Mike Gatsas of Manchester has been there, done that. But when a horse represents your stable on Thoroughbred racing’s top-level international stage under the brightest lights and there is a seven-figure purse up for the taking, the pressure remains.
“It’s always stressful,” said Gatsas, who will be at Santa Anita in Southern California Friday to witness Our Country, a 2-year-old colt, carry his white and navy colors in the Grade 1, $1 million Juvenile Turf race as part of the $28 million Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships.
Our Country, who joined the stable in May after being purchased at auction for $70,000 and is co-owned by Randy Hill, has one win and a third-place finish from four outings in his young career. When he lines up in the starting gate, he’ll be part of a full international field of the best 14 horses his age and gender who each had to earn his spot through a demanding qualifying system.
“It’s really exciting. It’s a big race. It’s a million-dollar race, it’s bragging rights to have the best 2-year-old male on the turf. If you win this, you’ve got to get the 2-year-old turf horse of the year award, maybe. The accolades don’t stop; they’re just starting,” he said.
The Gatsas family has been to the dance before.
When partnered with brother Ted, their enterprise, Gatsas Thoroughbreds, competed three times with their multiple graded stakes runners. In 2000, the beloved Gander finished ninth in the Breeders’ Cup marquee race, the Classic, and Shadow Caster was 13th in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The following year, Gander was ninth again in the Classic. Under the banner of Sovereign Stable, their Grade 1 winner Negligee crossed the wire in sixth place in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
“This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve got to go up the mountain one of these times and touch the top,” said Gatsas, who pre-entered Backtohisroots in the 2018 Juvenile Turf but that colt was not selected by Breeders’ Cup officials for entry in the final field and thus never had the chance to compete. “It’s so hard to even get into these races.”
Despite being tabbed at 15-1 in the morning line, there is a lot to like about the chances, and the pedigree, of Our Country this time around. He’s by Constitution, who is a young sire off to a strong start producing winners. His maternal grandsire is Tiznow, and although that one beat Gander twice in the Breeders’ Cup, he is still the only horse to win back-to-back editions of the Classic (2000-01).
Moreover, Our Country got lucky in the post position draw earlier in the week, and even better, when the bell rings and the gate opens, for the first time Our Country will have Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez in the irons. He holds the holds the record (662) for most career graded stakes wins by a jockey in North America and his services are always in great demand.
“I think we have a great post position coming out of the one-hole. As they say, that’s the shortest distance to the win line. When you have the opportunity to get Johnny Velazquez to ride your horse, it’s a no brainer. We were able to get Johnny Velazquez on him, and that always helps, so we’re looking forward to a big day,” Gatsas said.
It’s already been a big year so far for the Manchester-based stable. They won a pair of stakes races on a single card at Saratoga Race Course in late August, which is no small feat, and on the first Saturday in May their Vekoma, co-owned with Randy Hill, was their first runner in the Kentucky Derby.
“Randy and I had a great summer, we won those two stakes races on the same day at Saratoga. We’ve just had a tremendous year. You don’t get to go to those two dances very often, the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup, in the same year,” Gatsas said.
As for Vekoma, who won the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in April and finished 13th in the Kentucky Derby on a sloppy track, he’s been on a well-earned vacation at the farm. There he’s allowed to run around a lush paddock, eat grass and just be a horse.
“Vekoma is really, really good and we think he’ll be back in training in about three weeks. The reports we’re getting on him are everything we want to hear. We think he’ll be a tremendous 4-year-old for us (in 2020). He was a young horse, he was a May (2016) baby when he ran in the Derby when we tried to do what everybody would do,” Gatsas said. “Hopefully, it pays off that we pulled back on him and let him grow up. He wasn’t injured. We just let him be a horse. He proved how he can run against those (top class) horses. Hopefully, when he comes back (to the races next year) he’s the 4-year-old we think he’ll be. He’s really a talented horse.”
The same can be said about Our Country. If he jumps up and wins a Breeders’ Cup race, he’ll upstage his more famous stablemate.
“It’s been a great year. Let’s hope we can cap it off this weekend,” Gatsas said.