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.

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SOME Horse!!!

One of my favorite childhood books was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. In it, Charlotte spun the lifesaving message “Some Pig” over the corner of Wilbur’s pen. I always loved that message. It was one of several messages Charlotte developed that allowed Wilbur to be seen as something extraordinary. Yesterday, we were treated to seeing an extraordinary horse run an exceptional Preakness Stakes in the worst weather I’ve ever witnessed in 46 years of watching the American classics.

Simply put, the race was OVER in the first turn. When American Pharoah started around that first corner his ears flicked straight up and I knew he was a happy horse just playing in the mud! The only moment of pause I had is when NBC announcer Larry Collmus announced the first quarter mile fraction time of :22 4/5. That was a bit brisk and my heart skipped a beat, but it was quickly back in rhythm as American Pharoah moved into the backstretch.

Besides his innate talent carrying him along I have to commend Victor Espinoza for a flawless, well-thought-out ride. He “quarter-horsed” him out of the gate to get position and then let off the accelerator, giving Pharoah a breather through the next four furlongs. Meanwhile all the other colts and riders were working to maintain or attempt to gain position. In the final turn for home all Espinoza did was shake the reins (while everyone else was going to their whips and throwing desperate crosses) and all that was left was the question of by how many lengths would American Pharoah win as he simply glided to the line.

I’ve hinted at it before, I’m going to just say it outright now, and I really don’t care what he does going on from the Preakness, American Pharoah is a superior horse. His action is nearly flawless, as such he’s not expending the same level of energy as the other colts are to run his races. He can run on the lead. He can rate and run off the pace. He’s equally adept on a fast or sloppy track; I’d almost dare say he’s better on an off track. He appears to be a smart, relaxed horse in demeanor. He has heart, the willingness and ability to dig in to win as he displayed in his Kentucky Derby victory. There’s really not a category for a racehorse where he doesn’t check the box affirmatively.

For the moment, the best news of the day is that American Pharoah appears to have come out of the Preakness in good order and will be shipped back to Churchill Downs for a quiet week ahead and then resume training sometime in the week after next.

Dortmund finished fourth and was clearly compromised in part by his first encounter with a sloppy track. He is being shipped back to California for a bit of downtime. I think this is an excellent call. Dortmund is a very nice horse, but I think he has, as I’ve mentioned previously, some distance limitations beyond a mile and an eighth. He did run a game race in the Preakness.

Firing Line, in my opinion, should also ship back West and regroup. He clearly could not handle the off going. He was an unhappy horse in the post parade as the deluge was at its peak, he broke horribly with virtually all four legs breaking in four different directions out of the gate which all but ended his race there. The awkward start left him scrambling for position and he ended up hung wide, exactly where Gary Stevens did not want him. And he was not handing the track at all. In the end he was seventh in a field of eight, 45 lengths to the rear of American Pharoah at the wire. Not at all reflective of the horse’s abilities; for him the timing of the rainstorm could not have been worse.

Besides American Pharoah, the only other horse that benefitted from the sloppy course was Tale of Verve, the horse I knew nothing about. Honestly, the only thing I know about him today is that he’s a “mudder” and the off conditions moved him up dramatically. His connections say they intend to run him in The Belmont Stakes; they’d better pray for rain!

“Some Horse.” “Terrific.” Those words helped save Wilbur and forged a friendship. American Pharoah, fortunately, doesn’t need any lifesaving message. He IS the message. Horses are a gift from God (and I know owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat and his family would concur). A great racehorse is an extra-special gift. You’re seeing something really special when you get to see American Pharoah run folks. Enjoy every minute of it!!

I LOVE It When a Plan Comes Together!!!

I’ll readily admit it, I loved watching The A Team in the eighties. Never missed an episode. And when Hannibel Smith would smile that smile, look at BA Baracus and the rest of the team, and recite his trademark “I LOVE it when a plan comes together,” line you knew the impossible, challenging task at hand was about to be resolved. Well, of course it was; most challenges ARE readily resolved within the confines of an hour-long TV show. We all know it’s not that easy in real life. And if you’ve spent any portion of you life around horses, whether they’re in your backyard or residing in one of the finest racing stables in the nation, you know life with these incredibly large, fragile, and beautiful animals is even less certain than regular old real life and plans…well make them at your own risk!

