WHOA! Wait. WHAT??!!??

“American Pharoah will dictate his own terms.”–Oaklawn Park Track Announcer Frank Mirahmadi

In some ways, that’s all you need to know about yesterday’s Rebel Stakes that became the royal 2015 coming out party for American Pharoah.  I’ve tried to come up with just the right superlatives to do this race and his effort justice.  Really, only one word is needed: Perfection! And I’ll add a delight for the eyes.

First, let’s set the scene.  It was going to be plenty enough for American Pharoah to just have a good race, win, and go from 10 to 60 points to move up (and into the gate) in the Kentucky Derby points standings. He hadn’t raced since September 27, 2014, although he’d been in training up until the final days preceding the Breeders’ Cup last October when something went south with a hoof and he was scratched out of the Juvenile.

But as is its wont this time of year, Oaklawn Park threw in an added curve: a wet track.  Hopes from earlier in the day that the track would go from “good” to “fast” were dashed by a late afternoon Hot Springs shower so that at post time for the Rebel the track was officially “sloppy.”  Great.  All American Pharoah has seen, being based in California, is a dry, fast track.  So could he handle off going?  Basically, horses either do or don’t and when they don’t it can be ugly despite their inherent talent.  Mucho Macho Man is a great recent example of a Thoroughbred who could throw stellar performances (including a gutty win in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic), but put him on a muddy course he’d falter dramatically.

Given the conditions, my personal hope was that he’d jump to the lead and not look back. That looked even dicier as he stumbled ever so briefly as the gate opened. No worries.  With ears pricked and what looked like sheer joy to be back running, American Pharoah was indeed promptly in front and his body language screamed “Follow me boys and catch me if you can!”

They couldn’t.  Not. Even. Close. With that same smooth, even, rhythmic, bounding stride he’s been demonstrating in his morning works, American Pharaoh literally skipped over the slop, led every step of the race and as he and Victor Espinoza completed the turn for home, he lowered his head and lengthened that glorious stride to open on the field to win the Rebel by six-plus lengths.  His “effort” in this race was actually effortless.  This colt appears to be perfectly balanced with an exceptionally efficient stride.  His mechanics are flawless and that’s what makes what he does on the track look so very easy and like he’s barely working when in reality he’s moving very fast and covering a lot of ground.

Two of our most beloved and successful Thoroughbreds–John Henry and Cigar–were evaluated on their gait/stride efficiency.  On a scale where 100 is perfect, John and Cigar rated very high 90s; in the 95-97 percent range.  My guess is if AP were evaluated he’d rank right in there with those two greats, I’d say just watching him about a 96.  Needless to say, this kind of racehorse doesn’t show up every day.  They are born this way, not made.  In short, a horse like American Pharoah is a gift.

Now, having read about the aplomb with which American Pharoah conquered the Rebel would you believe he accomplished this all while running with a bent shoe that he caught in that stumble out of the gate?  WHOA. Wait. WHAT??!!?? Yes, you read that right.  According to a report by The Blood Horse, it was discovered post-race that AP had caught his right front shoe as he broke from the gate and ran the entire race, flawlessly, on a sloppy track hampered by a bad shoe.  Imagine Usain Bolt attempting to qualify for the finals of the Olympic 100-yard dash on a wet track and the sole of his shoe blowing out off the blocks.  Lots of luck.  I was stunned when I read that and can only imagine what American Pharoah can do on a dry, fast track, shoes intact.  At this point, I suspect he honestly might take flight next out!  Stay tuned for April 11, where it’s anticipated that he will return to Oaklawn to run in the Arkansas Derby.

It may seem that just winning the race under all the potential constraints–first race back, first encounter over a wet track, and the sprung shoe–is enough, but what he readily overcame and the advantages/experience gained in yesterday’s race don’t stop there.  This was the first time AP had shipped for a race.  He rated kindly on the lead.  Having shown a bit of nerves prior to previous races, he appeared a cool customer yesterday.  In my personal criteria for a horse advancing to the Derby he, in short, has checked every box that will help position him for success May 2.  And with this only being his first race back this year, you can’t help but think (If this is at all possible!!) that he’ll show further improvement!!

Reports are that he came out of the race well and most importantly didn’t catch a quarter or otherwise injure his hoof in catching his shoe on the stumble. Whew!!

So to borrow from a current CVS commercial (of all things!) “Please, please, please.  The wish we wish is health.”  That is my most sincere wish for American Pharoah moving forward in next 48 days!!

BEST 2:00 of the Day

Yes, it was nearly 8:30 p.m.  Yes, there’d been several enjoyable and impressive races preceding it.  But when the gates finally opened for the 2015 Santa Anita Handicap, my day was on the way to being made; Shared Belief was about to “do his thing!” And what a thing it’s growing to be.  Yesterday I stated that if the other horses in the race didn’t get in his way, the Big ‘Cap was all but over.  Thanks for making me look real good Shared Belief!!

