Matt Schera’s Glorious Empire, a dead-heat winner of his first graded stakes four weeks earlier, did not have to share the first Grade 1 of his career following a front-running 1 ¾-length triumph in Saturday’s $1 million Sword Dancer at Saratoga Race Course.
The 44th running of the 1 ½-mile Sword Dancer for 3-year-olds and up on the inner turf course was the fifth of seven stakes, six of them Grade 1, worth $4.95 million in purses on a blockbuster 13-race program highlighted by the 149th renewal of the Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers.
It was the third consecutive win for Glorious Empire and second straight in a graded-stakes following the Grade 2 Bowling Green over the same course July 28, earning the 7-year-old gelding an all-fees-paid berth to the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf on November 3 at Churchill Downs.
The win also marked the first Grade 1 for winning trainer James ‘Chuck’ Lawrence II, who is based at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Maryland.
“I’m trying to get my voice back,” Lawrence said. “We knew this horse had this kind of talent, it was just a matter of getting it to come out.”
Breaking from the rail in a field of 10 and following a similar game plan, jockey Julien Leparoux put Glorious Empire on the lead, where he posted fractions of 23.16 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 48.18 for the half, with Bowling Green co-winner Channel Maker giving closest pursuit and Grade 1 winners Funtastic and Hi Happy leading the second flight.
Glorious Empire remained in control after going six furlongs in 1:13.88, when Channel Maker began to inch closer. The Irish-bred son of Holy Roman Emperor ran a mile in 1:38.82 and cut the corner sharply and with something left, separating from his main rival once straightened for home. Channel Maker continued to give chase but was unable to make up ground and wound up second as Glorious Empire hit the wire in 2:24.41 over a firm course.
“He traveled very good for me, and he’s got that kick, you know, and at the end he just exploded,” Leparoux said. “He obviously loves the track. He won two here this year and one last year. The first quarter was fast, but he settled very nicely and picked up the pace pretty quickly.”
Spring Quality, racing for the first time since his 18-1 upset victory in the Grade 1 Manhattan June 9 at Belmont Park, closed to be third, two lengths behind Channel Maker. They were followed by Hi Happy, Highland Sky, Sadler’s Joy, Funtastic, Bigger Picture, European invader Seahenge and Revved Up.
Sadler’s Joy, the defending champion and 2-1 betting favorite, was attempting to become the second straight horse and seventh overall to win the Sword Dancer in back-to-back years. Glorious Empire, sent off at 15-1, returned $33.40 on a $2 win bet.
After opening his 2018 campaign finishing sixth in the Henry S. Clark on April 21 at Laurel Park, his first start for Maryland-based Lawrence and first in nearly seven months, Glorious Empire came from a stalking position to win an optional claiming event going about 1 1/8 miles June 28 at Delaware Park. It served as a fitting prep for the 1 3/8-mile Bowling Green, where he never trailed before being caught on the wire.
Sword Dancer Replay
Glorious Empire now owns nine wins from 23 career starts and the $535,000 winner’s share boosted his lifetime bankroll to $852,147.
“I thought the 23[-second] quarter[-mile] got us, but then he really slowed it down for Julien [Leparoux], luckily. When he slowed it down, I was pretty happy and I just kept yelling throughout the turn, ‘Julien, let him go, let him go,'” Lawrence said. “I knew he was fit, it was just a matter of getting the wire to come fast enough. He responded at the top of the lane. That was really special.
“This is my first Grade 1 and we’re going to bask in it,” he added. “Of course, the Breeders’ Cup is going to be a big option, but we’re going to take it day by day and see how the horse is and everything. After this, that’s going to be our big goal. Our big goal before was just to win a race at Saratoga with him, so he’s exceeded our expectations.”