Normandy Invasion, last seen finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby, returned in a track record-setting victory in a one-mile allowance optional claiming race Feb. 22 at Gulfstream Park.
Sent off at odds of 1-5 with Javier Castellano aboard in the one-mile test for older horses, Normandy Invasion seized the lead near the quarter pole with a wide rally and left his five rivals gasping for air. He won by 7 ¾ lengths in a record time of 1:33.13. The winning time was originally reported as 1:34.78.
The previous mark of 1:33.71 was set by Commentator in 2008.
"I had a beautiful trip," Castellano said. "I had so much horse. When the horses in front of me stopped, I had to go completely around the horses. I asked him a little bit, and he took off."
Trained by Chad Brown for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms, the winning 4-year-old son of Tapit scored for the first time since routing a maiden field by 9 ¼ lengths going a mile at Aqueduct Racetrack in November 2012. He was second in the Remsen Stakes to conclude his 2-year-old campaign, and also second in last spring's Wood Memorial.
In last year's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Normandy Invasion overcame a poor start to lead narrowly in the stretch. He weakened late to finish fourth, 3 ½ lengths behind the victorious Orb.
Kept out of the remaining jewels in the Triple Crown, he developed a deep abscess in a front hoof during the summer and was sidelined for the year. Normandy Invasion had been working solidly at Palm Meadows Training Center since mid-December.
"It was a long wait, but it was worth it," Porter said. "We thought giving him the year off after the injury was the right thing to do. It's hard to give them that much time off, but it turned out better than we thought it could. You can see how much weight he put on. We couldn't ask for anything better than what we got today."
Brown was equally happy. Though confident in how Normandy Invasion was training, he also admitted that, coming off a long layoff, one can never be certain.
"When they train as well as this horse and they physically look that good -- he's never looked better in my opinion -- you're quietly confident they'll go out there in the afternoon and do it," he said. "That's the final piece of the puzzle. They have to go out there and do it. As a trainer, I don't care who you are, I don't think you're ever certain they're going to do it until they cross the line and do it. We were confident he was sound and training better than ever. We were confident to put Javier right back on this horse. They get along well, and hopefully this is a start to a great year for this horse."
Normandy Invasion had to overcome the rail post in his comeback race and rated in fourth for the opening half mile as outsider Risk Factor showed the way over Chee and Morgan's Guerrilla through fractions of :22.85 seconds and :44.96 seconds.
Castellano angled Normandy Invasion four wide rounding the turn to reach the quarter pole in front by half a length while completing six furlongs in 1:08.66. The winner drew off while in hand through the lane.
Porter paid $230,000 at the 2012 Keeneland April sale of 2-year-olds for the bay colt bred in Kentucky by Betz/Kidder/Gainesway/Graves/D. J. Stable/Cole. Normandy Invasion is out of the Boston Harbor mare Boston Lady, .
With two wins and two seconds in seven career starts, Normandy Invasion has earned $424,390.
Normandy Invasion paid $2.40, $2.20, and $2.10 across the board. Chee held second by 1 ¾ lengths at 25-1, returning $6.60 and $4.80 and completing a $16.20 exacta. Morgan's Guerrilla paid $3.20 to show.
While a specific race has not been selected for Normandy Invasion's next start, a two-turn race is in the plans.
"This one-turn mile was a good starting point," Brown said. "We're looking to run the horse in those two-turn dirt handicap races, really anywhere."
With such a visually impressive comeback expectations will be high, though Porter is trying to keep his emotions in check for now.
"I think he's one of the best colts I've had," Porter said. "I've had some good ones. We've got a ways to go before we see how to compare him - it's too early to compare him. Right now, I'd say the potential, he's right up there near the top."