After being rained off the Pimlico turf, the character of Saturday’s $240,000 Dixie (G3) was fundamentally changed as nearly all of the principals scratched – defending champion World Approval, Divisidero, Frostmourne. But one of those who would have been a prime contender on turf stood his ground, Phipps Stable’s homebred Fire Away, and had no difficulty splashing through the slop to prevail.
Dispatched as the 6-5 favorite against only three opponents, the Shug McGaughey trainee secured a good ground-saving position tucked just a couple of lengths behind the leaders. Unbridled Juan, the 8-5 second choice on the strength of his past off-track form, showed the way through splits of :24.63, :48.65, and 1:12.20. Just Howard attended the front runner, ratcheted up the pressure turning for home, and continued to loom down the lane at the mile mark in 1:37.36.
Just when Unbridled Juan appeared to have fended off his longtime nemesis, Fire Away was gaining traction. Jockey Manny Franco kept him on the inside, but with the leaders preferring to steer out toward the center of the track, Fire Away was able to find footing a few paths off the rail himself. Staying on best of all in deep stretch, the son of War Front overtook Unbridled Juan by three-quarters of a length while finishing 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.92.
Unbridled Juan had a half-length to spare over Just Howard. O Dionysus, last of the quartet early before trying to mount a bid on the far turn, trailed. Aside from the aforementioned scratches, Doctor Mounty also stayed in the barn.
Thanks to the surface switch, the Dixie was automatically downgraded to a Grade 3 pending review by the American Graded Stakes Committee. Yet the historic prize still ranks as the first graded victory for Fire Away, who is in the form of his life at the age of six.
His patient Hall of Fame horseman brought him up through the allowance ranks, punctuated by a couple of unplaced forays in stakes, until he broke through in his 2017 finale in the Artie Schiller at Aqueduct. Fire Away returned with a belatedly closing third to World Approval in the February 10 Tampa Bay (G3), which set him up for a sharp score back at Aqueduct in the April 8 Danger’s Hour. The Dixie advanced his resume to 22-7-4-4, $598,397.
The Kentucky-bred is a half-brother to Grade 1-winning millionaire Mr Speaker and Grade 3-placed Snap Decision. They are out of the Grade 2-placed Salute, a daughter of Unbridled and undefeated Hall of Famer Personal Ensign, who is also the second dam of Saturday’s Sir Barton contender Title Ready.
Quotes from Pimlico
Assistant trainer Robbie Medina on Fire Away: “The horse is doing unbelievably good. We wanted to run on the grass, but he has Danzig on one side and Fappiano on the other, and the track is really tight. Shug and I talked this morning and I said, ‘You know, he’ll probably like that track. In the morning, when the track is sealed, he likes it. And, you know, he’s a different horse now that he’s six. He’s a lot stronger. So, we took a shot and it worked out.”
Winning rider Manny Franco: “I knew the race was coming off the grass. But I just trusted my horse because I rode him before and waited as long as I could, and he ran pretty good for me.
On the track: “I mean, it’s fair. I saw the races before that horses were winning on the inside. The assistant trainer didn’t tell me to go outside or anything. Like I said, I just trusted my horse and he responded. This horse, when you start asking him, he gives it to you. I just tried to keep busy on him and it worked out well.”
Hall of Fame rider Edgar Prado on runner-up Unbridled Juan: “We decided to go to the lead because there wasn’t speed in the race, but I had company right away. My horse fought very hard.”
Jockey Jose Ortiz on third-placer Just Howard: “It’s really a sloppy track, but the track is good. A big race like this, what a shame it came off the turf. But it is what it is. Turf horses, they’re going to try but they’re not dirt horses. I struggled a little bit, but I think the best horse won.”