by Teresa Genaro
When you have a horse that has finished first or second in all but one of his 12 starts, it might seem a bit churlish to be disappointed at missed opportunities and narrow losses.
Still, one might forgive owners Michael Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman for wondering wistfully what might have been with McKinzie.
Undefeated in his first three starts, he was on his way to being among the top contenders on the 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1) trail, until injury sidelines him for the entire Triple Crown series. He came back to win the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (G1), only then to finish 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
But standing in the winner’s circle at Saratoga Race Course after McKinzie won Saturday’s $980,000 Whitney Stakes (G1), Weitman was happy to live fully in the moment.
“(You never like) missing the Kentucky Derby,” he said, “But this makes up for it.”
No doubt Team McKinzie wasn’t too broken up about the scratch of Thunder Snow on the morning of the race. Trainer Saeed bin Suroor told the New York Racing Association (NYRA) that the horse had a cough and a slight fever this morning, leading to his withdrawing the richest horse currently racing from the Whitney, stymied once again in his quest to win a race in the United States.
McKinzie and jockey Mike Smith broke from post 6, wearing, like the other six horses in the race, pink saddle towels in honor of the late Marylou Whitney, for whom the day was named. Earlier in the afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo visited Saratoga Race Course for the first time, presenting a proclamation that today was Marylou Whitney Day in New York State.
Breaking sharply and briefly taking the lead, McKinzie settled in second behind the expected pacesetter Preservationist, who’d been obstreperous both in the paddock and on the track. McKinzie tipped off the rail to run outside of Preservationist, then ran four-wide into the stretch, contending with Preservationist, Vino Rossi and a late-charging Yoshida.
But it was McKinzie who held on, cruising to a 1 3/4-length victory under a hand ride. Yoshida was second, followed 4 3/4 lengths by Vino Rossi. Preservationist was fourth.
Forewarned, Monongahela and Imperative completed the order of finish. Forewarned stumbled on the gallop-out, throwing jockey John Bisono. According to NYRA veterinarian Anthony Verderosa, Forewarned suffered some abrasions but appeared to be fine. Bisono walked off under his own power.
Weitman purchased McKinzie at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, paying $170,000 for the bay son of Street Sense. Bred in Kentucky by Summer Wind Farm, McKinzie is out of the Petionville mare Runway Model, herself a multiple Grade 2 winner.
With his win in the Whitney, his fourth Grade 1 win, McKinzie has earned $2.2 million.
“To me, he’s the best horse in the country,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “He’s getting better and better. When they came to him, I got a little bit nervous; I started thinking maybe he doesn’t want to go that far, but he’s always shown us in his works that he’s got more gears.”
“There were some good horses in there so he had to run, but he ran,” Smith said. “That’s the important thing. He had to work at it, but he got away from them and the best part of it was at the end of the race. That gives me confidence going a mile and a quarter down the road.”
Baffert got teary-eyed meeting the media after the race, recalling the horse’s namesake.
“I was thinking about Brad McKinzie,” he said. “We named this horse at Brad’s funeral.”
A long-time friend of Baffert and executive at Los Alamitos Race Course, McKinzie died in 2017.
“Big Brad was a one-of-a-kind person, and this horse is a one-of-a-kind horse,” co-owner Pegram said. “When Bobby called me and told me we had a good one, I said, ‘There’s only one name we can give him.’ And you’ve seen him today.”
Baffert was also thinking of someone whose absence at Saratoga has been keenly felt.
“I’ve never won the Whitney,” he said. “It’s really sad that Marylou’s not here. She’s all that’s missing. I would have really liked that. She was always so nice to us.”
For the first time in recent memory, Marylou was not on hand to present the trophy to the winning connections of her family’s race. Instead, it was presented by her widower, John Hendrickson, and relatives of the late Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Marylou’s second husband.
The Whitney is a “Win & You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park on November 2.
“Originally, my plan was to run him in the Met Mile (G1) and keep him in California. I said I need to get a sexy win in him and the Whitney – it doesn’t get sexier than that,” Baffert said.
“When you win the Whitney, you win for everyone,” said Weitman. “You win for the breeding, you win for the purse, you win at a beautiful place like Saratoga.”
“Our whole ownership group is here and it’s exciting to come to Saratoga and they all came and enjoyed themselves,” he said. “This is unbelievable. This is real horse racing right here. Until you’ve been here and experienced it, it’s just a beautiful scene and when you see that you know that (horse) racing is still alive and strong.”