The Time is Near

Belmont Stakes 150 is this Saturday, June 9.  Post positions have just been drawn; here they are:

  1. Justify
  2. Free Drop Billy
  3. Bravazo
  4. Hofburg
  5. Restoring Hope
  6. Gronkowski
  7. Tenfold
  8. Vino Rosso
  9. Noble Indy
  10. Blended Citizen

So here we are.  Are we about to see another Triple Crown winner in three years after a 37-year drought?  It’s impossible to say for sure, but here’s what I do know: Justify is a superior horse, the best in the field.  He appears to have come out of the Preakness well, is training enthusiastically, and by all accounts is ready to rock and roll Saturday. Because of his post position, he might well be sent to the lead right away and it’s a fool’s errand to try and engage him early on. You might soften him up for a late challenge by another horse, but you will for sure be going down in flames first; ask Good Magic.  Regardless of the outcome of the Belmont, you have already witnessed an exceptional horse displaying exceptional abilities.  Should he win, you’re witnessing a legend as he’s made.

As the mud and slop settled from the Preakness, more information came to light from a race where it appeared Justify struggled to win at the end.  It turns out that the horse jumped tractor tire tracks on the track at least once (captured in a brilliant head-on photograph by Barbara D. Livingston), possibly as many as three times.  This can be a significant momentum-breaking move that’s caused the defeat of many a good horse; it didn’t stop Justify.  Mike Smith eased off “the gas” as they approached the wire (anticipating the chance he might jump again), thinking he was more clear than it turned out he was in those closing strides, AND, of course trying to conserve for the run in the Belmont. Justify also survived a mini match race in the opening two-thirds of the Preakness with Good Magic.  In short, Justify’s Preakness was more of an accomplishment than it appeared in the closing strides of the race.

But here’s the obvious–the Belmont is a horse race and unpredictable things can happen. There are fresh horses entering the race.  Will Justify handle the unique racing surface of “Big Sandy”?  And Heaven only knows WHAT the weather will be come Saturday; as of today, there is a chance of rain, but it doesn’t appear that if it does rain that it will be at the monsoon levels seen in the Derby and Preakness. Plus, we should be able to see the Belmont sans fog!!  Justify appears to be well rested and as fresh as a horse advancing through this series (and without the benefit of racing at two) can be, so hopefully he breaks from the gate sharply again, Mike Smith gives him a smart ride, and nothing else crazy occurs.  It should be quite the interesting race.

Post time is 6:37 EDT, coverage is on NBC. Enjoy and safe trips for all.




No Crown, Fun Race

This Saturday, Triple Crown races for 2016 come to a close with the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes.  Some of the drama was lost when Nyquist had to be withdrawn (he’s back in California and may return to light work next week), but this should still be an interesting race.  And yet again, weather may play a significant role in the outcome.

Here’s the surprisingly large field:

1.Governor Malibu


3.Cherry Wine




7.Seeking the Soul

8.Forever D’Oro

9.Trojan Nation



12.Brody’s Cause


With the exception of Governor Malibu, Gettysburg, Seeking the Soul, and Forever D’Oro, we’ve seen all the starters at least once before in the Kentucky Derby (of those 20, only Exaggerator and Lani have contested all three races). Of the four newcomers, Governor Malibu is the only one with a possibility of hitting the board.  He was second in the Peter Pan Stakes earlier in the Belmont meet.  It’s a traditional prep race for the Belmont and the race that positioned Tonalist for his Belmont win in 2014.  I don’t think Governor Malibu is quite the horse Tonalist was on the track. Gettysburg is primarily in the race as something of a rabbit to insure an honest pace. Seeking the Soul and Forever D’Oro are both recent allowance race winners.

The forecast for Saturday had looked pretty nice up until this morning and now there’s the possibility of severe weather at Elmont, New York Saturday afternoon. If the track does come up sloppy, I don’t think I need to tell you who benefits significantly in those conditions; you saw Exaggerator’s performance in the Preakness Stakes!  Lani and Cherry Wine will also move up if the track is wet.  Even if it doesn’t rain, I still believe this is Exaggerator’s race.  He appears to have taken to the Belmont track, his weight and coat are good, and he’s found his most effective running style.  I’ll also be interested to see if Lani can move up a few more places as he did in the Preakness and if Suddenbreakingnews can be closer to the pace to make that come from behind kick pay off.

Of the other horses in the race Destin, Stradivari (who I still think is being asked for too much too soon), and Creator could hit the board, but it’s harder for me to see them as the winner.  Super longshots–Trojan Nation and Brody’s Cause. It’s a horse race and that means anything can happen!

Post time Saturday is 6:37 p.m.

“So Let It Be Written!”

“So Let It Be Done!”–Yul Brenner as Ramses, Pharaoh of Egypt

I’d like to say I did my part, writing about American Pharoah throughout the spring and the just completed Triple Crown series. Yesterday, American Pharoah saw that it was done. And how!!!

His race in the 147th Belmont Stakes not only met my hopes, it exceeded them. Even though his break from the gate was a hair fraction off, his race was sheer perfection. He easily took the lead, with those forward-pricked ears signaling all was right with him and in his world. He loped along through easy fractions, just as though he was floating through air, not the deep sandy consistency of the Belmont Park track. And finally, at the appropriate moment in the stretch drive opened that flawless stride and put the rest of the field, at least in appearance, in reverse. If there were any doubts, it rapidly became clear that in the 2015 three-year-old colt crop there is American Pharoah and everyone else. He pretty much saved his best for the last of the three races, which is so impressive as it is indeed the most difficult, especially when colts, and this year, a colt–American Pharoah–ran all three.

I could attempt to heap on superlatives about his performance; there aren’t enough adequate words for the job. Instead, I’d like to try and provide some perspective as to how monumental an accomplishment it was for American Pharoah to ace “The Test of the Champion” and become the twelfth Triple Crown winner.

By a rough estimate, between 1978 when Affirmed won the last Triple Crown and 2012 when American Pharoah was foaled, 1.1 million Thoroughbred horses were born. In 2012, just about 23,000 were foaled. Each year, only 20 can run in the Kentucky Derby, and once that race is run, only one horse is then capable of capturing the Triple Crown. In the last 37 years, only 14 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes to be in a position to go into the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line. And if, being that “one in a million” horse, literally, isn’t enough, the colt in question must remain healthy (Spectacular Bid-1979, Pleasant Colony-1981–didn’t), sound (Charismatic-1999, I’ll Have Another-2012–didn’t), break well (War Emblem-2002, California Chrome-2014–didn’t), have the energy to seal the deal (Sunday Silence-1989, Real Quiet-1998, Funny Cide-2003, Smarty Jones-2004–didn’t), see the competition (Silver Charm-1997–didn’t), finish the race (Big Brown-2008–didn’t), and get a good ride (Alysheba-1987–didn’t).

American Pharoah had his own obstacle to overcome, which with the benefit of hindsight, I believe turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Days before the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, American Pharoah was scratched from the race with a hoof injury. He was the prohibitive favorite for that race and not having him run was a huge disappointment for many. It also put his Derby preparations on a very short, tight schedule for which there was no, zero room for error. But perhaps the time off at the end of his two-year-old year gave him more time to grow and develop without the pressure of competing in another high stakes race. With the exception of Street Sense in 2006-2007, no Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner has won the Kentucky Derby in the following year. Texas Red, who won the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile didn’t even make it to the Triple Crown races due to injury.

In the Belmont Stakes, American Pharoah displayed what an exceptional horse he is, once again gliding over a track that generally bogs most horses down, especially at one and a half miles. He made it into the gate after racing and winning an aggressive schedule of four stakes races in three months preceding the Belmont Stakes. His race yesterday was the second fastest Belmont recorded by a Triple Crown winner, behind only Secretariat’s still intact world record time for a mile and a half of 2:24 flat. Amazingly, his final quarter mile time in the Belmont was faster than Secretariat’s for that same stretch of the race (American Pharoah-24.32 seconds; Secretariat-25 seconds flat)! He beat all comers–17 other colts in the Kentucky Derby, returning and new starters in both the Preakness and Belmont stakes, and, though he seems to delight in it, a full-on thunderstorm in the Preakness! The only race where it appeared he wasn’t on his “A-game” was the Derby and he still proved best that day.

Beautiful, lovely disposition, ultra-efficient stride, a good mind, American Pharoah is the complete package and a much deserved winner of the 2015 Triple Crown. Long may he reign!!

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
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)
10.Carpe Diem (John Velazquez did a great job getting him into contention from miserable Post 2)
14.Ocho Ocho Ocho
15.Far Right
16.War Story
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!