Will Winchester Handle Polytrack?

Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Firestone’s Winchester was still expected to be the star attraction in Saturday’s 80th anniversary edition of the Stars and Stripes Stakes as of late morning even after Arlington’s traditional 12-furlong marathon was taken off the grass following heavy overnight storms in northwest Chicago.


After being told that the Stars and Stripes was off the grass, Winchester’s trainer Christophe Clement advised the owner that the race would be run at a mile and a half over Arlington’s Polytrack and then called the Arlington racing office to confirm that – at least for the immediate future – the 6-year-old entire son of Theatrical would remain in the afternoon’s featured $100,000 event.


Clement’s reasoning, according to the racing office, was that the horse was already on the grounds at Arlington and the jockey was already in the air in a flight from New York to Chicago.


Winchester, who won Arlington’s Grade I Secretariat Stakes as a 3-year-old in 2008, won Belmont’s Grade I Manhattan Handicap in June of 2010 and Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational in early October, but has been idle since the Group I Cathay Pacific Classic Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin last December.  The horse has run exclusively over grass courses in all 21 of his lifetime starts.  The Virginia homebred’s last four works, including a five-furlong move in 1:03.60 over Belmont’s Long Island lawn on July 17, have all been on grass.


Jockey Cornelio Velasquez, who has ridden Winchester in his last five American starts, was already on his flight to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport when the decision to abandon turf racing at Arlington on Saturday was made.  The Panamanian rider is remembered locally for sweeping all three of the Arlington’s graded stakes on Million Preview Day in 2005.


Incidentally, according to weatherman Mike Caplan of ABC-7 News, almost seven inches of rain had fallen at O’Hare before 9 a.m. Saturday, setting a single calendar day record.


At Arlington Park Saturday morning, the infield lake had breached its normal level and there was standing water in the area of the Jumbotron board.


French-born Clement’s Irish-born assistant Liam Kelly flew to Chicago Friday morning and schooled Winchester in the Arlington paddock midway through the late afternoon program.


“He schooled very well – he didn’t turn a hair,” said Kelly, who gallops Winchester during his training.  “It was like he was right at home.  He’s quite the professional.  Other horses don’t seem to bother him.  The boss thinks he can be a little quirky during training, but I’ve always gotten along very well with him and Cornelio knows him very well, too.  I’m glad Cornelio wants to come here and stay on the horse.  You do need to know him.”




The record rainfall in northwest Chicago Friday night and Saturday morning succeeded temperatures in the high 90s last Thursday, when Arlington Park conducted a 10-race program without incident to any of the horses that ran that day.


Trainer Chris Block was asked midway through Thursday’s program about his own thoughts going into the day.


“I was very concerned going into the day,” said Block, “but I think Arlington Park has done a great job getting ready.  There are plenty of spots to hydrate and cool off your horse before and after the race in both the paddock and down by the winner’s circle.  I also think watering the racetrack before every race has been very helpful.  My hat is off to Arlington Park for being prepared for this very unusual day weather-wise in Illinois.”


English-born jockey agent Penny Ffitch-Heyes, a former steeplechase rider who now handles the engagements of Arlington’s current leading rider J. Z. Santana as well as the veteran jockey E. T. Baird, currently fourth in the standings, had this to say when asked about Thursday’s racing program.


“What can I say other than everything went well because everyone at Arlington was ‘teaming in’ throughout the day?” said Ffitch-Heyes.  “The members of the starting gate crew, the track maintenance crew, the valets and all the people in the paddock all chipped in because everyone around here cares about the horses most of all.  It’s always been that way around here.”




European-based Arlington Million candidates Ransom Note, owned by H. R. Mould and trained by Barry Hills, and Tazeez, owned by Shadwell Stable and trained by John Gosden, ran second and seventh respectively in Saturday’s Group II Sky Bet York Stakes at Great Britain’s York Racecourse.




After recording a training double Friday at Arlington, conditioner Scott Becker moved into a tie with trainer Larry Rivelli for the lead in Arlington’s trainer standings at the end of Friday’s racing program.



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