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Chess Chief, Colonel Liam, Summer in Saratoga Conquer Louisiana Derby Undercard Stakes
Chess Chief winning the New Orleans Classic (Credit: Hodges Photography)

Chess Chief, Colonel Liam, Summer in Saratoga Conquer Louisiana Derby Undercard Stakes

NEW ORLEANS, LAChess Chief‘s thrilling photo-finish upset in the $400,000 New Orleans Classic (G2) was one of three strong performances on Saturday’s Louisiana Derby (G2) undercard at Fair Grounds, along with Colonel Liam in the $300,000 Muniz Memorial Classic (G2) and Summer in Saratoga in the $150,000 Tom Benson Memorial.

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The Estate of James Coleman’s Chess Chief rallied from last in the field of eight to nail 4/5 favorite Owendale on the wire in a thrilling 96th rendition of the New Orleans Classic. Trained by Dallas Stewart and ridden by Luis Saez, Chess Chief completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.24. 

In the early stages of the race, Roadster, with jockey John Velazquez in the saddle, led into the first turn through a moderate 24.11 1/4-mile fraction while Owendale and Florent Geroux tracked his every move to his outside hip. Chess Chief was nearly 5 lengths off the early pace-setting duo while they completed a 1/2-mile in 48.30.

At the 1/2-mile pole, Saez began asking Chess Chief to start closing ground on the leaders. At the top of the long Fair Grounds stretch, Roadster and Owendale continued to duel on the front end. Owendale took a clear advantage at the 3/16-pole as Chess Chief continued to close ground down the center of the racecourse. Chess Chief surged late to win the narrowest of decisions.   

“He finally gave me that last shot close to the wire to let us get by,” Saez said. “Everyone made a pretty early move. We tried to save ground at the rail. When we finally got the clear, a lot of horses in front of us were backing up.” 

Chess Chief rewarded his backers at 5/1. Owendale was a 1/2-length in front of the hard-charging Enforceable, who finished third with Adam Beschizza. 

“He’s by Into Mischief, so we know he’s a quality horse,” Stewart said. “We are so grateful to train for Coleman family.” 

Disqualified and placed sixth after crossing the line third in last year’s New Orleans Classic, Chess Chief most recently earned the show dough behind Maxfield in the locally-run Mineshaft (G3). In winning his first career graded stakes, Chess Chief improved his record to 23-4-4-3 with $632,048 in earnings.

Chess Chief (left) defeats Owendale in the New Orleans Classic (Credit: Hodges Photography)

Additional race quotes:

Brad Cox, trainer, Owendale: “It was an unfortunate photo on our end. No excuses. We had a good trip, just second-best today. Going a mile and 1/8, it didn’t work out. We will take a look at the Alysheba (at Churchill Downs) next, probably.”

Beschizza, Enforceable: “He just grinded for me and kept giving me more. Another 1/8 of a mile and I think we win it. He never really got too far back, even when other horses starting going by us.”

David Carroll, assistant trainer, Enforceable: “He ran much better today than last time. He was there with them. He bounced back. I’m not sure what’s next but we’ll talk it over and see.” 

Colonel Liam winning the Muniz Memorial Classic (Credit: Hodges Photography)

In the days leading up to the Muniz Memorial Classic, trainer Todd Pletcher remarked that his Grade 1-winning charge Colonel Liam had been training so well on the dirt of late that he may entertain giving the gray colt another try on the main track at some point.  

Considering the way the son of Liam’s Map keeps performing on the turf, however, the handicap ranks shouldn’t have to fret about him interloping anytime soon. 

Robert and Lawana Low’s Colonel Liam kept his star on the ascent Saturday when he edged clear of longshot Two Emmys in late stretch to capture the Muniz Memorial by 1 1/2 lengths as the 3/5 favorite. It was his fourth win in 5 starts since switching to the grass. 

On form, the 1 1/8-mile Muniz Memorial appeared to be Colonel Liam’s to lose as he was fresh off a victory in the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes (G1) at Gulfstream Park on January 23. The complexion of the Muniz was altered when multiple graded stakes winner and confirmed frontrunner Factor This was scratched Saturday morning, but the end result was as expected with Colonel Liam living up to his betting favoritism after sitting off the early fractions. 

“My job is not easy, but he makes it look easy,” said jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., who was aboard Colonel Liam. “He was ready, he was 100%. He’s just so smart and he has a lot of class. You don’t see too many like that. I’m just happy I’m on him and hopefully he stays healthy.” 

With pacesetter status up for grabs due to Factor This’s absence, 24/1 shot Two Emmys took up that mantle under jockey James Graham and went the opening 1/4 mile in 23.79 over a course rated good. Ortiz, meanwhile, kept Colonel Liam a bit closer to the pace than usual, rating the 4-year-old colt in fourth on the inside through a 1/2 in 49.08 before advancing up to third just behind Peace Achieved to his outside. 

Two Emmys was still holding onto his advantage coming into the top of the stretch but, after angling off the rail on the far turn, Colonel Liam had dead aim at the leader in the lane and was able to draw clear in the final 1/16 of a mile. 

