Winless since the 2017 Bowling Green (G2) at Saratoga, Sean Shay and Michael Ryan’s Hunter O’Riley regained top form to spring a 14-1 surprise in Saturday’s $310,000 United Nations (G1) at Monmouth. The Jimmy Toner veteran closed relentlessly to collar Zulu Alpha by a neck, earning his first Grade 1 laurel at the age of six.
Hunter O’Riley, whose previous stakes coup had come over this same 1 3/8-mile trip, had raced only six times in the interim. The Tiz Wonderful gelding was fourth in the 2017 Sword Dancer (G1), but proved unable to build upon that top-level debut when ninth in both the Red Smith (G3) and the following spring’s Elkhorn (G2).
Shelved for the rest of 2018, Hunter O’Riley resurfaced in the January 26 W.L. McKnight (G3) at Gulfstream Park, where he rallied belatedly for fourth to Zulu Alpha. It was a similar tale of improving position without making the frame in the March 2 Mac Diarmida (G2) (sixth to Zulu Alpha) and a return to Keeneland for the April 20 Elkhorn (seventh to Bigger Picture, with Zulu Alpha third). Hence his price in Monmouth’s signature turf event.
The pace scenario didn’t appear favorable either, without much in the way of early speed on a course labeled good. Arrocha opted to go forward through fractions of :25.29, :50.36, 1:16.19, and 1:41.46.
Monarchs Glen unexpectedly moved up out wide on the first of three turns, overtaking Catcho En Die to track the pace. The gambit didn’t work, in part because he didn’t relax too well seeing that much daylight. The Juddmonte blueblood, who around this time last summer was winning the Wolferton at Royal Ascot, retreated tamely in upper stretch along with Arrocha.
Meanwhile, Zulu Alpha and 9-5 favorite Channel Cat were rallying in tandem as they swung for home, and the sprint was on to the wire. Zulu Alpha struck the front first and repelled Channel Cat. Then Hunter O’Riley, patiently handled by Paco Lopez, arrived on the scene widest of all and mowed them down in 2:17.10.
Bigger Picture, the 2017 United Nations hero and third in last year’s title defense, was pocketed behind the leaders on the far turn. By the time he had more room to maneuver, the top three had pulled away, and he had to settle for a better-than-appears fourth. Focus Group, the 3-1 second choice, played his hand too late from last and got no nearer than fifth. Next came early leaders Arrocha, Monarchs Glen, and Catcho En Die.
“A super ride by Paco,” Toner told Monmouth publicity. “This horse has a tendency to take himself out of races. Paco saved ground all the way and he was with the field and then when he hit the turn and tipped out – I thought he might have tipped out a little too far – but once he tipped out he made a good run the last part of it
“He rode a tremendous race on him. (The instructions were) save as much ground with him as you can all the way but when you get around tip outside. He runs better on the outside. He couldn’t have followed orders any better than that.”
“Jimmy Toner told whatever you want to do go do, just don’t stay on the rail and don’t stay inside. He said stay outside,” Lopez said. “I was worried a little bit about the slow fractions but my horse in the first turn was very comfortable. Jimmy asked me to rate him and keep him in a good position.
“At a half mile I started to get him outside and then when I asked him to run he really gave me what he has. I had good position the whole way. I liked where I was. He fired a little slowly but then he got rolling.”
Hunter O’Riley paid $30.20 while advancing his scorecard to 22-5-2-4, $620,293. His first stakes placings came in the 2016 Gio Ponti at Aqueduct and H. Allen Jerkens at Gulfstream.
Bred by Mike Rutherford in Kentucky, Hunter O’Riley sold for $120,000 as a Keeneland September yearling before going to Shay for $50,000 at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s May Sale. The bay is out of the Bernardini mare Oblige, a half-sister to stakes winners Gangbuster and Dreamcall as well as Grade 1-placed Glorified, from the further family of Grade 1 scorer Diplomat Lady.
Lopez also rode a heady race in the other turf stakes, the $165,000 Eatontown (G3), aboard 4-5 favorite Valedictorian. Trained by Kelly Breen, the Epic Racing colorbearer took a bit of a stutter step out of the gate, but the more significant plot twist was Conquest Hardcandy’s intent to vie for the lead. Lopez eased the rail-drawn Valedictorian back and came around the leader, neatly reversing the pressure dynamic. She easily put Conquest Hardcandy away on the far turn and opened up, ultimately crossing the wire 2 3/4 lengths clear of Maid to Remember and Inflexibility. Conquest Hardcandy tired to fifth of six.
Valedictorian was following in the hoofsteps of her dam, 2005 Eatontown heroine Smart N Classy, who was likewise a five-year-old at the time of her victory. A New Jersey-bred by Temple City, Valedictorian has won five stakes including the February 9 Suwannee River (G3). Her other highlights from Gulfstream this term are placings in the Honey Fox (G3) and Marshua’s River (G3) and a score in the Sand Springs, and she’s bankrolled $672,765 from her 28-12-6-3 line.
“There are not too many like her,” Breen said. “It’s really fun to have in our barn. She likes it here, but I didn’t know if she would like it today with all of the rain we had, although she did win on a yielding turf at Laurel (in last fall’s All Along). But I was concerned about the footing.”
Smart N Classy’s sire, Smart Strike, also factors on the maternal side of Saturday’s $150,000 Philip H. Iselin (G3) winner, Monongahela. Michael Dubb, Bethlehem Stables, and Gary Aisquith’s runner was achieving an overdue first stakes score after seven stakes placings.
Jason Servis, who took over his training prior to the 2019 season, noted jockey Jose Lezcano’s role in the breakthrough – namely, being more aggressive early.
“I wasn’t the one who changed this horse’s running style,” Servis said. “Jose Lezcano did. He told me ‘I want to be forwardly placed. I think he prefers that instead of (how) he has been running.’
“He also told me didn’t like horses on the outside of him. I told him, ‘Jose, you ride him however you want.’ He learned a lot when he rode him two races ago.”
Two back, Monongahela was runner-up in the April 6 Excelsior (G3).
“The one time I rode him before this,” Lezcano said, “we were further back and I felt like he didn’t want to go by horses even though I thought I had plenty of horse. Today I tried to put him a lot closer, that way he can finish and do the job.”
Finish he did. Pressing 6-5 favorite Diamond King early, the 4-1 chance wrested control entering the stretch and rolled by four lengths. Bal Harbour closed for second, relegating Diamond King to third. Runnin’toluvya’s 10-race winning streak came to a halt as he checked in a distant fifth of six.
Monongahela has compiled a mark of 24-6-11-2, $381,043. By K One King, the Pennsylvania-bred five-year-old is a half-brother to state-restricted stakes scorer Lucabunny. Their dam is the winning Touch Gold mare Record High, whose broodmare sire is Smart Strike, hero of the Iselin in 1996 when it was a Grade 1.
Rounding out the stakes action, $625,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling purchase Pink Sands responded to first-time blinkers to notch her first stakes tally in the $100,000 Lady’s Secret. The Shug McGaughey filly uncorked a last-to-first rally with Jose Ortiz, kicking 3 1/2 lengths clear.
Pink Sands improved her record to 13-4-3-3, $268,080, reflecting a third in the Ruffian (G2) in her latest. As a daughter of Tapit and Grade 1 vixen Her Smile, the four-year-old is already a broodmare prospect for co-owner Antony Beck’s Gainesway Stable and Andrew Rosen.