Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Erin Lynch paused a few times to gather her thoughts and her words.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 15 edition of the Grade 1 Ricoh Woodbine Mile Stakes, the wife and assistant to trainer Brian Lynch was asked what the last 36 days in the career of Grade 1 winner Oscar Performance had been like. The short answer to it all was “emotional,” but as she dabbed her eyes and searched for just the right phrase to describe the recent whirlwind of circumstances that hit the Amerman Racing homebred, it was clear the manner in which the last month had affected them went far deeper than a few phrases could do justice to.
On Aug. 11, they stood on the Arlington International Racecourse turf watching the son of Kitten’s Joy being vanned off, wondering if his career was over and hoping most of all that his life was not in jeopardy. If you had told his connections that the following month would see the bay colt handily earn his fourth career Grade 1 triumph, incredulous would have only scratched the surface of their feelings.
“He’s a barn favorite horse. He’s a ham to be around. Everybody loves him and so to see that happen to your best horse, it was heartbreaking,” Erin Lynch said of Oscar Performance being pulled up as the favorite in the stretch of the Arlington Million XXXV. “But then to come back and do that, it just means the world.”
The scare Oscar Performance gave his team in Chicago was replaced with a flood of relief and pride Saturday as the 4-year-old put on a front-running clinic to win the $800,000 Woodbine Mile by 1 1/2 lengths over local favorite Mr Havercamp.
Thoroughbred racing can dole out highs and lows like no other sport and the rollercoaster Oscar Performance’s connections have been on of late speak to why this game demands an iron mental fortitude.
When he appeared to take a bad step in the Arlington stretch, jockey Jose Ortiz acted quickly to pull his mount up and then could do nothing but wait for news as the colt was taken back to the barn for further examination. A crisis was averted as the colt cooled out sound and was given a subsequent clean bill of health after being checked out at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital. When his trainer put him back on the workout tab Sept. 3, Oscar Performance confirmed he was unaffected by the incident.
Not wanting to pit the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner against his fellow Grade 1-winning stablemate Heart to Heart in Keeneland’s Shadwell Turf Mile in October, Brian Lynch made the decision to send Oscar Performance to Woodbine to see if indeed he was ready to resume being his usual self. After setting quarter-mile fractions of :24.60 and :48.78 with Mr Havercamp tracking him from second Saturday, he unleashed a turn of foot that might be at its best going a mile.
“I think the biggest decision is he didn’t want to hook him up with Heart to Heart and he wanted to make sure, especially coming off that incident at Arlington, that wherever we put him back, he was going to do this today,” Erin Lynch said. “I think he felt that the last two breezes he had were that good that we needed to push on and come here. We didn’t have to hook Heart to heart in the Shadwell and it gives us a couple extra weeks for Breeders’ Cup [Mile].”
With the filly and expected pacesetter La Sardane being scratched out of the Woodbine Mile Saturday morning, the on-paper handicapping suggested the opportunity was there for Oscar Performance to have things his way in his attempt to put the Arlington debacle behind him.
Though he got off a step slow, Ortiz wasn’t going to let any of his seven challengers dictate the action at his expense. He hustled Oscar Performance to the forward position and was never seriously challenged as he covered the distance in 1:33.12 on a course rated firm.
“I was going pretty comfortable the whole backstretch,” Ortiz said. “When we hit the three-eighths pole, I smooched at him and he just gave me that feeling that he gave me every other time he gave me his best.
“I was really emotional past the wire because this is one of my favorite horses,” Ortiz continued. “He gave me my first Breeders’ Cup win and to see him last time loading up back to the barn was painful for me. I’m just very happy he’s back and back on form that is at the highest level.”
Ontario-bred Mr Havercamp ran a monster race to hold for second by a neck over Stormy Antarctic in what was the first try against Grade 1 company for the Court Vision gelding.
Oscar Performance opened his 2018 campaign with a victory in the Grade 3 Poker Stakes at Belmont Park June 17 prior to his Arlington venture. Though he captured last year’s Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes at 1 ¼ miles, Ortiz thinks the mile distance is where he might be best going forward.
“I think the mile is what he wants to do,” the rider said. “When he hits that spot in the mile, he’s going to give you 110 percent every time.”
Bred in Kentucky out of the Theatrical mare Divine Actress, Oscar Performance improved his record to eight wins from 14 starts with $2,345,696. Erin Lynch said the colt would ship back to Saratoga Race Course Sept. 16 and train up to a start in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, which he earned a paid entry to by virtue of his Woodbine Mile triumph.
“It’s nice to see him back and it’s a ‘Win and You’re In’ and we’ve got six weeks to the Breeders’ Cup,” Brian Lynch said by phone. “Now we can take a deep breath and do the best we can to have him right on that day.”
Also on Saturday at Woodbine ...
Northern Dancer Turf Stakes: Colebrook Farms’ and Bear Stables’ Johnny Bear found the magic again in the $300,000 Northern Dancer Turf. A year after the English Channel gelding first won the 1 1/2-mile turf race at odds of 9-1, he pulled off an even bigger upset at 16-1 with a closing drive up the rail. In a blanket finish, with six horses within a few lengths in the final sixteenth, the 7-year-old chestnut found just enough under jockey Luis Contreras.