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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What a Weekend

SATURDAY

The Jim Dandy Stakes (1 1/8), at Saratoga Racetrack was run with a field of six: Belmont Stakes winner and runner up, Creator and Destin, respectively; maiden Laoban; Governor Malibu (fourth in the Belmont); Mohaymen (fourth in the Kentucky Derby); and Race Me Home. When the gates broke, Mohaymen promptly fell to his knees, but quickly recovered. Laoban took the lead and Destin, Governor Malibu, and Race Me Home stalked, while Creator took his usual spot at the rear.  Laoban under red hot jockey Jose Ortiz set moderate fractions in the first three quarters at :24, :49, and 1:12, bordering on slow.  And it worked! Governor Malibu and Destin offered a mild challenge to Laoban’s lead, but never made a dent; they finished second and third. Mohaymen basically ran in place for fourth, Race Me Home dropped out to fifth, and Creator never made a move from last as if he didn’t realize he was even in a race.

It was entirely fitting that Laoban would win his first-ever race in the Jim Dandy Stakes. In 1930, Jim Dandy was the horse that at odds of 100-1 defeated Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox.

SUNDAY

The Haskell Invitational was also run at a mile and an eighth at Monmouth Park at Oceanport, NJ.  The outcome of the race was likely determined overnight into race day as it rained…and rained some more throughout the day, leaving the track sloppy.  Lining up to contest the Haskell were six more colts: Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, Preakness Stakes winner Exaggerator, Gun Runner (third in the Derby), Sunny Ridge, winner of the Withers Stakes in January, Iowa Derby winner American Freedom, and Awesome Slew.  When last seen, Exaggerator finished a dismal 11th in the Belmont. Nyquist didn’t get to contest the Belmont because he spiked a fever post Preakness; this was the awaited rematch between the two.

Well, if you saw the Preakness you basically saw the Haskell as it was essentially the same race repeated.  Despite trainer Doug O’Neil (who took the blame for the Preakness Stakes run strategy of Nyquist) and jockey Mario Gutierrez indicating Nyquist would be handled differently in the Haskell it didn’t turn out that way. Nyquist again hooked up for the lead with American Freedom and Awesome Slew and although the fractions weren’t as blistering as those set in the first two quarters of the Preakness they were swift enough that they appeared to soften the Derby champion up.  In the meantime, Exaggerator had taken his typical spot at the rail and the rear of the field although he wasn’t too far off the other horses. Exaggerator was hung four wide as he made his move out of the final turn and swept past all the other colts to take the lead and the win.  Once again he was a big kid colt, happily splashing though the mud. Nyquist fell back to fourth, his first-ever out-of-the-money finish of his career.  Sunny Ridge ground on to nip him, taking third.  Gun Runner never seemed happy with the conditions and finished fifth.  Awesome Slew plummeted to last, while American Freedom carried on for the runner up position.

There was a brief inquiry based on American Freedom’s jockey Rafael Bejarano’s objection against Kent Desormeaux and Exaggerator  for a bump in the stretch that was disallowed.

As of today, Laoban, Mohaymen, and Exaggerator are being pointed to the Travers Stakes August 27 at Saratoga.  There has been no word on the next race for the remainder of the colts that participated in the two races that typically are used to prep for the Travers. There is also no word as to any reason for Creator’s poor effort Saturday.  As I indicated in my previous blog, I anticipated that some colts might move forward (Laoban and American Freedom) since the Triple Crown races while others might start to regress (Mohaymen and Nyquist).  Only time will tell if some colts just had a bad weekend and who ends up at the top of this year’s three-year-old class.  We shall see.

Back On Track

The post-Triple Crown lull in major stakes races is ending and the start of the second half of major Thoroughbred  racing culminating in Breeders’ Cup World Championship weekend (November 4 and 5) at Santa Anita Racetrack is at hand.

Before I jump into who’s going to be participating in this weekend’s two major stakes a few quick updates.

Stradivari, who ran in the Preakness and Belmont, to fourth and fifth place finishes respectively, sustained a career-ending fracture Friday morning (July 22) while being worked in preparation for his next start.  He suffered a break to his right front leg; both a condylar fracture and a break in the sesamoids (condylar is the cannon or long bone of the leg and sesamoids are smaller support bones lower in the leg that would roughly translate to support apparatus in our ankle). He was scheduled for surgery to place plates and screws in the leg in the attempt to repair it earlier this morning at the Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital at Saratoga Springs, NY where he was in training.

On a MUCH brighter note, champion filly Songbird once again demonstrated why she may actually be the best three-year-old Thoroughbred in the country by dispatching the four other fillies that attempted to challenge her in Sunday’s Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga Racetrack.  In so doing, Songbird maintained her perfect record, she’s now nine for nine, and she overcame the Saratoga “Graveyard of Champions” curse (Remember last year with American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes? Yeah, I’d as soon forget too). Songbird, much like Nyquist, has show she takes her track with her and runs exceptionally wherever she’s entered to race.

