Kendel Standlee and Scott Gelner, owner and trainer of In the Navy, had been patient with the colt, watching him fall short of winning race after race.
That was in 2017. Gelner suggested In the Navy, whose sire is Midshipman and mare is Southern Princess, be moved off of dirt tracks onto turf completely.
“He was running on dirt OK,” Gelner said. “We just thought he was a better horse than that. He just wasn't getting it done. We talked about it, and (Standlee) said the also had a little turf in his pedigree.”
Said Standlee: “Midshipman was good on dirt but was certainly a capable turf horse. And then Southern Princess's sire is Dixieland Band, who also was good on turf. But Scott has been very patient with him.”
Another reason they didn't give up on In the Navy is that Northern Dancer also is in his blood.
When the Evangline Downs meet began, the track didn't have turf races, so Gelner shipped In the Navy to Remington Park in Oklahoma City, where there were races on the grass. He won a condition race at Oklahoma City track.
After that, he won an allowance race at the Fair Grounds in March, then after a second place in the Turf Legends at Evangeline and a third in the John Henry at that track, he won the Louisiana Cup Turf Classic at Louisiana Downs on Sept. 18. He's won two of his past three races.
“He's come around really good,” Gelner said. “(In the Turf Classic), he's just moved on it so much better. He didn't struggle or anything. He just glided over the top of it.”
In the Navy is the 3-1 early favorite for Saturday's $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Turf Stakes. Ninety One Assault, trained by Thomas Morley, is the 7-2 second favorite. Theoryintopractice and Pont Du Gard are next at 9-2.
In the Navy, a 4-year-old gelding, is the favorite after his performance in his most recent race, a victory in the Mr. Sulu Overnight Stakes at the Fair Grounds on Nov. 16. The Mr. Sulu is a prep race for the Champions Day Turf.
“Winning the Mr. Sulu was a really big deal because he'd run fourth in Shreveport (in an allowance race at Louisiana Downs) in the race before that,” Gelner said. “He'd had at terrible trip where he got stuck on the inside and never got a chance to get out.”
Ninety One Assault, a 5-year-old gelding, was third in the Mr. Sulu, with Grande Basin second. Saturday's race shapes up as a rematch between In the Navy and Ninety One Assault.
“He's a nice horse,” Gelner said of Ninety One Assault. “He came running of the pace late in the Mr. Sulu. He just looked like he ran out of real estate. I'm just hoping this time we can kind of do the same thing.
“This time, we have to try and kick home clear and try to open up a big enough lead so that he don't run us down.”
The two horses also went against each other twice in 2017. On Dec. 22, Ninety One Assault was second and In the Navy third in a race won by Zark's Gift. On Nov. 30 of that year, In the Navy was second to winner Quiet Concert, with Ninety One Assault third. Both of those were allowance optional claiming races.
The Mr. Sulu was a mile. The Champions Day Turf is a mile and a sixteenth. Gelner is not selling Ninety One Assault short.
“He's been running in upstate New York and stuff,” Gelner said. “So he's been running against good competition. I know last year he ran a couple of good races on the turf.”
Gelner said he likes In the Navy's versatility. Like any trainer, he's hoping for a good break and a clean trip for all. In the Navy is very comfortable taking the lead and holding off rivals, he said.
“A lot of times, he goes to the front,” Gelner said. “Sometimes he can come off (the pace). If he doesn't break good, we're still not worried, as long as we can get a good trip.”
A win or strong race could put In the Navy in the $125,000 E.R. Bradley Stakes on Jan. 19 on Road to the Derby Kickoff Day.
“We'll see where he finishes (in the Champions Day Turf) and how he comes out of the race,” Gelner said. “But he has come along. The wait with him is really paying off.”