Venti Valentine cruises to Critical Eye victory; Drake’s Passage wins Saratoga return in Commentator

Sunday, June 9th, 2024

Venti Valentine shines on Showcase Day with victory in the Critical Eye. NYRA Photo.

Dan Zanatta and Vince Roth jumped from their seats in the Saratoga Race Course clubhouse and headed to the top of the stairs leading to the winner’s circle Sunday, patting each other on the chest in excitement.

The representatives of NY Final Furlong Racing Stable and Parkland Thoroughbreds celebrated after watching their New York-bred mare Venti Valentine break away from the pack to win the $200,000 Critical Eye Stakes Sunday on the New York Showcase Day card at Saratoga.

“Any place on New York Showcase Day is a dream,” Roth said. “But to be here, Belmont Stakes at Saratoga weekend, and have her win like that, that’s the race you plan and today it happened.”

Venti Valentine stayed off the lead early in the 9-furlong stakes over the muddy track, waiting until the top of the stretch to make her move and track down frontrunners Bustin Bay and Bon Adieu. The daughter of Firing Line won by 6 3/4 lengths as at the 5-2 second choice in the field of six. Venti Valentine won in 1:52.51.

Venti Valentine’s trip wasn’t quite the trip trainer Jorge Abreu envisioned for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.

“I’d like to see her on the lead,” said Abreu, decked out in a New York Yankees sweater for the occasion. “Irad told me ‘three other horses are going to go, so I am going to sit right off of them.’ I said, ‘well I’m not going to tell you how to ride it.’ He gave her a perfect ride.”

Venti Valentine hadn’t seen the winner’s circle since October 2023, when she won the Jack Betta Be Rite Stakes at Finger Lakes. She lost six straight after that win, racing in one- and two-turn races. She exited a second in the Serena’s Song Stakes at Monmouth Park May 12.. Abreu said she came out of the race in “great shape.” 

“Early on she looked like a horse that wanted to go a one-turn mile,” Abreu said. “Now that she’s older she’s got that speed and she wants to go two turns.”

Abreu doesn’t have a definite next outing in mind for Venti Valentine, but she’ll likely stay in similar spots to the Critical Eye. 

“We’re going to see how she comes out,” Abreu said. “We’re just going to keep her a New York-bred for now.” 

Bred by Final Furlong Racing Stable and Maspeth Stable and foaled at Schuylerville Thoroughbred Farm in Schuylerville, Venti Valentine improved to 7-5-5 in 21 starts and boosted her bankroll to $883,600 with the victory. Spencer Ripchik

Drake’s Passage adds the Commentator to his victory in last year’s Albany Stakes on Sunday’s New York Showcase Day card. NYRA Photo.

• Robert “Shel” Evans’ homebred Drake’s Passage improved to 2-for-2 at Saratoga in Sunday’s $200,000 Commentator Stakes, a 9-furlong contest for older New York-breds on the main track. The son of Tonalist added the Commentator to his 7 3/4-length victory in last year’s Albany Stakes at the same distance.

Breaking from post 2, the 4-year-old colt took the lead right away after the expected early pacesetter to his inside, Sheriff Bianco, stumbled at the start and almost lost rider Jose Lezcano. Drake’s Passage ran the opening quarter-mile in :24.45 and the half in :48.88 with Donegal Surges about a length behind on the backstretch. As the field rounded the turn and entered the stretch, Drake’s Passage gained some separation over that rival and was all by himself with a furlong to go. He galloped home on the muddy and sealed track 4 lengths ahead of Donegal Surges in 1:49.32 under jockey Manny Franco. Christophe Clement trains the winner. 

“When I saw the one stumble out of there, I said I’m going to go,” Franco said. “After that, I was in cruise control there the whole way.”

The winning trainer was pleased with the effort by his colt.

“He was very impressive,” Clement said. “Great trip. He was in front, comfortable. He’s a nice horse. When he got to an easy lead, I thought he’d be very dangerous, because I know he stays a mile and an eighth.”

Drake’s Passage came out of two runner-up finishes in open-company allowance races at Aqueduct. Despite the defeats, Clement was encouraged by how well he ran on both occasions coming into the Commentator.

“I know we got beat in New York in these allowance races, but they were actually spectacular allowance races if you look at numbers,” he said. 

Drake’s Passage could try to go 3-for-3 at Saratoga this summer in another major stakes event for New York-breds, according to Clement, with a possible start before then.

“We got a big stakes, New York-bred, in the Saratoga meet,” he said. “Where do we go in between? I’m sure we’ll find a place for him.”

As for the day as a whole, Clement is grateful that there is a day to celebrate the New York-breds as well as their owners and breeders with a card full of stakes races.

“It’s a great program,” he said. “There’s a lot of money. It’s a great owner/breeder program because they get us all these breeders’ awards. We need that kind of day to be successful for everybody involved.” – Alec DiConza

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