A year ago Bona Venture Stables was celebrating its inaugural trip to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs. The small upstate New York racing partnership was holding its collective breath wondering whether Royal Bonnie would qualify for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf race just days before the $1 million race.
Fast forward to 2012, and the stable’s partners, made up mostly of St. Bonaventure University graduates, finds themselves already in the gate in the same race with New York’s top jockey aboard. Managing Partner Dan Collins, a communications executive with Corning Glass, hopes that last year’s experience will catapult his 2-year-old filly Summer of Fun into the nation’s spotlight.
“Last year we were on the outside looking in and we needed everything to fall our way so that we could draw into the race and then we had to hurry up and go. We literally had to put the horse on a van and ship her all night to Kentucky because she needed to be there the very next day,” Collins said.
“We had a lot of things going against us, but we still ran a very credible race.”
This year’s Juvenile Turf hopeful ran third in the Grade 3 Jessamine Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington last month, losing by a neck in a tight three way photo. That race was enough to vault the Include filly into the top 14 entrants and guarantee a spot in the gate at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 2.
Summer of Fun’s ownership group includes four Bona grads, including former board of trustees chairman John R. McGinley, Jr., whose family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. His late mother Anne Marie was the sister of Steelers founder Art Rooney, Sr. Summer of Fun was purchased for $95,000 in March at the Ocala 2-year-old sale by the small partnership group that totals seven members.
“As a really small group of owners it gives us a different type of experience,” reasoned Collins. “We are walking in with our eyes open. We know what to expect, we understand some of the pressures of it. This time we really think that we’re not looking just to be able to say we’re glad to be at the Breeders’ Cup, this time we want to bring home a trophy.”
Trainer George Weaver confirmed on Wednesday that New York’s leading rider, Ramon Dominguez, will have the mount on Summer of Fun.
Earlier that day, Eddie Castro’s agent communicated to Weaver that Castro would be staying in New York and not make the trip to California for just one ride.
“It so happened, that Ramon was open and available. I’m a New York-based trainer and Ramon is a great jock, you can’t go wrong having him in the saddle. He’s an intelligent rider and it’s exciting to have him on board. It’s going to give us the best chance to win,” said the conditioner.
Weaver is bullish on his filly, whose dam sire Royal Anthem sports wins in the Breeders’ Cup Turf and the Canadian International, two of North America’s top turf races. Especially after breaking her maiden on the Travers undercard at the Spa in August. “I liked the filly all summer even before she ran at Saratoga. She acted like she had some quality to her. Frankly, I expect her to even run faster than she has. I think she’s a filly who still has some improvement to her,” he said.
Weaver thinks that he has the right jockey on board to hit the go button when the time presents itself in the one mile turf race. “I don’t think she needs to be up close, she needs to be timed a little bit for when she makes her move,” explained Weaver. “The race is at a mile and she has two wins at mile and a sixteenth so I think if we time her move right she has enough tactical speed to put me in the right spot to make the winning move, and that’s the plan.”
Weaver, looking for his first Breeders’ Cup win, learned the ropes under Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and super trainer Todd Pletcher. His biggest win to date was the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen in 2005, so a win in a Breeders’ Cup race would be a big one for his barn. “It would be a big thrill. Every big race I’ve ever won, it’s been a feeling you can’t imagine. It gives you a big high to win anything, especially a race at Saratoga. If she would win this race, not only would it be one of the biggest wins of my career it would be very good for business,” said Weaver.
The university has adopted the stable as its own. Last year the school held a viewing party in the Hall of Fame Room in the Reilly Center to cheer on Royal Bonnie. Collins appreciates the support from his alma mater when Summer of Fun takes to the turf next Friday afternoon.
“The university and students were behind us last year and we expect the same this year,” said the managing partner. “We started as a group of Bonaventure guys wanting to have a good time owning a few horses and maybe standing in the winners’ circle at Saratoga or Belmont. Now, we are headed to the Breeders’ Cup Championships with a chance to win a million dollar purse.”
It won’t be easy for the Bona Venture star filly, as the race is loaded with talent including the Irish filly Sky Lantern, the likely favorite.
The two horses that finished ahead of her at Keeneland and the winner of the Grade 3 Natalma at Woodbine (Spring Venture) are all tough competition for Summer of Fun.
She’ll likely go off at a price and with Dominguez in the irons anything is possible, especially if she shows the turn of foot that we saw at Saratoga in August. The Bona Venture partners proved that last year’s appearance wasn’t a fluke. They’re ready to take on the big boys once again; they’re bringing a better sling shot.
Gene Kershner - http://equispace.blogspot.com, - a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association.