SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s Saratoga Race Course, so rarely does anything play out neatly and cleanly.
That’s part of the beauty and appeal of the place.
So, sure enough, there was Sporting Chance veering erratically toward the middle of the track in the final stakes race of the meet, the Grade I Hopeful, passing in front of Free Drop Billy as they neared the wire.
Despite the extra ground covered and a steward’s inquiry to see if that sharp angling was enough to take down Sporting Chance, his neck victory with Luis Saez in the saddle stood, giving 82-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas his eighth Hopeful victory.
“Well, this surprised me more than it did the horse,” Lukas said. “I thought he was comfortable in front and he was moving well. I think he was best in the last 50 yards, where he accelerated, that’s his style.
“Unfortunately, he saw something [at the finish] — I guess Luis explained that he ducked from the whip — I’m not sure. I have a tendency to think it might have been something else, you never know. These are 2-year-olds, and he’s just in his third race, so you can see things happen like that every day in 2-year-old races.”
“He is one of the best horses I have ever rode in my life, so I want to be okay with him, so he learned a little bit in the game today,” Saez said. “But, geez, when he came out like, that I almost fell.”
Free Drop Billy’s trainer Dale Romans saw it differently, even though his horse and jockey Robby Albarado didn’t check up as Sporting Chance weaved in front of them, and they maintained a straight line to the finish.
“You can’t tell, for a 2-year-old who has run three times in his life and the horse bolts in front of him, how much it stops his momentum,” Romans said. “You don’t know what it does to a horse’s mind. He got beat a head by a horse who bolted in front of him. It’s a ridiculous call.”
Nevertheless, Sporting Chance got the victory, at betting odds of 5-1, to go 2-for-2 at the meet.
He broke his maiden by 2 1/4 lengths on opening weekend.
“I thought he ran even better than I expected,” Lukas said. “I expected him to run a strong race. I would’ve liked to have seen it without incident. You want everything to go smooth. I don’t think it diminished his quality any, I think we’ll move forward from this. Stuff like this is very correctable.”
Lukas previously won the Hopeful with Strong Mandate (2013), Dublin (2009), Yonaguska (2000, in a dead heat with City Zip), High Yield (1999), Hennessy (1995), Salt Lake (1991) and Deposit Ticket (1990).
His last three winners were all owned by Robert Baker and William Mack, “so they’re on a mini-roll themselves,” Lukas said.
Besides the Hopeful, Lukas won three other races, including the seventh race with Warrior’s Club on Saturday — his 82nd birthday.
“I was so happy for Wayne,” said meet champion trainer Todd Pletcher, a former Lukas assistant whose two horses in Monday’s Hopeful, National Flag and Mojovation, finished fifth and seventh, respectively. “He had a great meet with quite a few winners. He’s still doing phenomenal things.”
“I don’t think the other seven [Hopeful winners] helped us today, though,” Lukas said with a laugh. “I think those seven are on their own merit. Today, we had to do it with this one. You know what that says is you’re damn old.”
Then again, sometimes a plan just comes together neatly and cleanly as it looks on paper.
Heart to Heart’s best shot at winning the Grade II Bernard Baruch appeared to be taking the field wire to wire, and that’s exactly what he and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. did.
He got to the front, and Ortiz used the stick to urge him past the eighth pole, shifting to a hand ride inside the sixteenth pole once he realized he wouldn’t be caught.
He finished 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Forge.
“He’s a free runner, so I don’t like to wait with him, but he still had something left at the end,” Ortiz said.
“It was great. He got to diictate the terms,” trainer Brian Lynch said.