Sometimes in horse racing - as in life - there seems to really be no explanations. Sometimes it just is what it is. Upsets happen. Cats bark and pigs fly. But sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper too.
Riversedge Racing Stable - owned by Robert Vargo and Norm Castiglione - had two horses in Saturday’s $75,000 Shirley Vargo Handicap - a race that Robert once again put up $25,000 of his own money to honour his late wife. One was Curlish Figure, who won the inaugural Shirley Vargo last year, and who was the 7-5 favourite to repeat in this year’s running.
The other entrant from the powerful barn was Sail On By, a 17-1 longshot who was coming off a non-winners of two allowance race winning effort. Curlish Figure was ridden by Alberta’s perennial leading rider Rico Walcott. Sail On By was ridden by Neptali Ortiz, a seldom used jockey who doesn’t even have an agent and who doubles as a gallop boy and groom for trainer Tim Rycroft.
So guess who won? And guess who won easily?
“Shirley always liked longshots. That’s why she picked me. I’m sure she was looking down and having a good laugh,” said Robert Vargo, a big grin on his own face, after Sail On By lit up the tote board paying $37.10 to win while leading every step of the way and winning by a length and a half over the race’s second favourite, Anstrum - last year’s Alberta Three-Year-Old Filly of the Year.
Curlish Figure finished third. “She ran such a good race last time that we thought we’d give her a shot and see if she could do the same thing in this race,” said Vargo. Sure enough…
But even Vargo didn’t expect a wire-to-wire effort from Sail On By in the mile and a sixteenth affair. “She made a good closing rush last time and that’s what we were hoping for in here. I even told Neptali not to worry if he was even 10 or 12 lengths off the pace,” said Vargo. “Let her close ground I told him.” But Sail On By obviously thought differently.
When Tara’s Way, last year's champion aged mare of the year, who most observers expected to set the pace, reared at the break and got away way behind the field, it was Sail On By that took the lead. Getting the first quarter in :24 1/5 and half a mile in :48 1/5, Ortiz got Sail On By to rate perfectly.
“After the race (Ortiz) told me that he knew he had the race won going down the backstretch because she was so relaxed,” said Vargo. “What a surprise.” But there was at least one person who wasn’t surprised: Rycroft’s barn foreman Gonzalo Anderson.
“Gonzalo really liked her,” said Rycroft. “I lent him $100 and he told me I wasn’t getting it back (Saturday). He told me he needed the money to bet on Sail On By. “At least now I know I’ll be getting the $100 back.” Rycroft had a hunch Sail On By was going to outrun her odds too. “By the look of the I guess everyone thought I was just taking a shot running her in the race.
“But she won that allowance race very easily - despite breaking poorly - she’s really well bred and the owners paid a decent dollar ($24,000) for her at the B.C. Yearling Sale. “She was training very well and, like I said, Gonzalo really liked her.”
Rycroft also suspected that Sail On By’s long odds were because of the jockey he put aboard. “Not too many people know him very well but Ortiz can ride. He’s won over 200 races in his career in Trinidad. “Sometimes things just fall through the cracks and I think that’s the case with Ortiz. He just hasn’t had much of a chance to prove himself. But maybe he will now. “He sure gave Sail On By a perfect ride. A very smart ride. “I kid people that he’s the third Ortiz brother - besides Irad and Jose - that nobody knows.”
As a further explanation to Sail On By’s unexpected victory and apparently deceiving form, Castiglione said that the four-year-old filly was ill when she was at Vancouver’s Hastings Park this spring which helps explain why she could only muster two sixth-place finishes on the coast. “We had big hopes for her,” said Castiglione. “But then she got sick and it turned into full blown pneumonia. So we had to put her on the shelf for a while.”
STOCK REPORT - Riversedge also unveiled a promising homebred two-year-old filly, Smarty River Pants, on Saturday. Sired by Afleet Alex, winner of the 2005 Preakness and Belmont, Smarty River Pants, who posted an impressive debut performance, is also out of stakes winner Smarty Jill, a daughter of 2004 Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones.
Smarty River Pants duelled early with highly regarded Thatsafactjack before going on to a three-length victory. Ten’s Legacy, another well-bred Riversedge student, finished third. Sticking with Riversedge, they also had a victory in Hastings on Saturday with Ace of Diamonds, who came from last place to impressively break her maiden going away while running a mile and a sixteenth.
Purchased for $40,000 (U.S.) at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Ace of Diamonds is expected to come to Alberta for next month’s Canadian Derby. “Half the battle in winning the Canadian Derby is being able to get the distance,” her Vancouver trainer Craig MacPherson told the Daily Racing Form’s Randy Goulding. “I just think Ace of Diamonds has the pedigree and the running style for it.”
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