Dallas Stewart’s ears were burning.
As Spendthrift Farm’s Mark Toothaker stood in the Churchill Downs’ winner’s circle recalling how his friend convinced him of the rationale of taking on champion Runhappy in Saturday’s Grade III Ack Ack Handicap with Tom’s Ready, the trainer himself came buzzing through on Toothaker’s phone.
“I thought you were crazy!” Toothaker said to Stewart. “You were crazy like a fox.”
Some old-fashioned horsemanship and a dose of moxie paid dividends for Stewart in the $100,000 Ack Ack as his charge Tom’s Ready rolled up on the far outside and held off Iron Fist by half a length to win the one-mile test, spoiling the seasonal bow of champion sprinter Runhappy, who faded to fourth.
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With seven wins from eight previous starts and a résumé that included a victory in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Runhappy was sent off as the overwhelming 1-to-5 betting choice in the six-horse field in his first start since winning the Grade I Malibu Stakes last December. Brilliant as the 4-year-old son of Super Saver is, his only career loss had come when he stretched out beyond seven furlongs in the 2015 Lecomte Stakes.
Add that to the fact that Runhappy was coming off a 10-month layoff and Stewart — who was at Belmont Park Saturday saddling Forever Unbridled to victory in the Grade I Beldame Stakes — figured now was as good a time as any to take aim at the pro tem divisional leader.
“When Dallas was trying to decide whether to go to New York for the Kelso (at Belmont on Oct. 8) or stay here, he said, ‘I think I’m going to run against Runhappy,’ and I said, ‘What are you thinking?’” laughed Toothaker, stallion sales manager for Spendthrift Farm, which purchased the breeding rights to Tom’s Ready. “He said, ‘Trying to win off of a year layoff going a flat mile at Churchill, it’s almost impossible to do.’ He said if we were going to beat him, now is the time to beat him.
“When I saw Tom turning for home swinging to the outside … it was very exciting.”
With Edgar Prado up, Runhappy went to his customary spot on the lead out of post No. 5 but was pressed by Mr. Z to his inside through fractions of :23.08 and :45.95. Runhappy took command entering the far turn but was soon joined by Schivarelli to his outside and a full-of-run Tom’s Ready racing up three wide.
“I kind of wanted to go to the lead and I kind of feel like Edgar was holding him back,” said Laura Wohlers, trainer of Runhappy. “I think his tactical speed helps him win a race. But that’s okay. First time off a comeback, he’ll get a lot out of this. As long as he comes out of this good, that’s what we care about.”
Final time for the eight furlongs was 1:34.86 over a wet fast track.
Wohlers had hoped to use the Ack Ack as a springboard to running Runhappy in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile this year rather than the Sprint. Despite the Ack Ack loss, Wohlers said the Dirt Mile was “probably still the goal.”
That race could also be the target for Tom’s Ready. The 3-year-old son of More Than Ready was 12th in the Kentucky Derby this May but has been effective shortening up in distance, having previously captured the Grade II Woody Stephens Stakes over seven furlongs at Belmont Park on June 11.
Owned by G M B Racing, the nom de course for New Orleans Saints owners Tom and Gayle Benson, Tom’s Ready has won three of 13 career starts with $640,267 in earnings.
“We (New Orleans Saints) can’t win no football games, but we can win a horse race!” Stewart, a Louisiana native, said from New York. “We told Mr. Benson no need to be afraid. Hopefully it’s a nice stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.”
In the day’s other stakes races, Grade I winner Noble Bird had things all his way on the front end en route to winning the $175,000 Lukas Classic by 1 1/2 lengths over a wet fast track, while One Mean Man took the $100,000 Jefferson Cup Stakes, which was taken off the turf and run at 1 1/8 -miles on the main track.