Stormy Liberal: From Lowly Claimer To Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint Champion

Peter MillerFormer claimer Stormy Liberal was ignored by bettors at 30/1 but he did not know that he was a ‘no-hoper’ and surged late to win the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint on November 4 at Del Mar.

Trained by Peter Miller, the five-year-old gelding beat his barn mate Richard’s Boy (13/1) on the wire under Joel Rosario and immediately pricked his ears suggesting that he did not need to give absolutely everything to get his head in front.

It was Miller’s first Breeders’ Cup victory and an extraordinary result for him and Rockingham Ranch who own both trainees. A win on his home-court against the world’s top sprinters would have been a dream for Miller but achieving a one-two was something else, especially with two five-year-old geldings who appeared to be aspirational Breeders’ Cup entrants. It was not to be Miller’s last victory of the day, as he also took the BC Sprint (Dirt) with Roy H.

Miller knew that they were both facing a tough task and told Rosario not to waste a yard in running on Stormy Liberal. Rosario obliged and kept the son of Stormy Atlantic tight to the rail mid-pack in sixth and only angled out for his perfectly timed run in the stretch. Flavien Prat had Richard’s Boy close to the pace and must have thought he had the race won for the second straight year when he took the lead 150 yards from the wire. Prat took the 2016 Turf Sprint on Philip D’Amato’s eight-year-old Obviously.

Christophe Clement’s Disco Partner (6/1) was patiently ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr and took third, half a length ahead of Tim Glyshaw’s Bucchero (40/1). Clement also saddled the fifth-placed Pure Sensation (14/1) who set some scorching early fractions and managed to lead the pack until well into the final 200 yards. Ridden by Kendrick Carmouche who finished third on him in this race last year, the six-year-old was beaten just over a length by four horses a year younger than him. Pure Sensation had three four-year-olds right behind him. One of them was the 6/1 second favorite Marsha whom he beat a nose into sixth place.

The hot favorite, Wesley Ward’s three-year-old filly Lady Aurelia (4/5), was viewed as the banker of the Breeders’ Cup meeting by many but she found nothing in the stretch and finished tenth, beaten three lengths.

Home Advantage and Freshness Helped

Miller lives a few minutes’ drive from the track and thought the home advantage made a big difference for his horses who had plenty of experience of it. He made sure that they both had jockeys that knew Del Mar well too as it is a unique test of both horse and rider. Miller praised both his trainees as tough, brave horses who always perform well but admitted that they needed the benefit of leaving their own stalls on the day to get the better of these rivals. Stormy Liberal had never been tried beyond Grade 3 and Richard’s Boy had run well but not managed to score in his three attempts at that level. On the positive side Richard’s Boy was not disgraced when he lined up in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint at Meydan in March and finished fifth, beaten two and a half lengths.

Richard’s Boy was last seen finishing second in the California Flag Handicap at Santa Anita Park in late October but Stormy Liberal came into the race exceptionally fresh after a break of more than four months. He had not been seen since his disappointing run over six furlongs in the Jaipur Invitational in June at Belmont Park when he was beaten almost ten lengths by Disco Partner.

Prior to that run Stormy Liberal had been super-consistent for Miller. In December 2016 he finished second in the Grade 3 San Simeon Stakes at Santa Anita behind Bettys Bambino and managed to beat his more fancied stablemate Richard’s Boy a head into third. Some horses get particularly competitive when they are racing against their friends from home and Stormy Liberal might be one of them but he did not need home team rivals to help him post four straight wins earlier this year that included the Grade 3 Daytona Stakes in late May.

Gary Hartunian, aka Rockingham Ranch, claimed Stormy Liberal for $40,000 in October 2016 and bought Richard’s Boy privately for an undisclosed amount. Hartunian thought that Stormy Liberal’s former owners were probably about to jump off a bridge after his unexpected success. Miller had told Hartunian that Stormy Liberal had been working well at home and thought that a drop back to five furlongs might suit him. Hartunian likes to bet but admitted that he had not responded to Miller’s positive reports with a serious bet on his horses.

What Happened to the Favorite?

Lady Aurelia has been known to win from the front but her jockey John Velazquez said he deliberately let the regular pacesetters head him and was happy with his position close behind them during the race. He had successfully adopted similar tactics on her before and was surprised when she had almost no response when he asked her to quicken and faded in the final stages. Ward thought that Lady Aurelia must simply be feeling the effects of a long season and subsequently found no physical reason for her disappointing show.

Ward had previously voiced concerns that Del Mar might not suit his star filly telling the UK press that he believed the track is suited to closers and mentioned that their trainee Marsha, a hold-up horse, could be a threat to his star filly. His comments were not purely platitudes designed to endear him to the local press. Trained by Sir Mark Prescott, Marsha beat Lady Aurelia a nose in her Breeders’ Cup prep run in the Grade 1 Nunthorpe Stakes at York in August.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Lady Aurelia took the lead as soon as the gates opened at York and did not see a single rival until the 8/1 shot Marsha loomed late and wide of her. Dettori punched the air after crossing the line but, as the race-caller suspected, Lady Aurelia finished second. The turf at York was softer than ideal for any daughter of Scat Daddy but Ward was philosophical in defeat and did not blame the track conditions as his filly had won on much softer ground at Royal Ascot as a juvenile. Back then she was physically so far ahead of her European-based rivals that she could probably have won towing a truck. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and that run in the Nunthorpe now suggests that some of her sparkling ability was dimming.

Perhaps an upset was always likely as Prescott was worried about the demands of Del Mar too. He thought that his tall, long-striding filly would struggle with the tight turns as she had not handled her prep work on a similar UK track too well.

Future Plans

Ward has confirmed that Lady Aurelia will stay in training as a four-year-old. The plan was always for Marsha to go to the sales as a breeding prospect immediately after the Turf Sprint and after her creditable effort she looks set to fetch a very good price.

Stormy Liberal and Richard’s Boy will probably stay in training as they are geldings but their plans are yet to be disclosed as Miller and Hartunian are no doubt still celebrating.