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.

 

 

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Preakness 143 Set

The field and the post positions for this Saturday’s Preakness Stakes are now set.  The field is small, only eight runners, split between four Derby veterans and four “new shooters.” Here it is:

  1. Quip (Qualified for the Derby, connections opted not to run)
  2. Lone Sailor (Kentucky Derby 8th)
  3. Sporting Chance (DQ’ed to 4th in Bluegrass S.)
  4. Diamond King (Federico Tesio S. winner)
  5. Good Magic (Kentucky Derby 2nd)
  6. Tenfold (5th Arkansas Derby)
  7. Justify (Kentucky Derby winner)
  8. Bravazo (Kentucky Derby 6th)

Kentucky Derby Champion Justify could not have drawn better.  His primary competition, Good Magic, is to his inside where jockey Mike Smith can monitor how he breaks and where he is at the start of the race and act accordingly.  Honestly, I expect another sharp break from Mike and Justify (the move in the Derby that trainer Bob Baffert said must happen for Justify to have a chance, and indeed, it proved to be the winning move in the race as Justify encountered no traffic problems at all) and for him to be on or near the lead.  I have seen all of the horses in race run at least once; outside of Justify and Good Magic, none of them made that memorable of an impression on me.

As far as my impressions of this year’s Kentucky Derby, I didn’t write a review because I honestly didn’t have the superlatives to describe Justify’s superior and outstanding performance, especially under such adverse racing conditions.  For the record, it was the wettest Kentucky Derby in history, and to be fair, it likely hampered some contenders’ chances as not many of the colts had encountered an off track until that day.  Still, the ease with which Justify ran is indicative, in part, of what a special horse he is.

As I had said previously, my only concern about him going into the Derby was his lack of racing experience. And I’m old school enough to still maintain that racing, even if only one time as a two year old is important in developing a Triple Crown/Classic-caliber racehorse.  The fact that Justify could win the Derby handily coupled with his beautifully efficient stride shows he’s the special exception to the rule.  Win, lose or draw Saturday, in my opinion Justify is an exceptional, one-of-a-kind colt.

NOW, full disclosure, the morning after the Derby, Justify had a bruised left hind heel/hoof.  For those of you familiar with horses, when they move on/off a bruised hoof it looks pretty awful.  Fortunately, by all accounts, this was a minor issue, quickly resolved.  Watching his works since that Sunday morning he looks fine, he’s eating well, and all systems appear to be go for him to rock and roll Saturday.  Further disclosure, it’s raining in Baltimore today (Wednesday); it’s supposed to continue to rain tomorrow, Friday, and Saturday.  Do with that what you will.

Me? I think Justify wins.

Post time Saturday is 6:48 EDT on NBC.

Safe trips for all and enjoy.

You Decide

The draw for post positions for the 144th Kentucky Derby was completed yesterday morning. Interestingly, and for a change, the horses I think with the best opportunity to win were largely unscathed by the posts they received; actually, most contenders drew very well.

So here it is:

1. Firenze Fire

2. Free Drop Billy

3. Promises Fulfilled

4. Flameaway

5. Audible

6. Good Magic

7. Justify

8. Lone Sailor

9. Hofburg

10. My Boy Jack

11. Bolt d’Oro

12. Enticed

13. Bravazo

14. Mendelssohn

15. Instilled Regard

16. Magnum Moon

17.Solomini

18. Vino Rosso

19. Noble Indy

20. Combatant

Also Eligible–Blended Citizen

You might note Quip and Gronkowski are not part of the field.  Both were withdrawn early last week.  Quip was pulled because his connections felt that the Derby was going to be asking too much of him following his efforts in the prep races to qualify.  He is being pointed to the Preakness.  Gronkowski became ill and wouldn’t recover soon enough to not only ship to the U.S., but prepare to race.  Thus, Instilled Regard and Combatant drew in; I don’t like either’s chances.  If a horse scratches prior to Friday morning, Blended Citizen will draw into Gate 20.

