GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas (Thursday, May 26, 2022) — Lucrative purses attract racehorses of quality, who in turn attract more betting, which leads to even higher purses, which attract even better racehorses, who draw larger crowds that create even more handle, which contributes to even higher purses, and so it goes. That’s racetrack momentum. A single push can start the ball rolling. And since the creation of the Horse Industry Escrow Account in 2019, purses at Texas’ racetracks have more than doubled.
Last season, from a nine-year hiatus, Lone Star Park brought back its Memorial Day showcase event, Lone Star Million Day. And Monday’s renewal of Lone Star Million Day promises to present one of the most entertaining racing programs in the racetrack’s history. The days’ six stakes races offering $1.2 million in prize money will attract, yes, horses of quality, but also some of the most prominent jockeys and trainers in the nation. Sonny Leon, who just weeks ago won the Kentucky Derby (Grade 1) on Rich Strike, will be here to ride in three of the six stakes. Stewart Elliott, who won the 2004 Kentucky Derby on Smarty Jones and now rides regularly at Lone Star, has a mount in all six. And Victor Espinoza, who rode three Kentucky Derby winners, including the great Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, will be here to ride in both the $300,000 Texas Derby and the $400,000 Steve Sexton Mile. From California, trainers Doug O’Neill, John Sadler, Sean McCarthy, and Richard Baltas are sending horses for Lone Star Million Day. Competitors from Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Florida will also be here. And, of course, Steve Asmussen, who sits securely atop the sport’s all-time trainers’ standings, will be very active, with eight horses entered in the day’s stakes races.
The day’s lineup encourages an optimistic view of Texas racing’s future, but the view is tinged with nostalgia, or at least remembrance, for this was the original vision, and this was, in many ways, how it all began. The great Skip Away traveled to Lone Star in 1997 for the inaugural running of the Texas Mile, as it was then called. He finished third behind Isitingood, who became the first of trainer Bob Baffert’s four winners in the race. Isitingood completed the mile in 1:34.44, establishing a record that still stands. Skip Away, of course, went on to be named the champion older male and, the next season, Horse of the Year. Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet traveled here in 1999, when the Texas Mile (Grade 3) became the state’s first graded stakes. And in 2017, when the race became the Steve Sexton Mile to honor the racetrack’s former vice president and general manager who had died the previous December, Mor Spirit gave a memorably scintillating performance, winning by nearly six lengths, with jockey Mike Smith putting his stick away before they reached the sixteenth pole. A month later, Smith and Mor Spirit won the Metropolitan Handicap (Grade 1) at Belmont Park.
And so it was, too, for the Texas Derby, first known as the Lone Star Derby, with a parade of standouts traveling here for the race. Its winners include such millionaires as Anet, Pollard’s Vision, Dynever, and Game On Dude. In fact, the 2010 Lone Star Derby was Game on Dude’s first of 14 stakes victories. He went on to become the only horse to win the Santa Anita Handicap three times on his way to earning $6,498,893. And so Monday’s Lone Star Million Day is a reminder of what was, but also a window to what could be again.
Among the competitors coming here from Florida is Saffie Joseph, Jr. Eleven years ago, when he was 24 but wiser than his years, he arrived in Miami from Barbados with a two-horse stable, a duffel bag, and a dream. “In racing, you have to have a dream,” he explained, and his dream, more goal than fantasy, was to compete at the sport’s highest level. This wasn’t vaunting ambition, nor did he arrive like a moth pursuing a star. Today, he’s the ninth leading trainer in North America, having won with 21 percent of his 158 starters. Horses from his stable already have earned $3.7 million this season. In April, Joseph sent out White Abarrio to win the $1 million Florida Derby (Grade 1). After a wide and troubled trip, White Abarrio finished 16th in the Kentucky Derby, but his stablemate Skippylongstocking gave a solid performance in the Preakness (Grade 1), finishing fifth.
Monday, Joseph will saddle another promising 3-year-old, A.P.’s Secret, in the Texas Derby. In his most recent outing, the gray son of Cupid finished fourth at Aqueduct in the Wood Memorial (Grade 2), behind Mo Donegal, Early Voting, and Skippylongstocking. Following that performance, Mo Donegal, of course, finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby, and Early Voting won the Preakness.
“We’ve always liked him,” Joseph said about A.P.’s Secret, “and think he’s better than he has shown so far.” A.P.’s Secret has won two of his five races, his only poor performance being a seventh-place finish in the Florida Derby, where he clipped the heels of another horse at the top of the Gulfstream stretch and faded to seventh.
Also entered in the Texas Derby are Cover Me Up, Strike Hard, Win the Day, Presidential, King Ottoman, Fowler Blue, and Got Thunder. Cover Me Up finished second most recently in an allowance affair at Churchill Downs behind Creative Minister, who last weekend finished third in the Preakness. Although winless in three starts, King Ottoman might be the most intriguing horse in the field. From the Kentucky string of the Asmussen stable, King Ottoman was a workmate at Churchill Downs for the champion filly Echo Zulu, who finished fourth in the recent Kentucky Oaks (Grade 1). And Got Thunder will be ridden by Victor Espinoza, who won the Lone Star Derby on Wanna Runner and Mythical Power.
The Steve Sexton Mile might be the racing event of the year in Texas: Ten horses of quality enter the race with a spoor of accomplishments behind them and a future of potential ahead. It’s as contentious as a scrum; the 10 horses collectively have earned $4,852,619. Joseph will saddle Mish, who, like his trainer, is an up-and-comer. Before moving to the Joseph stable, however, Mish had sparse success: a single victory in seven starts, most of them in claiming company. But stretching out to a mile from shorter sprints, he has been nothing less than sensational, winning his last two outings at Gulfstream Park by a total of 16 lengths.
Stretching out, Joseph said, clearly turned the 5-year-old around and made all the difference. “The first time we tried it,” the trainer said, “he was impressive, and the second time even more impressive. But those were one-turn races, and this will be two turns. And the competition will be much tougher; so this is a big test for him.”
Likely to be favored in the betting is lightly raced California invader, Shaaz. A $1.1 million purchase, Shaaz is undefeated in three races at Santa Anita (one via disqualification). Formerly trained by Baffert, Shaaz comes here with trainer Sean McCarthy. Also entered are Silver Prospector, Popular Kid, Flash of Mischief, Sheriff Brown, Mine That Star, Tesoro, and Rated R Superstar.
The other stakes on Lone Star Million Day card are the $100,000 Chamberlain Bridge Stakes, named for Carl Moore’s sensational winner of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (Grade 1); the $100,000 Memorial Day Sprint; the $100,000 Speightstown Sprint, named for the winner of the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (Grade 1) at Lone Star; and the $200,000 Ouija Board Distaff, named for the European Horse of the Year who won the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Lone Star.
Joseph will be making his first trip to Lone Star. Texas is the perfect place for big dreams.