- Paul Moran
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The sound was that of jaws dropping in the rain.
Interpatation, headed and passed at midstretch by the winner of four consecutive Grade 1 stakes on turf, bobbled slightly as he changed leads, lengthened his stride when all who watched anticipated capitulation and suddenly was again on even terms with Gio Ponti, then as quickly as Chicago was dismissed by the Olympic Committee, again in front.
Interpatation is a rare American stayer and 12 furlongs is even better on ground turned into a bog by an untimely torrent of autumn rain at Belmont Park on the day called "Super Saturday" by the New York Racing Association. The gelded 7-year-old has no speed, but on this day he was on the lead in the $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park, prelude to Summer Bird's victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
There was no pressure to produce the performance of a lifetime. His presence on the lead seemed little more than an oddity, a function of the absence of a genuine speed horse in a field of only six.
Interpatation was a length in front of Al Khali as the Turf Classic unfolded like a Russian novel -- the half in :54.22, six furlongs in 1:22.20, 10 furlongs in 2:14.59. Clydesdales can run that fast and 4-5 Gio Ponti, the most accomplished turf runner in the land, loomed large behind a gelding whose most prestigious victory, the Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park -- a race in which he broke his maiden at odds his trainer recalls were 50-1 -- was more than four years ago. Interpatation has pulled the rug out from beneath more than one favorite, but not in a long, long time.
Interpatation had failed to win a race or finish better than fourth in six starts this year. He is as blue collar as horses get. The Turf Classic was his 50th career start and though he had not won a race in more than two years, he had ground out almost $800,000 for owner Elliot Mavorah, a devoutly religious man who forbids Barbara to train his horses on Jewish holidays, does not attend races on the Sabbath and was therefore not at Belmont Park to share the shock and awe of Interpatation's unlikely triumph.
There is scant opportunity in this country for a horse best suited to 12 furlongs, a distance at which Interpatation had failed to win in seven starts prior to the Turf Classic. He had, however, hit the board in four of those races, earning more than $250,000.
Trainer Bobby Barbara, a New York fixture, had to request an invitation to the $600,000 Turf Classic for the gelding he has trained throughout his career, because the former $25,000 yearling purchase was not on the short list of invitees. Since Interpatation had finished fourth in the 2006 running, third in 2007 and a surprising if not foreshadowing second in 2008, the request was granted.
There was no rush of agents to Barbara's barn. Five different riders have partnered Interpatation in six starts this year. Turned down by several jockeys, Barbara finally approached Robby Albarado, who took the mount.
Albarado's unfamiliarity with Interpatation was perhaps a key ingredient in the upset.
"I had never ridden him before. Bobby said in the paddock, he's a stayer," Albarado said. "He said a mile and a half is his distance and he ran his best race here last year, when he was second. I had the intention of being forwardly placed and I ended up on the lead, galloping -- in a canter. At every point, I had plenty of horse. When Gio Ponti ran up to me, I thought, maybe I can get second. But he didn't get away from me, and my horse hit his stride."
That's when the jaws began dropping.
The second-longest price among the six starters was 9.50-1. The horse drawing away from the vaunted Gio Ponti was 43.75-1, the kind you find only with the all button. In retrospect, the price was an underlay.
"With that," someone in the sparse Belmont crowd said as Interpatation galloped past the final post, "you've seen everything."
Hours later, Barbara, amidst the celebration, was still walking on air behind a wide smile that seemed to enter the room before he did.
"It's amazing," he said. "It's a funny story. It was great. Great!
"He was just galloping on the lead and Robby just said he was having fun doing it. I was waiting for him one day to pick his head up and do it right. He did it right on the perfect day."
One thing inevitably leads to another; one Grade 1 invitation to the next.
"I don't want to go to the Breeders' Cup or anything like that," Barbara said. "I want to go to Japan. I want the free ride to Japan. I really want that. This is my chance. That would be so cool."
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The sound was that of jaws dropping in the rain.