Free Fighter ended a 14-month drought when he ground out a two-length victory in the off-the-turf Stars and Stripes Stakes at Arlington Park July 23 (VIDEO).
Multiple grade I winner Winchester, racing on Polytrack for the first time in his 22-race career, finished second in the $100,000 test as the 9-10 favorite in a field of seven. Second choice Proceed Bee was third. The winning time for the 1 1/2-mile distance was 2:31.98.
Heavy overnight rain forced the race off Arlington's turf course. Scheduled as a grade III event, the Stars and Stripes loses its graded status this year pending a final decision by the American Graded Stakes Committee.
Free Fighter won the Stars and Stripes in 2009 and finished third last year when he was conditioned by Chris Block. The 6-year-old Out of Place gelding was claimed for $62,500 by Brian Lynch at Gulfstream Park March 31 and purchased privately by Frank Mancari, according to current trainer Michael Reavis. This was Free Fighter's first win for his new connections.
Team Block bred the winner in Illinois. Free Fighter is out of Taxable Deduction, by Prized.
Tim Thornton guided 9-1 shot Free Fighter to his first win since he captured the Louisville Handicap (gr. IIIT) on a yielding Churchill Downs turf course in May 2010. The chestnut had lost 11 races in a row but was coming off a good fourth, beaten by two lengths, in the 10-furlong Arlington Handicap (gr. IIIT) July 9.
Free Fighter sat off the leaders in fourth along the inside as Proceed Bee and Kingofthebluegrass vied on the front end through a :47.94 half mile, 1:13.23 for six furlongs, and 1:39.79 for the mile. Angled out for the drive by Thornton, Free Fighter advanced into second behind Proceed Bee and got the lead at mid-stretch. He inched away in the final furlong under strong handling to win well.
"I was able to sit on the fence all the way around there and save all the ground until (Kingofthebluegrass) was stopping bad in front of me," Thornton said. "I was able to ease out and when I asked him to pick it up, he did.”
Unhurried at or near the rear of the field most of the way for Cornelio Velasquez, Winchester put together a mild bid on the outside in the lane and finished up well for second in the final strides by a head over Proceed Bee and Christopher Emigh. Winchester never threatened the winner.
Trained by Christophe Clement, Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Firestone's homebred Winchester had not raced since finishing 11th in the Hong Kong Vase (HK-I) at Sha Tin Dec. 12 and clearly needed the outing. All of his prior races had been on the turf. Making his first start at Arlington since he captured the 2008 Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT), Winchester also won a pair of grade I events at Belmont Park last year.
“He ran great; no excuses,” said Liam Kelly, assistant to Clement. “Cornelio said he's a different horse on grass. When they took (the race) off the grass we were thinking of scratching. He'd never run on it before, and nothing against the other horses but it didn't look the strongest field. We had to take the chance.”
Free Fighter boosted his career earnings to $441,768 with his eighth win in 32 races. In addition to his two grade III wins, he has three graded placings.
The winner carried 119 pounds and paid $20.60, $7.60, and $4.40 as the fifth choice. Winchester, a lifetime earner of more than $1.2 million, returned $2.60 and $2.40. The exacta was worth $56.60. Proceed Bee paid $3.40 to show.
Hattaash was eight lengths farther back in fourth. Then came Lemonade Kid, Kingofthebluegrass, and Getta Rhythm.