“When Irad and I talked about it, we weren’t sure how much pace there was going to be, but the great thing about a horse like this is he is so versatile that if they go fast early, he can settle back and if they go slow, he can put himself in a good stalking position,” Pletcher said when reached by phone after the race. “He was on the bridle; he hadn’t run in a little while so he was maybe a touch fresh. He kind of pulled his way up there, but I think that was more a product of the slower second quarter. He always looked like he was in a good position. The horse who was second, he kicked on a bit and (Colonel Liam) had to work to get past him but I like the way he finished up and they looked like they were well clear of the third horse.” 

Colonel Liam hit the wire in a final time of 1:48.33 over a turf course listed as “good” and the way he galloped out reinforces Pletcher’s belief that added distance down the road will not be an issue. 

“The way he galloped out around the turn gives us encouragement that he’ll handle longer distances,” Pletcher said. “The way he continues to go out after the wire, I think that next start schedule (the Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on May 1) is going to be 1 1/8 miles and then we can look at the Manhattan after that at 1 1/4 miles. If he were to handle that, I think that puts everything else in play up to 1 1/2 miles. He’s got such a lovely disposition; a great mind and he’s willing to relax and settle. It gives us a lot of opportunities.” 

Two Emmys held gamely for runner-up honors, 3 1/2 lengths clear of Logical Myth in third. 

“He’s a cool little horse. I wasn’t expecting to be on the lead,” Graham said. “I ended up being placed there but I got him to relax, he was happy and comfortable. I tried to get away around the turn, I gave him a breather. I tried to steal a length or 2 on them, but…the winner was the best horse.” 

Colonel Liam made his first two starts on the dirt before finding his comfort zone on the lawn and now boasts a career mark of 5 wins from 7 starts with $870,965 in earnings. Bred in Kentucky by Phillips Racing Partnership, he was purchased by the Lows for $1.2 million at the 2019 OBS April 2-Year-Olds in Training sale. 

“He may be the best (we’ve had),” Robert Low said. “We think this horse has a great future and Irad gave him an excellent ride today. We couldn’t be happier.” 

Summer in Saratoga winning the Tom Benson Memorial (Credit: Hodges Photography)

Summer in Saratoga called upon her fresh legs to get her 5-year-year old campaign off to an auspicious start when she angled out and mounted a 4-wide rally in the lane to capture the Tom Benson Memorial by a neck over Dominga on the Stall-Wilson Turf Course.  

The 1 1/16-mile Tom Benson Memorial – named for the late owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans – marked the first competitive outing for Summer in Saratoga since winning an allowance optional claiming test at Kentucky Downs September 30. The bay daughter of Hard Spun had signaled to trainer Joe Sharp in the mornings that she was ready to get back to business, a tout she made good on when she surged up under jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. following a ground-saving trip to edge Dominga and notch her third win in her last 4 starts. 

“Hats off to (owner) Highlander Training Center. We sent her there for a little freshening after Keeneland and they did a great job of getting her ready for us and sending her back in good order,” Sharp said. “This filly just keeps getting better and better. They did the right thing giving her a little break when the Churchill turf shut down last year, and I think she’s really going pay dividends this year as a result of that.  

“Obviously it’s nice to have a prep but the filly was giving us all the signs she was ready especially in her last couple works,” Sharp continued. “A filly like that with the muscle memory, when they show you they’re ready they can usually run to a top performance off a layoff like that. The professionalism she showed today has us pretty excited as far what you do with her moving forward.” 

Sent off at 9/1 odds in the field of 12, Summer of Saratoga broke from the far outside but was able to maneuver in for a clear spot along the rail going by the stands for the first time with 55/1 longshot and stablemate His Glory setting the early pace. Ortiz kept Summer in Saratoga off the pace in eighth as His Glory cut fractions of 23.71 and 47.68 before they started to pick their way through the pack with about 3 furlongs to run. 

Coming into the far turn, Ortiz was able to start moving Summer in Saratoga off her inside path but still had a wall of contenders in their wake. Once they reached mid-stretch, the duo angled out further and found the daylight they needed as they went by Winning Envelope to their inside en route to stopping the teletimer in 1:42.15 over a course rated “good.” 

Dominga, who had not been worse than second in 3 prior starts at Fair Grounds, kept her consistent local streak alive as she held for place money with Winning Envelope third. Dalika, the 5/2 favorite off a pair of stakes wins earlier in the meet, finished ninth. 

“Huge effort,” trainer Brad Cox said of Dominga. “She was a little closer to the pace than expected – I liked it – she was able to put herself in a good spot. (Jockey Florent Geroux) did a good job settling off the horse up the backside. She dug in and galloped out well. I think she’s a filly who will get a lot of this and move forward, maybe even further to marathon distance type things we’ll look for. Her pedigree suggests the older (she gets), the better.” 

Bred in Kentucky by My Meadowview LLC, Summer in Saratoga improves her record to four wins from 11 starts and $270,092 in earnings.

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