HENDERSON, KY. (WFIE) - Jockey Florent Geroux was getting on horses at Churchill Downs Tuesday morning for the first time since a positive test for COVID-19 put him on the sideline for two weeks until he tested negative. Geroux resumes riding races Friday at Ellis Park.
“I never had any symptoms, I’m thankful for that,” he said. “I was not sick. You can see in our country and the rest of the world, some of them, it’s not very pretty. I was just thankful to not be sick. I missed a couple of weeks of racing, but that’s the way it is, and I had to stay home in quarantine.”
Several of Geroux’s scheduled mounts won in his absence at Ellis Park.
“It’s never a good time, but it’s better last week and two weeks ago than happening Kentucky Derby Week,” he said. “And I have some good mounts coming up now.”
--Spectacular Gem a diamond in the rough for Bakers--
To change up their luck in buying an inexpensive racehorse for themselves, Candie Baker told her husband to get “the biggest, ugliest colt you can find.”
Trainer Jimmy Baker kept getting outbid at the 2017 Keeneland yearling sale — “They sold so fast that I didn’t get to raise my hand,” he said — so he settled instead for small and good-looking. Baker paid $20,000 for that colt. Today Spectacular Gem has proven a diamond in the rough, bringing earnings of $248,571 into Sunday’s $100,000 Kentucky Downs Preview Tourist Mile at the RUNHAPPY Summer Meet at Ellis Park.
The race is part of Ellis' third annual Kentucky Downs Preview Day: five $100,000 turf stakes positioned as launching pads into big-money stakes at the all-grass track in Franklin, Ky. The winners of the Ellis stakes races get a fees-paid berth in the corresponding race at Kentucky Downs. The Preview Tourist Mile is an automatic qualifier for the $750,000 Tourist Mile on Sept. 7.
Normally Candie Baker wants to buy fillies, saying, “I just think they have a bigger heart than colts. And Jimmy always did good with fillies.
“But this time I said, ‘You know what, let’s change our luck a bit. I need the biggest, ugliest colt you can find,’” she recalled. “Then we kept getting outbid, outbid. I was like, ‘Just find me one.’ He said, ‘Candie, I found you one. It’s not probably what you want. It’s by nothing out of nothing, but he’s a good-looking colt.’ I said, ‘That’s fine.’ He really liked him, and we got him.”
Good-looking horses who sell for $20,000 tend to come up short as far as fashionable bloodlines. Spectacular Gem was sired by the unproven Can The Man (who actually is a son of the popular stallion Into Mischief), and out of a mare by Malabar Gold, a $1 million yearling whose biggest accomplishment was a Grade 3 victory. Jimmy Baker said he’d never heard of Can the Man when he bought Spectacular Gem.
“He looked fantastic,” he said. “He wasn’t a big horse but he was athletic-looking.”
“Jimmy has a really good eye for yearlings. I mean, cheap horses. I never want to get hurt in the business,” Candie said. “You can get a $500,000 horse that can’t win for maiden $10,000. We had another filly, Starlight Express, and she made us money. I said, ‘I got $20,000 that we can spend, and I know we’re going to have to spend another $20,000 to get the horse to the races. We were just using those other horses’ money, not my money.”
Spectacular Gem actually won his first career start at Ellis Park in a $30,000 maiden-claiming race. Five starts later, the colt earned his second victory the first time Jimmy Baker tried him on turf. He’s raced on grass pretty much ever since.
The colt has lost a stakes on a disqualification and won a stakes on a disqualification. In between Spectacular Gem captured Churchill Downs’ $125,000 Jefferson Cup in what’s become his trademark style of taking the lead early. That’s what the 4-year-old did in his last race, dominating a graded stakes-quality field in a Churchill allowance race off a 4 1/2-month layoff.
“He’s not very big. He’s long. He looks like a grass horse,” Candie said. “But he has a big heart and he loves what he does.”
To prepare for the Ellis stakes, Spectacular Gem worked a sparkling five-eighths of a mile in 59 1/5 seconds, which he followed up with a comfortable half-mile in 48 2/5 seconds, going the last three-eighths in 35 2/5 seconds under jockey James Graham Tuesday at Churchill Downs.
“Last week he worked exceptionally,” Jimmy said. “He’s never worked like that before. I know the track was fast, but he just seems to be on top of his game this year since his break…. His workouts lately are much better than the last two years, so he’s definitely on the improve.”
Baker has been training since 1989, having such quality horses as Grade 1 Whitney Handicap winner Mahogany Hall, multiple graded-stakes winner Spinning Round for New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes winner Elite Squadron and Grade 1-placed Pretty Prolific.
“I had a lot of good years in the 1990s, and we’ve been piddling the last 12 years buying horses, most of them fillies — a lot cheaper, $5,000, $10,000,” Baker said. “We’re just really lucky to get a horse like this. It means a lot to us because we’re in the game to run. To have a horse to run in these kinds of races is just a bonus for us.”
--Mitchell Road seeks second stakes of meet--
Mitchell Road, winner of the $50,000 Ellis Park Turf Stakes, will run back in the $100,000 Kentucky Downs Preview Ladies Turf, a prep for the $500,000, Grade 3 Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf on Sept. 12. Mitchell Road was second in that Kentucky Downs stakes last year.
“She’s training fine, just the regular routine with her,” said Kenny McCarthy, who oversees Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s Churchill Downs operation. “He left her here so it’s a good spot to run her back. It’s maybe the next step on the road down to Kentucky Downs with this filly.”
Mitchell Road is out of the same mare as Mott’s 2019 Kentucky Derby winner Country House. Mitchell Road started her career with five wins and two seconds in seven starts, capped by victory in Maryland’s Grade 3 Gallorette, before facing steeper competition. With a pair of seconds and a seventh in her first three starts this year, she was sent to the Ellis Park Turf in something of a reboot and confidence builder.
McCarthy said the neck win “maybe it looked a little harder work for her than maybe what it was, because she really bounced out of that race in great form. Again, I think it’s important that a horse does win, because sometimes a horse runs so hard and they finish second, third or fourth or whatever. But they run really hard and don’t get to feel that difference. I really think they know it.”