On Sunday, unlike most of her other races, she got a wee mite bit of a challenge from a nice filly, Carina Mia on the turn for home, but under Mike Smith’s expert hands and handling she quickly shook off the attempt, and opened to daylight rapidly to win by five lengths.  Best of all, all reports indicate that Songbird came out of the race happy and fresh.  She’ll remain at Saratoga to prepare for the August 20th Alabama Stakes.

On Saturday, it was the return of California Chrome to American racing since his last start and win in the Dubai World Cup at the end of March, and the four-year-old debut of Dortmund, American Pharoah’s former stablemate and third place and fourth finisher in the 2015 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, respectively. The race was the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar Racetrack and it turned out to be bit of a surprise to me.  Since it was Dortmund’s first race of the year, I expected him to engage Chrome for a little while, but give way, being short race-wise and despite trainer Bob Baffert’s ability to rarely have a horse be short on conditioning even off a long layoff.

I was WRONG.  Dortmund not only engaged California Chrome, he wouldn’t let go of him and the two battled stride for stride from about the final sixteenth of a mile to the wire.  It’s an overused description, but here it’s apt–this race was a thriller and California Chrome was able to prevail by a head. It was a delight to watch and even the jockeys–Gary Stevens on Dortmund and Victor Espinoza on Chrome were in awe of the effort both horses had put forth in an effort to win, tapping each other in congratulations after they crossed the finish line nearly in tandem.  It will be very exciting to watch these two go at it again, most likely in the Pacific Classic near the end of August; that race will also likely feature 2015 Pacific Classic winner Beholder who made the group of colts entered in the race with her look like amateurs with close to an eight-length win. Fingers crossed that all three remain healthy and happy for that matchup.

Now for the upcoming weekend which marks the return to racing by most of the prominent three-year-old colts that were involved in the Triple Crown races.  On Saturday, the Jim Dandy Stakes will be run at Saratoga.  It is the traditional prep race for the “Midsummer Derby,” the Travers Stakes also at Saratoga. Belmont winner Creator, fourth-place Belmont finisher Governor Malibu, Mohaymen (fourth in the Kentucky Derby), and Preakness winner Exaggerator are among the horses who may run.  The real question mark of this group is Exaggerator; he posted a less-than-pleasing work in the eyes of trainer Keith Desormeaux last out and thus the trainer is wrestling with the start. Desormeaux has indicated that the main goal for Exaggerator is the Travers and he might just give the colt a bit more time and train up to that race.

On Sunday, the Haskell Invitational will be run at Monmouth Race Course in Oceanport, NJ.  Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist will make his first start since his third-place finish in the Preakness Stakes.  He’s recovered from the bug that kept him out of the Belmont Stakes and has been working well out of his West Coast base at Santa Anita. Gun Runner, third in the Derby, has raced and won since then in the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs.  Brody’s Cause, sixth in the Belmont, is also expected to run in the Haskell.

I’m not going to make any predictions for either race; at this stage I’ll just be watching and observing in an attempt to see who’s best.  Most of the colts have had a rest, grown a bit, and where they now stand among each other may have changed.  Maybe not and there’s always the chance that a colt that wasn’t ready for the Classics emerges that will give these more established colts a run for the money.  That’s why in many ways, this second half of the Thoroughbred racing year is more fun than the run through the spring.  And perhaps, at the end of the year, the horse that will be crowned best three-year-old in the nation could be the one running like the “girl” she is–Songbird.

 

 

Observations

Now that Belmont 148 is in the books there’s just a few post race points to cover.

First, it really did turn out to be an exciting race with Creator launching from near last to catch Destin at the wire to finish first.  Perhaps his rotten Derby trip really did compromise his performance and finish; we’ll never know. And so much for the position that the Belmont Stakes isn’t won by deep closers.

This was the first time I can recall having three grey colts finish one-two-three in such a major stakes race.  And of course two of them–Creator and Lani are sons of super stallion Tapit; Destin is by Giant’s Causeway. Tapit now has two of the last three Belmont Stakes winners, being the sire of 2014’s winner–Tonalist.

While I was very disappointed in Exaggerator’s 11th place finish (his worst race finish ever) I am relieved he came out of the race sound and healthy and it’s clear in watching replays that jockey Kent Desormeaux wrapped up on him when he felt they were not going to contend.  Exaggerator will remain in New York, at Belmont for the immediate future, and then ship upstate for some of the summer stakes (the Jim Dandy and/or Travers Stakes being the most likely targets) at Saratoga.

The second biggest disappointment for me was Suddenbreakingnews.  In my opinion the race was tailor made for him and I had high hopes that with Mike Smith riding he’d breakthrough; no such luck, he didn’t run a step.  I have no explanation and have heard  nothing about the performance (or lack of same) from his camp.

