Marc Keller’s Grand Couturier has only won three of the 14 stakes he has attempted in this country, but the 6-year-old horse sure knows how to pick his spots. All three of the scores have been in grade I races, including two in the prestigious Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes (gr. IT) at Saratoga.
On Aug. 15, Grand Couturier will go for his third consecutive victory in the $500,000 Sword Dancer, as he faces nine rivals in the 1 1/2-mile event. Among his challengers will be a couple other remarkable "old men," including 10-year-old Better Talk Now, winner of the Sword Dancer way back in 2004 and runner-up to Grand Couturier last year, and 8-year-old Brass Hat, who seems to have found a new home on grass. Quijano was assigned top weight of 123 pounds.
Trained by Bobby Ribaudo, Grand Couturier won the Sword Dancer by three lengths in 2007 with Calvin Borel aboard, and last year by two lengths under Alan Garcia, who will have the mount once again. The son of Grand Lodge—Lady Elgar, by Sadler’s Wells, has raced only twice in 2009, finishing fifth in both the Monmouth Stakes and most recently, the July 11 Man o’ War (gr. IT) at Belmont.
Ribaudo said the bay horse has had to overcome various minor ailments over the years, usually at the beginning of the season, but he always seems to come into the Sword Dancer in good shape. Grand Couturier was also third in the race in 2006.
“The Sword Dancer is an excellent spot,” Ribaudo said of the 3-1 morning-line favorite. “I think we've found the (right time of) year for him to be peaking. And that's what he's done the last couple years.
“A horse of his caliber, it's just tough to pick and choose races for him and then go because sometimes his feet or his ankles don't cooperate with him. But right now he seems to be doing very well. I wish the race were yesterday; that’s how good he’s doing. He’s as good a 1 1/2-mile horse as there is in the country.”
Grand Couturier, whose other grade I score came in the 2008 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational when he won by a whopping 10 1/4 lengths, has earned more than $1.2 million from 20 starts. Bred in England by Tom Wilson, he will break from the inside post while carrying 120 pounds.
Bushwood Stables’ Better Talk Now will be making the 51st start of an incredible career in which he has won 14 times, including five in grade I company. The son of Talkin Man won the Sword Dancer by 1 1/2 lengths in 2004, the same season he won the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT). The gelding is winless in his last 11 starts, but most recently was third to Gio Ponti by less than three lengths in the June 6 Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) at Belmont.
Ramon Dominguez will have the mount for trainer Graham Motion, who sent out Bullsbay to an upset victory in last week’s Whitney Handicap (gr. I) for his first grade I win on dirt. Motion is still confident Better Talk Now, an earner of more than $4.2 million, can compete at an elite level.
“There's been no pressure to keep this horse in training,” Motion said. “We've always said as long as he's competitive and he's training well, which he seems to be in great form, we will keep him going.
“At the end of this year or even after this race, if we find we're not competitive we're going to kind of re-evaluate it after each race. I'm sure part of what's kept him around is the way he's made physically and the fact that we've been very sensible in the amount of times we've run him each year.”
Fred Bradley’s Brass Hat won the first turf race of his storied career in the 1 1/2-mile Louisville Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Churchill Downs May 23, and followed it up with a solid third-place effort in the July 4 United Nations Stakes (gr. IT) at Monmouth Park. The gelding by Prized will be making the 32nd start of his career, one that has seen him score five graded stakes wins. Borel will have the mount for trainer Buff Bradley.
Trainer Todd Pletcher also has European import Americain, the 4-1 second choice, running for the first time since the 4-year-old Dynaformer colt was transferred from the barn of French legend Andre Fabre.
World traveler Quijano has started in seven different countries in his career. The 7-year-old German-bred son of Acatenango won the Gran Premio di Milano (ITY-I) in Italy for the second straight season June 14, and was third last out in the Man o’ War in his U.S. debut. An earner of more than $2.3 million, Quijano will be ridden by regular rider Andrasch Starke.
Lauro and Musketier, another pair of German-breds, are also entered. Musketier was runner-up in the Man o' War.
$500,000 Sword Dancer (gr. IT, Race 10, 5:47 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/2 Miles (Turf) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Grand Couturier (GB), A Garcia, 120, R Ribaudo
2. Gentleman Chester (IL), J R Leparoux, 116, R E Nicks
3. Lauro (GER), J F Chavez, 118, A Wohler
4. Better Talk Now (KY), R A Dominguez, 116, H G Motion
5. Rising Moon (KY), K J Desormeaux, 116, R E Dutrow, Jr.
6. Americain (KY), J R Velazquez, 118, T A Pletcher
7. Telling (KY), J Castellano, 116, S Hobby
8. Quijano (GER), A Starke, 123, P Schiergen
9. Brass Hat (KY), C H Borel, 116, W Bradley
10. Musketier (GER), J C Jones, 116, R L Attfield