04/01/2012 5:57PM

Fair Grounds: Nates Mineshaft dominates New Orleans Handicap in track-record time

Hodges Photography / Alexander Barkoff
Nates Mineshaft leads the field into the stretch of the New Orleans Handicap. He won by 7 1/4 lengths.

NEW ORLEANS - Six months ago, the 5-year-old horse Nates Mineshaft was a two-time winner recovering from stem-cell therapy performed on chronically sore ankles, while trainer Austin Smith was fighting to stay in business, his mid-sized string having shrunk to a mere six or seven horses.

Sunday at Fair Grounds, horse and trainer crossed to the other end of the racing spectrum, with Nates Mineshaft, the first graded stakes winner of Smith’s career, scoring a track-record-setting blowout victory in the Grade 2, $396,000 New Orleans Handicap.

Forced into a hot early pace, Nates Mineshaft passed the half-mile in a testing 46.86 seconds, but at the top of the stretch, with favored Mission Impazible closing in, he took off again. Barely slowing through the stretch run, Nates Mineshaft went on to a 7 1/4-length victory and stopped the timer in 1:47.64, the fastest 1 1/8 miles ever recorded at Fair Grounds.

Nates Mineshaft, a 5-year-old Mineshaft horse owned by the Windy Hill Farm of Pete and Peter Reiman, finished fourth in a Turfway Park allowance race last Dec. 2 in his first start for Smith, and his first race at Fair Grounds came in a $25,000 nonwinners-of-three claimer. No one stepped in to claim Nates Mineshaft that day – a look at the lower portion of his legs would have dissuaded all but the bravest – and Nates Mineshaft won by almost five lengths. Offered for a $40,000 tag in a second-level allowance race with a claiming option on Jan. 19, Nates Mineshaft easily won again, and, allowed to lope along on an easy lead in the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap on Feb. 25,  he gave Smith, an Ohio native, his first graded stakes win.

But where the Mineshaft tempo was andante, the New Orleans Handicap pace turned allegro. Jesse Campbell, who flew in from Canada to take his regular seat on Nates Mineshaft, said he tried to restrain his horse when Pants on Fire rushed up toward the front on the first turn, but Nates Mineshaft would have none of that.

“He threw his head, and I said, ‘Okay, just go on,’ ” Campbell said.

Maintaining the lead meant running an opening half-mile in 46.86 seconds, a demanding split on this course, and Smith, watching from the grandstand, thought the pace would take its toll.

“When I saw the fractions, I thought this was only going to be a three-race winning streak,” he said.

The quarter pole at Fair Grounds comes at the very top of the homestretch, and it was there, Campbell said, that he decided it was time to sink or swim. He asked Nates Mineshaft for even more speed, and the horse responded, bounding away from Mission Impazible, who had crept up along the rail and came into the stretch ready to pounce. The margin at the stretch call was five lengths and Nates Mineshaft never faltered, crossing the wire alone. Mission Impazible appeared to run his race, finishing 3 1/2 lengths ahead of third-place Toby’s Corner, but was no match for the winner.

“I had a lot of horse at the quarter pole,” jockey Javier Castellano said. “I thought I had a chance.”

Nates Mineshaft, who is exercised daily and generally cared for by Smith’s wife, Anne, paid $20.80 to win. Behind Toby’s Corner came Mister Marti Gras, Pants on Fire, Redeemed, Fast Alex, and Thirtyfirststreet.