SARATOGA SPRINGS — Somehow, the pro wrestling smoke show and red-carpet locker room walkout by the jockeys was the least weird thing about Saturday.
You had a dead-heat in the Lake Placid off a dark, hazy photo finish.
You had a torrential thunderstorm open up just as that race ended, calling to mind last year’s Whitney, and the 2000 Hopeful, when City Zip and Yonaguska dead-heated just in time for their own thunderstorm.
And you had one of the biggest and historic races on the Saratoga Race Course calendar awash in mud, black skies, fierce wind and spilled coolers dumping cans of beer down river behind the grandstand as fans scrambled to take cover.
Leave it to trainer Chad Brown, jockey Jose Ortiz and a terrific filly named Dunbar Road to restore order.
She handled the slop and handled seven rivals to win the 139th Grade I Alabama by 2 3/4 lengths, bolstering the rock-steady and spectacular performance by Brown’s barn at this meet, and giving Ortiz his third straight Alabama, just the third jockey to achieve that.
“It’s crazy,” was how Ortiz summed it up.
“It was a wild hour or so there with the delay, but thankfully it worked out for us,” Brown said to the New York Racing Association.
Did it ever.
Ortiz said he was confident Dunbar Road would handle the mile-and-a-quarter Alabama distance, but the sloppy track, which was sealed by the grounds crew in anticipation of the rainstorm, was a question mark.
That fear was allayed pretty quickly, but Dunbar Road and Ortiz still found themselves near the back of a tightly compressed pack on the clubhouse turn.
“The moment she stepped on the track, she felt happy,” he said. “I knew going into the first turn that she was handling it very well.”
Being in the back, against a field that Brown considered to lack any early speed, though, was another issue.
Ortiz patiently let Dunbar Road, who was sent off as the 8-5 favorite, hold position down the backside, then tipped her to the outside near the half-mile pole while Javier Castellano made the same move aboard Point of Honor just in front of Dunbar Road.
Those two swooped around the field in single file as they got to the quarter pole, and Dunbar Road went the widest of them all, straightening out in the homestretch.
She took a slight lead near the eighth pole as Point of Honor dueled with Street Band just behind her, and Dunbar Road spurted away at the sixteenth pole, as Point of Honor got a nose in front of Street Band for second.
“It wasn’t how I would have drawn it up,” Brown said. “We got shuffled back early, and I really wasn’t certain down the backside, with how far back she was, that we would win from there. She was just so much the best today. She was able to overcome everything.”
“I was hoping to go to the lead, but the other horses broke well, too,” Ortiz said. “I just had to sit going into the first turn, but she relaxed really good. Then when we passed the five-eighths pole, I started working my way out and followed Javier on the turn. I was a little wide, but I didn’t want to be a hero and try to split horses. I felt like I had a lot of horse.”
After winning with Eskimo Kisses last year and Elate in 2017, Ortiz joined Jerry Bailey (Runup the Colors, Banshee Breeze, Silverbulletday from 1997-99) and Mike Smith (Sky Beauty, Heavenly Prize, Pretty Discreet from 1993-95) as riders who have won three straight Alabamas.
He said that was why he pumped his fist in jubilation as he crossed the wire, then pointed at the fans in the clubhouse on the way by.
“My goal is, I ride because I want to go to the Hall of Fame, and to go to the Hall of Fame, I have to win these kind of races,” he said. “It was amazing, and I was very pumped about it.”
With four victories on the card, Brown continued his inexorable march to another meet championship, finishing the day with 25 winners to 11 for his next closest competitor in the training standings, Todd Pletcher.
A solid day of racing that drew an announced paid admission of 37,467 took an ominous turn when the threat of a thunderstorm became reality as post time for the Grade II Lake Placid approached one race before the Alabama.
Sure enough, the dark sky gave up its payload as Brown’s Regal Glory dead-heated with the Graham Motion-trained Varenka, a result that drew some derision on social media because of the lack of a clear photo finish.
“I’m speechless, to be honest,” Motion said. “I just can’t believe she got there, because they went so slow. That was a crazy performance.”
More craziness: 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom — trained by Motion — sired three of the 12 winners on the card, Nakamura in the fifth race, Oleksandra in the $100,000 Smart N Fancy Stakes and Regal Glory in the Lake Placid.
Just for good measure, amidst the chaos of the rainstorm that started after the Lake Placid and caused an 11-minute delay to the start of the Alabama, NYRA unexpectedly rolled out a red carpet from the jockeys’ quarters and had two fire-making machines spitting columns of red smoke for the Alabama riders to jog through on their way to the paddock, high-fiving fans on the way.
Brown tied for the Lake Placid victory, won the Alabama, then made it three in a row in the 11th to close out the card, with More Mischief.
Because why not.
More from The Daily Gazette: