Sabonis surprises his trainer and the competition

by James Platz

When the first round of Indiana Sires Stakes was contested Monday (May 27) at Harrah’s Hoosier Park, an unexpected contender emerged in the sophomore pacing colt division. Sabonis began the season as a relative unknown. Lightly raced at 2, the Tellitlikeitis—Gypsy Bellevue colt secured a 1:51.3 victory in the second of two $49,500 opening leg divisions. His quick ascension to the top of the division has come as a surprise to many, including trainer Aaron Stutzman.

“It’s been a surprise,” the conditioner said of the 2024 campaign. “From his first start out, it’s been a surprise. And it’s a nice surprise.”

Why the surprise? Stutzman admits that Sabonis was a ‘nice’ horse last year that showed signs of being a racehorse, but didn’t display exceedingly great potential. The pacer made only two starts, racing third and then winning for Kentucky-based owners John and Pat Miller. But the colt came out of his second start, a 1:55.1 score over the Anderson oval, with an injury.

“He had a hairline fracture in his right knee after his second start,” Stutzman said. “He was a laid back, immature 2-year-old. He was a nice colt, but he didn’t show anything special as a 2-year-old. We just kept him over because the owner wanted to, and he was a ‘Tell’ colt.”

In the months leading up to his late March qualifier, Sabonis still acted like a horse that was more ordinary than extraordinary.

“He was good training down,” Stutzman said. “He showed that he would make a nice racehorse, but he didn’t show anything with stakes colt potential. Usually once you’re training them down and getting them close you can tell if they are going to go on or not. He did what he had to and that was it.”

In his qualifier, Sabonis and the trainer sat fourth before sprinting home in :26.4, stopping the clock in 1:57 and winning by a length and a quarter. Nine days later Stutzman sat behind the colt in his sophomore debut, the opening leg of the Mark Fransen Memorial. Like in the qualifier, Sabonis raced near the front in third through most of the circuit before rocketing home. This time, he stormed to the wire with a :25.4 last panel, winning by 4 lengths in a time of 1:52.1. The green colt had transformed into a horse the trainer did not recognize.

“Something switched on him because he does everything handy,” Stutzman said. “He’s two fingers. I mean, he’s one of the nicest horses I’ve ever driven. I don’t know what was going on the first night I raced him. He just kind of said, ‘Okay, it’s time to roll.’ And he did.”

And roll he has, more often than not steamrolling the competition. After the successful debut, Joey Putnam picked up the lines and has steered Sabonis over the last six starts. Putnam drove the colt in his two freshman starts, and had familiarity with the horse. After back-to-back wins in the second leg of the Fransen Memorial and subsequent $20,000 final, the young driver believed Sabonis had the skills for the next level of competition.

“Joey climbed off and said, ‘I think we’ve got another sires stakes horse,’” Stutzman said. “That’s just the way it worked out.”

To close out the Fransen Memorial, Sabonis won by 3¼ lengths (1:53.1) and nearly 6 lengths (1:50). Moving into the Hal Dale, the sophomore tasted his first defeat of the season, finishing a length off leader Shooting In Place with a 1:49.3 effort.

“He got beat in that :49 mile because I told Joey how I wanted him driven, and that’s the way it went,” the trainer said.

Sabonis bounced back in the second Hal Dale leg, winning by nearly 3 lengths in 1:51.2. He captured the $25,000 final by more than 4 lengths, tripping the timer in 1:50. In Monday’s sires stakes win, Sabonis and Putnam controlled the tempo as the heavy favorite, clicking off fractions of :27.1, :56.3 and 1:25. They led by 5½ lengths at the top of the stretch before cruising home to a 1¼-length advantage at the wire, closing out the mile with a :26.3 last quarter.

“He was just sitting on him that night,” the conditioner said of Putnam’s latest drive. “I told him to go what you have to. I was surprised he got away with a :56 half. After that I figured those boys were going to be moving and coming for him, but nobody did.”

Bred by Karl Dean Miller of Ligonier, IN, the sophomore is the second foal from a Roll With Joe mare that has yet to produce another starter. The pacer was consigned to the Midwest Mixed Sale, bringing $9,000. To date, Sabonis has won six of seven seasonal starts, earning $68,750 for his connections.

While the colt is not staked outside the Indiana Sires Stakes program, he could become another notable Stutzman-trained superstar. The Goshen, IN native also developed Soaring Now, a son of JK Endofanera that earned Indiana Sires Stakes divisional honors and was named Indiana Pacer of the Year as a sophomore. During that 2022 campaign, Soaring Now earned just under $375,000 for owner James Miller while being piloted by Andy Shetler and Putnam. Sabonis is owned by Miller’s father and step-mother.

“We’ve gone through a lot of bad horses for them too,” Stutzman said of the relationship with the family, which spans seven or eight years.

Sabonis looks to be one of the unexpected stars of the 2024 Indiana’s Sires Stakes program. Stutzman’s challenge will be to keep him in peak form throughout the season.

“He’s got a calm demeanor, he’s relaxed, and he knows what he’s supposed to do,” he said of his pupil. “He doesn’t stress himself out. I’ve got to try to stay on top of him and keep him fresh. That’s the hardest part of racing eight legs stretched from May to October is keeping him fresh.”