Special Ops wins Claiming Crown
Jennie Rees

When Skychai Racing claims a horse, the Louisville-based partnership often looks for two things: Running at Kentucky Downs and hopefully making the Claiming Crown, the Breeders’ Cup-style day that showcases the blue-collar horses that populate the biggest chunk of American racing.

Mission accomplished with Special Ops. Skychai and trainer Mike Maker claimed the 6-year-old gelding for $50,000 at Churchill Downs in June. In his next two starts, Special Ops was third in a $100,000 stakes at Indiana Grand then won a $75,000 stakes at Mountaineer Park. That set up the son of 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown’s front-running win in Kentucky Downs’ $75,000 starter-allowance prep for the Claiming Crown at Gulfstream Park. Two races later, Special Ops rallied for a 1 3/4-length victory under Julien Leparoux over stablemate Bingo Kitten in the $125,000 Claiming Crown Emerald on Dec. 2.

“It’s always in the back of our minds,” Skychai head Harvey Diamond, a retired Louisville physician, said of the horses they claim, which includes two-time Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup winner Da Big Hoss. “A lot of times you don’t get one good enough to make it, but this one was pretty good right off the bat. That was a really tough starter-allowance at Kentucky Downs. He didn’t win by a lot, but he sure wouldn’t let the other horse (Spring Up) go by. He ran a disappointing race at Keeneland (fifth in an open allowance race won by another stablemate, Shining Copper). He came out of that race a little sick and with a quarter crack (of the hoof). So we gave him a little time and trained him up to the Claiming Crown.”

Bingo Kitten, also trained by Maker and campaign by Kentucky Downs’ five-time defending leading owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, also ran in the track’s Claiming Crown prep, finishing fourth.

“It’s unusual for us to beat the Ramseys, but every now and then we can,” Diamond said with a laugh. “We gave Mike his 16th Claiming Crown victory.”

The 1 1/16-mile Emerald was well-populated with Kentucky Downs horses. The Larry Rivelli-trained Spring Up went from his neck defeat in the Kentucky Downs prep straight to the Claiming Crown Emerald, coming in fourth. Others running in both races were Neoclassic, a good third at Kentucky Downs; Cammack, the Kentucky Downs prep winner in 2016, and Royal Blessing. Neoclassic wound up being claimed by Michael Hui and Maker for $25,000 at Churchill Downs.

The Claiming Crown made Special Ops 8-5-2 in 28 starts, bumping his earnings to $375,202. He was eligible for the Claiming Crown because he ran once in a $25,000 claiming race in 2016. The Emerald was for horses that have run for a claiming price of $25,000 or less since Jan. 1, 2016.

Special Ops is getting some time off before his team looks around to see what makes sense at Gulfstream Park or the Fair Grounds, Diamond said. Special Ops’ wheelhouse appears to be in the mile-1 1/8-mile range. So look for Kentucky Downs’ $400,000 Tourist Mile to be a target for 2018.

Da Big Hoss, winner of Kentucky Downs’ $600,000, Grade 3 Calumet Farm Kentucky Turf Cup in 2015 and 2016 before missing all of 2017 with an injury sustained as he was preparing to run at Keeneland last April. Diamond said the long-distance turf runner is back galloping.

“I think we’re going to go slow on him and maybe find him a prep this winter and point him for something this spring,” Diamond said. “I’m not sure where we’ll go, but opportunities will be plenty. He doesn’t need to take his track with him.”

Da Big Hoss also was claimed for $50,000 at Churchill Downs and almost exactly two years before Special Ops. Skychai claimed Da Big Hoss June 21, 2015, while Special Ops was claimed this past June 18.

Photo: Special Ops won the $125,000 Claiming Crown Emerald under Julien Leparoux. (Coglianese Photography/Lauren King)