Besides the close finish, the highlight of this race for me was: LANI!!!  Yes, my boy, the grey wonder horse (in more ways than one) yet again took another significant step forward in his third place finish.  Ninth in the Derby, fifth in the Preakness, Lani just kept at the task and kept coming.  He and his handlers were viewed with a lot of skepticism and in some instances mockery because of his behavior and the way he trained–usually long and slow. They underrated this horse. This spring, dating back to March, he has travelled from Japan to Dubai to Chicago, Louisville, Baltimore, and Elmont, New York.  Although his training might have appeared out of the norm, there was never any doubt in my mind that he was the fittest horse in this bunch of three-year-old colts.  That, combined with his Tapit/Sunday Silence pedigree, kept him in contention throughout this series.  As for his behavior, I attribute that to being quite the ALPHA colt.  But he learned and improved throughout and I think, provided he stays sound, once he returns to Japan he’ll be quite successful.  I would love to see him return this fall to contest the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  GO Lani!

Creator will ship to his eventual stallion home, WinStar Farm, for a few weeks of rest and recovery. Barring the unforeseen, he should also return to training for the Saratoga meet.

Nyquist is back in California and resumed light training late last week. His future races have not been announced, but if all goes well, I’m sure he’ll be pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic as this year it’ll be run at his home track at Santa Anita Park.

It was an interesting series of Triple Crown races. The three-way split of the races further emphasizes the difficulty of winning one, let alone all three, and shows how amazing and rare American Pharoah’s sweep last year was through the 19-horse Derby field, monsoon conditions of the Preakness, and the mile and a half “Test of the Champion.”

American Pharoah’s feat was further flattered in the Belmont undercard.  Last year’s second-place finisher in the Belmont, Frosted (also a son of Tapit!) blistered a talented field in the Metropolitan Mile. Not only did he set a record time for the stakes, he won by 14 1/4 lengths.  It was an absolutely stunning performance and honestly the best race of the day. With Frosted’s performance, you have to wonder what American Pharaoh might have been capable of as a four-year-old.

 

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

2.Destin

3.Cherry Wine

4.Suddenbreakingnews

5.Stadivari

6.Gettysburg

7.Seeking the Soul

8.Forever D’Oro

9.Trojan Nation

10.Lani

11.Exaggerator

12.Brody’s Cause

13.Creator

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!!

All In

At last, Belmont Stakes 147 will be run this Saturday, June 6. For the 14th time since 1978 we will be watching to see if a three-year-old colt, this time American Pharoah, can turn the trick and become the 12th Triple Crown winner.

I’ve been with him and oh so impressed with his performances since seeing his first race of the year, the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. I see no reason to change my mind and look elsewhere for a winner come Saturday in the Belmont; I remain squarely in the American Pharoah camp.

In my May 17 post Some Horse!!!, I outlined all the attributes I believe American Pharoah possesses that help make him such a success. I’ll add one more, somewhat intangible trait–the horse loves to run. Despite the fact that I’ve been professionally trained to avoid anthropomorphism with animals, I’m not going to deny what I see from 47 years of interacting with horses and 46 years of watching racehorses in action; not only is it easy for this colt to run, but he’s happy to do it. When you see those ears prick forward in the middle of a race, you’re seeing a horse enjoying his work. And win, lose or draw Saturday, I will maintain he is a physically superior/gifted horse. If American Pharoah can’t pull this off, I’ll go back to my default position: there’ll never be another Triple Crown winner.

Here is the field for the 147th Belmont Stakes:
1.Mubtaahij
2.Tale of Verve
3.Madefromlucky
4.Frammento
5.American Pharoah
6.Frosted
7.Keen Ice
8.Materiality

If any horse upsets American Pharoah, I believe Frosted stands the best chance. Now that his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, has ironed out the issues that were hampering his performance, this colt has nothing but upside, and I don’t believe he’s run his best race yet.

Materiality has an abundance of raw talent and has quickly moved into graded stakes competition in a short time (the Belmont Stakes will be only his fifth lifetime start; his first race ever was in January 2015). It’s the lack of racing experience, especially at such a high level that I believe will keep him out of the winner’s circle Saturday. Still, being by 2005 Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex, the potential is there.

Mubtaahij still remains a mystery horse in my book. He ran a decent eighth in the Derby, but didn’t seem to have any excuse for not having a better finish. He has been training regularly at Belmont since the Derby.

It appeared to me that Tale of Verve was the only other horse besides American Pharoah that was capable of handling the sloppy track in the Preakness and as a result, I think that moved him up, performance-wise, considerably.

The other colts in the field, in my opinion must have their very best efforts Saturday to upset American Pharoah or the other colts I’ve mentioned already.

A closing note. American Pharoah will be the only colt to run in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes in 2015. In my mind that alone makes him a winner.

My fingers, toes, and eyes will be crossed come Saturday for American Pharoah!