Baltimore Bucko opens Saratoga steeplechase action with G1 A.P. Smithwick Memorial win
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Buttonwood Farm’s Baltimore Bucko paced the entire field over all eight hurdles and was equally strong in the flat portion of the race, posting a 5 3/4-length front-running victory in the Grade 1, $150,000 A.P. Smithwick Memorial that marked the first steeplechase race of the 40-day summer meet at Saratoga Race Course.
Baltimore Bucko, carrying 142 pounds under rider Thomas Garner, surged to the front of the inner turf course, leading the six-horse field, and maintained his position through the entire 2 1/16-mile course.
The Keri Brion trainee cleared all the jumps easily and, when straightened for home out of the final turn, maintained his advantage over stablemate French Light, who gave Brion the exacta when finishing 2 3/4 lengths ahead of Gibralfaro for second.
The British-bred Baltimore Bucko, making his graded stakes debut, won for the first time in five starts in his 5-year-old campaign. Off as the 5-2 favorite, he paid $7.80 on a $2 win wager.
Brion, who also saddled fifth-place finisher Galway Kid, credited Garner for an astute ride.
“My other two need something to run at and I didn’t think there was much pace, so I figured maybe he would get loose on the lead and no one would catch him,” said Brion, who won her first career Grade 1. “That was the tactical plan. It’s hard to have three in a race and figure out what the best thing to do is. Tom gave him a great ride and no one came after it. They kind of gave him the race, but I’m not complaining.”
Gibralfaro, one of two entrants for Hall of Fame conditioner Jack Fisher, ran third in the Smithwick for the second consecutive year. Redicean, Galway Kid and Cite completed the order of finish.
Garner won a Grade 1 at Saratoga for the third consecutive year, after piloting Winston C to scores in both the 2019 A.P. Smithwick edition and that year’s New York Turf Writers Cup in addition to winning the 2020 New York Turf Writers Cup [renamed in 2021 for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard] with Rashaan.
“I rode him exactly how I wanted to,” Garner said. “I was worried Jack might put Cite in front, but we got a nice easy lead of the race and I jumped off into a real strong gallop. I took a pull three or four times just to stack them up behind me and I could use his jumping to kick on down the back. I really thought someone should have come to me a lot sooner, but then again my lad may have actually carried me further. He’s done it really nicely and I haven’t even given him a smack with my stick. I was really happy with the way he won it, and he’s a horse for the future.
“The ground is still on the slower side, so I kept taking a pull to let him fill his lungs up a little bit,” Garner added. “He’s helped me out as much as I helped him out. I was almost a passenger for most of the way and I just had to help him out that last couple of furlongs.”
French Light, bred in his namesake country, earned black type in his first graded stakes appearance under rider Richard Condon. It marked French Light’s first race since April when running ninth in a two-mile race in Ireland.
“The difference between Baltimore Bucko and French is that Bucko had a run. French hasn’t run since Ireland,” Brion said. “In a month, the tables might turn. But I was delighted with them. Galway Kid, to be fair, isn’t as fast as the other two. He needs farther, but I was happy with him.”
Brion was an assistant to Sheppard for 11 years, learning under one of the best jumps trainer in history who himself won the A.P. Smithwick six times. Following Sheppard’s retirement in January, Brion took over for a legend, with this race marking her first Saratoga starters. Now, Baltimore Bucko has a chance to compete in a race named for Brion’s mentor in the Grade 1, $150,000 Jonathan Sheppard on August 19.
“When I heard they changed the name that has been in the back of my mind the whole time, so I hope I can come back with these two [Baltimore Bucko and French Light] and maybe another one and give it a go,” Brion said.
Brion credited Sheppard, who won at least one race for 47 consecutive meets from 1969-2015 at Saratoga, with giving her the tools necessary to succeed on her own.
“I learned so much from him. Even how I brought them up here and how I got them here two days ahead of time, which is something Jonathan always did,” Brion said. “There’s just a lot of preparation. We worked him in the field two weeks ago, worked him on the track last week and that’s what he always did to get ready for the Smithwick. I feel like I’m so fortunate to have worked for him, I have learned so much. My success is just the product of him, honestly. I’m very lucky.”