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Updated on 06/19/2012 9:15AM
Churchill Downs: Ron the Greek edges Wise Dan by a head in Foster
By Marty McGee
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Ron the Greek gave Bill Mott a night to remember under the lit Twin Spires of Churchill Downs when the horse charged up the rail to nail heavily favored Wise Dan in the final strides Saturday night in the 31st running of the Grade 1, $437,200 Stephen Foster Handicap.
Mott, the Hall of Fame trainer who made Churchill his base for years before branching out, also won the previous race, the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap, with the highly impressive Royal Delta on the stakes-studded Downs After Dark program.
Ron the Greek, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap, was ridden by Jose Lezcano when coming from seventh in a field of eight older horses to prevail by a head in a thrilling finish of the 1 1/8-mile race over Wise Dan, the 4-5 favorite. Until the final furlong, however, it appeared that front-running Nates Mineshaft had stolen the race, but as he began to falter late, Wise Dan went past him with about 40 yards to go, and then Ron the Greek slipped past them both with his inside run.
Ron the Greek returned $20.80 after finishing in 1:50.51 over a fast track. The 5-year-old Ron the Greek won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap in March before finishing second as the favorite in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap in his last start.
Nates Mineshaft was three-quarters of a length behind the top pair, while Rogue Romance rallied belatedly to finish fourth, another 1 1/4 lengths back.
“There happened to be a little pace in here today, more than there was at Oaklawn,” said Mott, who was in from New York. “It was a little more honest, and that helped his situation.”
Before an estimated ontrack crowd of 25,000, Nates Mineshaft, a 14-1 shot with Miguel Mena aboard, set a solo pace through fractions of 23.66 seconds, 47.27, and 1:10.95 with Fort Larned and Wise Dan in closest pursuit. Nearing the quarter pole, Fort Larned was first to give way while Wise Dan, with John Velazquez putting him to a fierce drive, finally began getting closer inside the furlong pole.
Meanwhile, Lezcano had found an inside seam on Ron the Greek, and they just kept coming, giving the horse his seventh victory from 19 career starts.
“Jose did a great job,” said Mott. “He got him settled real nice, found a seam, got him through, and really rode him well. We’re real happy.”
A Florida-bred by Full Mandate, Ron the Greek is owned by Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable, and his breeder, Jack T. Hammer. He earned $262,932 to lift his bankroll to $1,112,597.
The Foster was the first of six Win and You’re In events toward the Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, with $150,000 in entry fees and a $10,000 travel voucher going to the winner. Mott said the 1 1/4-mile distance of the $5 million BC Classic should be “made to order” for the late-running Ron the Greek.
An objection by Manny Cruz, the rider of Rogue Romance, for alleged interference by Wise Dan in deep stretch was not allowed.
As expected, Successful Dan, part of a stable entry with Wise Dan, was an early scratch and will run next in the Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows or Suburban at Belmont.
This was the first Foster run as part of a Downs After Dark card. One more such program will be run here June 30.
Wise Dan might need blinkers. In deep stretch, he seemed more interested in the crowd than the race.
I don't know enought about Bill Mott's tendency but judging by the way Royal Delta won the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap in a super impressive fashion, he ought to think about sending her against males sometime soon. She'll wipe these East Cost older males easily with a breath to spare. Mr. Mott, please put her against males.
I was rooting heavily for Nate's Mineshaft whom I thought was a big overlay. At one point in the last furlong it seemed like Dan wasn't running on and that NM might have it..it seemed like that final furlong took aeons..for a second I started to wonder whether the Foster had been stretched out to a 10 furlong race. They really ground through the last eighth (14.2), race was a full four seconds slower than the immortal Victory Gallop's track record. As for Johnny V, um yeah, he was outridden. Not the first time and won't be the last. Despite the endless vaseline over the lens paeans to his greatness over the last week, and the absurd hyperbole from New Yorkers, he has done nothing to set himself apart from the other dozen or so "elite" riders of today. Like all of them, he can deliver a great ride and then he can be very erratic and often makes mistakes in judging pace or through timidity. None of the top riders of today is remotely at the level of the true all-time greats, many of whom happened to retire in the middle of the last decade (Bailey and McCarron the foremost among them, but also including Stevens, Day, Pincay, PVal)
Add Successful Dan, Richard's Kid and maybe a couple more that may emerge late, we'll have a solid BC Classic race. A point about Richard's Kid is that he's not a consistent horse and he's 7yo, but judging by the way he won the Prove It Stakes last time out in which he ran a 1 1/2 in jogging-like fashion, I would think he blongs in the upper echelon 2012 male handicap group. Speaking of BC classic, Bob Baffert has a strangle hold on that race for which he has Bodemeister and Paynter as 3yos and Game On Dude and Richard's Kid as older horses and the race is on their home turf. It looks like the race is Baffert to loose.
Nothing against the "wise" runner up but I smiled brightly as "RTG" did what I thought and hoped he would do, win again! He is really a special horse whoever, wherever and whatever he runs.
