11/02/2012 10:46AM

Breeders' Cup Mile: Head brings another filly with high expectations

Barbara D. Livingston
Freddie Head, who won the Breeders' Cup Mile with Goldikova, has another serious contender in Moonlight Cloud.

ARCADIA, Calif. – You know the tale. Improbable story. Bit melancholy in the end. Still generally uplifting.

How Freddie Head won two Breeders’ Cup Miles back in the 1980s as the jockey of Miesque? Of how Head returned to the BC Mile as a trainer, bringing along a small, plain bay horse (we won’t mention her mean streak) called Goldikova? She won the BC Mile at Santa Anita in 2008, won it again in 2009, and by the time she came back for a third in 2010 at Churchill Downs, everyone knew Goldikova. The Mile three-peat was hers – the first horse to get one. An impossible fourth? Not quite. Darkness had dropped at Churchill when Goldikova lost, finishing third last fall. Freddie Head tried on a smile afterward that didn’t quite fit. Goldikova went off to become a broodmare. And – curtain down.

But wait. Wasn’t that Freddie Head bouncing around the Santa Anita backstretch Wednesday morning? And who was that small, plain bay filly with the fancy Euro-style blanket?

This Freddie Head and the Breeders’ Cup Mile thing is getting to be like the Star Wars franchise. It’s like Batman or, heaven forbid, Police Academy – sequel after sequel after sequel. Yes, that was Freddie, and no, that was not Goldi. Head, who has been married three times, has a new equine lady in his life. Her name is Moonlight Cloud. She’s won three Group 1 races, and she nearly beat the unbeatable Black Caviar in June at Royal Ascot. Freddie Head thinks she can win the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Saturday.

“Freddie really wanted to bring her for this race,” said owner George Strawbridge, the Pennsylvanian who bred Moonlight Cloud in England. “That was never an ambition for me. It certainly was for him.”

Head had his eye on Moonlight Cloud as a leading lady but had to wait until Goldikova was out of the picture. Moonlight Cloud stuck mainly to sprints as a 2- and 3-year-old, venturing out to a distance as long as one mile only once, when she finished a troubled seventh as the favorite in the 2011 English 1000 Guineas.

“Last year I knew she was good. I knew she could be able to run a race like the Breeders’ Cup Mile,”
Head said. “But I didn’t want to run her against Goldikova. That’s why they never met.”

Strawbridge has since sold Moonlight Cloud’s dam, Ventura (not the BC Filly and Mare Sprint winner), but bred her five years ago to the speed influence Invincible Spirit, because Ventura’s offspring were coming out as middle-distance horses who weren’t quite fast enough. His plan worked, perhaps too much so, it seemed for quite some time. Head and Strawbridge wondered if Moonlight Cloud was best suited to sprinting.

She is very good at that. Besides losing by a head to Black Caviar, Moonlight Cloud has scored blowout wins in the Group 1 Maurice de Gheest, a 6 1/2-furlong race at Deauville, two years in a row. And after winning the De Gheest by five on Aug. 5, Head decided, on very short notice, to try something longer: Moonlight Cloud came back one week later and ran in the one-mile Jacques Le Marois. Excelebration won it, with Moonlight Cloud fourth, but the filly found significant trouble and finished faster than anyone.

On Sept. 16 at Longchamp, in the one-mile Prix du Moulin de Longchamp, Moonlight Cloud validated Head’s belief that one-mile races lay within her scope. In it she faced Farhh, a Godolphin-owned 4-year-old who had twice been second to Frankel this year after racing competitively with top-class runners So You Think and Nathaniel. The Moulin had only four runners, and Frankie Dettori on Farhh went straight to the front. Moonlight Cloud chased and chased, finally collaring Farhh an eighth of a mile from the finish and holding her slim lead.

“Frankie Dettori wanted to make it as much a test of stamina as possible, and as with most things he does, he did that brilliantly,” Strawbridge said. “It was really her courage that won that race. We thought she could get a mile if she could settle and relax, and she is getting more and more settled as she gets older.”

Head turned his attention turned to the BC Mile, well aware that Santa Anita’s tight-turning left-handed course demands a skill set Moonlight Cloud had yet to acquire.

“I’ve been able to train her on sharp tracks,” Head said. “There’s one not far from our place in Chantilly, a little track like the racecourses in America that was built by the Wildenstein family. She’s been there and she worked on left turns all the time, so now she’s very used to that, and she’s handy. And she’s fresh, which may be not the case with Excelebration, who raced two weeks ago. I think for me, all is in my favor. She has a lot of speed, she’s easy to ride, and I think she will love the ground: The faster, the better.”

Head said he went to visit Goldikova recently and found her in good health and spirits. The ferocious racehorse is in the midst of her first pregnancy, due to deliver a Galileo foal in February and March. Across an ocean and a continent, the story of the man who trained her still has unfinished chapters.