TORONTO — It didn't go originally as planned but jockey Jose Ortiz and Oscar Performance still found the winner's circle at the Grade 1 $800,000 Ricoh Woodbine Mile on Saturday.
Oscar Performance went wire-to-wire for the 1 1/2-length win on a hot, muggy afternoon at Woodbine Racetrack. The initial plan was for Oscar Performance to settle in behind French-bred filly La Sardane, who was expected to set the early pace.
But that all changed Saturday morning when trainer Neil Drysdale scratched La Sardane from the race.
"I figured with the scratching of the filly he (Oscar Performance) would be the speed of the race," said winning trainer Brian Lynch, who watched the race from his barn at Saratoga. "He looked very comfortable throughout.
"I talked to Jose earlier in the day and said, 'I'm not going to tell you how to ride the race, but the only thing I can tell you is it's a hell of a long stretch there so be patient.' I thought (Ortiz) rode him sensationally and his last quarter was sensational."
Oscar Performance, the 5/2 second choice, won in 1:33.12 on a firm E.P. Taylor turf course. The victory earned Oscar Performance a berth into the Breeders' Cup Mile on Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs.
And Lynch said Oscar Performance will definitely be there.
"Now we can take a deep breath and do the best we can to have him right on that day," he said.
Ontario-bred Mr Havercamp, an 8/1 pick, was second with Stormy Antarctic third ahead of 2/1 favourite Delta Prince.
"I'm so proud of him, he gave it his best," said Woodbine-based jockey Eurico Rosa da Silva, who rode Mr Havercamp. "We went a very slow pace for this race, but I had to make a decision.
"If I press the race I probably lose second. Congratulations to the winner, he's a nice horse but my horse ran hard. I'm thrilled with the race."
Javier Castellano, Delta Prince's jockey, could only shake his head regarding his horse's disappointing finish.
"He didn't show up today for some reason," Castellano said. "I had a nice comfortable rhythm behind the winner, but when I asked him at the top of the stretch, he just didn't respond."
The remainder of the field, in order of finish, was: Divisidero; Lord Glitters; Good Samaritan and Vanish.
Oscar Performance paid $7.70, $4.30 and $3.70 while Mr Havercamp returned $7.70 and $5.20. Stormy Antarctic paid $7.50.
Ortiz said he knew early in the race that he had plenty of horse.
"At the quarter pole I saw somebody getting close to me, but when I asked him to go he really accelerated," Ortiz said. "He gave me a great turn of foot and he kept going.
"It's very special. I'm very emotional right now. He's my favourite horse. He gave me my first Breeders' Cup, I'm just happy he's back."
Oscar Performance earned his fourth career Grade 1 win, including the 2016 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf event. The four-year-old American-bred was off for more than seven months before winning the Grade 3 Poker Stakes, a mile-long turf race, June 17 at Belmont.
But Ortiz pulled Oscar Performance up Aug. 11 in the Arlington Million, feeling the colt had taken a bad step. Fortunately, Oscar Performance emerged unscathed and after receiving a clean bill of health breezed three times leading up Saturday's race.
"The good thing is nothing came of it," Lynch said. "We went in and had a full physical on him and Dr. Bramlage gave him the OK and we put him back in training."
But Lynch's wife, Erin, who's also the horse's assistant trainer, twice had to compose herself when discussing Oscar Performance's close call following the Mile win.
"That was definitely very emotional at Arlington," she said. "He's a barn-favourite horse, he's a ham to be around, everybody loves him so to see that happen to your best horse it's heart-breaking.
"But then to come back and do that (win Woodbine Mile), it just means the world."
The victory was also a successful homecoming for Bryan Lynch, an Australian who began training on his own at Woodbine in 2006.
"It's a very prestigious race, it's nice to be able to put your name beside it," he said. "Throughout your career there are signature races that you'd like to win and mine has always been the Woodbine Mile.
"It's nice to accomplish that."
Oscar Performance earned his second win in just three starts this season and eighth in 14 career races. The $480,000 winner's share boosted the horse's total earnings over $2.4 million.
Also on Saturday, Woodbine jockey Luis Contreras guided 16/1 longshot Johnny Bear to victory in the Grade 1 $300,000 Northern Dancer Turf as the Ontario-bred finished the 1 1/2-mile race in 2:25.74. British-bred Mekhtaal, ridden by Ortiz, was second ahead of 34/1 pick English Illusion.
And Contreras rode 11/1 longshot Starship Jubilee to the win in the Grade 2 $250,000 Canadian Stakes for fillies and mares. New New Money, with Castellano aboard, finished second in the 1 1/8-mile race ahead of even-money favourite Inflexibility, ridden by Ortiz.