Gunite secures the win in the Aristides June 3 at Churchill Downs (JennyPhoto/Past The Wire)
NYRA Press Office
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.— Lining up against three defending Eclipse Award-winning Champions at Grade 1 level is no easy task, but Winchell Thoroughbreds will have three golden opportunities on Saturday’s loaded Travers Day program at Saratoga Race Course.
Winchell Thoroughbreds will be well-represented as they send out Grade 1 winner Gunite for a rematch against 2022 Champion Male Sprinter Elite Power in the Grade 1, $500,000 Forego. Echo Zulu, a Champion in her own right, will be joined by stakes-winning millionaire Wicked Halo, as they square off against Goodnight Olive – last year’s Champion Female Sprinter – in the Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina.
After winning last year’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers with eventual Champion 3-Year-Old Male Epicenter, Winchell Thoroughbreds will seek their second straight Travers triumph with graded stakes winner Disarm, who will face three American Classic winners and 2022 Champion 2-Year-Old Forte. All the Winchell-owned horses are by 2017 Horse of the Year and leading North American sire Gun Runner and conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.
“It’s unusual for us to run in three Grade 1s on the same day, especially at Saratoga, but to win those three races and you have to beat a Champion in every race to win – that’s pretty tough. It’ll be a good day and hopefully things go our way in a couple of those races,” said Winchell Thoroughbreds’ racing manager David Fiske.
Gunite, who captured the Spa’s 2021 Hopeful and the Grade 2 Amsterdam last year, has finished second to Elite Power twice this season. After a four-length seasonal debut triumph in Oaklawn Park’s King Cotton, Gunite shipped to Saudi Arabia to finish 3 1/4 lengths behind Elite Power in the Group 3 Riyadh Dirt Sprint on February 25 at King Abdulaziz Racecourse. The earner of over $1.8 million enters from a narrow runner-up effort to Elite Power in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt on July 29 over sloppy and sealed conditions at the Spa. He held a 1 1/2-length advantage in the stretch drive, but was unable to stave off Elite Power’s late advance and was beaten a head.
“Gunite seems to be getting bigger and faster as a 4-year-old. Hopefully, at some point, we can see him turn the tables,” Fiske said. “Those two seem pretty evenly matched at the moment. With a small field it can be strategic and it turns into a rider’s race.”
When asked if he would like to see anything different this time around, Fiske quipped: “I’d like to see him win, that would be the first thing.
“Somewhere in upper stretch, I thought we had a big chance to win but Elite Power tipped out at the top of the stretch. He is a formidable individual, which is why he’s the Champion,” Fiske added.
Although there is still ground to cover for the remainder of the season, Fiske said there is a “possibility” that Gunite could return to action for his 5-year-old year.
Winchell Thoroughbreds, in partnership with L and N Racing, campaign 2021 Champion 2-Year-Old Filly and Ballerina aspirant Echo Zulu, who enters the prestigious seven-furlong test from a career-high 112 Beyer Speed Figure earned when capturing the Grade 2 Honorable Miss on July 26 at the Spa.
The 4-year-old bay has never lost at Saratoga, earning a debut win in July 2021 before capturing the Grade 1 Spinaway at the end of the year en route to prominent scores in the Grade 1 Frizette at Belmont Park and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Del Mar.
After rounding out her sophomore season with a second-place finish behind Goodnight Olive in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Keeneland, Echo Zulu returned with vigor when capturing the Grade 3 Winning Colors on May 29 at Churchill Downs.
Echo Zulu’s 112 Beyer is the co-leading figure of any thoroughbred this year, tying the number registered by Cody’s Wish in the Grade 1 Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan on June 10 at Belmont.
“I believe she’s been training better this year than she ever has before. We gave her a little time off over the winter and worked on her ankles a little bit and she’s come back fantastic,” Fiske said. “Of course, just like Gunite, she has run well at Saratoga since she was a 2-year-old. Both of them are stakes winners at 2, 3 and 4 and I think they both have a chance. It should be interesting.”
Wicked Halo, a 4-year-old gray filly, was cross-entered in the Ballerina as well as Friday evening’s seven-furlong Pink Ribbon at Charles Town. She was last seen posting a seventh overall stakes triumph in the Twin Bridges on July 23 at Ellis Park. Like Echo Zulu, Wicked Halo also is unbeaten at the Spa, having captured the 2021 Grade 2 Adirondack – a race won by her Tapit-sired dam Just Wicked in 2015 – before returning to Saratoga the following summer to win the Grade 2 Prioress. She followed with another graded score in the Grade 2 Raven Run in October at Keeneland before rounding out the trifecta in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
Fiske expressed hope that adding blinkers will result in the change he is hoping to see with Disarm as he faces Forte, Grade 1 Kentucky Derby-winner Mage, Grade 1 Preakness-winner National Treasure and Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets-winner Arcangelo.
Fourth in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, Disarm returned to action to capture the Grade 3 Matt Winn on June 11 at Ellis Park before finishing fourth behind Forte in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy presented by DK Horse on July 29 at Saratoga. In all aforementioned starts, Disarm was piloted by Joel Rosario, who maintains the mount for the Travers.
“I think he was a little immature in the Derby. Joel said he wasn’t appreciating the kickback going down the backside all that much. He was kind of starting and stopping,” Fiske recalled. “He’s trained well, his speed figures no matter whose scale you use, seem to be getting better, and he seems to be getting better. The Travers looks like it’ll be the premiere 3-year-old race of the year. It’s unusual that you get the Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners; the horse that would have been the favorite in the Derby [Forte]. It’s pretty deep. I’m not surprised that it’s only seven horses, but they all have a legitimate chance to show up.”
Fiske said the addition of blinkers was made to get Disarm “a little more focused.”
“He’s always been relatively prominent and tends to be about three or four lengths off the pace, but Steve thinks there’s more talent there to pull out of him,” Fiske said. “I don’t know if that will appear on Saturday or if we’ll wait until next year to see it. Hopefully, the blinkers will make a difference.”
Gun Runner was campaigned by Winchell and Asmussen through an illustrious career that included six Grade 1 wins, earnings in excess of $15 million, as well as 2017 Champion Older Male and Horse of the Year honors. Gun Runner, North America’s leading third crop stallion, has already produced a Champion in Echo Zulu, last year’s Grade 1 Preakness winner Early Voting, as well as Grade 1 winners Taiba and Cyberknife.
“I think as fast as they were at two, it’s scary to think they get faster at 3 and 4,” Fiske noted. “He’s the gift that keeps on giving. Steve said one day that he’s done everything that we’ve asked him to and done it easily. Whether it was on the racetrack or in the breeding shed … I don’t even have the adjectives anymore to describe what he does for and means to all of us.”