Classy John the Definition of a Happy Accident

By Brian DiDonato

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Classy John & Dallas Stewart. Sarah K Andrew photo

The story of 2-year-old colt Classy John (Songandaprayer) looks like a pretty interesting one on paper, but is even more so than meets the eye. A $12,000 Equine Sales of Louisiana purchase in May off of just a gallop, the Valene Farms-owned Dallas Stewart trainee shipped up to Saratoga last Saturday to romp by six lengths at 12-1 odds in a typically tough GI Travers S. day maiden special weight (video replay).

The Louisiana-bred beat a pricey group in the process, defeating the likes of an $850,000 2-year-old acquisition and a $650,000 yearling as well as several fashionably pedigreed homebreds.

Classy John was an excellent value purchase to be sure, but as it turns out, he wasn’t an intentional one.

“We got a little confused. I was on the phone, and I thought I was bidding on 15, but it was 14,” owner Murray Valene revealed. “But it turned out to be a pretty good buy, huh? We didn’t have any idea what the horse looked like, but that’s the way it goes. You never do know. It turned out to be a really nice little horse, with some decent pedigree.”

Classy John is the third foal and first to race out of Kitty’s Got Class (Old Forester), who handily won her first three races, including two stakes, as a Woodbine-based juvenile.

After looking at the colt’s page, and him as an individual, Valene began to come around to his purchase.

“I took one look at him when he got in and said, ‘Boy, I like the looks of this colt.’ So we sent him up to Dallas because he looked like he was above average. He was just a good-looking horse.”

Hip 15, an Eskendereya filly who went for $9,000, has not yet started or been credited with an official work.

Once in Stewart’s program, Classy John gave some indication that he was a nice horse, but he really caught his trainer’s attention after blazing through five panels in a bullet :58.60 from the gate at the Churchill Downs Training Center Aug. 17.

“Two or three weeks before [the race, on Aug. 9,] he worked in [1:01 4/5], but in the last work, he worked in :58 3/5 from the gate,” Stewart noted. “So I called the clocker to make sure that was legit–I was up here [in Saratoga]. The clocker said he might have even gone a little faster than that–it was unreal. So I talked to Murray and told him there was a race on Travers Day. Murray’s always game for anything, so he said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

Valene and Stewart already had another runner for the card in last year’s local GI Hopeful S. third Givemeaminit (Star Guitar), who checked in eighth in the GI H. Allen Jerkens.

Stewart admitted to wondering before the race if his decision to ship Classy John up to the Spa was the right one.

“I got to thinking that maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do with the crowd and everything,” he said. “We’d have to fly him up on Wednesday, gallop him Thursday and Friday and then run Saturday. So I was a little concerned about that, but it looked like it would be the first race of the day, so we went with it and he handled it great.”

A fast work doesn’t necessarily mean a fast race, but Stewart was confident in Classy John’s ability.

“He worked so good, and we had the video of the work, so I saw it,” he said. “Plus, I talked to [jockey] Jack Gilligan who worked him and he said, ‘He is really, really nice.’ So we just got him up here and that’s how it went–he just slaughtered ’em.”

Classy John shipped back to Kentucky Sunday morning, but will likely return to New York for the Oct. 6 GI Champagne S. He is not Breeders’ Cup nominated.

What made the performance even more special was that Classy John is named for Valene’s father, John Valene, who passed away last Tuesday at the age of 100.

“My father passed away on Tuesday, and I flew up on Friday to watch the races,” Valene said. “So, just given the name and the circumstances and everything else, it’s extra special and I think he’s going to be a nice little horse. Hopefully, he stays healthy, because in this game you never know, but I think he’s for real.”

John Valene, who had attended the races at Canterbury Park just a couple weeks ago, first got the family involved in racing in the early 1960s when he claimed a horse who Murray Valene says subsequently won his next seven starts.

Murray Valene’s racing interests later grew significantly, and at one point Valene Farms had around 140 horses in training. He now has about a dozen on the track. Valene is also associated with Louisiana’s Clear Creek Stud, of which he jointly owns the property that it stands on. Valene has mostly campaigned Louisiana-bred or sired horses, including champions in Minnesota and Illinois.

But this wasn’t by any means his first win up at Saratoga.

Valene Farms took the 1993 GII Adirondack S. with $7,000 purchase Astas Foxy Lady (Zuppardo’s Prince), and doubled up in the same race (via DQ) exactly 20 years later with the Stewart-trained Designer Legs (Graeme Hall). The latter was a $10,000 yearling acquisition.

“It just goes to show you–you never know based on what you paid for a horse what you’ve got,” Valene said. “It’s all about the heart and what’s on the inside. Nobody knows that until they run.”