His nickname is "The Bus," and the more frequent his stops, the more racing fans are getting on board. Guided Tour extended his grade II-win streak to three on Sept. 22, adding more mileage and money to his magical millionaire tour over the last two years after making his initial stopover at Turfway Park.
If the industry is looking for the kind of long-term heroes it says it needs, then this handsome bay gelding could be its poster boy. In the last two seasons, the 5-year-old continues to spin his odometer, having made 21 starts. And while tracking his speed just under racing's grade I radar gun, he's won nine times and earned more than $1.8 million for owner Morton Fink of Chicago.
Making a start over his sixth different racing surface this year alone in the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II), Guided Tour gutted out a dramatic neck victory over the refreshed sophomore Balto Star, padding his earnings for the year to $1,304,220. Guided Tour's lone clunker of 2001 came in the grade I Santa Anita Handicap, beaten 9 1/2 lengths by last year's Horse of the Year Tiznow. He made his Turfway debut following a nine-week layoff after a stunning upset of Captain Steve in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs in June and a victory in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park on July 21.
"He surprises me time and time again," winning trainer Niall O'Callaghan said in the winner's circle. "I didn't think I had enough into him off the layoff. I've only breezed him nine times in the last four weeks."
O'Callaghan gave "The Bus" a planned three-week furlough after his victory in Chicago, but then had to give the son of Hansel two more weeks off after he grabbed a quarter. "He did it in a round pen...with bell boots on," the trainer said.
The longer-than-expected layoff had him "fresh and into the race early," said jockey Larry Melancon. "He's been all over the world and runs well every time. He knows what to do."
Knowing what to do, and when, was key to the nine-furlong Kentucky Cup Classic. O'Callaghan feigned giving instructions, but rider and trainer were on the same page. "I told Larry nothing," he said. "The owner wanted to know what I told him, and I said to him, 'If I told him anything it would have shown I didn't have any confidence.' "
Strategy revolved around how to handle Balto Star, who was returning to the site of his most impressive victory, in this past spring's Spiral Stakes (gr. II). Having won the $600,000 Spiral, and then the Arkansas Derby (gr. II) while running off with the early pace, O'Callaghan and Melancon knew they couldn't let Balto Star get away.
The 3-year-old gelding was making his second start since a breather following the Triple Crown campaign. His comeback began with a front-running win at a mile over the Saratoga turf. In the Classic, he broke sharply under Pat Day from post two and went right for the lead. Melancon urged Guided Tour toward the leader as they passed the wire for the first time, which set up what proved to be the winning move.
"We were sitting inside," O'Callaghan said, "and then he came out on Roger's horse (A Fleets Dancer, trained by Roger Attfield) to get clear around the first turn." Melancon got the needed clearance and glued himself to Balto Star's flank the entire length of the backstretch, while pressing quickening splits of :23.47, :46.89, and 1:10.65. The two were clearly separated from their four other rivals.
"With my horse having most of the speed, they weren't going to let me get away with anything," Day said.
Melancon and Guided Tour inched closer on the turn, and straightening away in the lane were at Day and Balto Star's throats. A hammer-and-tong stretch drive tested both horse and human to their limits.
"I thought he'd get it," O'Callaghan said of the stretch duel. "But you never know when you get alongside Pat Day--you know he's always got something left." Day did, but Guided Tour got the upper hand, inching ahead to get the decision in 1:47.90. The tandem had 8 1/4 lengths on third-place finisher A Fleets Dancer after a final three furlongs in :37.25. Da Devil, attempting to repeat his '99 Classic upset, rallied from far back for fourth.
"The winner stalked me and pushed me throughout," Day said. "He finally wore me down at the finish. That was a very good horse that beat me and they had a really good game plan."
O'Callaghan was guarded regarding the game plan from here on out. Guided Tour was an uninspired 12th in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, but an older and wiser horse is headed toward fall this year. Before he could bolt through the crowd to catch a plane to his native Ireland, O'Callaghan was stopped by Tim Smith, commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, who placed a World Thoroughbred Championships lapel pin in his hand.
Clearly, Smith wants "The Bus" to offer Manhattan transfers. Continued . . .