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.



“The Graveyard of Champions.”

Today, American Pharoah will step foot on the Saratoga Racecourse track to face nine competitors and, in the process, attempt to put its long-standing reputation to rest for awhile.

Man O’ War lost his only race at Saratoga.  Secretariat lost, post-Triple Crown success, at Saratoga.  Triple Crown Champion Affirmed was disqualified from his win in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.  I’ve been watching the meet since it started in late July, and although I don’t have the stats, I’ve seen a lot of favorites, especially short-price favorites crash and burn at the track also known as The Spa.  My guesstimate is that the win rate has been 50-50, favorites to other horses in the respective fields.

So here are the basics.  Race 11, The Travers Stakes, contested at 1 1/4 miles. Post Time: 5:46 p.m. The field and my comments:

1.Upstart–Doesn’t want 1 1/8 miles let alone 1 1/4.

2.American Pharoah–Even Saratoga’s longstanding reputation will have a hard time stopping The Ruler.

3.Mid Ocean–Who?

4.Texas Red–The ONLY colt in this field that I think call pull an upset.  The son of Afleet Alex is coming back strong, and appears relentless like his sire.

5.Frammento–Not again.  Hasn’t been in the same zip code as many of these in previous matchups.

6.Frosted–The lost shoe could have been an issue in his second-place finish in the Jim Dandy.  Personally, I’m starting to doubt his desire/ability to get a mile and a quarter also.

7.Keen Ice–He’ll be coming at the end, but he’s lost his most effective rider, Kent Desoumeaux, to Texas Red.  Still Javier Castellano KNOWS how to ride ’em and for sure knows where the Saratoga wire is.

8.Tale of Verve–It ain’t raining today.

9. King of New York–Who again?

10.Smart Transition–Won the ungraded Curlin Stakes earlier in the meet.  Might break the top four; will not win.

Fifteen thousand people showed up early yesterday to watch American Pharoah take a gallop around the track.  By his appearance and the comments of his exercise rider he likes and is handling the surface well.  He looks as robust, fresh, and happy as he has at any point during this magical run.

Still…the reason for my superstitious rationale (how’s THAT for an oxymoron??!!) for a potential upset, what’s giving me cause for concern is the track’s reputation and the number of trips he’s made and miles he’s travelled just in August (let alone for his entire 2015 season to date).  It was just 27 days ago when he ran in and won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth.  I’d feel more confident if he’d stayed on the East Coast between races as he did during his Triple Crown assault.

But hey, we’re talking American Pharoah here; why worry?  Just enjoy!  

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 Very Nice Pile

It’s just about go time.

Yesterday, three major prep races were run across America, further solidifying who the starters will be for the 2015 Kentucky Derby. The results were fairly predictable, but there were a few surprises.

First up yesterday was the mile and an eighth (as all preps discussed here were) Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. This race was the chance to see if ultra consistent El Kabeir would seal the deal as the ruling colt out of New York, if Daredevil could get much needed points to get in the gate or if throat surgery really made a difference for Frosted so that he might display the talent all his connections saw in him, but hadn’t come to pass on the track…where it counts.

The Wood was the most surprising of the three races. El Kabeir trailed or was near the back of the field throughout most of the race. MEANWHILE, at the head of the field was longshot Tencendur, who initially stalked, then led and held that lead late into the stretch until Frosted inhaled him for the win. El Kabeir finally got in gear, but it was too wide and too late and he finished a well-beaten third. Daredevil managed fourth.

So what does this all mean? Frosted is talented after all and his win gave him 100 points to put him in the Derby gate. And with his breathing problem corrected, I’d think there’s room for improvement going forward. El Kabeir, hard to tell what this race showed as he never seemed to be in contention until it was too late. I liked his tenacity, but that’s about it. The 40 points Tencendur earned has put him in the gate as well, but besides yesterday’s effort, there’s nothing that shows me he’s a serious Derby-winning threat. And, in my opinion, Daredevil’s fourth shows me that his strong suit is seven furlongs. Further, this finish didn’t give him the points he needs to get in the gate.

