Welcome home, Tyler Gaffalione.
Following another successful sojourn to Kentucky and New York in the summer and fall, the 27-year-old native of nearby Davie, Fla. celebrated his return to Gulfstream Park by guiding Lia Marina to a half-length victory in Friday’s $75,000 Wait a While on Opening Day of the 2021-22 Championship Meet.
The eighth running of the one-mile Wait a While for 2-year-old fillies on turf was the first of 76 stakes, 37 graded, worth $14.26 million during the 87-day Championship Meet that runs through April 3.
Gaffalione was greeted with cheers and applause when he returned to the winner’s circle aboard Lia Marina ($7.60), the narrow second choice in a field of nine behind European import Sunstrike, making her U.S. debut.
“It’s so nice. I grew up here. It’s one of the first tracks I’ve ever been to,” Gaffalione said. “Coming back here and winning races, it’s a feeling like no other. I feel on top of the world.”
The Eclipse Award-winning apprentice of 2015, represented by agent Matt Muzikar, Gaffalione won the fall meet at Keeneland, his fourth career title there, and swept all four meets this year at Churchill Downs including the fall meet that immediately preceded Gulfstream. He was also second at Kentucky Downs, third at Keeneland spring and sixth at Saratoga.
“I’ve just been so blessed. I’ve got a great team around me,” Gaffalione said. “My family is great support and all the owners and trainers have given me such huge opportunities. I just feel so blessed to be in the position I’m in.”
Breaking from outside all but one horse, Gaffalione positioned Lia Marina in second, just off the right hip of pacesetter Gun Boat, with Sister Lou Ann poised to their outside through a quarter-mile in 21.95 seconds and a half in 45.53. Lia Marina forged a short lead exiting the far turn after six furlongs in 1:09.48 with Sister Lou Ann matching strides, but Lia Marina never let the filly get by the length of the stretch to win in 1:33.06 over a firm turf course.
Gun Boat was third, three-quarters of a length behind Sister Lou Ann, followed by Lemieux, Last Leaf, Sunstrike, Myfavoritedaughter, High Arabian and Palmach.
“There was a lot of speed on form, but my filly was coming out of sprints so we didn’t want to take much away from her,” Gaffalione said. “We just wanted to get her over, save some ground and get some cover. She relaxed good around there and when I called on her she responded nicely.”
Gaffalione ranked second with $3.5 million in purse earnings and third with 95 wins during the 2020-21 Championship Meet behind Irad Ortiz Jr.’s record total of 140. Among Gaffalione’s victories were six graded-stakes – the Mr. Prospector (G3), Tropical Turf (G3), W.L. McKnight (G3), Marshua’s River (G3), Kitten’s Joy (G3) and Honey Fox (G3).
A winner of more than 1,700 career races, Gaffalione ranks fourth in North America in victories this year behind Ortiz Jr., Paco Lopez and Luis Saez, all of whom are Gulfstream winter regulars.
“We always want to be top three. We’re always fighting to be leading rider,” Gaffalione said. “It’s a very competitive meet, but we just come out here every day and give it our best.”
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