July 23, 2024

Gufo gets jump on Japan in Sword Dancer, earns spot in Breeders’ Cup Turf

Gufo wins the Sword Dancer Stakes (Photo by Chris Rahayel/Coglianese Photos)

Saturday’s $735,000 Sword Dancer (G1) at Saratoga proved that Gufo is a different horse of late. The 2.55-1 favorite beat the 2.85-1 Japan to the punch, then fended off that classy Aidan O’Brien shipper to earn a free ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).

Gufo’s resurgence coincides with two new variables – the addition of blinkers and step up in trip to 1 1/2 miles – making it unclear which is more responsible. But it is clear that Gufo is now 2-for-2 since trainer Christophe Clement made those adjustments.

Formerly a belated closer who was leaving himself too much to do, a blinkered Gufo got himself into much better position en route to capturing the July 5 Grand Couturier S. at Belmont Park. That prep for the Sword Dancer also turned out to be a foreshadowing of his performance here.

Gufo and Japan raced in tandem at the rear in the initial strides, as an early pace skirmish unfolded. Defending champion Channel Maker was intent on keeping Tribhuvan from the lead, and he succeeded at the cost of an opening quarter in :23.38 on the firm inner turf. Tribhuvan conceded in second, and didn’t contest the issue despite a slackening tempo in :48.59 and 1:14.42.

Japan took the opportunity to improve his position into fourth, nestling closer to the pace as the field approached the final turn. By that point, Tribhuvan was finally engaging Channel Maker through splits of 1:39.16 and 2:04.04, but neither could kick on into the stretch.

Meanwhile, Gufo advanced under a well-timed cue from Joel Rosario, who had just piloted Jackie’s Warrior and Viadera to major wins on Travers Day. As Japan was coming under urging from Ryan Moore, Gufo outmoved him turning for home, in a show of gears at the decisive juncture. Rosario craftily held Japan in the pocket upon straightening before Gufo drove clear.

Japan steered around the weakening pace factors and found his best stride, but Gufo stayed on too well to be denied. The son of Declaration of War (himself an O’Brien star) scored by a determined neck in a final time of 2:28.30.

The top two pulled 3 1/2 lengths clear of third-placer Cross Border, who crossed the wire a half-length up on Rockemperor. Tribhuvan retreated to fifth, one spot ahead of pace nemesis Channel Maker, and Moretti was eased in his turf experiment.

“I had a very good trip,” Rosario recapped for NYRA publicity. “It looked like they went nice and firm. It was a nice pace and on the backside, I was just moving nicely with my horse and decided to be where I was. He ran a really good race today and turning for home, it was just a really good performance.”

Gufo was also a top turf sophomore of 2020, with a campaign highlighted by the Belmont Derby (G1) and the Kent (G3) in course-record time at Delaware Park. But the blaze-faced chestnut lunged too late a couple of times last season, missing narrowly to Domestic Spending in both the Saratoga Derby and Hollywood Derby (G1).

Those habits became more exaggerated in his first two starts of 2021. Gufo lagged hopelessly behind in the May 8 Man o’ War (G1), and a furious late charge fell just short of Channel Cat in a photo. Gufo again had little chance with a similar trip in the June 5 Manhattan (G1), where he was along for third to Domestic Spending.

All Gufo needed was to stay in reasonable range to deploy his potent kick successfully. The blinkers have enhanced his focus, and he’s now a millionaire with $1,138,510 in earnings from a 12-7-2-3 line.

Clement isn’t as inclined to credit the 1 1/2-mile factor.

“I am delighted with this horse and the way he ran today,” the horseman said. “He is a top-class horse. He’s always been a top-class horse. A mile-and-a-quarter, a mile-and-a-half, it really doesn’t matter for him. I am delighted to win this race. The race set up perfect. There was plenty of pace. The stable has been lucky (winning) that way this year. This is fun, and it’s the kind of race we like to win.”

Clement was in no hurry to confirm his fall itinerary, whether the Oct. 9 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) back at Belmont or the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar.

“Let’s try to wait to decide on that (the Joe Hirsch) for another moment. We’ll enjoy this, and go from there.

“This is fabulous, but let’s go one race at a time.”

Bred by John Little and Stephen Cainelli in Kentucky, Gufo races in the name of Otter Bend Stables. The four-year-old is a half-brother to multiple Grade 3-winning millionaire Hogy. Their dam, the Petionville mare Floy, comes from the family of graded scorers Charitable Man and Code West, and further back, champion Capote and the great Exceller.