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.

Advertisements

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.

 

18,000 Miles

18,000 miles.* Or more accurately, 18,001.25 miles, of which the last one and a quarter was too much.

Welcome to the Graveyard of Favorites, American Pharoah.  But it wasn’t American Pharoah who lost yesterday’s 146th running of the Travers Stakes; the flawed plan of his connections did.

My major and stated concern with American Pharoah contesting the Travers was that he’d traveled SO many miles in the lead up to and throughout the Triple Crown and just in the last 27 days from coast to coast that the constant travel just might extract a toll. In the last quarter mile I got the answer I feared as American Pharoah gamely wrested the lead from Frosted only to be tagged at the wire by Keen Ice in a plodding, decidedly non-American Pharoah last quarter of :26 seconds and change.

The question, for me is, why did they ship American Pharoah back to the West Coast off his Haskell victory? Even prior to the Haskell there was talk that, should he run well and not appear to have had a taxing effort, American Pharoah might contest the Travers.  I don’t understand why the didn’t leave him at Monmouth or ship over to Saratoga or even back to Churchill Downs, which had been his base throughout the Triple Crown while that decision was being made.  Not saying it would have allowed him to win yesterday, but it would have eliminated two cross-country flights and the inevitable stresses and fatigue that can be incurred.

Let’s take a brief look at what did happen on the track in the Travers Stakes.

What exactly was Frosted doing contesting the lead? I’d pay good New York money to know if that was intentional or if Frosted, who was on his toes in the post parade, got away from new rider Jose Lezcano.  It wasn’t his usual stalking, off the pace style. And the bottom line is there isn’t another three-year-old colt that can go stride for stride with American Pharoah, even when he wasn’t at his best, and expect to survive and win. Hard to figure what that was about, but it wasn’t and could never be a viable winning strategy.

But even with Frosted engaging him early, you can’t place the blame for the loss on this confrontation, primarily because the opening half-mile fractions were modest–:24 and :48 seconds and change. American Pharoah can run faster than that in a morning gallop.

Keen Ice “stayed in his lane,” ran true to his style, and in the more than capable hands of Javier Castellano was there to pick up the pieces of a wilting American Pharoah.  All hail Javier in his first ride on Keen Ice. Castellano’s mastery of the Saratoga track was on full display yet again in the Travers and was about the only thing I got right in my pre-race analysis.

Let’s briefly revisit the trips of the other key players in the race.

Texas Red.  Huge disappointment.  He was never involved or a factor in the race and showed none of the style he displayed in winning the Jim Dandy Stakes over the Saratoga Track on August 1.

Upstart. FAR more game than I expected him to be, but never in contention for the win.

Everyone else, pretty much the also rans I expected them to be.

So now the plot completely thickens.  Where does American Pharoah go from here? The “R-word” has already been thrown out in post-race comments. And that’s as in immediate, not the previously stated plan of after a run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. If it’s still on to the Classic, does American Pharoah enter it off a long layoff that starts today of run once more prior to?  That was another reason why I had felt the Travers, win, lose or draw wasn’t necessarily the best placement for him in preparation for that goal.  It either leaves a long unraced gap between the Travers and the Classic or about forces one more race to be squeezed in prior to October 31.  Fortunately, it’s not my problem to resolve.

I’m grateful to the Zayats for their generosity with American Pharoah.  Unfortunately, they fell into the same trap the connections of Secretariat (defeat in the 1973 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga) and Seattle Slew (his first-ever loss in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, just three weeks after his Triple Crown-sealing win in the Belmont Stakes) did with one ill-timed race too many. Master horseman Horatio Luro was well known for getting the best out of his horses by not “squeezing the lemon dry.” That’s sometimes hard to remember when you’re in the midst of “laissez les bon temps rouler,” and an impending stated 2016 retirement date.

Much like Zenyatta in the 2010 edition of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, American Pharoah revealed much more in defeat than in any of his Triple Crown race victories. Up until yesterday, he was just an ultra-cool colt with an amazing stride.  In the Travers he showed he has a heart that’s every bit as amazing.

*According to USA Today, (8.29.15), American Pharoah has been flown more than 18,000 miles around the country in his 2015 race campaign.

