Merribelle Stable’s Makari, making his first U.S. start after a successful career in English jump racing, battled through Saratoga Race Course’s stretch with Demonstrative and won the head bob to take last Thursday’s $100,000 A. P. Smithwick Memorial (Gr. 1) by a nose.
Pleasant Woodman, who set the pace to the final fence, finished third in an all-star field.
Elizabeth Voss Murray, denied a victory by a nose a week earlier in the Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes, was on the right end of the photo finish this time to notch her first stakes win and first Grade 1 win since taking over the stable of her father, Tom Voss, who died suddenly in January.
Makari is owned by the Merriebelle combine of National Steeplechase Association board member Charles Noell and John Moores. Gary Murray, husband of the trainer, is general manager of Merriebelle, which is building a breeding and racing operation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Although overshadowed by the presence of a 3-to-5 Jonathan Sheppard-trained entry that included reigning Eclipse Award winner Divine Fortune, Makari had plenty to recommend him. He had been odds-on in his most recent two starts at smaller English track and won by large margins.
At the start of the Smithwick, Gerard Galligan sent Virginia Lazenby’s and Farm d’Allie Racing Stable’s Pleasant Woodman to the lead and opened a sizable lead down the backstretch the first time, with The Fields Stable’s Wanganui also trained by Voss Murray --- in second and Divine Fortune attending the pace on the outside. Demonstrative stalked the pace while Makari, ridden by Jack Doyle, was well off the early pace but steadily improved his position.
Divine Fortune faltered on the final turn as Demonstrative launched his attack on the outside with jockey Robbie Walsh, while Doyle took the inside route with Makari. The overtook Pleasant Woodman before the final fence and fought head to head to the finish line. Demonstrative appeared to have taken the advantage in the last strides, but Makari’s lunging nose caught the line first.
“The last jump always makes me nervous. I thought we got the bob last week [with Kingdom in the Kiser], and that we missed it this week,” Voss Murray said. “This is my first graded win. It’s exciting to have it be in Saratoga, a place we love so much.
“We can’t take a lot of credit for this horse; we’ve only had him two weeks. My husband picked him out for his owners. He got off the plane, and he seemed pretty straightforward. It means so much. We took a chance, and it worked out.”
Doyle said he had a dream trip, but “I actually didn’t think I got there. Another couple of strides and I would have. It was brilliant. This was my first Grade 1, my first winner in America as well. I’ve only been here a couple of weeks. I’ve had a few good winners at home, but never a Grade 1. It was brilliant to get that.”
Sent off as the 4.80-to-1 second betting choice, Makari ran the A. P. Smithwick’s 2 1/16 miles in 3:48.33 on a firm inner turf course. Trained by Richard Valentine, Demonstrative was overlooked at 15.30-to-1 despite winning the 2012 New York Turf Writers Cup (Gr. 1) on the Saratoga course. He finished 7 1/4 lengths ahead of 17-to-1 Pleasant Woodman. Divine Fortune was pulled up before the final fence.
Virsito looks to be regaining old form: Virsito, well placed on the inside by reigning champion jockey Paddy Young, advanced into contention entering Saratoga Race Course’s stretch, seized the lead shortly after the final fence, and held safe Charminster for a neck victory in Wednesday’s $65,000 optional allowance claiming hurdle.
Bodie Island, owned by The Elkstone Groups which owns the Camden Training Center, finished third, 1 1/4 lengths farther back, and El Season was fourth in a field of seven.
Owned by Sheila J. Williams and Andre Brewster, Virsito went off at 3.65-to-1 and ran the optional claimer’s 2 1/16 miles in 3:52.89 on a firm inner turf course. The victory gave trainer Jack Fisher the undisputed lead in the year’s trainer standings and marked a remarkable comeback from the Dynaformer gelding’s last start, when he was pulled up before the final fence in the $150,000 Calvin Houghland Iroquois on May 10.
Virsito’s presence in the Nashville race was a clear indication that Fisher believed he had come back well from a long respite dating back to a Saratoga optional claimer score in August 2012, and Saratoga bettors took him at his word, making Virsito the co-second choice.
Dr. David Richardson’s Harrods Creek, a Saratoga stakes winner on the flat who won his maiden victory over fences at Parx Racing on July 1, went off as the 1.65-to-1 favorite, and jockey Ross Geraghty placed him just off the pace of Bill Pape’s El Season, a two-time winner this year.
Trained in Camden by Arch Kingsley, Harrods Creek began to tire near the end of the backstretch, and current leading jockey Willie McCarthy started to scrub on El Season approaching the final fence. By then, Young had moved Virsito into second, and Irv Naylor’s Charminster was surging under Carol-Ann Sloan.
El Season landed first over the last, closely followed by Charminster and then Virsito. Benefiting from his inside position and a strong jump at the last, Virsito grabbed the lead and held sway over Charminster, who was making his first start in more than a year and finished gamely. Harrods Creek, who was bumped on the final run down the backstretch, finished sixth.