Before the Budweiser International, trainer Darrell Vienna worried that Fly Till Dawn might be too fast for his own good. The colt is an impetuous front-runner and, Vienna said, "He bends to the will of no man."
But Fly Till Dawn yesterday bent to the will of one of America's strongest jockeys, Laffit Pincay Jr., and, as a result, he was able to score a 17-to-1 upset in the $750,000 event at Laurel Race Course.
Vienna, who is a scriptwriter and published poet as well as a successful California trainer, couldn't have conceived a more favorable scenario than the one that developed in the International. Fly Till Dawn stalked the slow pace being set by a long shot, inherited the lead when the front-runner faltered, and had enough energy left to hold off the stretch-running Ode by 1 1/4 lengths. The favorites, Creator and Batshoof, finished third and fourth.
Fly Till Dawn has spent his career in California, and looked for much of it like just another one-dimensional California speed horse. Vienna said: "Laffit was the first rider who ever indicated that would be a good horse if he could learn to relax." He would settle down occasionally, as he did when he won a Grade I stakes at Del Mar this winter. But he was sometimes uncontrollable, as he was in his last start, when he got into an insane speed duel and ran the first half mile of a route race in a suicidal 44 2/5 seconds.
What made the colt's task look so difficult in the International was the presence of another like-minded speedster, Double Booked, who had led for at least the first half of all his races in the last year. A head-and-head duel would be detrimental for both, so, Vienna said, "We decided to see if he would rate and lay behind Double Booked."
When the gate opened, Double Booked shot to the lead, as expected, and Pincay put his mount under a hammerlock. As the field passed the grandstand for the first time, Fly Till Dawn looked momentarily as if he wanted to run away from Pincay, but by the first turn he had settled down and was striding easily. "My main concern was getting him to relax," Pincay said. "He was doing it nice and easy."
Fly Till Dawn was sitting comfortably behind the leader as these fractions appeared on the Teletimer: a quarter mile in 23 4/5 seconds, the half mile in :48, three-quarters in 1:12 3/5. That moderate pace would determine the outcome of the International much more than anything that happened in the stretch.
As the field approached the final turn, the stretch-runners all started taking their shots. Batshoof was wending his way through traffic. Creator, the high-class French colt, was circling the field, evidently having trouble with the unfamiliar sharp turns of an American track. "We looked pretty good there for a while, but he didn't make the last turn," jockey Jose Santos said. Ode was starting to move, and jockey Dominique Bouef said, "She was well in gear in early stretch."
The only contender who wasn't looking like a threat was Ten Keys, the Maryland-based 6-year-old, who never unleashed his usual strong stretch run.
But all of these challenges would be in vain, because the horses in front were still so strong. Fly Till Dawn took over from the tired Double Booked after covering the first mile in 1:37 1/5. His final time for the International would be 2:01 1/5. That's a final quarter of 24 flat, and few horses alive -- even the Europeans who are trained to deliver a big stretch kick -- are capable of running final quarter miles in "23 and change."
"When he went to the lead," Pincay said, "I wasn't even hitting him yet. And when my horse got to run, he put them away."
Fly Till Dawn returned $36.20 and produced payoffs of $336.60 in the exacta and $1,907.40 in the triple. The big payoff of the day, of course, went to his owner, Josephine T. Gleis, who earned the winner's share of $450,000. This bonanza nearly tripled Fly Till Dawn's career earnings, but he may well have other great successes ahead of him, if he has indeed learned to control his speed as well as he did for Pincay yesterday.