Sportsman's Park Race Report: Speedway

Published in the May 4 issue of The Blood-Horse
When Sportsman's Park reopened in 2000 as a combination auto-horse track, horsemen wondered if the longest dirt track stretch in North America would unduly favor closers. In year three, the question has been answered with a resounding "no."

How pronounced is the early speed bias? Well, Sportsman's offered eight stakes races worth $100,000 or more this meeting, and when With Ability took the $300,000 Sixty Sails Handicap (gr. III) in gate-to-wire fashion on April 28, she became the seventh consecutive winner of a six-figure added-money event to lead every step of the way.

Edward P. Evans' 4-year-old homebred daughter of A.P. Indy out of Mr. Prospector's multiple graded stakes-winning daughter Withallprobability had more than just a speed bias in her favor in her 5 3/4-length win in 1:51.37 for the 1 1/8 miles. Her talent had carried her to a score in Aqueduct's Next Move Handicap (gr. III) by 5 1/4 lengths in her previous start.

But trainer Mark Hennig's assistant, Jose Sanchez, sounded a common refrain at the Cicero, Ill., oval after the race when he said, "When I saw the :23 and change (:23.23) for the first quarter and :47 and change (:47.15) for the half, I felt pretty good. She looked like she was doing it pretty easily."

With Ability got the lead with unexpected ease when Pretty Gale, the wire-to-wire winner of the Lady Hallie Handicap, stumbled at the start, nearly unseating jockey Larry Sterling Jr.

Jockey Javier Castellano made sure he conserved enough energy while aboard With Ability to ward off the stretch-running favorite Pompeii, but the challenge never materialized. Pompeii struggled home fourth, behind 15-1 shot Lakenheath and Katy Kat, completing a disappointing weekend for trainer Elliott Walden at Sportsman's.

The day before the Sixty Sails, the Walden-trained First Again, odds-on to win in the National Jockey Club Oaks, splashed home fourth behind wire-to-wire winner Emeraldforajudge. Walden acknowledged the Sportsman's strip is "very rail-speed biased, especially on a day like today (Sixty Sails Day), when there's a strong headwind." But Walden blamed Pompeii's defeat more on a general dislike for the surface than on a bias. Jockey Pat Day agreed that Pompeii, the 120-pound highweight coming off a six-month layoff, never got hold of the strip.

With Ability is new to Sanchez. The mare remained in New York over the winter in the care of fellow Hennig assistant Seth Gregory, who drew raves from Sanchez for his contribution to the filly's improvement. But Sanchez had heard enough about With Ability--and about the Sportsman's bias--to know she'd be a good fit for the track.

"We're based in New York and Florida, and we know that if you've got a horse for big races like the Illinois Derby (gr. II) with a lot of speed, then you've got to take a shot," Sanchez said. "If the horse is doing good and can hold on for a mile and an eighth, then why not take a chance?"

The Illinois Derby brought added riches for winning owner Russell Reineman, who sold the front-running War Emblem in a reported seven-figure deal after the win. The National Jockey Club Oaks, with its purse slashed $50,000 to $100,000 this year, will probably bring no such instant wealth to owners Miles Childers and L.T.B. Inc. and trainer Bernie Flint. But Sterling, who was aboard Emeraldforajudge the day before his rough start and eventual fifth-place finish in the Sixty Sails, said the daughter of Judge T C has every right to improve.

"She could get better," Sterling said of the filly, who held off Summer Delight to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:47.14 for the 1 1/16 miles. "She's young yet, and doesn't really know how to run, in my opinion."

Danny Miller, who saddled Emeraldforajudge for Flint, said getting the lead wasn't necessarily part of the battle plan.

"Bernie's instructions were for the rider to ride his own race," Miller said. "He said his filly will do whatever you want, so do whatever is best. Larry just rode his own race."

Of course, Sterling, as Sportsman's leading rider, is already well aware of the need for speed.

(Chart, Equibase)