ARCADIA, Calif. – As the sun set behind the glimmering Santa Anita grandstand, a New York-based contingent behind the winner’s circle toasted its new Classic winner to large cheers.
A roused Vino Rosso swept by the favored McKinzie for trainer Todd Pletcher’s first Classic win and jockey Irad Ortiz’ third Cup win of the day and fourth of the weekend.
Owned by Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable, the son of 2007 Classic winner Curlin was five lengths back in a stalking trip approaching the far turn.
He made his move as his sire did at Monmouth Park 12 years earlier, approaching the top of the stretch to engage with McKinzie with visible energy. He put the Baffert horse away at the eighth pole and increased his lead to 4 1/4-length margin as he crossed the wire.
After being disqualified to second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for bumping 3-year-old Code of Honor in the stretch, the chestnut 4-year-old out of a Street Cry mare redeemed himself with the big win on Saturday afternoon. He won for the second time this year at Santa Anita at the classic mile-and-a-quarter distance.
The Classic win added $3.3 million to the winner’s coffers, stretching his career earnings to $4,803,125. Vino Rosso completed the mile-and-a-quarter trek in 2:02.80.
The winner and Post Time top selection went off as the third choice on the board, returned $11.80 to his backers for the win, $5.80 to place and $4 to show. McKinzie finished second paid $4.80 for place and $3.60 to show. Local horse Higher Power paid $6 to show and completed a $2 trifecta that paid $394.
It was Pletcher’s 11th career win in a Breeders’ Cup race, but it was one that has eluded him over his successful training career. He was on “pins and needles” since the Jockey Club Gold Cup race as his young colt was training exceptionally well up to the Classic, hoping nothing would go wrong.
“He was doing so wonderfully and we couldn’t wait for the moment to get here,” said Pletcher.
“It’s a huge win for us. I can’t remember the last time coming into a race of this magnitude with a horse that was doing so well. He was putting in some great works at Belmont and galloped over this track beautifully,” said Pletcher.
“That was the strongest performance I’ve seen from a horse this year,” said Pletcher.
Pletcher gave kudos to Ortiz, Jr., who had himself quite a day winning the Dirt Mile aboard Spun to Run and the Turf with Bricks and Mortar.
“Irad was very confident coming into the paddock area before the race. Mike (Repole) asked him if there was one particular horse he was afraid of and he said ‘No, I just hope my horse runs his race’ and he did a great job,” said Pletcher.
Irad followed Pletcher’s directions in the paddock to perfection keeping his horse in a stalking position with a target on the front running McKinzie. “We were interested to stay fourth or fifth in the clear, which is how his best races have worked out for him. I was able to get him in the clear and everything worked perfect,” said Ortiz, Jr.
The win in the Classic was his ninth career Breeders’ Cup riding victory and he captured the two biggest purses of the day in the $4 million Turf and the $6 million Classic.
Baffert was denied his fourth Classic win and thought McKinzie ran his heart out in finishing second at a distance many pundits questioned that he would get comfortably.
Standing in the entryway to the tunnel leading to the track, the white-haired trainer was proud of the son of Street Sense for his runner-up effort and praised Vino Rosso for his effort on Saturday evening.
“I’ve been watching him the last couple of days, and I told my wife that he was the horse that we were going to have to beat. He’s a really big, strong horse,” said Baffert. “He was sitting there just perfect and I knew he was going to have a lot of horse left and he did,” said Baffert.
The race was marred by the only breakdown of the two day championships when Mongolian Groom broke the cannon bone in his left hind about a furlong from the finish line. He had challenged the lead for the first mile of the race, but was pulled up by jockey Abel Cedillo and the son of Hightail was vanned off in the equine ambulance. He was taken to Santa Anita Equine Hospital for evaluation. Upon consultation with several veterinary doctors, the horse was humanely euthanized.
Both Baffert and Pletcher commented on the unfortunate incident regarding Mongolian Groom before the decision to euthanize.
“We got all the way here, a two beautiful days, unfortunately you just don’t know when that’s going to happen,” said Baffert.
“The safety of the horse is something we’re all very concerned about at the end of the day,” said Pletcher.
It was unfortunate after all of the safety protocols put in for the two-day championships that a breakdown occurred in the final race of the weekend, which happened to be the biggest and on prime time on the East Coast.
Many horses were scratched by the track vets over the weekend to the dismay of several trainers, but safety was the number one modus operandi for Santa Anita and Breeders’ Cup officials this weekend.
As the sun set on the big weekend more anxiety and pressure will undoubtedly be placed on the embattled Santa Anita management team and the industry in the weeks to come.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.