The motif was unmistakably red at Churchill Downs for the 28th running of the Cardinal Handicap (gr. IIIT) Nov. 10. Besides the bird of that color, University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, the state's most famous Cardinal, was on hand signing autographs for the faithful. The color scheme didn't last for the race's finish, however, when the familiar hue of Claiborne Farm's orange flashed across the wire on the back of its homebred filly Watch. It was a stunning victory for the bluegrass of Central Kentucky, the precise area Pitino jilted after winning the NCAA hoops championship at the University of Kentucky by leaving for the NBA. That transgression could have been forgiven if he hadn't decided to perch at archrival Louisville, leaving the Kentucky faithful green with envy. Bringing the circle full, Frank Brothers, Claiborne's trainer, used to condition horses for Pitino in partnership with the farm's Seth Hancock. Unlike Watch, however, none distinguished themselves. A quality field of nine went to the post under bright sunshine for the Cardinal, with the Chilean-bred Babae, coming off a brilliant score in the Athenia (gr. IIIT) at Belmont, sent away the even-money choice. Ioya Two broke from the rail with a four-race Arlington win streak under her bridle, and left the gate fastest of all for the nine-furlong grass test. Rider Mark Guidry found unwanted company first time past the grandstand, however, when Babae and Alybgood rushed to join him. Outpacing that pair, Ioya Two opened up by three lengths up the backstretch and set relaxed fractions of :24.52 and :48.08. Six furlongs went in 1:12.02, but Craig Perret had Watch right where he wanted her. "You can put her in any type of position and give her the trip," he said. "I let her relax where she wanted to be and I had good aim on the pacesetter." Perret split foes off the turn and got Watch out in the five-path for clear sailing. She passed Ioya Two and held off the late-charging Sitka by a length, with Gino's Spirits staying a tracking trip for third. The orange colors of Watch hit the wire at 1:49.12, and she returned $12. The Cardinal was Watch's first graded stakes triumph. Last year she took down the Summer Prom Breeders' Cup at Hawthorne and the Lone Star Oaks. The 4-year-old added $104,997 of the Cardinal's $169,350 value to her earnings, which now rest at $537,707. She was coming off a game second to Gino's Spirits at Keeneland last month in the Bryan Station going a mile. "She reminds me of Trip--they have identical styles, and are a pleasure to ride. These Lord At Wars run on, and over dirt or turf," said Perret. Claiborne's Dell Hancock also sung the praises of that deceased stallion. "They have been so good to us, we just bought another Lord At War mare at the sale the other day just because I don't think you can get enough of him right now. It's a shame he's gone. We've been very lucky with Mighty and this filly and Trip and Stop Watch." "The biggest thing about Watch and Trip is that they always try," said Brothers. "If they get outrun, it's not because they're not trying every time, and that's all you can ask of a horse. That's a remarkable trait that Lord At War passed on." The Hancocks plan to race Watch again next year. The Cardinal victory was the 24th time Claiborne has won a graded stakes at Churchill.
The win was bittersweet for Brothers, who will be ending his exclusive relationship with Claiborne at the end of the year. Seth Hancock has announced plans to race less in Kentucky in 2002 due to the state's stagnant purses and perceived leniency in drug-testing its horses. Brothers will become private trainer for Joe Allbritton's Lazy Lane Farm early next year. One day later in the $177,300 River City Handicap (gr. IIIT) for the boys, Dr. Kashnikow unleashed a dynamic run from last in the field of eight, driving seven-wide down the firm Churchill course to prevail by 1 1/2 lengths over favorite Tijiyr in 1:47.90 for the nine furlongs. Pacesetter Strategic Mission finished third. Dr. Kashnikow, a 4-year-old gelding by El Gran Senor, was purchased privately by Erdenheim Farm before capturing the Fourstardave (gr. IIT) at Saratoga in August, then moved to the barn of John Fisher, who saddled him for a fourth-place finish in the Cliff Hanger Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Meadowlands before the River City. Rider Robby Albarado induced the winning charge. Tijiyr, racing for the first time since a chip was removed from his ankle after a good third in the Manhattan (gr. IT) last June at Belmont, lost nothing in defeat. (Cardinal Handicap Chart, Equibase)(River City Handicap Chart, Equibase)