Veteran Gary Hartlage has long been one of the most popular trainers at Churchill Downs, especially with longtime friends and residents of the nearby neighborhood of Shively, where the man affectionately known as “Red Dog” grew up.
Saturday night’s “Downs After Dark” program featured a wild finish in the Iroquois (Grade III) in which a pair of Donegal Racing longshots trained by Louisville-native Dale Romans – the victorious Cleburne (34-1) and runner-up Smart Cover (26-1) finished a head apart in an exacta that returned $500.
But given his local esteem, a $15.80 win mutuel on a promising Hartlage-trained 2-year-old named Wry in the evening’s 11th race was just as surprising. Anita Cauley’s homebred son of Distorted Humor out of a half-sister to Grade I winner On Fire Baby cruised by three lengths under Joe Johnson in his second career start.
Wry had finished fourth in a six-furlong race in his debut on Aug. 3 at Ellis Park. The chestnut colt stretched out to seven furlongs Saturday night and stalked the pace in fourth before he coasted to the lead in upper stretch and quickly drew clear. The winner covered seven furlongs in 1:24.08 over a fast track.
For the legion of Hartlage’s local fans, that $15.80 win payout was a gift on a horse that won so impressively. Wry is also a colt that has Hartlage thinking of bigger conquests down the road.
“He was no cinch or anything like that, but he acts like he’s a good horse,” Hartlage said on Sunday morning. “He’s going to be okay. We’re thinking pretty big about him.”
Wry is out of High Heels, who won the 2007 Grade II Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn before she ran third in the Kentucky Oaks (GI) to champion 3-year-old filly Rags to Riches, who would defeat future two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in her next start when she faced males in the Belmont Stakes (GI).
High Heels was produced by Cauley’s mare Ornate, who is the dam of On Fire Baby, winner this year’s Apple Blossom (GI) at Oaklawn Park and the 2011 Pocahontas (GII) and Golden Rod (GII) at Churchill Downs. She has won five of 11 career starts with earnings of $750,308 following a fourth-place run behind two-time champion Royal Delta in her most recent race in Saratoga’s Personal Ensign (GI).
"It’s all there,” Hartlage said of Wry’s female side of the pedigree. “Having Distorted Humor on top it didn’t hurt anything.”
Hartlage has no immediate plans for Wry, but is assessing his options after the colt’s emphatic victory over a group of well-regarded 2-year-old maidens.
“I’m sure we’ll try to stretch him out next time,” he said. “We’ll see where we go from there.”
Hartlage had a busy night on Saturday as he saddled other 2-year-olds in the Iroquois and the Pocahontas, a Grade II race for 2-year-old fillies. Harlan’s Special finished fifth to Untapable in the Pocahontas, while Stonecrusher finished seventh of 10 behind the Romans duo in the Iroquois. Both are owned by Ten Grand Stable, a partnership that includes Hartlage’s daughter, Jennifer Riggs.
"They all came back good,” Hartlage said. “I feel pretty good about most of my babies. Hopefully we’ll have a good fall and a real good 3-year-old year. We’re happy.”
Wry’s family will be a point of focus for Hartlage on Sunday when he saddles Cauley’s homebred Grit and Grace, a 3-year-old Tapit filly and the first foal of High Heels, in the 8th race. Grit and Grace is in search of her first victory in the 1 1/16-mile maiden race for fillies and mares.
Hartlage also is mulling over future plans for On Fire Baby, who challenged Royal Delta in the early going of the Personal Ensign before fading to fourth. She came out of her Saratoga race well and Hartlage has lost no faith in her talent and ability, but he’s puzzled by her most recent outing.
“She just really didn’t fire as good as I thought she would,” he said. “If she had fired, I thought the worst we would be was second or third. But she came out of the race good.”
