The Belmont railbirds would no doubt agree with this assessment from trainer Jimmy Toner.
She is incredible.
For the third time in three stakes tries on the Belmont lawn, the outstanding 3-year-old filly Winter Memories proved victorious. Though today’s neck margin pales in comparison to the combined 8¼ lengths by which she captured the first two, it might well have been the most impressive of the troika.
How can she possibly top this one?
“I thought we had it all the way.”
This quote from Toner in the moments immediately following the race elicited a chuckle from normally stoic NYRA on-air personality Eric Donovan, and for good reason. Toner chuckled too, in recognition of the joke. In order to have been serious about the remark, he would’ve had to be the most confident man in the world (a title that is impossible to bestow on Toner. He wasn’t even the most confident man in the building, given the presence of owner Mike Repole, who was in the Belmont winner’s circle a half hour later with 2-year-old Our Entourage.) Surely even Repole would’ve had a moment of doubt during the stretch run of Saturday’s Garden City (G1). It looked for all the world like she was not going to get there.
The trouble-prone El Prado filly found herself in a tough spot once again on this day. Her trip in the Garden City was eerily similar to the one she received in her last outing in the Lake Placid (G2) at Saratoga. Toner switched pilots after the rocky trip that day, with Javier Castellano taking over the duties from Jose Lezcano. Toner was nonplussed about the fact that Winter Memories was in between horses most of the way around in the Lake Placid.
One can only imagine what he was thinking as he watched the Garden City unfold, because Winter Memories was faced with the exact same predicament. Castellano appeared to have trouble making up his mind about what to do with his mount as the field made their way towards the far turn. Should he take Winter Memories back to the rear of the field, or try to put her into the race, perhaps a little earlier than he wanted to? His indecision left Winter Memories, once again, in between horses most of the way around the track.
As they hit the top of the stretch, a bad situation got that much worse for Winter Memories. She was in behind a wall of horses And it looked, for the longest time, as though she wouldn’t be able to find a way through.
“When they turned into the lane, it was the same scenario,” Toner said. “She was blocked all over again. She had no place to go. I knew there was no chance to get inside or split horses; they were all bunched. I didn’t think she had a chance.”
Sure enough, though, the rider switch paid off. As, unlike Lezcano in the Lake Placid, who unsuccessfully dove to the rail when faced with a similar predicament, Castellano waited until he was able to tip Winter Memories to the outside. Once she got clear running, she came through the lane like a freight train.
“When everybody started to move, I had a chance to mover her aside and let her find her kick,” Castellano said.
“She has a wonderful kick,” he added - a remark that must surely be in the running for understatement of the year.
Winter Memories got up several strides before the wire to defeat European shipper Theyskens’ Theory by a neck. She completed the mile and an eighth in 1:51.06. Amazingly enough, it didn’t even seem as though Castellano ever fully asked the filly.
“Javier never panicked,” Toner observed.
He didn’t need to. He knew he was sitting on the goods.
Winter Memories has been one of the bright spots on this circuit throughout the year. Her appearance in the Garden City will be the last time she races on it this season. For the moment, according to Toner, Winter Memories is slated to make one more 2011 start, in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland on October 15th.
But the Belmont railbirds will be eagerly awaiting her return next season. And next time, they won’t doubt her chances until they hit the line.