John McGrath

John McGrath: Dream team of Point Piper, ‘Super Mario’ win Longacres Mile in record time

Point Piper and jockey Mario Gutierrez set a track and Washington state record of 1:32.90 in the $200,000 Longacres Mile on Sunday.
Point Piper and jockey Mario Gutierrez set a track and Washington state record of 1:32.90 in the $200,000 Longacres Mile on Sunday. Emerald Downs

What is the key to coaxing a track record out of a well-traveled horse closer to the end of his career than the beginning?

For Point Piper, winner of the Longacres Mile, it was the rest and relaxation recommended by a Hall of Fame trainer.

“Jerry Hollendorfer, who is just brilliant, said let’s give this horse six weeks off,” co-owner Dan Gatto recalled Sunday. “So he shipped him off to a nice, quiet barn, then brought him back in training and ready to run this race. You can tell what a little bit of a vacation at the spa can do to a horse.”

Hollendorfer, among Point Piper’s owners and the bay horse’s primary trainer, was preoccupied at Del Mar over the weekend and did not make the trip for the 81st running of the grade-3, $200,000 race. Assistant trainer Dan Ward did the prep work at Emerald Downs before he returned to San Diego on Friday.

Not that Point Piper was lonely. Accompanying him onto the track Sunday was stablemate Cyrus Alexander, a bay colt who gave the Gatto-Hollendorfer team a $61.40, $2 exacta by placing second. Finishing third was 8-5 favorite O B Harbor, who set a blistering half-mile pace that required winning jockey Mario Gutierrez to stay patient.

O B Harbor, a four-year old, Oregon-bred gelding, has become something of an Emerald Downs legend this season, recording the fastest times of the 2016 meet at four different distances ranging from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles.

If an upset loomed, the logical candidate to achieve it was Alert Bay, a five-year old gelding with impressive credentials: 12 victories in 28 starts and almost $1.13 million in career earnings.

Point Piper appeared unimpressed.

“I got a true horse,” Gutierrez said of the winner, whose 1:32.90 was the fastest mile time in the 21-year history of Emerald Downs. “When I asked him to go during the stretch, he just exploded.”

Gutierrez, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner, also was on the saddle of 2012 Mile champion Taylor Said. Although Gutierrez long has had an association with the Pacific Northwest, the Mexican rider’s home away from home for four summers was Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, B.C.

Still, the oldest graded stakes event in the region is special to him.

“The Mile is a different kind of race,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotion. I think I have a little more experience at riding these type of races. When I left Mexico City I never thought I was going to win two Kentucky Derbies and two Longacres Miles.”

Said Gatto: “We knew him before he won his first Kentucky Derby. Seriously, it has not changed him one bit. Every time we’re fortunate to get him on one of our horses, we tend to win. That’s why I call him ‘Super Mario.’ 

Gutierrez’s life is about to change in a few weeks, when he becomes a father for the first time. Speaking of fathers, Point Piper’s professional future will call for him to be one as a full-time job.

A six-year old who began his career in Ireland — his mother won the Epsom Oaks in 2001 — Point Piper has competed at nine different tracks in the United States. A fourth-place finish in the grade-2 Californian, on May 22 at Santa Anita, convinced Hollendorfer that the best way to gear up for the Longacres Mile was some down time in June.

And now? Superior bloodlines point to a breeding career.

“You couldn’t ask for better breeding,” said Gatto. “At some point he’ll be making babies — and having fun doing it.”

Gutierrez sensed a different kind of fun awaited Point Piper on Sunday.

After riding All Star Bub — still another product of the Hollendorfer stable — to a third-place finish in an Emerald Distaff won by 20-1 longshot Perhaps a Pie, the jockey assured Gatto: “Don’t worry, we’re gonna win the next one.”

Forecasting the future, it seems, was just another talent Super Mario brought to a track where he soon would realize the latest ambition of a career rich with them.

John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath