Trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, Optimizer will be joined in the race by Skyring, another Bluegrass Hall-owned and -bred son of English Channel.
Skyring, meantime, scored three races back in the James W. Murphy Stakes on Preakness Day at Pimlico. He finished last on the dirt after that in the Easy Goer in June at Belmont Park and then moved back to the turf and was third, beaten by just a neck, in the Grade 3 American Derby at Arlington Park.
“We decided to put them both in [the Hall of Fame] because they’re homebreds and [Bluegrass Hall] owns the stallion,” Lukas said. “It might be an opportunity to showcase English Channel.
“We thought about splitting them up and running [one] in the Secretariat at Arlington. Optimizer has run well over this turf course, so we’ll see if we can duplicate that. And they don’t compromise each other. Skyring goes right to the front and Optimizer comes out of left field.”
Optimizer went off at long odds in each of the Triple Crown races but was bet down to 5-1 in the Virginia Derby, won by Silver Max. While Skyring might appear to be in better form, the two colts have similar Beyer Speed Figures.
“If you look at the film of the Virginia Derby, Optimizer was running great and should have gotten second, but he got a terrible ride,” Lukas said. “The one thing about the English Channels is they really want to train, and they get better as they get older. English Channel didn’t win a Grade 1 until he was 4.”
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Brilliant Speed has not won a race since last September, when the Live Oak Plantation homebred scored in the Grade 3 Saranac at Saratoga Race Course. Since then, he has run six times, five in Grade 1 turf stakes races, and not found his way to the winner’s circle.
This, despite strong third-place finishes in the Breeders’ Cup Turf and Turf Classic, both at Churchill Downs. With the year beginning to get late, trainer Tom Albertrani is hoping Brilliant Speed, a son of Dynaformer, can realize his potential and win the Grade 1, $600,000 Sword Dancer at 1 ½ miles August 18 on the turf at Saratoga.
“He likes the course, and, hopefully, that’s horses for courses,” Albertrani said Wednesday morning. “He’s training well. He had a really good work yesterday [five furlongs in 1:01.71 on the main track] and had a nice gallop-out past the wire, so he’s in good form.”
A cursory examination of Brilliant Speed’s form doesn’t show the true nature of his races. In the Turf Classic, the speedy Little Mike galloped around the course on an uncontested lead, while Brilliant Speed was steadied at the three-eighths pole. In his most recent start, the Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth, Turbo Compressor was another isolated speed horse, and jockey Joel Rosario elected to take Brilliant Speed well off the pace.
Turbo Compressor sauntered through the first six furlongs of the 1 3/8-mile race in 1:15 and rolled to an easy 1 ¾-length victory. Brilliant Speed came home, one-paced, in sixth place.
“The horse places himself,” Albertrani said. “For some reason, Joel tried to take him back, and he was fighting him the whole way. Let the horse run his own race.
“It’s been a little frustrating this year,” Albertrani said of having failed to win with a 4-year-old that already has earned more than $1.1 million. “I can forgive him the first time [in the Grade 3 Appleton in March at a mile at Gulfstream Park]. We ran him a little short. The second race at Churchill was a good effort, and he got caught again in a slow pace. He doesn’t quicken; he’s a one-paced type of horse. So he needs a quick pace.”
Albertrani wants Brilliant Speed to give him a reason to start pointing again for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. He wants to see a breakout performance.
“I know I have a good horse; it’s just a matter of when he decides to put his best foot forward,” Albertrani said. “He’ll fire big one of these days. He hasn’t gone 1 ½ miles since the Breeders’ Cup. The United Nations, just throw that out. This [the Sword Dancer] is more his distance.”
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Trainer Jonathan Sheppard has won at least one race at Saratoga every year going back to 1967, and the Hall of Famer will look to enter the winner’s circle for the first time during the 2012 meet when he sends out 12-year-old mare Sweet Shani, steeplechasing’s reigning filly and mare champion, in the $75,000 Mrs. Ogden Phipps.
Brian Crowley will ride Sweet Shani, 7-2 on the morning line, in the 2 1/16-mile hurdle race for fillies and mares. Sweet Shani is five years older than the second eldest mare in the field, 7-year-old Eastern Starlett.
Sweet Shani was bred in New Zealand, making five starts in her native country before breaking her maiden in her Australian debut in January, 2010. She won a listed stakes over hurdles in her final Australian start, which came in June, 2006.
After being purchased by American owner Calvin Houghland, Sweet Shani came to the United States and was placed with Sheppard, who trained her to wins in the 2010 and 2011 editions of the Margaret Currey Henley Hurdle at Percy Warner and the Peapack at Far Hills in her 2011 finale.
Sweet Shani will carry Sheppard’s colors for the first time in the Mrs. Ogden Phipps, with the trainer having recently bought the daughter of Kashani off Houghland’s widow.
“The Houghlands bought her originally through an agent from Australia,” said Sheppard, who in 2000 won the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup Steeplechase with 13-year-old Ninepins. “Mr. Houghland passed away a couple of years ago. His wife kept a limited number of horses and had them cut from 15 to five or six. About a month ago I got a call from her office, and she said, ‘He left me a lot of horses, but he didn’t leave me a lot of money to feed the horses.’ I sold Nationbuilder to Mr. Pape and I bought this mare for not much money because she is so old.”
In her lone 2012 start so far, Sweet Shani was pulled up after the 11th fence in her attempt to win the Margaret Currey Henley a third straight year.
“None of us quite know why she ran poorly in her one start this year,” said Sheppard. “She had a training flat race at Middleburg prior to that and had run fine. They went in a slow pace and all of a sudden quickened [in the Henley], and she’s not a sprinter at this point.”
Sheppard admitted he’s had to adjust his training plans with Sweet Shani in the lead up to the Mrs. Ogden Phipps.
“We’ve had a little bit of a difficult time getting her ready for this race,” said Sheppard. “They didn’t have the flat races at the open house, and she really needed a race. I want to give her a long gallop on Monday, but the turf course was closed. She hasn’t had an ideal preparation. Luckily, the schooling field was open. She jumped a couple of hurdles and we gave her a good, strong gallop. It wasn’t conducive to going too fast in the infield, but she did get a nice blowout. We’ll she how she does. Her best race is going to be very tough, but whether she’s up to that now at her age and with interrupted training, I don’t know.”
The mare’s durability and resilience, however, certainly aren’t in question.
“She’s a New Zealand-bred, and they have a reputation for being pretty tough,” said Sheppard. “She is.”
The Phipps field also drew the Magalen Bryant coupled entry of Quiet Flaine and Well Fashioned (5-2), as well as Maya Charli (5-1), Maggie Neary (3-1), Eastern Starlett (10-1), Cat Feathers (20-1), Lonesome (15-1), and Euro Power (8-1).