Last Horse Running

Belmont Stakes 149 is this Saturday, June 10.

When last I left you, I was not excited about the crop of three year olds running through the American classics. That hasn’t changed.  But there are a few developments since.

Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming won’t contest the Belmont Stakes.

Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing won’t contest the Belmont Stakes.

Preakness Stakes runner up Classic Empire was to run in the Belmont Stakes, but has developed another abscess in the same hoof that affected him in the Holy Bull Stakes earlier this year.  Scratched. So Lookin’ At Lee will be the ONLY colt to run in all three Triple Crown races.  Enough said.

Here’s the field, by post position for the Belmont:

  1. Twisted Tom
  2. Tapwrit
  3. Gormley
  4. J Boys Echo
  5. Hollywood Handsome
  6. Lookin’ At Lee
  7. Irish War Cry
  8. Senior Investment
  9. Meantime
  10. Mutiplier
  11. Epicharis
  12. Patch

I have nothing else to offer about the field overall.  Twisted Tom won the Frederico Tesio Stakes at Pimilico and is trained by Preakness-winning trainer Chad Brown.  Meantime was second in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont and Hollywood Handsome was fifth in the Illinois Derby.

Epicharis interests me.  He was undefeated in his native Japan and second to Thunder Snow in the UAE Derby.  Before you snicker at the thought of him finishing behind Kentucky Derby cutup Thunder Snow consider that Thunder Snow just finished second to the very well thought of Churchill in the Irish 2000 Guineas May 27th.  A grandson of Sunday Silence, Epicharis also has accomplished distance/stamina sires Nureyev and Sadler’s Wells, both sons of 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner and premier stallion Northern Dancer, in his pedigree.  Since his second place finish in the UAE Derby, his connections have pointed him to the Belmont.  Lani finished third in the Belmont last year; if ever there was a year for a Japanese horse to break through in the Classics, this is it.

Post time is 6:30 Saturday; NBC’s coverage begins at 5:00.

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NOT. Feeling. The. Love

Cloud Computing won the 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes by a head over Classic Empire.  Clap…Clap. The first two legs of the Triple Crown have left me unimpressed in terms of performance and the fields of horses with the exception of Classic Empire.

The race went about as expected in that Always Dreaming and Classic Empire hooked out of the gate and went eye to eye through the first two-thirds of the race.  I have zero problem with that.  It was the Derby champion and the two-year-old champion, presumably the best two horses in the race, doing what was expected and what they were bred and born to do.  Classic Empire, in theory could not just let Always Dreaming loose on an uncontested lead and expect to win.  What nobody expected, myself included, was Always Dreaming wilting like 8-day-old flowers without water and dropping rapidly to an eighth-place finish.  The early pace was respectable, brisk but not blistering, unlike last year when Nyquist incinerated himself early and unnecessarily.  Having not heard anything being amiss with him, I’m going to go back to what I said right prior to the Kentucky Derby about Always Dreaming–nice colt, but a lot was being asked of him in a very short span of time; it caught up to him yesterday.

Classic Empire, for me, was the real winner of the day yesterday in that yet again, he demonstrated he is a racehorse.  Look at his racing year to date: a third in the Holy Bull where he went into the gate agitated, barely ran, and then it was found that he had a hoof abscess which is extremely painful and often hard to detect. Then he had back issues and refused to train for about a month.  Then he runs a wide, come-from-behind (rather than a stalking trip that is his style) race to win the Arkansas Derby at the wire.  He has the trip from Hell in the Kentucky Derby–body slammed out of the gate and again taken out of his natural stalking style to race from behind, seven wide, AND smacked in the eye by enough mud or something else to give him a swollen-closed eye the next morning, but still he ran on to finish fourth. And then yesterday he throws down against the Derby champ and loses to Cloud Computing who entered the race off six weeks rest. Classic Empire was the winner of three graded stakes races as a two year old.  The experience has paid as he’s run as a three year old.

