by J. Keeler Johnson
Saturday, September 28, was a day for major upsets at Santa Anita Park. Three prominent prep races for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships produced three significant upsets, including a 25-1 shocker when Mongolian Groom edged 3-10 favorite McKinzie in the $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes (G1).
The Awesome Again was supposed to be a process for McKinzie, a romping winner of the Whitney Stakes (G1) at Saratoga two months ago. But the complexion of the Awesome Again changed sharply when the speedy Higher Power stumbled badly at the start, allowing Mongolian Groom to secure an easy lead through slow fractions of :23.99, :48.29 and 1:12.07.
McKinzie was always poised to challenge, racing three-wide while never more than two lengths off the pace. But when jockey Mike Smith asked the Bob Baffert-trained star to accelerate, McKinzie failed to offer the necessary response. He made a game run at Mongolian Groom, charging to within a half-length of the lead at the eighth-pole, but the pacesetter – under vigorous urging from jockey Abel Cedillo – responded with a strong final furlong in :12.32 to pull away and score by 2 1/4 lengths.
Higher Power recovered from his slow start to finish 5 ¼ lengths back in third place, just ahead of Stephen Foster Handicap (G2) winner Seeking the Soul.
“I thought I could go with the two outside horses (early on), but they seemed like they were determined to get [the lead],” explained Smith. “So I let them go figuring they’d entertain each other and we’d do what we do. (Mongolian Groom) ran a huge race today. We lost the battle, but this ain’t the war. Hopefully we’ll come back and be ready.”
Mongolian Groom’s upset was shocking on several fronts. Trained by Enebish Ganbat and purchased for just $12,000 as a 2yo-in-training, Mongolian Groom was riding a 0-for-7 streak against graded stakes company and finished 3 3/4 lengths behind McKinzie in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) back in April.
“I would like to thank the trainers and owners,” Cedillo told Santa Anita. “I had a lot of help and thank you Enebish Ganbat, for trusting me. He told me don’t change anything, just do what you do with him… just stay close, and I saw McKinzie didn’t go so I took the lead.”
Whether Mongolian Groom will continue on to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) is unclear. Although he earned a “Win & You’re In” berth to the Classic, the four-year-old gelded son of Hightail isn’t nominated to the Breeders’ Cup and would have to be made eligible via supplemental nomination.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect he was going to win because he was running against two of the best horses on the dirt and the best two trainers, Baffert and Sadler,” said Ganbat. “I told everyone I’m happy if he comes in third. I bet $500 on show.”
As for Mike Smith, he enjoyed better luck one race prior in the $300,000 Rodeo Drive Stakes (G1). Guiding 6-1 shot Mirth in a small field, Smith urged the four-year-old daughter of Colonel John to secure a clear early lead through steady fractions of :23.72, :47.53 and 1:11.05. In the end, no one seriously challenged the Phil D’Amato-trained filly, who kept clicking off sub-:24 quarters to hold off a challenge from late-running favorite Beau Recall and win by 1 1/4 lengths.
“She doesn’t really have a turn of foot; she just seems to keep staying and keep going,” said Smith. “I felt like I had gotten away with that at the half-mile pole, so going into the turn I started marching on where I was going to lengthen everybody’s kick instead of trying to make an explosive move. It worked today. It might not work next time, but it worked today.”
Mirth stopped the timer for 1 1/4 miles in a quick 1:58.47 and secured a “Win & You’re In” berth to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1).
As fast as Mirth ran in the Rodeo Drive, she didn’t blaze 1 1/4-mile distance quite as fast as her D’Amato-trained stablemate Cleopatra’s Strike in the $200,000 John Henry Turf Championship Stakes (G2). Benefiting from fast fractions of :22.79, :46.05 and 1:09.75 set by front-running Acclimate, who is also trained by D’Amato, 9-1 Cleopatra’s Strike produced a perfectly-timed rally under Abel Cedillo to win by a length in 1:58.22.
“I was confident in his ability I just didn’t know what his distance limitations may or may not be,” said D’Amato. “He trained like a horse that could go a mile and a quarter and Abel rode him to perfection and we got the job done today.
A six-year-old gelded son of Smart Strike, Cleopatra’s Strike was securing the first graded stakes triumph of his 25-race career. Following the race, D’Amato was hesitant to commit Cleopatra’s Strike to a run in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), but he confirmed that Acclimate – already a “Win & You’re In” qualifier to the Breeders’ Cup – would accept his invitation and continue on to the championship.
“For sure Acclimate will go, because he already is eligible but we’ll have to see about Cleopatra,” said D’Amato. “There might be something for him at Del Mar.”