The horses in this field I believe with the best chance to wear the roses are Audible, Good Magic, Justify, Hofburg, My Boy Jack (who I really see as more of a place or show horse), Bolt d’Oro (who I personally don’t care for, but has some talent), Mendelssohn, Magnum Moon, and Vino Rosso (although I think he’s the good horse most compromised by his far outside draw…).

Justify has been installed as the 3-1 morning line favorite.  As I’ve stated before, I think Justify is the most physically gifted horse in the field, but to win the Derby Saturday in his fourth lifetime race is a GIGANTIC ASK.  So we’re either going to see a grand horse stretched too far too soon or perhaps a superstar in the making.  I can’t give a rousing endorsement to ANY of these horses, including those I’ve singled out as the best in the field because I can make as many, if not more, significant arguments as to why they can’t or won’t win.  So, sorry, but you are TRULY on your own this year picking the winner.

I am anxious to see how this race will play out.  In the ridiculous 20-horse field, my main hope and concern is that first and foremost all horses and riders have a safe trip.

There is a chance of rain in Louisville early Saturday, following what’s forecasted to be a pretty wet day Friday. Still, I’m expecting a dry, although possibly not fast track at race time. Coverage of Derby Day begins at 2:30 on NBC, post time for the Derby is 6:45 p.m.

ENJOY!

 

 

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.

NOT. Feeling. The. Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preakness Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post time is 6:45 on NBC.

Does Anyone Want to Win the Kentucky Derby?

Well of course there are owners, trainers, jockeys, and breeders who do, but the horses? Even this deep into the prep season, 25 days out from the Run for the Roses, I’m not so sure there’s a horse who’s ready to win the Kentucky Derby.

So here’s the story, as prep races, all the way back to fall 2016 go, it’s been a pretty dismal  and wildly inconsistent affair.  There is no real star. There has been very little in the way of outstanding and consistent performances by this crop of colts.  There has been drama in the way of physical setbacks and peculiar behavior and in the case of one colt, both.

Coming into 2017, all eyes were on the very promising two-year-old champion, Classic Empire, facile winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.  Alas, the year for him to date has turned into one issue after another.  Classic Empire has yet to post a win, has run in only one race, and currently doesn’t have the points necessary to get into the gate for the Kentucky Derby.  He is scheduled to run in the last major prep of the year this Saturday, the Arkansas Derby.  If he finishes in the top four he’s in, although the way his year has gone, he’d generate a lot more confidence if he finishes first or second.  What’s the deal?  In his first and only start to date in the Holy Bull Stakes (February 4) at Gulfstream Park, Classic Empire came to the gate cranky and washed out and it just went downhill from there as he finished a well-beaten third behind Irish War Cry.  The next day it was determined that he had an abscess in one hoof, so there was a clear and valid excuse.  But since then his training for his next race has been interrupted by two instances where he refused to train.  Like went out to the track essentially planted his feet and refused to even canter, let alone gallop, around the track.  After the first time, again a physical excuse was determined; he was treated by a chiropractor for back troubles.  The second time there appears to have been no physical excuse, which leaves us at mental (and this is a horse that as a two year old racing at Saratoga last summer broke from the gate and promptly took a sharp turn, dumping his rider in the process).  He’s since moved to a quieter training center and is reported to be training brilliantly.  Well, all I can say is he’d better be to make the Derby gate.

Mastery jumped into the Kentucky Derby picture in March in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita in what was the best prep race performance of the season by far as he dispatched the rest of the field to win by nearly seven lengths.  And it was fabulous while it lasted, like about 10 strides past the finish line where jubilation quickly turned to valid dismay as jockey Mike Smith quickly pulled the winner up and he was loaded onto the ambulance for the trip back to his stall.  The next morning it was confirmed that Mastery had sustained a condylar (cannon bone, the long bone of the leg) fracture.  He has since had surgery and is recuperating.

