Eric Guillot attended the post-position draw for the $1.5 million Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I) wearing a shirt that said "I Got Haters Everywhere," but those who bet Moreno loved the Cajun trainer after his speedster stole the show Aug. 2 at Saratoga Race Course.
Southern Equine Stables' 10-1 shot went wire-to-wire in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney, easily holding off Itsmyluckyday and Will Take Charge to finish 1 1/4 lengths clear for jockey Junior Alvarado (VIDEO). Palace Malice, the 3-5 favorite in the field of nine older horses, came up empty in the drive and finished sixth.
Last summer at Saratoga, Moreno ran third in the Jim Dandy (gr. II) behind 2013 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Palace Malice and Will Take Charge. The Ghostzapper gelding then attempted to carry his speed in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) at 31-1, but was caught by eventual 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge by a nose.
Following the Travers, Guillot caused quite a stir when he accused jockey Luis Saez of using a buzzer on Will Take Charge. An extensive investigation into the trainer's claim by New York regulators and New York State Police revealed no evidence of such use.
This time Moreno was clear at all points, clicking through a quarter in :23.67 and a half in :47.50 while 2012 Travers winner Golden Ticket and Palace Malice, on the outside, gave chase. Itsmyluckyday was also forwardly placed behind three-quarters in 1:11.31, but as the field turned for home it became clear that the closers were not going to get to Moreno.
"As soon as I turned for home (I knew I was going to win)," Alvarado said. "Even before I hit it, switching leads to the right, he took two big jumps. I said, 'I don't think there is a way anyone can pass me.'"
The eventual winner held safe while running a 1:35.41 mile, finished in 1:48.05 on a fast track.
"Turning for home, he's on the lead and I'm hollering, 'Junior! Junior! Did you hear that bell? Do you hear that bell Somebody just got taken to school,' " Guillot remarked. "When they crossed the wire, it took me awhile to believe it. I saw the :47 3/5. I saw the 1:11 and change and I was feeling pretty confident like the Travers, you know what I mean?
"It's funny because pace makes the race, inner fractions make the race. The farther they go, the better. The softer fractions, the better he is. He's that kind of horse. He feels and waits on horses behind him. That's the kind of horse he is. He broke a little flat-footed. I was a little concerned. Junior listened. I said, 'At any cost, be two (lengths) in front going into the first turn."
Moreno was named after Mike Moreno, Guillot's partner in Southern Equine Stables.
"It means (so much for) my partner and best friend, Mike, who always believed in me from day one and still does today," Guillot said. "I'm getting emotional. For him and I, this is what we do. It's why he goes to work in business. It's why I get up at 4:30 (a.m.) seven days a week. We never doubted each other. Ever. Not one time."
Moreno returned $22, $9, and $6.60 as the fourth choice under 117 pounds, while Itsmyluckyday paid $7.90 and $4.60. Will Take Charge, 124-pound co-highweight with Palace Malice, was sent off at 4-1 and brought $4.60, finishing three lengths ahead of 48-1 shot Prayer for Relief in fourth. Last Gunfighter, Palace Malice, Romansh, Departing, and Golden Ticket completed the order of finish.
"I don't know what went wrong," Velazquez said of Palace Malice's effort. "He didn't run at all. He was in perfect position. On the backstretch he was looking around. I was hoping by the half-mile he'd move on, but he never showed any interest. He went through the whole race not paying any attention. He trained great, he warmed up great, he just didn't run today."
Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said he was pleased with the finish of Itsmyluckyday, who came into the Whitney off a three-race win streak capped by the July 6 Salvatore Mile Stakes (gr. III). Last year the Lawyer Ron colt was runner-up in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) after winning the Holy Bull (gr. III). A pelvic injury took him out of action in the middle of his 3-year-old season.
"I'm proud of him, the race he ran," Plesa said. "He showed he belonged with the very best. If they ran this race six times, there might be three different winners and he's going to be one of them, I believe. I'm proud of him. Needless to say, I'm disappointed he didn't win but the horse ran great and shows where he belongs."
Moreno won for the first time since taking the Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park in July 2013, and came into the Whitney off a runner-up finish in the July 5 Suburban Handicap (gr. II). He was bred in Kentucky by Southern Equine out of the A.P. Indy mare Danceinthesunlight, and improved his record to 3-6-3 from 20 starts for earnings of $1,709,940.
Four-year-old Moreno earned an automatic berth in the field for the Nov. 1 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) as part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" series.
Last year after finishing second behind Will Take Charge in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), Moreno ran 10th of 11 in the Classic, contesting for the lead but fading. He emerged from the race with a fractured splint and had five months off before Guillot brought him back to the races to run third in the April 19 Charles Town Classic Stakes (gr. II). He was fourth in the Pimlico Special (gr. III) and 12th in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) before the Suburban.
"You know what, honestly? Since he broke his maiden, he hasn't really done much wrong," Guillot said. "When we tried to do something other than what he is, it backfired. Breeders' Cup, he got hurt, so you have to throw that out. Met Mile wasn't his gig—too fast fractions. Everything else, he's been right there."
A crowd of 36,318 turned out to watch three grade I stakes races on Whitney Day at Saratoga, wagering $7,067,663 on track while the card collected a $20,718,370 off-track handle.