Equal Billing

Time to talk about the three-year-old fillies.

The depth of potential talent doesn’t appear to be as great as on the colts’ side and unlike Untapable last year, who you were simply counting days and hoping she’d remain sound until she’d win the Kentucky Oaks, there is no clear cut or dominating filly to emerge as of today.  The logical place to start is with 2014’s winning Juvenile Fillies Breeders’ Cup and Two-Year-Old Filly Eclipse Award winner Take Charge Brandi.  Since her Breeders’ Cup win, she has raced and won repeatedly.  And this week, her owner Willis Horton, announced he was considering running her in the Rebel Stakes (Oaklawn Park’s second most important Derby prep race), March 7 instead of the Honeybee Stakes for three-year-old fillies on the Rebel undercard.

Good luck with that.  Take Charge Brandi is a fine filly and apparently training well, but she’s never shown me anything in her races that would make me think she’d be at all successful against the colts.  In her last victory, the one-mile Martha Washington, also at Oaklawn, she barely won over a small field of fillies she should have handily trounced.  And while they are still relatively unproven, this crop of three-year-old colts seems to be sitting on unlimited potential, chief among them American Pharoah, who is scheduled to ship in from Santa Anita and make the Rebel his 2015 season debut.  Prior to injury before the Breeders’ Cup, American Pharoah had easily defeated…Texas Red in the FrontRunner Stakes last fall.  And Texas Red then went on to air and then some in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winning by 13+ lengths.  Take Charge Brandi, who to her credit, led her Breeders’ Cup race almost from the gate and was tenacious at the end, won by a nose.  I will give Mr. Horton great credit in that he was forthright enough to indicate that taking a shot in the Rebel was as much a financial move as anything else.  I believe he said even a third place finish in the Rebel would bring home a bigger purse than a win in the Honeybee.  All things being and remaining equal, if Take Charge Brandi could win the Rebel over American Pharoah or one of the other colts contesting the Rebel, she’s some kind of filly and she’d solidify her role as the horse to beat for the Oaks, and I dare say somewhat throw the Derby futures in to some disarray!

It’s a bit of a tie in my mind as to the filly I’d rank second best en route to the Oaks.  I’m A Chatterbox and Condo Commando are almost one in the same for me at this point, although I think I’d give a slight edge to I’m A Chatterbox.  Chatterbox has impressively scored back to back wins at the Fair Grounds in the Silverbulletday and Rachel Alexandra Stakes.  She’s trained by Larry Jones and that is an advantage in and of itself (Eight Belles and 2011 Horse of the Year Harve de Grace. Sidenote: Last weekend was my first chance to see  Larry interviewed since a life-threatening fall he took while exercising a horse last summer and he looked and sounded great for which I, and I’m sure many others are grateful as he’s a fine horseman and sport ambassador).  I’m A Chatterbox looks like a filly that’s on the upswing and enjoying her work.

Condo Commander put on a commanding performance February 21 at Aqueduct in the Busher Stakes. In her season debut she took the lead early and never relinquished it to win by almost five lengths.  This was her first start in 2015 and she picked up where she left off in her last race in 2014, a victory in the Demoiselle Stakes.  My only knock/concern/question is both those victories came on tracks that I believe were in varying degrees of being off; let’s say just less than fast.  But I also recall her maiden win at Saratoga coming over a fast track, so this is a minor quibble for now.

A filly that has impressed me and that I’ll continue to watch w/interest is the Dale Romans’ trained Birdatthewire.  Her name about says it all as she’s a late-running filly that is flying from well off the pace as the wire approaches.  Last weekend she came up just short in the Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park to another tenacious runner that had led through most of the race, Ekati’s Phaeton.  Both fillies might be more natural milers (the distance of the Davona Dale), but being a daughter of a horse near and dear to my heart, 2009 Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes winner Summer Bird, I believe she can get the Oaks’ 1 1/16.  That extra half furlong might be just what she needs to snatch the victory!

Angela Renee and Puca, two fillies that showed promise in 2014 also ran last Saturday, both with fourth place finishes in the Rachel Alexandra and Davona Dale Stakes, respectively.