In the meantime, the outcome of the other preps has been a free for all and racing reporter Randy Moss summed it up sweetly when he said Saturday that mostly it has been a case of wildly inconsistent colts scoring a win and then in their next race “not being able to be found with a search warrant.”

At this point, and actually throughout the prep season, the horse that has impressed me the most and that I believe has the most potential is Irish War Cry (Disclaimer: I have a bit of a special interest in Irish War Cry; more later).  He was impressive in his two wins this season where he defeated Classic Empire and Delta Jackpot (and later Fountain of Youth) winner Gunnevera in the Holy Bull Stakes and even more so this past Saturday when he won the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct.  However, in between, he inexplicably crashed and burned in a seventh place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.  Nonetheless, he’s a beautiful, long-striding colt, who when he’s right is a delight to watch run.  A son of Curlin, he should have what it takes to get the Derby distance.

Girvin has emerged from the southeast as the victor of Risen Star Stakes and the Louisiana Derby.  He’s not flashy, but he grinds away to the finish line.  Winning two preps this year is a true accomplishment. As I write, Mike Smith has committed to ride Girvin in the Kentucky Derby.

Gormley got himself into the Derby gate following a win in the Santa Anita Derby also run Saturday.  Much like Irish War Cry, Gormley had an impressive victory in the Sham Stakes where he fought American Anthem down the stretch to the wire, but then finished very dismally, fourth behind Mastery, in the San Felipe.  Trainer John Shirreffs changed Gormley’s running style for the Santa Anita Derby to stalking instead of on the pace and it paid dividends.  Gormley is ridden by Victor Espinoza who knows where the Derby finish line is (California Chrome, American Pharoah).

Always Dreaming is the well-thought-of winner of the Florida Derby (off an allowance win), trained by perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher.  In the Florida Derby he defeated Gunnevera (third).  He’s a nice horse, but I think the leap into a Derby win might be a big ask.

McCraken is another well-thought-of colt.  He won the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay and then wrenched his ankle and was briefly out of training and missed a planned race (the Tampa Bay Derby) in the process.  He returned to the races this past Saturday in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland, finishing a respectable third in his first career defeat.  Still, it could be just enough to set up the son of Ghostzapper for his Derby run. He already has a win over the Churchill Downs track, winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall.

Other (kinda) notables this year are Bluegrass Stakes winner Irap (who in the process got his first-ever win at 31-1), J Boys Echo (Gotham Stakes winner, fourth in the Bluegrass), Tapwrit (Tampa Bay Derby winner in stakes and track record time for a 1 1/16th-mile race, fifth in the Bluegrass), and Practical Joke (second in the Bluegrass).

As of Sunday morning the top 20 colts in terms of qualifying points are:

1.Girvin

2. Gormley

3. Irap

4. Irish War Cry

5. Thunder Snow

6. Always Dreaming

7. Gunnevera

8. Practical Joke

9. J Boys Echo

10. State of Honor

11. Tapwrit

12. Malagacy*

13. Hence

14. Fast and Accurate

15. McCraken

16. Battle of Midway

17. Patch*

18. Battalion Runner

19. Cloud Computing

20. Untrapped

21. Classic Empire (racing in the Arkansas Derby Saturday, April 15)

*Colts that did not race as two year olds. Only one horse, Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a two year old.

The standings will likely change a bit after the Arkansas Derby is run and, as always, there will probably be a few defections before May 6 due to injury or connections deciding to go in another direction.  My advice this year, more than any past year is, if you can, bet the field to win.  I think there’s a good chance that with a simple $2 wager on every horse you could cover your $40 outlay as I think there’s a very good chance a longshot wins the 2017 Derby.  I don’t expect any horse to go off at odds shorter than 2-1; the favorite could go off at 3- or 4-1.

This. Race. Will. Be. Wide. Open!