When trainer Erv Miller went to the Tattersalls July Sale with owner John Koliopoulos, they didn’t intend to come home with Air Strike. The four-year-old Always A Virgin son impressed at two, winning a $75,000 Indiana bred stakes at Hoosier Park and dead-heating in the $147,200 Kindergarten Classic at the Meadowlands. But with unimpressive resumes at three and four, Air Strike didn’t even make Miller’s short list.
However, as Miller stood around the sales ring watching horse after horse sell for more than he could stomach, he noticed Air Strike in the ring. Bidding maxed out at $26,000, a price the trainer couldn’t refuse.
“All the ones I looked at were bringing too much money,” Miller said. “I knew the horse a little bit from racing in Indiana, so I knew he was a high-ability kind of horse. I knew he must have some kind of problem because he hadn’t shown much at that time, but for $26,000, I thought I could put him in a claimer at Yonkers, so I just took a shot.
“Most of the horses I was trying to buy that day I was trying to look at ahead of time and get a feel for what I was buying, but I didn’t look at that horse,” he continued. “We were very fortunate to find him the way we did, to come across him like that because he wasn’t the horse I went there to buy, but if the price is right, you do that sometimes.”
Despite their unlikely pairing, Miller was immediately impressed with Air Strike. He won his debut for his new connections in an $11,000 overnight at Pocono July 24 and followed it up with a victory at Yonkers for $17,500 the next week. Air Strike went wire-to-wire in the $35,000 four-year-old open handicap pace August 18, but was unable to duplicate his success at that level in his next four tries. Miller regrouped and sent Air Strike to Hoosier Park.
“When we bought him, at first he seemed like he was OK because he was down in class and then he got to where he didn’t race as good because he was up in class,” Miller said. “I sent him out to Indiana and the last start in Indiana he just started coming back around. We brought him back and he fit the low class again, and that’s how started back there.”
Air Strike finished off-the-board in his three Indiana starts, but won two straight races at Pocono in October while down in class. Then the light-bulb went off.
“He’s a really nice, big, strong horse. A good sound horse, too. He had a splint bothering him, so we worked on that some and got him a little sounder. Ever since we did that, he just keeps getting better every time we race him.”
Air Strike returned to the four-year-old open November 3 and after setting a :26.3 opening panel, went on to record a nearly eight-length romp in 1:52.1.
“That’s about when he turned around,” Miller commented. “We’d worked on that splint a little before that and he just got a little sounder and everything went good for him. He’s always good on the front.”
Air Strike finished second to Mac’s Jackpot in his next start when handicapped by post seven, but recorded a seven-length score when he started from post five November 24. He was fifth from the outside December 1, but last time out racked up another win in the class from post five. He’s won 12 races this year and earned $139,825, pushing his career tally to $285,815. His success on the small track surprised his trainer.
“I think he likes the smaller track now, now that he’s grown up,” Miller said. “It did (surprise) me a little bit because I watched his replays after I bought him that day and thought, ‘man, he doesn’t get around Yonkers very good. He struggles a little.’ I was a little surprised. I think it was just a maturity thing.”
With the impending changing of the calendar, Yonkers’ 2018 racing season is coming to a close. This Saturday (December 15), Air Strike will get his final chance to compete in the $35,000 four-year-old open. He will start from post seven as the 5-2 morning line favourite, but unlike his prior outside efforts, rival Macs Jackpot hasn't drawn inside of him. Instead, Air Strike will contend with Rock N Blue, Treasure Mach, Aston Hill Dave, Machiavelli, Odds On Delray, and McSpidey.
“It’s a good class to be in. It’s too bad it’s about to go away from him because he really does fit that class well,” Miller said. “It’s a little tougher when he’s got the outside like he does this week, but hopefully he’ll be OK. He’s better than he was and I think he’ll just keep getting better. A lot of people say it takes a certain kind of horse to compete at Yonkers and right now it looks like he might be that certain kind of horse.
“Hopefully next year he can go to the Levy and just get better and better,” he continued. “We’re going to give him a little break here and point him toward that race. I think it just depends on how he comes out of it, but he’s made a lot of progress so far, so if he keeps making a lot of progress, I know there’s some good horses in there, but the way he’s gone so far, he really likes Yonkers and hopefully that’s what he’ll step up to.”
Saturday night’s card also features a $44,000 Open Handicap Pace. First post time is 6:50 p.m.
(SOA of NY)