Validating what had been suspected all along--that the West Coast grass runners are ordinary--Nasr el Arab stepped off a plane from France and lost nothing in the translation or the transition.
The 3-year-old colt ran down favored Great Communicator in the stretch at Santa Anita Sunday, winning the $400,000 Oak Tree Invitational by a convincing 2 lengths.
When jockey Gary Stevens asked Nasr el Arab to shift into overdrive midway through the stretch, the other seven horses were left behind. Great Communicator, winless since June but a three-time winner on the Santa Anita grass early in the year, had no trouble protecting second, finishing 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Circus Prince, who was 1 lengths ahead of fourth-place Putting.
Before the Oak Tree, the plans for Nasr el Arab were vague, but after Sunday’s victory it became clear that the colt will go from his French trainer, Andre Fabre, to Charlie Whittingham and run in the $2-million Breeders’ Cup Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5. A similar arrangement took place after Fabre saddled Mill Native to win the Arlington Million at Woodbine in August, and Whittingham will take that horse to Kentucky for the $1-million Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Nasr el Arab had won only 2 of 7 races in France, including fifth-place finishes in two major stakes. He arrived at Whittingham’s barn Friday and was given a tour of the track and the paddock Saturday morning.
The colt provided a happy conclusion to what began as a frustrating weekend for Stevens. Going to Belmont Park Saturday, mainly to ride his Kentucky Derby winner, Winning Colors, the 25-year-old jockey saw that mount scratched because of a sloppy track, then he finished next to last on Steinlen in another stakes race.
Stevens would have ridden Putting in the Oak Tree, but a week ago trainer Julio Canani indicated that he was wasn’t going to run. So Stevens had a choice between Nasr el Arab and Silver Lane, another French 3-year-old, who finished far back in the $600,000 Turf Classic at Belmont.
Fabre, who won the 1983 Oak Tree with Zalataia, a filly who prevented John Henry from winning the stake for the fourth straight time, called from France with instructions.
“The race for us went pretty much like he thought it would go,” Stevens said. “They didn’t want me on the lead--a horse new to the track might be gawking around if we did that--but they wanted me to be in a striking position. I was in the clear all the way and was able to move to the outside when I needed to.”
Great Communicator, who went off at 7-5 in a crowd of 32,157, took the lead for jockey Ray Sibille, with no one pushing through slow early fractions. Fernando Toro dropped Putting into second place, with Rivlia and Circus Prince battling for third. Baba Karam showed a burst of speed passing the stands the first time, but finished sixth. Rivlia, third in the race a year ago, was fifth.
At the top of the stretch, Great Communicator looked as if he still had enough to hold on, but that was before Stevens asked Nasr el Arab to run.
“The other horse just ran by us,” Sibille said. “We had no excuse. I was just happy to get second.”
Nasr el Arab earned $240,000 for Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. His time of 2:25 1/5 for the 1 1/2 miles was the stakes’ fastest time since John Henry’s 2:24 in 1982. Nasr el Arab paid $10.40, $5.60 and $4; the other payoffs were $3 and $2.40 for Great Communicator and $3.60 for Circus Prince.
Thad Ackel, who trains Great Communicator, said that his horse would go on to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Other horses expected to run there are Sunshine Forever, winner of Sunday’s Turf Classic at Belmont, and Tony Bin, winner of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
“I wished we didn’t have to make the lead, but there was no other speed,” Ackel said. “When you run on the lead in a mile-and-a-half race, you’re a sitting duck. I would have preferred to have had something up front to distract him for a while. There was a five-pound shift in the weights, but I hope that this sets us up for the Breeders’ Cup.”
The only 3-year-old in the field, Nasr el Arab carried 121 pounds, 5 less than the others.
Horse Racing Notes
The only other 3-year-old to win the Oak Tree Invitational was Portentous in 1973. . . . Valenzuelas won 5 races Sunday--3 for Pat and 2 for Fernando, who is not related to either Pat or the Dodger pitcher. Pat has won 10 races in the first 5 days of the meet. . . . James Corral, injured in a spill Saturday, rode at the start of Sunday’s card, then took off the rest of his mounts when his back bothered him.
Mountain Ghost, who ran fifth in the Del Mar Futurity, won Sunday’s Sport of Kings Futurity by 7 lengths at Louisiana Downs. He’s trained by Craig Lewis and was ridden by Don Howard. . . . Laffit Pincay, riding at Belmont Sunday, was third aboard High Brite in the Vosburgh and sixth with River Memories in the Turf Classic. Mining, now undefeated in six starts, won the Vosburgh by 2 3/4 lengths, with Gulch running second.
In a change of plans, Goodbye Halo will run in the Las Palmas Handicap at Santa Anita next Sunday. Originally, her prep for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff was going to be the Spinster at Keeneland. . . . Speeding Light bled from the lungs Saturday while finishing last as the favorite in the Yankee Valor Handicap. . . . Nasr el Arab was the only Oak Tree starter to run without an anti-bleeding medication. . . . Trainer Wayne Lukas, who has won the Oak Leaf 3 straight years and 5 out of the last 6, takes 3 shots in the stake today with Lea Lucinda, One of a Klein and Solid Eight. Approved To Fly, who bled in a recent workout, will run with Lasix for the first time in the Oak Leaf.