length and a neck, respectively.

John Fasola, who owns a share in Lear’s Princess, as well as the aforementioned three grade I winners, compares the daughter of Lear Fan, out of the Carson City mare, Pretty City, to his family’s Golden Retriever Cody in the way she shows affection and the many “hilarious” routines she has.

“My 13-year-old daughter Jayme and my wife Teri found her to be beyond a shadow of a doubt the most affectionate and playful horse I have ever owned,” Fasola said.

So, it is understandable, with the numerous sub plots, why Lear’s Princess’ victory was special to West Point. Fasola feels it is not inconceivable that West Point could have the favorite in three Breeders’ Cup races – Lear’s Princess in the Emirates Airline Distaff (gr. I), Dream Rush in the Filly & Mare Sprint, and Irish Smoke in the Grey Goose Juvenile Fillies (gr. I).

The Gazelle drew a field of five, with Hollywood Breeders’ Cup Oaks (gr. II) winner Tough Tiz’s Sis, the only other filly given an outside chance to pull an upset.

With an opening quarter in a leisurely :24.07 and a half in :47.08, there were four horses bunched together. Dorm Fever and Tough Tiz’s Sis battled on the front end, with Rags to Riches stalking from the outside and Lear’s Princess, second choice at 2-1 and wearing blinkers for the first time, down on the rail.

When John Velazquez began asking Rags to Riches, she cruised up three wide and looked to be on her way to another victory, although she did have her head cocked to the outside and was attempting to lug in, as Velazquez began pulling on the right rein and going to a left-handed whip. When Eibar Coa, who was the one who suggested putting blinkers on the filly, steered Lear’s Princess off the rail and took dead-aim at the favorite from the outside, she began to cut into her lead with every stride.

Rags to Riches attempted to fight back, but Lear’s Princess, in receipt of seven pounds, was too strong. She finished a half-length in front, covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.86, with the West Pointers erupting in celebration. It was another two lengths back to Tough Tiz’s Sis. Lear’s Princess was bred in Kentucky by Palides Investments, N.V., Inc.

“She deserved to win a grade I,” McLaughlin said. “I hate that we had to beat Rags to Riches, in a way, but that gives much more credit to our filly.”

In the Trustees Room following the race, Finley offered a toast before heading back to the Keeneland September yearling sale. “This was an amazing day,” he said. “I’m proud of the West Point team and Kiaran McLaughlin’s team. To all the partners, put your glass in the air for the big filly, Lear’s Princess. Congratulations. This is a great family and we appreciate being part of it. So, I’m going to get on a plane now and go back to Keeneland and try to find some more horses.”

Haugan then turned to Zach and said, “Let’s go to the windows and stack up some hundred-dollar bills.”

Despite what he’s been through, Haugan was able to experience the thrill of a lifetime and share it with his grandson. He also returned home with a bundle of money and, more important, what is now a very special horseshoe.

Tagg Team Gone Wild

Barclay Pletcher…oops, Tagg, is so loaded with stakes horses, one could easily confuse his stable with those of super trainers Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott. Tagg’s parade of stakes winners continued last weekend, as he captured the Futurity Stakes (gr. II) with Tale of Ekati and the Noble Damsel Handicap (gr. IIIT) with Dance Away Capote on Sept. 15 and the state-bred Ashley T. Cole Stakes with Dave the following day.

Tale of Ekati, a son of Tale of the Cat  , out of the Sunday Silence mare Silence Beauty, came into the seven-furlong Futurity off a spectacular 8 1/4-length maiden victory at Saratoga and a troubled second-place finish to Ready’s Image in the Sanford Stakes (gr. II). After coming out of the race with sore shins, he mended quickly and was soon back in serious training.

Owned and bred by Charles Fipke, Tale of Ekati, as he did in the Sanford, had a troubled start, breaking several lengths behind the field. Eibar Coa put him in contention and sat and waited for something to open up, as the 4-5 favorite Kodiak Kowboy, winner of three straight stakes, loomed up to challenge Mythical Pegasus, with maiden winner Paint making a big move on the far outside.

Approaching the eighth pole, Coa saw an opening along the rail and dove to the inside. Tale of Ekati showed his class and courage, shooting through the opening and drawing clear to win by a length in a sharp 1:22.33, flying home his final eighth in :11 4/5 while completely geared down in the final yards. Kodiak Kowboy held off a game Mythical Pegasus for the place, with Paint another three-quarters of a length back in fourth.

