February 3, 2023

Battaash battles to repeat in Nunthorpe; Pal is ‘Golden’ in Skidmore

Battaash wore down Que Amoro to repeat in the Nunthorpe (Photo courtesy York Racecourse)

About five hours after Battaash successfully defended his title in the Nunthorpe Stakes (G1) at York, the Wesley Ward juvenile who was initially expected to take him on – Golden Pal – romped in the $85,000 Skidmore Stakes at Saratoga. Both races have Breeders’ Cup implications, with the Nunthorpe serving as a “Win and You’re In” for the Turf Sprint (G1), and Ward already mapping out a path to the Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2) for Golden Pal.

The likelihood of rain in Yorkshire kept Golden Pal at home, and conditions on the Knavesmire were indeed slower than preferable for Battaash as well. Unlike last year’s course-record blitz, the heavy odds-on favorite had to call more upon his class and determination than raw speed to prevail.

Course specialist Que Amoro was in her comfort zone as she zipped to the lead toward the stands’ side. Trained a little farther north by County Durham-based Michael Dods, who also prepared two-time Nunthorpe star Mecca’s Angel, the 25-1 shot was in a mood to upset.

Battaash traveled smoothly nearer the center of the course, until the decisive juncture was reached. Instead of regular rider Jim Crowley having an armful as usual, he had to ask the Dark Angel gelding to pick up. Battaash responded generously as he moved over to join Que Amoro, but she refused to surrender herself.

The champion sprinter had a royal fight on his hands. The third of the big favorites to appear at this week’s Ebor Festival, Battaash didn’t have the straightforward tasks of Ghaiyyath in Wednesday’s Juddmonte International (G1) or Love in Thursday’s Yorkshire Oaks (G1). He was supposed to be the Friday headliner.

Moreover, Battaash’s owner, Sheikh Hamdan, and Crowley had swept the first three races on the card, including the supporting stakes. The strapping mare Enbihaar outstayed males in the Lonsdale Cup (G2), and exciting 2-year-old Minzaal justified favoritism in the Gimcrack (G2). Could the Shadwell silks have reigned supreme on the undercard only to be overturned in the marquee event?

No. Battaash was more than up to the challenge as he finally wore down Que Amoro by a length. His final time of :57.38 was off his 5-furlong mark of :55.90, on a course labeled good, good-to-soft in places.

Moss Gill reported home another two lengths back in third, followed by A’Ali; Kurious; second choice Art Power, who was run off his feet; Ornate; and Emaraaty Ana.

”It’s not easy out there,” Hills said, “and the ground is loose and not ideal for him. He had to knuckle down and get the job done. He’s the horse of a lifetime, to keep doing what he is doing and showing the same level of enthusiasm throughout. We’re all very proud.”

The Breeders’ Cup discussion is premature, since Battaash is penciled in for his usual fall objective – the Oct. 4 Prix de l’Abbaye (G1) on Arc Day. He dominated the 2017 running at its temporary host of Chantilly, but has been out of luck the past two runnings back at its ParisLongchamp home.

“That’s definitely going to be a decision from Sheikh Hamdan,” Hills said regarding the Breeders’ Cup. “Plan A is to go to France, but after that who knows.

“Paris would be Plan A, but if the ground is like it was last year (very soft), we’ll have to have another plan.”

Battaash is in his prime as a 6-year-old. Finally scoring an elusive King’s Stand (G1) at Royal Ascot, he captured the July 31 King George (G2) for a fourth consecutive year at Glorious Goodwood – and in course-record time, again.

Golden Pal broke his maiden in the Skidmore (NYRA/Coglianese/Chelsea Durand)

It’s tempting to play the what-if game regarding Golden Pal’s canceled trip to the Nunthorpe, where he would have gotten a substantial weight break from Battaash. The ground might not have been too unsuitable, since he just missed in Royal Ascot’s Norfolk (G2) on good-to-soft. But the Nunthorpe required conditions conducive to improvement, and the Spa proved more attractive.

Ranlo Investments’ homebred son of Uncle Mo and outstanding turf sprinter Lady Shipman was dispatched as the 0.45-1 favorite in the Skidmore. Runner-up in both prior starts, he put it all together with clinical efficiency here.

Golden Pal broke on top and set fast fractions of :21.99, :44.37, and :55.12 on the firm Mellon turf, all the while appearing perfectly controlled for Irad Ortiz. The bay crossed the wire 3 1/2 lengths clear, in hand, and within shouting distance of the 5 1/2-furlong course record. Golden Pal clocked 1:00.88, compared to the older Carotari’s 1:00.21 established last August.

“He’s something special, this guy,” Ward said. “I think we just got a little peek at it. From everything we’ve seen here, they’re coming into his homecourt like Michael Jordan in the United Center in the Breeders’ Cup this year. He’s a very, very nice colt. I’m very thankful for the owner (Randall Lowe).

“(Lowe) afforded me the time that myself and my team has needed, and this horse had some issues and my team has really worked hard on this guy. He’s so fast and he’s so gifted. To get him to this point is special.”

Ward had the exacta as Fauci, the 3-1 second choice, was best of the rest by four lengths. The Mike Trombetta-trained Sky’s Not Falling prevented a Ward trifecta by finishing third ahead of Sunny Isle Beach. Next came Kentucky Knight and the tailed-off Baytown Bear.

Fauci’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, was in a position to comment on the winner too.

“My horse broke good but the other horse (Golden Pal) had more speed, so I wasn’t going to go up there and battle head and head,” Gaffalione said of his tracking trip in second. “He settled nicely and put in a nice run down the lane, but the other horse was much the best today.”

Golden Pal is “pretty quick. He’s a nice horse,” Gaffalione added. “I rode him in his first start and he’s a really fast horse, but it seems like he’s starting to get the mental side of it now.”

Too fast for his own good early in that Apr. 17 debut on the Gulfstream dirt, Golden Pal nevertheless boxed on well, and Ward tabbed him as his best hope of a Royal Ascot win. He nearly pulled it off in the Norfolk, a “Win and You’re In” for the Juvenile Turf Sprint, only to have The Lir Jet catch him approaching the wire. The Skidmore promises there’s much more to come from the Florida-bred, the first foal produced by $902,387-earner Lady Shipman.

“He’s a really cool horse,” Ortiz said. “It’s special when you get on horses like that. I’m so happy to be able to get on him. Hopefully he stays sound and healthy and he can keep doing what he did today.”