(edited press release)
Trainer Darwin Banach had seen Sky Conqueror race in Florida during the early winter of 2005, and couldn’t wait for the horse to join his stable at Woodbine.
“I told everyone around, `Just wait until you see this horse,” Banach said. “When the van pulled up, it was completely blocked so you couldn’t see him. I pulled off a piece of plywood, took one look and said, `This is the wrong horse,’ and walked away.”
But it was Sky Conqueror. Apparently, the colt developed a case of strangles and was sent to a farm, where he stayed for three or four months before he was shipped to the trainer.
“He was a very sick horse,” said Banach. “He looked terrible. He had a skin disease; there was nothing to him. The first thing I did was give him bath because I thought it would make him feel better. Instead, you could really see his ribs. Everybody I talked to about his horse laughed at me.”
However, Banach still believed in Sky Conqueror. A former assistant to Phil England, he knew what it took to condition good horses – and he knew a good horse when he saw one.
All of the patience and hard work finally paid off for the trainer. Sky Conqueror has gotten so good that Banach has entered him in Saturday’s 106th running of the $400,000 Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT) for 3-year-olds and up at 10 furlongs on the turf. The Manhattan is the undercard headliner on Belmont Stakes (gr. I) Day.
Sky Conqueror, a 5-year-old son of Sky Classic, has only had 15 career starts, winning six of them, with a second and three thirds. He is coming off his best career effort and first grade one victory, when he got a nose in front of Brilliant in the Turf Classic (gr. IT) at Churchill Downs on May 5.
Even that didn’t come easy.
“He grabbed the ground at the start and ripped his shoe off,” Banach said. “Then, he had some fun in the lane, too. In spite of all of that, he managed to win the race.”
Javier Castellano, who picked up the mount on Sky Conqueror for the Turf Classic, will return for the Manhattan Handicap. The duo will break from post 3 and will have to face down Better Talk Now, who has come up with some gigantic efforts in his 38-race career, not the least of which were his victories in the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) at Lone Star Park and in Belmont Park’s Man o’War (gr. I) in 2005.
Now an 8-year-old, the Talkin Man gelding has bankrolled more than $3.5 million, but has never won at a mile and a quarter, and despite his classy resume, the distance may be a concern to some when he goes to post in the Manhattan. Trainer H. Graham Motion remains unwavering in his faith in Better Talk Now, however. After all these years, he knows what to expect.
“It’s always a pleasure to talk about him,” Motion said. “I think that getting older is actually helping him a bit. He is so much more settled now, much more mature.”
Better Talk Now made his seasonal debut and first start since his half-length loss in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs on November 4 in the May 5 Turf Classic (gr. I) at Churchill Downs. He was steadied at the sixteenth pole and made a valiant effort to finish fourth, beaten only a length and three-quarters by victorious Sky Conqueror.
“He really took the worst of it,” Motion said. “I’m not sure if he would have won, but he might easily have been second or third. But let’s face it, we all know him by now. That race was only a mile and an eighth and he only has that eighth of a mile kick. If he gets taken out of that game, he’s not going to get it done. He ran his race.
“I think he is in a good position for the Manhattan. This is only his second start back. It’s not like it is late in the season and he is going into a mile and a half race that can really beat him up. I think a mile and a quarter will be no problem for him. I am very lucky to have him.”
Jockey Ramon Dominguez will ride Better Talk Now in the Manhattan.
At this time last year, trainer Dan Peitz was preparing Robert and Lawana Low’s Steppenwolfer for the Belmont Stakes and the son of Aptitude represented his connections well by running fourth in that race.
“Our plan after the Belmont was (to run in) the Virginia Derby and then the Travers,” Peitz said. “But he got sick on me, nothing major but he spiked a temperature and I didn’t want to ship him if he was sick. Then things kind of fell apart on us at Saratoga and I couldn’t put my finger on what was going on, so we stopped and took off couple months with him. We sent him to Ocala with Tom McCrocklin, who we send a lot of our horses to, and we looked to 2007.”
Steppenwolfer made his seasonal debut on February 23, finishing a lackluster fifth, then coming back March 9 to finish ahead of only one horse in the Razorback (gr. III).
“We kind of got behind in training because of the weather down there,” Peitz said. “I kind of had the feeling he would be a tad short in his first race back. I figured I would use that race as a prep for Razorback and he didn’t fire his `A’ race. That really didn’t bother me. But when didn’t really fire again in the Razorback, I was scratching my head a little bit. At that point, he didn’t seem to be as happy over the track as was last year down there. We decided to re-group and get him on the grass, figuring it would be a little kinder to him.”
Peitz ran Steppenwolfer on the grass at Belmont May 16 at a mile, where he ran second by three-quarters of a length.
“There is not one person that I talked to the next day that didn’t feel he should have won that race,” said Peitz, who will give a leg up to Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux. “He was sandwiched at eighth-pole and steadied up. They flew home and he came with a big run right at the end. I was disappointed because he should have won that race, but I saw what I wanted to see. He had trained well on grass, but the question I had was, would he have the turn of foot that you need on grass?
“He was always a bit of a grinder on dirt. But he must have come home in :22 in his last race, and that showed me that he had that turn of foot. Now, he has to take that same race to a mile and a quarter against some pretty seasoned horses.”
English Channel, a 5-year-old horse by Smart Strike, is one of those seasoned horses. He won the 2006 Turf Classic Invitational (gr. I) at Belmont last fall and was only beaten a half-length in the Manhattan last year. After he was sent to Dubai for the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) and finished 12th, fans wonder if he has shook off the effects of is round-trip journey to the Middle East.
“This is a tough race, but a good spot to get him going again,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “He handled the trip to Dubai well. He acts and trains as good as he ever has, and he likes the turf course here.”
Kiss the Kid, Shakis, Minister’s Joy, Cosmonaut, and Red Zipper will complete the field.
Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT, race 10, approximate post 5:44 p.m.), $400,000 for 3-year-olds and up at 10 furlongs on the turf.
1. Minister’s Joy, Garrett Gomez, 115
2. English Channel, John Velazquez, 122
3. Sky Conqueror, Javier Castellano, 120
4. Red Zipper, Eibar Coa, 114
5. Steppenwolfer, Kent Desormeaux, 114
6. Shakis(IRE), Alan Garcia, 116
7. Better Talk Now, Ramon Dominguez, 120
8. Cosmonaut, Edgar Prado, 117
9. *Kiss the Kid, Cornelio Velasquez, 114
*Kiss the Kid will race without blinkers.