Jockey Mike Smith got a clean break and immediately placed him in a clear stalking position and from that point on all he did was steer, sit back, and enjoy the ride.  And what a ride it must be, because with no noticeable urging at the turn for home Shared Belief started to engage, or maybe I should say overrun the front runners, but it just appeared he was gliding to do it.  Effortlessly, he was in the lead, opening and Smith never shook the reins or cocked the whip.  Meanwhile, the horses behind him were laboring to finish the classic distance of a mile and a quarter.  In essence, Shared Belief put in a paid workout to win the Santa Anita Handicap by five-plus lengths…all on his on.  So impressive, so apparently easy, and such a joy to witness!  Thanks for making my day SB!

As a point of reference, in a post-race interview, Mike Smith, who’s ridden more top class, Hall of Fame, Grade I, stellar quality Thoroughbreds than I can name said he puts Shared Belief in the company of Holy Bull and Zenyatta, both Horse of the Year winners; the former also a Hall of Fame horse, the latter, to be as soon as she becomes eligible.  If you’ve followed Thoroughbred racing awhile, you know that that’s rare praise and in my opinion, not overstating the case for Shared Belief’s growing brilliance.  He is now 10 for 11 in his race career.

And here I have to give a quick shout out to the performance of Moreno (winner of the 2014 Grade I Whitney), who gutted it out to finish second in the SA Handicap.  Moreno is an all or nothing front runner and that’s the race he ran yesterday, being modestly pressed throughout.  Moreno also ran this race with that level of effort off a four-month layoff, his last race being a difficult run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  It was a game, impressive race by him.  In different efforts, Shared Belief and Moreno showed the class of the Thoroughbred athlete.

Now back to the Derby trail.  For me, some very good efforts and races, but I’m still looking for my Derby horse.

The Gotham Stakes, Aqueduct.  Winner–El Kabeir.  What made this race interesting to me and potentially beneficial for the colt was El Kabeir displayed a new running style, racing to victory after sitting well off the pace for about two-thirds of the Gotham.  At first glance, since his previous scores have come in front running style, it appeared maybe it wasn’t going to be his day.  But observing, he wasn’t struggling at all, he was actually running well within himself.  When called upon, he picked it up readily and willingly to win.  Sitting behind other horses, taking some dirt, and rating can do nothing but help El Kabeir in a Kentucky Derby run.  Or he can run in his more natural style, on the lead; depending on the gate break and the scenario of the race, this versatility can really be a valuable weapon for him.  The 50 points he received in victory, maintaining health, assures his spot in Louisville.

The San Felipe Stakes, Santa Anita. Winner: Dortmund.  At the risk of sounding bored, Dortmund’s win yesterday was more of the same.  He broke well, raced on the lead, and determinedly fended off a few late challengers.  He appears to do just enough to win and I’m not trying to be dismissive; I find him to be very impressive and not just because of his massive 17+-hand frame.  But a friend inquired yesterday, post race–“Does he have a turn of foot for the Derby?”  My response was, what you see with Dortmund is what you get: to date a preferably free, front-running colt, with a massive stride, a relatively high cruising speed, but I suspect lacking that blink-of-an- eye kick that could quickly separate him from a field or allow him to engage a very hard closing finisher.  If you want to close at him in a grinding fashion prepare to lose, as Dortmund has repeatedly shown if you’re just going to essentially run with him in the stretch, he’s not having it.  But if an express train closes on him, I think all bets are off to the wire. Bottom line, another solid performance and in possession of the needed points for the Derby gate.

A few more San Felipe details. Prospect Park and Bolo, two horses I mentioned as contenders yesterday delivered in that role, finishing second and third respectively.  Although I was a tad more impressed with Bolo’s effort, as it was his first race on dirt, I felt he hung a bit in the stretch.  Prospect Park, just not as good as Dortmund on the day.  However, Prospect Park’s jockey, Kent Desormeaux, was enthusiastic about the effort and hopes for a different outcome in the Santa Anita Derby.  Further, word is he has committed to ride Prospect Park throughout the Triple Crown.  SCREEECH!!  That news distresses me as Kent is the rider of his trainer brother’s Texas Red.  TR has been sidelined with a hoof abscess, but all indications had been that he’d be able to get back on the road to the Derby soon.  Kent’s talented, but he can’t ride two horses in one Derby…awaiting some word/confirmation on what Texas Red’s future, especially the immediate future will be.

Finally, Ocho Ocho Ocho, previously undefeated, didn’t run a step in the San Felipe, finishing eighth…and his lackluster performance didn’t appear to be just because it was his first race off a layoff.  I’d say his Derby future was severely compromised, points and otherwise,  yesterday.  If he does go on, for me, no thanks, I’ve seen enough.

Tampa Bay Derby, Tampa Bay Downs. Winner: Carpe Diem.  This race was as billed with Carpe Diem the clear favorite and his 2015 debut did not disappoint. Very professional, Carpe Diem stalked, took the lead in the stretch, and pulled away and opened for a clear victory by five lengths.  He looked really sharp and I would expect him to complete his prep efforts in the Florida Derby.  His efforts yesterday should have provided him the points he needs for May 2.  If I had any qualms about his effort, it was his fussing behind the starting gate and not loading readily.  Trainer Todd Pletcher indicated it is a bit of a concern and a work in progress.  Hopefully, it will be resolved soon, as it’s the kind of issue that the crowds and hype environment of the Kentucky Derby will only exacerbate.  Another previously undefeated colt, Ocean Knight, ran a dull race and was potentially exposed, finishing seventh in the field of eight.

