Paul Brandt’s Balooga Bull silenced all naysayers with his second consecutive victory in the $50,000 Assiniboia Downs Gold Cup on Saturday night, becoming only the sixth horse in 56 years to win the prestigious race in back-to-back years.
Trained by Ardell Sayler and ridden by Paul Nolan throughout his career, the reigning Horse of the Year was thought by many to be a one dimensional speed horse. He disproved that theory once and for all in the 2013 Gold Cup.
Rating just back of pacesetter Ran the Man through quick fractions of 22.40 and 46.60, Balooga Bull moved to challenge that rival into the final turn and found little resistance after six furlongs in 1:12.20. Balooga Bull opened up in mid turn and by the time he got to the eighth pole after a mile in 1:39.60, he was five lengths in front. From there jockey Nolan simply measured his rivals to the wire, holding on to win safely by 1 ¼-lengths over rallying 2013 Manitoba Derby winner Assembly Hall.
Flexiplus rallied for third, 5 ¾-lengths behind Assembly Hall and 1 ¾-lengths in front of fourth-place finisher C.C. Ride. Ran the Man faded to fifth after setting suicidal fractions.
“We knew (trainer) Meyaard was going to send something out there to try and kill us off,” said an emotional Paul Nolan in the winner’s circle after the race. “I just basically ignored Chow (rider of Ran the Man) and rode my race, rode my horse. I’m not going to ride his race. I'm only paid to ride my race, one horse.”
The final time for the 1 1/8-miles over the fast track was 1:54.20, which at first glance appears a little sluggish, but the track had been playing slow for the past few weeks and the time was actually decent. Sent off as the heavy favourite in the seven-horse field, Balooga Bull paid $3.60 to win and improved his lifetime record to 12-1-1 from 15 starts for earnings of $252,286 (US).
Balooga Bull’s top rival in this year’s Gold Cup was expected to be Pleasant Closing, the winner of the only three races that Balooga Bull has lost in his career, but Pleasant Closing was scratched, as was Jon Q, leaving the rivalry to continue another time.
A 4-year-old gelding by Stephen Foster Handicap-G1 winner Flashy Bull out of the stakes-placed mare Proud Crusader by Crusader Sword, Balooga Bull started off the 2013 season at Assiniboia Downs with a neck loss to Pleasant Closing going 5 ½-furlongs. He avenged that defeat in his next start with a nose win over Pleasant Closing in the six-furlong Free Press Handicap. Then things went awry.
Balooga Bull set a slow early pace under pressure in the one-mile Wheat City Stakes and uncharacteristically stopped after a half mile, fading to finish fourth beaten 16 ¾-lengths, again by Pleasant Closing. Clearly there was something wrong, as not only was the Wheat City by far the worst race of Balooga Bull’s career, he didn't try at all. Certainly he was capable of losing, but not like this.
“No one knows what he has come through this year,” said Nolan. “When he pulled a knee and he pulled himself up in that one race, he was telling me he wasn’t right. Ardell and Paul took him down to Nebraska, took him to a vet and got him figured out. They did a good job. He’s come back a champion.”
“I want to cry right now," continued Nolan. “I really do. No horse in my whole life has ever done stuff for me like he has. You asked me if this was my favourite horse. He is my favourite horse. I'm finding it hard to talk right now. I am so proud of this horse, I'm so proud of the job the guys did. This really means a lot. And I want to say hi to my wife in Minneapolis, and hope this helps.”
Balooga Bull returned from a 7-week layoff to win a 7 ½-furlong allowance race over Pleasant Closing two weeks prior to the Gold Cup, but many handicappers observed that he was the lone speed in that race, having things all his own way and setting a slow pace. While the public appeared convinced, based on Balooga Bull’s odds in the Gold Cup, there were still those who thought he couldn’t win from off the pace.
“We thought this horse would be very competitive tonight,” said trainer Ardell Sayler, who also appeared near tears in the winner’s circle after the race. “He ran a good race. There are a lot people I want to thank. Paul Brandt the owner, for the faith he's had in me, (son) Aaron for his help saddling, (veterinarian) Cyndi Kasper, my grooms and everybody in my barn. We've done a lot of work on this horse and tried to get him healthy and back into his deal.”
Balooga Bull joined some elite company as the sixth horse in 56 years to win two consecutive Gold Cups. Previous back-to-back winners of the Assiniboia Downs Gold Cup include Go Fly (1961-62), Fall Session (1969-70), Buck Domino (1984-85), Exclusive Run (1999-2000) and Sir Pucker (2002-03). Could Balooga Bull become the first horse in history to win the Gold Cup three years in a row?
“Me and Paul both love this horse,” said Sayler. “We're going to take care of him and see what happens from here.”
That approach has certainly worked so far for Sayler, who has been under intense pressure, probably more of his own doing than anyone else’s, since Balooga Bull’s double-digit loss in the earlier allowance race. He had a good horse with problems on his hands, and he’d no doubt heard all the behind-the-back rumors saying that his horse was done and that he wouldn’t be able to bring him back to top form.
The backstretch can be a notorious rumor mill when anyone at the top of their game suffers a setback, and Balooga Bull was something the bad-luck crowd could latch on to.
Instead, he ran them over.