Indygo Shiner Sparkles in Turf Debut

Published in the June 16 issue of The Blood-Horse
It wasn't supposed to end this way, with a flashy chestnut named Indygo Shiner prancing in the winner's circle. Based on the odds and past performances, either Kalu or Strategic Partner should have won the Jefferson Cup Stakes (gr. IIIT) June 9 at Churchill Downs.

The 7-5 favorite, Kalu, had a three-race win streak going that included victories in the LG&E Energy Forerunner Stakes at Keeneland and the Hawthorne Derby (gr. IIIT). The 2-1 second choice, Strategic Partner, was coming off consecutive triumphs in a Keeneland allowance race and the Crown Royal American Turf Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Churchill.

But Indygo Shiner stole the show. Wearing blinkers for the first time and making his first start on grass, the 3-year-old son of A.P. Indy held off a hard-charging Strategic Partner to take the $282,500 Jefferson by a neck. Kalu, who challenged the winner for the early lead, faded to fourth, a length behind 65-1 outsider Fast City.

"I thought I still had a lot of horse left," said Lonnie Meche, the rider of Indygo Shiner. "He was just playing the last sixteenth of a mile."

Prior to the Jefferson Cup, the colt's biggest claim to fame was a runner-up finish to champion Macho Uno in the 2000 Grey Breeders' Cup Stakes (Can-I) at Woodbine. Even though Indygo Shiner lost by seven lengths, trainer Elliott Walden thought he had something special.

But Indygo Shiner was a bit lazy. He liked to drop too far back in his races. In his 2001 debut at Keeneland, the colt rallied to win a seven-furlong allowance by a nose. Then he poked along early in the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico before passing tired horses to finish fourth.

Sensing Indygo Shiner was performing below his potential, Walden added blinkers to improve his focus. The trainer also tried the colt on grass because of his pedigree. Indygo Shiner's dam, Navarra, was a grade III winner on turf.

When they were introduced during morning training hours, the changes seemed to make an immediate difference.

"With the blinkers, he was more aggressive and more self-confident," said David Fortner, a Walden assistant whose duties include galloping Indygo Shiner. "And when we breezed him on the grass, he really seemed to enjoy it. Horses that struggle on the grass switch leads a lot back and forth. He never did that. He settled right down."

For the Jefferson, Fortner was in charge. Walden was in New York, where he saddled License Fee to win the Just a Game Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Belmont Park.

"It's been a really big day," said a grinning Fortner, who kept in touch with Walden via cell phone.

Indygo Shiner's Jefferson Cup rivals included stablemate Tarzan Cry, a stakes winner in France who was making his first start in this country. The field was reduced to nine 3-year-olds by the late scratch of Harrisand, another French import who ran wild after dumping his jockey, Jon Court, in the post parade. Indygo Shiner was on his toes in the paddock, but the nearly 7-1 shot behaved professionally on the track.

"He (Fortner) didn't tell me to send him," Meche said. "But he said, 'If he leaves there kind of dogging it, get after him a little bit and get him into position.' But I didn't have to do anything. This colt put himself into the race. I pretty much just held on."

With Kalu parked outside him, Indygo Shiner cruised through leisurely fractions of :24.38, :48.09, and 1:12.06. Kalu and Monsieur Cat stuck their heads in front briefly leaving the five-sixteenths pole. But Indygo Shiner spurted quickly back to the front. In the final eighth, he was starting to pull away when Strategic Partner ranged up on the outside to challenge. Indygo Shiner barely beat him under the wire, completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.81.

"There were five or six horses running at him down the lane, and I didn't know if he was going to have a shot to win it," Fortner said. "But he really finished strong. Lonnie rode a perfect race."

A three-time winner in six career starts, Indygo Shiner is owned by a partnership that includes his breeders, Jane and Frank Lyon. Joseph LaCombe, who campaigned 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick, also has an interest in Indygo Shiner, who may be pointed for the Aug. 18 Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) at Arlington Park.