As the sun set over the clubhouse turn at Hawthorne on March 11, 2016, I remarked to myself that if Hawthorne were still running the Land of Lincoln Stakes, the sprint for Illinois-bred sophomores, I had my horse. Debut runner Cat’s Alley had just won an Illinois-bred maiden special weight in impressive and professional manner. The gelded son of Flower Alley took the early lead, relinquished it to Fast Punchnrichie, came back after that foe looked gone, and drew off to thrash older foes by daylight.
Alas, Hawthorne did not run the Land of Lincoln in 2016, so he did not return in that spot. I expected him to return in a one-other-than allowance, either state-bred or open, to test his mettle against winners. Perhaps, if he liked the polytrack, he could turn up in the Springfield Stakes across town in a few months?
Instead, he turned up three weeks later for a claiming tag.
The race was a $25,000 claimer for non-winners of two lifetime. For Hawthorne, $25,000 is as high a claiming tag as you’ll see outside of a salty allowance-optional. It was also more than owner William Stiritz had paid for him; Cat’s Alley had been just a $10,000 purchase at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall sale as a yearling. But, still, after such an impressive debut in protected company, I had fully expected to return in protected company.
As expected, he galloped home once again a daylight winner. Though connections rarely drop $25,000 claims at Hawthorne, I wondered if this would be the time someone would pay that much for a horse at 35th and Cicero.
Someone did: the partnership of Michael Reavis and Greco Racing Stable. Reavis has been running horses in Chicago for forty years, and knows the claim box here better than almost anyone. I figured that claim of Cat’s Alley would be the shrewdest claim of the meet, even the shrewdest of the year.
Twelve days after that claim, Cat’s Alley was entered to run in the sort of race where I had expected him to turn up before, an Illinois-bred one-other-than sprint. He was a vet scratch.
I looked him up over and over again. He neither entered nor worked during Arlington last summer. He neither entered nor worked during Hawthorne last fall. I began to wonder if Cat’s Alley was a figment of my imagination.
This spring, I became once again optimistic that I had not invented him. The chestnut hit the worktab again on February 27…and kept working, week after week after week. He entered a race today at the same level and distance as the one from which he scratched a year ago — an Illinois-bred N1X, six furlongs on the Hawthorne dirt. He did not scratch.
Cat’s Alley came with his running shoes on. He broke sharply, but instead of the prominent early position he showed in his two races last year, he settled in fifth out of seven. That had him about half a dozen lengths off the pressured pace set by favourite Mexico Memories.
Through the far turn Cat’s Alley began to gain; he swung wide into the stretch, full of run. Past the quarter pole he angled in, becoming the outermost horse in a traffic jam that included him, Spectacular Road, the rallying Cat’s Runaway (who had gotten the worst of it), and innermost Two Minute Man. Cat’s Alley regained his momentum near the furlong pole, rolled past the rest of the field, and drew off to win by two lengths over Two Minute Man. Cat’s Runaway, rallying from last and stopped badly near the quarter pole, got going again for third.
After waiting over a year to race again, Cat’s Alley then had to wait through a fifteen-minute stewards’ inquiry and objection involving the tangle near the quarter pole. Stewards assigned fault to Two Minute Man and Spectacular Road, placing the former third, behind Cat’s Runaway. Cat’s Alley stayed up, stretching his career record to three starts, three daylight victories.
Whether or not the steward’s inquiry had gone his way, however, the race was a strong return for Cat’s Alley. He flashed talent in his pair of starts last year, and though he spent so long laid off, he returned well. He looked good, he wanted to run, and he ran well. In short, he ran like the same Cat’s Alley as last year.
He ran like a horse who I might just get my hopes up about once again.