By Katie Petrunyak
One short elevator ride from the top of the Churchill Downs grandstand down to the ground floor was all the time it took for Phil Bauer to officially become a Grade I-winning trainer.
On Kentucky Oaks Friday, Bauer was watching from upstairs as his trainee Played Hard (Into Mischief) took the lead going into the stretch of the GI La Troienne S. and, with Johnny Velazquez aboard, fought off last year's Oaks victress Secret Oath (Arrogate) to win by a neck. When Bauer and an elated crew of Rigney Racing supporters raced to the elevator to get their picture taken, they unknowingly avoided the hair-raising anxiety of sitting through an objection raised by Secret Oath's rider Tyler Gaffalione. By the time the group made it to the winner's circle, it had been determined that there would be no change. Richard and Tammy Rigney's Rigney Racing and their trainer Phil Bauer had just earned their first Grade I win.
“It was such a special day, I guess a dream come true,” reflected Bauer, who grew up in Louisville. “You obviously strive to reach that level and to finally do it was just, I don't want to say a relief because relief is almost expecting something. You dream about it and then once it's real, it's something you can reflect on and be proud of. It all boils down to the team and how everybody came together. You think back to when we first bought the filly and then to get there, it's so satisfying and you're very happy for the Rigneys for what they've put into the game. It's long overdue and hopefully many more to come.”
Much of Played Hard's success, and the rise of Rigney Racing in the past few years, Bauer credits to a change in game plan.
Bauer was working as an assistant for Kenny McPeek when Richard Rigney–owner of the Louisville-based beverage company Clarendon Flavor Engineering–offered him the opportunity to become the private trainer for Rigney Racing. The operation launched in 2013 and, despite winning their very first race, saw very little success in their early years together. After earning only 27 wins from 250 starts in their first five years, they decided to enlist the help of bloodstock agent John Moynihan.
Played Hard, a $280,000 Keeneland September purchase, was part of one of the first Rigney Racing crops put together with Moynihan's assistance.
“John Moynihan was a big piece of the puzzle and made a world of difference in the last five years with bringing in quality racehorses,” explained Bauer. “The proof is in the pudding. You can see in the last five years for us, we've really started to excel and it boils down to the horse. [Richard and I] go to the sales, look at the short list and pick the ones that we like the most, but John is driving the boat and it has helped a lot.”
Bauer had high hopes for Played Hard when they took her home after the Keeneland sale and his faith in the daughter of Into Mischief grew after each trip to Ocala to visit the youngster. The filly didn't make the races at two and was unsuccessful in her first three starts at six furlongs, but once she stretched out, she stepped up to a new level. She ran second in the GIII Comely S. as a sophomore and at four, she bookended a third-place finish in the GI Spinster S. with two Grade III wins at Churchill Downs. Her victory in the La Troienne, where she went off at close to 9-1, was her first start since winning the GIII Falls City S. last November.
“I was a little nervous that she wasn't tight enough, but I think she has matured into a racehorse that knows the game now,” Bauer explained. “Just in daily training, she hates horses in front of her and she'll want to get to them. With her overall demeanor as an athlete, she's a competitor. It's something that some horses lack, but she's got plenty of it.”
Bauer is hoping that the 5-year-old's winning ways will continue on into this weekend, when she'll have another matchup with Secret Oath in the GI Ogden Phipps S. Played Hard will once again team up with John Velazquez to face a six-horse field that also includes last year's Ogden Phipps winner Clairiere (Curlin), plus GISW Search Results (Flatter).
“We originally thought, 'Well, let's just come back in the Fleur de Lis at the end of the Churchill meet,'” said Bauer. “We kept an eye on the Ogden Phipps and while it's not coming up light, it's just coming up with a reduced field. The fact that she's got the grade one, we felt like in the big picture if we can win or be extremely competitive in it, it's only going to help her credentials as the year comes to an end and hopefully keep her name in the conversation for an Eclipse Award or hopefully the Breeders' Cup.”
The Rigney Racing operation comes into Belmont weekend riding a hot streak at Churchill Downs.
Xigera (Nyquist) got the ball rolling last Friday when she took an allowance contest going a mile on the turf in her 3-year-old debut. A maiden winner last summer in Saratoga, the filly was third in the GI Darley Alcibiades but then finished last in a field of 14 when she took her connections to their first Breeders' Cup for the Juvenile Fillies Turf.
“We felt so confident going into the Breeders' Cup and to run as bad as she did was just a hard pill to swallow,” Bauer admitted. “She never grabbed the bit that day and there was no major excuse that we could point at, so we decided to give her the winter and let her develop. She came back much more mature physically and mentally. We were anxious to get a start in her and hoping she would return to form so when she did, it was just like a sigh of relief. We're hopeful that she can continue to climb the ladder and hopefully produce some stakes wins for us this year.”
Bauer said that everything, quite literally, is on the table for the filly's next start. While Xigera has always shown an affinity for turf, she trains well on the main track in the morning and performed well in the Alcibiades on dirt last fall.
Xigera's efforts were followed up with a win on Sunday from Warrior Johny (Cairo Prince). The 4-year-old gelding came in off a seven-month layoff to take an allowance optional claimer by four lengths.
Also last weekend, Bauer had two second-place finishes with Anna's Arabesque (Munnings), who was third last month in an overnight stake at Churchill Downs, and Little Prankster (Practical Joke), a $425,000 yearling purchase who has now finished second in her first two career starts.
“I think she's one to definitely keep an eye on,” reported Bauer. “She actually works in company with a lot of the horses we've already covered, so you know her ability is there.”
With 27 horses currently stabled at Churchill Downs and more trainees returning off layoffs or joining the barn as 2-year-olds this summer, Bauer said they have high hopes for Rigney Racing this year. They'll have to work hard to meet last year's achievements, when they were the leading owner at the Churchill Downs spring meet, took home six of their 13 starts at Saratoga and finished the year with a record 21 wins.
“It's something that we felt was coming,” Bauer said as he reflected on their recent achievements. “You don't always anticipate extreme success in this game, but you have a general idea that you can at least be competitive in certain areas based on what horses you have in the barn and how they're training. That has been the case the last couple of years. The whole program has finally gotten legs and taken off. It's what we were striving for and for it to be here, it's been a lot of fun.”
Bauer's connection with the Rigneys runs much deeper than a trainer-owner relationship.
“[Richard] is one of my best friends,” he shared. “We golf together all the time. I'm very fortunate and blessed that [the Rigneys] stuck with me and continued to build around what we started out together. That means a lot to me. They're great people and they care about everybody and want to have a family atmosphere here at the barn. It's a pleasure to train for them and it's even sweeter when we're able to be victorious.”
Played Hard's name originated from what has come to be a meaningful adage for the Rigneys.
“The name came from their motto of life of if you lived well, you played hard,” Bauer explained. “And they enjoy life. I think when their time is gone, people will be able to look back and say, 'Well they did about all you can do.' At the same time, they make everyone's lives around them better.”
While there was a host of over 60 of the Rigneys' closest friends and family present at their home track in Louisville for the La Troienne victory, come this weekend it will be a much different experience as Bauer and Richard Rigney take on Belmont together for Played Hard's bid in the Ogden Phipps.
“I don't know if I'll ever be able to top the feeling of our first grade one being at home with the cast that Richard had present at the races, but obviously winning a grade one at Belmont on Belmont Day would be surreal as well,” Baur said. “Richard and I are the only ones going up Saturday, that was just the way it kind of worked out, so maybe it would be even sweeter if we can celebrate together and focus how we started and where we've gotten to be.”