05/05/2010 12:00AM

Atta Boy Roy gives a taste of the big-time


Roy Schaefer had been to Churchill Downs before, to see the 2007 Kentucky Derby won by Street Sense, so he wasn't exactly a wide-eyed bumpkin when he returned last weekend. But Schaefer and his wife, Ellie, made a critical mistake upon arriving at the track Saturday morning: They forgot to scout out the stairways, tunnels, and traffic patterns. And so, after their horse, Atta Boy Roy, captured the Grade 2, $290,000 Churchill Downs Stakes on the Derby undercard, the Schaefers found themselves in a world of trouble.

They had no idea how to get to the winner's circle.

They had watched the race unfold from opposite the sixteenth pole on the second level, just two of 155,804 witnesses on a wet, wild, and for the Schaefers, life-affirming day in Louisville.

Their horse, a $4,500 purchase at the 2006 Washington Thoroughbred Breeders' Association summer yearling sale, dismissed by handicappers, at 10-1, had become the first Washington-bred to win a graded stakes race in nearly two years. Masterfully ridden over the sloppy seven furlongs by Calvin Borel, Atta Boy Roy held off fast-closing Warrior's Reward to win by a half-length. The Schaefers were thunderstruck.

"It was just unbelievable," Roy Schaefer said. "The number of people, the excitement. I didn't hear any of the race being called because the crowd was so loud. Calvin said he had horse left, but I can tell you, I was nervous, because Warrior's Reward was coming on like a freight train."

"I didn't know for sure that we had won the race," Schaefer said. "And then I couldn't find the winner's circle. We had to ask for directions on how to get down there."

The victory was doubly sweet for trainer Valorie Lund, who, 27 years into her career, recorded her first graded stakes win. Lund had taken mild umbrage with a Daily Racing Form handicapper's assertion that Atta Boy Roy would be "seriously outgunned" on Saturday. When a reporter asked her after the race if she had honestly thought her horse had a chance, she had a ready reply:

"I did," she said. "But you guys didn't."

Atta Boy Roy, who won three races at Emerald Downs in 2009 and lowered the six-furlong track record to 1:07, had worked exceptionally well since arriving in Kentucky in early April. For local knowledge, Lund went to the Churchill Downs racing secretary, Ben Huffman, telling him she needed a quiet, patient rider who could fit a horse "that likes a real long hold and doesn't need to be jazzed up."

Huffman recommended Borel, famous for his rail-hugging rides. Sure enough, Borel steered Atta Boy Roy to a ground-saving trip on a surface that earlier Saturday had played to circling closers. If Atta Boy Roy beat a track bias, Lund said, he did it in style.

"He slipped coming out of the gate, kind of broke sideways, and he still made the lead easily," she said. "He was in hand and galloping, and Wall Street Wonder, who has the fastest Beyer posted this year, tried to hook him, and Wall Street Wonder finished last. Calvin said when Roy turned for home, he knew he had the race won. He said he had plenty of horse left."

Atta Boy Roy, a 5-year-old by Tribunal from the Synastry mare Irish Toast, is a half-brother to The Great Face, who captured the 2007 Longacres Mile on a sloppy track. But by Lund's reckoning, talent, and not the track, elevated Atta Boy Roy on Saturday.

"Is he a wet-track wonder? No. I think he's better on a dry track," she said. "I just think he's better than people think he is. When they see him on a dry track, I think it's going to be spooky."

And when might that be?

"Our end goal is the Breeders' Cup," she said, alluding to the $2 million Sprint on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs. "That's the reason we came here. So this week, I'm going to start at the Breeders' Cup and go backward, create a schedule that way. I kind of think the Aristides on May 29 might fit into our plans. It's not as much money as some of the other races, but it's on this racetrack, and we don't have to ship."

The $100,000 Aristides is a Grade 3 at six furlongs. Officials from Belmont Park called Lund on Monday, asking her to consider the Grade 2, $250,000 True North Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard June 5. There will be other options as the summer heats up.

"Ellie and I are going to let Calvin's agent, Calvin, and Valorie make the decisions from here, and let them do what they think is best," Roy Schaefer said Tuesday from his home in Port Orchard, Wash. "I don't know if I'm wishing for something that's not possible, but I would like to go to the Breeders' Cup."