But for a hiccup a few weeks ago, Winchell Thoroughbreds' Sabercat would have contested the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The unexpected change of plans might have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Rerouted to Saturday's Grade 3, $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot instead, the up-and-coming colt overcame adversity en route to a powerful, four-length victory beneath Gerard Melancon.
His success capped a memorable 24 hours for trainer Steve Asmussen, who just reached the rarefied 6,000-win plateau on Friday night. Now Asmussen can plot a path to the Kentucky Derby for Sabercat, after the $600,000 payday assures that he'll have enough graded earnings to get into the field.
When asked about the Kentucky Derby, owner Ron Winchell said, "We still have a long way to go, but this was a good start."
Sabercat has now won three in a row since getting the opportunity to go two turns on dirt. But despite his six-length romp in the October 2 Garden State Stakes at Monmouth last time out, he was ignored at 8-1 at Delta. Favoritism went to Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity winner Drill, a Bob Baffert trainee who was dispatched at 2-1 while trying to rebound from a 10th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Right out of the gate, things went wrong for Sabercat, as Dougs Buddy veered inward and slammed him hard. Melancon gave Sabercat time to regroup at the rear of the field.
Meanwhile, Drill and My Adonis engaged in a lethal speed duel, alternating for the lead through splits of :22 and :45 2/5. Drill regained the advantage through six furlongs in 1:11 3/5, and My Adonis commenced his retreat. But Drill was about to feel the effects of their early pace war as well. The advancing Basmati was traveling conspicuously better than the tiring leader.
Making even more eye-catching headway was Sabercat. Showing plenty of gears while rallying through traffic approaching the far turn, he had to tap on the brakes momentarily. Sabercat angled around Basmati, who was in the process of passing Drill. Then Sabercat was set down in earnest in the stretch, swept past Basmati, and widened his margin. The commanding winner took 1:46 3/5 to negotiate 1 1/16 miles on the fast track, rewarding his loyalists with $18, $8.20 and $5.60.
"We had a terrible start out of the gate," Melancon said. "I got slammed hard but once I get his feet back under him, we were able to save some ground. I knew the front runners were moving pretty fast and when we got to the three-eighths pole, we were moving. He got to the horses pretty quick. Once I got the lead, I thought, 'Just hold on baby.'"
Basmati finished a clear second by 2 1/2 lengths over Longview Drive, who had been Sabercat's partner in the back of the pack early. Seven Lively Sins reported home fourth, followed by Laurie's Rocket, Jake Mo, Drill, Tiz Moe, My Adonis and Dougs Buddy.
Sabercat's scorecard now stands at 6-3-0-1, $681,420. The dark bay colt began his career sprinting at Churchill Downs, finishing fourth in his May 26 debut and third next time on July 3. He stretched out to two turns on the Saratoga turf on August 6, but turned in his worst effort in eighth. Back on the dirt at Monmouth, he wired a one-mile maiden on September 5, defeating subsequent Jean Lafitte winner and Jackpot rival My Adonis. Sabercat took a giant step forward in his stakes debut in the aforementioned Garden State. He reportedly missed the Breeders' Cup because of colic, but continued his ascent here.
Bred by Lantern Hill Farm, William J. Punk Jr. and Lighthouse Group in Kentucky, Sabercat was purchased for $120,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. The son of Bluegrass Cat is out of the unraced Forty Niner mare Miner's Blessing, making him a half-brother to stakes scorer Olivine. This is the family of Grade 1 star Carriage Trail and multiple Grade 3 victress Criminologist.
If Sabercat gets to the Run for the Roses, he'll have some unfinished family business on his agenda. His sire and broodmare sire both played second fiddle in the Kentucky Derby: Bluegrass Cat was runner-up to the ill-fated Barbaro in 2006, and Forty Niner just missed to Winning Colors in 1988.