Arlington Race Report: Experience Factor

Published in the July 7 issue of The Blood-Horse
The June 30 Arlington Classic (gr. IIT) came down to the new kid on the block vs. the cagey veteran. Chalk up another one for experience.

Baptize, the 11-10 favorite, captured his fourth added-money win on the grass, outfinishing Jefferson Cup (gr. IIIT) upsetter Indygo Shiner to win by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:48.80 for the nine furlongs. It was another neck back to California invader Cherokee Kim. Although this was the slowest Classic since Arlington Park switched the race to the grass in 1994, it was a dominating performance.

Besides the $120,000 winner's share of the $200,000 purse, up $50,000 from 2000, it re-established Baptize as a leading 3-year-old turf runner after a nose defeat in the Crown Royal American Turf (gr. IIIT) and a 12-length trouncing over a soft course in the Diamond A-USA Stakes in his last race. For Hall of Fame conditioner Bill Mott, it was his third victory in the last four Classic runnings. He also won with Trail City in 1996 and King Cugat last year.

Owners Gary and Mary West bought Baptize, a son of Dynaformer out of the Storm Cat mare Screening Room, for $230,000 at the 1999 Keeneland September yearling sale. The Wests have 12 horses in Mott's care.

"His record is impeccable," assistant trainer Ralph Nicks said of Baptize. "He's always been on the verge of being a real top horse, and hopefully now he'll keep improving."

While Arlington's Mid-America Triple on the turf includes the American Derby (gr. IIT) on July 22 and the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) on Aug. 18, Nicks said sweeping the series is not a prime consideration. He hinted that Baptize might skip the middle leg and return for the Secretariat, the same route King Cugat followed last summer.

Ironically, a slight illness two days before the Classic nearly prevented Baptize from making the race. "He had a little cough and mucus coming from his nostrils on entry day, but we scoped him Friday after training him at Churchill and he checked out fine, so we decided to go ahead and come."

Curiously, Indygo Shiner and jockey Lonnie Meche did not attempt to duplicate the winning wire-to-wire formula of the Jefferson Cup, sitting just off the slow early fractions of :24.20 and :48.67 set by Fan Club's Mister. "Obviously they went slow early, but I put him where he wanted to be," Meche said. "He was pricking his ears, comfortable, within himself, but the other horse just outkicked him home."

Arlington's leading jockey, Mark Guidry, correctly identified the slow pace and entered the fray earlier than usual for Baptize. "I didn't want to go there that quickly, but I wasn't going to (restrain) him," he said. "As they straightened up and he switched leads, he just accelerated and went on."

The field was reduced to six when Monsieur Cat was a late stewards' scratch for wearing toe grabs, which are not allowed on the Arlington turf course.

While experience prevailed in the Classic, the July 1 Stars and Stripes Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT) went to a trainer who'd never won a race before. Donald Burke II, an assistant to Charlie Whittingham for 5 1/2 years and most recently a bloodstock agent for Gary Tanaka, saddled Tanaka's Falcon Flight to a 2 3/4-length victory in the turf fixture, moved from July 4 this year to accommodate CBS. It was not only the first win in 15 attempts for Burke, but also broke an eight-race, 15-month losing streak for the French-bred son of Persian Bold. Burke has had Falcon Flight for his last four races.

The 5-year-old horse was ridden expertly in the Stars and Stripes by Rene Douglas, who overcame the 10 post in an 11-horse field in the 1 1/2-mile race. He collared galloping front-runner Langston in midstretch, missing the course record by .08 seconds with a final time of 2:27.86. Langston held second by 3 1/2 lengths over favored Williams News.

The 35-year-old conditioner has been preparing for this win since age eight, the first time he attended the races in Southern California. "I was intrigued with the idea of how these guys knew their horses would win," Burke said. "That's what's driven me from then until now."