Daniel Hurtak was adamant he knew what he was talking about.
Based on what he had seen from his mercurial gelding Conquest Big E in training, the owner was insistent that if the son of Tapit could get himself forwardly placed in one of these graded stakes, he would have enough mettle to keep himself in front by the time the wire rolled around.
"For two months, I've been asking for him to make the lead and couldn't get a jock to make the lead with him," Hurtak said. "I told the jockey today (Jose Batista), 'If you make the lead, he gets really game because in the mornings, nobody beats him.'"
Batista took that sage advice to heart in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Hardacre Mile Stakes (G2) March 31, and, indeed, Conquest Big E made an honest man out of his owner when he earned an upset, front-running victory over 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner Always Dreaming.
In leading every point of call en route to a three-length victory and first graded stakes score, Conquest Big E completed a long, strange trip toward finally living up to his potential. Initially purchased for $700,000 by Conquest Stables out of the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale and trained by Mark Casse, the gray runner was put on the 2016 Kentucky Derby trail but dashed those aspirations with off-the-board efforts in that year's Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) and Gotham Stakes (G3).
When he sold to Tommy Roberts for $110,000 as part of the Conquest Stables dispersal at the 2016 Keeneland November breeding stock sale, he had only two wins from nine starts and was toiling in the allowance optional claiming ranks. Though he dropped his next three starts for his new connections, he had a resurgence last summer with back-to-back wins at Gulfstream Park, including a gate-to-wire, seven-length score in the Coast Is Clear Handicap going one mile.
"I knew that he can run with these horses," said trainer Donna Green Hurtak, who celebrated her first graded stakes victory in the Hardacre Mile. "He's a very talented horse. He's also a Tapit, and they can be a little quirky. We're just pleased he got to show his ability today."
One of the things his conditioner said she worked on was breaking Conquest Big E of his habit of hopping out of the gate, an issue that cost him position during his runner-up effort in the Jan. 27 Fred W. Hooper Stakes (G3) and fourth-place finish in the Hal's Hope Stakes (G3) Feb. 24.
"We did a little gate work with him, trying to get him out of the habit," Green Hurtak said. "It's great when you're a trainer and things work, because it's not easy to get them out of bad habits."
The patience paid off as Conquest Big E got away well from the inside post in the six-horse Hardacre Mile field and clicked off the opening quarter-mile in :23.57 with Always Dreaming—making his first start in seven months—sitting just off his flank in second. Conquest Big E put a length on the classic winner as he reached the half-mile in :45.88, then got really brave on the final turn, opening up by nearly three lengths.
With Batista giving him some right-handed urging in the lane, Conquest Big E kicked on handily to cover the distance in 1:35.92 over a track rated fast, rewarding those who backed him at odds of 12-1.
Always Dreaming held for second in his first outing since running ninth in the Aug. 26 Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1), with stablemate Tommy Macho 1 1/2 lengths back in third.
"I thought he ran well first time off a layoff," trainer Todd Pletcher said of Always Dreaming. "Gulfstream can be a tricky track when a horse gets loose like that. We got the trip we were hoping for. We got a nice, clean trip. I thought he fell into a good rhythm and ran steadily. The horse on the lead never came back."
"It was a positive effort. A mile is a tough distance to start off a layoff. I know the horse that won had a couple troubled trips here. He was a horse I was concerned about shaking loose."
Bred in Kentucky by Gainesway Thoroughbreds, Conquest Big E is out of the Carson City mare Seeinsbelieven. He improved his record to five wins from 20 starts with $393,515 in earnings.
"I'm very proud of him today," Green Hurtak said.