SARATOGA SPRINGS – Is there an echo in here?
For the second day in a row, a former Hopeful winner trained by Steve Asmussen won a graded stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
The 4-year-old Jackie’s Warrior, the 2021 champion male sprinter, easily won the Grade I Alfred G. Vanderbilt on Saturday, then on Sunday his 3-year-old stablemate, Gunite, won the Grade II Amsterdam, a race Jackie’s Warrior won last year on his way to the Eclipse Award.
But Echo Zulu, the 2021 champion 2-year-old filly, deserves a mention here, too.
Asmussen said that Gunite, like Echo Zulu a progeny of the Asmussen-trained 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, proved his mettle as a potential sprinter-type for this season by holding his own in workouts with the very fast Echo Zulu.
So sprints it is, and Gunite notched an important one in the 6 1-2-furlong Amsterdam by outbattling Accretive by a neck under Tyler Gaffalione.
“In his last race, he wasn’t away cleanly, and it put him in a different position,” Asmussen said. “I thought that was a similar race to the horse we ran here last year, just handy and in a good spot, tenacious to the wire. Extremely good win and obviously we’re on to the Allen Jerkens from here.”
“He showed in the past that he likes to fight,” Gaffalione said. “Last time [in the Maxfield at Churchill Downs], he snuck up the rail and had a duel all the way to the wire. Today wasn’t any different. He likes the competition.”
In the seven-furlong Hopeful last year, Gunite was sent off at odds of 11-1 and won by 5 3-4 lengths after a tussle on the inside of two other horses until just before the quarter pole.
He advanced to the one-mile Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park, and led early, but was blown away by Jack Christopher by 14 1-2 lengths while finishing fifth.
“Not really a great race,” Asmussen said. “We took him to California, and working with Echo Zulu, we decided he’s a sprinter. Thank goodness they belong to the same person [owner Ron Winchell].
“At that point, if you’re not going to be there, not in the [Kentucky] Derby preps, let’s wait for the one-turn races and try to get back here. I think standing here getting interviewed after the Amsterdam makes it the right call.”
In the Amsterdam, Gunite, who went off at odds of 7-1, faced eight rivals with an interesting mix of resumes.
Corniche, the 2021 champion 2-year-old male, drew the most attention, not only pre-race as he approached his first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, but in the betting.
The 8-5 favorite stumbled at the start under Luis Saez, bumped Runninsonofagun while recovering his footing, then faded to last as Saez eased him to the finish.
“He probably needed the race,” Saez said.
The Gunite camp, meanwhile, is looking forward to the Grade I Allen Jerkens, another race Jackie’s Warrior won last year, on Travers Day Aug. 27.
“Kind of a grinding race today, and hopefully we’re sharper for the Jerkens,” Asmussen said.
““I would say he was a little more focused today and on his game,” Gaffalione said. “He broke more alert and put himself in the race a little bit better. I think it’s going to set him up nicely, Steve said he’s much bigger and stronger this year, and from the two races I’ve seen, he just keeps improving.”
“It’s just nice to come back to where he won his Grade I last year and have another win in a Grade II,” Winchell said. “He was training great. He was training like he wanted to go on from his 2-year-old year and do exactly what he did. Sometimes, you never know if they move on and continue to win graded stakes, but he got it done today.”