Hunch bettors might have left Arlington Park with a smile on Saturday afternoon.
The track presented Military Appreciation Day and a horse by the name of Free Fighter scored a surprising 2-length victory in the Grade III $100,000 Stars and Stripes Stakes.
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Owned by car dealership owner Frank Mancari and trained by Illinois native Michael Reavis, 9-1 longshot Free Fighter ($20.60 to win) with jockey Timothy Thorton scooted to the lead near mid-stretch and got to the winner's circle ahead of favored Winchester and third-place finisher Proceed Bee.
The 1½ miles was covered in 2:31.98 on the Polytrack.
"It was Military Appreciation Day, " said Arlington Park marketing director Howard Sudberry at the post-race toast. "Earlier in the day, a horse by the name of W W American won, and then Free Fighter wins the Stars and Stripes. I think that's all a coincidence."
Originally carded for the turf, the Stars and Stripes was moved to the main track after an overnight storm dropped a single-day record of nearly 7 inches at nearby O'Hare Airport.
Reavis said Arlington racing secretary Chris Polzin asked early in the day if Free Fighter would still run the race despite it being moved off the turf.
"I said I didn't care if was soft turf, hard turf, Polytrack, or if the race was carded on Euclid Avenue," Reavis said. "We would have been at the gate on Euclid because I knew this horse was ready to roll."
The 6-year-old Illinois-bred rolled to victory in this same race in 2009 when owned by Tom Fedro & Team Block and trained by Chris Block.
Mancari purchased Free Fighter privately in Florida shortly after the horse had been claimed for $62,500 on March 31 of this year at Gulfstream Park.
Reavis has trained for Mancari for 25 years.
"He's not one of my owners, he's my best pal," Reavis said. "We're as close as brothers. Juvenal Diaz (former jockey) introduced us."
Free Fighter needed no introduction to the winner's circle.
Although Saturday was his first victory for his new connections, it was his eighth in 32 starts. The son of Out of Place added $58,800 to his bankroll, which stands at $441,768.
Winchester, who won 2008 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park, had only run on turf in 21 starts (5 wins) until Saturday.
The 6-year-old, sent off at 4-5, defeated Arlington Million champ Gio Ponti in the Grade 1 Manhattan last year.
"He (Winchester) wasn't quite himself," jockey Cornelio Velasquez said. "In the stretch, I asked him but he didn't really dig in for me. On the grass -- no problem."
"Nothing against the other horses but this wasn't the strongest field so we thought we'd take a shot," said Liam Kelly, the assistant to trainer Christophe Clement. "At least he'd get a chance to run because we plan to go to Saratoga in three weeks.
"He had no excuses. Running on this surface was a big change for him. He'll be a different horse on the turf."
Thornton rode Free Fighter to a third-place finish in the Grade III Arlington Handicap two weeks ago.
"Mike (Reavis) and I planned to let him sit comfortably wherever he was and sit off the speed a little bit," Thornton said.
"It worked out perfectly. I was able to sit on the fence all the way around there and save all the ground until (front-running Kingofthebluegrass) was stopping bad in front of me. I was able to ease out and when I asked him to pick it up, he did."