MAN O' WAR STAKES | PURSE: $400,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 1 | 1 3/8 MILE
Phipps Stable and Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey have cornered the market on the Grade 1, $400,000 Man o' War Stakes of late, with Point of Entry (2012), Boisterous (2013) and now Imagining prevailing in Sunday's renewal at Belmont Park. Under a front-running ride by Joel Rosario, the six-year-old repelled a stretch challenge from Real Solution to complete the hat trick for connections.
"I'd never won the race before," McGaughey said, "and now I've won it three years in a row. I'm pleased, I'm pleased for the horse."
Like Point of Entry and Boisterous, Imagining was earning his first Grade 1 victory in the Man o' War. The regally-bred son of Giant's Causeway, who was dispatched as the 3-1 second choice, used his tactical speed to great effect on an inner turf course rated "good." Getting the jump on Frac Daddy through an opening quarter in :23 ⅘ seconds, he was stalked by that rival through splits of :49 seconds and 1:13 ⅗. English invader Grandeur rode the hedge just behind the leader, covered up by 9-5 favorite Amira's Prince. Real Solution and Vertiformer were content to lope along in the rear.
Rounding the far turn, Frac Daddy tried to press Imagining at the mile mark in 1:38, but the eventual winner was traveling conspicuously the better of the two. Real Solution, meanwhile, began to make eye-catching headway, and tipped his hand as the biggest danger to the pacesetter.
Imagining soon put Frac Daddy away, only to find Real Solution looming into contention at the top of the lane. First drifting out toward Real Solution before ambling back in, Imagining kept finding more in resolute fashion. Real Solution's bid stalled in deep stretch, as has become a tendency for him, and Imagining edged three-quarters of a length clear. After negotiating 1 ⅜ miles in 2:14 ⅕, Imagining furnished an $8.50 win mutuel.
"Shug told me there wasn't probably going to be a lot of speed in the race," Rosario said, "and he was coming off a couple of months off, so he'd probably show some speed and he did. He's a game horse. Every time a horse came to him, he's a fighter. I was really happy with him today."
Real Solution's rider, Javier Castellano, wished that more pace had been on tap for his late runner.
"It wasn't a very quick race; I wish there would have been more pace. He's a come from behind horse, unfortunately the pace was too slow; they were walking in front. I tried to save some ground and come from behind, but it cost me the race."
Trainer Chad Brown cited an additional factor in Real Solution's defeat.
"Javier was frustrated he got shuffled out of position," Brown said. "The plan was to follow Amira's Prince the whole way, and when that horse just didn't fire he sort of backed up into him and put him in a bad spot. He thought he had to use him too much to get to [Imagining's] throatlatch in the stretch, and it might have took a little bit out of him. He was high weight today as well. I'm glad to see this horse round back into form. I was confident he would fire today. If all is well, I'll bring him back in the Manhattan [Grade 1 on June 7]."
Grandeur, who gamely boxed on every step of the way on the inside, was just another half-length astern in third. There was a gap of 2 ¾ lengths back to Frac Daddy in fourth, followed by Vertiformer and the subpar Amira's Prince. Lucayan was scratched.
Amira's Prince's non-effort left Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott wondering whether something might have been amiss.
"He was having a good trip -- he just didn't run," Mott said. "We'll just have to see if something shows up back at the barn. As far as the trip went, I can't blame that."
Imagining now sports a mark of 16-8-4-0, $813,114. A closing second in his stakes debut in the 2011 Hollywood Derby, the chestnut captured the first two starts of his 2012 campaign, but headed to the sidelines in the wake of a disappointing fifth in the Nijinsky at Woodbine. Although Imagining opened his five-year-old season with a sharp allowance score at Keeneland, he flopped once more in graded company in the Dixie at Pimlico, where he checked in 10th.
McGaughey then added blinkers, and Imagining has turned over a new leaf. He has won four of his last six, including a 5 1/4-length wire job in the Idle Rich at Saratoga last August, another front-running success in the Bowl Game at Belmont in October, and an off-the-pace verdict in the November 16 Red Smith at Aqueduct. That Red Smith victory was also a hat trick for the Phipps/McGaughey tandem, following the back-to-back wins in the Grade 2 event by Boisterous in 2012-13.
Imagining returned from his holiday in the February 9 Gulfstream Park Turf, rallying from last to get up for second. He continued his ascent at Belmont, boosting his local mark to 8-5-1-0.
"He does like it here," McGaughey said of his proficiency at Belmont, "but his race in Florida was a good race, too. I'm happy for the horse, this is his first Grade 1. We've got a good, solid race into him now and hopefully he'll come back fine and we'll have a good summer with him.
"This was only his second race since November; he was sharp in the paddock and he was training sharp so we felt like if he broke well, he'd probably be right up there. He was able to hold off a couple of pretty nice horses running at him and Joel did a great job of riding him. I thought it all worked out really well.
"Hopefully we can run him in the Manhattan on Belmont Day."
A homebred foaled in Kentucky, Imagining was reared by the Grade 2-winning Daydreaming, an A.P. Indy mare also responsible for the stakes-placed Reflecting. Daydreaming is herself a full sister to Grade 1 winner Girolamo and Grade 3 victor Accelerator. All were produced by Grade 3 winner Get Lucky, the ancestress of Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Grade 1 winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Bluegrass Cat.
Imagining's third dam is Grade 1 queen Dance Number, dam of 1989 champion juvenile colt Rhythm. His fourth dam is 1971 champion juvenile filly Numbered Account, who produced noted sire Private Account.