Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Brilliant horses bred and owned by Sam-Son Farm have galloped their way to victory around Woodbine’s sweeping turns since the iconic operation was founded in 1972.
As the third generation of Sam-Son owners watched from the stands Sept. 14, 44-1 longshot El Tormenta added his name to that storied list with a win no one saw coming in the Grade 1, $1 million Ricoh Woodbine Mile.
“Obviously with the legacy of the farm it’s something really special, and having this be a homebred and having so many of our good ones being homebreds, it makes it that much more of a family thing,” said Michael Balaz, the 24-year-old son of Sam-Son president Rick Balaz.
Running down hard-driving 3-2 favorite Got Stormy in the stretch to win by a half-length Saturday, El Tormenta gave Eurico Rosa Da Silva his first Woodbine Mile victory in the jockey’s final chance.
“This was my last opportunity to win this race — it was the only one left, and here we are,” said Da Silva, a six-time Sovereign Award winner who announced earlier in the season that he will be retiring at the end of the meet.
El Tormenta’s $91.40 win payoff was the largest in the 22-year history of the Woodbine Mile, edging the $91.10 returned by another Sam-Son contender, Quiet Resolve, in 1999. Those two join 2004 winner Soaring Free as the trio of Woodbine Mile winners for Sam-Son, which operates a breeding and foaling facility in Milton, Ontario, and a training operation in Ocala, Fla.
El Tormenta gave trainer Gail Cox the first Grade 1 win of a training career launched in 2006. She remembered galloping horses and riding show horses for Sam-Son in earlier days, and said she welcomed the opportunity to take a small group of the farm’s horses when racing manager Tom Zwiesler approached her about 2 1/2 years ago. She also noted the Woodbine Mile is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” event, which earned El Tormenta a fees-paid berth in the $2 million TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita Park Nov. 2.
“It’s a Grade 1 win and it’s a ‘Win and You’re In,’ so it’s huge,” Cox said. “He’s a very, very nice horse, and was probably overlooked here.”
El Tormenta saved ground after breaking from the one hole and raced sixth, then fifth as Silent Poet set a rapid pace of :22.84 and :44.43 while being pressed hard by Admiralty Pier and Awesometank. Got Stormy hit the front when they reached the six-furlong mark in 1:08.33 after racing just off the early leaders, and had a half-length lead with a furlong to run. But El Tormenta found a seam at the top of the stretch and dove for home, edging past Got Stormy in closing strides.
The 4-year-old Stormy Atlantic gelding, who came off a troubled fourth in the Aug. 24 Play The King Stakes, finished in 1:32.60 on turf rated good.
“I was a little worried with the one hole and being on the rail because if you’ve seen his past three starts, they’ve been troubled,” Cox said. “I just think he was laying closer and really bullied his way through a little bit.
“Last year, I thought he was a sprinter. He ran shorter and he ran a different style. This year, every start, we thought he’d probably like to go a little farther.”
“Going into this race, he had a couple really nice works,” Balaz added. “They were not super fast, by design, but he was doing super well and just had a really good feeling. He’s been a really good doer. He’s been eating up and relaxed all year, and we just kind of felt that if he got a good trip, he’d be there. I wasn’t so sure that he was going win, but I thought he would be close.
“It’s always good to be pleasantly surprised and see the best possible scenario play out.”
Got Stormy finished a half-length in front of Lucullan, who was disqualified and placed fourth for interfering with Raging Bull in the closing stages.
El Tormenta was bred in Ontario out of the El Prado mare Torreadora. He is the fourth of seven foals out of the mare and is by far the most accomplished of her three starters.
With four wins and three seconds from 13 starts, including the Grade 2 Connaught Cup June 1 at Woodbine, his earnings now total $774,356.
A decision will be pending on the winner’s Breeders’ Cup participation.
“I think that will be a decision that the higher-ups will have to make,” Balaz said. “But I don’t see why not, after running like that.”
Meanwhile, trainer Mark Casse said Got Stormy definitely punched her Breeders’ Cup ticket.
“I was proud of her,” he said. “I knew, this is a tough place to win. There is a huge home-field advantage. This will be fine. This will set her up. They still have to beat her, I think, in California [in the Breeders’ Cup Mile]. Obviously we would have liked to win, but I’m extremely proud of her. I’ve lost no respect for her and I feel extremely confident that we’ll be right there in the Breeders’ Cup.”