Balooga Bull became the first horse in the history of Assiniboia Downs to win three straight Gold Cups on Saturday night and he did it the hard way, forcing a suicidal pace before powering away to win the 57th running of Manitoba's most prestigious race for 3-year-olds and up.
Five exceptional horses have won back-to-back Gold Cups at Assiniboia Downs since 1958, but none have been able to make it three in a row. Consecutive winners of the most prestigious race for older horses at the Downs include Go Fly (1961-62), Fall Session (1969-70), Buck Domino (1984-85), Exclusive Run (1999-2000) and Sir Pucker (2001-03).
Trained by Ardell Sayler for owner Paul Brandt, and ridden in all 21 of his lifetime starts by Paul Nolan, Balooga Bull now stands alone in the history books not only as the winner of three consecutive Gold Cups, but as the only horse to win the race three times. Other double Gold Cup winners include champions Island Fling (1977, 1979) and Plenty Chilly (1993, 1995).
Balooga Bull jumped out of the gate quickly in front of archrival Magic D' Oro and three other rivals on Saturday night, but Magic D' Oro quickly surged to an open lead with new rider Alexis Batista. Tracking a fast pace of 22.40 and 46.40, Nolan rated Balooga Bull just back and outside of Magic D' Oro early, but his horse was raring to go on the backstretch.
In their previous two meetings, the Wheat City and R. J. Speers, Balooga Bull had set the pace inside under pressure from Magic D' Oro and given that one the slip late on the turn for home. In both those races Magic D' Oro had minor early trouble and was forced to play catch up, losing by three-quarters of a length in the Wheat City and a neck in the R. J. Speers.
The tables were turned on Saturday. A clean break and Magic D' Oro was on the lead. There would be no excuses this time. Balooga Bull moved to force the issue from the outside down the backstretch and the dynamic duo headed swiftly towards the turn for home.
"We were going pretty damn fast," said Nolan. "So I thought, well, I'd just sit behind him a little bit. And then at about the 3 1/2 (furlong marker) he just grabbed the bit and pulled me right by him. I'm like, we're a little early man, but I guess he knew what he was doing and I didn't."
Balooga Bull took a head lead into the final turn after six furlongs in 1:10.60 and the top pair were 11 1/4-lengths in front of their remaining three rivals, who looked like they were in another race. Balooga Bull couldn't give Magic D' Oro the slip in late turn this time, but he had him by half a length as they turned for home and got him for good at the eighth pole. After a mile in 1:36.80, Balooga Bull opened a clear lead on Magic D' Oro and drew out to win by 3 1/4-lengths. The slight favourite at post time, Magic D' Oro gave it a valiant try for trainer Rob Atras and owners Martin Yeroschak and Barry Arnason, but he was clearly second best on this day.
The final time for the 1 1/8-miles was 1:51 over a track rated as fast. Balooga Bull paid $4.40 as the second choice in the wagering. Master Lightning rallied belatedly to finish third, 8 1/4-lengths behind Magic D' Oro, and it was a length back to Prince Raphael in fourth. Canterbury Park shipper Red Zeus faded to finish fifth and last.
"This is one of the best horses I've ever ridden," said Nolan after the race. "He just gives you everything. He's just a fun horse to be with. Not taking anything away from Magic D' Oro, you know he's a nice horse. Two nice horses together, that's what brings the people out. They put on a show tonight. And thankfully we were the ones in front."
Balooga Bull had lost his first two meetings with Magic D' Oro earlier in the year and the score was even at 2-2 heading into the Gold Cup.
Sayler said that Balooga Bull wasn't tight enough in the spring when facing more seasoned horses, and that the more he trained Balooga Bull, the better he got. Now coasting to his record 12th training title at Assiniboia Downs with 71 wins, Sayler has done a masterful job with his finicky eater.
Sayler purchased Balooga Bull for owner Paul Brandt for only $2,000 at the 2010 Fasig Tipton October Sale and has guided him from yearling to superstar locally. Balooga Bull has never raced outside of Assiniboia Downs, despite the fact that he has compiled a record of 16-3-1 from 21 starts for earnings of $333,026.
The 5-year-old gelding by Flashy Bull-Proud Crusader by Crusader Sword has won 11 stakes at Assiniboia Downs including the Gold Cup (three times), Manitoba Derby, Wheat City Stakes, Free Press Stakes, R. J. Speers, Golden Boy Stakes, Winnipeg Futurity, Osiris Stakes and Graduation Stakes.
Many would have been tempted to take Balooga Bull elsewhere earlier in his career, but Sayler patiently waited and let his horse fully develop. After his third Gold Cup in row, Sayler thinks his big horse is ready to take the next step. He's always wanted to try Balooga Bull on the grass and will probably do so in Phoenix this winter.
"He's come along pretty good," said Sayler. "So I think we're gonna go do something."
Nolan felt honoured to be in the right place at the right time for Balooga Bull, to be a part of history. He thanked both Sayler and owner Paul Brandt for sticking with him over the years. Sayler also thanked Brandt, and appeared near tears when he said…
"He's the nicest horse I've ever trained."