Trainer Phil Sims and owner Nelson McMakin have been in the horse business together for two decades, but it took a sizzling run from the filly Hot Cha Cha Saturday to end a drought that predated their partnership.
Never had Sims trained nor McMakin owned a horse who won a Grade 1 race, but the $500,000 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland provided the perfect opportunity for the fast-finishing filly to give each man a career highlight.
"This is our biggest win together," Sims said. "I told him I wanted to win the (Kentucky) Derby, but this is pretty close."
Joining the first-victory party for the 3-year-old filly, bred on McMakin's Lexington farm, was jockey James Graham.
Graham said the stars seemed aligned for his first Grade 1 win. When there was an opening amid the more highly touted challengers, Graham and the horse seized it, taking the lead before the stretch and cruising from there to win by 4 1/2 lengths.
"Around the turn she was very comfortable," Graham said. "Her ears were flicking back and forth. I pulled the trigger a little sooner than I wanted to, but if I didn't the hole would've closed and I'd have never got through."
It was the fifth lifetime win for Hot Cha Cha, all the others Grade 3s from earlier this year, most recently the Pucker Up Stakes Sept. 27 at Arlington Park.
Shared Account set the early pace, and Graham's plan was to hover just behind her. It worked perfectly, as Hot Cha Cha passed both that filly and heavy favorite Gozzip Girl just past the three-quarter pole.
Sims said he would consider taking her to the Breeders' Cup next month but more likely would wait to run her again next year. He said he always believed in the horse and was relieved she was finally getting an opportunity to shine.
"She'd been shut off a lot, had bad trips, but the last two races, she had a clear path," he said.
Hot Cha Cha paid $19, $7 and $3.40. Shared Account returned $8.20 and $3.80. Gozzip Girl was $2.40 to show.
The connections for the other horses in the money had no complaints about their trips but said they just didn't get the late momentum from their animals they had expected.
"I did not really want to take the lead, but she was galloping along," said Edgar Prado, Shared Account's jockey. "When I asked her, she kicked it in, but unfortunately there was one other one that was a little better."
Tom Albertrani, trainer for Gozzip Girl, congratulated jockey Kent Desormeaux for getting the horse in position but acknowledged she "just didn't have her closing kick."
The fourth-place finisher, Miss World, failed in her bid to win a fourth straight race _ even with a mount by Rajiv Maragh, a rising star who had finished in the money in 12 of his 21 Keeneland starts this meet.
McMakin, who had bred a Grade 1 winner but never owned them, said he had no plans for a boisterous celebration. His only real plans were returning to the barn before dawn.
"I'll be there tomorrow by 6:30 or 7," he said. "It's like playing golf for me."