Now you’ll get zero opposition from me about “new shooters” entering the Preakness and/or the Belmont after not running in the Derby. That’s how the game is played and to be a Classic champion the horse must handle and vanquish all comers. Period.  What I didn’t like yesterday was that (in my opinion and proven to a point in the race) yet another weak field of horses was running at our highest level of racing.  The other horses returning from the Kentucky Derby to contest the Preakness finished more than five lengths behind Cloud Computing in 4th (Lookin At Lee), 5th (Gunnevera), and 9th (Hence).  I must mention here too that only five Derby horses advanced to the Preakness; we need a 20-horse field in the Derby why? A discussion for another day, but also a contributing factor to what happens in the Preakness and Belmont.

These appear to be a very average to below average crop of three-year-old colts attempting to run at the highest level.  It’s really not a reflection on the horses as much as the American tendency to breed for speed over endurance and stamina being exposed in both races so far.  No horse, year to date, is stringing together stakes wins, the wins they have are at average times, and when most of the colts get “looked in the eye” during a race, they crumble. Virtually every Thoroughbred is a natural athlete, even those who fail as racehorses can go on to excel in a variety of other disciplines and competitions.  This crop to date hasn’t demonstrated much consistent aptitude for racing or heart and will to win.  Yes, they are young and in many instances relatively inexperienced; down the road they can mature mentally and physically; there is substantial room for improvement here, but at the moment much as I felt post-Derby I’m not seeing it.  I’m hopeful (horses always surprise), but at the moment FAR from optimistic…

Today, I can’t even guess who will be entered for the Belmont Stakes (I have’t heard any names thrown into the ring yet; STOP! As I write, it’s been announced that Classic Empire is being pointed to the Belmont).  If Classic Empire stumbles, the winner of the mile and a half race will essentially be the last horse standing/still running; Secretariat’s dazzling record of 2:24 for the Belmont Stakes is in no jeopardy on June 10.

need the three-week break at this point as much as any of the colts to hopefully regenerate some enthusiasm for these three-year-olds.

Preakness Time

Post positions were just drawn for this Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore.

Here’s what we have with each horse’s latest accomplishment:

  1. Multiplier (Illinois Derby winner)
  2. Cloud Computing (3rd behind Irish War Cry in the Wood Memorial)
  3. Hence (11th Kentucky Derby)
  4. Always Dreaming (Winner Kentucky Derby)
  5. Classic Empire (4th Kentucky Derby)
  6. Gunnevera (7th Kentucky Derby)
  7. Term of Art (7th Santa Anita Derby)
  8. Senior Investment (Winner Lexington Stakes)
  9. Lookin At Lee (2nd Kentucky Derby)
  10. Conquest Mo Money (2nd behind Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby)

Royal Mo who was also eligible for the Derby sustained a fracture during his final work for the Preakness this past Sunday.  He had surgery Monday and is recovering.  Unfortunately, he will never race again.

Most everyone, myself included, believes that the race will be between Always Dreaming and Classic Empire and they couldn’t have drawn more favorably for that matchup to take place.  The key will be that no one lets Always Dreaming get loose on the lead because it’s unlikely he’ll back up much to the field particularly if he gets a sizable lead.  The expectation is that Classic Empire will stalk and then attempt to overtake him.  And that’s not to say that Always Dreaming will necessarily take the lead.  There’s a fair chance that Conquest Mo Money or another horse will.

The smaller field will allow for a fairer test and at this moment the forecast for Baltimore on Saturday is nearly perfect–partly cloudy and 70 degrees.

There have also been a couple of jockey changes.  Javier Castellano is off Gunnevera to ride Cloud Computing, a horse to which he was previously committed.  “Big Money” Mike Smith will take the ride on Gunnevera Saturday.

Beyond that there’s not much more news.  I’m looking forward to the race and expecting a big effort from both Always Dreaming and Classic Empire.  Classic Empire is my pick and I also think Conquest Mo Money (son of Uncle Mo, sire of last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Nyquist ) will hold on to hit the board.  Hoping for a fun, safe race.

Post time is 6:45 on NBC.

Just Not Good Enough

So the draw reins worked! Always Dreaming is the winner of the 143rd Kentucky Derby.  Excellent ride by John Velazquez.  Not a straw in his path, he took advantage of the rail which was the place to be, and the horse was the picture of composure leading up to and during the race.  The pace meltdown that I anticipated between Always Dreaming and Fast and Accurate to the inside and State of Honor to the outside didn’t materialize.  Fast and Accurate was anything but and State of Honor, though he broke and took the lead, didn’t set a fast pace.

