by Teresa Genaro
In his 21-race career, five-year-old Whitmore had run at nine racetracks. He’d won at five of them. He’d won one Grade 2, and four Grade 3s. But he’d never run at Saratoga Race Course, and he’d never won a Grade 1.
Until Travers Day, when he won the Forego Stakes (G1), bringing tears to the eyes of owner Robert LaPenta.
“You try to keep it inside, you try not to get too high or too low,” he said. “Then something like this happens and it just comes out.”
Coming off neck losses in his last two races, the True North (G2) and Belmont Sprint Championship (G2) at Belmont Park, Whitmore under Ricardo Santana Jr. saved ground along the rail through much of the seven furlongs on a fast track, sitting several lengths back of pacesetting longshot Heartwood.
Coming around the final turn, Whitmore slipped through a yawning gap inside and drew past his rivals, leaving all but favored City of Light far behind. The multiple Grade 1 winner who shipped in from California gave chase but never really threatened Whitmore, who won as he pleased by 1 1/2 lengths.
LaPenta owns Whitmore in partnership with Head of Plaints Partners and trainer Ron Moquett. Bred in Kentucky by John Liviakis, he by Pleasantly Perfect and out of the unraced Scat Daddy mare Melody’s Spirit.
The Forego is a “Win & You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), which was not exactly welcome news to LaPenta, given that Whitmore has done his best running at six and seven furlongs. He ran in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) and finished eighth.
“We’re going to have think about (whether we’ll go in the Mile),” LaPenta said. “I wish it were the Sprint.”
Like Whitmore, Marley’s Freedom had never raced at Saratoga. And like Whitmore, she made her Spa debut one to remember, with a decisive 3 1/4-length win as the favorite in the Ballerina Stakes (G1).
Having earned just under $630,000, the three-year-old bay filly was quite a bargain as a $35,000 yearling at Keeneland September.
“When she came out of the stall, she just had a presence about her,” said Barbara Perry, who owns the filly with her husband, Ron, running in the name of Cicero Farms. “She was such a fluid mover. She was smaller than some of the others we looked at, so I said that she wouldn’t be a great two-year-old, but I thought she’d be even better at three and four, so I said, ‘Let’s take a flyer and see what we get.’”
What they got is a multiple graded stakes winner who’s earned a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1).
Breaking from post 7 under Mike Smith, Marley’s Freedom raced four-wide through pretty much the entire seven furlongs, in the second flight behind pacesetting Finley’sluckycharm. Staying outside, she began to move up entering the far turn, drawing even with Lewis Bay, Still There and Ivy Bell, the four of them racing as a wall of horses until Marley’s Freedom pulled away for the win.
The win was the second on the day for trainer Bob Baffert, who was inducted into the “Walk of Fame” at Saratoga the day before. He won the Personal Ensign (G1) with Abel Tasman earlier on the card.
“The quality is there (in Marley’s Freedom), and you have to come to Saratoga if you are looking for a championship,” he said. “That’s why I brought her, to see how she fits.”
The filly was making her third start for Baffert – all wins – after being transferred from Bob Hess Jr.
“When we had her with Hess, she was doing real well,” Ron Perry said. “If you had a student that could handle Harvard, you’d put them in Harvard. If you thought Harvard would take them apart and break them down, you wouldn’t go there. We thought she could handle the best trainer in the world, and obviously she has.”
Neither of the Perrys put up much resistance to the idea of coming to Saratoga; they had never run a horse at the track before.
“I put it on a dream list,” Barbara Perry said, “and Bob (Baffert) made it a reality.”
“This place is amazing,” her husband stated. “The grounds and the fans are incredible.”
“It’s what horse racing should be everywhere,” Barbara Perry added. “I love it here. I want to move here.”