So yesterday evening around 6:45, I was OVERJOYED to see my current equine heartthrob, American Pharoah cross the finish line first, becoming the victor of the 141st Kentucky Derby before a record crowd of 170,000+ on a perfect May day. This colt ran an incredible race that ended with him running wide the entire race, 29 feet more than second-place finisher Firing Line, and 69 feet more than the show horse and his stablemate, Dortmund. He overcame Post 18 and what, in the end were 17 other colts. No mean feat.

And the fact that the field of 20 quickly was reduced to 18 over a three-day period goes directly to the heart of making plans and having them come together with a horse. Stanford was the first defection, pulled from the race primarily because his connections began to think better of it. That allowed Frammento to get in the gate. Late Friday, El Kabeir, ironically, also owned by eventual Derby-winning owner Ahmed Zayat, was scratched after developing a hoof abscess a little over 24 hours prior to Derby post time. Saturday morning, International Star, who had swept the Louisiana Fairgrounds Racetrack Kentucky Derby prep series was scratched, with a quarter crack in one of his hooves. Third-place Dortmund almost didn’t make the race following a mild bout of colic in the week before the Derby. You’re never good to go, despite all the races won, training hours put in, and plans made until your horse breaks from the gate.

Fortunately, American Pharoah was able to do that! And despite all the talent he’s displayed leading up to the Derby, there was one thing that I, and others who had seen his races en route to the Derby wondered–if he got hooked, if he was in a position where he had to fight for the win as opposed to cruising by the opposition as he had in all his wins prior–could and would he do it? Did he possess that will and fight, what we refer to as heart, to take it to the competition? In late stretch, out wide as could be in the middle of the track, American Pharoah dug in, looked the competition in the eye, and passed them for the win. His natural ability put him into contention, that heart is what made him a champion yesterday afternoon.

Despite the large field, it appeared to be a cleanly run and ultimately and blessedly, a safe race for all. Early word is that the top three Derby finishers–American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund will move on to Pimlico for the Preakness May 16.

Final order of finish in the Derby:
1.American Pharoah
2.Firing Line
3.Dortmund
4.Frosted (What a difference that corrective throat procedure has made)
5.Danzig Moon
6.Materiality (Great effort by the son of Afleet Alex in just his 4th start)
7.Keen Ice
8.Mubtaahij (The Dubai “bounce” continues)
9.Itsaknockout
10.Carpe Diem (John Velazquez did a great job getting him into contention from miserable Post 2)
11.Frammento
12.Bolo
13.Mr.Z
14.Ocho Ocho Ocho
15.Far Right
16.War Story
17.Tencendur
18.Upstart (Beat by 60+ lengths. That surprised me. Not sure what happened to him)

Three other races really excited me in this weekend’s racing. Friday was Oaks Day, the mile and an eighth counterpart to the Derby for three-year-old fillies. It was won by Lovely Maria. And, OH, does the name fit! This filly is absolutely beautiful and really caught my eye in the moments before the race. She’d won the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland last month showing she was a contender for the Oaks. She took down 13 other fillies including stablemate I’m A Chatterbox, who had, like International Star, swept the prep races for fillies at the Fairgrounds, and favorite Stellar Wind. Much like American Pharoah, she displayed not only physical ability, but a great deal of heart and desire as well.

On the Derby undercard, Private Zone and Martin Pedroza put on a show and won the Churchill Downs Stakes at seven furlongs. Private Zone is an accomplished sprinter and goes to the lead and the jugular right from the gate. Leading 7F is no mean feat, but that’s how Private Zone does it and Martin Pedroza fits him like a glove–gets him in position out of the gate and finishes strong on him when the competition (most times in vain) tries to close on him. Fun to watch.

And in opening weekend at Belmont Park, my favorite horse of 2014, Belmont Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist made his 2015 debut in the Grade 3 Westchester Stakes. After breaking slowly and spotting the field lengths, he was perfectly handled by jockey Joe Bravo, taking his time to put him in contention against an admittedly overmatched field following the scratch of Palace Malice (hoof abscess!). Still, it was an impressive effort, in that the Westchester is only a mile long and Tonalist is stronger at a mile and an eighth and beyond. A great start for his year, which I suspect is leading to another trip to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in October. Good health Tonalist!

