Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s Departing won his first stakes race since 2013 and scored his first triumph on grass when slipped through along the hedge under jockey Miguel Mena to grab a clear lead in the stretch and held off longshot Knights Nation to win Saturday’s 26th running of the $200,000 Grade II Firecracker Stakes on the closing night of the 38-day Spring Meet at Churchill Downs.
A 6-year-old gelded son of War Front bred by his owners, Departing’s Firecracker victory was his first stakes victory since a win in the Grade II Super Derby at Louisiana Downs in September 2013. In snapping a string of seven consecutive losses in stakes events, the Al Stall Jr.-trained Departing earned his first victory on grass in his second start over that racing surface. He improved his career record to 17-8-2-3 and the winner’s prize of $120,280 pushed his lifetime earnings to $1,720,559.
The victory by Departing provided Claiborne Farm, a legendary Thoroughbred racing and breeding operation located in Paris, Ky., with its 33rd stakes victory at Churchill Downs. The win lifted Claiborne Farm into a tie with Calumet Farm, another Kentucky racing and breeding icon, for total stakes victories at the historic home of the Kentucky Derby. Other Churchill Downs wins through the years by Claiborne include the 1984 Kentucky Derby with Swale, Grade I wins in 2010 by Blame in Breeders’ Cup Classic and Stephen Foster Handicap, and a win in the 1993 Early Times Turf Classic by Lure.
Departing overcame tight traffic in the stretch, opened a clear one-length advantage in mid-stretch and won by a final margin of a half-length to pay $10.40, $6.20 and $3.80 as the third wagering choice in a field of eight 3-year-olds and up. Knights Nation rallied late for second under Brian Hernandez Jr. and returned $8 and $3.60. Favored Sky Flight was three-quarters of a length farther back in third under Julien Leparoux and paid $2.40 to show.
"We went for the hole and they tried to make it tight but he’s a good horse,” Mena said. “This kind of horse has that big heart. He was full of run. I have the horse to go in there. The trip was great. It set up perfect for us with some pretty good speed. He was just the best horse today.”
The milestone achieved in the victory by Departing is important to Claiborne Farm, said the farm’s 25-year-old President Walker Hancock. The fourth-generation president succeeded his father, Seth Hancock, in the farm’s top position in early 2014.
“It means a lot to all the farm employees and everyone that’s put in so much work over the years,” the younger Hancock said. “It’s definitely a special accomplishment. …I’ve only been around for a few of these but hopefully I’m around for many more to come.”
Departing covered the one-mile Firecracker distance on good turf in 1:38.16. He had collected six stakes victories as a 3-year-old in 2013, but his only win in seven races over the past two years was an allowance victory at Churchill Downs in late April of 2014.
Frac Daddy was the morning line favorite in the Firecracker and left the starting gate as the second wagering choice. He set the early pace, but faded to finish last under jockey Corey Lanerie.
Slip By finished fourth and was followed past the finish by Skyring, R. Great Adventure, Medal Count and Frac Daddy.
WALKER HANCOCK, 25-year-old president of owner/breeder CLAIBORNE FARM, DEPARTING, winner): “Miguel (Mena) did a great job riding him right up the hedge. He might have even brushed it, I don’t know. It was very exciting though. I’m just glad he finally put it together and could get back in the winner’s circle.
“We were (talking about running in the $70,000-added Kelly’s Landing at seven furlongs on dirt) but I guess maybe he just needed (his last) race. Being by War Front they seem to run so well on the turf we figured we better give him another shot. I’m glad we did. It was a last minute audible, too, at about 10 a.m. on Wednesday when we decided to change course.”
On the record-tying 33rd Churchill Downs stakes win for Claiborne Farm: “It means a lot to all the farm employees and everyone that’s put in so much work over the years. It’s definitely a special accomplishment. …I’ve only been around for a few of these but hopefully I’m around for many more to come.”
Q: What’s next? “I’ll talk to (trainer) Al (Stall Jr.). Maybe the Forestardave or Bernard Baruch … something like that. This opens up a whole other set of races for him. Maybe we can even target the Breeders’ Cup Turf or something at Keeneland. We’ll have to figure it out but it opens a whole new avenue for us, which is very exciting.”
MIGUEL MENA, jockey on DEPARTING (winner): “We went for the hole and they tried to make it tight but he’s a good horse. This kind of horse has that big heart. He was full of run. I have the horse to go in there. The trip was great. It set up perfect for us with some pretty good speed. He was just the best horse today.”
On the last minute pickup mount at entry time: “Yes, it was nice. I was very fortunate. It’s been a little slow meet for me but it picked up at the end and we finished good.”
NOTE: This was Claiborne Farm’s 33rd career stakes wins at Churchill Downs which ties Calumet Farm for the all-time record by an owner at the historic Louisville racetrack.
DALLAS STEWART, trainer of KNIGHTS NATION (runner-up): “I thought he ran great. Brian (Hernandez) said that he kind of struggled with the soft turf just a little bit, but he just found a way to pick himself up in that last eighth of a mile and finished-up good. I was proud of him and I was proud of Brian.”
BRIAN HERNANDEZ JR., jockey on KNIGHTS NATION (runner-up): “He ran hard. I was proud of the horse. All the way around there he was struggling and struggling and I thought, oh man, we’re going to be in trouble. But he picked himself up late and he carried himself home. We had a little traffic, but he pushed his way through. I wish he had handled the turf a little better early, because I think he’d have won.”
NORMAN CASSE, assistant to MARK CASSE, trainer of SKY FLIGHT (third): “I was a little unsure whether or not we were going to have him ready (off the layoff) and I think he probably just got tired inside the sixteenth-pole. But I’m really excited about the way that he ran. We were just hoping that he’d hit the board and that he’d pay back what we put in. Now he has a race and we’ll take him up to Saratoga and have him ready for a big meet up there.”
JULIEN LEPAROUX, jockey on SKY FLIGHT (third): “He was a little fresh on the backside in the first part of the race and he got a little bit tired at the end. He ran good, though.”
KENNY McPEEK, trainer of FRAC DADDY (last of eight): “Corey (Lanerie) seems to think he didn’t like the one-hole or the soft turf. He rates better when he’s outside of horses.”