January 7 at Aqueduct felt more like April. It wasn’t just the weather, though I have never been warmer at the Big A, not on any Wood Memorial day, not ever, than I was there on Saturday; “balmy” would be an understatement.
But it wasn’t just the weather. It was the faces. It was the people. Yep, that was Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Graham Motion in the paddock in the middle of the card; up in the press box and out taking photographs, faces normally seen only for Grade 1 races appeared to cover the first Saturday of racing in New York in 2012.
What brought them all out? Why, the ungraded Count Fleet, of course. Of course.
Last year, when the race was won by Sagamore Farm’s Monzon, it was worth $65,000, $39,000 to the winner. This year? $150,000, $90,000 of which went to Godolphin Racing, owner of Alpha, winner of the 2012 Count Fleet.
The Busanda, the feature for the fillies Saturday, was worth $65,000 last year, when Dance Quietly, owned by the Estate of Edward Evans, won it. Yesterday, its value was boosted to $100,000, with $60,000 going to the pockets of Darley Stable, owner of winner Captivating Lass.
Or maybe it’s Kiaran McLaughlin that should be thanking Genting, because it was his horses that swept the Busanda/Count Fleet double yesterday, earning nearly double what last year’s winners of the two races did.
McLaughlin was watching the race from his home in Florida; stable business kept him there this weekend while his wife Letty and daughter Erin and assistant Art Magnuson did the honors in Ozone Park.
Alpha and Captivating Lass took similar paths to the Aqueduct winner’s circle. Both started their racing careers relatively late in the year; both won first out; both turned in clunkers in their biggest races to date.
Débuting in Saratoga at the beginning of September, Alpha broke his maiden with a 6-length win before finishing a distant second to Union Rags in the Champagne. A month later, he was 19 lengths behind Hansen and Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Captivating Lass won by two in her first start, at Parx in October, then finished seventh in the Demoiselle at the end of November.
“She’s an improving filly,” said Magnuson. “It was a much tougher race in the Demoiselle, but we were disappointed. We thought she’d run better.”
Characterizing her as a “late bloomer,” Magnuson also noted the filly’s size, nearly 17 hands, as a contributing factor to her late début. Said jockey Mike Luzzi, “She seems like a grinder and it took a while to get her going. She’s a big, rangy thing, by A.P. Indy, and it took the whole stretch to get her going.”
The similarities between Alpha and Captivating Lass don’t end in the paths they took to Saturday’s races. Since last summer, McLaughlin and Darley/Godolphin have been experimenting with not running first-time starters on Lasix, with mixed results. Alpha and Captivating Lass both won first out without it, but both ran with it on Saturday.
“We scope them all,” said McLaughlin, “and if they need it, we put them on it. We saw a little bit of bleeding, and it’s got to be a preventive situation. We don’t want to risk running them one more time without it and having them bleed.”
At several recent conferences on Lasix, research has been presented to indicate that repeated episodes of bleeding have deleterious effects on equine health, causing thickening of pulmonary vein walls that leads to reduced blood flow, making it difficult for horses to breathe. Last June at the NTRA Lasix summit at Belmont, trainer Graham Motion said that he races all of his 2-year-olds on Lasix in order to prevent such damage.
While Alpha’s racing road for the first part of 2012 appears to be set, next starts for Captivating Lass are up in the air.
“New York has a great program for 3-year-old colts,” said McLaughlin, noting the upcoming Grade 3 Withers, Grade 3 Gotham, and Grade 1 Wood Memorial, worth $200,00, $400,000, and $1 million respectively, and indicating that Alpha would be pointed to either the Withers or the Gotham.
By comparison, the 3-year-old filly program in New York comprises the ungraded Busher ($75,000), Grade 3 Cicada ($150,000), and Grade 3 Comely ($250,000). McLaughlin said that those races are under consideration for Captivating Lass, as are stakes races at Fair Grounds and Gulfstream Park.
The Grade 3 Rachel Alexandra ($200,000) is at Fair Grounds on February 25, followed by the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks ($500,000) on March 31.
At Gulfstream, the Grade 2 Davona Dale ($250,000) will be run on February 25, the Grade 2 Gulfstream Oaks ($300,000) on March 31.
Regardless of where his horses run next, McLaughlin is certain of one thing.
“Next time,” he said by phone from Florida, “I’ll definitely be there.”