The Preakness field will begin to take shape throughout the week. And potentially, a challenger for the Belmont Stakes could be prepping and may come out of the May 9th running of the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. That’s where I “met” and developed my allegiance to Tonalist last year.

Can’t wait to see what happens next!

Interesting Wait

The field for the 2014 Belmont Stakes has already fluctuated in the immediate days following California Chrome’s Preakness victory.  California Chrome and second place Ride On Curlin are entered for the Belmont and have already arrived in Elmont, NY.

Early on, Danza (third in the Derby) and Ring Weekend, also a Preakness participant were being pointed to the Belmont Stakes.  As of today, both have been withdrawn from consideration.  Danza was withdrawn earlier in the week following a workout with which trainer Todd Pletcher was not pleased.  He will spend some time on the sidelines and plans are to bring him back to training hopefully later in the week.  On the advice of trainer H. Graham Motion, Ring Weekend was also withdrawn and will be pointed to other stakes races later in the summer.

But almost concurrent to these moves, two other horses are being entered to the field beyond the other horses already committed–Matusak and, returning to the chase off his troubled Derby run, Candy Boy.  I know little about Mutusak beyond the fact that he was the second place finisher behind Kid Cruz in the Frederico Tesio Stakes, the prep for the Preakness.

Barring the unforeseen, it’ll be a near full field for California Chrome to take down in his attempt to assume the Triple Crown.  As of today, the field would consist of:

California Chrome

Commissioner (Second in the Belmont Stakes prep, the Peter Pan)

Ride On Curlin

Social Inclusion

Samraat

Wicked Strong

Intense Holiday

Commanding Curve

Kid Cruz

Matusak

Candy Boy and

TONALIST

If you’ll look back in my blog posts, you’ll see I was quite taken with Tonalist and his performance in winning the Peter Pan.  And certainly if the track comes up wet on Belmont day I’d give him the edge over California Chrome (although CC has been training over a series of wet tracks at all three venues in the mornings and so far doesn’t appear to be spinning his wheels…).  And in listening to many opinions of both TVG and HRTV (cable horse racing channels) analysts, Tonalist is the horse most are giving the best chance to upset California Chrome.  Remember where you heard it first!!

As far as the rest of the Belmont field looks to me, Social Inclusion, Kid Cruz, and Candy Boy are surprising entrants to me.  Once California Chrome got past Social Inclusion in the Preakness he only opened up on him in terms the number of lengths he left him behind.  Kid Cruz never made a dent in California Chrome’s lead and the added distance of the Belmont I don’t suspect will help him gain enough to win.  Yes, Candy Boy had a horrific Derby trip, but even though he’s bred for the distance, I still haven’t seen him really wanting it, even in his trouble-free prep race efforts.

Beyond Tonalist and in the absence of Danza, Wicked Strong and Commanding Curve are the two other horses I think could pull the upset.  Commanding Curve was rolling and closing at the end of the Derby.  Believe it or not, one of Commanding Curve’s connections went on record after the Preakness stating that Commanding Curve WOULD win the Belmont Stakes.  And I simply don’t think we saw the best that Wicked Strong is capable of as he weaved his way through the Derby field for a respectable fourth place finish.  As far as Ride On Curlin, he was there at the end of the Preakness, but really not making a serious cut into California Chrome’s lead.  Further, Joel Rosario, who rode Ride on Curlin in the Preakness has opted to retain his ride on…Tonalist who he was on in the Peter Pan.

So the clock ticks at what I find an entirely TOO SLOW of a pace to June 7 and the answer to whether California Chrome will be lucky number 13; being the 13th horse since Affirmed to have the chance to take the most difficult title in all of sports–the Triple Crown.

I’ll close with something that IS known and is exceptionally good news, two-time and reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan is safe at home at trainer Charlie LoPresti’s farm to recuperate from his emergency colic surgery last week.  The outcome was the best possible and a bit unusual.  Apparently as Wise Dan was inverted on the operating table the affected area of his colon released and the twist that they had expected to find was back in place; he was checked thoroughly and then closed back up.  He appears no worse for wear and could resume light training next month and potentially, if all goes well, return to racing late summer.

 

Preakness Week!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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