Classic Empire might have been able to make a race of it, but was on the receiving end of a serious body blow that occurred as Irish War Cry and McCraken dropped over to save ground once the race began.  Additionally, Classic Empire got smacked by a good clod of mud to an eye that word is has left him with a bit of a swollen eye and made a miserable run worse.  Still, he persevered to a fourth place finish.  He IS a racehorse.

And while undoubtedly, the wet track probably prevented some of the horses from having their best race, as I’ve thought it over, I keep coming back to the conclusion that was the undercurrent of the prep race season this year–these horses just were not good enough.  The inconsistency in performance, the injuries and setbacks in training, and the fairly average, less than impressive performances that resulted in wins during the preps that were indeed valid indicators of what was to come from these horses in the Derby. Not much. Today, that point is underlined for me. During yesterday’s pre-race coverage Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss made a point that proved prophetic and further underscores my point: Always Dreaming was the only colt in the race who was undefeated in his races in 2017. It’s not to say that some of the losing horses won’t emerge from this race and go on to success(es) later on, but right now, this is the not ready for primetime crop.

So where do we go from here? Excellent question.  I really don’t know.  There are no reports that any of the horses came out of the race any worse for wear other than simply being tired (perhaps exhausted!).  Always Dreaming’s connections indicated it’s their intention to move on to the Preakness.  Some writers and commentators are already saying Always Dreaming is Triple Crown winning material. I’m not sure which, if any horses that ran against him yesterday will pursue him in Maryland.  So far the only horses I’ve heard mentioned to potentially contest the Preakness are Royal Mo, who was Also Eligible for the Derby and Malagacy who was scratched from the Kentucky Derby field early and at that stage was mentioned as training on for the Preakness.  I really don’t think Malagacy will be much of a match for Always Dreaming either.

A horse I think should go on and run in the Preakness is Thunder Snow.  Not only did he not finish the Derby yesterday, he never really ran it.  As Thunder Snow came out of the gate, within a few strides jockey Christophe Soumillon was nearly sideways in the saddle, somehow righted himself, and then Thunder Snow broke into a bucking fit.  I suspect the position of the saddle and/or girth contributed to that outburst.  I do not believe he balked and refused to race.  Bottom line for me is he’s stateside, he didn’t run a step yesterday, why not take a shot at the Preakness? He’s already raced and won at the 1 3/16th Preakness Stakes distance when he won the UAE Derby to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.  Sheik Mohammed’s goal is to win the Kentucky Derby, but the Preakness isn’t a bad consolation prize.  The only problem I see with Thunder Snow is he has what I think is a “grass stride,” and may not really be a good dirt runner. We’ll see.

Odds and Ends– Street Cry remains the only horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby as Classic Empire couldn’t turn the trick yesterday.  Post 17 remains winless as Irish War Cry briefly contended and then faded.  Best ride of the day goes to resident Churchill Downs rider Corey Lanerie who piloted poorly drawn Lookin At Lee from the one hole (where within 100 yards you will run into the rail in the 20-horse field if you aren’t real careful and real talented) to an amazing second-place finish.

Final order of finish for the Kentucky Derby:

1. Always Dreaming

2. Lookin At Lee

3. Battle of Midway

4. Classic Empire

5. Practical Joke

6. Tapwrit

7. Gunnervera

8. McCraken

9. Gormley

10. Irish War Cry

11. Hence

12. Untrapped

13. Girvin

14. Patch

15. J Boys Echo

16. Sonneteer

17. Fast and Accurate

18. Irap

19. State of Honor

20. Thunder Snow DNF

 

Thirteen days until the Preakness Stakes.  Can’t imagine what happens next.

 

 

Closing Entry–Kentucky Derby 2017

The biggest story of the week leading to Saturday’s 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby was yesterday’s post position draw, approximately 24 hours ago.  So let’s get to it!

Listed by Post:

  1. Lookin At Lee
  2. Thunder Snow
  3. Fast and Accurate
  4. Untrapped
  5. Always Dreaming
  6. State of Honor
  7. Girvin
  8. Hence
  9. Irap
  10. Gunnevera
  11. Battle of Midway
  12. Sonneteer
  13. J Boys Echo
  14. Classic Empire
  15. McCraken
  16. Tapwrit
  17. Irish War Cry
  18. Gormley
  19. Practical Joke
  20. Patch
  21. Royal Mo (Also Eligible and would take the #20 gate should another horse scratch prior to 9:00 a.m. Friday morning.)

Overall, I don’t think any of the horses with a realistic shot at winning the Derby were grossly compromised by the posts they drew; most trainers and owners expressed being pleased (and relieved; Post 1 was still open when Classic Empire was waiting to be assigned a gate!) with where their horses will break.

If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you know I am death on posts 1 (just forget it), 2, and 3 for the 20-horse Derby field.  Horses breaking from #1 are solid on the rail and unless they break like they were shot out of a cannon they will generally get badly squeezed and likely blocked early on as the rest of the field attempts to drop over to save ground. If, by chance the horse in the 1 does break hard and fast, more likely than not they’ve expended a lot of valuable energy that they’ll need and likely have fully expended for the final furlongs of a mile and a quarter race with that early burst.  In the ultimate irony, Lookin At Lee (Post 1) is a son of Lookin At Lucky.  In 2010, Lookin At Lucky was considered a big favorite for the Derby, that is until he drew the #1 post, got slammed and scrambled around shortly after the break and finished sixth. Then two weeks later he won the Preakness Stakes.  Go figure. The same can pretty much be said for horses in # 2 and 3.  So in my opinion those horses’ race is lost before it even begins.  Posts 19 and 20 aren’t much better.  You need to be basically a super horse to win from either.  Big Brown was the first and only horse to date to pull it off out of #20, but Big Brown was also a man among boys in the 2008 Kentucky Derby field; none of these horses are that dominant this year.  One-eyed Patch most definitely is not.

Now add an extra wrinkle that wasn’t as much in the picture at the beginning of the week, but is a possible factor now–Rain.  Hey, it’s Kentucky in the spring!!  As of this morning there is a 60-70% chance of rain for Saturday.  And believe it or not, out of 22 major Derby prep races this season only three were run on muddy or sloppy tracks and of those three races, only one winner, Gormley, has made it into the Derby gate.  So in an already muddled picture, what to do?  For me, start by looking at pedigree; who sires mudders?  In this field you can look to Irish War Cry (Sire–Curlin who could fly on mud and whose son, Exaggerator romped to muddy wins last year in the Santa Anita Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Haskell Invitational); Classic Empire (Sire–Pioneerof the Nile, sire of none other than American Pharoah who ran a tour de force victory in the 2015 monsoon Preakness). Classic Empire also won his first race on a muddy track; Sonneteer (Sire–Midnight Lute another horse who could easily handle slop as in his 2007 Breeders’ Cup Sprint win at Monmouth Park); and Gormley (Sire–Malibu Moon who sired Orb, the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby over a muddy track in 2013) who has, as mentioned previously, won over a muddy track earlier this year in the Sham Stakes.

There were a couple of other key developments this week.  Practical Joke, who had been working in blinkers this week, will not wear them in the Derby.  Trainer Chad Brown has decided he doesn’t want to make that change now.  Meanwhile, possible second choice for the race, Always Dreaming has been training very aggressively, on the muscle, at Churchill.  So trainer Todd Pletcher opted to change exercise riders earlier this week and add draw reins.  Draw reins provide a rider, among other things, greater leverage over a horse through his mouth, and by extension head and neck.  You might recall Smarty Jones, a strong morning work horse wearing them as well.  The bottom line is this is an attempt to get better control over a horse, so especially in a racehorse, they’re not just running off.  They’re saying it has helped his training, but he cannot wear draw reins in the race.  For me it’s a very short learning curve and with Always Dreaming breaking from the #5 post, there’s a very good chance he’ll be aggressive out of the gate because of the early race crush and/or the need for John Velazquez to hustle him up and out of there in an attempt to get clear running room.  If that happens, in my opinion, race over.  I don’t think he’s a mature enough racehorse to handle that kind of heat, rate, and carry on to win.

The owner of Fast and Accurate has indicated that their strategy is to gun for the lead from the gate. Good luck with that.

I am a bit disappointed that Thunder Snow got stuck in Post 2.  I wanted to see what he could do, but that post position doesn’t give him much chance to do that.  Should he somehow manage to win from there he is an exceptional horse.

Classic Empire has been made the morning line favorite at 4-1 (which is pretty high opening odds for a Derby favorite).  That will fluctuate throughout the day and he might not even be the favorite once the horses enter the gate.

At this point my top picks are Irish War Cry and Classic Empire with long-shot selections of Practical Joke, Gormley, and Sonneteer. I also wouldn’t rule out McCraken because Churchill is his home track.

That’s it folks.  You’re on your own now.  Post time is 6:45 on NBC.  This is a race where I believe anything (or horse) can happen.

Counting Down, Shaking Up

Six days away for Kentucky Derby 143 and here are some things you should know:

**The connections of Battalion Runner (second to Irish War Cry in the Wood Memorial) and Malagacy (fifth in the Arkansas Derby last out) have withdrawn them from the Derby.  As a result, Sonneteer (a charging fourth in the Arkansas Derby) and Lookin At Lee (third in the Arkansas Derby) are now in the gate.

**Louisiana Derby winner Girvin struggled all week to get his final work in at Churchill Downs due to a quarter crack (A split or crack that runs up or down the hoof.  There are several causes for this, but hoof and/or limb conformation is the leading contributing factor.  Big Brown, 2008 Derby and Preakness winner struggled with this during his Triple Crown pursuit).  He finally got the work in and fired 5 furlongs (1/8 of a mile) in :59 + change (very sharp).

**Practical Joke, who has shown a tendency to “hang” (not pass and/or finish in the stretch; basically running in place) worked in blinkers this week and watching his work effort in them I did see some improvement when he engaged his workmate.  Chances are he will wear them in the Derby in an attempt to keep his mind focused and on the task at hand.

**Thunder Snow, winner of the UAE Derby IS going to contest the Kentucky Derby.  He is stateside at Churchill Downs, in quarantine (standard operating procedure) and will be able to stretch his legs on the the track Tuesday.

So as of today, the list of potential Derby starters is:

1. Girvin

2. Classic Empire

3. Gormley

4. Irap

5. Irish War Cry

6. Thunder Snow

7. Always Dreaming

8. Gunnevera

9. Practical Joke

10. J Boys Echo

11. State of Honor

12. Tapwrit

13. Hence

14. Fast and Accurate

15. McCraken

16. Battle of Midway

17. Patch

18. Untrapped

19. Lookin At Lee

20. Sonneteer

21. Royal Mo (Also Eligible in the event of a scratch)

Right now these horses break into four categories for me.

THE CLASS: Classic Empire and Irish War Cry. In my opinion, these two horses are the top of the field with all the ability needed to win the Kentucky Derby.  HOWEVER, both present a nagging concern. Classic Empire–Which version comes to the Derby? Calm, cool, collected, and polished Classic Empire who took the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Arkansas Derby or quirky Classic Empire who comes to the gate in a froth and can be unpredictable in behavior?

Irish War Cry–Which one? The talented horse that’s won all his races but one…or the one that finished an inexplicable and very well beaten seventh (in the Fountain of Youth Stakes)?

Still, when these two are on their game, they are very nice racehorses with great potential.

THE STEADY EDS: Girvin, Gunnevera, and McCracken.  There’s nothing flashy about any of these colts, but they generally grind away and get the job done.  Think Gun Runner last year. Girvin is the rare winner of two stakes preps this year in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby.  But he is dealing with a compromised hoof.  It won’t necessarily be an issue based on his good final work and Big Brown’s example of being able to race successfully with the same condition.  But bottom line, at least for me, I want my horse to be as close to physically perfect (and none of them are) as possible; a hoof problem, no matter how deftly handled doesn’t thrill me.  The old adage “No hoof, No horse” IS true; I know.