If the Kentucky Derby appears unclear and uncertain at this point, the Kentucky Oaks side is equally muddled.  Perhaps a new candidate or clear leader will emerge from today’s Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita Park.  We shall see.

 

Well…

At the risk of dating myself, when you read that title, in your head you should hear the voice of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens in Bewitched…that kind of hesitant, noncommittal response.  That’s my response to the question “What did you think of this weekend’s Kentucky Derby prep races?”

Well…

Let’s start with the biggest of the preps over the weekend: The Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.  The winner: highly regarded Upstart…for about five minutes.  Upstart crossed the wire first, but was disqualified (DQed) for interference in the stretch.  The horse he crossed, Itsaknockout was rewarded the victory.  So here’s what I saw: Upstart ran a good, workmanlike race.  But he didn’t get the best ride from regular rider Jose Ortiz and, in my opinion, it cost him the race.  The interference with Itsaknockout was not that dramatic, but the head on view shows Ortiz repeatedly whipping left handed and drifting out…and drifting out…and drifting out before he switches to the right in a too little too late effort to correct.  Besides floating Itsaknockout at least four to six paths wide, he makes brief contact with him at just the moment when Itsaknockout appeared to hitting his best stride.  I’m not convinced if he had had a clear run, if Itsaknockout would have passed Upstart, but the total action by Upstart did hamper, if ever so briefly, his momentum. Further, Itsaknockout is a relatively green (inexperienced; this was only his third race) racehorse and that might have effected his performance as well.

Still, note, I said I found Upstart’s performance “workmanlike.” He did what he needed to do, not dazzling, but professional.  There were many comments that Gulfstream was a tiring race course over the weekend and that may have contributed to the visual I got of his race performance.  He’s solidly in contention on my Derby list (and I know, near or at the top for many people), but at this point I’m just not seeing the Derby winner.  His next out should be the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct April 4.

Itsaknockout is definitely an improving colt with lots of potential.  I’ll continue to watch him, but today he wouldn’t be my Derby pick either. The horse that DID catch my eye was third place finisher Frammento.  On that “tiring” track, he was closing and, at least Saturday, looked like he might like more ground.  Being a son of Midshipman, who was most effective at a mile, I’m not completely convinced, but I’d like to see him in another race and of course it would be fun to have his two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Nick Zito in the mix.

Highly thought of contender Frosted laid an egg in this race spitting the bit shortly after taking a brief lead.  My pick for the race, Gorgeous Bird was also disappointing after an easy, sparkling performance in his previous race.  I’d suspect trainer Ian Wilkes might “take back” and take him off the Derby trail unless there was some obvious problem for his lackluster performance identified post race.

Later Saturday, the Risen Star was run at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.  This was the race Texas Red was being pointed to prior to his hoof abscess.  After the race was over all I could think was “If only..”  Again, I really didn’t see much that excited me in this race either.  International Star, winner of the Lecomte Stakes, returned and essentially repeated his effort.  He was followed home by War Story and Keen Ice; another workmanlike performance, but not one that made me sit up and get excited.  Most likely, he’ll finish out his preps there at Fairgrounds in the Louisiana Derby, March 28.

Another prime contender, Imperia, put in a lackluster effort in the Risen Star, finishing fifth.  He’s run well at Churchill Downs in a strong second-place finish to El Kabeir last fall, so barring some injury or other issue coming out of the Risen Star, he might get another chance to prove himself and earn the points he’ll need to get in the gate in Louisville.

Yesterday, the weather-delayed Southwest Stakes was run at Oaklawn…not that yesterday’s weather at Hot Springs was a bargain–plenty of rain resulted in a very sloppy surface for the race.  Pretty much the same contenders from the Smarty Jones Stakes, the first of the Oaklawn preps, returned and the outcome was pretty similar as well with another win for Far Right.  Calvin Borel put in a nice ride to finish second with a longshot, The Truth or Else, and Mr. Z, who led from the gate, showed a lot of heart to hold on for third, the same finish he had in the Smarty Jones.  Bayerd, the second-place finisher in the Smarty Jones was a non-factor, finishing eighth.

