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.

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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.

Counting Down, Shaking Up

Six days away for Kentucky Derby 143 and here are some things you should know:

**The connections of Battalion Runner (second to Irish War Cry in the Wood Memorial) and Malagacy (fifth in the Arkansas Derby last out) have withdrawn them from the Derby.  As a result, Sonneteer (a charging fourth in the Arkansas Derby) and Lookin At Lee (third in the Arkansas Derby) are now in the gate.

**Louisiana Derby winner Girvin struggled all week to get his final work in at Churchill Downs due to a quarter crack (A split or crack that runs up or down the hoof.  There are several causes for this, but hoof and/or limb conformation is the leading contributing factor.  Big Brown, 2008 Derby and Preakness winner struggled with this during his Triple Crown pursuit).  He finally got the work in and fired 5 furlongs (1/8 of a mile) in :59 + change (very sharp).

**Practical Joke, who has shown a tendency to “hang” (not pass and/or finish in the stretch; basically running in place) worked in blinkers this week and watching his work effort in them I did see some improvement when he engaged his workmate.  Chances are he will wear them in the Derby in an attempt to keep his mind focused and on the task at hand.

**Thunder Snow, winner of the UAE Derby IS going to contest the Kentucky Derby.  He is stateside at Churchill Downs, in quarantine (standard operating procedure) and will be able to stretch his legs on the the track Tuesday.

So as of today, the list of potential Derby starters is:

1. Girvin

2. Classic Empire

3. Gormley

4. Irap

5. Irish War Cry

6. Thunder Snow

7. Always Dreaming

8. Gunnevera

9. Practical Joke

10. J Boys Echo

11. State of Honor

12. Tapwrit

13. Hence

14. Fast and Accurate

15. McCraken

16. Battle of Midway

17. Patch

18. Untrapped

19. Lookin At Lee

20. Sonneteer

21. Royal Mo (Also Eligible in the event of a scratch)

Right now these horses break into four categories for me.

THE CLASS: Classic Empire and Irish War Cry. In my opinion, these two horses are the top of the field with all the ability needed to win the Kentucky Derby.  HOWEVER, both present a nagging concern. Classic Empire–Which version comes to the Derby? Calm, cool, collected, and polished Classic Empire who took the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Arkansas Derby or quirky Classic Empire who comes to the gate in a froth and can be unpredictable in behavior?

Irish War Cry–Which one? The talented horse that’s won all his races but one…or the one that finished an inexplicable and very well beaten seventh (in the Fountain of Youth Stakes)?

Still, when these two are on their game, they are very nice racehorses with great potential.

THE STEADY EDS: Girvin, Gunnevera, and McCracken.  There’s nothing flashy about any of these colts, but they generally grind away and get the job done.  Think Gun Runner last year. Girvin is the rare winner of two stakes preps this year in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby.  But he is dealing with a compromised hoof.  It won’t necessarily be an issue based on his good final work and Big Brown’s example of being able to race successfully with the same condition.  But bottom line, at least for me, I want my horse to be as close to physically perfect (and none of them are) as possible; a hoof problem, no matter how deftly handled doesn’t thrill me.  The old adage “No hoof, No horse” IS true; I know.

Gunnevera has won the Delta Jackpot Stakes (at 2) and the Fountain of Youth. His last out in the Florida Derby (3rd) was workmanlike, but not necessarily inspiring.

McCraken. I didn’t like the fact that he didn’t even challenge maiden-breaking winner Irap in the Bluegrass Stakes (finishing 3rd), but he also was in desperate need of a race following his minor setback with a bit of a wrenched ankle over the winter.  Churchill Downs is his home track with victories in the Street Sense and Kentucky Jockey Club stakes over the strip.  His trainer, Ian Wilkes knows his business and was a longtime assistant to two-time Derby winning trainer Carl Nafzger (Unbridled-1990 and Street Sense 2007).

THE DARK HORSES: Sonneteer, Gormley, Always Dreaming, and Royal Mo.  All four have shown talent, many people have or will make Always Dreaming their favorite off his Florida Derby win and sharp last work. I’m not on the bandwagon yet, because the Florida Derby was his first stakes race.  It’s impressive that he could step up from allowance company to take the Florida Derby in his first stakes action, but for me it seems/feels a bit too much too fast, with the Kentucky Derby as the next step/ask. In human terms, the progression equivalent might be similar to being the winning quarterback in the NCAA National Championship, then leading a team to an AFC/NFC Conference Championship, and then going on to quarterbacking and expecting to win the Super Bowl right in a row…maybe, but you get the picture in terms of the rapid advancement that’s being asked. I also watched his most recent work at Churchill Downs and was less than impressed.

Gormley showed improvement winning the Santa Anita Derby with his new running style and his stablemate Royal Mo just missed getting there (3rd in the Santa Anita Derby). They both have talent, consistency has been an issue.

Sonneteer has yet to even win a race, but finished exceptionally fast (4th) in the Arkansas Derby, two lengths behind Classic Empire.  It’ll take a hot pace and many meltdowns for him to win, but I certainly think with the right trip he could hit the board.

EVERYONE ELSE: And that’s just what I mean, everyone else.  The only one I’m going to mention is State of Honor because he is absolutely stunning to look at and not just because he’s 17 hands plus (not a real advantage at this stage of his racing life, if ever)!

Wednesday comes with what could well be the dreaded post position draw. If you’re the unfortunate horse that’s drawn into PP 1-2-3, despite all your talents you might as well stay in your stall.  So my fingers will be especially tightly crossed for Classic Empire and Irish War Cry’s draw.

See you after the Post Position Draw.

Return of the King?

The most important news since my last post is that the talented, quirky, questionable Classic Empire, who was on the outside looking in prior to the Arkansas Derby is now second in the points standings (132) for the Kentucky Derby thanks to his victory in the race. Classic Empire was on his very best behavior at Hot Springs before, during, and post race. It wasn’t an easy victory; in the stretch he was hung wide coming off the pace, but he was relentless to the wire.

So now that he’s in, how will he do? Kind of hard to say.  His start in the Derby will be his third start off the layoff he had from the conclusion of his two-year-old season.  For many horses this is an ideal setup for rounding into form for the next race.  So that’s a plus.  Still, Classic Empire had to work for this victory; what, if anything, did this take out of him three weeks before the big race at the longest distance he (and all the other colts) has ever run?  We really won’t know until May 6th around 6:30 in the evening.  It is important to remember, that Classic Empire was the two-year-old champion for a reason. He was that much better than the other colts of his year crop.  He’s had his excuses in 2017 so far, but in terms of raw talent, it’s for real. Barring any regression mentally or physically, he is a solid contender and might well be the favorite for Kentucky Derby 143.

Two other developments since the last post.  The connections of Cloud Computing have opted not to run in the Kentucky Derby and are now aiming for the Preakness Stakes and/or the Belmont Stakes. As a result of his defection, Untrapped, sixth in the Arkansas Derby, will move into the Derby gate.

Jockey Robby Albarado, who had the mount on J Boys Echo, sustained a broken ankle yesterday at Keeneland when he was thrown from his mount out of the gate.  The new rider has yet to be named.

The Kentucky Derby is now 12 days away!!

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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.

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.