08/10/2009 11:00PM

Looking for three of a kind

Barbara D. Livingston
Grand Couturier wins last year's Sword Dancer for his second straight victory in the race.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In Saturday's Sword Dancer Invitational, Grand Couturier will try to accomplish what Commentator could not in last week's Whitney - win the same Grade 1 race at Saratoga for a third time. But unlike Commentator, who would have had to share his accomplishment with two other horses, Grand Couturier seeks an unprecedented three-peat in the $500,000 turf race.

Winner of the Sword Dancer the last two seasons, Grand Couturier is one of four horses to have won the race in back-to-back years. Majesty's Prince (1983-84), El Senor (1989-90), and With Anticipation (2001-02) are the others. Only El Senor tried for a three-peat, but he finished third in 1991. This will be Grand Couturier's fourth consecutive start in the race, as he finished third in 2006.

"It's not so much winning the Sword Dancer three times in a row, it's just the fact that you can keep a horse at this age with a few ailments at a Grade 1 level for four years in a row," said Robert Ribaudo, who trains Grand Couturier for owner Marc Keller.

Grand Couturier was a 3-year-old when he made his first start for Ribaudo in the 2006 Sword Dancer. Keller had purchased horse in France, where he had just run fourth behind Rail Link, Red Rocks. and Sudan in the Grade 1 Grand Prix de Paris. Rail Link won that year's Arc de Triomphe while Red Rocks would come to North America to win that year's Breeders' Cup Turf.

Grand Couturier arrived in Saratoga the week of the Sword Dancer and was a bit headstrong in his training. In the race, Grand Couturier raced a close-up third, lost position, and then came again to be third, beaten 3 1/2 lengths behind Go Deputy.

"At that point he wasn't a dead come-from-behind horse," Ribaudo said. "He was younger and fresher, and he was kind of feeling his way in some of those races. But it was nice to get him here, get him a third. It was a positive experience. You felt like. 'Wow, we got a nice one.' "

Grand Couturier had some soundness issues with his ankles and feet that limited him to just two starts entering the 2007 Sword Dancer. Ribaudo used the one-mile Bob Harding Stakes at Monmouth Park as a prep even though it wasn't his preferred distance. Though Grand Couturier finished sixth in that race, it proved to be a pivotal one in the horse's career as it was the first time a jockey - Jose Velez - had taken the horse back to last early in the race.

"Jose said 'Listen, anybody rides this horse for you next time, I just dropped my hands out of the gate and he relaxed down the backside. and when I asked him he picked it up and finished good and galloped out good,' " Ribaudo said.

Ribaudo needed to find a rider for Grand Couturier in the 2007 Sword Dancer. Trainer Neil Howard suggested Calvin Borel, who was riding in Saratoga that summer primarily to be around Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense. Borel had Grand Couturier last and 14 lengths off the pace early, but he rallied to upset odds-on favorite English Channel to win by three lengths at 15-1.

"Calvin gave him a great typical Calvin ride that day," Ribaudo said. "He blew by English Channel like he was standing still."

In last year's Sword Dancer, Borel was unavailable, as he had a prior commitment to ride at Ellis Park. Ribaudo selected Alan Garcia to ride. The pace was much slower than the previous year, and Grand Couturier stumbled and checked in upper stretch. He came off the rail in midstretch, split horses, and outfinished Better Talk Now to win by two lengths.

"He almost went down at the eighth pole, he checked hard and got through," Ribaudo said. "That was fabulous."

On the morning after the 2008 Sword Dancer, Ribaudo and Keller said they wanted to go for the three-peat in 2009. And here they are.

"Not too many things happen in this game when you plan it," Keller said. "It's nice to have it actually happen."

Once again, Grand Couturier comes in having had just two races - both fifth-place finishes - but his connections are hopeful of another good showing.

"We're pretty confident that going into this race now he's where he wants to be, and if he can step up to any kind of performance like he did last year in the Turf Classic or the Sword Dancer he'd be tough to beat," Ribaudo said. "He's going to go in there fresh and sound and perform to his ability, and if there's somebody better in there, we can't help that."