Keeneland’s Juddmonte Spinster (GI), which will be run over the Lexington track’s synthetic Polytrack surface on Oct. 6, is one option Hartlage is considering. On Fire Baby ran fifth after breaking from the outside post in Keeneland’s 2011 Alcibiades (GI), the filly’s only career outing over synthetic footing.
ALL FOUR ‘DOWNS AFTER DARK’ STAKES WINNERS COULD BE BOUND FOR BREEDERS’ CUP – It appears that each of the quartet of stakes races featured on Saturday night’s “Downs After Dark” racing program at Churchill Downs could have an impact on the fields for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita on Nov. 1-2.
The most obvious are the winners of the night’s pair of races for 2-year-olds: the $150,000-added Pocahontas (GII) for fillies and the $150,000-added Iroquois (GIII) for males. Both of the 1 1/16-mile races, which had previously been run during Churchill Downs’ Fall Meet, were races in the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series.
Both Steve Asmussen, who saddled Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC’s Untapable to win the Pocahontas, and Dale Romans, trainer of Donegal Racing’s Iroquois winner Cleburne, said after their races that they planned to take their winners to the Breeders’ Cup. Both winners will receive a travel stipend of $10,000 for their respective trips to Southern California.
Romans said he hopes that Iroquois runner-up Smart Cover would be able to compete in the Juvenile.
Trainer Kelly Breen could send two horses to the Breeders’ Cup following strong efforts in Saturday night races at Churchill Downs.
George and Lori Hall’s Pants On Fire could be headed to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) after notching his second consecutive stakes victory in the Ack Ack Handicap (GIII). Pants On Fire, who finished ninth in the 2011 Kentucky Derby in his only previous race at Churchill Downs, won the one-mile Ack Ack in a stakes record time of 1:33.78 that narrowly missed the track record of 1:33.31 for the one-turn mile distance.
Breen said the Halls are also looking an invitation to run their colt in Japan to end his 5-year-old season.
A Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies bid will be considered for Stoneway Farm’s Stonetastic, the runner-up in the Pocahontas who finished a half-length behind the victorious Untapable. Stonetastic won a Monmouth Park maiden race by 12 1/2 lengths in her only previous race.
"She’s a game horse and that’s the most tired I’ve ever seen her,” Breen said. “It’s a shame to run that hard and get beat, but she’s a nice filly.”
Flashy American won the $100,000-added Locust Grove and trainer Ken McPeek said afterward that Preston Stable LLC’s 4-year-old daughter of Flashy Bull was being considered for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (GI).
McPeek’s filly ran in five maiden claiming races in 2012 before she final scored her first victory in a $25,000 maiden claiming race at Saratoga. Since then she has won six of 11 races, a run that include stakes victories in the Locust Grove, the Alada at Saratoga and the Iowa Distaff at Prairie Meadows. She has won four of her last five starts, with the only blemish being a runner-up finish to Authenticity in the Shuvee (GIII) at Saratoga.
“She just keeps getting better and better,” McPeek said. “Thank goodness they didn’t claim her off me.”
McPeek is considering Santa Anita’s $250,000 Zenyatta (GI) on Sept. 28 as a possible Distaff prep for the Kentucky-bred Flashy American, who has now won seven of 22 starts and $392,129.
BARN TALK – Nominations close Wednesday for the final two September Meet stakes races: the $175,000-added Homecoming Classic for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/8 miles and $100,000-added Jefferson Cup (GIII) for 3-year-olds at one mile on turf. Both races will be run during the “Downs After Dark” night racing program on Saturday, Sept. 28. The 12-day September Meet will close Sunday, Sept. 29 … Naveed Chowhan’s Seaneen Girl, an easy 8 ½-length winner of the Monmouth Oaks (GIII) in her most recent start, breezed five furlongs on Sunday morning at Churchill Downs. The Bernie Flint trainee covered the distance in 1:01.20, which ranked ninth among 19 works at the distance. Seaneen Girl won the Golden Rod (GII) last fall at Churchill Downs.