Greatness Personified

My mom used to refer to people she thought of as conceited as ones who felt they were “greatness personified.”  Well I’m here to turn that usage around a bit toward the complimentary side.  If you watched yesterday’s edition of the Haskell Stakes from Monmouth Park, you saw greatness personified in the most wonderful and brilliant fashion as American Pharoah cruised to his eighth victory in a row.  In his first race back from winning the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown it certainly appeared that he lost nothing in the process of attaining that rare feat. Maybe he’s even better and stronger. Yikes!

If he wasn’t so magnificent to watch, you might actually start to get bored with American Pharoah’s races. He just makes it look all too easy against what are good fields of usually competitive three-year-old colts.  And it’s all in that superior stride he’s been gifted with.  The most telling moment in the race yesterday was shortly out of the gate when Competitive Edge took the lead, American Pharoah sat second, and Mr. Jordan was third on his flank.  Competitive Edge and Mr. Jordan were working to get and hold their early positions while American Pharoah was just smoothly loping along; they were doing almost twice the work while getting half the result that American Pharoah was getting without significant effort.  It almost isn’t fair.  And those early efforts took their toll with Mr. Jordan dropping out quickly to finish last, beaten by 60 lengths in the end and Competitive Edge finishing a well-beaten fourth.  In the end, the only horse closing ground was the late-running Keen Ice and even his closing move was a bit deceptive to the eye as American Pharoah had been geared down and was being hand-ridden to the finish line.

Personally, I’ll never get enough of watching American Pharoah running and winning.  From the response of the Monmouth crowd yesterday, I’m not the only one.  There was a tremendous roar from that crowd when American Pharoah began to make his move to take the lead at the turn for home.  It’s a thrill to have this type of enthusiasm and turnout for horse racing again.

It’s unclear when American Pharoah will race again.  There is a chance he might move on to Saratoga to run in the Travers Stakes at the end of August, the 29th to be exact.  Saratoga is certainly making the effort to draw the Triple Crown winner in as they have indicated they will increase the purse if American Pharoah races.  It seems like a good possibility to me; there’s probably just one, maybe two races left before American Pharoah’s final race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, to be held this year for the first time at Keeneland.

Meanwhile, in the Jim Dandy, the prime setup race for the Travers, the complexion of the race changed significantly with the scratches of Competitive Edge and Upstart to take on American Pharoah in the Haskell yesterday (M-O-N-E-Y) and Tekton who ran in the day before to a second place finish in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga.  Still, the race came down to the two horses and scenario I anticipated: Texas Red picked up early leader Japan mid-stretch to take the lead and Frosted came late attempting to run him down, but came up short.  Texas Red indeed seemed to thrive with the added distance of the race (1 1/8 miles) and Frosted did appear a bit short.  He also lost a shoe during the running of the race.  If all goes well, the two will go at it again in the Travers Stakes at the classic 1 1/4-mile distance. I would love to see American Pharoah mix it up with Frosted and Texas Red (they met as two-year-olds on the West Coast) again.  The field for the Travers will sort itself out soon enough.  Stay tuned.

More great racing and fun ahead this weekend with one of my favorites: Tonalist taking on Stephen Foster winner Noble Bird and others in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney Stakes, which generally leads to the Woodward Stakes the last weekend of the Saratoga meet.

A quick word on an exciting up and coming filly racing on the turf–Casual Smile won the WinStar Matchmaker Stakes on the Haskell undercard.  Casual Smile is one of the rare stateside offspring of European champion Sea The Stars.  Seeing that name in the pedigree was more than enough for me and I was amazed she went off at 9-1.  What a gift!  She sat off the pace and bravely squeezed through a narrow spot between two other runners, late and full of run to get the win.  Keep your eye out for this classy filly.

And finally, on the subject of great turf fillies, late last week it was announced that Lady Eli appears to be responding well to her treatment for laminitis.  Thoughts and prayers continue on for this really special racehorse!

The Second Half Begins

After nearly a two-month lull, Thoroughbred horse racing begins the second half of its annual season at the most competitive level for three-year-olds. And the highlight of the weekend will be the return to racing of the Triple Crown Champion, American Pharaoh, at Monmouth Park, racing in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell Invitational Stakes.

But before we get to the rare Sunday feature race, attention should be paid, Saturday afternoon, to Saratoga Race Track and the Jim Dandy Stakes, which will feature the return to the races of Belmont Stakes second-place horse, Frosted.  The Jim Dandy is also run at a mile and an eighth and is the traditional prep race for Saratoga’s feature race of the meet, The Midsummer Derby, the Travers Stakes.

