It’s been a long time in coming, but now finally in his 14th attempt, Optimizer is at long last a stakes winner. You would think after going down in defeat in his first 13 tries in stakes company, that the Bluegrass Hall homebred would be little more than a decent runner finally breaking through, and a horse likely never to be more than a brief blip on racing’s radar. Anyone who saw Optimizer blitz his nine foes yesterday afternoon in the Grade 3 Kent Stakes at Delaware Park knows better. With veteran rider, Jon Court sitting confidently in the irons, the 3-year-old son of English Channel dominated the solid field by more than 4 lengths while breaking the track record for a mile and an eighth on the turf in 1:47.27. So how did Optimizer throw down such a strong performance after so many losing efforts? The answer is simple; Optimizer is a turf horse.
Trained by Hall of Fame conditioner, D. Wayne Lukas, Optimizer began his career as a promising grass runner 16 starts ago. With an impressive late rush he won his career debut at Saratoga last August, and came right back to narrowly miss winning the Grade 2 With Anticipation in his second career start. Running second by a half-length that day while besting another horse with a big future, Dullahan, it appeared that Optimizer was well on his way to becoming a turf star. But then something strange happened, the horse bred for the turf, stopped running on the turf. Race after race went by, and somehow Optimizer avoided running on grass. He was defeated by double digits in big races like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Arkansas Derby. Surely this would be a signal for Lukas to get this horse, with all the grass potential in the world, back on the grass. You would think so, but no. Optimizer ran 11th in the Kentucky Derby, beaten 12 lengths. Two weeks later, he finished 6th in the Preakness, beaten more than 15 lengths. Enough is enough? No. Optimizer became the only horse to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown. The poor horse was beaten more than 30 lengths in the Belmont Stakes while finishing 10th.
With the Triple Crown over, it was time for Lukas to finally come to the realization that maybe his colt should be back on the grass. After ten straight races off the turf, and struggling through the rigors of the Triple Crown, Optimizer returned to the turf in the Grade 2 Virginia Derby. The yielding turf, strong competition, and poor trip did him that day, but still the rallying fourth place finish was his first strong performance in some time. Unfortunately his next race, the Hall of Fame Stakes, was taken off the turf and produced another dull effort. We can only hope that this will be the final dirt race of his career.
Sent off as the 3-1 second choice in the Kent, Optimizer was coming into yesterday’s race off a sharp allowance win on the Saratoga turf. The allowance score was his first win since his debut victory, in only his fourth try on the turf. That is, until yesterday’s big win. Clearly this horse has taken to grass like Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Now I am not as smart as D. Wayne Lukas, but I have to wonder, what took him so long to get Optimizer back on grass?