By Margaret Ransom
Opening weekend for the Santa Anita Autumn meeting was packed with exciting races, led by five Breeders’ Cup “Win & You’re In” Challenge Series races. When the weekend dust settled on Sunday, fans saw two more juveniles from trainer Bob Baffert’s arsenal qualify for Breeders’ Cup races, a quirky mare (Paradise Woods) return to the winner’s circle in a race (Zenyatta Stakes) she won two years ago for a familiar name (trainer John Shirreffs), another former $16,000 claimer turn into a graded stakes winner (Mirth) and an epic upset in the weekend’s feature that few will forget – Mongolian Groom over McKinzie in the Awesome Again Stakes (G1).
It was also a career weekend for up-and-coming jockey Abel Cedillo, who earned the first two Grade 1 wins of his career in what is his first year riding against the deep and talented Southern California jockey colony.
Sherriffs most certainly has his experience with quirky fillies, most notably the mare for which Sunday’s $200,000 Zenyatta Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita was named for, so when Herman Sarkowsky and Marty and Pam Wygod’s Grade 1 winner Paradise Woods was moved to his shedrow for a 2019 campaign, the veteran conditioner was prepared. And after a bit of an up-and-down season for the flashy daughter of Union Rags, Shirreffs got her to put it all together in a 1 ¾-length triumph in the race named for his legendary Hall of Fame mare.
The victory was Paradise Woods’ second win in the Zenyatta as she took home the trophy in 2017 when she was in the care of Hall of Famer Richard Mandella. And with the victory Paradise Woods claimed the last Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” event offered in California for the $2 million BC Distaff (G1) in five weeks.
Under jockey Abel Cedillo, who was a replacement for Mike Smith and who won his first Grade 1 aboard Mongolian Groom on Saturday, Paradise Woods stalked an early pace of 23.14, 46.83, 1:11.30 and 1:37.33 set by 4-5 favorite Secret Spice before taking over handily and drawing away to the victory. The final time for the 1 1/16-mile feature was 1:44.31.
Secret Spice held on for second and was a neck in front of Ollie’s Candy. La Force, Mongolian Humor and Kaydetre rounded out the order of finish.
“Mike (Smith) told me you’ve got to keep her calm and she’ll try hard,” said Cedillo. “I kept her outside that other filly (Secret Spice) and everything worked perfect. She was standing perfect in the gate and we knew that Prat (Flavien, aboard Secret Spice) was the speed and he would go.
“We broke good. I wanted to be close and not let him (Prat) go by himself.”
Paradise Woods was the 7-2 third choice in the field of six and returned $9.60, $4.20 and $2.80.
“We wanted her to break well and not get shuffled back and hopefully to be in the clear,” said Shirreffs after the emotional victory. “In the past, she’s gotten shuffled back and got sucked behind horses, but today she broke well and was able to get to the outside. We weren’t sure if Mike would be available for the Breeders’ Cup, so this was the time if you’re going to make a change (to Cedillo).
Paradise Woods is out of the Forest Wildcat mare Wild Forest and was bred in Kentucky by Sarkowsky. So far in her career the 5-year-old mare has racked up a line of 17-5-3-3 and has earned $1,123,890.
Mongolian Stable’s Mongolian Groom earned what may be considered the upset of the 2019 racing season so far with his 2 ¼-length wire-to-wire victory in Saturday’s $300,351 Awesome Again. The $12,000 gelded son of Hightail, trained by Enebish Ganbat, was the second-longest shot in the six-runner field and returned $52.80, $8.80 and $3.
The win was a first Grade 1 for Cedillo, who expertly guided the Kentucky bred through easy splits of :23.99, :48.29, 1:12.07 and 1:36.95 before stopping the clock in 1:49.27 for the nine-furlong fast main track test.
“I would like to thank the trainers and owners,” said Cedillo. “I had a lot of help and thank you Enebish Ganbat, for trusting me. He told me don’t change anything, just do what you do with him … just stay close, and I saw McKinzie didn’t go so I took the lead.”
