HOPEFUL STAKES | PURSE: $300,000 | 2-YEAR-OLDS | GRADE 1 | 7 FURLONGS
Robert Baker and William Mack's Strong Mandate turned in a dominant performance in the $300,000 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, winning by 9 3/4 lengths for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas on the renowned horseman's 78th birthday Sept. 2 at the Spa.
The juvenile Tiznow colt made a strong move from third coming down off the turn and galloped clear through seven furlongs on a muddy track in 1:23.55, geared down in the final sixteenth by jockey Jose Ortiz as he staged an upset at 7-1. It was a first grade I win for Ortiz, who began riding in 2012.
"I thought he'd run huge, I really did," Lukas said. "I was a little concerned about the surface, you always are. He had a really good prep race and he hadn't done anything (wrong) since then. I thought we'd get a good one, but you never expect to waltz home like that, though, ever.
"He's a big, strong, powerful horse, but he's got a little bit of kick to him. I told Jose Ortiz, 'Don't be so surprised if you're laying right there. Just be a little careful with the fractions.' He was comfortable. I told him to come right up the four hole coming home, and it looks like he did."
Saratoga Special winner and 7-2 favorite Corfu showed good speed to set the pace under pressure from Sanford (gr. II) winner Wired Bryan, but Strong Mandate loomed a menancing presence after a quarter in :22.47 and a half in :45.15.
The winner made a bid at the five-sixteenths pole and quickly moved clear after turning into the stretch. Although he drifted out a path or two when given a crack of the left-handed stick, he straightened away when the rider switched back to the right-hand for a final tap at the eighth pole, then powered further away in a big performance to the line.
"I asked him a little bit because I knew (Corfu) is a tough horse," Ortiz said. "I cracked him one time on the shoulder, and he put me right beside him, so I knew I had a lot of horse. At the eighth pole I looked back and nobody was coming, so I tried to save something."
Casiguapo was second at 30-1 while Lunarwarfare finished third. Big Sugar Soda, Wired Bryan, Long On Value, All in Blue, King Cyrus, Corfu, and Southern Blessing completed the order of finish.
Strong Mandate paid $16.60, $9.50, and $6.40, Casiguapo brought $24.40 and $10.40, and Lunarwarfare returned $5.40 to show.
Mario Moralez, trainer of the runner-up, said his Sightseeing colt ran well with only two previous races at Calder Casino & Race Course under his belt.
"This is a good place to be," Moralez said. "He has been a good horse since we got him. He's developing every day. It seemed like he did handle some dirt in the face today; he's getting better."
It was a seventh Hopeful victory for Lukas, who last won with Dublin in 2009. "The Coach" has been enjoying a strong resurgence in 2013; he won the Aug. 24 Travers Stakes (gr. I) with Will Take Charge and took the May 18 Preakness Stakes with Oxbow, who also ran second in the Belmont.
"These guys, Bill Mack and Bob Baker, have been with me 25 years," Lukas said. "We've gone through a lot. We only buy two or three a year. Most years two, this year we got three. They've stayed with us. We've had Grand Slam and Dublin down through the years, and Scorpion. We got some nice horses, but I don't know if we've had one this good. This is a pretty good horse."
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile to be run Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park is the target for Strong Mandate, and had been even before the Hopeful, according to Lukas.
"We were pointing before the Breeders' Cup long before we won this," the trainer said. "I'm going to look for a two-turn race. I don't know where that would be. Now we can deal from a position of strength. Hell, we could go straight to the Breeders' Cup and not be too far off. We did it with Capote and some others."
Bred in Kentucky by G. Watts Humphrey Jr out of the grade I-winning Deputy Minister mare Clear Mandate, Strong Mandate was a $200,000 purchase at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale when consigned by Lane's End.
He came off an Aug. 17 4 1/2-length maiden score going 6 1/2 furlongs in his second start, with the Hopeful victory improving his record to two wins from three outings, good for earnings of $230,400.
"The horse is the most important thing," Lukas said. "I can only deal with what I've got in front of me. Given something to work with, we usually get along pretty good."