The numbers don’t lie.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas sent horses to the starting gate 49 times at the 2013 Saratoga Race Course meet, and only three of them made it to the finish line first, a woeful .06 percent.
The smile doesn’t lie, either, though.
Lukas got his third winner in the penultimate race of the historic 150th meet on Monday, a powerful romp by the 2-year-old colt Strong Mandate in the Grade I Hopeful before 13,760, who were mercifully spared the thunderstorms that had been predicted for closing day.
Besides Strong Mandate’s maiden win at Saratoga on Aug. 17, Lukas’ other win was by Will Take Charge in the Travers, so his strike rate may have been poor, but his targets were outstanding.
“I can only deal with what I’ve got in front of me,” said Lukas, who turned 78 on Monday. “Given something to work with, we usually get along pretty good.”
Jockey Jose Ortiz, who rode Strong Mandate in his maiden win, kept his silks clean on a muddy day from the outside post in the nine-horse field and was able to get good stalking position behind Corfu, one of three Hopeful horses trained by Todd Pletcher, and Sanford winner Wired Bryan.
Strong Mandate passed Wired Bryan on the turn and took aim at the speedy Corfu, who beat Wired Bryan by a nose in the Saratoga Special three weeks ago.
Ortiz hit Strong Mandate with a right-handed stick as they got into the stretch, and Strong Mandate answered the call by rolling past Corfu.
The jockey put the finishing touches on the dominating performance by keeping Strong Mandate focused with another crack of the stick at the eighth pole, and the bay son of Tiznow did the rest, cruising to a 93⁄4-length win that allowed Ortiz to raise his index finger to the crowd three strides from the wire.
After the wire, he acknowledged the crowd again for about half the length of the clubhouse on a gallop-out that represented the first Grade I victory of his career.
“I cracked him one time on the shoulder, and he put me beside him [Corfu], so I knew I had a lot of horse,” Ortiz said. “At the eighth pole, I looked back, and nobody was coming.”
“I thought he’d run huge, I really did,” Lukas said. “I was a little concerned about the surface, you always are. I thought we’d get a good one, but you never expect a waltz like that, ever.”
Strong Mandate was purchased by Robert Baker and William Mack at the Keeneland September sale for $200,000.
Other horses Lukas has trained for them include Breeders’ Cup Sprint runner-up Grand Slam, 2001 Jim Dandy winner Scorpion and Dublin, the sixth of seven Hopeful winners for Lukas.
“These guys, Bill Mack and Bob Baker, have been with me for 25 years, and we’ve gone through a lot,” Lukas said. “We only buy two or three a year. They stayed with us. We got some nice horses, but I don’t know if we’ve had one this good.”
Lukas said he’s going to look at other options for Strong Mandate other than the Champagne at Belmont Park because he wants to get a two-turn race into his colt before the Breeders’ Cup.
“We were pointing to the Breeders’ Cup long before we won this,” Lukas said. “We’re now in a position where we can deal from strength. Hell, we could go straight to the Breeders’ Cup and not be too far off. We did it with Capote and some others.”
Also on the card, Lady Cohiba, entered for the main track only, took the lead under Junior Alvarado in the Glens Falls and held off a last-to-first move by White Rose to win by a half-length.
All of the turf races were taken off because of torrential downpours in the morning, including the Glens Falls, which subsequently lost its graded status for this running.
Lady Cohiba had not won since the Summer Guest at Saratoga, also a nine-furlong race on the dirt.
She went off as the 3-2 favorite in the Glens Falls and benefitted from a sharp break from the gate.
“I let her get comfortable,” Alvarado said. “By the three-eighths pole, I was pretty confident. I knew I was going to have a lot left.”
“I told Junior to be on the pace or close to the pace,” trainer Christophe Clement said. “He never rushed her, he let her run her own race. She was very comfortable in front.”