As NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) entrant Sequist fidgeted on a wash rack when receiving a bath on the Del Mar backstretch this week, her handler adjusted a shank and encouraged her to be still.
Holding the 2-year-old filly wasn’t a hotwalker. It was trainer Dallas Stewart.
Asked of his hands-on approach, he responded, “I’m the owner. I’d better.”
He is—one of them. The graded-placed filly is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, Gervais Racing, Charles Pigg, Stewart Racing Stable, Tom Andres, and Karen Kraft—or as Stewart describes Andres and Kraft, “my doctor and my real estate neighbor.
Classy John & Dallas Stewart. Sarah K Andrew photo
The story of 2-year-old colt Classy John (Songandaprayer) looks like a pretty interesting one on paper, but is even more so than meets the eye. A $12,000 Equine Sales of Louisiana purchase in May off of just a gallop, the Valene Farms-owned Dallas Stewart trainee shipped up to Saratoga last Saturday to romp by six lengths at 12-1 odds in a typically tough GI Travers S. day maiden special weight (video replay).
The Louisiana-bred beat a pricey group in the process, defeating the likes of an $850,000 2-year-old acquisition and a $650,000 yearling as well as several fashionably pedigreed homebreds.
Classy John was an excellent value purchase to be sure, but as it turns out, he wasn’t an intentional one.
“We got a little confused. I was on the phone, and I thought I was bidding on 15, but it was 14,” owner Murray Valene revealed. “But it turned out to be a pretty good buy, huh? We didn’t have any idea what the horse looked like, but that’s the way it goes. You never do know. It turned out to be a really nice little horse, with some decent pedigree.”
Classy John is the third foal and first to race out of Kitty’s Got Class (Old Forester), who handily won her first three races, including two stakes, as a Woodbine-based juvenile.
After looking at the colt’s page, and him as an individual, Valene began to come around to his purchase.
“I took one look at him when he got in and said, ‘Boy, I like the looks of this colt.’ So we sent him up to Dallas because he looked like he was above average. He was just a good-looking horse.”
Hip 15, an Eskendereya filly who went for $9,000, has not yet started or been credited with an official work.
Once in Stewart’s program, Classy John gave some indication that he was a nice horse, but he really caught his trainer’s attention after blazing through five panels in a bullet :58.60 from the gate at the Churchill Downs Training Center Aug. 17.
“Two or three weeks before [the race, on Aug. 9,] he worked in [1:01 4/5], but in the last work, he worked in :58 3/5 from the gate,” Stewart noted. “So I called the clocker to make sure that was legit–I was up here [in Saratoga]. The clocker said he might have even gone a little faster than that–it was unreal. So I talked to Murray and told him there was a race on Travers Day. Murray’s always game for anything, so he said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Valene and Stewart already had another runner for the card in last year’s local GI Hopeful S. third Givemeaminit (Star Guitar), who checked in eighth in the GI H. Allen Jerkens.
Stewart admitted to wondering before the race if his decision to ship Classy John up to the Spa was the right one.
“I got to thinking that maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do with the crowd and everything,” he said. “We’d have to fly him up on Wednesday, gallop him Thursday and Friday and then run Saturday. So I was a little concerned about that, but it looked like it would be the first race of the day, so we went with it and he handled it great.”
A fast work doesn’t necessarily mean a fast race, but Stewart was confident in Classy John’s ability.
“He worked so good, and we had the video of the work, so I saw it,” he said. “Plus, I talked to [jockey] Jack Gilligan who worked him and he said, ‘He is really, really nice.’ So we just got him up here and that’s how it went–he just slaughtered ’em.”
Classy John shipped back to Kentucky Sunday morning, but will likely return to New York for the Oct. 6 GI Champagne S. He is not Breeders’ Cup nominated.
What made the performance even more special was that Classy John is named for Valene’s father, John Valene, who passed away last Tuesday at the age of 100.
“My father passed away on Tuesday, and I flew up on Friday to watch the races,” Valene said. “So, just given the name and the circumstances and everything else, it’s extra special and I think he’s going to be a nice little horse. Hopefully, he stays healthy, because in this game you never know, but I think he’s for real.”
John Valene, who had attended the races at Canterbury Park just a couple weeks ago, first got the family involved in racing in the early 1960s when he claimed a horse who Murray Valene says subsequently won his next seven starts.
Murray Valene’s racing interests later grew significantly, and at one point Valene Farms had around 140 horses in training. He now has about a dozen on the track. Valene is also associated with Louisiana’s Clear Creek Stud, of which he jointly owns the property that it stands on. Valene has mostly campaigned Louisiana-bred or sired horses, including champions in Minnesota and Illinois.
But this wasn’t by any means his first win up at Saratoga.
Valene Farms took the 1993 GII Adirondack S. with $7,000 purchase Astas Foxy Lady (Zuppardo’s Prince), and doubled up in the same race (via DQ) exactly 20 years later with the Stewart-trained Designer Legs (Graeme Hall). The latter was a $10,000 yearling acquisition.
“It just goes to show you–you never know based on what you paid for a horse what you’ve got,” Valene said. “It’s all about the heart and what’s on the inside. Nobody knows that until they run.”
Trainer Dallas Stewart knows how to get the good ones right and that is exactly what he is doing with stable star Forever Unbridled.
Given a little extra time following an ambitious and fruitful 2016 campaign, the daughter of Unbridled’s Song has returned to training for the Kentucky-based, New Orleans native.
