By Lynne Snierson
The connections of Our Country, a son of Constitution, are optimistic that their talented, 2-year-old turf runner can chart a course to the winner’s circle in the $200,000 Pilgrim Stakes (G3) at Belmont Park on Saturday.
“We think he’s got a lot of talent, and we think he’ll run big on Saturday,” said Matt Gatsas of Gatsas Stables, which co-owns the George Weaver trainee with Randy Hill’s R. A. Hill Stable.
Our Country, a bay colt bred in Kentucky by WinStar Farm, is out of the unraced Light and Variable, who is a daughter of back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Classic winner (2000-01), Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Tiznow. The colt is the 4-1 third choice in the field of nine juveniles for the Pilgrim, which will be contested at 1 1/16 miles on the grass on the undercard of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) program.
Our Country has run three times, all under Manny Franco, all at 1 1/16 miles and on either the inner or outer turf course at Saratoga, where he graduated Aug. 3 in a maiden special weight at second asking. In that effort he showed maturity for a young and inexperienced horse, rating behind the speed, closing willingly from fifth, and then drawing away down the lane to prevail by 5 ¾ lengths.
Next time out, he wound up fourth in the With Anticipation Stakes (G3) at the Spa, but his sailing wasn’t as smooth. He stumbled out of the gate and did not respond favorably and then raced wide.
“He won pretty impressively in Saratoga this summer, and then we brought him back and he had a little problem at the break and lost interest really quick in that race,” said Gatsas. “He’s been working (at Saratoga on the turf training track) up to this race very, very well and I really expect him to run a big race on Saturday. George says he’s in good shape and ready to fire in this race so hopefully, we can get it done.”
Our Country will face stiff competition from 5-2 favorite Structor, who comes out of three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown’s barn and was purchased for $850,000 this past March at the OBS sale, and from 3-1 second choice No Word, who is trained by seven-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher and is a homebred by Wertheimer et Frere, the brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, who own the high-couture, luxury brand and perfume company Chanel.
Structor and No Word each won their only start, interestingly on the same Aug. 31 card at Saratoga, and both of their races were on the turf and at the 1 1/16 miles distance of the Pilgrim. Our Country’s owners and trainer are not intimidated.
“After his recent works, George said he wouldn’t trade places with anybody,” said Gatsas, whose father Mike Gatsas and Randy Hill bought Our Country for $70,000 at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Mid-Atlantic Sale for 2-year-olds-in-training after he didn’t meet his $190,000 reserve price at the 2018 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
“We bought him out of the 2-year-olds sale off of Eddie Woods and he hasn’t disappointed us. After the RNA, we went back and bought him. Eddie does a great job with his horses and we’ve had a long relationship with him. Everybody loved this horse so we thought we should take a shot with him. He hasn’t disappointed us yet.”
The Pilgrim has become a noteworthy prep race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), which will be at Santa Anita on the Friday Future Stars card Nov. 1. It’s been a decade since the Gatsas family had a horse in the Breeders’ Cup.
Negligee, the 2009 Darley Alcibiades (G1) winner who ran under the banner of their Sovereign Stable, was sixth in the Juvenile Fillies (G1) that year. Gatsas Thoroughbreds, which was a partnership of Mike Gatsas and his brother Ted Gatsas, ran multiple graded stakes winners Gander and Shadow Caster in their colors. Gander was ninth in the 2000 BC Classic (G1) and 10th in the Classic a year later. Shadow Caster finished 13th in the 2000 Sprint (G1).
“If I miss one year from having a horse in the Breeders’ Cup it’s too long for me,” said Gastas. “If he runs the race we think he’s going to run on Saturday, and comes out well, and George thinks we should go to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, I’ll be on a JetBlue flight. He’s a nice horse. A real nice horse. But we know how hard it is to get there. I’m looking forward to it and I hope he runs the race we think he can run.”
These connections also campaign Vekoma, who won the Nashua Stakes (G3) as a juvenile last November and in April captured the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2). In May, he took the Gatsas family, who have been in the sport for more than 30 years, to their first Kentucky Derby (G1) as owners. Vekoma hasn’t started since his 13th-place finish in the Derby.
“Vekoma took a little bit of a rest and is on the farm in Kentucky,” said Gatsas, who after the Pilgrim will travel to Remington Park to watch the New York-bred Albany Stakes winner Funny Guy contest the Oklahoma Derby for these same connections on Sunday.
“We hope to have Vekoma back in 30 to 45 days and we look forward to a huge 4-year-old career with him. He was young and we put him through the paces, and he responded every time we did, so we gave him some time off and now he’s doing great.”
Belmont’s Jockey Club Gold Cup Day card features four graded stakes, including two Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” events with the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) offering a berth in the BC Classic and the $300,000 Vosburgh providing a berth in the BC Sprint.
The $300,000 Beldame (G2) for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles is also on the card and Bloom Racing Stable and Madaket Stables’ Midnight Bisou will try for her seventh straight graded stakes win to remain undefeated in 2019. The consensus division leader as the older dirt female in North America will have John Velazquez aboard as he replaces Mike Smith, who has been her partner for 14 of her last 15 races but will remain at Santa Anita.
Velazquez was in the irons for that other race, which was the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) last year when they finished third. The Hall of Fame rider is currently tied (660) with Jerry Bailey for the most graded stakes wins in North America, and if he is unsuccessful with his mounts in the American Pharoah (G1), Chandelier (G1) and/or Eddie D (G2) on Santa Anita’s opening day Friday, he could eclipse the mark on Midnight Bisou in the Beldame.
Lynne Snierson, a former director of communications at Arlington Park and Rockingham Park, currently is a freelance writer and racing publicist. She covered thoroughbred racing as an award-winning sportswriter for newspapers In Boston, Miami, and St. Louis. She lives in New Hampshire. Secretariat remains her all-time favorite horse.