By Jennie Rees — Michael Hui called it “almost an out-of-body experience” winning his first Grade 1 stakes as Zulu Alpha kicked off his 7-year-old season Saturday with a two-length victory in Gulfstream Park’s $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf. The gelding had already given Hui his first $1 million win 4 1/2 months earlier in Kentucky Downs’ Grade 3 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup.
“Turning for home, my nightmare was: ‘Please, don’t let them back up into him,’ because we knew he had plenty of horse,” the racehorse owner from Little Rock, Ark., said of jockey Tyler Gaffalione’s ground-saving ride throughout the 1 3/16-mile race.
“There was one moment, you could see on the replay, where Tyler glanced to the outside, and he ducked inside. There was just enough room on the rail for him to go through, and when he cleared, I felt pretty good. I felt really good. He’s always had that late speed. I screamed at the top of my lungs.
“After the race, Paige asked me, ‘Did you ever think you would win anything like this?” Hui said Sunday, referring to his wife. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ We got in at a claiming level, for $30,000 (in 2010). It was more for the novelty just to have some fun and try to get an understanding of the backside. I’d always been someone who enjoyed the racetrack. When I found Mike Maker, we had some success and we struck gold. He has a keen eye and put us in position to be very fortunate to win graded-stakes races.”
Zulu Alpha, taken for $80,000 out of an allowance/optional claiming race at Churchill Downs’ 2018 September meet, is one of numerous claimed horses that have won graded stakes for trainer Mike Maker, mostly on turf. That number includes Hui’s four horses to win graded stakes. Hui’s biggest winner before Zulu Alpha came with Hogy, claimed in 2017 at Saratoga on Maker’s recommendation for $80,000 at age 8. Hogy won the Grade 3 Kentucky Downs Turf Sprint (worth $400,000 that year) in his next start.
Zulu Alpha was claimed by trainer John Ortiz for Hui and won his next start in Keeneland’s Grade 3 Sycamore before being sent to Maker to run in Florida’s grass stakes. The gelding has now won an additional four graded stakes with Maker, along with a second by a neck in Monmouth Park’s Grade 1 United Nations.
Hui and Maker said they have declined an invitation to run Saudi Arabia’s $2.5 million turf stakes next month and plan to keep Zulu Alpha in America. Their major objectives are getting the gelding back to Kentucky Downs and then to the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland, a race in which Zulu Alpha was a frustratingly close fourth after a difficult trip last year at Santa Anita.
What path Zulu Alpha takes to Kentucky Downs could include another race at Gulfstream, Keeneland’s Elkhorn or perhaps Churchill Downs’ Old Forester Turf Classic on the Kentucky Derby card, the United Nations and Chicago’s Arlington Million, Hui said.
“I told Mike, ‘I want to run next fall in Kentucky twice,’” Hui said. “He smiled really big and said, ‘I do, too.’ (Zulu Alpha) has earned the right where we’ll pick and choose. But the goal is to run at Kentucky Downs and run at Keeneland.”
Hui is an unabashed fan of Kentucky Downs, where Maker is the all-time winningest trainer. “Kentucky Downs is Mike Maker’s home game, so to speak,” Hui said. “He’s had tremendous amount of success there, and it’s a very unique experience, undulating, all turf, very casual, family-oriented atmosphere. It’s just fun. It’s an experience you can’t duplicate anywhere in the United States…. I fully anticipate every horse that I own individually or in partnership to run at Kentucky Downs.”
The Pegasus was Zulu Alpha’s first start since the Breeders’ Cup Turf, which he lost by a total of two lengths while forced to come extremely wide and from well back while trying to close into a pedestrian pace.
As with the Breeders’ Cup, Zulu Alpha broke from post 1, which often proves disadventageous. But this trip turned out completely different.
Aboard the gelding for the first time in a race, Tyler Gaffalione kept Zulu Alpha on the inside throughout in a poised and heady performance. Zula Alpha had to steady going into the first turn in the bunched-up field behind the moderate pace set by the Irish mare Magic Wand. But Gaffalione got the gelding to settle comfortably toward the back of the 12-horse field while remaining within striking position.
Gaffalione moved up methodically on the far turn and cut the corner heading for home. When Magic Wand came slightly off the rail, Zulu Alpha dashed through the opening and drew off. The gelding covered 1 3/16 miles over firm turf in 1:51.60, just 2/10ths of a second off the course record, while Magic Wand was second for the second straight year.
“You could see Tyler had a ton of horse and nowhere to go,” said Maker, who now has trained 11 different Grade 1 winners. “It looked like he was wanting to angle out a bit, and the rail opened up and he came on through. Thankfully it did. It’s the 1 (post) in a full field on grass. What else can you do but take the good with the bad?
“We were very confident. We drew the 1 hole, which burst my bubble a little bit. But he got a ground-saving trip, opened up and all is good. He’s been such a great horse for us. I’m glad we got it (a Grade 1 victory) done. Michael Hui is such a great guy and very deserving. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Zulu Alpha picked up $531,000 and paid $25.60 to win as the seventh choice. The $80,000 claim now has earned $1,724,940 just for Hui, while making $1,902,674 overall.
Jennie Rees, for Kentucky Downs, is an HRI contributor