Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Kentucky Downs: Europe-based Ancient Rome takes Mint Millions

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Franklin, Ky.

You gotta love it when a $2 million plan comes together. That is precisely what happened Saturday when Ancient Rome rolled in from Europe for the race at Kentucky Downs that was the focus of his connections all summer.

“It was the race we came for,” jockey Jamie Spencer said after Ancient Rome (6-1) stalked the early pace and closed going five wide for a half-length victory in the Grade 3, $2 million Mint Millions. “(Co-owner Jim) Hay picked the race out even before he purchased the horse. … He’s Kentucky bred, so it fit well, and it would have been folly not to have come for the race.”

Being Kentucky bred, the 4-year-old War Front colt trained by Charlie Hills was eligible for the full winner’s prize of $1,176,600. Horses bred outside the commonwealth could get only half their shares.

So yes, Spencer said there were 2 million reasons this one-mile turf race had been the goal of Fitri and Jim Hay for months, even though there was the risk of firm turf and hot weather.

Wouldn’t you know it? The ground seemed as unforgiving as nearby Nashville Road, and the 85-degree day put such a drain on electricity that a transformer blew early in the afternoon, forcing a delay of more than 40 minutes that lingered through the rest of the card.

“I’m not bred for this weather,” said Spencer, 43, a former champion rider in England and Ireland. “I’m Irish. We need soft ground and rain.”

The same could have been said for Ancient Rome, whose résumé in Europe was built mostly on courses with cut in the ground. His most recent start that resulted in an impressive, worst-to-first victory in the Chesterfield Cup Handicap at Goodwood, England, came Aug. 1 on 1 1/4 miles of soft turf.

“But he’s a War Front,” Spencer said. “You guys know more about War Front than I do, and they go on fast turf. I would have preferred it if it was a little bit slower, but the race went smooth.”

Spencer drew a tight rein on Ancient Rome, keeping him two lengths off the early lead. The pace was established up the backstretch hill and down around the far turn by Stitched (24-1), who came in off a victory at Ellis Park in the July 1 Wise Dan (G2). Smokin’ T (6-1) and Grade 1-winning favorite Annapolis (1-1) joined Ancient Rome in stalking the lead.

Turning into the last 500 yards of the long stretch, Stitched and Smokin’ T were a head apart, and Ancient Rome was making up ground after his wide turn.

Smokin’ T, winner of the Lure Stakes on Aug. 5 at Saratoga, looked like he had enough left under John Velázquez to get to the wire first.

“I thought I had a great chance to win it until the last sixteenth of a mile,” Velázquez said. “When I did not pass (Stitched), that was it. … It’s frustrating when you are going so well, and you think he is going to go, and you ask him, and he is going to stay the same way. He did not kick in the way I thought he would. It’s part of the business.”

“I got outside Johnny on his quarters,” Spencer said. “I was on a horse that doesn’t need to get stopped, so I wanted to get momentum and get going early. He rolled around a little bit when I first asked him, but he really knuckled down in the last (furlong).”

That was where Ancient Rome, two paths outside Stitched and Smokin’ T, finished his charge. He moved inward, forcing oncoming Annapolis to check hard in the last 100 yards as he looked like he might have a surge left in him.

“A spot opened up,” Annapolis’s jockey Tyler Gaffalione said. “I tried to quicken through there, and they kind of shut the door on me.”

There was some buzz about an objection, but none was made.

“It definitely would have made it close,” Gaffalione said when asked what might have happened had he not been stymied. “It’s hard to say. They were all running, but I felt like I had some horse left.”

Ancient Rome finished his run to the lead with only five strides to spare. Stitched belied his long odds and got second, a head better than third-place Smokin’ T with another half-length separating him from Atone (7-1) in fourth.

“His odds. Maybe the bettors will start believing in him more and more now,” Stitched’s trainer Greg Foley said. “He gave us a big thrill today. Second is pretty nice for this big a pot, but it would’ve been nice to win.”

Made the post-time favorite after second-place finishes at Saratoga in the Kelso (G3) and Fourstardave Handicap (G1), Annapolis was another 3 1/4 lengths up the track, finishing fifth in the field of 12.

The winning time was 1:33.37 after early fractions of 22.61, 46.59 and 1:10.37. Ancient Rome paid $15.32, $8.56 and $5.12; Stitched $18.82 and $8.56; and Smokin’ T $5.26.

Even though Ancient Rome was a deep-closing winner last out and a triumphant stalker Saturday, Spencer tapped the brakes on the idea that he has great tactical speed.

“He doesn’t have an electric turn of foot,” Spencer said. “I wanted to commit but not get there too soon. It’s a fine line, but it worked out today. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Now 16: 6-3-2 with career earnings of $1,528,148, Ancient Rome did not have any immediate plans laid out for him. Hills and the Hays were back in England.

“Another great ride from (Jamie Spencer), and a huge effort from the team at home,” Hills said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, “especially Kayleigh Stevens, who has been supervising his prep in the U.S. Many congratulations to Dr. Jim and Fitri Hay and racing manager (Alex Cole).”

Lacking further specifics, it was left to Spencer to declare Saturday to be a climactic moment for the summer of ’23.

As he put it, “Today was the plan.”

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