New York-based jockey Dylan Davis has already guided Bryan Hilliard’s Second of July to consecutive upset wins and he will look to complete the hat trick in Friday’s Grade 2, $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at Keeneland Race Course.
Davis, a native of Manhasset, New York, will turn 26-years-old on November 15 and he is hoping to celebrate early following his first ever Breeders’ Cup mount.
“I want to do the best I can do and hopefully win,” said Davis. “A win would be great, but if we could get in the top four, I’d still be ecstatic. But we’ve come to win and we’re riding to win. I want to get the best placing I can for him and the team.”
Trained by the Saratoga-based Phil Gleaves, who seeks his first Breeders’ Cup win in his fourth attempt, Second of July posted a 68-1 upset score in his September 20 debut in a six-furlong maiden allowance sprint on the Belmont Park turf.
Davis said he felt no pressure entering Second of July’s debut effort.
“As a first timer, Phil just wanted me to teach him the ways of racing and race dynamics and just let him learn,” said Davis. “We got into a position where I thought we could make a good run, got out in the clear, and he responded. There was a horse that came up on his outside, but he was pretty game about it and we were lucky enough to win first time out. It’s nice when a horse will do everything you want him to do and still respond willingly to the wire.
“In general, when I’m riding a longshot, I just want to make sure I get a good trip,” added Davis. “I don’t feel like there’s not as much pressure, you still want to ride your best race. I try to ride every horse to give them an opportunity to win or get their best placing.”
Second of July, a Kentucky homebred named for the owner’s son Reed’s date of birth, followed with a second consecutive victory at long odds, besting a seven-horse field at 15-1 in the 130th Grade 3, $100,000 Futurity, earning an automatic entry to the Juvenile Turf Sprint.
“He was a lot calmer and he knew what was going on second time out,” said Davis. “He broke OK, not too aggressive, and then we just got involved within the race into the turn and being between horses and letting him settle before making a run like he did first time out. With those two races, being involved with the pack and being able to run through, I think he’s ready for tomorrow.”
The Jack Milton chestnut’s Futurity score came at the expense of returning-rivals After Five, Momos and County Final, who completed the superfecta last out.
Over the past 13 months, Davis has picked up marquee wins in the 2019 Grade 2 Kelso with Pat On the Back and the Grade 3 Withers with Max Player in February at the Big A.
The up-and-coming rider enters his Breeders’ Cup debut off a solid run of form with an impressive rail-skimming effort in the Awad aboard Step Dancer to score a 7-1 upset for trainer Barclay Tagg on Saturday at Belmont.
Davis had guided Step Dancer to a 24-1 maiden win in September on the Saratoga turf and has earned the respect of Tagg’s partner and assistant trainer Robin Smullen, who will saddle Breeders’ Cup Classic hopeful Tiz the Law on Saturday.
“He rode him beautifully,” said Smullen. “He’s learned so much riding in this colony and he certainly looks like he belongs and he’s riding like he’s right at the top.”
In 2018, Davis guided Tale of Silence to a memorable rail-riding win for Tagg in the Grade 3 Westchester, prevailing by a nose at odds of 12-1 as the distant fourth choice in a five-horse field.
“We’ve won some good races with Dylan,” said Smullen. “He’s had some real good finishes for us. He rode Tale of Silence to his only stakes win and it was a four-horse photo that he won by a nostril.”
Davis said he’s been able to grow his skillset exponentially by riding in New York.
“To be able to compete on the NYRA circuit and be involved daily with top riders and Hall of Famers is great,” said Davis. “It’s difficult, but you’re always learning and striving to be the better you and ride good races. To be on the same track with those guys, you can learn something daily.”
Davis is the son of veteran rider Robbie Davis, who competed in 10 Breeders’ Cup events, with a pair of fourth-place finishes his best efforts, including aboard Not Surprising in the 1995 Sprint at Belmont won by Desert Stormer.
He said he talked to his dad on the phone earlier this week and received good advice.
“My dad told me to ride my race, ride smart and know that there’s nothing different about this race except the money, so just ride your race and don’t put too much pressure on yourself,” said Davis, who also credits retired champion jockey and current America’s Day at the Races analyst Richard Migliore, Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron and Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey turned trainer Wesley Ward among his confidantes.
On Friday, Davis will be tasked with negotiating a winning trip from post 13 at a morning-line assessment of 8-1 in a 14-horse field led by the 8-5 Golden Pal.
Gleaves said he is confident in Davis’ ability to find a result in the 5 1/2-furlong sprint.
“I imagine he’ll be in the second flight. He’s a pretty tractable horse,” said Gleaves, whose previous Breeders’ Cup starters include Happy Jazz Band [fourth, 1990 Juvenile], Devil on Ice [10th, 1991 Juvenile], and Mambo Meister [fifth, 2009 Dirt Mile]. “Dylan will have to work out a trip from there. The biggest obstacle will be the 14 horses going 5 ½ [furlongs]. It’ll be a cavalry charge.”
Davis said he would have preferred a more inside draw, but is already strategizing options.
“I didn’t like it at first, but as I’ve looked through it, I have Golden Pal on my outside and he has a lot of speed,” said Davis. “The 10-horse [Bodenheimer] has a lot of speed and has ran over the course before. Those horses will put a lot of pressure into the early speed, so we might run out with them a little bit and try to get some early position. I don’t have the same speed they do, but it should spread the field out a little bit with those horses on the outside. From that post, I might lose some ground, but when the time is right to get some run, I’ll be ready to have a clear trip.
“We’re battle ready and being in the mix is no problem for him,” added Davis. “Whether he’s inside or outside, he does fight to the wire with horses around him. He hasn’t won by big margins, but he puts up a fight when horses come up next to him.”
Davis has posted nine wins at Keeneland over the course of his career, the most recent coming in April 2014 aboard Tell All You Know with a prominent performance in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance turf sprint.
“I was here at Keeneland with the bug,” said Davis. “I haven’t been here in a while, but I remember the course well and I’ve been watching the races to see how the course has been playing.”
With no other mounts lined up for Friday’s Keeneland card, Davis said he will prepare himself just as he does for his mounts in New York.
“I’ll go through my normal routine with a lot of stretching and replay watching,” said Davis. “I only have the one race so I don’t have a lot of handicapping to do. I’ll get to the jock’s room early and watch the races before ours and get a feel of how the turf is playing.
“Before the race, I’ll have a bit of a workout to get my body ready,” he added. “It’s just one race so I have to make sure that I’m all stretched out and ready to go when the gates open.”
And Davis said he is looking forward to the biggest moment of his career thus far, having put in the hard work day in and day out against the toughest jockey colony on the continent.
“I’ve learned fast,” said Davis. “A lot of good horses come through New York and I was hoping to find one of my own and now here he is – Second of July – I’ve waited a while for this moment and I know I’m ready for it.”
* * *
The Breeders’ Cup coincides with Opening Weekend at Aqueduct Racetrack, which will feature the $100,000 Tempted and $100,000 Atlantic Beach on Friday and the Grade 3, $100,000 Turnback the Alarm Handicap and $100,000 Stewart Manor on Saturday.
Friday’s first post at the Big A is 11:15 a.m., while Saturday’s Aqueduct card will kick off at 10:30 a.m
Photo Credit: Janet Garaguso