“She’s doing great,” Stewart said of the Charles Fipke homebred. “She worked (May 20) going a half-mile in :48 4/5, so she’s coming along well. We’re looking at four races this year, hopefully. We’re hoping to make the (Longines) Breeders’ Cup (Distaff, G1) again. She’s coming along and she looks great.”
The daughter of Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Lemons Forever has two registered works since returning to Stewart’s Churchill Downs barn, including a May 13 three-furlong drill in :37 flat. Last year, she had a 10-month, six-start campaign that included victories in a pair of grade 1 events—the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park in October and the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park in April—and the grade 3 Houston Ladies Classic Stakes in January.
Never failing to hit the board in 2016, she arguably put forth her best efforts in defeat. In the Ogden Phipps Stakes (G1), she was caught behind horses turning for home and could not reel in multiple grade 1 winner Cavorting once she broke free, finishing a flying second.
In her season finale, she burst off the rail and into the clear under regular rider Joel Rosario at the top of the stretch in the Distaff, putting forth a furious rally to be the only horse gaining on dueling champions Beholderand Songbird at the wire. Finishing 1 1/4 lengths behind those super-horses, she out-finished phenomenal fillies and fellow 2012 crop members Stellar Wind, I’m a Chatterbox, and Curalina. Stellar Wind since resurfaced to successfully kick off her 5-year-old campaign in this year’s Apple Blossom.
Some wear and tear after such top efforts over the course of a demanding campaign was not unexpected, but luckily it was nothing career-threatening.
“She had minor surgery over the winter and that is why she’s just getting rolling now,” Stewart explained. “She had a small chip taken out of her left front ankle and she’s doing great now; good as new.”
Stewart is over the moon with how the filly looks after a freshening, which is not surprising considering how much praise he threw on his darling over the last couple seasons. Long thought of as one of the best fillies with whom he has been associated—keeping in mind that he used to gallop Kentucky Derby-winning champion Winning Colors while an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas—he is pumped to get her going again.
“She looked good last year and looks just as great this year, if not better,” he said. “She’s just strong-looking all over. She is what a wonderful horse looks like. She’s massive and has a presence to her on the racetrack—you just know she’s a good horse. When she walks into the barn, she’s like an amazon.
“I’m not sure where we’ll point to first,” he continued. “We’ll just have to see where she is. If she’s out there working three-quarters (of a mile) in (a minute and) 12 (seconds) and doing it easily, then I know she’ll be ready to go against the best right off the bat. We’ll just have to see how that comes along. As far as racing (at age 6 in 2018 after an expected light 2017 campaign), you never know with Chuck (Fipke). It’s always possible. He has the mother and the sister (fellow grade 1 winner Unbridled Forever). Her sister just had a Medaglia d’Oro and her mother just went to Medaglia d’Oro, so you never know.”
If things go according to plan, Forever Unbridled, who has earned in excess of $1.5 million, will become Stewart’s leading earner. At the top of said honor roll with just over $1.8 million is grade 1-winning Rachel Alexandra chaser Macho Again, while such standouts as Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Unbridled Elaine, grade 2-winning and grade 1-placed Dollar Bill, and both of Forever Unbridled’s aforementioned family members are not far behind.
Stewart was also quick to praise two other stable standouts on the improve and with ambitious schedules.
G M B Racing’s multiple graded stakes winner and 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) and Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) alum Tom’s Ready kicked off his 2017 impressively, rallying for third against a top field in the Churchill Downs Stakes Presented by Twinspires.com (G2) May 6.
Additionally, Mark Stanley’s 3-year-old Hollywood Handsome exits a driving neck allowance victory against older horses eight days later, also at Churchill. Both are likely to head to Belmont for its biggest day, June 10.
“I really like how (Tom’s Ready) ran the other day,” Stewart said. “He ran hard and stepped up against good horses. We’re looking at the Met Mile next with him. It’s a step forward, but he made a step forward in the Churchill Downs and is doing very well and has since the race.”
A run in the Mohegan Sun Metropolitan Handicap (G1), historically the top open dirt mile event, would mean a return to the site of the colt’s best effort, a rousing victory in last year’s seven-furlong Woody Stephens Stakes (G2). The last time the son of More Than Ready ran a one-turn mile, he was the winner of the Ack Ack Stakes (G3) last fall.
“Hollywood Handsome is a strong possibility for the Belmont (Stakes),” Stewart continued. “We could have gone to the Preakness after the Illinois Derby, but we just wanted to win a race with him and get his head right. He had a bad trip at Hawthorne and we think he moved forward last time. (Jockey) Florent (Geroux) said that a mile and a half will be right up his alley and he will ride him in the Belmont.”
A photo-finish from being considered for the Kentucky Derby when he placed fourth, a nose astern third, in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2), the late-running son of Tapizar has upped his game and could be a longshot to watch—as all Stewart trainees have come to be known in the Triple Crown.
A big effort would signal a turn of the tide in the Stewart barn, which has had its fair share of ups and downs already, including the loss of barn favorite and Stewart homebred Saints Fan.
“So far, so good this year,” Stewart concluded. “We have had some good performances from a lot of our horses and have some babies coming along who look great and we’re taking our time with those. The older horses are fighting it out, so everything is good. I’m happy with where we are and things look good.”
Easy to root for with his friendly disposition and hands-on horsemanship, Stewart keeps things in perspective and seems poised for the pendulum to swing back.