Exorcism

“The Graveyard of Champions.”

Today, American Pharoah will step foot on the Saratoga Racecourse track to face nine competitors and, in the process, attempt to put its long-standing reputation to rest for awhile.

Man O’ War lost his only race at Saratoga.  Secretariat lost, post-Triple Crown success, at Saratoga.  Triple Crown Champion Affirmed was disqualified from his win in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.  I’ve been watching the meet since it started in late July, and although I don’t have the stats, I’ve seen a lot of favorites, especially short-price favorites crash and burn at the track also known as The Spa.  My guesstimate is that the win rate has been 50-50, favorites to other horses in the respective fields.

So here are the basics.  Race 11, The Travers Stakes, contested at 1 1/4 miles. Post Time: 5:46 p.m. The field and my comments:

1.Upstart–Doesn’t want 1 1/8 miles let alone 1 1/4.

2.American Pharoah–Even Saratoga’s longstanding reputation will have a hard time stopping The Ruler.

3.Mid Ocean–Who?

4.Texas Red–The ONLY colt in this field that I think call pull an upset.  The son of Afleet Alex is coming back strong, and appears relentless like his sire.

5.Frammento–Not again.  Hasn’t been in the same zip code as many of these in previous matchups.

6.Frosted–The lost shoe could have been an issue in his second-place finish in the Jim Dandy.  Personally, I’m starting to doubt his desire/ability to get a mile and a quarter also.

7.Keen Ice–He’ll be coming at the end, but he’s lost his most effective rider, Kent Desoumeaux, to Texas Red.  Still Javier Castellano KNOWS how to ride ’em and for sure knows where the Saratoga wire is.

8.Tale of Verve–It ain’t raining today.

9. King of New York–Who again?

10.Smart Transition–Won the ungraded Curlin Stakes earlier in the meet.  Might break the top four; will not win.

Fifteen thousand people showed up early yesterday to watch American Pharoah take a gallop around the track.  By his appearance and the comments of his exercise rider he likes and is handling the surface well.  He looks as robust, fresh, and happy as he has at any point during this magical run.

Still…the reason for my superstitious rationale (how’s THAT for an oxymoron??!!) for a potential upset, what’s giving me cause for concern is the track’s reputation and the number of trips he’s made and miles he’s travelled just in August (let alone for his entire 2015 season to date).  It was just 27 days ago when he ran in and won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth.  I’d feel more confident if he’d stayed on the East Coast between races as he did during his Triple Crown assault.

But hey, we’re talking American Pharoah here; why worry?  Just enjoy!  

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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!

Preakness Week!!!

Derby winner California Chrome and some of his competitors should be arriving in Baltimore within the hour.  Social Inclusion is already on the grounds and had the bullet move of the day, 4F in 47 seconds.  Seems he’s well primed for Saturday.  I’ll be commenting more on the race after Wednesday’s post position draw.  I expect it to be an interesting race.  Until then I’m going to reminisce about what I think are the three greatest Preakness Stakes I’ve seen.

#1–2005–Afleet Alex.  Afleet Alex had just missed in the Kentucky Derby, finishing third to long-shot Giacomo, after a somewhat troubled trip.  It was a big disappointment to me, as having followed his early successes in Arkansas, including winning the Arkansas Derby, I felt he was the best colt of his crop.  It came two weeks later than I anticipated, but Afleet Alex showed he was not only the best of the three-year-olds, but one of the finest Thoroughbred athletes to grace a track.

Making the turn for home, Afleet Alex was gathering momentum to take the lead.  The horse on the lead, Scrappy T, received a crack of the whip from rider Ramon Dominguez and promptly bore out into Afleet Alex’s path.  Afleet Alex clipped his heels and fell forward, his nose only fractions of an inch from the ground.  Only still camera shots do this encounter justice.  I remember going from jubilation watching “my” horse in the midst of making his winning move to screaming out loud, “”You’ve killed my horse!!”  I knew that both Afleet Alex and his jockey, Jeremy Rose were going to hit the ground hard and be trampled by trailing horses that would have nowhere else to go.  But in the same split second it took for the pair to pitch forward, Afleet Alex righted himself, seemingly in stride, and I suspect if he could talk he would have said “OH NO, You DID NOT!  I AM WINNING THIS RACE!” And on he went as if not a thing had happened, taking the lead and OPENING on the field to the wire to take the Preakness Black-eyed Susans and the Woodlawn Vase.  I have NEVER seen a more courageous display of athleticism in Thoroughbred racing or any sport.  In that moment, Afleet Alex illustrated the line from Dan Fogelberg’s Run for the Roses: “…and it’s something unknown, that drives you and carries you home.”  It was an awe- inspiring performance, overcoming the impossible, and why I make it my number one Preakness moment.

#2–1973–Secretariat. Not many words can be added to Secretariat’s legend, but the move he put out on the backside of Pimlico defies reason and is, in my opinion, the horse in all his glory (not to discount his Belmont tour de force).  Here’s a horse, in his prime, unleashing what looks more like the move of a cheetah on the savannah, than a horse on the dirt.  In the blink of an eye Secretariat appeared to go airborne, engulfing his “competition” like he’d somehow developed equine warp speed.  Dazzling is an understatement.  Of course there really never has been an adequate vocabulary to describe Secretariat’s Triple Crown dominance.

#3–1989–Sunday Silence.  And Easy Goer.  Sunday Silence won my heart early on in his West Coast preps for the Derby and Triple Crown.  When he won the Santa Anita Derby, that sealed the deal for me.  I knew he was winning the Kentucky Derby.  Didn’t care about all the hype surrounding Easy Goer, who indeed was a fine horse.  And when Sunday Silence won the Derby, some said it was just luck that he’d caught a sloppy track that he handled better than second place Easy Goer.  What transpired in the Preakness that year is rivaled only by Affirmed and Alydar.  Throughout the stretch, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer went at it head to head, stride for stride in complete unison to the wire.  Both teams of horse and rider giving everything in physical effort, strategy, and clean race riding.  Sunday Silence’s body language showed me “You’ll have to kill me to get by me…” And since Sunday Silence lived 13 more years and became Japan’s most successful and revered sire, he survived and triumphed in the 1989 Preakness.

For now I say it’s Pimlico.  Expect the unexpected and here’s hoping we’re treated to a race that will make a memory!!