SARATOGA SPRINGS — Elliott Walden called his horse’s primary opponent, Jackie’s Warrior, a “now” horse.
Life Is Good made a great case for being a “later” horse.
Jackie’s Warrior outdueled Life Is Good by a neck to win the Grade I H. Allen Jerkens at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, stamping himself as at least the 1A of sprinters in the U.S., to his stablemate and Forego winner Yaupon as the 1.
The Allen Jerkens win gave Jackie’s Warrior a sweep of the top graded stakes for 3-year-old sprinters at the meet, after he dominated the Amsterdam on Aug. 1.
On Saturday, Jackie’s Warrior was facing a leading contender for the Kentucky Derby in the spring who instead spent almost six months off due to injury before making his much-anticipated comeback on Saturday.
And Jackie’s Warrior prevailed, but Walden, the president and CEO of WinStar Farm, was encouraged by Life Is Good’s performance, and is looking forward to the next one.
As is trainer Steve Asmussen, who has two sprinters in Jackie’s Warrior and 4-year-old Yaupon who will butt heads in a race eventually.
“It was easy to target these races for these horses this year and we’re going to savor that knowing how important these two races are for these two horses, and then we will figure out how to get to the Breeders’ Cup with them,” Asmussen said.
Jackie’s Warrior, ridden by Joel Rosario, bobbled slightly at the start of the Allen Jerkens, giving Life Is Good and jockey Mike Smith the opportunity to take the lead from the outside.
Life Is Good, who came in undefeated from three starts by a combined 18 1/4 lengths but hadn’t raced since March 6, powered through the first quarter-mile in 21.97 and the half in 44.16, torrid splits for a horse coming off such a long layoff.
Jackie’s Warrior stalked from the inside and took a narrow lead at the three-sixteenths pole, but Life Is Good refused to go away.
While Rosario vigorously urged Jackie’s Warrior to the wire, Smith showed Life Is Good the stick but didn’t hit him.
“We broke really well and it looked like Life Is Good was very speedy, too, so I decided to stay where I was,” Rosario said. “He [Jackie’s Warrior] is a nice horse and ran a tremendous race. I felt confident, but Life Is Good was not giving up and a lot of credit to him, too, it was a very good race.”
“I already showed it to him, and he was like, ‘Hey, I’m getting tired, man, that’s it,'” Smith said. “If I go to banging on him, all I’m going to do probably is upset him and maybe get him beat worse.”
“I watched this race from way up in the stretch on the apron, and Joel came into the stretch with horse,” Asmussen said. “He’s going to run to the wire. It’s out of your hands what the other horses are going to do, and Mike [Smith] was confident in his horse, but when he [Jackie] got to the head of the stretch the way he did, you had your chance.”
“I thought he ran super,” trainer Todd Pletcher said of Life Is Good. “He ran 1:21 and 1 off a long layoff. It was a big effort.”
“Very good. Disappointed he didn’t win, but just a great race,” Walden said. “He showed how good he is. The horse that beat him is a ‘now’ horse, he’s 4-for-4 on the track, and for him [Life Is Good] to be in front of him, especially . . . it was just a great race. He just got beat on fitness.
While Asmussen is looking forward to what he can do with his two sprint stars, Jackie’s Warrior and Yaupon, the plan for Life Is Good is to stretch out in distance and see how much of a late-season campaign Pletcher and Walden can engineer with a horse who was trainer Bob Baffert’s top Derby prospect back in March.
As Life Is Good got through recovery from surgery for a bone chip in his hind leg, WinStar transferred him from Baffert to Pletcher during what proved to be Baffert’s temporary ban by the New York Racing Association.
Life Is Good didn’t get a victory on Saturday, but he did get “a whole lot of air. A whole lot of air,” Smith said with a chuckle.
“He never stopped trying,” the jockey said. “It’s his first race back. Look, he ran against probably the best sprinter in the country, if not the world, right now. And for him to run like he did is pretty incredible.
“I would’ve liked to have geared him down just a little bit more down the backside, but he’s very aggressive, man. Every movement you make, he feels it and responds to it. And if you try to grab him, he pulls more and wants to get out, so you’ve got to be really sensitive with it. And I thought he ran great for his first race back.”
“Anytime you have a start, it’s beneficial, so it’ll definitely move him forward,” Walden said. “Just disappointed to get beat and run that hard. He ran great.”
More from The Daily Gazette: