SOME Horse!!!

One of my favorite childhood books was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. In it, Charlotte spun the lifesaving message “Some Pig” over the corner of Wilbur’s pen. I always loved that message. It was one of several messages Charlotte developed that allowed Wilbur to be seen as something extraordinary. Yesterday, we were treated to seeing an extraordinary horse run an exceptional Preakness Stakes in the worst weather I’ve ever witnessed in 46 years of watching the American classics.

Simply put, the race was OVER in the first turn. When American Pharoah started around that first corner his ears flicked straight up and I knew he was a happy horse just playing in the mud! The only moment of pause I had is when NBC announcer Larry Collmus announced the first quarter mile fraction time of :22 4/5. That was a bit brisk and my heart skipped a beat, but it was quickly back in rhythm as American Pharoah moved into the backstretch.

Besides his innate talent carrying him along I have to commend Victor Espinoza for a flawless, well-thought-out ride. He “quarter-horsed” him out of the gate to get position and then let off the accelerator, giving Pharoah a breather through the next four furlongs. Meanwhile all the other colts and riders were working to maintain or attempt to gain position. In the final turn for home all Espinoza did was shake the reins (while everyone else was going to their whips and throwing desperate crosses) and all that was left was the question of by how many lengths would American Pharoah win as he simply glided to the line.

I’ve hinted at it before, I’m going to just say it outright now, and I really don’t care what he does going on from the Preakness, American Pharoah is a superior horse. His action is nearly flawless, as such he’s not expending the same level of energy as the other colts are to run his races. He can run on the lead. He can rate and run off the pace. He’s equally adept on a fast or sloppy track; I’d almost dare say he’s better on an off track. He appears to be a smart, relaxed horse in demeanor. He has heart, the willingness and ability to dig in to win as he displayed in his Kentucky Derby victory. There’s really not a category for a racehorse where he doesn’t check the box affirmatively.

For the moment, the best news of the day is that American Pharoah appears to have come out of the Preakness in good order and will be shipped back to Churchill Downs for a quiet week ahead and then resume training sometime in the week after next.

Dortmund finished fourth and was clearly compromised in part by his first encounter with a sloppy track. He is being shipped back to California for a bit of downtime. I think this is an excellent call. Dortmund is a very nice horse, but I think he has, as I’ve mentioned previously, some distance limitations beyond a mile and an eighth. He did run a game race in the Preakness.

Firing Line, in my opinion, should also ship back West and regroup. He clearly could not handle the off going. He was an unhappy horse in the post parade as the deluge was at its peak, he broke horribly with virtually all four legs breaking in four different directions out of the gate which all but ended his race there. The awkward start left him scrambling for position and he ended up hung wide, exactly where Gary Stevens did not want him. And he was not handing the track at all. In the end he was seventh in a field of eight, 45 lengths to the rear of American Pharoah at the wire. Not at all reflective of the horse’s abilities; for him the timing of the rainstorm could not have been worse.

Besides American Pharoah, the only other horse that benefitted from the sloppy course was Tale of Verve, the horse I knew nothing about. Honestly, the only thing I know about him today is that he’s a “mudder” and the off conditions moved him up dramatically. His connections say they intend to run him in The Belmont Stakes; they’d better pray for rain!

“Some Horse.” “Terrific.” Those words helped save Wilbur and forged a friendship. American Pharoah, fortunately, doesn’t need any lifesaving message. He IS the message. Horses are a gift from God (and I know owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat and his family would concur). A great racehorse is an extra-special gift. You’re seeing something really special when you get to see American Pharoah run folks. Enjoy every minute of it!!

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Preakness Peek

The 140th Preakness Stakes will be run this Saturday, May 16th. A surprisingly small (at least to me) field of colts has been entered. Post position draw will be later today at 5:00. But with only eight entries, where they line up should not be much of an issue.

Here’s the field as I know it:
1.American Pharoah
2.Dortmund
3.Firing Line
4 Danzig Moon
5.Mr. Z
6.Divining Rod
7.Tale of Verve
8.Bodhisattva

The first four listed above all ran in the the Derby and finished in the top five. Mr. Z also ran in the Derby and finished 13th. Divining Rod is the winner of the Lexington Stakes and is an improving colt. Bodhisattva won the Tesio Stakes over the Preakness Stakes’ Pimilico course. Tale of Verve still has me scratching my head. He was entered as an “Also Eligible” for the Derby. This means had a horse scratched within the window to draw in, he would have run in the Derby; that didn’t happen as the scratches came too late. I have NO idea where he’s raced or how he got the points necessary to make him eligible for the Kentucky Derby. I can tell you absolutely nothing about him, so I can’t comment as to how he might influence the outcome of the Preakness at all.