Gunnevera has won the Delta Jackpot Stakes (at 2) and the Fountain of Youth. His last out in the Florida Derby (3rd) was workmanlike, but not necessarily inspiring.

McCraken. I didn’t like the fact that he didn’t even challenge maiden-breaking winner Irap in the Bluegrass Stakes (finishing 3rd), but he also was in desperate need of a race following his minor setback with a bit of a wrenched ankle over the winter.  Churchill Downs is his home track with victories in the Street Sense and Kentucky Jockey Club stakes over the strip.  His trainer, Ian Wilkes knows his business and was a longtime assistant to two-time Derby winning trainer Carl Nafzger (Unbridled-1990 and Street Sense 2007).

THE DARK HORSES: Sonneteer, Gormley, Always Dreaming, and Royal Mo.  All four have shown talent, many people have or will make Always Dreaming their favorite off his Florida Derby win and sharp last work. I’m not on the bandwagon yet, because the Florida Derby was his first stakes race.  It’s impressive that he could step up from allowance company to take the Florida Derby in his first stakes action, but for me it seems/feels a bit too much too fast, with the Kentucky Derby as the next step/ask. In human terms, the progression equivalent might be similar to being the winning quarterback in the NCAA National Championship, then leading a team to an AFC/NFC Conference Championship, and then going on to quarterbacking and expecting to win the Super Bowl right in a row…maybe, but you get the picture in terms of the rapid advancement that’s being asked. I also watched his most recent work at Churchill Downs and was less than impressed.

Gormley showed improvement winning the Santa Anita Derby with his new running style and his stablemate Royal Mo just missed getting there (3rd in the Santa Anita Derby). They both have talent, consistency has been an issue.

Sonneteer has yet to even win a race, but finished exceptionally fast (4th) in the Arkansas Derby, two lengths behind Classic Empire.  It’ll take a hot pace and many meltdowns for him to win, but I certainly think with the right trip he could hit the board.

EVERYONE ELSE: And that’s just what I mean, everyone else.  The only one I’m going to mention is State of Honor because he is absolutely stunning to look at and not just because he’s 17 hands plus (not a real advantage at this stage of his racing life, if ever)!

Wednesday comes with what could well be the dreaded post position draw. If you’re the unfortunate horse that’s drawn into PP 1-2-3, despite all your talents you might as well stay in your stall.  So my fingers will be especially tightly crossed for Classic Empire and Irish War Cry’s draw.

See you after the Post Position Draw.

Return of the King?

The most important news since my last post is that the talented, quirky, questionable Classic Empire, who was on the outside looking in prior to the Arkansas Derby is now second in the points standings (132) for the Kentucky Derby thanks to his victory in the race. Classic Empire was on his very best behavior at Hot Springs before, during, and post race. It wasn’t an easy victory; in the stretch he was hung wide coming off the pace, but he was relentless to the wire.

So now that he’s in, how will he do? Kind of hard to say.  His start in the Derby will be his third start off the layoff he had from the conclusion of his two-year-old season.  For many horses this is an ideal setup for rounding into form for the next race.  So that’s a plus.  Still, Classic Empire had to work for this victory; what, if anything, did this take out of him three weeks before the big race at the longest distance he (and all the other colts) has ever run?  We really won’t know until May 6th around 6:30 in the evening.  It is important to remember, that Classic Empire was the two-year-old champion for a reason. He was that much better than the other colts of his year crop.  He’s had his excuses in 2017 so far, but in terms of raw talent, it’s for real. Barring any regression mentally or physically, he is a solid contender and might well be the favorite for Kentucky Derby 143.

Two other developments since the last post.  The connections of Cloud Computing have opted not to run in the Kentucky Derby and are now aiming for the Preakness Stakes and/or the Belmont Stakes. As a result of his defection, Untrapped, sixth in the Arkansas Derby, will move into the Derby gate.

Jockey Robby Albarado, who had the mount on J Boys Echo, sustained a broken ankle yesterday at Keeneland when he was thrown from his mount out of the gate.  The new rider has yet to be named.

The Kentucky Derby is now 12 days away!!

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