Shuffled back at the break and swung wide off the turn, Phipps Stable homebred Abaco overcame with a strong late run to win the $112,800 Cardinal Handicap (gr. IIIT) Nov. 9 at Churchill Downs, her first graded stakes score for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey (VIDEO).
The 5-year-old Giant's Causeway mare shipped in from New York and a runner-up finish in the Oct. 12 Athenia Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Belmont Park to get the job done under jockey Rosie Napravnik at odds of 5-2.
"I was tickled to death with her," McGaughey said. "She never had won a stake. She had been second in three. She's so deserving of winning one and I was really glad...I thought that, horse-for-horse, it was a pretty good bunch."
For McGaughey, who saddled recently-retired Orb to victory in this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), it was a third victory in the Cardinal Handicap, which honors Kentucky's state bird. He won the race in 1983 on dirt with Charge My Account and in 2007 with Criminologist, who was co-owned by Phipps Stable.
"We're getting to like this track a lot," said Daisy Phipps Pulito, the racing manager for her father's Phipps Stable. "Last time we were here we won the Derby with Orb, and now we win with this mare."
Advancing well in the three path after being bothered at the start, Abaco advanced in that path along the second turn. A rail gap opened up for Miz Ida and 2-1 favorite Starstruck also loomed to challenge, but Napravnik angled her mount out for the drive and the two swung into action coming down off the turn four wide.
As the mile went in 1:38.29, 119-pound co-highweight Solid Appeal took the lead after being closest to the pace all the way around. Abaco closed well to get up late, however, finishing a length ahead on the line while Miz Ida got up for second by a head, and Solid Appeal settled for third. Final time was 1:50.85.
"My instructions were to keep her out of trouble and that's all I had to do," said 25-year-old Napravnik, the nation's eighth-leading rider in money won ($11.8 million) who missed the previous three days of racing due to body soreness from a pair of mishaps. "She's got a huge kick and that's her strength."
Abaco, carrying 116, returned $7.60, $4, and $3.60 while Miz Ida brought $6.40 and $4.80. Solid Appeal paid $4.60. Starstruck, Somali Lemonade, Street of Gold, My Perfect Ten, Soft Whisper, Rare Event, and Embarr completed the order of finish.
Bred in Kentucky out of the Pleasant Colony mare Cat Cay, Abaco improved her record to 5-7-2 from 18 starts, with earnings of $395,108. In six starts this year she was also runner-up in the Feb. 9 Suwannee River Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Gulfstream Park, a race she will likely target again after joining McGaughey's winter string in south Florida.
"(Mr. Phipps) said if I thought she could be one of the tops in her division, (he'd) sure like to keep her in training," McGaughey said. "So, we'll let her tell us. But she's awfully good right now."