By Tim Wilkin — Jockey Jamie Spencer had been to Kentucky Downs before Saturday.
The 43-year-old Irishman has been a champion rider in England and Ireland but had never solved the kidney-shaped course in south central Kentucky.
That all changed late in the day on Saturday when the Fan Duel Meet at Kentucky Downs presented the Grade 3, $2 million Mint Millions Stakes, the richest grass in the United States outside of the Breeders’ Cup.
Spencer climbed aboard Ancient Rome, who traveled here from England.
It prove to be a trip worth making as Ancient Rome defeated 11 rivals and won the mile race by a hard-earned half-length.
It was the first Kentucky Downs trip to the winner’s circle for Spencer, who first raced here in 2019 and went winless in six starts. Things weren’t much better as he came to work on Saturday, He finished off the board in his first four mounts of the day, including a pair of last-place finishes, one with Queen Picasso in the Grade 3, $1 million Big Ass Fans Music City Stakes.
After he hopped off Ancient Rome in the winner’s circle, Spencer was asked if he liked riding at Kentucky Downs.
“I do now,” he said. “A half hour ago, I was calling it every name under the sun. It worked out well.”
Ancient Rome is trained by England’s Charlie Hills and owned by Mrs. Fitriani Hays with her husband, Jim. They were all at races in Budapest on Saturday with their racing manager, Alex Cole.
“We came, we saw we conquered,” Cole said by phone late Saturday night from Budapest. “It’s not often does a plan come together, but today it did.”
Ancient Rome began his career in France but moved to England where he joined Hills’ barn after being purchased by the Hayses. This was the second start for the 4-year-old son of War Front since the move, both wins. But the Kentucky Downs race was the goal when they bought the horse.
In the Mint Millions, Ancient Rome tracked the pacesetters, Stitched (24-1), trained by Greg Foley and ridden by Florent Geroux, and Smokin’ T, ridden by John Velazquez and trained by Shug McGaughey.
The early splits of 22.61 seconds for the quarter-mile and 46.59 for the half were set by the front pair and Ancient Rome had no trouble tracking them.
When the field turned into the stretch, Ancient Rome got next to the leaders and the even-money favorite Annapolis was looming, looking for running room that never came.
“He doesn’t have an electric turn of foot,” Spencer said, “so I wanted to commit but not get there too soon. It’s a fine line. It worked out today, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Stitched and Smokin’ T didn’t give in, but could not hold off Ancient Rome, who bounded home to get the narrow win.
“I thought I had a great chance to win it until the last sixteenth of a mile,” Velazquez said. “When I did not pass the horse on the inside (Stitched) , that was it. I was waiting for the two horses, the European horse (Ancient Rome) and Tyler’s horse (Gaffalione on the favored Annapolis). When I looked and saw the European horse, ok, it’s time to go. I said it’s time to go and there was nothing I could do. I went, but he didn’t.”
Velazquez said his horse ran well, but not well enough.
“It’s frustrating when you are going so well and you think he is going to go and you ask him and he is going to stay the same way.” he said. “He did not kick in the way I thought he would. It’s part of the business. The winner is a very decent horse.”
Foley was encouraged with the performance of Stitched, who was making his first start since a win in the Grade 2 Wise Dan at Ellis Park on July 1.
“He’s a nice horse,” Foley said. “He gave us a big thrill today. Second is pretty nice for this big a pot, but it would have been nice to win.”
Gaffalione said Annapolis, who came into this race after finishing second in the Grade 1 Fourstardave at Saratoga Aug. 12 for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, did not have the acceleration he needed to have in this spot.
“I had to wait a little longer than I wanted to,” he said. “When a spot opened up, I tried to go through it and my horse just wasn’t quick enough.”
Ancient Rome was timed in 1:33.37 and paid $15.32, $8.56 and $5.12.
Stitched finished a head in front of Smokin’ T, followed by Atone, Annapolis, Dhabab, Max K. O., Hozier, Gray’s Fable, Get Her Number, Cabo Spirit and Churchtown.