It was like old times at Keeneland: the Bluegrass Stakes was back to being contested over a dirt track and it was being run four weeks before the Derby, two significant changes from recent runnings (on a synthetic track and run two to three weeks before the Derby) that instantly reestablished its importance as a significant prep race for the Kentucky Derby. The race was Carpe Diem’s to lose. Having run and won over the track impressively last fall, coupled with his highly impressive season debut win in the Tampa Bay Derby, losing this race seemed unlikely. Ocho Ocho Ocho was attempting to rebound from his disastrous eighth place finish last out in the San Felipe. Frammento was trying to build on his solid, closing third place finish in the Fountain of Youth and get points for a Derby run.

No surprises here. Carpe Diem ran and won easily. He sat off the flank of leader Ocho Ocho Ocho throughout the race and passed him at will in the stretch. In the process he again displayed total professionalism and command of the track and his foes. The race was no contest. Ocho Ocho Ocho ran gamely, but was no match for Carpe Diem and finished a fading third. Frammento never got involved. Danzig Moon ran impressively for second and looked like he might be interested in more ground. As a son of Malibu Moon (sire of 2013 Derby winner Orb), that is certainly a possibility.

Finally, there was the Santa Anita Derby where the two main questions were would Dortmund win yet again and remain undefeated or would Bolo and/or Prospect Park take the next step forward to beat him? I’ll be succinct here, from Dortmund’s point of view I’m sure he was thinking “PLEASE, Stop wasting my time!!” Dortmund won again. After stumbling a bit breaking from the gate (Sound familiar?) and in the process losing his right front shoe (Sound familiar?) Dortmund took the lead and never looked back. He galloped throughout easily, controlled the pace, and the only significant, and impressive, change for him was that once he got into the stretch he OPENED on the field instead of just winning by a bit, he finished clear at the wire by four and a quarter lengths. And never looked extended at any point in the race. Aside: If he and American Pharoah break clean and keep all four shoes on during the Derby, AIIIEEE! Watch Out!

So now what? For me, and hopefully as a help for you, it’s time to start cutting to the chase.

Westminster Dog Show Host David Frei refers to Group judges making their next to last judgement as to who will be a winner as selecting a “pile” of dogs from which they will make a final winning selection. Based on almost four months of prep race watching here’s my initial pile.

The Very Nice Pile
1. American Pharoah–I’m not at all ashamed to say I’m smitten with this horse. He’s just a dream to watch run, the entire package–efficient, fast, ground covering, and smooth as silk. He already has sufficient points for the Derby. His final prep run (and that’s all it should likely amount to is another workout in race conditions) is next Saturday (4/11) in the Arkansas Derby.

2. Carpe Diem–What’s not to like? Knows his job. He’s been a model of consistency, runs easily, and has shown the ability to stalk and run well off the pace. Can’t see how he can’t be a serious Derby contender.

3.Dortmund–Yes, I’ve placed the six for six colt third. Could easily have placed him second, but his size gives me a little cause for pause going into the Derby, but that’s a discussion for closer to the big day. One more bonus he possesses that my 1 and 2 choices don’t–a win at Churchill Downs.

4.Mubtaahij–WHO? With a nod to The Black Stallion I’ll also refer to him as “The Mystery Horse.” In reality, he’s FAR from a mystery, Mubtaahij is a very talented colt and last week won the UAE Derby on the undercard of the Dubai World Cup day. Won, might understate what he did in the race; dominate is more like it, finishing about eight plus lengths ahead and continuing to draw off. That win got him in the Derby and his connections say he’s coming. The big plus for him is in that race he’s already run and won at a mile and 3/16ths, just a 16th short of the Kentucky Derby distance and further than any of his competitors have run. The minus, in my mind, is the “Dubai Bounce,” where horses running in Dubai and then shipping stateside seem to be not fresh or rested enough in their next start(s). And sometimes that’s MONTHS later. The Mystery Horse will have to do this as a developing three year old and with only five weeks between races. Beyond that I can’t really gauge where he belongs, as he hasn’t raced against the rest of the colts I’ve watched this year. He’s a very good horse, how good we shall see.

5.Frosted–I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt that in the races prior to the Wood, that the breathing problem was his real issue. I liked what I saw yesterday. Not sure it’s Derby-winning caliber, but I’m also not sure it’s not.

