By Joe Bianca
They don’t keep stats for this sort of thing, but there likely aren’t an abundance of Thoroughbreds who yawn while getting saddled for a race in the paddock at Saratoga. There are likely way fewer yawners who then go on to win said race. How about ones who then win when the race is a Grade I?
That’s the obscure feat Lee Pokoik’s Sippican Harbor (Orb) pulled off in the Sept. 1 GI Spinaway S. at the Spa, but if you listen to the filly’s trainer Gary Contessa, or spend any time around her, you’d know the filly was really just being herself. It takes a special disposition, after all, to race three times, on multiple surfaces, in the same Saratoga meet and have it culminate in the kind of achievement Sippican Harbor landed on closing weekend in Upstate New York.
“I wasn’t kind to her during Saratoga,” Contessa said of his charge’s busy schedule. “I ran her three times. That doesn’t happen a lot with a baby. She’s very durable, a very rugged kind of filly. It didn’t affect her in any way.”
The dark bay debuted July 22, going 1 1/16 miles on the turf. She was bet strongly off of a positive workout report and endured a traffic-filled trip before settling for fifth, beaten four lengths.
“We worked her a couple of times on the turf at Saratoga,” Contessa said. “She was phenomenal. I was thinking she was a turf horse. Ran her first time out, absolutely expected her to win. She was trapped. If you watch the replay of her turf race, [she was] trapped every step of the way on the rail. Joel [Rosario] had nowhere to go, and she ran fifth. To the eye, it didn’t look like look like a good race. Believe me, she was absolutely trapped, she never had a chance to run.”
Contessa reentered his filly Aug. 12 at the same distance and surface, only for the race, as a great many did this summer at Saratoga, to get washed off the turf. He decided not to scratch, and that made all the difference in Sippican Harbor’s destiny. Going off as the 9-5 favorite, she absolutely crushed her competition, romping by 17 lengths.
“It rained, it came off, and I still thought I had the best horse, because her dirt works and her turf works are equally good,” he said. “Now I’ve got kind of a lesser field of off-the-turf horses, so I really expected her to win. I didn’t expect her to win by 17 lengths, but I did expect her to win. She did, she delivered. Immediately, that changed my game plan with her, because of how impressive she was on the dirt.”
Unsure about the level of competition she beat, Contessa consulted speed-figure makers like Len Ragozin to ascertain just how good Sippican Harbor’s maiden victory was. He learned that she was in the ballpark with any 2-year-old filly in the country at that point, which gave him the confidence to attempt the Spinaway. Sold as he was on her talent, Contessa still didn’t quite know what to expect.
“She beat nothing,” he said of Sippican Harbor’s graduation. “We’ve all seen horses beat nothing and get big numbers, then when they have to run against something, they don’t quite show up. Even I was not positive she was going to show up for the Spinaway, but I felt very good. I wouldn’t have traded positions with anybody.”
He was right about that position of strength. Despite her yawning, Sippican Harbor put in a huge rally from the back of the pack to win going away by two lengths at 16-1, punching her ticket to the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in the process. Her effort was further flattered when runner-up and ‘TDN Rising Star’ Restless Rider (Distorted Humor) came back to romp in the GI Darley Alcibiades S. last Friday at Keeneland.
Having asked so much from his filly at Saratoga, Contessa is now taking his time with her leading up to the Breeders’ Cup.
“I backed off her for three weeks,” he said of Sippican Harbor’s return downstate to Belmont. “I just want a bunch of long, steady breezes in her. Keep her happy, let her put on a little weight, let her be a horse. That’s what we’re in the process of doing right now. The key to her is the gallop-out. She’ll work five-eighths, and then if you just put your hands down on her and let her keep going, she’ll go all the way around the track again. She has endless energy.”
A relaxed temperament is key with the majority of great racehorses, and Sippican Harbor has it in spades. Making the rounds at Contessa’s barn, she stops and starts whenever she’s asked, takes direction, will pause and be petted for as long as her company wants, and never bats an eye or turns a hair.
“She’s a real sweet filly,” Contessa said. “She doesn’t have an evil bone in her body, so she’s really nice. Little kids can come over and kiss her and stuff, so it’s great. She’s as cool, calm and collected as any horse I’ve ever trained, and that’s probably why she’s so good. Things don’t bother her. She doesn’t get nervous, she doesn’t sweat. She is the sweetest thing.”
Now, Contessa and Sippican Harbor will bide their time as the World Championships at Churchill Downs await for their blue-collar outfit.
“She’s a fit horse,” Contessa said. “It’s not going to be a matter of fitness. If God willing we can keep her sound and we can keep her happy, and we get to the Breeders’ Cup, we might be able to win it this time.”