August 14, 2022

Eskimo Kisses freezes out Alabama foes to earn first stakes victory

Co-owner Harold Lerner (second from right) helps lead Alabama Stakes (G1) heroine Eskimo Kisses and jockey Jose Ortiz into the Saratoga winner's circle on August 18, 2018 (c) NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography

by Teresa Genaro

Thirteen years ago, Harold Lerner and his wife, Helen, won $258 million when they selected the right numbers in the Mega Millions Lottery. Helen Lerner talked about donating money to the people affected by Hurricane Katrina, and maybe buying a nice car; Harold Lerner, who grew up in Brooklyn, wanted to buy an old-school New York City Checker Cab.

Not long after that they decided to buy some racehorses, and they had some success. They won races, included some graded stakes. They thought had a horse on the Kentucky Derby trail in 2010 with Eightyfiveinafifty.

But until Saturday, August 18, 2018, at Saratoga Race Course, nothing in horse racing came close to that day they became millionaires.

ESKIMO KISSES, the filly that Harold Lerner owns with Gainesway Stable, Andrew Rosen, Nehoc Stables, and Magdalena Racing, had run in four straight graded stakes races, including three Grade 1s; she kept running into division leader Monomoy Girl, and down in Louisiana back in March, she fell just a head short of getting that first black-type.

In Saturday’s $600,000 Alabama (G1), there was no Monomoy Girl. There was no Wonder Gadot. And the Lerners and Eskimo Kisses got their Grade 1, and a day to rival the one more than a decade ago.

Breaking from post 2, Eskimo Kisses and Jose Ortiz, sporting Gainesway’s classic brown and white silks, sat so far off the swift pacesetting Talk Veuve to Me that they weren’t even on the screen for most of the 10-furlong Alabama. They appeared as the horses headed into the far turn, moving past the other fillies as though their rivals were standing still, easily making the lead.

They dueled momentarily with Talk Veuve to Me, but Eskimo Kisses dispatched her easily, opening up and cruising to a 6 1/2-length win. Favored Midnight Bisou looked briefly as though she might challenge Eskimo Kisses, making for a double-kiss exacta, but she had to settle for third, a neck behind She’s a Julie. Eskimo Kisses paid $20 to win.

“Jose gave her a fabulous ride, and we just loved every second of the stretch run because this is the biggest win we’ve ever had,” Harold Lerner said. “This horse is bred to run all day.”

“I just followed instructions and did what (trainer) Kenny (McPeek) told me to do,” Ortiz said. “Take her back, let her take me to the half-mile pole, and then let her do the rest. She was there for me every time I asked her to move up.”

Ortiz is the filly’s sixth rider in nine races; Javier Castellano rode her in her last start, the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) at Saratoga last month, in which she finished fourth.

“Originally I thought I’d bring Corey Lanerie up for it,” said McPeek, referring to the jockey who rode Eskimo Kisses to a runner-up finish in the Ashland Stakes (G1) and a fourth-placing in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), “but I thought I needed somebody that raced in New York regularly. It wasn’t anything that Castellano did in the last race; it just seemed that we thought that Jose fit well.

“I felt like I was a winner at the half-mile pole the way they were already backing up to her when he hadn’t moved.”

Bred by Gainesway, Eskimo Kisses was slated to sell in the Keeneland September Yearling Sale two years ago. When she was withdrawn, McPeek pursued a private purchase, and thus the partnership was born.

The chestnut filly is by To Honor and Serve and out of the Mr. Greeley mare Silver Colors, who is a daughter of the Kentucky Derby-winning filly Winning Colors.

“I’ve been a horseplayer and owner for a while,” said Harold Lerner, who said he started betting horses at Belmont Park and Aqueduct when he was a teenager. “To win a race that’s so prestigious is mind-boggling to me. It’s a wonderful, fabulous, beautiful, sensational thing. There’s nothing like this at all.”

And from a man who once cashed a $258 million ticket, that’s saying something.