Of the three preps run yesterday, I give the edge to Carpe Diem for the most impressive effort of the day.  Still, I’m looking for a colt that commands the field and the course as my Derby pick; haven’t seen him yet.  BUT, I’m thinking he may just materialize next Saturday, March 14 in Oaklawn Park’s Rebel Stakes.  While writing this, I took a short break to watch American Pharoah’s workout from yesterday morning at Santa Anita.  Be still my beating heart…everything you want to see a racehorse do working or racing: happy, smoothly covering ground, a near perfect, metronome rhythm to his stride; there just aren’t enough superlatives for what I’m (and everyone else, led by trainer Bob Baffert is) seeing.  Right now I. Can’t. Wait. to see this colt unleashed in the Rebel.  American Pharoah ain’t just commanding the track, he owns it!  Hey, maybe I do have a Derby pick after all!!

Today?

March 7, 2015.  Perhaps today, the Kentucky Derby picture will begin to sharpen.  Or maybe it’ll be more of the same.

On the East Coast, the Gotham Stakes is being run and El Kabeir and Classy Class who dueled quite aways before Far From Over overtook both deep in the stretch of the Withers Stakes return for another round.  They are likely to go one-two again today; any less than that isn’t the progression you want to see moving on towards the Derby.  A first place finish garners 50 points and will, for sure, barring injury, put a colt in the Derby gate.  I’m going to look past the two favorites to Blame Jim, who has shown some promise.

At Gulfstream Park, monsoon rains last Saturday, literally swept the Swale Stakes and the bulk of the remainder of the Gulfstream card off and away.  So we try again today.  While the Swale doesn’t provide any Derby points, at least last week it was considered a prep for colts with some racing experience and with success in the race, the hope of moving up and on into a points prep race.  But now it’s seven days later and that just might cramp the Swale winner’s potential Kentucky Derby style.  Daredevil is the favorite for the Swale.

At Tampa Bay, it’s Tampa Bay Stakes Day and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile second-place runner, Carpe Diem makes his 2015 debut.  Again, time is of the essence and this race won’t necessarily be a walk in the park for this talented son of Giant’s Causeway.  Ocean Knight and Divining Rod, another one-two finishing combo from the Tampa Bay Derby prep Sam F. Davis Stakes return, looking for their secured ticket to Louisville.

On the West Coast, a potential throwdown is possible.  Undefeated giant colt Dortmund and well-rested, undefeated and making his first start of the year colt Ocho Ocho Ocho will contest the San Felipe Stakes.  This race may have the deepest field of the day and year for a prep with San Vicente winner Lord Nelson and well-thought-of colts Prospect Park (x Tapit), Bolo, and Pain and Misery also contesting the race.  However, the latter three will really need to step up their games, particularly Bolo, who’s making a surface switch from turf to dirt.  Lord Nelson hasn’t yet succeeded in a two-turn race and may be more inclined to seven furlongs or a mile. Initially, Dortmund was supposed to stay on the sidelines until the April 4 Santa Anita Derby, but his training was so forward, trainer Bob Baffert opted to race him today.  A side note on Dortmund: He’s currently toping 17 hands and 1,280 lbs.!!! He is a three year, one-month-old colt today!

There were other Derby-related developments throughout the week.  Khozan, easy winner of his first two races, has been forced off the Derby trail before he could even rightly get on it.  He came out of a routine work with an undetermined injury to his right hind ankle.  He will be examined at Rood and Riddle Veterinary Clinic in Lexington, KY on Monday.  Very disappointing, as it appeared the sky was the limit for this colt.

Take Charge Brandi wasn’t even entered in today’s Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park (Correction from last post: the Honeybee is not on the Rebel Stakes undercard. The Rebel runs next Saturday, March 14). So it appears she will be entered to take a shot against the colts.  If so, the Rebel will feature both the Eclipse winning two-year-old filly and two-year-old Eclipse champion colt in American Pharaoh.  My opinion hasn’t changed; between the two of them it’s no contest.  And American Pharoah’s works approaching the Rebel have been lights out not only in times but appearance in ease (and enjoyment) of work!

But despite this wealth of three-year-old race enjoyment, the real excitement should be in the last major race of the day: “The Big ‘Cap,” the Santa Anita Handicap, featuring star Shared Belief.  At least on paper this race IS Shared Belief and everyone else.  But as regrettably seen in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic, anything can happen.  But I believe in Belief and if everyone just stays out of his way, I believe he’s ready to roll.  Schooling in the paddock yesterday at Santa Anita, he couldn’t keep all four hooves on the ground!

Hope you can catch some of today’s action.  I’ll be back with impressions of results.  FIFTY-SIX days until the Kentucky Derby.