Favored McKinzie challenged briefly in the lane after a stalking trip but could not catch up and checked in for second, another 5 ¼ lengths ahead of Higher Power, who stumbled at the break and did not get into his preferred position behind the pace in the early going. Seeking the Soul, Draft Pick and Isotherm completed the order of finish.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect he was going to win because he was running against two of the best horses on the dirt and the best two trainers, Baffert and Sadler,” said Ganbat through an interpreter since he speaks Mongolian. “I told everyone I’m happy if he comes in third. I bet $500 on show. I guess last time (Woodward Stakes at Saratoga) he got tired because it was very hot, he was sweaty and we did a hard jog. (Saturday) we did a light jog; he was fresher.
“I told the jockey to do what he had to and he did OK, the horse won at 25-1. That’s horse racing. I expected him to hold off McKinzie through the stretch. My horse was not stopping. He continued to go. I didn’t think he’d win. He was up against the two best horses in America in McKinzie and Higher Power. I thought I’d be happy if the horse finished third.
Though the race is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win & You’re In” event for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Mongolian Groom is not Breeders’ Cup eligible and would need to be supplemented. Ganbat indicated that while he and the owners will consider all options, they’d more than likely skip the Classic and point to either the Japan Cup on grass on Nov. 24 in Tokyo or the Champions Cup on dirt at Chukyo Racecourse on Dec. 1.
McKinzie, Higher Power and Seeking the Soul previously earned spots in the BC Classic gate for wins earlier this year.
Mongolian Groom, who was bred by Calumet Farm, earned $180,000 for his first career stakes victory to bring his bankroll to $579,141 and his career line now stands at 16-3-2-3.
In horse racing, 2019 may forever be known as the year of the $16,000 claimer. Following in the hoofsteps of disqualified Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Maximum Security and Pennsylvania Derby (G1) winner Math Wizard was Little Red Feather Racing’s Mirth, who broke her maiden at Delaware Park in 2017 when offered for a $16,000 price tag before going on to win Saturday’s $300,000 Rodeo Drive Stakes (G1T) and qualify for the BC Filly & Mare Turf (G1T) .
The Pennsylvania-bred daughter of Colonel John, trained by Phil D’Amato, led at every call in the six-runner Rodeo Drive under Mike Smith, posting fractions of :23.72, :47.53, 1:11.05 and 1:35 over a firm turf and completed the 1 ¼ miles in 1:58.47.
“I’ve watched her, and she’s been running dynamite,” said Smith. “It looked like she wasn’t far from pulling one of these off, so I knew it was in her. It was just a matter of whether I could get a little brave and start marching a little early. She doesn’t really have a turn of foot. She just seems to keep staying and keep going. I felt like I had gotten away with that at the half-mile pole, so going into the turn I started marching on where I was going to lengthen everybody’s kick instead of trying to make an explosive move. It worked. It might not work next time, but it worked.”
Mirth paid $14.20, $6.20 and $3.40. Beau Recall could not catch the winner in the lane after racing well back in the early going and was a neck in front of Elysea’s World, who was third. Siberian Iris, Excellent Sunset and Paved rounded out the order of finish.
The 4-year-old filly earned $180,000 for her first stakes win and her career line now reads 16-5-4-2, $315,563.
SF Racing LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, Frederick Hertrich, III, John D. Fielding and Golconda Stables Eight Rings dusted off his disastrous performance in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) where he bolted at the gap after the break a month ago and dropped his jockey, and redeemed himself in fine fashion with a six-length score in Friday’s $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes (G1).
Wearing blinkers for the first time, the dark brown son of Empire Maker was ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez and led at every call through splits of 23.72, 47.06 and 1:11.71 for the first six furlongs without a serious challenge, and cruised to the win somewhat geared down, completing the 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.51 on a deep main track.
