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Volponi pulls shocker in Classic
Ed McNamara
Special to

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. -- Even at odds of 43-1, he looked like an underlay, and many handicappers yesterday at Arlington Park eagerly would have booked bets on Volponi in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic. Was he a turf horse or a dirt horse? What he definitely was not was a threat to win North America's richest race.

Volponi (left) runs to a 6 1/2-length upset in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Not until he blew the Classic open in the stretch, sprinting home under jockey Jose Santos to humble 11 opponents and leaving runner-up Medaglia d'Oro behind by 6 1/2 lengths. From here in the Bizarro World, ladies and gentlemen, let's show some love for Volponi, and let's hear it for a deserving old school trainer, Phil Johnson.

Shock waves buzzed through the stands as the magnitude of the upset began to register. Horse of the Year? Uh, don't believe so. The racing stunner of the young millennium? It has to be up there. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem never made the lead and staggered in eighth. Nobody else ever looked like a winner. This can be a very strange game.

How did this happen? Maybe it was the blinkers that Johnson, a 77-year-old Hall of Famer, put on for the first time since May 30, a span of five races. Volponi had won three stakes, two on grass, in his career but never a Grade I and never against a field with so many big names. He broke a four-race losing streak and won a stakes on dirt for the first time since the Pegasus Handicap on Sept. 19, 2001, at The Meadowlands.

"It was easy," the well-liked, witty Johnson rasped in the winner's circle. "He's a nice horse, and that makes it easy. The blinkers helped him concentrate a little bit. I think he's a natural mile-and-a-quarter horse, and he runs just as well on the dirt as he does on the turf." His daughters, Kathy Johnson and Karen Johnson, and his wife, Mary Kay, appeared at the postrace news conference with Johnson, who was hoarse because of allergies. Karen Johnson, a reporter for the Daily Racing Form, has the unique distinction of owning a piece of the Classic winner an'd picking him to win the race. "I had to pick the horse on top," she said. "I have a lot of confidence in my dad." She picked three other Breeders' Cup winners, too, and bet on Volponi. Nice day, Karen. Phil Johnson, a Chicago native, grew up in the business on Illinois' racetracks, which made the glorious homecoming at Arlington that much sweeter. That it came a day before he and Mary Kay's 57th wedding anniversary was terrific, too.

"He was keeping his position from the half-mile pole on, and he's got a big kick," Johnson said. "The others were looking like they weren't moving well and he was looking strong."

The Classic was a surreal anticlimax of an epic day in which Azeri (Distaff), Storm Flag Flying (Juvenile Fillies), Vindication (Juvenile) and Orientate (Sprint) locked up Eclipse Awards. Jockeys Mike Smith and John Velazquez each won twice. Although Rock Of Gibraltar ran second to 26-1 Domedriver in the Mile, the 3-year-old Irish superstar justified his reputation with a wild late surge from last at the head of the stretch to be second, three-quarters of a length behind the French-trained winner. In the Sprint, Orientate, the 5-2 favorite, wore down the impossible-to-have Thunderello (35-1) in the final strides, giving trainer D. Wayne Lukas his record 17th Cup win.

In the Filly & Mare Turf, 13-1 Starine gave owner/trainer Bobby Frankel only his second Breeders' Cup victory, beating defending champion and stablemate Banks Hill by 1 1/2 lengths. Not only was it a Frankel/Frankel exacta, but the Hall of Famer also won back the $90,000 he put up last year to supplement Starine to this race. In the Juvenile, unbeaten Vindication ($10.20), Kafwain and Bull Market gave trainer Bob Baffert a 1-2-4 finish, with Irish colt Hold That Tiger closing late for third despite a slow start and a wide trip. Heavily favored High Chaparral got trainer Aidan O'Brien's Irish contingent off the schneid in the 1 1/2-mile Turf, running down pacesetter The Tin Man in midstretch and drawing away to a 1 1/4-length win over the grand old gray With Anticipation.

The Mile was marred by the death of Landseer, an O'Brien-trained stablemate of Rock Of Gibraltar. Landseer broke down turning into the stretch and suffered a broken right cannon bone, just below the knee. The 3-year-old colt was euthanized a few minutes later.

Four favorites won in the eight Cup events, with the Pick 6 paying $428,392. The crowd was announced as a track record of 46,118, but many of the seats on the clubhouse turn and the stretch turn were vacant all day. Despite the no-shows and freaky Classic, Breeders' Cup 19 was a grand finale for the season. Volponi's upset denied War Emblem a shot at Horse of the Year and probably handed the award to Azeri, who would be the first female to win it since Lady's Secret in 1986.

Volponi, a 4-year-old son of Cryptoclearance, never was farther back than fifth in the Classic and moved up to second, a head behind Medaglia d'Oro, after a mile in 1:35.59 on a fast track. When Volponi made his move in upper stretch, Medaglia d'Oro had no answer, and the others were going absolutely nowhere. Milwaukee Brew, a Bobby Frankel-trained stablemate of the runner-up, got up for third, a neck farther back and 6 3/4 lengths behind the winner.

The time was 2:01.39 and the win mutuel was $89, the second-highest in Classic history, behind only Arcangues' $269.20 in 1993 at Santa Anita. The winner's share of $2.08 million more than tripled Volponi's previous career earnings of $668,976 for Amherst Stable, a Johnson family operation that bred the colt, and Spruce Pond Stable.

"I didn't care about the odds," Santos said. "I probably sound crazy, but I was feeling confident at the five-eighths pole ... In the stretch, he opened up two [lengths] right away and said, 'Come and catch me.'''

To almost everyone's surprise, nobody could.



Classic results

Finley: Back on top of the world

Turf: High Chaparral explodes

Juvenile: Baffert horses finish 1-2

Filly & Mare Turf: Frankel gets second Cup win

Sprint: Orientate slides past Thunderello

Juvenile Fillies: Storm Flag Flying edges Composure

Mile: Domedriver upsets 'Rock'

Distaff: Azeri kicks off Breeders' Cup with win