SARATOGA SPRINGS — You could hear an echo to Leo O’Brien’s voice.
Each interview with the trainer from Ireland through an eight-year span in which his horse Fourstardave won at least one race at every Saratoga Race Course meet began with a lilting, “Aw, he just loves it here.”
On Saturday, that was trainer Mark Casse.
His 6-year-old mare, Got Stormy, swept across the Saratoga turf to a victory in the Grade I race named for Fourstardave for the second time in three years, after which Casse said, “She loves it here.”
And they loved her back.
An announced paid admission crowd of 36,307 watched Got Stormy beat a field that included mostly males, more than a few screams of delight coming from the clubhouse seats as she hit the wire in 1:33.09. That wasn’t much off the track record (1:32.00) she set in the Fourstardave in 2019, and was the second fastest time since the race was scaled back to a mile 10 years ago.
Besides being a popular victory to the fans in the stands, the winner’s circle soon filled with dozens on co-owners, many from the My Racehorse Stable, as well as a few of Leo O’Brien’s grandchildren.
Not bad for a mare who was put up for auction in a mixed-stock sale last November. Spendthrift Farm purchased her for $2.75 million as a breeding prospect, then decided to give it one more whirl on the racetrack in 2021, but Got Stormy had finished fifth in two straight starts leading into the Fourstardave, and there was doubt whether her season would include a return to the Breeders’ Cup.
“She’s got her game face on, she’s ready, and she loves this place,” Casse said. “But it was a powerful performance, and it feels good when everybody says she’s finished, it’s over.
“This was maybe even more exciting [than 2019] because they had written her off, kind of. They did the same to Tepin, and she came back. There’s been some bumps along the road with her, but she came when it was time.”
Did she ever.
This was Got Stormy’s third attempt at the Fourstardave (she was second last year), and ninth stakes race against males in 30 career starts.
Besides her affinity for Saratoga, Got Stormy caught a break when the track wasn’t pounded by rain, leaving the turf firm.
Jockey Tyler Gaffalione took aim at front-runners Blowout and Whisper Not at the quarter pole and got in front just outside the eighth pole before closing under strong urging, as Gaffalione shouted “I won! I won!” while crossing the wire.
“She was taking me the whole way,” Gaffalione said. “I was able to tuck in and save ground. She relaxed beautifully down the backside. Going into the turn she started to pick up on her own and she started creeping up. When I put her outside, she unleashed a big run and it was all over from there.”
“I was a little concerned when the first quarter [mile] went in 23 [seconds],” Casse said. “But then they went the half in 46, and I said, ‘Well, that’ll help.’ She was on. We’ve talked about it. You could see her, how well she was training. She loves it here, she trains great here.”
Besides Casse’s echo to O’Brien, Got Stormy’s performance over the last three years is an echo to Fourstardave, the so-called “Sultan of Saratoga,” who has a street named after him and who is buried with a grave marker at Clare Court on the backstretch.
“They’re all emotional,” said Casse, who came into the Fourstardave winless for the meet. “For Fourstardave, who ran so many times, and year after year, for her to come and do this three years in a row, we’re going to see. Maybe we get another one [trip to Saratoga in 2022] out of her. We’ll have to talk to the higher-aboves.
“As we do sometimes here, we’ve struggled a little, but if you’d told me we’d lose 19 in a row and the 20th would be this, I would’ve taken it.”
High Oak reached for a higher branch in the Grade II Saratoga Special and pulled himself up with little apparent difficulty.
With just a maiden win by a neck to his credit so far, High Oak won his second career start by 4 1/4 lengths to propel him into the company of graded stakes winners, with another step up perhaps on the horizon.
He and jockey Junior Alvarado stalked behind a duel up front between 7-5 betting favorite Doctor Jeff and Gunite (21.82 for the quarter-mile, 44.93 for the half) and took command of the lead inside the three-sixteenths pole before dialing it down in the final strides with a comfortable lead.
“He was running plenty fast enough himself [early],” trainer Bill Mott said. “When they hung up those fractions, I thought he’d have to be pretty good to hang in there himself.
“He was very professional today. We were very pleased. He’s been a little tough to handle, but great in the paddock, great on the race track. He did everything right.”
“He broke very sharp today,” Alvarado said. “He was a whole different horse today. He was mentally prepared and sharp. To be honest, I was just a passenger today. He put me in the spot that I wanted and he took me all the way around. When I turned for home, I just had to ask him a little bit and he took off.
“I know they were going fast, but my horse was in a nice rhythm and he wasn’t going as fast as he can go. He was pretty happy there. He finished up strong and galloped out great.”
The obvious next rung is the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park on Oct. 2, which would stretch High Oak out to a mile.
“You certainly would look at him and say that a one-turn mile is going to be OK,” Mott said. “I guess you find all those things out as you go along. It’s usually guesswork until you do it.”
Next Saturday’s Grade I Alabama will likely feature a Coaching Club American Oaks rematch between Maracuja and Malathaat.
They’re among seven 3-year-old fillies listed as probable for the race.
Malathaat came into the CCA Oaks undefeated from five starts, but Maracuja won by a head after Malathaat fended off several challenges throughout the race.
The Alabama field is also likely to draw Black-Eyed Susan winner Army Wife, Clairiere, Delaware Oaks winner Crazy Beautiful, Played Hard and Will’s Secret, who was third to Malathaat in both the Grade I Ashland and Grade I Kentucky Oaks.
Clairiere was a distant third in the CCA Oaks.
The 3-year-old fillies will also get an opportunity to run in a graded stakes on the turf during the Alabama card, in the Grade II Lake Placid.
The field likely will include Bubbles On Ice, Illiogami, Lovestruck, Por Que No, Runaway Rumour, Spanish Loveaffair, Technical Analysis and Tobys Heart.
Technical Analysis is the likely favorite off her win in the Grade III Lake George for trainer Chad Brown.
Alvarado has been suspended for three racing days for careless riding aboard Annex during the Grade III National Racing Museum Hall of Fame stakes last Friday.
Annex drifted in under a right-handed stick by Alvarado and clipped heels with Original, ridden by Luis Saez, causing Original to stumble awkwardly. There was a steward’s inquiry into the incident, but no action was taken and Annex remained in second place.
Saez pulled up Original before the wire, and the horse walked off the track.
Alvarado waived the right to appeal and will serve the suspension next week on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
More from The Daily Gazette: