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Runner (second to Irish War Cry in the Wood Memorial) and Malagacy (fifth in the Arkansas Derby last out) have withdrawn them from the Derby.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.

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.

 

 

Separation

Time is ticking down to the first Saturday in May (41 days!!) and opportunities to qualify point-wise are getting fewer.  Last weekend was the last of the 50-point qualifiers with the running of the Rebel Stakes (1 1/16 miles) at Oaklawn and yesterday featured the first two 100-point races in the UAE Derby at Meydan and the Louisiana Derby at the Fairgrounds.

Last weekend at the Rebel, Bob Baffert sent Tapit colt, Cupid to take a shot at qualifying points.  He delivered, going to the lead from the beginning and never relinquishing it. It was an impressive effort for his first stakes run and fourth lifetime start. He was followed to the wire by Whitmore (who was also second in the Southwest Stakes), Creator, and Cherry Wine.  Southwest winner Suddenbreakingnews finished fourth and was making his big closing kick.  This time though, it appeared to me he was a bit farther back when he started closing and maybe a tick or two slower in the effort than he was making the same move in the Southwest.  The Rebel muddied the water more than clarified it, and I hope and expect to see most of these colts one more time in the Arkansas Derby to get a better feel for who they really are and what their chances for Louisville may truly be.

At Meydan, on the Dubai World Cup undercard, the UAE Derby (1 3/16 miles) was run and the winner was a Kentucky-bred colt, representing Japan–Lani.  Although I think in the end the field he defeated wasn’t that much, Lani made a good account of himself in that when the gates opened, he stumbled out and his nose missed the ground by inches.  Needless to say at that point he was dead last.  But he made constant progress through the race under the steady hands of Japan’s master jockey Yutaka Take and in a determined run, overtook the field in the closing strides to win by about a half length.  Immediately following the race his connections said they’d be coming for the Kentucky Derby as Lani picked up 100 points in the process.

UAE Derby winners have yet to make a significant dent in the Derby and none have won it and in all honesty, I don’t expect Lani to either.  However, I will likely place a wager on him for one reason–his stellar pedigree: Tapit x Heavenly Romance (a Sunday Silence mare and winner of a major Japanese stakes–the Tenno Sho).  Some of you know that Sunday Silence, 1989’s Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner as well as Horse of the Year is one of my all-time favorite horses.  He had an unrivaled will on and off the track. His offspring have been highly successful in Japan where he became a revered sire. With that pedigree Lani should be able to get the Derby distance handily.  Everyone underestimated Sunday Silence; perhaps it would take a grandson to break through out of the UAE Derby.

Finally, the Louisiana Derby (1 1/8 miles) was run at the Fairgrounds and Risen Star Stakes winner Gun Runner delivered again.  He’s just a steady, professional colt; nothing flashy, he just gets the job done. And I’m starting to believe he’s the colt that just might be completely overlooked (at your own risk) come May 7.  A son of Candy Ride out of a Giant’s Causeway mare, a mile and a quarter should be comfortably in Gun Runner’s range.

If I were the connections of Mo Tom I would be ready to pull my hair out.  He finished fourth in the Louisiana Derby, so he should be becoming a Derby afterthought right?  Wrong! If only you’d seen the trip he had yesterday you’d see why I was screaming “NOT AGAIN!!!” at the TV.  Mo Tom was starting to close when he got stopped/ squeezed (AGAIN) along the rail not once but twice as he did in the Risen Star.  Yet and still it didn’t stop him heart-wise; he kept after it and he kept trying even though all chance of winning was gone.  I can only imagine what he might do if he EVER had a clean trip…and should he get to the Derby (not outside the realm of possibility as at the end of the day he sat 11th with 32 points) he probably won’t have a clean trip there either, but at least we’ll know that the bumping and bruising that each Derby brings won’t cause him to quit.  In a clean trip he just might win!  I doubt he’ll run again between now and the Kentucky Derby so it might get tight for him to make the gate.

Now for coming attractions–there really is only one and that’s April 2nd’s Florida Derby and the East meets West (hopefully first of many) matchup between undefeated colts Mohaymen and Nyquist.  Before I say more, if you can find a way to see this race I highly recommend you do (right now I think it’s only scheduled to be aired on TVG, although NBC  or NBC SportsNet might just pick it up; check your local listings).  The reason why I think this could be better than if they meet again in a month for the Derby–the Florida Derby will be a smaller field and will, I believe, produce a cleaner, truer race between the two than when they would hook up again with 18 of their likely lesser companion colts!  The downside to this race is should it come down to a duel between the two will their effort take too much out of them to recover for a peak performance when it really matters in Louisville?

I’ve watched both colts’ preparations and they have been equally impressive and at this moment they are clearly better than all the other colts in contention for the Derby.  I can hardly wait and would be thrilled and delighted if this becomes an Affirmed-Alydar or Sunday Silence-Easy Goer-caliber rivalry.  Cannot wait for Saturday!!

Last, but far from least, MANY props to California Chrome, Victor Espinoza, and Art Sherman.  California Chrome is now North America’s leading earning racehorse with his spectacular win yesterday in the world’s richest race ($10 million: $6 million to the winner!), the Dubai World Cup at Meydan.  California Chrome broke well from the 11 hole, sat in third about four wide through most of the race and coming out of the turn for home started his separation which was clear and dramatic to win by four to five lengths over last year’s UAE Derby winner and Triple Crown contender Mubtaahij, and the ever steady Hoppertunity in third.  Making Chrome’s effort that much more dramatic is the fact that with every stride forward he was making to the wire, jockey Espinoza was moving farther back! The saddle was slipping as the pair closed to the wire and Espinoza was close to being over California Chrome’s hips as he crossed the wire.  It’s a huge credit to both horse and rider that both appeared unfazed (although not unaware) by the potentially catastrophic change in riding position.  As soon as Victor was able to get Chrome pulled up, he dismounted to make a much-needed adjustment for the ride back to the winner’s circle!  In my opinion, it was California Chrome’s best performance as a racehorse.  Once he returns stateside he’s going to get a rest at his future home at Taylor Made Farm and then will return to training with a final goal of another run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic before his retirement at the end of 2016.

Starting next week, there is A LOT of great horse racing ahead!

 

Since the Belmont

A LOT has happened.  Some grand, unfortunately more sad and disappointing, all a part of and challenge to the lives of Thoroughbred racehorses.

Let’s start with the happy.  American Pharoah is a hero, and has been feted on both the East and West coasts in the form of being paraded at both Churchill Downs and Santa Anita Racecourse.  He’s such a kind horse and took all the attention and adulation in stride; he just marched down the track before the grandstands as he was applauded and photographed by thousands of fans.

Better yet, he has returned to training and seriously doesn’t look like the Triple Crown effort took much out of him.  He continues to gallop around the track in his morning works fluidly and happily and looks the picture of health–big and strong.  His next race will be upon us very soon, Sunday, August 2 in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in Oceanside, New Jersey.  The track is pulling out all the stops with festivities planned for attendees all weekend.

The fast-approaching Haskell leads to the next question and a few updates for the three-year-old crop; who the heck is going to take on the champion in the Haskell?  So far, War Story’s connections have signed on.  Stanford, who was initially entered and then withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby is a likely candidate thanks to his win in the Long Branch Stakes this past weekend at Monmouth.  Carpe Diem and Materiality have had works recently and they may be sent to pursue American Pharoah yet again.  Frosted won’t take on the challenge again, at least not at this point.  He is headed to Saratoga with the Travers Stakes as the goal.  He’ll likely prep in the Jim Dandy also at Saratoga.

We know Firing Line won’t be there.  It was announced last week that his racing in 2015 is done.  He’d been recovering from a hoof injury, but his connections have decided he’d benefit from continued R and R so he won’t be seen again until the turn of the calendar.  Next race plans for Dortmund have not been announced yet, but he won’t be accompanying American Pharoah back to the East Coast.

Sadly, Danzig Moon will not be present either…he had to be euthanized following an injury sustained in the running of the Queen’s Plate Trial at Woodbine Racecourse.  He’d run valiantly in the Bluegrass Stakes, the Kentucky Derby, and Preakness Stakes.  RIP.

The news doesn’t improve much among the distaff or older horses.  Lady Eli, a stunning, undefeated three-year-old turf filly including being the winner in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Fillies race has been stricken by laminitis in both front hooves.  It was set in motion after having stepped on a nail as she was returning to her stall from the test barn after her latest win in the Belmont Oaks run July 4th.  Right now her racing future and potentially her life is in the balance. Good thoughts and prayers for her swift recovery.

2014 Horse of the Year, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome is also on the sidelines for the remainder of the year.  2015 has proven to be a star-crossed period for the colt as he has yet to win a race, was unable to race at Royal Ascot as planned due to a bruised hoof, and now has been found to have a bruised cannon bone during a vet inspection.  He had just returned stateside to prepare for a run in the Arlington Million. Nothing life threatening or career ending here unless the connections determine otherwise.  He may well return to racing next year as a five-year old.

Main Sequence, a star on the turf throughout 2014, including a major win over an international field in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, has been retired from racing due to a tendon tear.  Trainer Graham Motion did a stellar job with this somewhat quirky horse; he definitely turned his form around and helped him reach his potential.

Kentucky Oaks winner Lovely Maria returned to racing last Saturday, July 11 in the Delaware Oaks at Delaware Park. She never fired as the prohibitive favorite and finished out of the money in fifth place.  A 50-1 shot, Calamity Kate led just about from gate to wire and had enough left to hang on for the win in one of the biggest upsets of the weekend.

Wicked Strong, one of 2014’s leading three year olds and winner of last year’s Wood Memorial and Jim Dandy Stakes, has been off form through his first three races in 2015.  Saturday, he made his first start on grass in the Forbidden Apple Stakes at Belmont Park to shake things up and see how he’d handle a new surface.  He ran a decent second in the race; he didn’t hate the turf, but he didn’t seem to become a world beater over it either.  It’ll be interesting to see where he appears next.

But let’s end on a very positive note.  Two-time Horse of the Year (2012, 2013) Wise Dan has been completely cleared to return to full training and should return to the races late this summer or early fall.  Late in 2014 he’d sustained a non-displaced fracture near the end of his right front leg.  At the time of injury, his return to training and the races was questionable.  Can’t wait to see him back on the track!

Thoroughbred racing can be so exciting, beautiful, and thrilling especially when a horse like American Pharoah, Lady Eli, and Wise Dan come along.  They are unusually gifted athletes with an incredible will to win.  As this report exposes, they can be quite fragile and the privilege to watch them run should never be taken for granted.

On Your Mark

The time between the Breeders’ Cup and the steady progression of Kentucky Derby preps can REALLY lag, especially if you had a lousy Breeders’ Cup Saturday as I did (THANK YOU Texas Red for salvaging my day, but I’d expect no less from a son of Afleet Alex!).  But now, not only is there a bit of a thaw in the winter weather, but also in my lack of interest in the goings on at the many Thoroughbred tracks across the country.  Things heated up dramatically yesterday amongst not only the three year olds on the winding, grinding Derby trail, but in the older, handicap ranks.

Let’s start with the maturing “babies” aiming to get in the gate for the Kentucky Derby, now just a shade over 80 days away, if you can believe that.  Texas Red, my personal favorite, ran a solid second in his return to the races in the seven furlong San Vicente (February 1).  Seven furlongs is not this colt’s forte or real desire and he was just starting to roll along the rail at they hit the finish.  Look for more and better as he continues on.  It appears he’ll be headed to Fair Grounds to take the Louisiana route (Risen Star–February 21, Louisiana Derby–March 28) to Kentucky.

Prior to Texas Red’s return, Upstart made a successful return to the races in an impressive win in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream.

Aqueduct was the site of one of the most exciting races in a day of just about complete excitement and peak performances by the Thoroughbreds.  In just his second start, Far From Over was somewhat ambitiously placed in the Withers Stakes, a race with a history of producing more than a few Derby stars.  It certainly looked like he was FAR OVER HIS HEAD as he stumbled badly out of the gate, spotting the small field, including heavily favored El Kabeir and well-thought-of Classy Class at least a seven-length lead.  The two favorites went right out to the lead under modest fractions and for the bulk of the race it looked like a contest to be decided between the two. Although Far From Over continued to lag in the rear throughout most of the race, he was getting a smart, solid ride from jockey Manuel Franco, keeping him steady and moving forward.  Within the final eighth, he exploded, rapidly closing the gap and overtaking both frontrunners, El Kabeir who had just overtaken Classy Class, to win.  Entirely impressive in terms of ride and the raw ability and determination this colt showed.  This son of Blame quickly jumped on to my list of ones to watch on to Louisville.

On the West Coast, the two prohibitive favorites for the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita put on their own show.  Clearly the class of the field, undefeated Dortmund and Firing Line hooked each other early for the second race in a row.  This time, Firing Line moved past Dortmund in the stretch, opening nearly a length’s lead as the wire approached.  But Dortmund, son of 2008 Derby winner Big Brown, wasn’t at all deterred, gathered, to not only rehook Firing Line, and run with him stride for stride, but also passed him once again right before the wire to win by a neck. Extremely impressive.  I’d expect to see both return for the next major Santa Anita prep in the March 7 San Felipe Stakes.

Older colts didn’t disappoint. The Donn Handicap at Gulfstream saw the return of several early favorites for the 2014 Derby–Constitution and Commisioner (second after leading until the wire, the 2014 Belmont Stakes) return to stakes action versus the 2014 Donn winner, Lea.  Although Commissioner’s effort was flat, Constituition and Lea did not disappoint with the former leading virtually from the gate and last year’s champ closing, but not quite catching the newly minted four year old.

