Robert Baker and William Mack’s Sporting Chance bolted to the outside in deep stretch, but still held on to win the $350,000 Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes by a neck over Free Drop Billy at Saratoga Race Course on the Sept. 4 Labor Day closing card.
A son of Tiznow, Sporting Chance covered seven furlongs in 1:23.71 as the 5.70-1 fourth betting choice. His sharp move out in the final strides appeared to be spurred by a left-handed strike from jockey Luis Saez. The stewards looked into the incident with an inquiry, and Robby Albarado, the rider of 3-1 favorite Free Drop Billy, lodged an objection, but the result stood. Givemeaminit was a head back in third.
It was the third Hopeful win for Baker and Mack with colts trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. They won the 2009 running with Dublin and the 2013 race with Strong Mandate.
In all Lukas has won eight runnings of the Hopeful. He won his first Hopeful in 1990 with Deposit Ticket, adding Salt Lake (1991), Hennessy (1995), High Yield (1999), and Yonaguska (dead-heated with City Zip in 2000).
"I don't think the other seven helped us today though," Lukas said. "I think those seven are on their own merit. Today, we had to do it with this one. I've done it for Mr. Baker and Mr. Mack. I think they've won the last three. Strong Mandate and Dublin – they're on a mini-roll themselves. They've been great. They've been loyal been with us 27 years. They buy two horses a year and they let me pick them out and they've been great signing the ticket. We've been great buying two a year."
National Flag went to the lead under Jose Ortiz and sprinted through an opening quarter-mile in :22.50 while hounded by Sporting Chance. Favored Free Drop Billy moved up on the turn and angled out five-wide entering the stretch.
Sporting Chance shook clear of National Flag at the head of the lane and opened up on the field, with Free Drop Billy pursuing on the outside. As Sporting Chance bolted to his right, Albarado and Free Drop Billy had to move inside. Free Drop Billy was able to hold second by a head over Givmeaminit, who rallied up the rail under Joel Rosario.
"Well, this surprised me more than it did the horse," Lukas said of the incident near the finish. "I thought he was comfortable in front and he was moving well. I think he was best in the last 50 yards where he accelerated – that's his style. Unfortunately, he saw something (at the finish), I guess Luis explained that he ducked from the whip; I'm not sure. I have a tendency to think it might have been something else.
"You never know," Lukas said. "These are 2-year-olds and he's just in his third race so you can see things happen like that everyday in 2-year-old races."
Dale Romans, the trainer of the runner-up, was not amused.
"You can't tell (for) a 2-year-old who has run three times in his life and the horse bolts in front of him, how much it stops his momentum," he told the NYRA media. "If they all stayed straight, he may run right past him. You don't know what it does to a horse's mind. He got beat a head (neck) by a horse who bolted in front of him. It's a ridiculous call."
Firenze Fire was fourth, followed by National Flag, Oskar Blues, Mojovation, and Psychoanalyze.
Sporting Chance finished second in his debut June 15 at Churchill Downs, 1 ¼ lengths behind Dak Attack, who races for the same connections as Free Drop Billy, majority owner Albaugh Family Stable and trainer Romans. Dak Attack won the Aug. 20 Ellis Park Juvenile Stakes.
Sporting Chance broke his maiden July 22 at Saratoga by 2 1/4 lengths going 5 1/2 furlongs under Saez. Five works followed the maiden win, including a bullet :48.72 half-mile move over the Oklahoma training track Aug. 30.
The winner is out of the Grade 1-placed stakes-winning Candy Ride mare Wynning Ride. He was a $575,000 purchase by Baker and Mack at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale.