In a mid-Atlantic storm, Maryland trainers sweep opening stakes at Keeneland

Scenes from opening day at Keeneland

Fall Meet crowd of 19,882 basks in beautiful weather
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Fall Meet crowd of 19,882 basks in beautiful weather

When jockey Angel Cruz got in his car and set off from Maryland for his milestone first-ever mount at Keeneland, he could never have imagined his journey would go down as a microcosm of what would transpire during the first graded stakes of the track’s fall meet.

A finalist for the Eclipse Award as North America’s leading apprentice rider in 2014, Cruz was merely doing what upstart young riders are supposed to in hustling towards a prime opportunity. He ended up being part of a widespread Maryland invasion that owned every key moment of the Lexington track’s opening day.

Forgive the crowd of 19,882 in attendance Friday if they ended the day thinking they somehow all stumbled into the Mid-Atlantic region. One race after Fair Hill, Md.-based trainer Arnaud Delacour watched his Grade I-winning charge A.P. Indian nose out Limousine Liberal in the Grade II, $250,000 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes, his Maryland-based comrade Graham Motion legged Cruz up onto his Maryland-bred charge Dancing Rags and celebrated as that duo captured the Grade I, $400,000 Darley Alcibiades Stakes by a length over the Keeneland main track.

He had to endure a dogfight in the stretch, but A.P. Indian ultimately delivered like the 2-to-5 favorite he was and will probably head to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 5 as the favorite. Dancing Rags, meanwhile, provided a handful of firsts and pleasant surprises with her 12-to-1 upset over 13 other juvenile filly challengers.

For Cruz, the Alcibiades marked his first Grade I win in what was his first mount at Keeneland. Motion has conditioned 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and 2014 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Main Sequence, but Dancing Rags is the first Grade I-winning 2-year-old he has trained.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Motion said with a laugh when it was remarked what a good day it was for Fair Hill-based trainers. “I mean, I thought it was an open race. I though anyone could win it. We had a great post, and Angel drove here from Maryland. That’s the most impressive thing.

“I think this is the only horse he’s ever ridden for me. I don’t think he’s ridden many others. But he just did a great job. I felt so confident (watching them) down the backside.”

The way Cruz piloted Dancing Rags around the Keeneland oval during the 1  1/16 -mile test looked very much like veteran handling. After breaking from post No. 4 in the 14-horse field, Cruz was able to get the daughter of Union Rags out of the melee and sat third on the rail down the backstretch as pacesetter Caroline Test carved out fractions of :23.72 and :47.43.

Dancing Rags comfortably advanced up to second approaching the final turn and had Caroline Test measured at the top of the lane, taking command and holding off a late surge from Grade II winner Daddys Lil Darling.

“I had a great trip. I was in a good position, and the horse did her job,” Cruz said. “I cruised home to victory. I had plenty of horse the whole time. She gave me it all. Graham Motion had her ready, and thank you to the owner (Phyllis Wyeth) for this grand opportunity, my first Grade I.”

Owned by Wyeth’s Chadds Ford Stable — which also campaigned Union Rags — Dancing Rags was making her third start, having broken her maiden at Laurel on Sept. 17 after running third in her career debut on the turf.

“She just kept improving. I was so impressed with how she’s done since the last race,” Motion said. “We always felt she would handle the dirt in the morning. The next step was to get her on the dirt and we knew she needed distance. I kind of did this at the last minute because she seemed to be doing particularly well. And it just seemed to be a really open race.”

Final time for the 1 1/16 miles was 1:44.69 over a fast track.

With Dancing Rags likely to go on to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Motion and Delacour can plot their California venture together. Delacour is set to have what just his second career Breeders’ Cup starter in A.P. Indian.

Unbeaten in six starts this season, including victories in the Grade I Forego and Grade I Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga this summer, A.P. Indian continued to show why he might be the nation’s top sprinter. The 6-year-old Indian Charlie gelding overcame the No. 1 post and being shuffled back to fourth around the far turn before angling out and bravely fighting with the stubborn Limousine Liberal to hit the wire in a track-record time of 1:08.43 for six furlongs.

“That’s something that probably a year ago, he wouldn’t have been able to overcome,” Delacour said of A.P. Indian’s trip. “But he has so much confidence this year. That didn’t use to be his running style, so I was little bit concerned. But when you’ve got an older tough horse like A.P. Indian, it’s always an edge.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

Keeneland Fall Meet

Dates: Oct. 7-29 (No racing Monday or Tuesday)

Times: Gates open at 11 a.m. and first post is 1:05 p.m. each day.

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