It was dark by the time they opened the starting gate for the Donn Handicap, making it difficult to make out the horses. But when the select field of older horses turned into the stretch, Mshawish was the first to reach the lights at the finish.
“It was like the Alysheba Breeders’ Cup,” said winning trainer Todd Pletcher of the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic, which ended in near total darkness at Churchill Downs.
With Mshawish, make no mistake. The 6-year-old horse has found a new calling. After spending the early part of his racing career finding solid success on the grass, his recent switch to the dirt has reaped unforeseen rewards.
By winning the Donn on Saturday at Gulfstream, he became a Grade 1 winner on both dirt and turf, something that is rare in the sport. Pletcher said the horse will continue to race on dirt and is pointing him toward the Dubai World Cup on March 26.
“The one thing we kept talking about is the horse is very impressive on the dirt, so when the opportunity comes up, we’re going to do it,” Pletcher said.
That opportunity came late last year when, after the horse finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile — a turf stakes — at Keeneland, Pletcher and owner Al Shaqab Racing decided to make the switch in racing surfaces.
Mshawish finished a strong fourth in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile — beaten only 1 1/4 lengths — before posting his first dirt stakes win on Jan. 9 at Gulfstream in the Hal’s Hope Handicap.
That victory provided a nice tune-up for Saturday’s performance in the 1 1/8-mile Donn, one in which Mshawish had to face a much tougher field. Foremost among his seven rivals was Keen Ice, whose claim to fame was handing American Pharoah his only loss of the year for the 2015 Triple Crown winner.
But Keen Ice was never a factor, finishing sixth in the field of eight after going off as the 5-2 favorite.
After early front-runner Financial Modeling eventually yielded and Valid took brief command, Mshawish — who received a perfect stalking trip under jockey John Velazquez — went by to win by two lengths. It was another half-length back to Mexikoma.
“I always had a lot of horse, but it was a tough race,” Velazquez said. “I was in a perfect position the whole way because I knew the horse laying second [Valid] eventually had to move to get to the horse on the lead. From the quarter pole, I let him go and he went on. He finished up really well.”
Said Pletcher: “I thought he ran the best race of his career, and he’s run some good ones before that. Johnny gave him a great ride, and he delivered a great performance.”
The win in the $500,000 stakes pushed Mshawish past $2 million in career earnings.
Keen Ice wasn’t the only big favorite to come up empty Saturday.
The Pizza Man, the even-money shot in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap the race before the Donn, was never a factor and finished fifth, well behind winner Lukes Alley.
Lukes Alley, ridden by Paco Lopez for trainer Josie Carroll and owner Melnyk Racing Stables, got past front-running Shining Copper in the final strides to win by a neck.