When Moreno crossed the finish line in front of the richest race that will be run in Saratoga this season, my mind flashed back four years ago to Churchill Downs moments after Blame hung the first ever career defeat on the great race-mare Zenyatta.
That moment would never present itself again.
As I walked out on to the press box viewing stand after the race, I made eye contact with Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News as I walked by and asked: “Do you believe this?”
“Of course I believe it,” Jerardi said. “This game will rip your heart out sometimes; it’s the reason we keep coming back.”
But no one should ever experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that this game can throw at you in one afternoon. But in a matter of two hours and 40 minutes, trainer Eric Guillot ran the emotional gamut of deep sadness to exultation.
In the day’s fifth race, a typically loaded special-weight event for two-year-old chock full of first-time starters, Guillot tightened the girth on a colt named Sir William Bruce.
The horse was working bullets for his debut and every outfit wants to win a race on a big race day, especially Whitney day in Saratoga. Despite some fast morning trials, he was sent away at 14-1.
Sir William Bruce raced evenly and finished a one-paced fifth 5-3/4 lengths behind the winner, the six furlongs clocked in 1:10.85. He beat half the field and it very much looked like the kind of effort you could build on. The colt never made it back to the barn.
In what was termed at that time “an apparent heart attack,” the colt fell to the ground between the finish line and the sixteenth pole and was gone, carted off in the horse ambulance after efforts to revive him failed.
But in two hours, forty-one minutes and forty-eight five-hundredths of a second later, Guillot watched his Moreno pass the finish line first by 1-1/4 lengths over Itsmyluckyday with Will Take Charge, the 2013 three-year-old champion that beat him by a nose in last year’s Travers, back in third.
In what was supposed to be the Saratoga coronation of Palace Malice, who was seeking his fifth straight 2014 victory without defeat and seeking to atone for last year’s tough-trip Travers fourth, checked in sixth at 65-cents on the dollar, 11 lengths behind the winner.
"When they crossed the wire, it took me a while to believe it,” said Guillot. I saw the 47 3/5. I saw the 1:11 and change. I was feeling pretty confident… The softer the fractions the better he is. He feels and waits on horses behind him. That's the kind of horse he is.”
A very fast one, who after being within reach of breaking through, like in the Travers or when second again to Will Take Charge in the Pennsylvania Derby, or this year, when he was third in the Pimlico Special, then second in the Suburban. And today?
"It means so much for my partner and best friend, Mike [Moreno], who always believed in me from day one and still does today. I'm getting emotional. This is what we do. It's why I get up at 4:30 seven days a week.
Not even after today’s fifth race when the partnership’s first-time starters never made it back to the barn after the race. “We never doubted each other, ever,” said Guillot. “Not one time.”
As for the disappointing favorite, jockey Johnny Velazquez said: "I don't know what went wrong.
“He was in perfect position. On the backstretch he was looking around. I was hoping by the half-mile he'd move on, but he never showed any interest. He went through the whole race not paying any attention. He trained great, warmed up great but he just didn't run at all.”
"We got the trip we were hoping for,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “It wasn't his day. We were in good position, he just didn't fire."
Neither trainer mentioned coming back in the Woodward at meet’s end but it’s clear that Moreno loves this racetrack and no one would dare challenge him for the early lead, rabbits notwithstanding.
As for Palace Malice, why not? His effort today certainly took nothing out of him.