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.

 

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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!

 

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!!