Mike Maker, the winningest trainer in Kentucky Downs history, experienced a frustrating first two days of the current Kentucky Downs meet, going winless with his first 19 starters and feeling unlucky with seven of his horses running second.
That frustration was put aside when Zulu Alpha rolled to an authoritative 3 1/4-length victory for the trainer in the Grade 3, $1 million Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup. The score gave Maker his fourth victory in the race after Da Big Hoss won it twice for him in 2015-'16, followed by Oscar Nominated in 2017.
Maker did not even have to sweat the result. Zulu Alpha, under Jose Ortiz, quickly drew away from his rivals in the lane after stalking the leaders from fifth, leaving runner-up and 2018 winner Arklow, third-place Campaign and the rest of his foes far behind.
Even so, the trainer did not feel any sense of relief until the race's conclusion, which gave him his second winner of the day after Swanage broke him out of his losing streak by taking the third race.
“Our horses have been running good, and it's only a second victory,” he said. “But second pays well here when your horses run well in deep, competitive fields.”
Although speed horses appeared at an advantage Saturday over a firm Kentucky Downs turf course that generated fast times, none of the early leaders could muster better than a fourth-place finish in the 1 ½-mile Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup. Pacesetting Factor This, who set fractions of 51.47 seconds, 1:15.32 and 1:39.50, lasted for fourth, while those that chased him, Botswanna and Hello Don Julio, weakened to 10th and ninth, respectively.
Ortiz, who won four races Saturday, said he was unconcerned with the early leaders, questioning whether they could stay 1 ½ miles.
“I was more worried about Arklow because I know he could handle the distance,” said Ortiz, currently tied with Florent Geroux in the standings with five winning rides. “I smooched at my horse passing the three eighths, and he was there for me. So I was very confident waiting for him…When we passed the quarter pole, I went on. I didn't feel (Arklow) closing on, I said 'alright, let's go.' He exploded. He gave me a great run.”
The second favorite in the field of 11 behind 8-5 choice Arklow, Zulu Alpha paid $6.20 to win, $3.40 to place and $2.60 to show. He was clocked in 2:28.62 for the distance.
With a purse of $1 million, the richest in Kentucky Downs history, the Kentucky Turf Cup is the most lucrative race Zulu Alpha has won, but not his only major stakes victory. The 6-year-old gelded son of Street Cry, who owner Michael Hui claimed for $80,000 last September at Churchill Downs, won last fall's Grade 3 Sycamore at Keeneland, defeating Arklow, and the Grade 3 W.L. McKnight and Grade 2 Mac Diarmida this past winter in Florida. Most recently, he finished fifth, beaten a length, in the Grade 2 Bowling Green at Saratoga.
The Sycamore, a Grade 3, $150,000 race at Keeneland Oct. 17, could present an option for Zulu Alpha, if not a bigger prize: The Grade 1, $4 million Longines Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita Nov. 2.
Maker is leaving the determination on Zulu Alpha's next race to Hui. “Everything is on the table and he pays the bills. He'll have final say if we go to the Breeders' Cup,” he said.
The $591,170 payday for winning the Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup, which received a purse hike from last year's $750,000, elevated the winner's career earnings to $1,172,544. He has a 9-4-5 record from 28 starts.
Brad Cox, trainer of defending champion Arklow and pacesetting Factor This, was disappointed with the result. “You prepare for months to get here, and then you run second,” he said of Arklow's defeat.
Arklow's jockey, Geroux, offered no excuses for his mount, who closed from seventh. “I had a beautiful trip, very happy. I was tracking the winner all the way.”
Late-running Campaign, a two-time graded winner this year in California on dirt, faced an even more difficult task in attempting to rally from 10th, finishing a half-length behind Arklow. “I was maybe more far back than I wanted in the beginning. But that's the way he is,” rider Joel Rosario, said.
Factor This, My Boy Jack, Blended Citizen, Pillar Mountain, Noble Thought, Hello Don Julio, Botswana, and Gliding Alone completed the order of finish.
Bred in Kentucky by Calumet Farm, Zulu Alpha is out of the placed A.P. Indy mare Zori, herself out of the graded stakes-winning Alydar mare Winglet. Zori was purchased with Zulu Alpha in utero at the 2012 Keeneland November sale for $120,000, when she was 14 years of age. Zulu Alpha began his racing career overseas, but finally broke his maiden as a 4-year-old at Indiana Grand.
Hui claimed Zulu Alpha for $80,000 last September, and the gelding immediately responded to his new connections by jumping up to win his first stakes, the G3 Sycamore, in his very next outing. The consistent runner is rarely off the board, recently finishing second in the G1 United Nations, and has earned $932,810 this year alone. Overall, Zulu Alpha's record stands at nine wins from 28 starts with earnings over $1.1 million.
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