Dark Cove grabbed the lead with a quarter mile to run and held off late charges by Atigun and Najjaar to win the 76th running of the Grade III, $111,800 Louisville Handicap by a half-length on Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs.
Dark Cove ran 1 ½ miles over a firm Matt Winn Turf Course in 2:27.29 and just missed Simmard's 2012 stakes record of 2:27.16. Rosie Napravnik rode the winner for the Spring Meet's leading trainer and owners, Mike Maker and Ken and Sarah Ramsey, respectively.
“The horse gives you 110 percent every time,” Maker said. “He's all heart and class.”
Dark Cove, the 122-pound starting high weight in the field of nine older horses, was forwardly placed in the early stages of the turf marathon and relaxed off the early pace in fifth as Al Qasr led through quarter-mile fractions of :24.24, :49.09, 1:14.03 and 1:38.87. While racing in the clear on the outside, Dark Cove drew even with the leaders around the final turn and took command at the top of the stretch. He kicked clear in the stretch and turned back late runs by slight 2-1 favorite Atigun and Najjaar, who was a nose back of the runner-up.
“I was in a dream spot,” Napravnik said. “I couldn't have picked a better spot. I was happy with where I was the whole way … I knew they were coming, but (Dark Cove) was the class of the race.”
Dark Cove, who went to post at odds of 2-1, paid $6.40, $3.80 and $3.20. Atigun, who had to check briefly around the turn after three-quarters of a mile, returned $3.60 and $2.80. Najjaar paid $4.60.
Prime Cut was another 6 ½ lengths back in fourth and was followed by Ioya Bigtime, Heathcote, Al Qasr, Harrods Creek and Mack's Blackhawk.
The Louisville Handicap was the second consecutive graded stakes win for Dark Cove. On April 26, the 6-year-old took the Grade II, $150,000 Elkhorn at Keeneland by 4 ¼ lengths – exactly one year from the day the Ramseys claimed him for $50,000.
The Ramseys have banked $187,294 with Dark Cove since the claim. Saturday's $66,544 first prize jumped his career earnings to $399,054. In four years, he's won eight of his 23 starts with two seconds and one third.
Dark Cove was bred in Kentucky by Stonewall Farm Stallions and is a son of Medaglia d'Oro out of the Kris S. mare Crystal Cove.
The victory was the 14th of the meet for the Ramseys, who are on a record-pace for wins at a Churchill Downs Spring Meet. They won 21 races during the 57-day season of 2009 and have 14 wins through 17 days of this year's 38-day session. This was their third stakes win of the meet. They also won the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (GII) with Stephanie's Kitten and Edgewood with Kitten's Dumplings.
Meanwhile, Maker, who notched his second stakes win of the meet, tops the trainer standings with 16 wins, three more than Steve Asmussen. He also trains Kitten's Dumplings for the Ramseys.
Napravnik, in her first full season at Churchill Downs, collected her third stakes win and 18th victory overall at the meet (she's third in the standings behind Shaun Bridgmohan's 25 and Corey Lanerie's 22). She also won the Alysheba (GII) on Take Charge Indy and Churchill Downs (GII) aboard Delaunay.
Racing at Churchill Downs continues Sunday with a 10-race program that begins at 12:45 p.m. (all times Eastern). There's a five-day Pick 6 carryover of $24,447 on Races 5-10 (starts at 2:51 p.m.), and the featured race, a $54,000 allowance optional claiming event for 3-year-olds and up at 6 ½ furlongs, is Race 9 at 4:59 p.m.
Sunday doubles as Family Fun Day Presented by Kroger. Children age 12 and younger are invited to enjoy games, crafts and visits from Churchill Downs' popular mascot Churchill Charlie on the Plaza Balcony from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. This week's special activity includes a Memorial Day military display, including an interactive High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV, Humvee or Hummer). Kids also can write letters to members of the armed forces and craft paper U.S. flags. For adults age 18 and up, there'll be a challenging rock climbing wall.
LOUISVILLE HANDICAP QUOTES
Mike Maker, trainer of Dark Cove, winner: “The horse gives you 110 percent every time. He's all heart and class.”
Any plans for his next race? “One race at a time.”
Rosie Napravnik, rider on Dark Cove, winner: – “I was in a dream spot. I couldn't have picked a better spot. I was happy with where I was the whole way. He's a very nice horse to ride and they've done a great job with him.”
Were you worried about getting caught by Atigun (second) and Najjaar (third)? “I felt them the whole way, so I was riding to win; I was riding till the wire. I knew they were coming, but (Dark Cove) was the class of the race.”
Ken McPeek, trainer of Atigun, runner-up: “He had a terrible trip. I think he was several lengths the best horse.”
Will you look to Saratoga and those mile and a half grass races up there? “I would think so. He's had some issues with his feet that we've been dealing with and I think he's a little more comfortable on the grass. He's obviously a very good horse.”
You had some fun with the winner when he was in your barn … “We did good. He's a nice horse – he always has been. I claimed him for maiden 16 (thousand) and we had a lot of fun with him.”
Danny Peitz, trainer of Najjaar, third (by telephone from Chicago): “We've been wanting to stretch him out, though I don't know that a mile and a half is what we were looking for. But we looking for something longer than a mile and a sixteenth, but that's the way it's all kind of shook out here the last year and a half. We hadn't had a shot to get him going a little longer and I think he's a little better on the grass. So that's what we're kind of thinking now. We have a couple of races up here (at Arlington Park) that we have a shot to run in and we'll see how we run.”
Leandro Goncalves, rider on Najjaar, third: “He ran well, but we just couldn't get to him (Dark Cove). He gave me a 110 percent. He had a great trip. I was very happy with the position I had and when I called on him at the quarter-pole I thought for a minute that I was going by the 6-horse (Dark Cove), but he never stopped.”
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