Kentucky Cup Report: Treasure Hunt
Photo: Associated Press/Al Behrman
Pure Prize provided jockey Mike Smith with his third stakes victory on the Kentucky Cup card at Turfway Park.
Published in the Sept. 21 issue of The Blood-Horse
The late summer/early fall racing calendar is awash with handicap races offering sizable pots, and one would think the competition would be fierce for the mid-six-figure purses. However, this season, like several in the last few years, the older horse division appears to be as thin as the grass in the drought-plagued Bluegrass.

Case in point: the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II). The $400,000 purse did manage to lure a cast of nine, but the only 2002 graded race victory by any of the entrants was the W. Donald Schaefer Handicap (gr. III), won by Tenpins back in May on the Preakness Day undercard. And Tenpins didn't even make the starting gate--he was scratched by the stewards because a groom had cleaned the horse's mouth with an herbal wash less than four hours before the race, violating state rules.

Of the eight that made it to the track, the starting 117-pound highweight was Dollar Bill. A consistent graded-race performer, Gary and Mary West's son of Peaks and Valleys had notched just one victory from his last 12 starts prior to the Kentucky Cup, and his late-running style was ill-suited for Turfway's speed-favoring track. The 1 1/8-mile race was ripe for an up-and-comer to take away the $254,000 first prize, and that's exactly what happened when Pure Prize came from just off the pace to the win the Classic by three-quarters of length for his first black-type win.

Ogden Mills Phipps' regally bred Pure Prize was shipped to northern Kentucky from his Belmont Park base in search of just such a score. "We were looking for a race and weren't excited about tangling with Lido Palace in the Woodward (gr. I)," said Buzz Tenney, assistant to trainer Shug McGaughey.

When on his best game, the son of Storm Cat out of Phipps' star mare Heavenly Prize is obviously good enough to win at this level, but his career is dotted with in-and-out performances. "He has a lot of ability, but he doesn't put his best races together," said Tenney. Tenney was on hand while McGaughey recovers from bypass surgery. The trainer stayed in New York, watching the race on TVG.

Pure Prize went to the post the fifth choice at 7-1 and was ridden by Mike Smith. Smith had a wham-bam, three-stakes-win day at Turfway, adding fuel to the fire that is burning within him since his career has reignited in Southern California.

Fifth in the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont and most recently second in a sloppy Fourstardave Handicap (gr. III) at Saratoga, Pure Prize was put into the race early by Smith. From his typical low-riding, crouched position, Smith was aggressive with Pure Prize, pushing him into a stalking position, just off pacesetters Abreeze and There's Zealous. Those two alternated for the lead through splits of :23.28, :46:52, and 1:10.84 as Hero's Tribute held fourth behind Pure Prize down the backstretch and Dollar Bill trailed early. Turning for home, as the leaders became leg-weary, Smith guided Pure Prize outside and to the front. He easily cleared them, then held off a belated bid by Dollar Bill to hit the line in 1:51.24--the final eighth coming in :13.58. Hero's Tribute was two lengths back in third.

"The race set up perfect for us," Tenney said. "And Mike rode him perfect." While just a few months ago Pure Prize was battling for a non-winners of two "other than" win as a 4-year-old, he now may bid for North America's richest race, the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). "You have to think about it," Tenney said. "I don't think you need to squeeze another race into him. He's fit enough to run the Rocky Mountains."

Trainer Dallas Stewart was happy with Dollar Bill's late-charging performance, but remained non-committal to a Classic bid at Arlington Park.

As Smith hustled through the paddock following the Classic, shedding the cherry and black Phipps silks outside the jocks' room door, trainer Bob Baffert said, "Mike, don't you get too high, you've got to ride a maiden." In the nightcap, Smith and Baffert teamed up on Woke Up Dreamin, who brought them both slightly down to earth with a third-place finish. It was hardly a fitting finish to their excitement earlier in the day.

Twice as Fun
Baffert attacked the two juvenile races on the Kentucky Cup program with $4.05 million worth of Thoroughbreds. Both were confidently ridden by Smith and neither disappointed. The Juvenile (gr. III) winner, Padua Stables' Vindication, one-upped Baffert's winner of two years ago, Point Given, by giving the best performance by a juvenile in the state of Kentucky since Arazi electrified the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Churchill Downs 11 years ago. Atlantic Ocean took the $83,750 Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies with a sharp, albeit less brilliant, effort.

Vindication is "the perfect physical specimen of a racehorse," according to Baffert, and the nearly-black colt drew other superlatives like "phenomenal" and "awesome." Perhaps that is the reason Nadia Sanan, daughter of Padua Stables' principals, Satish and Anne Sanan, went to $2.15 million to purchase the son of Seattle Slew out of last year's Fasig-Tipton yearling sale at Saratoga from breeder Virginia Kraft Payson. "My dad says that every year there are one or two horses you don't want to walk away from," she said. "And this was one of those. Dad loved him, Bob loved him, and the McKathan brothers loved him."

"He was by far the pick of the sale," Florida horseman Kevin McKathan said. "It was a great sale, and he was the best of them."

After back-to-back six-furlong wins at Del Mar, Baffert wanted some "adversity" for his colt, and mapped out the Juvenile, the first graded two-turn race for 2-year-olds. The race seemed ideal because the distance of this year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) has been lengthened to 1 1/8 miles to suit the configuration of Arlington Park. "I told Satish, 'You have a good horse; a grade I win doesn't matter. You need to teach him something." His six-length victory indicates another A+ Baffert lesson.

The race had adversity from the start as Crowned King stumbled at the start, pitching rider Chandra Rennie to the dirt. To their right was the even-money Vindication, who broke in the air and was last at the break. Smith recovered and settled the colt at the back of the pack. Baffert hoped Smith would keep him there. "When you rush horses up after they break like that, they lose," he said. Up front, the riderless Crowned King was pressing second choice Private Gold.

Smith waited, then when Vindication was cut loose, he unleashed a rousing wide move that saw him go from fifth to the lead in a quarter mile. Turning for home, all that was in doubt was the margin. He got the 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.70--a time irrelevant to the powerful visual performance.

"Satish deserves a win like this," Baffert said. "He's spent a lot of money."

Continued...

(Chart, Equibase)

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