Harvey Diamond’s initial instincts about Da Big Hoss could not have been more on point.
While handicapping a claiming race at Churchill Downs last June, Diamond and Jim Shircliff, his partner in Skychai Racing LLC, saw a venerable runner they thought would provide a good return. Instead of simply using him on their Pick 3 ticket as intended, they ended up claiming him for $50,000 for their ownership group.
Five wins and three graded stakes triumphs later, Diamond and Shircliff’s handicapping skills have never looked so good. Under a perfectly timed ride from jockey Florent Geroux, Da Big Hoss spurted along the rail to collar pacesetter A Red Tie Day and then withstood a late rally by Kaigun to win the Grade II, $250,000 Dixiana Elkhorn Stakes before 32,731 at Keeneland on Saturday.
Since being claimed by Skychai and trainer Mike Maker last June, Da Big Hoss has found new life at the marathon turf distances. The 5-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid earned his first graded score in the Grade III Kentucky Turf Cup Stakes at Kentucky Downs last September. He began his 2016 campaign with a victory in the Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas on Jan. 30.
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“We looked at his page as he was going in (to the claiming race) and I said, ‘Hey you know what, I think I’m going to put him in my Pick 3, I think I’m going to single him.’ And my partner Jim said “I think I will too,’” Diamond said of the decision to claim Da Big Hoss. “Mike said, ‘I really like this horse,’ so I said ‘Let’s go down and take a look, I think we ought to claim him.’
“We saw a horse who looks like he wants to win. Mike said, ‘Let’s stretch him out, he looks like he wants to go further.’ So all the stars kind of fell into position.”
Da Big Hoss didn’t take kindly to the turf course at Gulfstream Park when he ran fifth in the Grade II Mac Diarmida Stakes on March 5, but he was comfortable throughout his 1½-mile journey at Keeneland.
After breaking out of post No. 1 in the eight-horse field, Geroux saved ground the whole trip by keeping the 5-to-2 race favorite on the rail inside of Grade I winner Twilight Eclipse through an opening half mile in 51.11.
With A Red Tie Day weakening in midstretch, Da Big Hoss responded to Geroux’s right-handed urging, hitting the wire a half-length in front of Kaigun, who finished second for the fifth time in his last six races.
“He’s a very neat horse. Push-button. You can put him exactly where you want to be,” Geroux said. “If there’s a bit of an opening, when you ask him to go he can push through very clear and very quickly. I think that made the difference today, the trip and saving ground. When I was able to see the opening at the top of the stretch, my horse kicked on very nicely and kept going.”
Royal Albert Hall rallied gamely in the lane to get third. Final time for the 12 furlongs was 2:31.29 over a course rated firm.
Diamond was unsure on where Da Big Hoss could surface next but said that a start in the Breeders’ Cup Turf — a race he finished sixth in last season — is the year-end goal.
“That would be our dream; we’ll see how things go,” Diamond said.