By Robert Knolhoff Jr.
Published in the June 16 issue of The Blood-Horse
Permitting herself a respite from the heavy air of anticipation on Belmont Stakes eve, Donna Ward flashed a broad smile as she skipped gracefully across the winner's circle and onto the main track at Belmont Park. With time to spare while awaiting the return of her headstrong filly, Forest Secrets, she reduced her grin just long enough to declare, "See what happens when they let a few country bumpkins roll into town?"Self-deprecating humor aside, the image of a filly making her victorious stakes debut in the $200,000 Acorn Stakes (gr. I) with just two prior starts under her girth, and doing so with the verve of a far more seasoned competitor, may just be the result of pure genius. By remaining at Palm Beach Downs all winter to govern 28 John and Debby Oxley-owned fillies and mares, Donna allowed husband John and the now fabled Team Monarchos to stay at Gulfstream and focus on developing at least one Triple Crown contender."I've never been on Forest Secrets once. I really couldn't afford to be," said Donna, noting a sharp contrast to her rapport with a certain Eclipse award-winning mare. "It's hard enough going on three every day when you have 28 and really need to be on the ground watching their every move. Besides that, Beautiful Pleasure does not take kindly to playing lead pony for the younger fillies."Profiting from a smooth harmony with rider Chris McCarron, Forest Secrets proved every one of those long mornings can pay off, by withstanding the determined challenge of a similarly lightly tested and ascending filly named Victory Ride to garner top honors in the June 8 race for 3-year-old fillies."I told Chris, 'Don't worry about her bucking and don't worry about her goofing off,' " said Ward of her pre-race talk with McCarron. "She has the ability. All she lacks is the experience. When she pins her ears back, she's telling you 'let's go get that filly in front of us.' Then she'll give you everything she's got."More than any renewal in recent memory, this Acorn field marked a sharp contrast to the editions dominated by Woody Stephens and D. Wayne Lukas-trained fillies with grade I-laden past performances. If many in this year's cast appeared on paper to be a bit light on seasoning, their late afternoon arrival in the paddock ensured that impression remained glued to the page. By way of their collective saunter around the walking ring to the breathtaking three-way finish, the day's visiting Broadway performers had little on this group in the way of stage presence.Forest Secrets bounced right out of the gate, but was soon passed by With Ability through a strong early pace in :22.66 and :45.40. McCarron cajoled his filly just enough to secure a narrow lead over a physically towering Unbridled Elaine at the quarter pole. Behind that pair, Victory Ride unfurled her imposing stride beneath Edgar Prado along the inside, and Real Cozzy commenced an extended bid as Larry Melancon guided her outside in search of clear sailing.With her ears pinned tight as Ward had predicted, Forest Secrets answered the stretch-long challenge of Victory Ride with a newfound gear of her own. After yielding a brief lead in deep stretch, McCarron persevered atop the resilient young filly to turn back Victory Ride by a neck. Real Cozzy stayed on another neck behind in third while continuing wide. The crowd-pleasing show stopped the clock in 1:34.92."We finished ahead of an Eclipse Award winner and the (Kentucky) Oaks runner-up," said Victory Ride's trainer Rusty Arnold, referring to fifth-place finisher Caressing and Real Cozzy, "but we couldn't get by a non-winner of one.""I knew these fillies pretty well and I was confident she had the talent to belong," said Ward in the paddock on Belmont Stakes Day, unmoved by Forest Secrets' $102.50 payout the previous day. "Victory Ride trained beside us all winter at Palm Beach. We've seen the others all spring in Kentucky. These are some really nice-looking fillies, but Forest Secrets had that kind of talent. She needed the experience and now she has both."Big AppleWith the East's turf horses searching for a leader akin to California's Bienamado, an eclectic cast of 10 assembled for the $400,000 Manhattan Handicap (gr. IT), the centerpiece of a bountiful Belmont undercard. Grand racemare Perfect Sting accepted perhaps her greatest challenge with a try against the boys, including several local favorites and a formidable entry of the sleek German-bred Sumitas and Irish-bred roan Tijiyr. The answer to this 1 1/4-mile riddle, at least from the perspective of winning trainer Christophe Clement, was to just keep it simple.On a warm Saturday afternoon three weeks ago, Clement singled out Forbidden Apple from a group of his horses grazing outside Barn 21 on the Belmont backstretch and offered, "Now he could be one for the Breeders' Cup." The fact the Arthur Appleton-owned 6-year-old had not started since a strong effort behind Fantastic Light and Jim and Tonic in Hong Kong last December fazed Clement neither that day nor in the hours preceding the centennial running of the Manhattan."Layoffs are not as big a deal as many people might think," Clement said. "Like any top athlete, a racehorse remembers his work and never forgets what he is bred and trained to do. The most important thing is keeping the horse fit and we could not have had him any fitter going into today."Clement alerted jockey Corey Nakatani to be aware of a dawdling early pace. Sure enough, with repeated thrusts from his powerful forearms, Nakatani urged Forbidden Apple to the dormant front running position ahead of Turnofthecentury before settling the son of Pleasant Colony into an agreeable canter through an opening half in :48.94. "We figured we would rather dictate the pace than have someone else do it," said Nakatani.After reaching a mile in 1:37.20, Forbidden Apple strode down the lane with full extension toward a commanding 3 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole. Equipped with blinkers for the first time but enduring an uphill journey according to Jerry Bailey, King Cugat's familiar and always formidable rally slowly diminished Forbidden Apple's lead through a closing quarter in :23.57. Forbidden Apple prevailed with strong handling by three-quarters of a length with a time of 2:00.77.Tijiyr finished with good energy after the long trip for third and Sumitas stayed on well for fourth. With the well-traveled Sumitas' baptism to American racing complete, he may continue racing in the States. Perfect Sting did not enjoy the smoothest of sailing and retreated to sixth.As the evening tranquility slowly returned to the outer reaches of Belmont, Forbidden Apple grazed outside his stall with a singular focus two hours after his triumph. A picture of contentment was drawn as his beautifully toned black silhouette swayed only long enough to locate a new patch of grass to munch on."He really loves Belmont and he's now won stakes here from one mile up to a mile and a quarter," said Clement from inside his office. "He proved himself a real stayer today. This has always been a very talented horse and he was ready to run big today, and the race riding was equally good. That is really about it, other than to say I've always wanted to win the Manhattan."For both winning horse and trainer, the simple life is most rewarding.Continued . . .