Washington Park Handicap: Jockey Chris Emigh Takes Avanzare Gate to Wire for 3,500th Win

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS — Jockey Chris Emigh has been riding in thoroughbred races for 25 years, and has been a regular on the Chicago circuit since 1996.  He entered today’s Washington Park Handicap (GIII) with 3,499 career wins.  He came into the race with thirteen graded victories, including five at Arlington.  Those  included the Hanshin Cup (GIII), the Arlington Matron (GIII), the Arlington-Washington Lassie (GIII), and two editions of the Modesty (GIII), but had never won the Washington Park.  He came within half a length on Dubious Miss in 2009, but was foiled by Gran Estrano: who had set a glacial early pace and then held on to win his first of two editions of the race. Today, he rode Avanzare for the first time.  This gelding had tried to go wire-to-wire in the Arlington Handicap (GIII) last out, but found a mile and a quarter to be a bit too far.  He was caught late, and finished a close fourth behind Finnegans Wake.

The field for the Grade III Washington Park Handicap, a $150,000 race at nine furlongs over the polytrack, came up a small yet salty six.  In addition to Avanzare, Mister Marti Gras also came in on the cutback from the Arlington Handicap.  Mister Marti Gras had won the Washington Park once before, in 2011.  He was second in 2012 and fourth last year, but returned in an attempt to become the sixth horse to win it twice.  Fordubai was the only horse in the field other than Mister Marti Gras to have won a stakes going into this race; he won the Straight Line at Arlington last year, and also had taken down the listed Louisiana Handicap over dirt earlier this year.  Hattaash had finished fourth in the Washington Park two years back, and third just a neck behind Willcox Inn last year.  He had struggled this Arlington meet, finishing off the board in three allowances through the summer.  Two horses, Only In America and Gimmeadrink, were making their stakes debuts.  Only In America came in off a string of second and third place finishes, still struggling to live up to the lofty expectations of being a full brother to Well Armed.  Gimmeadrink, on the other hand, had exceeded everyone’s expectations of him on the way here.  Racing in $4,000 claimers at Suffolk less than a year ago, he found his form at the ripe old age of seven, and has risen through the starter and allowance ranks in the barn of trainer Dale Bennett.

Mister Marti Gras was the 8/5 morning line favourite, and opened favoured on the board as well.  The early money had him at 3/2. Gimmeadrink opened a close second choice at 2/1, and Avanzare was 5/2.  The others opened at longer prices: Only in America at 8/1, Fordubai at 11/1, and Hattaash at an almost forgotten 29/1.  In the paddock, though everyone looked to be in good racing condition and temperament, Mister Marti Gras looked every bit the favourite.  He was strong, healthy, well-muscled, and alert on another level compared to the rest of the group.  After fluctuating as low as 6/5, Mister Marti Gras settled at 8/5 come post time.  Gimmeadrink stayed at 2/1, with Avanzare drifting up just a bit to 3/1.  The late money slammed Fordubai all the way down to 4/1.  Only In America drifted to 10/1 by post time; Hattaash remained relatively forgotten at 24/1.

The gates opened, and both Gimmeadrink and Avanzare wanted the lead.  Avanzare had more early zip, cleared Gimmeadrink as the field came through the clubhouse turn, and tucked inside.  He set himself two comfortable lengths in front of Gimmeadrink, who was himself clear a length of Fordubai and Only in America.  Avanzare took advantage of that uncontested lead by setting some comfortable fractions: the quarter in 24.94, the half in 50.04.  Down the backstretch and even coming into the far turn, Mister Marti Gras was unhurried: sitting in last, about half a dozen lengths behind Avanzare.  The favourite fired coming into the stretch, but had to sweep widest of all: around the fading Only In America, and around Hattaash, who was commencing a rally of his own.  Approaching the furlong pole, Avanzare maintained a lead of about a length.  Hattaash had unleashed a furious run: he quickly pulled into second, and was gaining on Avanzare with every stride.  Mister Marti Gras, still a clear fifth entering the final furlong, was gaining as well.  Emigh asked Avanzare to keep going, and Avanzare dug in.  Hattaash kept charging.  Mister Marti Gras, who had found his next gear just past the sixteenth pole, was gobbling up ground on the outside.