But yesterday’s piece de resistance had its genesis in the dust up that was the beginning of the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic.  The Classic was, among other things, the first meeting between Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome (CC), then undefeated 2013 champion two-year-old Shared Belief, who had also already defeated older horses, and Pennsylvania Derby winner and CC vanquisher Bayern. That race was won by Bayern whose sloppy start out of the gate dramatically impeded Shared Belief.  Bayern ran on to win and although there was a stewards’ inquiry, no change was made, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many, myself included. California Chrome finished a game third.

The San Antonio Invitational was the first opportunity for now Horse of the Year CC, Shared Belief, and Classic winner Bayern to meet as four year olds.  Bayern wasn’t entered off with a minor hoof injury.  But everyone was anxious still to see what would happen in a race where Chrome and Shared Belief were likely to be the key contenders.  This race DID NOT disappoint.  Both colts got off to clean starts and were positioned exactly in their best racing positions, Chrome off the rail and just off the pace and Shared Belief stalking just a few spots behind.  Hopportunity, another well-thought-of four-year-old colt started enlivening the race as they made the turn for home, for a moment looking like he was going to leave Shared Belief behind and pass California Chrome all in one smooth move.  That lasted for about two seconds.  Chrome lengthened and Mike Smith roused Shared Belief and the matchup everyone dreamed of seeing was reality.  For a few strides Chrome looked like he couldn’t be caught, but Shared Belief made that a fleeting thought, lowering his body and accelerating in the flick of Smith’s whip hand.  He took the lead and began to pull away before and past the wire.  It was a thrill to watch.  Shared Belief is a relatively small colt, with what looks like a somewhat unusual motion, but a stride that also seems exceptionally efficient.

It’s anticipated, for the moment, that Shared Belief will move on to the Big ‘Cap, the Santa Anita Handicap, March 7 and California Chrome to Dubai, March 28, for the World Cup.  If so, we might not see them together on the track again until Breeders’ Cup.

So 2015 Thoroughbred racing is now well underway and if February 7 was a sample, the year of racing to come is going to be unbelievably exciting from the Derby preps to the Triple Crown (despite my enthusiasm right now, I’ll go on record today–NO Triple Crown winner this year either, sorry) to the Breeders’ Cup making its first run at the venerated Keeneland Race Course.

As far as a Derby pick, I’m casting a wide net for now, but I do favor Texas Red as I know he has the pedigree for the job and I would love to see an Afleet Alex baby pick up the one Triple Crown race his sire just missed.  But Dortmund certainly has moved up in my estimation.  By Big Brown, he can certainly do the job and he is a massive, imposing looking colt.  If he can hold that big body together, he can certainly figure May 2.

In the handicap division, I’ve been solidly in the Shared Belief camp for a long while.  But my favorite colt from 2014, Belmont and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist has not returned to the gate yet this year, but is working.  I’m anxiously awaiting his first race because I really think he’ll only be better as a four year old.

Any time you can catch a stakes race this year on television or at the track don’t miss out!!!

 

 

 

 

Thirteen Ways to Lose the Triple Crown

Yet again we have no new Triple Crown winner.  The drought moves into 37 years now.

Personally, I can’t say that I’m real disappointed as I’ve not been a California Chrome believer since the start of this run and if you’ve read or look back on some of my previous posts you know I was all about Tonalist for the Belmont.  So I couldn’t have been more happy with Saturday’s outcome.  Plus, it was an exciting race that played out in some ways no one expected.

But let’s go through a quick rundown of how, since 1978, we’ve come to be without a Triple Crown-winning horse:

1979–Spectacular Bid, who in this list, may be the most superior horse to have failed.  The night before the Belmont steps on a safety pin from one of his wraps.  Also receives one of the worst rides ever in a Classic race.

1981–Came into the Belmont of a mild illness with a rash.  Then breaks somewhat poorly from the gate.  Race over.

1987–Alysheba just doesn’t fire or get the best ride.

1989–Sunday Silence–As much as it pains me to say it, ran out of gas and Easy Goer shone on his home track.

1997–Silver Charm–Doesn’t see Touch Gold coming down the middle of the track and falls short at the wire.

1998–Real Quiet–Probably sent in the stretch too soon, gets rubber-legged in the final furlong and gets nipped/the wrong bob at the wire.

1999–Charismatic–Breaks his leg in the last furlong.

2002–War Emblem–Stumbles to his nose as the gates open, race over.

2003–Funny Cide–Outrun by Empire Maker.

