With the sun below the treeline and the shadow of the clubhouse cooling off more and more of the grounds, Itsmyluckyday and Moreno did their best to turn the heat back up.
The pair dueled through the stretch at the end of the 11⁄8-mile Grade I Woodward at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, bumping each other five times in the final furlong before Itsmyluckyday emerged with a half-length victory at the wire for trainer Eddie Plesa Jr.
“It’s what racing’s all about,” Plesa said. “You could play this stretch drive to anybody, whether they’re a race track fan or not, and they’re going to recognize something special just happened.”
The late contact drew a claim of foul against the winner, but after the stewards reviewed the footage, the results were allowed to stand, much to the dismay of trainer Eric Guillot and jockey Junior Alvarado.
“Our horse got bounced up, bam, bam, bam,” Guillot said.
“I got bumped four or five times,” Alvarado said. “My horse was running good and kept getting bumped. In the last part, he got bumped and pulled himself out of the race.”
Moreno led most of the way, as is his preferred style, but jockey Paco Lopez kept Itsmyluckyday within a length or two throughout. Lopez urged him on through the far turn, and they drew even with Moreno early in the stretch.
“My horse is a great horse,” Lopez said. “The other horse came over and bumped into my horse. I didn’t bump that horse.”
The rest of the field was left behind to watch the finish, though Prayer for Relief and jockey John Velazquez were waiting three to four lengths back entering the stretch, should one or both of the leaders falter. Prayer for Relief finished two lengths behind Itsmyluckyday and 11⁄2 back from Moreno.
On Aug. 2, Moreno got the best of Itsmyluckyday here in the Grade I Whitney, scoring a front-running win by 11⁄4 lengths. In that stretch run, Plesa saw Itsmyluckyday distracted and looking at the grandstand and clubhouse, so he added blinkers for the Woodward.
“Mr. Plesa said to me, ‘Hey Paco, what do you think about blinkers?’ ” Lopez said. “The last time, the horse looked outside and inside, and was looking too much. We worked him in the blinkers, and I worked him twice, and he was unbelievable in the blinkers both times.”
Plesa said the strategy of pressuring Moreno and the ride Lopez provided were just as important.
“They helped some,” Plesa said. “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, it was the blinkers, I’m a genius.’ That’s not the case. Paco rode an outstanding race, perfect race, did what we had talked about.
“We didn’t want to give Moreno a breather. We didn’t want to have to depend on anybody else. The outcome was Moreno ran a fantastic race, but he just came up a little bit short today against us under different circumstances. I think they’re two great horses.”
Moreno is now 1-2-1 from six starts this year with earnings exceeding $1.1 million. Guillot continued to express his confidence in the horse who almost always is a contender, regardless how big the race.
“Sometimes you run second, sometimes you win,” Guillot said. “It was Eddie’s turn. My horse is consistent. He ran his race. What are you going to do? Go to bed, rest, get up in the morning and start all over again.”
Behind the top pair, Prayer for Relief angled out during the stretch, finding running room around them, but they never backed up to him and he didn’t give Velazquez any extra late effort.
“It was a perfect trip,” Velazquez said. “I was telling my trainer [Dale Romans], we got to the eighth pole and I got him into the clear, and he kind of hung on me a little bit. I don’t know why he did that, I thought I definitely had them anytime I wanted. After galloping out, he let his air out and goes on again, so I knew I had horse. I don’t know why he did that.”
Itsmyluckyday returned $7.70, $3.70 and $3.00 with the win. Moreno paid $4.20 and $3.00, while Prayer for Relief paid $6.00 to show.
Now he’s a Grade I winner for the first time. Plesa said he wasn’t surprised by this kind of recovery and progress.
“I told the owners, the partners, ‘Get tied on. This is going to be as exciting a second half of the year as last year was the first half of the year,’ ” Plesa said. “So between last year’s first half and this year’s second half, we’re going to have a great year.”