SARATOGA SPRINGS — Desperate times, etc.
Heading into the halfway point of the 2017 Saratoga Race Course meet, trainer Mark Casse was having such a hard time finding the winner’s circle that he asked one of his owners early Saturday afternoon for directions.
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Knowing Julien Leparoux would be in Chicago for Arlington Million Day, he recruited a new jockey ... off the basketball court.
Then Manny Franco rode World Approval superbly on a rain-soaked inner turf course to give the Casse camp a much-needed victory in the Grade I Fourstardave.
By then, Casse had already stopped a 1-for-44 slump with a win in the sixth race with Machtree, but the Fourstardave victory was the one his barn had desperately waited for.
“This is something new. We haven’t done this in awhile,” the grinning Casse said. “It’s been one heck of a meet so far.”
He found his jockey solution on the hoop court last week during the annual Racetrack Chaplaincy charity game between the jockeys and horsemen (won by the jocks 66-65 with some teammates who were conspicuously not height-challenged).
Casse loved Franco’s competitive spirit in the game, so he and his assistant, son Norm, had their man.
“It’s funny, because all week, we didn’t know,” Casse said. “We couldn’t get Julien, and I said to Norman, ‘We’re going to win the Fourstardave, and I’m still not sure who’s going to ride him.’
“Manny impresses me. This is going to sound crazy, but we played in a basketball tournament last week, and he had so much drive, and he’s so athletic, and we’ve had some luck with him. You couldn’t ask him to ride the horse any better.”
And Casse couldn’t have asked for World Approval, a 5-year-old grey gelding coming off a disappointing fifth in the Manhattan, to be coming into the Fourstardave any better.
A powerful rainstorm less than two hours before the Fourstardave went off raised some worries, but it was over in a half-hour, leaving the inner turf listed as “yielding,” but not so soft as to force Casse and owner Charlotte Weber of Live Oak Plantation to scratch.
World Approval found a comfortable stalking position behind the filly Sassy Little Lila, found running room on the outside coming wide off the second turn and took over at the eighth pole, winning by 2 1/4 lengths over Time Test.
“The only instructions we told him was he likes a target,” Casse said. “That was one of the reasons we cut him back to a mile. One, we thought if we could win the Breeders’ Cup, or have a shot anywhere, it would be going a mile. And plus, he likes a target.
“When you’re running farther, he doesn’t get a target. Here, there’s more speed, and he got a target and it looked like he loved it. We weren’t sure what to expect with the cutback [in distance], but I felt pretty good when he was trying to run over everybody going into the first turn.”
“I just rode the best horse in the race,” Franco said. “He handled the ground really well. I feel so lucky right now. I want to thhank the trainer for giving me the opportunity.”
Just as Casse’s day was made by the win, so was it for Franco, who was on Stainless in the Grade II Adirondack earlier in the card, but never had a chance when his filly stumbled and nearly crashed to the ground right out of the starting gate.
When World Approval won the Fourstardave, Franco couldn’t help pumping a fist and yelling, ‘Hell yeah!’ ”
“The meet’s been frustrating,” Casse said. “This is only our third win, we’ve run forty-some horses. But, of those 40-some horses, probably only five of them have run bad. We get beat a neck or half a length. This is important. This is where I grew up, so I want to do well.”
PURE SILVER ROLLS
Pure Silver broke awkwardly.
Her stablemate in the next stall over, Stainless, was even worse, nearly dumping Franco as she fell to her knees and touched the ground with her nose.
Both recovered nicely, especially Pure Silver, who got to the front and blasted away from the field by 9 1/2 lengths to win the Grade II Adirondack for 2-year-old fillies.
It was Pure Silver’s third win in three career starts, all on the front end with John Velazquez in the saddle.
After putting away Limited View on the turn, the jockey looked behind him once in the stretch, but nobody was close to striking distance as Pure Silver rolled home for trainer Todd Pletcher and Twin Creek Racing Stables.
“She won pretty convincingly,” Pletcher said. “She’s pretty fast. She didn’t actually get away as cleanly as she normally does, but she made up for it quickly and got to the lead the right away and ran them off their feet from there.”
Pletcher said he wasn’t worried about Pure Silver breaking from the rail, at least not after having seen another 2-year-old, Oskar Blues, win a head-bob duel while on the rail two races before the Adirondack.
It helped that Pure Silver has a talent for hustling early to get forward position.
“It’s sometimes a hard track to make up a lot of ground on,” Pletcher said. “We knew that this filly is naturally fast and we were going to let her do her thing.”
“Once I got to the spot I wanted to be, just wait there and she did a good job settling on the turn,” Velazquez said. “Once I looked and saw there was nobody there, and she finished up well.”
Pure Silver’s stablemate, Stainless, co-owned by Barbara Lucarelli of Duanesburg through StarLadies Racing, did well to get for fourth under Franco, who had to pull a little bit of bronco-busting rodeo tactics to not hit the deck.
“I tell you, Manny did a great job just staying on her, as badly as she stumbled,” Pletcher said. “She put in a nice run to be fourth. Manny felt like, that not happening, she wasn’t necessarily going to beat the winner, but certainly could’ve been second.”
Pletcher said Pure Silver will be a candidate for the Spinaway on closing weekend, since she hasn’t shown any dropoff in condition from her races.