SARATOGA SPRINGS There were echoes bouncing every which way off the Saratoga Race Course rafters on Saturday.
Boisterous chants of “Ed-die, Ed-die!”, just like 11 weeks ago at Churchill Downs.
“We did it! We did it,” from a beaming Ed Stanco in the winner’s circle, followed by “What a great day … what a great day.”
The loudest reverberation was delivered by Princess of Sylmar, though.
The Schenectady native’s homebred filly, the only horse he has racing, rolled home under Javier Castellano to a resounding six-length win in the Coaching Club American Oaks by six lengths.
It was a distinct echo to the Kentucky Oaks, giving the chestnut daughter of Majestic Warrior a second nine-furlong Grade I victory, and a claim to the lead in the 3-year-old filly division.
It also provided Stanco, a 1967 Linton High graduate, the most satisfying homecoming imaginable.
On a day when Saratoga drew a sub-par crowd (19,138) for a Saturday card, Stanco’s delirious group of family and friends spilled out of the box seats and crammed the winner’s enclosure after the race.
“Just look at all these people,” Stanco said. “Bringing all these people here is so much fun. It’s big. What can I say? I was thrilled the day we won a maiden race here with our New York-bred, and here we are with this. It’s just a really special time, it is.”
A running theme between Stanco and trainer Todd Pletcher was how deeply Stanco craved to get one of the jockey statues ringing the fountain at the clubhouse entrance painted in the purple and light-blue silks of his King of Prussia Stable.
They accomplished that, and may need more paint, since Princess of Sylmar will point to the Aug. 17 Alabama.
Breaking from the No. 4 post in the short but well-balanced field of five, Castellano patiently placed Princess of Sylmar behind the pack, never more than four lengths off the lead set by My Happy Face.
The fillies formed a diamond pattern down the backstretch, with My Happy Face on the lead point, Unlimited Budget, Cue the Moon and Marathon Lady three abreast less than two lengths behind her, and Princess of Sylmar cruising comfortably just behind them.
She and Marathon Lady disrupted the steady geometry as they headed into the second turn, running up to My Happy Face on the outside.
Although Princess of Sylmar took the widest path around the turn and into the stretch, she maintained a beautifully even stride while Marathon Lady ranged up to My Happy Face, then faltered at the eighth pole.
By then, Princess of Sylmar had moved in front, and as her lead continued to gradually lengthen through the stretch, Stanco stoically watch through his binoculars while his group exploded into a madcap, bouncing celebration well before she hit the wire in 1:51.07 under a vigorous hand ride.
My Happy Face, trained by Mechanicville native Chad Brown and ridden by Joel Rosario, held well for second after leading through the quarter-mile in 24.60, the half in 48.98 and six furlongs in 1:12.94.
“We made a mistake in the Gazelle when we felt like Close Hatches was the only speed,” Pletcher said. “We kind of took her out of her running style, so I told Javier, regardless of pace, don’t do that, just let her find her rhythm. She’s got a very strong closing kick regardless of the fractions … just let her do her thing.”
“I was really studying through the binoculars for the right-hand touch,” Stanco said. “And I really couldn’t see it. I’ll have to study the race. But Javier did it right. He said she could’ve gone on her own at any time. He kept her back so she wouldn’t go out and go forward, but she just galloped.
““I really liked the way she did it,” Castellano said. “It was a great performance today.”
“Joel rode a flawless race,” Brown said. “If you had told me in the paddock I was going get away with a 48-and-change half, I would have said, ‘Sign me up.’ He did everything he needed to do — he made the lead, he held the lead, he slowed everyone down. She was second best today. I’m real proud of the way she ran.”
While many of the top filly prospects spent the winter in the south, Princess of Sylmar — named for the highly regarded farm in eastern Pennsylvania where she was bred not far from Stanco’s home in New Jersey — was staying busy in the cold, gray shadow of Aqueduct, winning three races by a combined 193⁄4 lengths from December to February. Stanco raced her mare, Storm Dixie, who won first time out at Saratoga in 2006, then was winless in nine more starts.
Despite Princess of Sylmar’s record, which included a 19-length maiden win at Penn National in November, she went off at 38-1 in the Kentucky Oaks.
Ridden by Mike Smith, Princess of Sylmar beat 2012 Eclipse Award winner Beholder by a half-length, and an impromptu chant of “Ed-die, Ed-die” was born as Stanco walked her around by the lead shank.
Castellano, who rode her in the Busher and Gazelle, regained the mount for the CCA Oaks because Smith was committed to ride Royal Delta in Saturday’s Delaware Handicap (which she won by 103⁄4 lengths).
“It was a conscious decision to keep her in New York,” Pletcher said. “We had a choice to make in February whether to bring her down to Florida. We certainly thought she was good enough, but she was doing well and such a good rhythm, we came up with a game plan and stuck with it.
“I think everyone kind of lost sight of the fact that, going into the Kentucky Oaks, it was billed as the best Oaks we’ve seen in 25 years. This filly wins it and gets virtually no respect. I think today, she put herself at the top of the leaderboard, and now everyone understands that the Kentucky Oaks was a real race.”
“It’s a big, big steppingstone,” Stanco said. “Everyone was saying to me, ‘Is this a prep [for the Alabama]?’ And my response to that is a Grade I race is not a prep, and, by the way, no one gave the email to Princess.”
Win or lose in the CCA Oaks, Stanco had 120 people lined up for a Kentucky Oaks celebration party at Longfellow’s after the race.
After weeks of insomnia in anticipation of watching his one horse run in a Grade I at the hometown track that made him a fan as a kid, Stanco said “the jitters are all over.”
On familiar ground this time, something newly familiar was created: “Ninety thousand less people, but I got that warm feeling back.”