2004–Smarty Jones–Comes out strong from the start as was his wont; withstands multiple runs at him by other horses in the field, finally run down by Birdstone in the final furlong.

2008–Big Brown–Has troubled trip within the first furlong and is eased by Jockey Kent Desormeaux who says he simply had no horse to persevere with.

2012–I’ll Have Another–Injured and withdrawn the day before the Belmont.  And now…

2014–California Chrome–Not such a great break from the gate where he or Matterhorn in the next gate stepped on the right front hoof and caught a quarter.  And in the stretch, simply ran out of gas. Game effort on the part of the horse, just not enough.

I’ll reiterate.  The Triple Crown is THE MOST DIFFICULT achievement in all of sport.  Not only must you have a SUPERIOR horse over the course of six weeks, but EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING MUST go PERFECTLY–your horse’s health, the ride he receives, the weather, the trip, the gate break.

Which leads me to my response to one of California Chrome’s owner’s petulant remarks post Belmont.  EVERYONE knows how closely spaced the races are when this journey begins; the current race configuration has been in place for decades.  Everyone knows what the qualifications for entry in the Preakness and Belmont are and participation in the Kentucky Derby is not a prerequisite. In 1973, Secretariat and Sham were the only two horses that ran all three races.  In 1977, five new horses entered the Belmont against Seattle Slew.  In 1978, only Affirmed and Alydar ran all three races.  This is the way the game is played; no one changed the rules midstream and on Saturday, June 7, 2014 Tonalist was the BEST horse.

I’ll say it again.  If you want another Triple Crown winner BREED A BETTER HORSE!  As far as changing things, reduce the Derby field size from 20 to 14 horses (as is the maximum allowed in Breeders’ Cup races).  Year in and year out, regardless of how they qualify to get there, there are usually about 10 horses that really don’t need to be in the gate and can impede the progress and chances of deserving horses in the field.  Give both these options a try and you might be pleasantly surprised by the result.

Finally, Congratulations to trainer Christophe Clement for bringing Tonalist back around to racing health and preparing him for a great effort in the Belmont and owner Robert Evans for finishing his family’s Pleasant Colony story; the grandson winning the race that denied his grandsire the Triple Crown.  Full Circle!

 

At LAST!!

The three longest weeks on the Thoroughbred racing calendar, those between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes when a Triple Crown is on the line are finally drawing to an end.  Post positions for the Belmont Stakes were drawn this morning.  Eleven horses will enter the starting gate Saturday, June 7, 2014; one with a chance to make history and potentially one of the remaining 10 to dash it and send the Triple Crown drought to 37 years.

Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome has drawn Post 2 and has been made the morning line favorite at 3-5.

The entire field with their post positions:

1. Medal Count

2. California Chrome

3. Matterhorn

4. Commanding Curve

5. Ride On Curlin

6. Matuszak

7. Samraat

8. Commisioner

9. Wicked Strong

10. General a Rod

11. Tonalist

California Chrome has an excellent chance to win the Belmont and by extension the Triple Crown.  I’m still looking for the upset and three colts in particular to me stand a very good chance of rocking the racing world come early Saturday evening.  They are Commanding Curve, Wicked Strong, and Tonalist.

Take a look back at the close of the Kentucky Derby.  Commanding Curve was closing.  Sure, Victor Espinoza was likely wrapping up on California Chrome, but the gap between the two at the close was narrowing.  And expect Commanding Curve to be closer to the pace in the Belmont.  That alone could make all the difference.

Wicked Strong, by all accounts has been training lights out, back at his home base at Belmont Park.  Trainer Jimmy Jerkens has been putting quite a few stamina building efforts in the colt.  Expect him also to benefit from a cleaner trip.

Tonalist, I have been taken with since seeing his Peter Pan victory at Belmont several weeks ago.  He’s a big colt at 17 hands already and while that can be a bit of a detriment at his age, the way he skipped along during the Peter Pan shows he’s quite comfortable in that frame.  And it would be a fitting win as Tonalist is a grandson of 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Pleasant Colony.  Pleasant Colony is one of the 12 colts to date that hasn’t been able to secure the Crown since Affirmed’s 1978 victory.

Dark Horse Special for the Belmont: Medal Count.  Medal Count finished well in the Derby, again following a troubled trip.  Late in the race as he was truly getting in stride and gaining some ground, he encountered several significant bumps from other colts.  Though possibly better on the grass, he seemed to have no problem handling the dirt and being a son of Dynaformer, stamina should be no issue.  Worth consideration.

I anticipate this year’s Belmont Stakes to be one of the most interesting Thoroughbred races of the year.  I’ll refrain from saying entertaining as that will largely depend on the outcome.  We shall see.