Following the race, Fipke must have set a record for petting his horse the most times, on the track and again in the winner’s circle. One can only imagine how long it will take to separate him from the horse if he should win the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). You have to love owners like that. There is no doubt this is a very talented horse, who has shown brilliance, class, and courage in his short career, and he should only keep improving.

“We’ve been very high on this horse since we’ve gotten him to the track,” Tagg said. “We gave him some time to freshen him up after his sore shins and he came back well in his workouts. We’re very excited about him, and we’ll probably train him straight up to the (Bessemer Trust) Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I).”

Kodiak Kowboy lost nothing in defeat, but there is still a question how far he wants to go. Mythical Pegasus, for the second straight race, showed he is a fighter, and he should get better with distance. A horse to definitely watch is the fourth-place finisher, Paint, a striking son of Include who made a big sweeping run and then ran evenly to be beaten two lengths, while giving up a good deal of experience to the top three and still coming home in under :12. This colt has had to go very wide in both his races, and should also show improvement with distance and experience, and a better trip. Taking into consideration the ground loss, expect some impressive speed figures off this effort.

Dance Away Capote was sent off at 9-1 in the Noble Damsel, but ran like a 1-9 shot, coming from far back and circling the field before blowing by everyone to win by 4 1/2 lengths over Fantastic Shirl in 1:34.82 for the mile on turf. The 5-year-old daughter of Capote, out of Ingot’s Dance Away, by Gate Dancer, is owned by Robert S. Evans and was bred in Kentucky by Mt. Brilliant Farm.

“She was so far behind early, I did have my doubts,” Tagg said. “She’s a lovely filly who has to have things go her way, and she got that today.”

Matronly Pride

Once again, “along came Jones” to snatch another New York stakes victory. Actually it was trainer Larry Jones’ wife and assistant, Cindy, who accompanied Brereton Jones’ homebred Proud Spell to Belmont, where the daughter of Proud Citizen  , out of the Langfuhr   mare Pacific Spell, remained undefeated by easily winning the seven-furlong Matron Stakes (gr. II) by 4 1/4 lengths in 1:24.20 under Gabriel Saez as the 8-5 favorite. The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained maiden, Armonk, ran big to finish second, 2 1/4 lengths ahead of 32-1 Monmouth invader Dagger. Proud Spell’s stablemate, Maren’s Meadow, was fourth.

“This filly is special,” Cindy Jones said of the winner, who has won all three of her starts. “She really is. She got back a whole lot more than I thought she’d be. She can do anything. Right now I think she’s invincible the way she wins these races. This filly has never been outworked or outraced. She’s undefeated in everything.”

Cindy also predicted that Saez, who shares their mounts with Mario Pino, will become the next riding sensation.

As Cindy walked back through the tunnel, she received a call from her son Michael offering his congratulations. There was only one thing left to be said: “Thank you honey, we got a Breeders’ Cup filly.”

Much Ado About Shakespeare

So, Kiaran McLaughlin has Lear and Shakespeare in his barn. When McLaughlin dishes out praise for a horse you can be sure he or she is a good one. But listening to him canonize Shakespeare in the days leading up to the Woodbine Mile (Can-I), you had to come away believing this is a super horse – an Invasor of the turf, so to speak.

Shakespeare proved what a special horse he is two years ago when he was rattling off one brilliant victory after another for Bill Mott, concluding with a gutsy score over English Channel in the 2005 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. I), in which he made the difficult stretch-out from 1 1/8- and 1 1/16-mile races to a 1 1/2-mile race. He then suffered his first career defeat in the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT), exiting the race with a tendon injury that would sideline him for 21 months.

Turned over to McLaughlin, Shakespeare is back and as good as ever, maybe better. Coming off only one half-length victory in an allowance/optional claimer, the son of Theatrical justified his trainer’s adulation by storming up the rail from out of nowhere to win the Woodbine Mile by a widening length over the often-brilliant Kip Deville. He covered the mile in 1:33 2/5, coming home his final quarter in a blazing :22 2/5.

McLaughlin will keep him at the shorter distances and point for the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT). Europeans beware.

Speaking of Europeans, the Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge lost an intriguing prospect when the red-hot Manduro, one of the favorites for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I), suffered an injury while winning the Prix Foy (gr. II-Fra) and will not race again this year.

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