Trainer Ricky Hendriks and jockey Ross Geraghty completed their sweep of Saratoga’s two steeplechase stakes races this week when Rosbrian Farm’s Optimus Prime, making his first U.S. start, swept to the lead in the stretch on Thursday and drew away to a 1 1/4-length victory in the $175,000 New York Turf Writers Cup Handicap (Gr. 1).
A day before winning Saratoga’s signature jumps race, the trainer-jockey team accounted for the $75,000 Michael G. Walsh Novice Stakes with Wendy Hendriks’ Surprising Soul. The New York Turf Writers was Geraghty’s 100th victory in the United States since beginning to ride regularly on this side of the Atlantic in September 2009.
As occurred in the Walsh, the Hendriks runner got away at a price, 7.20-1 odds, and paid $16.40 to win. Surprising Soul won at 9-2.
Armata Stables’ New Member, freshly graduated from the novice ranks after winning Saratoga’s Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes on July 25, closed well to finish second, 3 1/4 lengths clear of a tiring 9-5 favorite Iranistan, who finished third. Show Court, the A. P. Smithwick Memorial (Gr. 1) winner on July 30, was fourth in a field of eight.
Optimus Prime ran the New York Turf Writers’ 2 3/8 miles in 4:31.83 on firm turf.
Previously trained in England by Dan Skelton, six-year-old Optimus Prime arrived with three straight novice steeplechase wins, followed by a second in the Ryanair Novice Steeplechase at Punchestown in Ireland and then a fourth in the Pertemps Swindon Handicap Hurdle at Haydock in May.
Purchased by the Rosbrian operation of Marylanders Mandy and George Mahoney and shipped to the U.S., the book on Optimus Prime was that he had good natural speed, jumped well, and might be on the muscle in his first start before settling into a racing routine. As it turned out, he proved highly tractable for Geraghty as the race developed.
But the real issue was getting him to the race. Hendriks had 54 days to get his new charge ready for the 2 3/8-mile New York Turf Writers. “We had a schedule,” Hendriks said. “We worked seven days a week with this horse.”
Getting on him every day was assistant Eve Ledyard; Geraghty came in for one workout. Hendriks said he was optimistic about the week’s races because Surprising Soul and Optimus Prime worked well before the pair of Saratoga stakes. Hendriks knew that Surprising Soul, winner of a Grade 3 race in his prior race, was coming into the Walsh well. Optimus Prime outworked him. “He has demolished all the horses we have at home,” Hendriks said.
The New York Turf Writers deservedly was billed as a test of two Irish veterans, Clarcam and The Game Changer, and a field of American horses. With trainer Gordon Elliott’s two contenders, Optimus Prime was making his first career start in America.
Hudson River Stables’ Iranistan broke on top with Darren Nagle, and Clarcam, ridden by Lisa O’Neill, took the lead from him for a while. They were in close quarters until the third from last fence, in front of Saratoga’s clubhouse, when Clarcam stumbled on landing and nearly unseated O’Neill. She managed to stay in the saddle despite losing an iron, but Clarcam lost all chance of winning and finished seventh, well ahead of The Game Changer, who showed some early speed but tired.
Geraghty placed Optimus Prime right behind the pace, and the French-bred loped along comfortably as the front-runners established a reasonable cadence. Iranistan jumped the last with a one-length lead, but Geraghty was ready with Optimus Prime for the long run to the finish line.
They surged to the lead before the furlong pole and maintained their advantage to the line. New Member, trained by Jack Fisher, made a strong move under Willie McCarthy to get the place.
Hendriks said Optimus Prime’s next target most likely will be Belmont Park’s Lonesome Glory Handicap (Gr. 1) on Sept. 20. Thursday’s victory was Hendriks’ third in Saratoga’s premier jump race. He won as a jockey aboard Zaccio in 1982, and he won as a trainer with Tres Touche in 2004.