Here’s what I do know. All reports say the five Derby runners came out of the race well and are training forwardly post Derby. So all five should be ready to roll Saturday.

My own impression post-Derby is that the race was a fairly taxing effort for American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund. I think the Derby showed that Dortmund’s best distance might be a mile and an eighth; perhaps the same for Firing Line (who didn’t switch leads in the stretch which likely added to his fatigue in the final yards of the Derby). It appeared to take more of an effort for American Pharoah to pass Firing Line than I personally expected. Danzig Moon had a bit of a troubled trip with traffic, so we likely didn’t see his best run. Mr. Z was just a non-factor. All that being said, early after the Derby I would have given American Pharoah a 50-50 shot at winning the Preakness; just a gut reaction even though I still believe he’s a better horse than any of the other Preakness entries.

However, I was alerted that the Preakness may end up being run over a wet track and looking at long-range forecasts for Baltimore over the weekend, that is a strong possibility. If so, I say advantage American Pharoah, as he has already run, and won over a wet track, which he handled quite nicely in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. With the exception of Mr. Z who was also in that race, to my knowledge, none of the other entries have caught a wet track. And that could be a crucial point as horses either handle slop or they don’t. It’s a combination of getting ahold of the track and/or tolerating having mud kicked back in your face. Being a front runner, should it be wet, all Dortmund would need to do is handle the footing; on or near the lead he shouldn’t experience the kickback that might discourage him. Being by Big Brown, who also ran well on turf, he might be OK as turf horses seem to handle a wet dirt track if by chance they end up on one. In short, genetics might help Dortmund if things get wet. Genetics might also aid Danzig Moon who is by Malibu Moon. Malibu Moon is the sire of Orb, who caught a wet Derby track and won, so Danzig Moon might also fare OK in slop.

I’ll remain in the American Pharoah camp. I do believe he’s physically a better horse than the others. Still, it’s a horse race and anything can happen. The sixteenth of a mile less distance they will travel in the Preakness might benefit Dortmund or Firing Line. Danzig Moon might have finished better in the Derby with a better trip and less traffic. Divining Rod may be ready to step up against better competition. Tale of Verve might be an unrecognized phenom…but I doubt it.

One quick note: Mr. Z, owned by Zayat Stables, who also bred and owns American Pharoah, was not scheduled to run in the Preakness. Trainer Wayne Lukas very much wanted him to go, Ahmed Zayat said no, the horse needed a break and he wasn’t running him. Late this afternoon, The Blood Horse reported that Mr. Z was shipping to Pimlico, had been sold to Calumet Farm, and will run in the Preakness. One of the strangest things I’ve ever heard. Personally, I don’t think it matters who owns him, I don’t think Mr. Z has a chance to win the Preakness. I don’t believe he’s as good a horse as the four that finished ahead of him in the Derby and I think he’s definitely a tired horse having run almost non-stop in preps since last fall…with only one win to show for his efforts.

Saturday should be most interesting. The Preakness can be an odd race with unexpected occurrences. I think if American Pharoah is to be upset look to Danzig Moon or Divining Rod. We shall see.

I LOVE It When a Plan Comes Together!!!

I’ll readily admit it, I loved watching The A Team in the eighties. Never missed an episode. And when Hannibel Smith would smile that smile, look at BA Baracus and the rest of the team, and recite his trademark “I LOVE it when a plan comes together,” line you knew the impossible, challenging task at hand was about to be resolved. Well, of course it was; most challenges ARE readily resolved within the confines of an hour-long TV show. We all know it’s not that easy in real life. And if you’ve spent any portion of you life around horses, whether they’re in your backyard or residing in one of the finest racing stables in the nation, you know life with these incredibly large, fragile, and beautiful animals is even less certain than regular old real life and plans…well make them at your own risk!

