The Time is Near

Belmont Stakes 150 is this Saturday, June 9.  Post positions have just been drawn; here they are:

  1. Justify
  2. Free Drop Billy
  3. Bravazo
  4. Hofburg
  5. Restoring Hope
  6. Gronkowski
  7. Tenfold
  8. Vino Rosso
  9. Noble Indy
  10. Blended Citizen

So here we are.  Are we about to see another Triple Crown winner in three years after a 37-year drought?  It’s impossible to say for sure, but here’s what I do know: Justify is a superior horse, the best in the field.  He appears to have come out of the Preakness well, is training enthusiastically, and by all accounts is ready to rock and roll Saturday. Because of his post position, he might well be sent to the lead right away and it’s a fool’s errand to try and engage him early on. You might soften him up for a late challenge by another horse, but you will for sure be going down in flames first; ask Good Magic.  Regardless of the outcome of the Belmont, you have already witnessed an exceptional horse displaying exceptional abilities.  Should he win, you’re witnessing a legend as he’s made.

As the mud and slop settled from the Preakness, more information came to light from a race where it appeared Justify struggled to win at the end.  It turns out that the horse jumped tractor tire tracks on the track at least once (captured in a brilliant head-on photograph by Barbara D. Livingston), possibly as many as three times.  This can be a significant momentum-breaking move that’s caused the defeat of many a good horse; it didn’t stop Justify.  Mike Smith eased off “the gas” as they approached the wire (anticipating the chance he might jump again), thinking he was more clear than it turned out he was in those closing strides, AND, of course trying to conserve for the run in the Belmont. Justify also survived a mini match race in the opening two-thirds of the Preakness with Good Magic.  In short, Justify’s Preakness was more of an accomplishment than it appeared in the closing strides of the race.

But here’s the obvious–the Belmont is a horse race and unpredictable things can happen. There are fresh horses entering the race.  Will Justify handle the unique racing surface of “Big Sandy”?  And Heaven only knows WHAT the weather will be come Saturday; as of today, there is a chance of rain, but it doesn’t appear that if it does rain that it will be at the monsoon levels seen in the Derby and Preakness. Plus, we should be able to see the Belmont sans fog!!  Justify appears to be well rested and as fresh as a horse advancing through this series (and without the benefit of racing at two) can be, so hopefully he breaks from the gate sharply again, Mike Smith gives him a smart ride, and nothing else crazy occurs.  It should be quite the interesting race.

Post time is 6:37 EDT, coverage is on NBC. Enjoy and safe trips for all.

 

 

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Preakness 143 Set

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me? I think Justify wins.

Post time Saturday is 6:48 EDT on NBC.

Safe trips for all and enjoy.

NOT. Feeling. The. Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preakness Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post time is 6:45 on NBC.

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.

 

 

No Crown, Fun Race

This Saturday, Triple Crown races for 2016 come to a close with the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes.  Some of the drama was lost when Nyquist had to be withdrawn (he’s back in California and may return to light work next week), but this should still be an interesting race.  And yet again, weather may play a significant role in the outcome.

Here’s the surprisingly large field:

1.Governor Malibu

2.Destin

3.Cherry Wine

4.Suddenbreakingnews

5.Stadivari

6.Gettysburg

7.Seeking the Soul

8.Forever D’Oro

9.Trojan Nation

10.Lani

11.Exaggerator

12.Brody’s Cause

13.Creator

With the exception of Governor Malibu, Gettysburg, Seeking the Soul, and Forever D’Oro, we’ve seen all the starters at least once before in the Kentucky Derby (of those 20, only Exaggerator and Lani have contested all three races). Of the four newcomers, Governor Malibu is the only one with a possibility of hitting the board.  He was second in the Peter Pan Stakes earlier in the Belmont meet.  It’s a traditional prep race for the Belmont and the race that positioned Tonalist for his Belmont win in 2014.  I don’t think Governor Malibu is quite the horse Tonalist was on the track. Gettysburg is primarily in the race as something of a rabbit to insure an honest pace. Seeking the Soul and Forever D’Oro are both recent allowance race winners.

The forecast for Saturday had looked pretty nice up until this morning and now there’s the possibility of severe weather at Elmont, New York Saturday afternoon. If the track does come up sloppy, I don’t think I need to tell you who benefits significantly in those conditions; you saw Exaggerator’s performance in the Preakness Stakes!  Lani and Cherry Wine will also move up if the track is wet.  Even if it doesn’t rain, I still believe this is Exaggerator’s race.  He appears to have taken to the Belmont track, his weight and coat are good, and he’s found his most effective running style.  I’ll also be interested to see if Lani can move up a few more places as he did in the Preakness and if Suddenbreakingnews can be closer to the pace to make that come from behind kick pay off.

Of the other horses in the race Destin, Stradivari (who I still think is being asked for too much too soon), and Creator could hit the board, but it’s harder for me to see them as the winner.  Super longshots–Trojan Nation and Brody’s Cause. It’s a horse race and that means anything can happen!

Post time Saturday is 6:37 p.m.