Six Virginia Stakes Horses Dominate at Saratoga, Arlington

Over the past month, Virginia-connected horses have excelled at the elite level across the country. The VTA caught up with the connections of the six stakes performers at Saratoga and Arlington to get the inside scoop.

V.E. DAY, TONALIST and WICKED STRONG in the GRADE I TRAVERS

Virginia-owned V.E. Day winning over Virginia-raised Wicked Strong in the Grade I Travers. Photo courtesy Chelsea Durand.

Virginia-owned V.E. Day winning over Virginia-raised Wicked Strong in the Grade I Travers. Photo courtesy Chelsea Durand.

Virginians had reason to crow in the Midsummer Derby, with Virginia horses coming in 1-2-3. Local owner Maggie Bryant went to the winner’s circle with V.E. Day, and Wicked Strong and Tonalist, the two posterboys for raising a horse in the Old Dominion, both turned in great performances to be second and third.

The lightly-raced V.E. Day is now 4-for-4 after the Grade I Travers. The chestnut colt broke his maiden on his third try going a mile on May 10, in an off-the-turf maiden special weight. He got the weeds he wanted in a 1 1/8-mile non-winners-of-one at Belmont in July and went off the chalk. Sitting in third for most of the running, the chestnut colt took the lead at the sixteenth pole and won by 2 lengths.

He returned to the dirt to be the victor by a head in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga on July 25. He went off at long odds in the Travers, paying $41 to win — but he won with a decisive rally, a head over Grade I Wood winner and stablemate Wicked Strong.

“I got to watch him train all winter, really liked him and liked him at the sales,” recalled Bryant’s bloodstock agent Cindy Tucker. “Mrs. Bryant in particular liked English Channel and we bought him at the OBS March sale.”

Out of the Deputy Minister mare California Sunset, V. E. Day is trained by Jimmy Jerkens.

Maggie Bryant, owner of V.E. Day and part owner of Wicked Strong.

Maggie Bryant, owner of V.E. Day and part owner of Wicked Strong.

Cindy Tucker after the Travers.

Cindy Tucker after the Travers.

Meanwhile, Wicked Strong, also trained by Jerkens, put in a strong bid to turn the stretch run of the Travers into a thrilling match race. The winner of the Grade II Jim Dandy was raised at Centennial Farm’s facility in Middleburg, and is owned by a partnership that Bryant is involved in.

Centennial Farms syndicate Don Little, Jr. purchased the colt for $375,000 last year under the moniker Moyne Spun, and renamed him Wicked Strong in memory of the Boston Marathon bombing victims. Mrs. Bryant became involved with the group shortly thereafter, one of several Centennial syndicates that Tucker has guided her into. The horse went on to be a Kentucky Derby contender after winning the Wood.

Wicked Strong defeated Grade I winner Tonalist, also raised in Virginia, in the Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga. Photo courtesy Adam Coglianese.

Wicked Strong defeated Grade I winner Tonalist, also raised in Virginia, in the Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga. Photo courtesy Adam Coglianese.

“We were fortunate to get him,” Little told the Boston Herald before the Kentucky Derby. “We had to stretch our budget, but he stood out. He’s very keen-eyed, he didn’t miss a beat. And when we got to our farm in Middleburg, Virginia, he was a dominant horse of the group. He impressed me from Day One.”

Trainer Jimmy Jerkens has been similarly bullish on the horse, remarking after the the Jim Dandy, “The way he works in the morning, I don’t think Secretariat worked any better than this horse does in the morning.”

Grade I Belmont winner Tonalist winning the Grade II Peter Pan by 4 lengths. Photo courtesy Chelsea Durand.

Grade I Belmont winner Tonalist winning the Grade II Peter Pan by 4 lengths. Photo courtesy Chelsea Durand.

Liked Wicked Strong, the third-placed horse was also raised in Virginia. Bred by Lauren and Rene Woolcott and raised at their Woodslane Farm in The Plains, Tonalist was put in a gallant stretch run to be a game third despite being wide through the turn.

Winner of the Grade I Belmont and second in the Jim Dandy, the lightly-raced son of Tapit was sold by Timber Town Stables and is now owned by Shel Evans and trained by Christophe Clement. The colt debuted at Aqueduct in the fall of his 2-year-old year, finishing fourth, and went on to break his maiden by 4 lengths at Gulfstream in January. He was second in an allowance at that same oval the next month, then returned on May 10 to dominate the Grade II Peter Pan by 4 lengths, beating Belmont second Commissioner in the process.

The rest, of course, is in the Classic record books. Tonalist broke from the outside post position, settling in sixth place not 2 lengths off the leaders. Rounding the first turn, the colt was trapped almost five wide on the Belmont loam, but he kept tight with the front-runners and by the quarter pole was grinding away at the lead. Despite lugging in under the shadow of the wire, he wore down front-runner Commissioner to prevail by a neck — giving Evans “the win Pleasant Colony didn’t get.”

When asked about Tonalist as a young horse, Woolcott calls Tonalist “lightning in a jar.”

“He was very laid back, really super conformation the whole way,” Woolcott said. “Very easy, pleasant horse. Easy keeper.”