In my opinion, the Jim Dandy is likely to be the more entertaining of the two races, in that is likely to be the more competitive race of the two features this weekend. The field for the Jim Dandy is, by post position, as follows:

1.Frammento

2.Japan

3.Texas Red

4.Upstart

5.Competitive Edge

6.Tekton

7.Frosted

This race for me boils down to Frosted and Texas Red. As the three-year-old class has developed through the year, it’s clear that American Pharoah is far and away the best horse; for me Frosted is the next best.  Since his throat surgery in the spring, this is a horse that has solidly grown to his potential.  I think he’ll be fine with the distance and this race could be his opportunity to shine.  The only misgiving I have, is that this will be his first race back from the nearly two-month layoff following the Belmont.  There is a chance he could be a hair fraction short.

If he is, look for Texas Red to be ready to pounce.  Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Champion Texas Red is coming off a solid second-place finish to improving sprinter Speightser in the one-mile Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park, July 4.  It was a great prep for Texas Red and he should really benefit going longer in the Jim Dandy and that’s where I think the race will get interesting and entertaining.

There are other horses to consider beyond these two.  Japan is a highly regarded colt that has shown steady improvement. Upstart had a very solid late winter/early spring leading up to the Kentucky Derby, but faltered completely in that race finishing 19th and last.  This will be his first race since the Derby.  His connections have been pleased with his training leading up to the Jim Dandy, but I think the long layoff and the distance will work against him being in the winner’s circle at the end of the race. Competitive Edge showed a great deal of promise as a two-year-old, but his form has dipped as a three-year-old; can’t endorse him here.  Frammento also ran in the Derby and Belmont and was a non-factor in both.  Tekton is a colt I’m completely unfamiliar with.  One more thing to add to the Jim Dandy Stakes mix–Saratoga is known as “The Graveyard of Champions,” anything can and often does happen at the Saratoga track. Man O’ War and Secretariat are two famed horses that were upset at Saratoga; the Jim Dandy Stakes is named for the colt of that name that upset Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the 1930 edition of the Travers Stakes at odds of 100-1!

For me, it would take a Jim Dandy (indeed!) to upset Champion American Pharoah in the Haskell Stakes on Sunday, especially  with the horses that have been entered to face him.  The field for the Haskell as of today stands as, by post position:

1.Upstart

2.Competitive Edge

3.Nonna’s Boy

4.American Pharoah

5.Mr. Jordan

6.Keen Ice

7. Top Clearance

8.Dontbetwithbruno

And yes, you’re seeing Upstart and Competitive Edge’s names yet again.  They have been cross-entered for both of the weekend’s features; at this writing, they are expected to scratch from the Jim Dandy and run in the Haskell.  I’ve already explained how I felt about their chances against Frosted and Texas Red.  I give them even less of a chance for a win against American Pharoah. Mr. Jordan was a solid sprinter over the winter at Gulfstream Park and has won the Pegasus Stakes at a mile and a sixteenth at Monmouth so he’s familiar with and comfortable on this track.  Keen Ice ran a good third in the Belmont Stakes and this race will be his first start back since that race.  The other three horses lining up against American Pharoah boil down to four words for me–I couldn’t tell you…

Since his last race winning the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown in the process, American Pharoah has rattled off a series of, as usual, solid, flawless works at Santa Anita and Del Mar race tracks.  He doesn’t appear to be any worse for wear from his Triple Crown efforts.  If the cross-country trip hasn’t drained him (and he’s already shown himself to be a solid traveller) and he takes to the track (and so far there hasn’t been one yet he hasn’t shown the ability to handle), everyone is, once again, running for second place money.  If all goes well, there is a chance that the Haskell could serve as American Pharoah’s “prep” for the Travers Stakes.  As trainer Bob Baffert has indicated, the next race or races leading to the ultimate goal and final race for American Pharoah, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, will be American Pharoah’s call.

The very good and exciting news is that the Haskell Stakes will be available for all to see (for the first time in many years), airing Sunday beginning at 5:00 p.m. on NBC.  That’s the power of a Triple Crown winner.

Also, one quick update since my last post, Carpe Diem, who I considered the third best horse of this three-year-old crop has been retired from racing due to a knee chip.

I can’t wait for the Haskell even though I don’t believe it’ll be the exciting race of the weekend.  It should, however, still be the most thrilling because American Pharoah will be gracing the track!  Enjoy!!