By Michael Compton
An enthusiastic crowd packed the grandstand at Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s annual Day of Champions races March 11 prior to the OBS March selected sale of 2-year-olds in training in Ocala, Fla.
While the four-race card offered fans in attendance a chance to see exciting racing from promising 3-year-old OBS graduates, it was jockey Gary Boulanger who received the warmest ovation of the afternoon after booting home John Oxley's Conquestor in the $50,000 OBS Sprint Stakes (colts and geldings division).
Boulanger, a leading rider at Calder in the mid-1990s, was severely injured in a 2005 spill at Gulfstream Park in which he suffered a ruptured spleen, broken ribs, and a detached tendon in his left elbow. A blood clot was removed from his brain and part of his skull had to be removed. Boulanger recently launched his comeback at Tampa Bay Downs and returned to the winner's circle for the first time in nearly nine years at OBS.
Far back early in the six-furlong race over the SafeTrack synthetic surface, Conquestor circled rivals four wide around the far turn. The Mark Casse charge collared Mind Spell in the stretch and drew clear late to win by three lengths in 1:11. King Solomon got up for second, and Mind Spell held third.
Boulanger marked the memorable moment with a fist pump after crossing the wire and returned to the winner's enclosure to a round of applause and whistles from supportive fans.
"What a great feeling," Boulanger said. "I didn't know whether I should scream or cry. I had so many extreme feelings at that moment. I'm very grateful to Mark and the Oxleys for giving me the opportunity to ride this horse.
"I had worked him a couple of times," he added. "Mark told me not to rush him. I knew he was a good horse. I didn't know he was that good. He was really moving. He was full of run in the stretch."
Bought for $475,000 by Casse from Halcyon Hammock Farm, agent, at last year's OBS 2-year-old sale, Conquestor broke his maiden with the Sprint Stakes victory. He finished third in his career debut at Woodbine last October and was fourth as the favorite in his only other start last year, also at Woodbine.
The son of Broken Vow was bred in Kentucky by Shelltowee Farm and Josephine Abercrombie's Pin Oak Stud.
"I've known Gary a long time," related Casse. "He came to me last winter and said he wanted to return to riding. He's so good on a horse. You can see why he has 3,500 wins. He really understands the horses. You're going to see much more from him."
Casse spent plenty of time in the winner's circle, also posing for pictures alongside Gary Barber and Stoneway Farm's Spring Venture following the filly division of the $100,000 OBS Championship Stakes. In a near repeat of her victory in the Natalma Stakes (Can-IIT) at Woodbine last September, Spring Venture bested stablemate Spring in the Air, owned by Oxley, to take down the top prize.
Spring Venture and jockey Jermaine Bridgmohan stalked the early pace of One Eye Cap in the 1 1/16-mile test. Spring Venture surged to the lead around the final turn as her stablemate commenced a rally from the back of the field.
Spring in the Air, ridden by Patrick Husbands, hit the lead in the stretch but seemed to put on the brakes after getting to the front. Spring Venture capitalized from the momentary lapse of focus to re-rally along the inside and prevailed by three-quarters of a length over Spring in the Air with Toasting and jockey Joel Rosario checking in third. The winner covered the distance in 1:44.80.
The first two finishers are daughters of Spring At Last. Spring Venture was a $320,000 buy at the 2012 OBS June sale. She's now won four of six lifetime starts and bankrolled $376,821.
"Both fillies ran well," said Casse of Spring Venture and Spring in the Air. "The one filly pulled herself up when she made the lead and the other one was stopping. I said, 'One of you keep running.' "
Casse indicated the April 6 Ashland (gr. I) at Keeneland could be next for both fillies.
In a thrilling renewal of the colt and gelding division of the $100,000 OBS Championship Stakes, run for the 24th time, Kenwood Racing's Michael With Us caught Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Brazilian Court close home to win by a half-length under jockey Edgar Prado, covering the 1 1/16 miles in 1:45. Brown Almighty finished third.
Stephen DiMauro conditions the winner, a son of Bluegrass Cat who was bred in Kentucky by WinStar Farm. Michael With Us brought $57,000 at last year's OBS March sale. Winning for the first time in five starts, the colt now has earnings of $80,320.
"Last fall we thought he had a horse that wanted to go long," said DiMauro."We prepped for this race at Tampa last time out (a second-place finish in a maiden special weight). I thought if we had the opportunity that this would be a good place to take a shot. I figured it couldn't hurt his value if he could run well. I couldn't ask for any more than this."
Robb Levinsky of Kenwood Racing, added, "This race was by design. We figured he could win it. Getting here was a well-executed plan. The win means a lot to us."
Piloted by jockey Scott Spieth, Cor Cor jumped out to a clear early lead. She increased her advantage throughout and cruised to the wire a 4 3/4-length winner, stopping the clock for the six furlongs in 1:09.60, equaling Megalith's time from 2011.
"We knew she was that quick," said Ballou. "I can't say we expected a record time, but we know she is fast. She ran her typical race today which is exactly what we were looking for."
Now perfect in two synthetic starts after breaking her maiden last October at Keeneland for trainer Joan Scott, Cor Cor is now a three-time stakes winner. She won the Sandpiper Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in December and most recently captured the Feb. 2 Battle of New Orleans Stakes over a yielding turf course at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
A daughter of Smoke Glacken bred in Florida by Francis and Barbara Vanlangendonck, Cor Cor fetched $40,000 at the 2012 OBS June sale of 2-year-olds and horses of racing age. She now has career earnings of $165,800.
"We loved the filly all along," said Greg Dodd of Southern Chase Farm, which consigned Cor Cor to the OBS sale. "This is an awesome feeling. We hated to see her go but it was meant to be and she's doing great."
Marette Farrell selected the horse for the owners out of the 2012 OBS sale.
"She was just so beautiful," Farrell said. "She is special and we were lucky to have gotten her. Greg said it broke his heart to sell her because he loved her so much."