HARDEST CORE in the GRADE I ARLINGTON MILLION

Virginia-owned Hardest Core wins the Grade I Arlington Million. Photo courtesy DRF.

Virginia-owned Hardest Core wins the Grade I Arlington Million. Photo courtesy DRF.

The Grade I Arlington Million might have looked like a stretch for a horse that had only won one overnight stake before (even if he was three-for-three going into the race), but Virginian Rusty Carrier knew it wasn’t as big of a jump as it looked like.

Carrier first noticed the 4-year-old son of Hard Spun when he was coming from the back of the pack to win a Saratoga allowance last summer.

“I said, Oh, my God, what is that?” Carrier recalled “He had the big long stride that I like.”

Carrier called regular partner Greg Bentley about buying the horse. Bentley was game, but the current connections weren’t interested in selling. It was trainer Eddie Graham who noticed that the horse had been entered in Keeneland November last year.

“We went down to where he was being showed and he turned and looked at us, and he just had that look: What are you looking at?” Carrier said. They bought the horse for $210,000 – and they were underbid by Kiaran McLaughlin, the colt’s trainer up until that point, Carrier said.

“When I went to sign the ticket,” Carrier said, “my hands were shaking. I’ve picked out a few good ones over the years and this is the one I liked more than any of them.”

And thus “Team Hardest Core” was formed. Bentley and Carrier put the horse in the name of Bentley’s oldest son, Andrew, a racing enthusiast who has Down Syndrome. They shipped Hardest Core to Graham in Unionville, Pennsylvania, cut him – and promptly almost lost the horse. A high hernia, totally unforeseeable, felled him in the paddock after he was gelded. Graham found Hardest Core in the field and raced him to New Bolton.

The horse recovered, but Graham, Bentley and Carrier decided not to challenge him too much in the spring. Carrier had originally purchased the 17-hand horse to be a steeplechase prospect — after all, it’s horseman Jody Petty who gets on him every afternoon — but Graham called him and suggested that see what else the horse could do on the flat.

They ran him twice before the Million — an allowance at Parx where he dominated by 3 lengths, and in the Cape Henlopen at Delaware, where he won by the same margin in July.

“We didn’t want to overface him [in the spring], but we thought we knew what we had,” Carrier said.

As to what’s next after Hardest Core’s length-victory in the Grade I Arlington Million? Carrier is quietly thinking Breeders’ Cup, although he’ll leave the decision-making to Graham. The horse will likely not run between now and November.

DEMONSTRATIVE in the NEW YORK TURF WRITERS

Demonstrative in the New York Turf Writers. Photo courtesy Adam Coglianese.

Demonstrative in the New York Turf Writers. Photo courtesy Adam Coglianese.

At Saratoga on August 25, venerable campaigner Demonstrative brought home the win in the New York Turf Writers for Virginia trainer Richard Valentine and owner Jacqueline Ohrstrom. The son of Elusive Quality had been a nose second in the Grade I A.P. Smithwick a month prior, losing on the bob to Elizabeth Voss’ Makari (who sadly fell at the last fence in the Turf Writers).

Demonstrative won the Turf Writers in 2012, and seemed to be back to that form here, jumping well and turning back challengers to win by half a length. The son of Elusive Quality was an Eclipse finalist that year for his two 2012 Grade I wins. He has been winless – if close – since the Grade I Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle in 2013, but “announced his return” in the Smithwick (per steeplechase writer Joe Clancy).

“I’m incredibly proud of my horse and my crew,” said Valentine, who trains the 7-year-old on his farm in Virginia.

“This is the best horse I’ve worked with by far in my life,” Valentine’s assistant George Laird told the Saratoga Special. “It’s great fun to work with a horse like that and in an environment like we do – the farm, with Richard, coming up here and doing well. It means something.”

SO LONESOME in the ALBANY STAKES

So Lonesome winning the Albany for Charlottesville owners Ed and Pat Schuler. Photo courtesy Adam Coglianese.

So Lonesome winning the Albany for Charlottesville owners Ed and Pat Schuler. Photo courtesy Adam Coglianese.

This time last year, Charlottesville residents Ed and Pat Schuler were celebrating their first Saratoga win with So Lonesome when the then-2-year-old broke his maiden first out. On August 25, they found themselves in the winner’s circle at the Spa with the same horse — this time after the Albany Stakes.

The Schulers grew up in Albany, making a victory in a stake named after their hometown all the more special:

“Last year we had two first-time starters that won in the same week up here. He was one. We never thought you could top that, until today,” Pat Schuler said. “We grew up in Albany so it’s nice.”

So Lonesome, a New York-bred, was purchased with the intention of taking advantage of the lucrative state-bred purses — and their plan has paid off. So Lonesome, a son of Awesome Again, won the Virgo Libra last November at Aqueduct in his first try over the weeds. The $55,000 Saratoga Preferred-purchase has placed in two other stakes in New York for trainer Tom Bush since. The Albany victory represented the horse’s first start back on a traditional dirt surface since before the Virgo Libra (his debut and two subsequent starts were on dirt).

“You see how light he is, but he used to be a wobbly, gangly thing,” Bush told the Saratoga Special. “That’s why I went to turf, because I thought it would build him up. It really helped the horse. He’ll run on anything, he’s just a big, long-striding horse.”