Keeneland is a long way from New York, and there’s no doubt that things are a little different here. As I stood at the rail of the training track on Saturday morning, a nearby trainer called out, “Where you from?” “New York,” I replied. “I could tell,” he said.
Fortunately, Keeneland on Saturday was populated with enough familiar faces, on the track and off, that the occasional sense of alienation I felt was short-lived and not too intense.
One of those familiar New York faces was that of John Velazquez, who returned to the winner’s circle on his second mount back following the concussion he suffered last week, bringing home Baroness Thatcher; he did it again a race later, on board Alwajeeha, for New York-based trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, and in fact the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes was dominated by New York shippers: New York jocks finished 1-2-3. Javier Castellano proved that Pat Reynolds’s Backstretch Rhythm doesn’t need soft turf to run well, and Barclay Tagg’s My Princess Jess made a great late run to get third under Eibar Coa.
New York jockeys won six of the day’s ten races; in addition to Velazquez’s two, Alan Garcia won the fourth with Queenofalldiamonds and the fifth with McLaughlin’s Museeb; Castellano took the second with Shug McGaughey’s Inquisitive; and Eibar Coa won the sixth with Back Alley Tales.
Two events marred an otherwise glorious day. The second race was a starter’s nightmare; even in the paddock, horses seemed agitated, with several washing out before they hit the track (the eventual winner, Inquisitive, was soaked in the paddock—anyone doing any sight handicapping would have eliminated him immediately). I was standing right behind the starting gate as the horses loaded, and watched in horror as Runninforrob reared, flipped, and got stuck under the gate; it felt like forever but took probably only a minute to get him free. As some of the starters worked to release him, others tended to what looked like his badly injured jockey, Juan Enriquez; Enriquez was thrown and must have landed badly, as he couldn’t put weight on one of his legs, ultimately collapsing in the dirt and being carried off the track, clearly in pain, by some of the gate crew. No word on his condition.
The Grade III Perryville was won by Hatta Fort, who didn’t get nearly the attention a victor deserves because not far up the track, just in front of the clubhouse lawn, Ramon Dominguez had pulled up Nickel Shooter, whose front foreleg was visibly injured. Journalists and spectators in the winners’ circle were shaken by the injury, particularly as the horse’s connections flew past to get to him, and then walked slowly, emotionally back to the tunnel, where several of them stood, grieving. The horse was vanned off and euthanized, Keeneland’s first fatality of the meet.
Michael Iavarone was on hand to watch his Ariege finish fifth in the feature; Kiaran McLaughlin was not in Lexington to saddle his two eventual winners. That honor went to his brother and assistant Neal, who apparently fills in fairly regularly for his brother in the winner’s circle, leading to a number of jokes at the trophy presentation about Kiaran’s absence being the guarantee of victory. I suppose Neal is the one who broke the news that Alwajeeha is off to the breeding shed; minutes after the race, Shadwell vice president Rick Nichols announced that the three-year-old filly will be retired. “She won a Grade I,” Nichols said. “We couldn’t ask any more of her.”