And Raja Malek.
Most United States racing fans have never heard of Malek, but that could all change on Sunday if his horse, the South African-bred Elusive Fort, has anything to say about it.
While he has spent most of his time in racing as an owner under the nom de course Vintage Thoroughbreds, Inc., Malek arrived in New York earlier this year with a string of horses under his own care. On May 26th, he sent out his first runner since 2003, and Emotival, an Argentina-bred, promptly won a maiden claimer by 1 3/4 lengths.
“It was very exciting, actually. It was our first time up here, so it was great to get a win,” said Malek.
Malek’s horses have made 11 starts in New York since then without a victory, but Elusive Fort has yet to run with Malek as his trainer.
Like his new trainer, Elusive Fort has an interesting international story. The son of Fort Wood won two Group 1 events in his native South Africa and the title of “Champion Stayer” for males in 2006 before Malek purchased him.
But Elusive Fort did more than just beat other horses in South Africa.
He beat the odds.
Elusive Fort survived a bout with African Horse Sickness (AHS), a disease spread by a midge that causes respiratory and circulatory damage, along with fever and loss of appetite. It affects all breeds of horses, with a mortality rate of 70-90 percent.
“He almost died, actually, from that South African horse sickness,” explained Malek. “He was one of the few that survived. And, when they do survive, they don’t usually return to what they were like before.”
Elusive Fort did.
He made three starts for Wolfson before Malek took over his training in March. In his U.S. debut, Elusive Fort finished a troubled-trip fifth in a high-level optional claimer at Gulfstream Park that was won by multiple Grade 1 winner Einstein.
After that run, Wolfson and Malek decided to try their new prospect in the Grade 3 Appleton Handicap at Gulfstream Park on January 27th. Elusive Fort finished second, beaten only a half-length by multiple stakes winner Buffalo Man.
Wolfson, who is known for rarely shipping his horses out of Florida, sent the six-year-old to Fairgrounds Race Course for the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz, Jr. Memorial on March 8th. He finished a well-beaten sixth that day on a turf course rated “yielding,” and has not started since.
“He’s training really well,” said Malek. “We shipped him up here after he ran in Louisiana. He had a foot bruise, so we had to take care of that first. He’s better now. His past two works have been excellent.”
Of the prospect of winning a race like the Fourstardave at a venue like Saratoga, Malek said, “It would be a highlight. We’ve had horses in Brazil and England, but this would be the highlight of all our owning and training.”
Mott, a much more familiar face at Saratoga, will look to win this race for a second straight year owner Peter Vegso. Last year, Mott and Vegso sent out now eight-year-old veteran Silver Tree to do the honors.
This year, they will look to repeat with four-year-old War Monger.
“I guess it had something to do with timing,” said Mott of the decision to run War Monger instead of Silver Tree.
War Monger, a son of War Chant out of Carnival Delight, by Half a Year finished second and then first in two allowance races here at Saratoga last summer before a stakes campaign that included a win in the Sunshine Millions Turf Stakes at Gulfstream Park and a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap at Santa Anita in March.
He last raced at Keeneland in the Grade 1 Maker’s Mark Mile on April 11th, where he faded to last of 10 that day after making a menacing move on the turn. Mott thinks that the turf, rated “good,” may not have been to his horse’s liking.
War Monger has been off since then, but the break was not because of injury.
“Well, we started early in the year,” Mott said. “We wanted to conserve, if possible, a little horse for the fall because I kind of had it in my mind that he’s pretty effective at a mile. You know, there wasn’t too much going on for him during that time when I gave him a break; there wasn’t much that I was interested in running him in. I didn’t pass anything up.”
Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, the most recent member of the 5,000-win club, will ride War Monger.
Zayat Stables’ Thorn Song, trained by Dale Romans, will look to take them all the way on the front end, just like he did twice last summer at Saratoga and three times since then at Churchill Downs.
In his most recent start, Thorn Song defeated aforementioned Einstein in the Grade 2 Firecracker Handicap on July 4th.
The ever-dangerous Kiaran McLaughlin will send out Danak, who has spent most of his career in Europe and Dubai with one stateside start in last year’s Grade 1 Arlington Million, where he finished sixth. A Group 3 winner in his native Ireland, he makes his first start for McLaughlin.
Todd Pletcher’s duo of Distorted Reality and Red Giant are also entered for the Fourstardave, as well as turf stakes veteran Cosmonaut for trainer Carlos Martin and Flying Zee Stable.
The field for Sunday’s Grade $150,000 Fourstardave Handicap:
PP. HORSE TRAINER JOCKEY WGT.
1. Red Giant Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 117
2. War Monger Bill Mott Robby Albarado 116
3. Prince Rahy Frank Alexander Javier Castellano 113
4. Thorn Song Dale Romans Alan Garcia 119
5. Danak (IRE) Kiaran McLaughlin Rajiv Maragh 117
6. Stalingrad Mike Hushion Channing Hill 113
7. Jungle Fighter Justin Nixon Cornelio Velasquez 114
8. Distorted Reality Todd Pletcher Eibar Coa 115
9. Cosmonaut Carlos Martin Julien Leparoux 118
10. Inca King Steve Asmussen Shaun Bridgmohan 116
11. Elusive Fort (SAF) Raja Malek Richard Migliore 114