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Backstretch Buzz

Four Day Race Week

It was a four-day race week with no stakes, no high-end allowance races, and generally limited racing opportunities. But that doesn’t mean stuff wasn’t going on at Arlington International. Let’s take a quick look at the proceedings.

Thursday, July 20

Two of the best horses to race all week at Arlington won back to back races on this card while running for the same connections, owner William Stiritz, trainer Scott Becker, and jockey Chris Emigh.

Race 2 went to Goneghost, a Stiritz homebred by his deceased stallion Cherokee Rap who has gotten better and better since his career debut a little more than a year ago. Goneghost won first out last July at Fairmount, was off a few months, and when he returned in October was entered in a $12,500 non-winners-of-two claimer at Hawthorne. Everyone on the circuit had a shot at the horse for that price, and nobody took him. Which was fortunate for Stiritz and Becker. 

Goneghost won that comeback start by more than seven lengths and has not seen a claiming tag since. He broke through the gate pre-start and subsequently flopped in the Robert S. Molaro Stakes this past spring at Hawthorne, and on July 8, working at a disadvantage from the rail post, he could not quite handle Arlington Polytrack specialist Good Bye Greg.

Otherwise, Goneghost has been perfect, six wins by 32 combined lengths. Goneghost, an Illinois-bred who was produced by the mare Snow White, has won four sprints and on this card won his second route race, easily handling a solid group of starter-allowance and mid-level claiming rivals in a convincing victory that produced a very strong 95 Beyer Speed Figure.

If the best is still to come from 4-year-old Goneghost, surely that also applies to Smoke ‘n’ Gloat, who captured the race immediately following Goneghost’s to notch his fourth win in a row. Smoke ‘n’ Gloat, bred in Illinois by Mike Reavis and Carol Ricker, was purchased at a 2015 yearling auction by Stitirz for $50,000. He won the Springfield Stakes at Arlington in June, and was much the best in this first-level sprint allowance race while boosting his career earnings just shy of $100,000.

 

Friday, July 21

Grey Mensch needed 29 tries to win the first two races of his career. Starts 30 and 31? Both resulted in victories for the 7-year-old gelding, the most recent a decisive one-length score in the eighth race on this card, a $20,000 conditioned claimer. 

“What’s gotten into him? I wish I knew,” said Chris Ryan, who owns and trains Grey Mensch.

Ryan does have one working theory. “We call it the goose that laid the golden egg,” she said. Shortly before Grey Mensch won on July 9, a chicken hawk flying over Ryan’s farm near Mokena, Illinois, dropped a baby goose it had caught. The gosling landed in a tree and slid to the ground. A chicken hawk had lost a meal, while Ryan had gained another bird to go with the chickens, peacocks, and the turkey she keeps. The poor tyke was lonely. Ryan went out and got a baby chicken for company.

Ryan sent out another starter June 13. Nurse Megan finished fifth in a $7,500 maiden claimer. The goose theory either was debunked or limited. “Maybe it just works with Grey Mensch,” Ryan speculated.

It was a good story told in good humor by a 65-year-old woman who began training racehorses in 1977 and hasn’t had a surplus of fast ones. Ryan’s 2016 starters went 0-44. She has four horses going now, and Grey Mensch’s back-to-back wins have made her summer.

“He’s always trained good. Five furlongs is his absolute limit, and he doesn’t like anything thrown in his face,” said Ryan.

Grey Mensch figures to regress to his mean soon enough. But the chickens are starting to lay eggs at a great pace. The 22-year-old cat is curled in the barn and the gosling is idling in a dog igloo as Ryan finishes work on a chicken coop she pledges to have done before cold weather comes on again.

 

Saturday, July 22

First post was a late 4:15 p.m. as Arlington hosted is second twilight card of the summer, this one billed with some sort of “Date Night” theme.

It doesn’t seem to matter who the mare Dancing Das dates – the offspring she produces are runners.

Barb n’ Don, a gray 3-year-old filly trained by Chris Block for Team Block, won race 3, leading all the way, by 1 ¼ lengths under Jose Valdivia Jr. In so doing, she became the sixth winner produced by Dancing Das, an 18-year-old mare the Blocks bought for a mere $14,000 in 1999. Dancing Das, by the relatively obscure sire Rinkas Das, won only one of six starts, but she has been a hit as a broodmare.

None of her foals became stars, but seven made the races, and not only have six won, but four accumulated six-figure bankrolls. Barb n’ Don, by the Block’s stallion Fort Prado, finished second in her debut before her second-start breakthrough. She didn’t break the clock in either of her races, but like many of her siblings, appears to be very useful.

 

Sunday, July 23

The jockey Mitchell Murrill came back to Arlington in early July after trying his luck on the East Coast earlier this summer.

But Murrill wasn’t really, truly back until this past racing week.

Murrill, a 22-year-old Alabama native who began riding sanctioned Thoroughbred races at the end of 2013, won 72 races during the 2015 Arlington meeting and 76 in 2016. But 30 mounts into his return here this summer, his record stood at a quiet 2-4-2.

Then last week happened. On Sunday, Murrill won three out of the card’s seven races, which gave him a four-day race-week mark of 22-8-4-1. Quite the turnaround.

Murrill went east in May following his strongest supporter the last couple years, trainer Mike Stidham. Stidham decreased his Arlington presence this year and redirected much of his stock to a barn at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland and at Delaware Park. Stabling there gives a horseman access to a glut of tracks in the region, and Murrill and agent Tim Hanisch figured with Stidham blowing wind in their sails, they could latch onto the circuit.

Things didn’t quite work out. Not a disaster, but not a success. But after a soft landing here at Arlington, Murrill and Hanisch are back in the groove, it would appear.

“Just getting back in the door with the trainers and owners, to get them to have our trust again that we’re not leaving, that’s been the difference,” Murrill said this week. “I was riding very confident all along. I think that second week kind of letting everybody know we were really going to be here the rest of the meet, they started putting me on some better stock.”

Better stock in great past is what makes a better jock. Murrill would surely take eight-win weeks the rest of the summer, no questions asked.