After watching the Oaklawn Handicap, the Pimlico Special, and the Stephen Foster Handicap, a common theme has emerged; the Handicap Division (Older Males) simply is not a very fast group. Not only are they not very fast - they also appear to be rather slow. Consider the running time of the Oaklawn compared to the Arkansas Derby. The Santa Anita Derby and the Big Cap. Even the Preakness against the Pimlico Special. Almost each of the races, despite the distance differences and date differences, albeit minor in two of the three cases, the three year old division proved to be the superior group. Granted, that also involved Bodemeister and I'll Have Another, easily the two best of the crop through the first two legs of the triple crown. Starting the year, I looked at the division and wondered to myself who would emerge as a player, because the group is devoid of serious, GI level talent. To support some of the other posters here, the only horse that looms the treat in the Breeder's Cup Classic right now is Game on Dude at his home track of Santa Anita. The rest of these in the Handicap Division are simply too slow to compete with a speed horse on a track that historically favors speed (even despite the surface changing). So, with all of that said, here's to hoping the summer helps the 3yo's develop a little further so that the Handicap Division can get some fresh blood...because what's currently there is just not to the quality of recent years.
I have been surprised how little respect has been given to Ron the Greek, even though the horse won one of the great races there is for older horses, the Big Cap'. Yes, the handicap division in California was weak sans Game on Dude, but it was still a big accomplishment for Ron the Greek to ship in and win. In the last 35 runnings of the Big Cap prior to this year, only 2 Eastern shippers had been able to swoop in and win the race. Broad Brush in 1987, was one, and he had been an elite 3 year old and went on to have another elite year at 4. The second, in 2009, was Einstein, and the Big Cap was one of his 5 career grade 1 wins. So, two horses of very high quality. Milwaukee Brew in 2002 could also be categorized as a shipper given he had been running at the Fairgrounds prior to being transfered permanently to Frankel's barn out West prior to the Big Cap. And Milwaukee Brew was also a top horse. After winning the Big Cap, Milwaukee Brew also won the Californian and placed in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, and Breeder's Cup Classic. He then came back to fully validate his victory the year before by becoming only the second horse to that time to win a second Big Cap. The fact Ron the Greek joined such an illustrious group told me he was a horse of quality; mediocre horses just don't ship in and win a Big Cap. With two grade 1 wins to his name now this year, Ron the Greek should be ranked as the #1 older male(at least at 2 turns). I don't necessarilly believe Ron the Greek is the best older male, but his accomplishments demand the #1 spot.
The Foster lived up to its billing from an excitement standpoint, with 2 horses hitting the wire in a photo and two others right there. But from a quality standpoint, it was a letdown. All those big Beyers and we got a final eighth in 14 and a final time a second slower than Royal Delta put up under wraps? And it wasn't like the pace of the Foster was THAT fast. It only goes to show that there's a big difference running a big Beyer under optimal circumstances than doing it against quality competition where a horse is pressed the entire time. Aside from the time, another concerning apsect about the Foster is that most of the horses didn't look like they wanted much to do with the 10 furlongs they will need to run if they are to win the Breeder's Cup Classic. We know Ron the Greek can get 10, but the Foster has made me suspicious about Wise Dan getting that classic distance. I suppose I will give him a chance, but the Foster didn't inspire any confidence on that end. Nate's Mineshaft in deep stretch certainly didn't look like a horse that wanted another eighth. I suppose Rogue Romance could get 10, but it's not like he's particularly fast or proven at the elite level. Nehro has some class and can get 10, but he just has never been able to produce fast figures. Alternation and Fort Larned have won at a mile and 3-16ths, but Alternation's time was quite moderate and Fort Larned likely benefited from being at Gulfstream where his style is typically advantaged. The handicap division had been looked upon as weak to start the year, but over the last few months it had really come together as a solid and deep group. Or so we thought. The Foster has to be considered a step back; the race had almost all the big two-turn names from the East, but it simply was not fast. Thus, with the assumption that everyone remains healthy, I would have to think the Breeder's Cup Classic runs through Game on Dude. Santa Anita is the Dude's track, he has a strong combination of serious speed and heart, and his last race was his fastest ever. You want to be the favorite for the Classic, beat Dude'. You want to win the Classic, beat Dude'.
Fabulous win by Ron the Greek! That was a very smart ride given to RTG by Jose Lezcano, who was far back for awhile, then made his move steadily along the rail, which was wide open most of the way from the beginning of the stretch to the finish line. Also a pretty gutsy performance by Nate's Mineshaft, who lead the entire way until almost the end, when you could visibly see Nate's Mineshaft hit the wall of pain and he was holding on tight to finish a brave third in the race. NM ran quite a race, he almost stole it from everyone. A very nice try by Nate's Mineshaft. John Velazquez had a rough, tough two consecutive races at Churchill today. A narrow loss on Wise Dan to Ron the Greek, then the scary spill on Mr. Producer in the following race. R.I.P., Mr. Producer, poor baby. My good wishes to John Velasquez.
If asked before the filly race which one he liked... Mott, with a direct gaze and smile would have said 'I like 'em both.'
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