From the Gulfstream Park Media Team:
Wakanaka has a hurry-up-and-wait story that has delivered her to the TAA Pegasus World Cup Filly and Mare Invitational (G3) Presented by PEPSI Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
Bred in Ireland and purchased at a British sale for a mere $4,274 the 4-year-old daughter of Power built her reputation in Italy. Team Valor International CEO Barry Irwin was well aware of her juvenile success, enlisted Gary Barber, a partner in many other horses through the years, and completed the deal to purchase the filly about 10 months ago. Irwin said the name Wakanaka has its origins are in Zimbabwe and means “she’s beautiful.”
Now trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, Wakanaka has recovered from a physical issue and will have her U.S. coming-out party in the newest addition to the Pegasus World Cup Invitational program.
Wakanaka and jockey Umberto Rispoli will start from Post 2 in the 1 1/16th miles turf race for older fillies and mares.
“She was a good 2-year-old. She would have been the second-best 2-year-old filly in Italy,” Irwin said. “She had six starts: four wins, two seconds. She got beat by the filly (Aria Importante) that wound up being the champion.”
Irwin said that Wakanaka is built like a sprinter, not overly tall but stout and powerful. Three of her 2-year-old wins were in turf sprints by a combined 10 ¾ lengths.
A goal for top 3-year-old fillies in Italy is the Premio Regina Elena Italian One Thousand Guineas (G3) contested at the Capannelle Racecourse in Rome in late April.
“Everybody wants to win the 1000 Guineas equivalent. There it’s a Group 3, but it’s a Classic,” Irwin said. “That’s the big focal point for all the fillies.”
Irwin said the major question about Wakanaka was answered on March 17 in her prep for the Premio Regina Elena, the Premio Cesare Degli Occhi at San Siro.
“Nobody knew if she could rate and they were able to rate her,” Irwin said. “She went a mile and she won by (6 ½) lengths, very impressively.”
Based on that performance, Irwin began the process of trying to buy the filly.
“I was contacted by an agent that we buy a lot of horses with,” he said. “I’ve gotten plenty of horses in Italy and done extremely well with them. We’ve had a champion and a couple of Grade 1 winners over the years. I was familiar with the type of races that she was running in. I watched her and I had somebody go in there and check her out for me, a friend of mine who lives there.”
Irwin said he balked at the asking price, then reached out to Barber. The plan they developed was to buy the filly but allow the owner/trainer Diego Dettori to run her in the Premio Regina Elena in his colors and keep whatever purse money she earned.
“He’s a young guy,” Irwin said. “It was his first big win. All we wanted was the filly.”
Wakanaka managed to overcome some traffic issues and improved to 6-2-0 from eight starts.
“She had kind of a rough trip. She was stuck between horses. She did rate well,” Irwin said. “Then when she got out, with about a furlong and a half to go, she exploded, opened up about two and a half and then won in hand by a length and a half.”
“We were very happy with that race. She got good speed ratings in Europe for that effort. She’s a very likable filly. She’s got a lot of pizazz about her. And she’s got instant turn of foot, which is the one thing that we liked. That’s why we buy so many horses over there. You tell them to go and it’s like now.”
Irwin said they asked Mott to train the horse because of his past success with horses from Italy. It did not turn out to be a be a smooth transition from Europe to American racing, though.
“She wound up getting bone bruising so we had to turn her out for two months,” Irwin said.
When she was ready, trainer Mark Casse and his staff helped get her fit before Mott arrived for the winter at Payson Park. Irwin said that Wakanaka got Mott’s attention when she turned in a bullet work on Dec. 13. She has worked every week since and Irwin and Mott decided to run her in the Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.