So yesterday evening around 6:45, I was OVERJOYED to see my current equine heartthrob, American Pharoah cross the finish line first, becoming the victor of the 141st Kentucky Derby before a record crowd of 170,000+ on a perfect May day. This colt ran an incredible race that ended with him running wide the entire race, 29 feet more than second-place finisher Firing Line, and 69 feet more than the show horse and his stablemate, Dortmund. He overcame Post 18 and what, in the end were 17 other colts. No mean feat.

And the fact that the field of 20 quickly was reduced to 18 over a three-day period goes directly to the heart of making plans and having them come together with a horse. Stanford was the first defection, pulled from the race primarily because his connections began to think better of it. That allowed Frammento to get in the gate. Late Friday, El Kabeir, ironically, also owned by eventual Derby-winning owner Ahmed Zayat, was scratched after developing a hoof abscess a little over 24 hours prior to Derby post time. Saturday morning, International Star, who had swept the Louisiana Fairgrounds Racetrack Kentucky Derby prep series was scratched, with a quarter crack in one of his hooves. Third-place Dortmund almost didn’t make the race following a mild bout of colic in the week before the Derby. You’re never good to go, despite all the races won, training hours put in, and plans made until your horse breaks from the gate.

Fortunately, American Pharoah was able to do that! And despite all the talent he’s displayed leading up to the Derby, there was one thing that I, and others who had seen his races en route to the Derby wondered–if he got hooked, if he was in a position where he had to fight for the win as opposed to cruising by the opposition as he had in all his wins prior–could and would he do it? Did he possess that will and fight, what we refer to as heart, to take it to the competition? In late stretch, out wide as could be in the middle of the track, American Pharoah dug in, looked the competition in the eye, and passed them for the win. His natural ability put him into contention, that heart is what made him a champion yesterday afternoon.

Despite the large field, it appeared to be a cleanly run and ultimately and blessedly, a safe race for all. Early word is that the top three Derby finishers–American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund will move on to Pimlico for the Preakness May 16.

Final order of finish in the Derby:
1.American Pharoah
2.Firing Line
3.Dortmund
4.Frosted (What a difference that corrective throat procedure has made)
5.Danzig Moon
6.Materiality (Great effort by the son of Afleet Alex in just his 4th start)
7.Keen Ice
8.Mubtaahij (The Dubai “bounce” continues)
9.Itsaknockout
10.Carpe Diem (John Velazquez did a great job getting him into contention from miserable Post 2)
11.Frammento
12.Bolo
13.Mr.Z
14.Ocho Ocho Ocho
15.Far Right
16.War Story
17.Tencendur
18.Upstart (Beat by 60+ lengths. That surprised me. Not sure what happened to him)

Three other races really excited me in this weekend’s racing. Friday was Oaks Day, the mile and an eighth counterpart to the Derby for three-year-old fillies. It was won by Lovely Maria. And, OH, does the name fit! This filly is absolutely beautiful and really caught my eye in the moments before the race. She’d won the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland last month showing she was a contender for the Oaks. She took down 13 other fillies including stablemate I’m A Chatterbox, who had, like International Star, swept the prep races for fillies at the Fairgrounds, and favorite Stellar Wind. Much like American Pharoah, she displayed not only physical ability, but a great deal of heart and desire as well.

On the Derby undercard, Private Zone and Martin Pedroza put on a show and won the Churchill Downs Stakes at seven furlongs. Private Zone is an accomplished sprinter and goes to the lead and the jugular right from the gate. Leading 7F is no mean feat, but that’s how Private Zone does it and Martin Pedroza fits him like a glove–gets him in position out of the gate and finishes strong on him when the competition (most times in vain) tries to close on him. Fun to watch.

And in opening weekend at Belmont Park, my favorite horse of 2014, Belmont Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist made his 2015 debut in the Grade 3 Westchester Stakes. After breaking slowly and spotting the field lengths, he was perfectly handled by jockey Joe Bravo, taking his time to put him in contention against an admittedly overmatched field following the scratch of Palace Malice (hoof abscess!). Still, it was an impressive effort, in that the Westchester is only a mile long and Tonalist is stronger at a mile and an eighth and beyond. A great start for his year, which I suspect is leading to another trip to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in October. Good health Tonalist!

The Preakness field will begin to take shape throughout the week. And potentially, a challenger for the Belmont Stakes could be prepping and may come out of the May 9th running of the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. That’s where I “met” and developed my allegiance to Tonalist last year.

Can’t wait to see what happens next!