“I told Johnny V to ride him with confidence,” said Baffert. “I thought he might be in front. Johnny said let’s get him away from there, and he’s figured out this track. He gigged him a little bit, but he said, ‘Wow, he’s really fast.’ He just got out there really quick and I was actually just watching his ears the whole way.
“Johnny said he’ll be going good, then he’ll start looking around and lagging, and all the way down the stretch he was still looking around… My heart is still with American Pharoah, so I’m glad to see his babies are doing well. I’m blessed and fortunate to get these kinds of horses.”
Eight Rings paid $4.40, $3.20 and $2.80 as the 6-5 favorite. American Theorem was second, another 2 ¼ lengths in front of Storm the Court. Express Train, Shoplifted, Defense Wins, Fore Left, Nucky and Collusion Illusion completed the order of finish.
Eight Rings, out of the Pure Prize mare Purely Hot, was bred in Kentucky by WinStar Farm and purchased by his current owners for $520,000 as a Keeneland yearling a year ago. He’s now won two of three races and earned $216,951.
“He’s still not 100 percent confident in what he needs to do,” said Velazquez. “If he can put his mind to running, he’ll be a dangerous horse.”
With his American Pharoah win, Eight Rings earned a guaranteed spot in the BC Juvenile (G1) on Nov. 1 by virtue of the race’s status as a BC Challenge “Win and You’re In” event.
Baoma Corporation’s Bast, who won last month’s Del Mar Debutante (G1) in impressive runaway fashion, actually had to work for her second career Grade 1 on Friday and dueled with rival Comical all the way down the stretch to prevail by a neck in the $300,000 Chandelier Stakes (G1).
Bast gave Velazquez his 661st graded stakes victory, surpassing the record he shared with fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey.
“This means a lot,” said Velazquez. “(Jerry Bailey) is a guy who I rode with for so many years and have looked up to for so long. It’s incredible.”
The Baffert-trained Bast finished the 1 1/16 mile test in 1:46.10 after sitting behind splits of 24.92, 49.54, 1:13.98 and 1:39.29 set by Comical. With the win, the daughter of Uncle Mo and the Arch mare Laffina won the lone California Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win an You’re In” event for the Nov. BC Juvenile Fillies (G1).
“Going to the backstretch, she looked really good, and I was pretty confident,” said Velazquez. “We got to the turn and I thought we might go a little wide, but I said, ‘no, no – you have to stay there.’ I got up to her and she cruised down the lane and put her head out in front of the other horse. She gave me a lot today. I felt she gave me what she could to win the race.”
As the 1-5 favorite in a field of six, Bast paid $2.40, $2.10 and $2.10. K P Dreamin, Been Studying Her and Buyer’s Remorse rounded out the order of finish. Leucothea dropped jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. out of the gate and ran down the lane, nearly taking out the photographer’s pool, before being successfully caught by the outriders.
“Down the backside she was going nice, then turning for home, John was like, ‘come on baby, we’ve got to go,’ and she wasn’t going,’’ said Baffert. “He thought she would respond, but I think this will get her ready for the next one.
“This is a very demanding, deep, heavy racetrack. Not only do you have to be really good, you have to be ready… The Chus (Baoma Corp owners Charles and Susan) are really excited and we’ve been really lucky together, winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with Drefong, so they’ve already had a champion.”
Bast, who was bred in Kentucky by BlackRidge Stables, was purchased by her current owners for $500,000 as a Fasig-Tipton August Select yearling 13 months ago. She now has two wins from three starts and earnings of $372,200.
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com, where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters: Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.
After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager.
She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several racehorse retirement organizations, including CARMA.
In 2016, Margaret was the recipient of the prestigious Stanley Bergstein Writing Award, sponsored by Team Valor, and was an Eclipse Award honorable mention for her story, “The Shocking Untold Story of Maria Borell,” which appeared on USRacing.com. The article and subsequent stories helped save 43 abandoned and neglected Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and also helped create a new animal welfare law known as the “Borell Law.”
Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull and Arrogate as her favorite horses of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, two Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.