The Maybe Pile
These colts are nice, consistent horses, but they haven’t convinced me they’re serious Kentucky Derby contenders:

International Star–The absolute model of consistency, sweeping the Fair Grounds Racecourse series of Derby preps. All he’s done late winter/early spring is win, but I kind of wonder who he’s beat in the process and he just doesn’t look as impressive as the colts in my Very Good Pile.

Materiality–He’s also undefeated, but has jumped into Derby consideration late. He gave a great account of himself in defeating Upstart in the Florida Derby, but as I said in the previous post, it was a grudging slugfest between the two of them through the stretch and I’m wondering how much it drained them both. Can he win the Derby in his fourth start? And as he didn’t run as a two year old, can he overcome the old “Curse of Apollo”?

El Kabeir–Another consistent trier, but I think yesterday’s Wood was a step back for him.

Upstart–Like El Kabeir, I think his Florida Derby was a step back and didn’t do him any favors. Still, he does have talent.

Firing Line–He’s got potential, but Dortmund has already dispatched him twice, including the San Felipe when he’d taken the lead and Dortmund rerallied to get him at the wire. His Sunland Derby was great, but against lesser horses.

Honorable Mentions for this pile: Danzig Moon and Stanford. Both are showing promise late in the game, but I’ve not seen enough to whole heartedly endorse.

The NO Pile
These colts, as of today have the points to get in the race, but…

Ocho Ocho Ocho–Like I said after the San Felipe, I’ve seen enough. There were no excuses in yesterday’s Bluegrass. I hope his connections will take this good colt in another direction.

Bolo–Too nice a grass horse to keep fooling around pursuing the Derby. He made NO inroads on Dortmund yesterday.

Itsaknockout–And, in my opion, that’s about what happened to him in the Florida Derby–knocked out of contention. He was a very well-beaten fourth. Should be saved for another day, not ground up in the Derby.

Finally, Dubai Sky, winner of the Spiral Stakes, is out of Derby contention after suffering a left hind condylar fracture (YES, the very same injury Far From Over sustained last week) in a workout. He’s already had surgery to repair it and should be able to return to training later this year.

The 141st Kentucky Derby is now 27 days away!


At the risk of dating myself, when you read that title, in your head you should hear the voice of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens in Bewitched…that kind of hesitant, noncommittal response.  That’s my response to the question “What did you think of this weekend’s Kentucky Derby prep races?”


Let’s start with the biggest of the preps over the weekend: The Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.  The winner: highly regarded Upstart…for about five minutes.  Upstart crossed the wire first, but was disqualified (DQed) for interference in the stretch.  The horse he crossed, Itsaknockout was rewarded the victory.  So here’s what I saw: Upstart ran a good, workmanlike race.  But he didn’t get the best ride from regular rider Jose Ortiz and, in my opinion, it cost him the race.  The interference with Itsaknockout was not that dramatic, but the head on view shows Ortiz repeatedly whipping left handed and drifting out…and drifting out…and drifting out before he switches to the right in a too little too late effort to correct.  Besides floating Itsaknockout at least four to six paths wide, he makes brief contact with him at just the moment when Itsaknockout appeared to hitting his best stride.  I’m not convinced if he had had a clear run, if Itsaknockout would have passed Upstart, but the total action by Upstart did hamper, if ever so briefly, his momentum. Further, Itsaknockout is a relatively green (inexperienced; this was only his third race) racehorse and that might have effected his performance as well.

Still, note, I said I found Upstart’s performance “workmanlike.” He did what he needed to do, not dazzling, but professional.  There were many comments that Gulfstream was a tiring race course over the weekend and that may have contributed to the visual I got of his race performance.  He’s solidly in contention on my Derby list (and I know, near or at the top for many people), but at this point I’m just not seeing the Derby winner.  His next out should be the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct April 4.

Itsaknockout is definitely an improving colt with lots of potential.  I’ll continue to watch him, but today he wouldn’t be my Derby pick either. The horse that DID catch my eye was third place finisher Frammento.  On that “tiring” track, he was closing and, at least Saturday, looked like he might like more ground.  Being a son of Midshipman, who was most effective at a mile, I’m not completely convinced, but I’d like to see him in another race and of course it would be fun to have his two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Nick Zito in the mix.