Not winning at a mile or a mile and a sixteenth, respectively, in his two starts at Oaklawn suggests to me that Mr. Z is not cut out for the Kentucky Derby’s mile and a quarter.

 

However, with such a sloppy track, it’s hard to gauge just what the results mean going forward.  Super Ninetynine ran a bang up race winning the Southwest in 2013 in the mud, but didn’t make it to the Derby and was never as successful again.  Hopefully, there will be dry weather for the April 11 Arkansas Derby and we’ll see who goes improves and goes on.  Today, I could only be enthusiastic about Far Right if on Derby Day the track is muddy.

At this point, you’re likely wondering what I’m looking for or what would impress me.  One thing for sure is a better turn of foot than I’ve seen from most of the horses that have had preps so far this year.  I’d also like to see some colts that look like the distance they’ve covered so far was a snap and they’d like to run farther.  And then there’s that elusive “Je ne sais quoi,” that “something” that I cannot define, but I know it when I see it and I haven’t quite seen it yet.

Now there is an up and coming colt that is impressing me, but getting him to and in the Kentucky Derby gate could be a challenge.  His name is Khozan, and he has had two stellar races at Gulfstream.  And therein lies the problem–he’s raced only two times and neither race has been a race where he’s earned points.  Further, he did not race as a two year old and thus would be up against the “Curse of Apollo” (Apollo being the last colt to win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a two year old, in 1882).  I heard a lot of people bring this point up over the weekend following Khozan’s second race and victory Sunday, and chuckling about it a bit, but let’s face it, 132 runnings have taken place since and a horse without a two-year-old foundation hasn’t won.  And I’ve already questioned here whether or not horses with more experience will be adequately prepared with their late and/or limited starts this year.  Still, Khozan seems to have all the raw talent and I suspect his performance yesterday will have trainer Todd Pletcher mapping out a plan to get him in at least one appropriate prep race.

Going forward, Upstart is on my Derby short list, along with Texas Red (if he can literally get back on track and succeed), Dortmund, and American Pharaoh.  But at this point I’m VERY open to being impressed by other contenders.  Derby Day is now 68 days away…

And there are fillies pointing to the Oaks yet to be discussed.  Keep reading!

 

 

 

Will They Be Ready?

FOUNDATION: Defined as “the load-bearing part of a building; also the base or underpinning. Support. Strength.”

Foundation in a Thoroughbred racehorse has similar meaning; it’s the development through morning workouts/gallops that develops the wind, heart, and muscle that powers the horse forward.  But it’s more than just timed exercise runs.  RACING also helps develop foundation and more than the physical.  A race sharpens the Thoroughbred’s mind, competitive instincts, and skills. Races put foundation in a horse, giving it a base, something to work and draw off of as it moves on to the next race.

So last week I talked about the stellar efforts of Dortmund and Far From Over.  I also mentioned Texas Red and Upstart’s first races of 2015 en route to Derby Day.  But there’s a list of talented colts–Competitive Edge, American Pharaoh, I Spent It, Carpe Diem, Daredevil, and Ocho Ocho Ocho– that showed promise in their two-year-old season of racing that have yet to run a race as a three-year old. And personally, I’m starting to wonder if, they make it into the gate for the Kentucky Derby, they will truly be ready.

There are many prep races that will pass through Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Tampa Bay Downs, Oaklawn, and Santa Anita Park and give these colts competitive races and possibly winnow out a few as contenders.  But it is now mid-February, and it’s unlikely the aforementioned will run any more than two races leading up to the Derby.  Depending on their performance, some may run only one.  That means several of these horses could enter the Churchill Downs starting gate about to run the Derby in a third or possibly second off a layoff scenario.  As young, growing and developing animals that seems a bit rich for my (and their) blood.  Not only does it raise the question will they be physically fit enough to run the most demanding  10 furlongs they’ll ever contest (if indeed they ever run that distance again), but also will they have the mental edge they need that they can only get by mixing it up in and running a race.  Further, the possible lack of foundation makes me wonder (but not a lot), if 10 or more of the horses that race in the Derby are not competitive at the top levels of racing post Derby Day.