Unlike the Arlington Handicap, the wire came just in time for Avanzare today.  Unlike the 2009 Washington Park, Emigh ended up on the winning end of a wire-to-wire victory.  Avanzare beat Hattaash by a head, and Mister Marti Gras by a neck.  Fordubai did not fire late from his stalking place, and finished fourth beaten 1 3/4 lengths.  Gimmeadrink was a neck back in fifth.  Only In America, who faded out of contention through the far turn, completed the order of finish.

Avanzare (inside) just holds on against Hattaash and Mister Marti Gras to win the Washington Park Handicap (GIII).

Avanzare (inside) just holds on against Hattaash and Mister Marti Gras to win the Washington Park Handicap (GIII).

Avanzare, a four-year-old gelding by Grand Reward out of the Theatrical mare Turn the Tide, is trained by Tom Proctor.  This was his fifth career victory in nine starts, and his first stakes-level win.  He had won a maiden special weight as well as three allowance-level contests at Churchill Downs as well as Tampa Bay Downs, and finished second three times through the winter in allowance company at Tampa Bay.  He got to the track fairly late: he broke his maiden at first asking last November at Churchill Downs, in his only start at age three.  This was his first race on polytrack, though trainer Proctor had been working him over it all summer.

Emigh acknowledged his favourable frontrunning trip.  “I thought the 2 horse [Gimmeadrink] would show more gas and that would have scared me, if we had hooked up and killed each other.  I got the jump on him into the turn and slowed it down.  Everything turned out perfect.  We barely hung on and I’m very happy.”

Lindsay Schultz, assistant trainer for Tom Proctor, was pleased with how his horse performed on polytrack for the first time.  “The horse ran really well and it was exciting…[Avanzare] moves more like a turf horse, so we were a little concerned, but he showed up for us.”

Sheldon Russell, who rode longshot Hattaash to a close second, rode his mount according to plan.  “I got the chance to work him last week and [his connections] were stressing to me that he was sitting on a big race; he hadn’t been running as well.  I worked him and he was very cool and professional.  They told me to stay six length behind and make a run — and he got a great trip.  I honestly thought when I tipped him out that he would run right by Chris [Emigh].  I don’t know if Chris’ horse dug back in or my horse anticipated a little bit and just thought he was home.”

Eduardo Perez, who rode beaten favourite Mister Marti Gras, noted, “There was no pace.  I thought I was going to be going a little faster.  It hurt me when I saw we were going 50-51 [seconds] at the half and just couldn’t catch up at the end.”

Jockey Chris Emigh celebrates with his fellow riders after his 3,500th career win.

Jockey Chris Emigh celebrates with his fellow riders after his 3,500th career win.

Jockey Chris Emigh, who rode Avanzare to victory, won his first Washington Park Handicap — and his 3,500th career race.  Of those 3.500 victories, 892 of them have come at Arlington Park.  He started riding in Louisiana in 1989, but came to Illinois eighteen years ago to start riding at Arlington Park and Hawthorne Race Course on the advice of fellow jockey Robby Albarado.  Today’s race was his fourteenth career graded stakes win, and his sixth at Arlington.  It was also Emigh’s second Grade III score on the year; he won the Sixty Sails Handicap (GIII) at Hawthorne in April aboard Kenneth McPeek’s Flashy American.  Emigh had entered the racing week with 3,499 victories, and remarked on what it meant to cross the threshold.  “A few days ago I said I hope I win it in the big race,” recalled Emigh.  “That’ll make it even more spectacular.  But, it took 25 years to get there and it took a lot of hard riding and a lot of broken bones and surgeries.”

Avanzare paid his backers $8.60 to win.  The $2 exacta with Hattaash below returned $145.50.  A trifecta with Mister Marti Gras in the third slot paid $121.45 for each $0.50 base bet.  The dime superfecta, with Fordubai in fourth, came back with $56.53 for every $0.10 bet on the combination.

All photos courtesy of Four Footed Fotos.

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