Trainer David Fawkes in one year has gone from Breeders’ Cup newbie to returning to defend his title in the six-furlong Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I). Last year, he brought Big Drama to the race at Churchill Downs and came away with the victory. This year, Fawkes not only has Big Drama in the Nov. 5 race, he also trains Sprint hopeful Apriority.
“It’s a little more comfortable this year because now you know the routine,” said Fawkes. “Last year was our first year—we’d never had a Breeders’ Cup horse before.”
Not that Fawkes runs a small outfit. He keeps 50-60 horses in training, basing in Florida but also spending plenty of time in New York. His wife, Celia, and assistant trainer Don Stetler help him juggle the two locations. During Breeders’ Cup week, while all three are at Churchill, Stephanie Laricci is taking care of things in Florida.
Standing at Barn 45 after Big Drama and Apriority finished their morning jogs Nov. 1, Fawkes noted that his previous Breeders’ Cup experience came in 1988, when he was working as an exercise rider.
“I was galloping horses for Neil Boyce,” said Fawkes. “We had a horse named Calestoga, who won the Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland. The track came up muddy, and he won easy.”
Calestoga ran unplaced in that year’s Sprint, won by Gulch. Hall of Fame jockey Don Brumfield, currently a steward in Florida, rode Calestoga. Today, Brumfield and Fawkes are now fishing buddies.
“I’m an avid boater, and I fish a lot,” said Fawkes, who said he has caught some hundred-pounders.
That’s the kind of water Fawkes prefers, whereas this year he has had to deal with all manner of precipitation. Twice during the summer his barn flooded at Saratoga because of Hurricane Irene and its aftermath. Then while preparing Big Drama and Apriority for their final Breeders’ Cup works, he had to dodge bad weather in Florida.
Originally, Fawkes was going to give the two horses their final works at Calder. But when he saw that it was going to rain—“we got a lot of rain, a lot of spots well over 10 inches”—he flew the horses to Kentucky Oct. 28. He breezed them each four furlongs Oct. 31, Big Drama going in :49 3/5 and Apriority in :50 2/5, with jockey Jeffery Sanchez on both of them.
The stablemates will be next to each other in the starting gate for the Sprint. Big Drama, the 5-2 morning-line favorite, drew post 8 with jockey Ramon Dominguez, and Apriority drew post 9, Joel Rosario slated to ride.
Both horses race for Florida owner-breeders. Harold L. Queen Sr. bred and races Big Drama, a 5-year-old son of Montbrook —Riveting Drama, by Notebook. Donald Dizney bred and races Apriority, a 4-year-old son of Grand Slam—Midway Squall, by Storm Bird.
Apriority has won two of seven starts this year, while Big Drama has been more lightly raced. After he won last year’s Sprint, Big Drama captured the Jan. 15 Mr. Prospector Stakes (gr. III) at Gulfstream Park, then was off for eight months.
“Both horses had taxing races at Gulfstream,” said Fawkes. “Apriority ran well after that—second in the Carter (gr. I) and second in the Churchill Downs (gr. II)—but his numbers weren’t as good.”
Fawkes then had to battle an abscess that kept Apriority out of the July 9 Smile Sprint Handicap (gr. II) at Calder, but he felt that the horse needed a break as well.
“They need that time,” said the trainer. “Apriority is really finally back to where he was.”
Big Drama popped a splint, leading to his time off. The rest helped him because he returned to win the Whippleton Stakes at Calder by 2 1/4 lengths.
Fawkes said that the two horses are easygoing, especially around the barn. Apriority didn’t get nervous before the Churchill Downs Stakes, which was held on the same card as the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Before Big Drama’s races, Fawkes and Stetler often saddle him as he is walking, which keeps him calm.
“He’s not a nervous horse,” said Fawkes. “But he’s a little pushy, and he doesn’t want to stay in the stall. As long as he’s moving, he’s fine. He’s matured a little bit this year as well.”
If Big Drama wins the Sprint, he will become only the second horse to take back-to-back runnings of the race. Midnight Lute won it in 2007-08.