SARATOGA SPRINGS — After over eight months off, Golden Pal picked up right where he left off on Thursday.
And that position was: In front of everybody, never to be caught.
The speedy son of Lady Shipman got out of the starting gate with authority and ran away from the field to win the $120,000 Quick Call by three lengths over Omaha City on opening day of the 153rd Saratoga Race Course meet.
Ridden by defending jockey champion Irad Ortiz Jr., Golden Pal didn’t run a particularly fast time (1:02.99 for 5 1/2 furlongs on the Mellon Turf Course), and didn’t need to, as he was in command the whole way.
He stamped himself as potentially the best turf sprinter in the country last November when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, 2 1/2 months after a convincing win in the Skidmore at Saratoga. But surgery to remove a bone chip delayed the start of his 2021 season until Thursday’s Quick Call.
He clearly had not lost a step.
“He’s so extremely talented and quick,” trainer Wesley Ward said. “He’s a big horse, and he moves like a cat and that’s where he really has an advantage, especially leaving the gate. I was a little concerned going into the race that I didn’t have a gate work into him, but he’s so smart that he overcame that in the first jump.
“When they said ‘Go,’ he was gone.”
Ward said he opted not to give Golden Pal a gate work because that would’ve required a hard effort on the dirt track, and he preferred keeping Golden Pal on the turf for all of his works to preserve his soundness.
The long layoff, on the other hand, was no concern, he said.
“I like sprinters off layoffs,” Ward said. “I think they run their best races off layoffs, moreso than the distance horses. I think they really need spacing in between, because they’re so fast and put so much into it, especially the first part of the race.
“The bigger races are here now, and in the next month or two or three, towards the fall culminating in the Breeders’ Cup, this is when you want to see them do this. We’ve got to step it up in class now.”
“I’m happy he came back where he left off,” Ortiz said. “He broke really nice for me. When I asked him, he responded really well. I didn’t want to ask too early. I didn’t want him to do too much, he’s been off for a long time.”
The other stakes on the card had a familiar look to it, as Pretty Birdie carried the Eton blue and brown silks of Marylou Whitney Stables to victory in the Grade III Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies.
Ridden by Luis Saez, Pretty Birdie blasted out of the starting gate and never looked back, as betting favorite Mainstay chased but couldn’t get closer than a length of Pretty Birdie.
Whitney, the philanthropist and horse breeder who was considered the “Queen of Saratoga,” died almost two years ago. She was posthumously inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in the “Pillars of the Turf” category a month later.
Her husband John Hendrickson is maintaining the breeding operation.
“This is where she felt the most alive,” he said. “This is the way she is alive, and she has a win on opening day. It’s pretty special.”
“I put a lot of pressure on myself today,” trainer Norm Casse said. “If we could win the race for Marylou Whitney and John today with Saratoga opening back up, that it would mean the world for a lot of people, and thankfully Pretty Birdie delivered for us.”
The 8-5 morning-line favorite, the Ward-trained Happy Soul, was scratched when she spiked a fever in the morning.
“I’m sure she’s fine, it’s just a baby issue that we have to contend with,” Ward said. “We’re going to be guarded, with a filly of that quality.”