It's not often a horse rises to run in an American classic race, falls to a claimer, and then comes back up into the stakes ranks again. But that's exactly what Uncle Sigh has done.
On the eve of Whitney Stakes Day at Saratoga, the 7-year-old gelding finished a respectable second in his 31st career start, an allowance contest at the Spa. In 2014, Uncle Sigh attracted attention on the Kentucky Derby trail as a lovable longshot. Gary Contessa trained the son of Indian Charlie for owners Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony Robertson. New York race fans loved him because Uncle Sigh had something of a rivalry with fellow New York-bred Samraat, who bested him in the Grade 3 Gotham and Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct that spring. The gelding got more mainstream attention because he was running for charity.
Owner George “Chip” McEwen changed his stable's name after encountering an injured service member on a flight through Charlotte, N.C. At least 10 percent of earnings from the stable's horses went to the Wounded Warrior Project, and McEwen brought an injured veteran and his family, along with another family whose son was killed in Iraq, to his box at the Kentucky Derby.
The gelding, who went off at odds of 31-1, finished a distant 14th in the Run for the Roses, and emerged from the race with a pulled muscle in his back, which took more than a year to resolve. After he returned to the track, the horse began switching barns and moving down through allowance, allowance optional claiming, and finally claiming company, where his price bottomed out at $25,000. Current trainer Chris Englehart picked up the horse for $40,000 in March for owner Mike Repole.
“I was a little nervous about claiming him,” Englehart admitted. “It was Mike Repole who wanted the horse and called me and said 'What about Uncle Sigh?' When I was looking for horses to claim, I went right past him because he had a reputation of being on the way down. I wasn't really interested in him, but then I got looking at him and seen where they had brought him back on the dirt. He seemed like he was running a little more confidently. I told Mike, 'I'm ok taking a shot at him.'”
Englehart said he's been impressed by the horse's return to form.
“He had issues in the past. I don't know exactly how bad they were, but he got running not-so-well for a while,” he said. “Most of the time, they don't come back to the upper levels again, but he just has a lot of heart and just enjoys doing it. He's feeling good right now, so he enjoys what he's doing.
“At the time [of the claim] we thought we'd maybe just have a race or two, because we didn't want to make long-term plans, but he's been a pleasant surprise. I told Mike, 'We don't need to be running this horse in claiming races right now.' I don't see anything indicating that he's going to go bad. You never know, but I don't see any reason he will, so we'll keep trying the bigger races with him. He hasn't won yet, but he's knocking at the door.”
So far, Uncle Sigh has run three times for his new connections, finishing second twice and third in the Commentator Stakes at Belmont in late May. Englehart said Repole, who is a big supporter of aftercare initiatives, is taking things one race at a time with the gelding, as he does with most of his horses.
In the meantime, Englehart enjoys having him in the barn. Uncle Sigh has a prominent spot in the second stall on the shedrow, where he looks out onto the horse path and final turn of the Oklahoma Training Track. Englehart said the gelding likes watching the activity outside, but doesn't let it – or anything else – ruffle his feathers.
“I have a lot of appreciation for him. He comes over to the paddock just as calm as can be. He knows what's going on. He's a real pro,” said Engelhart one morning at Saratoga as Uncle Sigh munched hay in the background. “For Mike Repole, I don't really make long-term plans with them. He runs them where he wants to run them. Hopefully I get to try some stakes with him at Belmont in the fall, or maybe even here. He's got some easier conditions still, but he's capable of running well in the stakes, so it's up to Mike. As long as he's doing well, we'll keep running him, as long as he's happy.”
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