It was a family affair at Saratoga on Friday when Storm Flag Flying wore down 3-5 favorite Azeri to win the Personal Ensign Handicap (gr. I) by 1 1/4 length.
A 4-year-old daughter of Storm Cat
, Storm Flag Flying was produced from the grade I-winning Easy Goer mare My Flag, a daughter of the Personal Ensign. Retired after an undefeated career that consisted of 13 wins in 13 starts, Personal Ensign raced for the Phipps Stable and was trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey. Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps owns and McGaughey trains Storm Flag Flying.
"It's a great thrill to be rewarded this way," McGaughey said. "To come back and be able to win a big race at Saratoga -- especially after all we went through with (Storm Flag Flying) in her three-year-old year. We thought going into her three-year-old year we had the `nuts.' She kind of went wrong, but then started coming back good."
Roar Emotion, sent off at 7-1 odds under Jerry Bailey, set a fast early pace while being stalked by Azeri, the 122-pound highweight who was conceding six pounds to the winner. Those two completed the first quarter mile in :23 and stopped the timer in :46 1/5 for the half-mile.
Azeri moved to the front after six furlongs had been completed in 1:09 3/5 and was in command as the five-horse field entered the stretch. Meanwhile, Storm Flag Flying, the 2002 champion 2-year-old filly, and jockey John Velazquez continued a steady advance on the leader and engaged Azeri in upper stretch, with a mile going in 1:35 4/5. Finally, Storm Flag Flying proved too much for the former Horse of the Year Azeri, and got the victory in final time of 2:03 3/5 for 1 1/4 miles.
Velazquez said he thought the pace would work in his favor.
"I wanted to bide my time a little and just keep her interested, but at the three-eighths pole, I got busy with her and she was there," he said. "I knew I had it at the quarter-pole. I knew it would be tough for Azeri to come back and kick on again. It worked out good. She didn't have anything to fight with me late."
Azeri's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, noted, "We gave some weight and gave quite a bit of pace, more than what we had drawn on paper. These are things we had to deal with and we knew that when we signed up for the race. We can't change that. I don't blame anybody.
"Pat (Day, jockey) got into the race a little more than what we would have wanted," Lukas added. "She was trying to run and he let her run. I'm not critical of that. When you look at it, it came down to four strides. It was a great horse race and everyone got treated to a good one. It came down to two champions."
Lukas said Azeri will benefit from equal weights and a reduction in distance to nine furlongs for next races. He said the $500,000 Spinster (gr. I) Oct. 10 at Keeneland is next on Azeri's schedule.
Storm Flag Flying paid $6.30, $2.50, and $2.10, with Azeri worth $2.30 and $2.10. Nevermore, the longest shot in the field at 16-1, closed for third, a half-length behind Azeri, and paid $2.10.
The victory was the third in six starts this year for Storm Flag Flying, the 2-year-old Eclipse winner as top filly in 2002, and avenged a third-place finish to Azeri in the Go for Wand Handicap (gr. I) at Saratoga on Aug. 1. Storm Flag Flying has now won seven of 12 starts and earned $1,476,828.
"Circumstances weren't exactly right for us in the Go for Wand," McGaughey noted. "It kind of fell in our lap here today with the fast fractions. You can't take anything away from Azeri. What a race she ran. It was quicker than I thought, but I was looking for a quick pace. When we came to (Azeri) at the quarter-pole, I thought we had her, but we didn't. She had to battle hard to get by her."
McGaughey said the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park is the next goal for Storm Flag Flying, adding that she could also turn up in the Beldame (gr. I) Oct. 9 at Belmont Park or the Spinster (gr. I).
Board Elliglible and Roar Emotion completed the order.