It’s not to say that the Derby hasn’t been won by horses with just two three-year-old prep races.  Training a Thoroughbred racehorse is as much, if not more, art that science, a matter of “feel” sometimes if you will.  But when you’re taking or considering the long view for the horses in terms of a career…Just a thought; obviously I’m not a trainer.

And there have been some interesting developments since my last post regarding the horses on the Derby trail.  Texas Red (TR) has suffered an abscess in his right front hoof.  Far from a catastrophic injury, but a bump in the road and certainly a hiccup in his training and racing schedule.  Instead of racing as planned in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, TR may have his next race at Oaklawn or Santa Anita depending on how he comes back around.

Dortmund likely will not return to racing until April 4th’s Santa Anita Derby.  As mentioned in my last post, this is a large colt for his age and trainer Bob Baffert is as cognizant of that as anyone and indicated when discussing the colt’s next race, that he believes some time off is in order for him to allow for his latest (and ongoing!!) growth spurt.  Plus, his two most recent races, the Los Alamitos Futurity and the Robert Lewis, were two VERY demanding races. Makes sense/works for me!

Firing Line, second to Dortmund last week, may take his show on the road for his next start, possibly in the March 22 Sunland Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico.  The Sunland Derby is the race that set Mine That Bird up for his improbable Derby win. That race is at nine furlongs and should be a good test for him going forward, especially since I’m not the only one wondering if he really wants more than a mile to a mile and a sixteenth.

A new or stronger contender may emerge Monday as the Southwest Stakes runs at Oaklawn Park.  I refer to the Oaklawn prep races as the Smarty Jones/Afleet Alex route as those two horses used those prep races for their Classic race runs with great success, coming up a Belmont and Kentucky Derby win short, respectively, of a Triple Crown.  Top finishers in the Southwest likely will move on to the Arkansas Derby, April 11.

ALWAYS something this time of year!

 

 

 

On Your Mark

The time between the Breeders’ Cup and the steady progression of Kentucky Derby preps can REALLY lag, especially if you had a lousy Breeders’ Cup Saturday as I did (THANK YOU Texas Red for salvaging my day, but I’d expect no less from a son of Afleet Alex!).  But now, not only is there a bit of a thaw in the winter weather, but also in my lack of interest in the goings on at the many Thoroughbred tracks across the country.  Things heated up dramatically yesterday amongst not only the three year olds on the winding, grinding Derby trail, but in the older, handicap ranks.

Let’s start with the maturing “babies” aiming to get in the gate for the Kentucky Derby, now just a shade over 80 days away, if you can believe that.  Texas Red, my personal favorite, ran a solid second in his return to the races in the seven furlong San Vicente (February 1).  Seven furlongs is not this colt’s forte or real desire and he was just starting to roll along the rail at they hit the finish.  Look for more and better as he continues on.  It appears he’ll be headed to Fair Grounds to take the Louisiana route (Risen Star–February 21, Louisiana Derby–March 28) to Kentucky.

Prior to Texas Red’s return, Upstart made a successful return to the races in an impressive win in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream.

Aqueduct was the site of one of the most exciting races in a day of just about complete excitement and peak performances by the Thoroughbreds.  In just his second start, Far From Over was somewhat ambitiously placed in the Withers Stakes, a race with a history of producing more than a few Derby stars.  It certainly looked like he was FAR OVER HIS HEAD as he stumbled badly out of the gate, spotting the small field, including heavily favored El Kabeir and well-thought-of Classy Class at least a seven-length lead.  The two favorites went right out to the lead under modest fractions and for the bulk of the race it looked like a contest to be decided between the two. Although Far From Over continued to lag in the rear throughout most of the race, he was getting a smart, solid ride from jockey Manuel Franco, keeping him steady and moving forward.  Within the final eighth, he exploded, rapidly closing the gap and overtaking both frontrunners, El Kabeir who had just overtaken Classy Class, to win.  Entirely impressive in terms of ride and the raw ability and determination this colt showed.  This son of Blame quickly jumped on to my list of ones to watch on to Louisville.

