By John Scheinman
SARATOGA SPRINGS - After more than a year of dueling but never defeating the top dirt horses in the country, the fleet bridesmaid Moreno finally landed a major prize, using his formidable speed to blow away an elite field and win the 87th running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Whitney on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
Breaking slowly but rushing to the front, Moreno’s rider Junior Alvarado perfectly followed trainer Eric Guillot’s instructions, clearing the field to let the 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding do what he does best - run fast and run free. Yet not too fast.
Pressed by Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile runner-up Golden Ticket, Moreno set manageable fractions of 23.67 seconds for the first quarter mile, 47.50 for the half and 1:35.41 for the mile. At the top of the stretch, only Itsmyluckyday emerged from the pack to challenge, but Moreno, under an urgent Alvarado, repelled him to win by 1 ¼ lengths. The winner, owned in partnership by Mike Moreno and Guillot’s Southern Equine Stable, completed the historic 1 1/8-mile race in 1:48.05.
Itsmyluckyday finished second, three lengths in front of reigning Champion Three-Year-Old Male Will Take Charge. Palace Malice, the 3-5 favorite, sputtered in the stretch after tracking in third and finished sixth.
Moreno, the 10-1 fourth choice in the field of nine, paid $22 for a $2 win wager. The $800,000 winner’s purse increased his lifetime earnings to $1,709,940 in 20 starts. The victory in the "Win and You’re In" race automatically qualified Moreno for a fees-paid trip to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The irrepressible Guillot showed a range of emotions in the winner’s circle.
"Turning for home, he’s on the lead and I’m hollering, ‘Junior! Junior! Did you hear that bell? Do you hear that bell? Somebody just got taken to school!’
"When they crossed the wire, it took me a while to believe it," he went on. "I saw the :47 3/5. I saw the 1:11 and change, and I was feeling pretty confident like the Travers, you know what I mean? It’s funny because pace makes the race, inner fractions make the race. The farther they go, the better. The softer fractions, the better he is. He feels and waits on horses behind him. That’s the kind of horse he is."
Moreno didn’t break his maiden until his ninth start, in the mud last summer at Belmont Park. He came right back to win the Grade 2 Dwyer by seven lengths and then went to Saratoga and mixed it up in two of the best races of the 2013 meet - finishing third behind Palace Malice and Will Take Charge in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy and then second, beaten a nose by Will Take Charge at 31-1 in the Grade 1 Travers.
His talent was unmistakable but the wins never arrived. He finished second in the Pennsylvania Derby, third in the Charles Town Classic, fourth in the Pimlico Special and second last out in the Suburban Handicap at Belmont with Alvarado aboard for the first time.
Alvarado said he knew the race was his on the turn for home.
"Even before I hit it, switching leads to the right, he took two big jumps," Alvarado recalled. "I said, ‘I don’t think there is a way anyone can pass me."
Asked what it means to win the richest race of the Saratoga meet, Guillot grew serious.
"It means [so much for] my partner and best friend, Mike [Moreno], who always believed in me from Day One and still does today," Guillot said. "I’m getting emotional. For him and I, this is what we do. It’s why he goes to work in business. It’s why I get up at 4:30 a.m. seven days a week. We never doubted each other. Not one time.
"It was great. How can it not be? It’s the Whitney."
The victory was the second Grade 1 win for Guillot at Saratoga. He won the Test with Champagne d’Oro in 2010.
The defeat for Palace Malice was a stunning one. His record going into the race was formidable - four victories in four starts this year, including a recent score in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap on June 7 at Belmont Park.
"I don’t know what went wrong," said Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who rode Palace Malice. "He didn’t run at all. He was in perfect position. On the backstretch he was looking around. I was hoping by the half-mile he’d move on, but he never showed any interest. He went through the whole race not paying any attention. He trained great, he warmed up great; he just didn’t run today."
Prayer for Relief finished fourth, followed by Last Gunfighter, then Palace Malice, Romansh, Departing and Golden Ticket.