Trainer Gregory Sacco is based in New Jersey and Florida and doesn’t make it to Saratoga Race Course very often.
He remembers bringing a nice New York-bred grass horse, Foreverness, to the Spa for the West Point in 2004 and somehow managing to barely lose despite having Jerry Bailey in the saddle.
“I think it took me 10 hours to drive home,” he said with a laugh on Monday.
The drive back to New Jersey will breeze by in no time this time, after Mind Control and another Hall of Fame jockey, John Velazquez, won the Hopeful on closing day of the 2018 Saratoga Race Course meet.
After 30 years as a head trainer, Sacco finally won his first Grade I, and he did it surrounded by a large contingent of family and friends, some of whom were weeping with joy in one of the more ebullient winner’s circle celebrations of the meet.
“It doesn’t get any more meaningful, with a historic race like this, with your family and friends. It’s hard to put it in words.”
Mind Control, a 10-1 betting long shot coming off a three-length maiden win at Monmouth Park, dueled with Nitrous all the way down the backstretch and into the turn.
Nitrous eventually dropped out of it to leave it to even-money Mucho to join the chase, but that protracted early effort did not cook Mind Control.
The son of 2011 Travers winner Stay Thirsty kept about his business inside the eighth pole and finished three-quarters of a length ahead of Mucho.
“I told Gregory earlier I was going to try to come out running and get position early in the race,” Velazquez said. “The horse didn't want to be on the lead and fortunately it worked out that way. He settled pretty easy along the backstretch and got settled to the turn. Once we reached the three-eighths pole and I asked him, he was full of run. I was real proud of the way he finished. He came on and never relinquished it.”
“We let Nitrous go, because the way he rated last time, we thought we could get a comfortable position, make a move at him when Johnny thought was the right time,” Sacco said. “He said he took him there pretty easily. He has gears.”
Mind Control began his career at Delaware Park on July 5 with a second to Call Paul, who would go on to win the Saratoga Special.
He followed that up with a maiden win at Monmouth on Aug. 12.
“I know it’s at Monmouth, and then you’ve got to do it in the big show,” Sacco said. “But he had a lot of horse at the quarter pole, and Johnny said he was actually waiting a little bit. He’s still a little green and learning.”
Sacco’s father, William, who died in 2009, was a member of the prestigious U.S. Mounted Cavalry Division of the Army during World War II before becoming a leading trainer in New Jersey.
“I’m the son of trainer, and my dad never had the opportunity to train these type of horses, and I’ve been blessed and fortunate,” Gregory said. “I don’t get a chance to run many horses at Saratoga, and when I come I like to be prepared.”
With the Hopeful victory, the Mind Control camp now has visions of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs in November.
“I would think so, because I don’t think the distance would be any limitation,” Sacco said. “He’s just a genuine horse, and he’s got a ton of ability, but the main thing is he’s so smart. He’s like an older horse and does everything right, which for a young horse is a big plus.”
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin came into closing day with a solid winning percentage for the meet, but no stakes victories through 39 racing days.
With three races left in the meet, he finally got one, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have to sweat it out.
Qurbaan and meet-leading rider Irad Ortiz Jr. closed on the outside and prevailed in a wild three-way photo finish to win the Grade II Bernard Baruch on the Mellon turf course.
Making his first start in North America after having raced mostly in France, Qurbaan out-nosed Forge, with Projected another short nose back and even Inspector Lynley making a bid in the five-horse field, a head back in fourth.
“I was worried right up until the wire, but thankfully we got there,” McLaughlin said. “I’m very happy with the photo. We’ve had a couple of close ones this meet.”
“I can see why they like the horse, he showed he can win a stakes in this country,” Ortiz said. “Hopefully, we can build on this.”
Qurbaan is owned by one of McLaughlin’s primary clients, Shadwell Stable, so McLaughlin naturally wants to try to get him to the Shadwell Mile at Keeneland on Oct. 6.
“We were trying to run him in an allowance race that didn’t go for a while,” McLaughlin said. “We didn’t have many options but to go into the stakes. He’s a stakes horse, obviously. He’s won five races all around the world. We may have to try the Shadwell Mile next now that we have a horse that can go there.”