On the West Coast, the two prohibitive favorites for the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita put on their own show.  Clearly the class of the field, undefeated Dortmund and Firing Line hooked each other early for the second race in a row.  This time, Firing Line moved past Dortmund in the stretch, opening nearly a length’s lead as the wire approached.  But Dortmund, son of 2008 Derby winner Big Brown, wasn’t at all deterred, gathered, to not only rehook Firing Line, and run with him stride for stride, but also passed him once again right before the wire to win by a neck. Extremely impressive.  I’d expect to see both return for the next major Santa Anita prep in the March 7 San Felipe Stakes.

Older colts didn’t disappoint. The Donn Handicap at Gulfstream saw the return of several early favorites for the 2014 Derby–Constitution and Commisioner (second after leading until the wire, the 2014 Belmont Stakes) return to stakes action versus the 2014 Donn winner, Lea.  Although Commissioner’s effort was flat, Constituition and Lea did not disappoint with the former leading virtually from the gate and last year’s champ closing, but not quite catching the newly minted four year old.

But yesterday’s piece de resistance had its genesis in the dust up that was the beginning of the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic.  The Classic was, among other things, the first meeting between Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome (CC), then undefeated 2013 champion two-year-old Shared Belief, who had also already defeated older horses, and Pennsylvania Derby winner and CC vanquisher Bayern. That race was won by Bayern whose sloppy start out of the gate dramatically impeded Shared Belief.  Bayern ran on to win and although there was a stewards’ inquiry, no change was made, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many, myself included. California Chrome finished a game third.

The San Antonio Invitational was the first opportunity for now Horse of the Year CC, Shared Belief, and Classic winner Bayern to meet as four year olds.  Bayern wasn’t entered off with a minor hoof injury.  But everyone was anxious still to see what would happen in a race where Chrome and Shared Belief were likely to be the key contenders.  This race DID NOT disappoint.  Both colts got off to clean starts and were positioned exactly in their best racing positions, Chrome off the rail and just off the pace and Shared Belief stalking just a few spots behind.  Hopportunity, another well-thought-of four-year-old colt started enlivening the race as they made the turn for home, for a moment looking like he was going to leave Shared Belief behind and pass California Chrome all in one smooth move.  That lasted for about two seconds.  Chrome lengthened and Mike Smith roused Shared Belief and the matchup everyone dreamed of seeing was reality.  For a few strides Chrome looked like he couldn’t be caught, but Shared Belief made that a fleeting thought, lowering his body and accelerating in the flick of Smith’s whip hand.  He took the lead and began to pull away before and past the wire.  It was a thrill to watch.  Shared Belief is a relatively small colt, with what looks like a somewhat unusual motion, but a stride that also seems exceptionally efficient.

It’s anticipated, for the moment, that Shared Belief will move on to the Big ‘Cap, the Santa Anita Handicap, March 7 and California Chrome to Dubai, March 28, for the World Cup.  If so, we might not see them together on the track again until Breeders’ Cup.

So 2015 Thoroughbred racing is now well underway and if February 7 was a sample, the year of racing to come is going to be unbelievably exciting from the Derby preps to the Triple Crown (despite my enthusiasm right now, I’ll go on record today–NO Triple Crown winner this year either, sorry) to the Breeders’ Cup making its first run at the venerated Keeneland Race Course.

As far as a Derby pick, I’m casting a wide net for now, but I do favor Texas Red as I know he has the pedigree for the job and I would love to see an Afleet Alex baby pick up the one Triple Crown race his sire just missed.  But Dortmund certainly has moved up in my estimation.  By Big Brown, he can certainly do the job and he is a massive, imposing looking colt.  If he can hold that big body together, he can certainly figure May 2.

In the handicap division, I’ve been solidly in the Shared Belief camp for a long while.  But my favorite colt from 2014, Belmont and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist has not returned to the gate yet this year, but is working.  I’m anxiously awaiting his first race because I really think he’ll only be better as a four year old.

Any time you can catch a stakes race this year on television or at the track don’t miss out!!!