Valiant Force Upset by Reef Runner in Gulfstream Feature

February 7, 2024

Reef Runner victorious over Valiant Force (Lauren King)

David Joseph/Gulfstream Park

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.— Making his first start since finishing second in the Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), AMO Racing USA’s Valiant Force was expected to roll to victory in Thursday’s Race 8 feature, a five-furlong entry-level optional claiming allowance on Gulfstream Park’s turf course.

Sent to post as the 3-5 favorite, Valiant Force encountered traffic on the backstretch, allowing 15-1 longshot Reef Runner to get the jump on him. Although the son of Malibu Moon recovered to launch a strong drive after swinging five wide into the stretch, his late run wasn’t enough to catch Alex and JoAnn Lieblong’s Reef Runner at the wire.

Reef Runner, winless in two starts on dirt, before graduating in a five-furlong maiden race on Tapeta in his third start. The son of The Big Beast was making his turf debut Wednesday following a runner-up finish on Tapeta.

“I wasn’t really planning on running but I was talking with Paco, and he said, ‘the outside post position might help you,” said trainer David Fawkes, whose upset winner broke from Post 6 in the field of seven 3-year-olds under Paco Lopez. “He said, ‘I’d love to run this horse.”

Esperon showed the way during a first quarter in 20.93 seconds, while Valiant Force saved ground in fourth along the backstretch, only to be steadied hard by jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. entering the far turn. The Jorge Delgado-trained favorite lacked room on the inside as Reef Runner passed to his outside with an impressive run that took him past the tiring pacesetter to gain the lead in mid-stretch. Valiant Force kicked in with a strong run in the stretch but fell three-quarters of a length behind Reef Runner.

“At the half-mile [pole] I tried to hold my ground and I couldn’t do it. The horse in front of me slowed down and I had to steady and wait, wait, wait,” Ortiz said. “After that I tried to just go around them and, once I took him out of there, he was running. That’s racing.”

Valiant Force, who broke his maiden in the Group 2 Norfolk at Royal Ascot in June, closed from 10th at the top of the stretch run of the five-furlong Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint to miss catching Big Evs by a half-length in his U.S. debut at Santa Anita.

Reef Runner ran five furlongs in 54.64 seconds to prevail over Valiant Force, who finished a neck over Esperon.

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