DEL MAR, Calif. — Dallas Stewart was around numerous champions as an assistant to legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Now the Louisiana product who calls Louisville home has a champ to call his own after the 5-year-old mare Forever Unbridled’s half-length victory over Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman in Friday’s $2 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Del Mar.
Owned by breeder Charles Fipke, Forever Unbridled now is three for three this season, including Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Fleur de Lis and Saratoga’s Grade 1 Personal Ensign, in which she narrowly defeated two-time champion Songbird. That makes her the odds-on favorite to be voted the Eclipse Award champion for older filly and mare.
The Distaff victory, with John Velazquez aboard, came a year after Forever Unbridled closed to finish a good third in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita behind Beholder and Songbird, themselves champions.
“I felt like the championship was on the line,” said Stewart, who grew up in New Orleans and has spent every winter there racing at the Fair Grounds since opening his own stable in 1997. “If she wins it, she’s going to be champion, and she did. She deserves it. The Kentucky Derby is one thing we live for, and trying to develop these great horses. It’s beautiful. I’m very thankful and blessed. I have a great team, everybody who works with her. It’s been a great team effort.”
Stewart, who still had Givemeaminit to run in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile later in the day, was hoarse Saturday morning from cheering and celebrating. It was his second victory in the Distaff, following Unbridled Elaine in 2001. This one was additionally special because Stewart trained and co-owned Forever Unbridled’s mom, winning the 2006 Kentucky Oaks at a record 47-1 odds with Lemons Forever, who in addition to Forever Unbridled produced the Stewart-trained Grade 1 winner Unbridled Forever.
“It’s remarkable,” Stewart said, “one of the strongest families in the world, that I can think of.”
Lemons Forever indeed is the gift that keeps on giving, as she was sold for $2.5 million to Fipke for $2.5 million in 2007. The Canadian geologist and prospector, who discovered diamonds in western Canada, had never met Stewart until that Keeneland auction, but told the trainer he would send him some horses.
“I always like to buy the best-conformed mare, and the best-conformed mare in the whole place was Lemons Forever, who had won the Kentucky Oaks,” Fipke recalled after the Distaff. "Just before she sold, they showed a picture of her winning the Kentucky Oaks, and she won by a big margin. I thought to myself, this is going to be expensive. And it was.”
"Yeah, he said, ‘I'm going to send you some horses,’” Stewart interjected. “And I said, ‘Great, don't forget to pay for that $2.5 million.’ But, no, he called me and we went on from there. And it's been great ever since.”
Said Fipke: “I said, ‘How come you had to show that (Oaks picture) just before the sale?’ He says, ‘Well, you know, I've got the wife and the kids, and I got to get some grits on the table.’"
Forever Unbridled now is 8-3-4 in 17 starts, earning $3,186,880 with the $1.1 million payday. She ran four times at the Fair Grounds the winter of her 2- and 3-year-old seasons, finishing third in both the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks and Grade 3 Rachel Alexander.
She earned a career-best Bris speed figure of 112 in the Distaff while covering 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.25. She paid $9.40 as the third choice in the field of eight.
Stewart said it is payoff for Fipke keeping the mare in training after she sustained a tiny bone chip after last year’s Distaff.
“Chuck could have retired her. She was already a Grade 1 winner, but it wasn't severe,” said Stewart, who while working for Lukas was the exercise rider for the 1988 Kentucky Derby-winning filly Winning Colors. “Chuck's like, ‘I want to keep going with her,’ and he did. Nine out of 10 guys, I think, would have retired her. But Chuck, being the guy he is, a sportsman and loves racing, and wanted to see this happen for her.”
Trainer Bob Baffert said Abel Tasman, who was ridden by Mike Smith, ran her heart out but just got beat by an older, stronger mare who was better on this day. Abel Tasman also virtually locked up the 3-year-old filly championship.
“She ran a great race,” Baffert said. “She was right behind the winner the whole way. When they started moving, she was moving along. Johnny took off a little bit early, probably got the jump on her. She waited and took off. She was trying to get there.
“We thought Abel could win it. Looked like she ran out of room, but I was really proud of her race. She was the best 3-year-old in that race. ... Our mare will get bigger and better. Next year the Breeders’ Cup is at Churchill Downs. She likes that stretch.”
It was three more lengths back to the 3-year-old filly Paradise Woods, followed by Elate, Mopotism, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Champagne Room, Romantic Vision and Stellar Wind.
There was a controversy with Fipke electing on the day of Breeders’ Cup entries Monday to replace Joel Rosario, who had ridden Forever Unbridled in her past seven races, getting the mount originally when Velazquez was injured. Fipke never specifically addressed what triggered the last-minute change but said he’d had a lot of success with Velazquez, who had won the 2016 Apple Blossom (G1) at Oaklawn Park on Forever Unbridled.
“For timing and consistency, Johnny's the best,” Fipke said.
The Del Mar stewards ruled before the race that Fipke would have to pay “double jocks mount,” meaning Velazquez and Rosario both will get first-place commission of $110,000 — a ruling Fipke could appeal.
Forever Unbridled and Abel Tasman could hook up again in 2018, when the Breeders’ Cup will be at Churchill Downs, Forever Unbridled’s home track and the site of Abel Tasman’s biggest triumph. Fipke says he'll race Forever Unbridled next year at 6 as long as she's healthy. He mentioned Gulfstream Park's $16 million Pegasus World Cup against males on Jan. 27 as a possible objective.
“Keep her healthy and her races spaced out,” Stewart said. “We’re the best right now. We’ve just got to keep her good and see where it goes from here.”