A trip to the winner’s circle has been long overdue for grade 1 winner Union Strike, who finally broke her five-race losing streak Sept. 23 in the $300,000 Gallant Bloom Handicap (G2) over 6 1/2 furlongs at Belmont Park.
Starting anew after being transferred from the barn of owner/trainer Mick Ruis to Steve Asmussen, Union Strike had a lot to prove in the Gallant Bloom. Breaking from post 6 under jockey Jose Ortiz, Union Strike started next to last in the seven-horse field. Early pacesetter Kirby’s Penny set fractions of :22:57 and :45.09 through the first half mile, followed closely by last year’s Gallant Bloom victor, Highway Star, who dueled with Lewis Bay for second.
Kirby’s Penny led by 1 1/2 lengths as they reached the stretch. Union Strike cut the corner to save ground and bumped briefly with Still Therewith three sixteenths to run. On the rail with the final furlong to go, Union Strike edged past Kirby’s Penny and late challenger Your Love to win by a half-length in a final time of 1:15.24.
“I didn’t break quite well, but she’s a filly who always come from off (the pace),” Ortiz said. “I just wanted to follow the horses, and as we got closer to the quarter pole, I saw an opening near the rail, so I went there.”
It was the first win for Union Strike since April 9 of last year, when she took the Santa Paula Stakes at Santa Anita Park. The filly kicked off her 4-year-old campaign with a seventh-place run in the La Canada Stakes (G2) and followed that effort with a third in the Chicago Handicap (G3). The filly entered Sunday’s race off a fourth-place finish in the Ketel One Ballerina Stakes (G1), where she finished a half-length behind fellow Gallant Bloom contender Lewis Bay.
“The last time she ran, she grabbed a quarter, and in a previous race she went to her nose before, so I didn’t mind a little bit of a slow start,” said Ruis, who co-owns Union Strike with his wife, Wendy. “But when I saw the half going in :45, I thought we had a shot, because we needed a little bit of something to run into.
“Today she gave a top effort, and what else can you say? That’s why Steve (Asmussen) is a Hall of Fame trainer,” Ruis continued. “He’s trained three Horse of the Year (winners), and it makes it fun for us to come out and not have to be stressed out and train every day. I have a lot of things going on, and I’m sure my daughter in California (Shelbe) is real happy, because she had a grade 1 win with Union Strike and we’re just happy to be here.”
Union Strike was bred in Kentucky by a partnership that includes Pollock Farms, Brian Kahn, and Taylor Brothers Property, out of the Smart Strike mare Classic Strike. She is a half sister to grade 2 winner Handsome Mike and stakes-placed Classic Sense. She was purchased by Ruis Racing for $375,000 from the Old South Farm consignment to the 2016 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training. She has a 3-2-1 record from 11 starts, with $537,625 in earnings.