OZONE PARK, N.Y.— KatieRich Stables’ Kentucky homebred American Apple provided trainer Daniel Leitch with his first career stakes score, powering gamely to the wire to secure a neck win in Saturday’s Grade 3, $150,000 Matron at six-furlongs over good outer turf at the Belmont at the Big A fall meet.
Eric Cancel picked up the mount from regular pilot Gerardo Corrales and engineered a perfect trip from post 3 in the 11-horse field of juvenile fillies. The American Pharoah bay rated kindly in third position from the two-path before angling outside the pacesetting Fleetfooted in upper stretch and staving off a late bid from Redifined to post a 47-1 upset in final time of 1:09.59. The victory garnered a career-best 87 Beyer Speed Figure.
Leitch admitted to being concerned as the field made the turn for home.
“I was a little nervous there. He [Cancel] had so much horse and nowhere to go, but thank God that hole opened up and he went on with it. It was a really good ride,” said Leitch over the phone en route back to his Kentucky base at Keeneland. “She walked on the truck like a champ. She ate up everything last night and it seems like she didn’t even run yesterday. She seems like a real superstar. Hopefully, everything goes good from here on out.”
While there was some consideration post-race for American Apple to stay against her own kind in the six-furlong $120,000 Stewart Manor on November 5 at the Big A, Leitch said she is most likely to cut back and take on the boys in the Grade 1, $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at 5 1/2-furlongs on November 4 at Keeneland.
“We’ll probably go for the Breeders’ Cup,” Leitch said. “We know this is what she likes now. We’re stabled there so why not just walk her over instead of shipping her back up.
“She’s a filly going against the boys. If she runs good, it’s a big thing,” he added. “If not, we’ll go back against the fillies somewhere else. You have to go for it when you can.”
Leitch said American Apple will enjoy a little downtime before returning to serious training.
“We’ll give her a couple days walking and then take her back to the track and see how she goes from there,” Leitch said. “We’ll see how her attitude is. I want to keep her happy and not do too much with her. We’ll play it day by day.”
Out of the KatieRich-campaigned graded stakes-placed Clever Trick mare Miss Mary Apples, American Apple is a half-sister to multiple graded stakes-winning millionaire Lady Apple, who thrived in dirt routes for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.
American Apple made her first two starts with fifth-place finishes in dirt sprints at Churchill Downs while keeping good company with her May debut won by eventual stakes winner Devious Dame and her June follow-up captured by eventual graded-stakes winner Just Cindy.
American Apple, who had been outworking another well-regarded KatieRich homebred in Zapple, was switched to turf for her third outing on July 15 at Ellis Park and ran a prominent third traveling one mile over firm going in a race won by C C Cruise Control, who finished fifth in Friday’s Grade 2 Jessamine at Keeneland.
Leitch’s confidence in American Apple’s talents was buoyed when Zapple romped to a 9 1/4-length score two days later on July 17 an off-the turf maiden special weight sprint at Ellis Park. He brought American Apple back on September 14 in a 6 1/2-furlong turf sprint at Kentucky Downs and the talented bay responded with a driving nose score.
“We started looking at what the Pharoah offspring were doing and they were doing really well on the turf sprinting,” said Leitch. “We tried her long first time and she got a little headstrong and didn’t really settle. She was right there at seven-eighths but just didn’t finish up that last eighth. That’s why we shortened
her back up at Kentucky Downs and she ran really ran well there.”
Leitch said Corrales, who guided American Apple through her first four starts, is likely to keep the mount at Keeneland.
“When we were breezing her in April, he said this was his Breeders’ Cup horse,” Leitch said. “We didn’t think that at the time. We thought she was nice, but he was the one saying it back then.”
While American Apple followed her maiden score with Saturday’s impressive stakes coup, Zapple endured a troubled trip at second asking when off-the-board in the seven-furlong Debutante on August 14 at Ellis.
“She got pinched real bad and stumbled. We had to put three stitches in her leg,” Leitch said. “She’s at the farm right now. Hopefully, we get her back in the next month and see where we go with her.”
The Matron score, notched with just his 52nd career starter, is part of a meteoric rise for the 28-year-old Leitch, who won with his first starter, Midway’s Angel, last September at Horseshoe Indianapolis.
A native of California, Leitch moved to Kentucky at 5 years old with his mom, Michelle Leitch, who had worked as an exercise rider for John Ward and the Paulson family among others.
“I grew up on the track. Any time I had off school, I’d go to the track and help her out,” Leitch said.
He noted some of his formative years came in the barn of trainer Alice Cohn.
“I’d go around her barn a lot and ask to help out with whatever I could do instead of just sitting there,” he said, with a laugh. “When I was 9 years old, I was cleaning water buckets, feed tubs and sweeping and raking. Whatever needed to be done.”
Leitch persevered with his on-track education and quickly rose through the ranks.
“I walked hots, grooming and just worked my way up to foreman, assistant and now I’m training,” he said. “I’ve got 12 in training now – one of my own, three from Laura Wohlers and the rest are KatieRich. I’ve had really good opportunities and I can’t thank my connections enough.”
Leitch sports a 50 percent in-the-money record of 11-7-8 from his 52 starts for purse earnings of $462,448. He said Saturday’s stakes score was surreal.
“I’m still thinking this is a dream and I’m waking up from it,” Leitch said. “I always knew she had it in her. She’d been training really good and working really good and I knew she was going to be a good horse. It was just her figuring it out and doing it in the afternoon. The last two starts she really figured it out and she really improved yesterday.”
Leitch plies his trade daily at Keeneland and his mom, now retired from exercise riding, oversees a barn at KatieRich Farms. The young conditioner said he’s in awe of how far he’s come in such a short time.
“Last year, I didn’t think I’d even have a winner but to have a winner in your first year and now to have a horse for the Breeder’s Cup, it’s unbelievable,” Leitch said.
NYRA Press Office
Main photo: American Apple after her determined victory in the G3 Matron (Joe Labozzetta)
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