Rather than have Zulu Alpha try for a repeat win in the W.L. McKnight (G3) on Jan. 25, owner Michael Hui is opting for a far bigger prize later that afternoon at Gulfstream Park, the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1) presented by Runhappy.
Hui said that when trainer Mike Maker laid out the possibilities for the 7-year-old's first start of 2020 it was an easy decision. Though the McKnight launched a great 2019 season for Zulu Alpha, who won three graded stakes and $1.1 million in purses, Hui was eager to change course.
“The way Mike put it to me is you can go in the McKnight again for $200,000 and you will be even money or you can take a shot,” Hui said. “He knew when he said that…I'm all about taking a shot. Why not?”
That is pretty much the philosophy the Little Rock, Ark. resident has used since he made the transition from fan to owner in 2010. After a few seasons with lower-level claimers, Hui reached out to Maker, who has a sterling reputation for claiming horses that he develops into graded stakes-winning runners. Hui has degrees in math and physics and describes himself as a “black and white analytical guy.” He checked out Maker's stats on the Internet and made his move in 2015.
“I called him up one day and said, 'I'd like to claim one with you. Are you open to it? How does it work?' He walked me through it.”
Through Maker, Hui, 56, bought a horse that won a stakes at Woodbine and claimed an allowance runner. Their relationship and success grew through the years.
“Over time, he would point them out to me and he does what he does,” Hui said. “We've been very blessed. We got Greengrassofwyoming. Three weeks later he wins the Stars and Stripes (G3). We claimed a horse named Taghleeb at Saratoga. He ran well at Kentucky Downs. It took a little while to figure him out and he ended up winning the McKnight.”
Taghleeb's victory in the McKnight in 2017 was the first of Maker's three straight wins in the Gulfstream Park fixture.
Maker and Hui also did well with their claim of Shadow Rock, which led them to Hogy, who won a pair of Grade 3s for them. While at Fair Grounds in March 2018 to run Galton in the Muniz Memorial (G2), Hui said he was asking Maker what he looks for when scouting horses to claim.
“He's pointing all this out and Zulu walks by,” Hui said. “He said 'That's exactly what you are looking for.' ”
Zulu Alpha was third to Synchrony and Arklow in the Muniz at 91-1 and Hui put him in his stable mail. Nearly six months later, Hui saw that the son of Street Cry was entered in a claiming race at Churchill Downs. He had trainer John Ortiz claim him for $80,000. The Calumet Farm homebred won for fun by 9 ½ lengths the day he was claimed promptly rewarding Hui and Ortiz with a win in the Sycamore (G3).
Hui subsequently moved Zulu Alpha to Maker to run in the grass stakes at last year's Championship Meet at Gulfstream. After a well-beaten seventh in the Fort Lauderdale (G2), he won the McKnight and Mac Diarmida (G2) in what turned into a very good 2019 campaign.
Two races before Zulu Alpha was claimed blinkers were removed, an equipment change that looks to have had a positive impact. And right after Hui made the claim, the long-striding gelding was stretched out to longer distances. His past performances show he has thrived.
Hui and Maker thought enough of Zulu Alpha last year to run him in the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1), where he was fourth, 1¾ lengths behind the winner, Bricks and Mortar, who surely will be named the champion male turf horse and is likely to be the Horse of the Year. Hui is quick to credit Maker and his keen eye for talent.
“I'm biased, but I can't see anyone any better spotting horses for two-turn or three-turn turf races, and getting the most bang for the buck,” Hui said. “I made the comment when we were in the Breeders' Cup that you don't usually see guys like me in this race. It's typically dominated by Europeans or these larger farms.”
Hui was a co-founder of Transportation Insight, a company based in Hickory, N.C. that he and his partners sold five years ago, about the time he started working with Maker. He has a boutique-type racing and breeding operation that currently consists of six runners, three broodmares and three babies. He bred and sold the Grade 1-winning filly Nickname.
Zulu Alpha is Hui's top earner, took him to the Breeders' Cup and has delivered half of his eight graded stakes victories. The Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, where he is taking a shot, is the starting point for what he hopes is another solid season.
“Zulu has exceeded expectations,” Hui said. “I feel so fortunate to have a horse like this and one thing that I have picked up about this game is that it is race to race. He's got to be competitive in this race. He's got to come out of the race, come back and train again. Everything is on the table.”
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