For a moment Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, trainer Eric Guillot almost stepped out of his three-ring circus.
The Louisianan known for antics with voodoo dolls,
Cajun banquets before big races and sometimes outlandish quotes came to the winner’s enclosure to greet Moreno after the 4-year-old gelding won the $1.5 million Grade I Whitney. Guillot didn’t even wait for the trophy ceremony and started talking to members of the press on his way toward the track.
“It feels great, you know?” Guillot said. “I mean, the bottom line is, I know I like to have fun, I know I talk a lot of crap and everybody probably thinks I’m some goofball out here that doesn’t know what I’m doing, but I know what I’m doing. The bottom line is this — my work ethic is second to none.”
To reward that work ethic, Moreno wired the field of nine in the 11⁄8-mile race for horses 3 and up, with jockey Junior Alvarado urging him on the entire way, a feat he could not accomplish in last year’s Travers after leading through the first nine furlongs and again shortly before losing by a nose to Will Take Charge. Alvarado got a great response from Moreno on Saturday, making his stretch run feel easy.
“As soon as I turned for home, switched the lead to the right and asked him, he was bolting,” Alvarado said. “The way he was going, his two, three jumps were amazing, the way he took off right away. There can be no way that somebody can go by me, the way he exploded right there. He pretty much did it all, made me look good.”
Alvarado took a couple glances to the side and said he saw shadows, and he didn’t bother to figure out who it was that might be running behind him.
To the surprise of many, it wasn’t favored Palace Malice. The Todd Pletcher-trained winner of the Met Mile, victorious in his previous four starts this year, had no interest in the race after turning into the stretch. He was third through the first three-quarter miles, then faded to finish in sixth.
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez has been up for four of Palace Malice’s five starts this year, and he was at a loss to explain the Curlin colt’s run.
“I don’t know what went wrong,” Velazquez said. “He didn’t run at all. He was in perfect position. On the backstretch, he was looking around. I was hoping by the half-mile, he’d move on, but he never showed any interest. He went through the whole race not paying attention. He trained great, he warmed up great, he just didn’t run today.”
“We got the trip we were hoping for,” Pletcher said. “It wasn’t his day. We were in good position, he just didn’t fire today.”
Palace Malice’s finish did nothing to Guillot’s estimation of the horse.
“I ain’t going to take nothing away from Palace Malice,” Guillot said. “Every horse has their day. Maybe it’s because he’s been running a couple one-turn miles in a row, maybe he sat too far back, didn’t fire. Every horse has his bad days. I’m sure this is not going to confuse Todd too much. He wins enough of these. My turn.”
Instead, Itsmyluckyday, who had run the first six furlongs just inside Palace Malice between two to three lengths behind Moreno, found a run when the favorite faltered. Under jockey Paco Lopez, he came into the stretch behind Moreno, then made a move to the outside in hopes of challenging in the final furlong. He finished 11⁄4 lengths back, but was three lengths ahead of third-place Will Take Charge.
Moreno paid $22.00, $9.00 and $6.60 in the win. Itsmyluckyday returned $7.90 and $4.60, while Will Take Charge paid $4.60 to show.
“I was feeling pretty confident, like the Travers,” Guillot said. “Pace makes the race, the fractions make races. The farther they go, the better. Softer fractions, the better he is. He’s that kind of horse. He feels and waits on the horses behind him.”
After the race, Guillot spent much of his time thanking everyone from his business partner to everyone that works at his barn, each of them by name.
Not one to let all the emotion of the win keep him from perpetuating his circus-like public persona, though, Guillot made a nod to last year’s Travers, after which he accused Will Take Charge jockey Luis Saez of using an illegal buzzer.
“It is redemption. If that didn’t work, I had the new-wave buzzer right here in my pocket that works from the grandstands,” Guillot said, pulling an iPod from his pocket. “I didn’t need to use it. That was even better.”