When Canadian-based trainer Roger Attfield ships a horse for a stakes race, and the horse doesn't look like one of the top few contenders, it's best to look again. Inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1999 and the United States National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 2011, Attfield has built a reputation for winning big races with longshots.
Attfield will try to add to that reputation when he sends out Are You Kidding Me in the inaugural $500,000 Penn Mile on Saturday at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course.
Listed at 12-1 on the morning line, Are You Kidding Me ran second in the Grade 2 Summer Stakes at Woodbine last fall, and after a five-month layoff, made his 3-year-old debut on March 9 in a one mile turf allowance at Tampa Bay Downs. He put in a strong late rally and ended up losing by a nose to Noble Tune, who happens to be the 2-1 morning line favorite for the Penn Mile.
“I thought he ran a very good race at Tampa, especially considering the long layoff,” said Attfield. “That was a very creditable race, losing to Noble Tune in a very close photograph.”
After that effort, Are You Kidding Me stayed in Florida and tried the dirt for the first time in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 30 at Gulfstream Park. He never handled the surface and ended up finishing eighth.
“We had some Kentucky Derby excitement, but that didn't end up being a good experiment,” said Attfield. “That threw me off track a bit.”
Are You Kidding Me returned to the turf for his next start, and finished a very close third in an allowance race on April 14 at Keeneland.
“He didn't run a bad race at Keeneland, but he wasn't closing like he normally does,” said Attfield. “He has been training very well since that race and we think he has the potential to be a very nice horse.”
In 2011, Attfield brought Perfect Shirl to the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf as one of the longest shots in the field. Going off at 27-1, she flew through the stretch to register a shocking upset and provide Attfield with the first Breeders' Cup win of his career.
Winner of the Sovereign Award as Canada's Top Trainer seven times, Attfield has won Canada's most prestigious race, the Queen's Plate, an astounding eight times.
On Saturday he will be looking to make more history and win the richest race in the history of Penn National Race Course.
One of the more interesting back stories on the Penn Mile Card is that of the 7-year-old gelding Jimanator, who comes into the $250,000 Mountainview Handicap with a legitimate chance to bag the biggest purse of his career.
After floating in and out of the claiming ranks during his first four years on the racetrack, Jimanator showed up as a main track only entrant in a $20,000 claiming race on August 18, 2011 at prestigious Saratoga Race Course.
Kirk Wycoff, the managing partner for Three Diamonds Farm, was in Saratoga that day and looking to make a claim. His son, Jordan, really liked how Jimanator looked on the Thoro-Graphs, but since he was a main track only entrant in a dirt race, they didn't think they would get a chance to claim him.
“We got up that morning at Saratoga and it was bright and sunny so we assumed the race would be on the turf,” said Kirk Wycoff. “We took a bike ride and got breakfast, and then imagine our surprise when we heard the race had been taken off the turf and Jimanator would be running. We hustled to the track and got the claim slip ready. We loved how he looked in the paddock and decided to put in the claim.
“Unfortunately, we didn't win the claim, and we were quite upset. However, our trainer Mike Trombetta called us 45 minutes later, and they ended up voiding the claim, so we ended up with him.”
Jimanator's first two races – both allowance events – for his new owners were so impressive that they were strongly considering running him in the Grade 3, 1 1/8 mile, Fred W. Hooper Handicap on November 26, 2011 at Calder Race Course.
“After claiming him, we found out he was a very difficult horse to train, but Mike did an incredible job with him, and as we ran him longer and longer he kept getting better and more fit,” said Wycoff. “It was a long ship [from Maryland] to the race at Calder, but our entire family was there for Thanksgiving, and I didn't think the race looked particularly tough, so we decided to do it.
“When we walked into the paddock that day, he looked incredible – like a statue, like a graded stakes horse. Jordan told me were going to run second behind Mambo Meister.”
Fortunately for the Wycoffs, Jordan was wrong, and with a masterful ride from Joe Bravo, Jimanator completed the rags to riches story, winning the first graded stakes of his career by ¾ lengths over Mambo Meister.
Jimanator won another stakes race for the Wycoffs in February 2012, dominating the John B. Campbell, again at 1 1/8 miles, with a four-length wire-to-wire score.
He was injured after that race, but made it back to the races after more than a year on the sidelines to run a solid fourth in a May 1 allowance at Belmont Park, in which two of the horses that beat him have come back to win their next start.
“He is as good or better than he was in 2011,” said Wycoff. “His last two works at Fair Hill have been spectacular, and we know he loves the 1 1/8 distance of the Mountainview, so we think we have a good shot.”
When trainer Larry Jones found out that Icon Ike's regular rider, Rosie Napravnik, wasn't available to ride Saturday night in the 40th running of the $150,000 Pennsylvania Governor's Cup, he wasn't sure who he might be able to find as a replacement.
A few phones calls later, and Jones had a very nice surprise – Joel Rosario, the leading rider in North America in wins (150) and purses earned ($9.5 million), was going to be at Penn National and was available to ride his horse. Four weeks ago, Rosario won the Kentucky Derby aboard Orb.
“This is actually the first time that Joel Rosario has ever ridden anything for me,” said Jones, who arrived at Penn National Thursday night with Icon ike. “When we found out he was going to be here, we tried to make arrangements real quick. I've done business with his agent, Ron Anderson, in the past when he had Jerry Bailey and Garrett Gomez, and we get along well, and so he put him on.”
Jones has had terrific success with first time riders from Anderson.
“The first time Bailey ever rode for me was in 2005 and we won the $1 million Delaware Handicap with Island Sand, so we have good luck with Ron's riders first time out,” said Jones. “Joel is the rider to get right now, so we grabbed him.”
Icon Ike, a 4-year-old son of Yes It's True with seven wins in 17 career starts, is one of the top contenders for this weekend's race, installed at 6-1 morning line odds. He kicked off his 2013 campaign with a nose victory over fellow Pennsylvania Governor's Cup entrant Chamberlain Bridge in the Champion Energy Services Stakes on January 26 at Sam Houston and followed that up with a dominant 2 ¾ length stakes win in the Colonel Power stakes on March 16 at the Fair Grounds, with Chamberlain Bridge checking in third.
In his most recent start, the Grade 3 Churchill Turf Sprint on May 4, he never uncoiled his trademark late kick, finishing seventh by 4 ½ lengths, with rival Chamberlain Bridge finishing second.
“I don't know what happened at Churchill, since he very rarely throws a bad race,” said Jones, who has two Kentucky Oaks victory on his resume. “That wasn't a bad race, necessarily, he just didn't close in on them. We had a lot of rain, and I don't know if that affected him, but he has trained well since. I have run here at Penn National on this grass course before and it's a great course so we thought we would make the trip.”
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