SARATOGA SPRINGS — As a fanatical New York Mets supporter, Mike Repole had a perfect opportunity to use his team’s 10-0 blowout of the Miami Marlins a few weeks ago as an analogy to Saturday’s Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga Race Course.
He chose football, and, anyway, 10 wasn’t a big enough number.
The two best 3-year-old fillies in the country, Nest and Secret Oath, hooked up as they headed into the second turn, the battle was on … and then it wasn’t.
Nest, co-owned by Repole, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Michael House, put away Secret Oath before they had even straightened out in the stretch to win the CCA Oaks under Irad Ortiz, Jr.
What had been anticipated as essentially a match race between the two — Secret Oath beat Nest by two lengths in the Kentucky Oaks on May 6 — turned into a rout for Nest.
As she rolled to the wire, track announcer John Imbriale observed that the number 10 was insufficient: “Nest! Much the best. She won by better than 10 lengths!” The official margin was 12 1/4 lengths.
“I guess it’s a rivalry because it’s 1-1,” Repole said. “But this one looked like a football game, and it was 49-nothing.”
The long-range plan had been for Nest to skip the CCA Oaks and wait for the Alabama on Aug. 20, after she ran a terrific race in finishing second to stablemate Mo Donegal — also co-owned by Repole — in the Belmont Stakes on June 11.
But the filly’s robust condition and behavior coming out of the Belmont convinced trainer Todd Pletcher to wheel her back in the CCA Oaks, and the signs from Nest proved accurate.
“We’ve run a lot of horses in the Belmont over the years, but we’ve never had one come out any better than she did,” Pletcher said. “She had great energy, and she gained weight since that race. She gave us every indication she was ready to run back. Originally, we thought we should wait for the Alabama, but she was just doing too good to bypass this race.”
“It wasn’t going to be the plan, but Todd said that when a horse gains weight a couple weeks after the Belmont, and she’s jumping around, this is what you get,” Repole said.
Nest broke from the No. 3 post in a five-horse field that appeared to lack much early pace on paper.
Then the one horse with proven front-running form, Society, stumbled out of the gate and made contact with Butterbean, who also stumbled and nearly went nose-first into the ground.
That cost Society any chance of establishing an early lead.
Nest inherited the lead briefly, as Tyler Gaffalione hustled Society to the front on the rail by the time they completed the first turn.
For much of the backstretch, the field — except for Butterbean trailing way back — ran four abreast, until Nest pulled out of the pack from the half-mile pole.
Secret Oath and jockey Luis Saez made their move on the outside at that point, and at the three-eighths pole it looked like she and Nest might duel all the way to the wire.
The “duel” lasted an eighth of a mile.
Nest separated herself from Secret Oath at the quarter pole and never looked back.
“My plan was not to be on the lead, but I wanted to break good out of there,” Ortiz said. “Honestly, that was the main thing, and she broke clean and I realized the other filly [Society] didn’t break well. So I said, ‘Let’s go, Plan B.’ I was in front and didn’t panic.
“That was how the race came up. Everything changed when the gates opened and I just let her do her thing, and she did the rest.”
“It’s funny how you spend a lot of time analyzing a game plan and then, as they say, everything can change at the break — which it did today,” Pletcher said. “The main thing is we wanted to establish some position, get away smoothly and get to the first turn in a forward position.
“We were able to do that even though everyone wasn’t positioned exactly where we thought they would be. It turned out ultimately to have those four fillies bunch up together, and she was able to fend off the challenge from Secret Oath and keep going.”
“She ran great and she tried,” Saez said of Secret Oath. “The winner just kept going, and she got pretty tired. She came to the top of the stretch, and she was a little empty and getting out, too.”
Repole said that when Secret Oath engaged Nest at the three-eighths pole, he wasn’t an owner so much as “I became a fan.”
“Like, watching these races as a kid, and watching what you thought would be the match race living up to a match race, and at the three-eighths pole you’re thinking, ‘This is going to be fun,’” he said. “I wanted Secret Oath in the race. I would rather have lost to Secret Oath than won this race without Secret Oath.”
The race was also billed as an interesting matchup between the trainers, since Pletcher launched his Hall of Fame career while working as an assistant to long-time Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.
At 86 years old, Lukas has comfortably moved into his old spotlight as Secret Oath’s trainer.
He said Secret Oath, in the way she tired in the stretch, looked like a horse who needed a race, especially one over this track, after not having run since the May 21 Preakness.
Lukas reiterated what he had said during the week, that if Secret Oath, he’d be pleased if Nest was the one to beat her.
“Gosh, yes. His [Pletcher’s] family’s here,” Lukas said. “We were side-by-side for a long time, so I’m really happy for him. And I told him before the race, ‘Let’s one of us get it and not let it get away.’
“When you get to be my age and you’ve run as many of these as I have, the reality is that you’re not going to just mail it in, you’ve got to go out there and do it. And it wasn’t our day. We came up short. We hung. We made the big move, we just couldn’t finish it. He had her right there by the throat [at the three-eighths].”
Nest will be a big favorite next time, in the mile-and-a-quarter Alabama, especially since Pletcher believes she’s better suited for the longer distances, anyway.
That’s why he sent her against males in the Belmont in the first place.
Lukas said he’s looking forward to the rematch, and he’ll continue to be a sentimental favorite among fans, even if the ever-feisty Repole isn’t buying that.
“Wayne’s won enough. Let’s go. He’s got enough Derbies and Preaknesses and stakes, he’s won enough,” Repole joked. “And he beat us in the [Kentucky] Oaks, we’ll give him that one. Sentimental? No. My father’s 82, he was the sentimental choice, too.”
“The good news is we’ll have another chance for a rubber match,” Lukas said.