John Oxley's Noble Bird may not always deliver, but when he brings his 'A' game, he's impressive.
The 5-year-old son of Birdstone set a track record Oct. 29 on the final afternoon of the 17-day fall meet at Keeneland, winning the $200,000 Hagyard Fayette Stakes (gr. II) by 5 3/4 lengths and running 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.75.
The crowd of 19,093 on the 80-degree closing day pushed the season's total attendance to a fall-meet record of 276,543.
Noble Bird, who came off a victory in the Oct. 1 Lukas Classic Stakes at Churchill Downs, won two stakes back-to-back for the first time in his 19-race career. Heavily favored, he took command along the rail early and led through fractions of :23.53, :46.70, 1:10.53 and a mile in 1:35.12. Second choice Divining Rod, winner of Keeneland's 2015 Coolmore Lexington (gr. III), took aim on the leader as the field rounded the final turn, but to no avail as Noble Bird strongly pulled away in the stretch.
"I just left him alone," said Julien Leparoux, who picked up his 11th Keeneland meet title as leading jockey. "He ran his race and in the stretch I tried to encourage him. I knew we were going fast and when I asked him, he came on nice at the end. It was a good race. I didn't know (he set a track record), but when this horse is on his 'A' game and everything is good for him, he's a very nice horse for sure."
Noble Bird's win capped a stellar meet for trainer Mark Casse and his team, led in Kentucky by son and assistant Norman Casse, as Team Casse took the Keeneland fall training title with 13 wins. Oxley also enjoyed a strong meet with five winners, three of them at the graded stakes level. Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) winner Classic Empire and JPMorgan Chase Jessamine (gr. IIIT) victress La Coronel also race under Oxley's silks for Casse. Those horses are pre-entered in the Breeders' Cup World Championships Nov. 4-5 at Santa Anita Park.
As for Noble Bird, he returns to Casse's Churchill base with an eye on the Nov. 25 Clark Handicap (gr. I). The speedy bay won the 2015 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) there to secure his lone grade I victory to date.
"I think we are figuring him out a little bit," Norman Casse said. "He's a horse that if there is a lot of speed in the race, he is a little bit more compromised. We have to pick races where he can take things on his own and that is what we did today. We were actually just trying to get him a race today and really point to the Clark."
Bred in Kentucky by Jack Swain out of the Tiznow mare Anyhow, Noble Bird pushed his earnings to $1,064,945 from seven wins and four seconds. He returned $4, $2.80, and $2.40 at even money. Divining Rod paid $4.20 and $3.20, while Hawaakom rallied from last to be third, another 53/4 lengths back, and paid $4.40.