Highly thought of contender Frosted laid an egg in this race spitting the bit shortly after taking a brief lead.  My pick for the race, Gorgeous Bird was also disappointing after an easy, sparkling performance in his previous race.  I’d suspect trainer Ian Wilkes might “take back” and take him off the Derby trail unless there was some obvious problem for his lackluster performance identified post race.

Later Saturday, the Risen Star was run at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans.  This was the race Texas Red was being pointed to prior to his hoof abscess.  After the race was over all I could think was “If only..”  Again, I really didn’t see much that excited me in this race either.  International Star, winner of the Lecomte Stakes, returned and essentially repeated his effort.  He was followed home by War Story and Keen Ice; another workmanlike performance, but not one that made me sit up and get excited.  Most likely, he’ll finish out his preps there at Fairgrounds in the Louisiana Derby, March 28.

Another prime contender, Imperia, put in a lackluster effort in the Risen Star, finishing fifth.  He’s run well at Churchill Downs in a strong second-place finish to El Kabeir last fall, so barring some injury or other issue coming out of the Risen Star, he might get another chance to prove himself and earn the points he’ll need to get in the gate in Louisville.

Yesterday, the weather-delayed Southwest Stakes was run at Oaklawn…not that yesterday’s weather at Hot Springs was a bargain–plenty of rain resulted in a very sloppy surface for the race.  Pretty much the same contenders from the Smarty Jones Stakes, the first of the Oaklawn preps, returned and the outcome was pretty similar as well with another win for Far Right.  Calvin Borel put in a nice ride to finish second with a longshot, The Truth or Else, and Mr. Z, who led from the gate, showed a lot of heart to hold on for third, the same finish he had in the Smarty Jones.  Bayerd, the second-place finisher in the Smarty Jones was a non-factor, finishing eighth.

Not winning at a mile or a mile and a sixteenth, respectively, in his two starts at Oaklawn suggests to me that Mr. Z is not cut out for the Kentucky Derby’s mile and a quarter.


However, with such a sloppy track, it’s hard to gauge just what the results mean going forward.  Super Ninetynine ran a bang up race winning the Southwest in 2013 in the mud, but didn’t make it to the Derby and was never as successful again.  Hopefully, there will be dry weather for the April 11 Arkansas Derby and we’ll see who goes improves and goes on.  Today, I could only be enthusiastic about Far Right if on Derby Day the track is muddy.

At this point, you’re likely wondering what I’m looking for or what would impress me.  One thing for sure is a better turn of foot than I’ve seen from most of the horses that have had preps so far this year.  I’d also like to see some colts that look like the distance they’ve covered so far was a snap and they’d like to run farther.  And then there’s that elusive “Je ne sais quoi,” that “something” that I cannot define, but I know it when I see it and I haven’t quite seen it yet.

Now there is an up and coming colt that is impressing me, but getting him to and in the Kentucky Derby gate could be a challenge.  His name is Khozan, and he has had two stellar races at Gulfstream.  And therein lies the problem–he’s raced only two times and neither race has been a race where he’s earned points.  Further, he did not race as a two year old and thus would be up against the “Curse of Apollo” (Apollo being the last colt to win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a two year old, in 1882).  I heard a lot of people bring this point up over the weekend following Khozan’s second race and victory Sunday, and chuckling about it a bit, but let’s face it, 132 runnings have taken place since and a horse without a two-year-old foundation hasn’t won.  And I’ve already questioned here whether or not horses with more experience will be adequately prepared with their late and/or limited starts this year.  Still, Khozan seems to have all the raw talent and I suspect his performance yesterday will have trainer Todd Pletcher mapping out a plan to get him in at least one appropriate prep race.

Going forward, Upstart is on my Derby short list, along with Texas Red (if he can literally get back on track and succeed), Dortmund, and American Pharaoh.  But at this point I’m VERY open to being impressed by other contenders.  Derby Day is now 68 days away…

And there are fillies pointing to the Oaks yet to be discussed.  Keep reading!