Magdalena Racing and Diamond M Stables’ War Dancer grabbed leaving the final turn and turned back a fierce late charge from Suntracer to win Saturday’s 77th running of the $110,200 Louisville Handicap (Grade III) by a head at Churchill Downs.
War Dancer, ridden by Alan Garcia and trained by Kenny McPeek, clocked 1 ½ miles over firm turf in a stakes record 2:28.23, besting the 2:28.35 by McPeek’s 2007 winner Drilling for Oil.
This was McPeek’s third win in the turf marathon. He also saddled Pisces to a dead-heat victory with Classic Par in the 2002 Louisville Handicap.
Through the first six furlongs of the race, War Dancer rated patiently behind pacesetter Tattenham, who clicked off fractions of :25.70, :51.67 and 1:16.88. Garcia asked War Dancer to draw even with the leader down the backstretch and forged command with a quarter mile left to run. Suntracer, the Chicago-based three-time stakes winner who loomed boldly from the outside entering the stretch, matched strides with War Dancer for three-sixteenths of a mile down the lane, only to be turned back in the final yards.
The victory was worth $66,274 and improved War Dancer’s earnings to $541,717 with a record of 13-4-3-1.
The Lou ’Cap was War Dancer’s first graded stakes triumph since capturing the $500,000 Virginia Derby (GII) last summer. He entered Saturday’s race off a second in last month’s Elkhorn (GII) at Keeneland.
War Dancer, a 4-year-old son of War Front out of the Alydeed mare Deed I Do was bred in Kentucky by Cherry Valley Farm LLC and Stuart S. Janney III LLC.
War Dancer, the 118-pound starting high weight, returned $3.80, $2.40 and $2.20 as the 4-5 favorite in the field of eight older horses. Suntracer, ridden by Robby Albarado with 117 pounds, paid $5.80 and $3.40. Moro Tap was another three lengths back in third under Rosie Napravnik, who won five races earlier on the card, and paid $3.60 while toting 115 pounds.
Napravnik's five wins on Saturday established a Churchill Downs record for wins by a female rider in a single day. The record had been held by Donna Barton Brothers, who piloted four horses into the winner's circle on June 28, 1996.
Forte Dei Marmi-GB, Star Channel, Perfect Timber, Tattenham and Formidable Heart completed the order of finish.
LOUISVILLE HANDICAP QUOTES
ALAN GARCIA, jockey of War Dancer (winner) – “He broke well. I wanted to get him right up close to the pace. At first he was feeling comfortable and everything but on the backside I had to ask a little bit to get my position. Turning for home I started hitting and thought we were clear and then was surprised when I saw the other horse (Suntracer) gaining on our outside. I got nervous for a second but when my horse spotted him on the outside, I felt him dig in and that’s when I knew I had more horse and we got the win.”
KENNY McPEEK, trainer of War Dancer (winner) – “He’s a really cool horse. We knew he could handle these longer distances and he tends to keep himself out of trouble going a mile-and-a-half. When we’ve run him a mile-and-a-sixteenth or even a mile-and-an eighth, he has to weave his way through traffic and he tends to find trouble. Alan (Garcia) did a great job poking him into a hole and he got him there. This horse has a bit of an attitude, if you’re around him and even try to pet him he likes to pin his ears and act sassy. I saw him pinning his ears at the eighth pole and I knew he had a shot to fight back. Robby (Albarado on Suntracer) did a good job making it tight. He’s a really nice horse to be around and I was very proud of him today.”
ROBBY ALBARADO, jockey of Suntracer (second) – “My horse ran great. I had a great trip and actually followed the winner for most of the way. Turning for home I thought we might’ve had him for a split second but unfortunately we got beat. They both ran great races. I had no excuse but you never like to lose those close ones.”
“I’m disappointed. I’m hard on myself – I’m not supposed to lose those close ones. I’ve got to find a way to win those kind. I know I can do it and I should have done it there. I don’t know what I could have done, but I’ll have to evaluate and see what I could have done differently. I hate losing that close, you know?
“I knew I got beat at the wire, but for my own personal stuff I don’t like losing them close. I feel like I’m supposed to be the difference, but I wasn’t today. But the horse ran huge, though – both horses. They ran to the wire and ran as hard as they could.”
RYAN BLOCK, assistant and brother to trainer Chris Block of Suntracer (second) – “He ran his race. He sat off the pace and made his run down the stretch, and just got nipped at the wire by a good horse.”
Q: Robby was kind of blaming himself losing a close one … “No, no, no – Robby can’t blame himself. It was a just a head-bob right there at the end. We’ll regroup and get ready for the Stars and Stripes (at Arlington Park)”
ROSIE NAPRAVNIK, jockey of Moro Tap (third) – “I had a ton of horse and I was sitting in a really great spot. I think they kind of sprinted away from us a little bit on my horse and they made up a lot more ground at the end. He still ran a great race.
“I was kind of waiting for some room and I was following the 2-horse (War Dancer) the whole way. But my horse’s kick isn’t quite as quick and it takes a little bit more for him to get going, so they sprinted away from us a little bit.”
On winning five races at Churchill Downs on Saturday … “It was great. It’s great when things are all going in your favor, and I just lucky to be riding for the people I’m riding for and how it worked out.”