Sunday, October 06, 2013
Toasting the Champagne
ELMONT, NY, October 5, 2013—I wish I could remember more about Donut King, learning later in life only that the horse was named for owner Verne Winchell, who owned the highly successful California-based franchise. But that was 52 years ago.
Two years later, little Roman Brother, sporting the readily identifying silks of Harbor View Farm, made his usual late run to win beneath a well named “Gentleman John” Rotz.
Buckpasser gave a hair-raising performance in 1965 and five years later, within a span of three years, 1970 -- 1972, two of the best juveniles I’ve ever seen, Hoist The Flag and Secretariat had their victories expunged courtesy of the New York stewards.
As best as I can remember, I believe Secretariat’s was understandable but not so Hoist the Flag’s. Having won by double digits, the Sid Watters Jr. trainee never would have been disqualified given today’s rules and the brilliant colt’s complete domination.
The modern day judgment call, even when I disagree, is a better way to go.
Of course, the great Seattle Slew announced his presence in 1977, followed in rapid succession by Alydar and Spectacular Bid, with Easy Goer virtually closing out the decade of the 80s.
By that time the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile took precedent and, for me, it wasn’t until 2010 and 2011 when brilliant miler Uncle Mo and the somewhat ill-fated Union Rags brought back some needed electricity to the most significant event in the history of juvenile racing.
Personally, then, it’s been quite some time since I eagerly awaited the one turn mile at Belmont Park: Hopeful monster Strong Mandate vs. Honor Code vs. Havana.
It looked like it would be a match for the ages--but two out of three ain’t bad.
After breaking sharply away from the barrier Strong Mandate was seventh in the blink of an eye, never to be heard from again.
Wayne Lukas blamed himself, saying he should have come to Belmont earlier, that jockey Jose Ortiz was saying the colt wasn’t really comfortable on a surface that’s more demanding than Saratoga’s.
For the time being, I’m willing to swill the Kool Aid. Clearly, Strong Mandate bore no resemblance to the one on display upstate. He might not win but figures to be much better in the Juvenile, his next start.
Then so will the 2013’s one-two finishers—Bahama and Honor Code—who just have easily been two-one. From appearing to have the race well in hand, it was fortunate that the wire came up when it did.
Just like the day he broke his maiden, coming from a crazy 22 lengths back, Honor Code came flying late and just missed getting all the money.
Honor Code might not be a better colt at Santa Anita, but only because Shug McGaughey left the door open for the nine-furlong Remsen at Thanksgiving weekend rather than ship to California.
“You’d always like to go to the Breeders’ Cup but he’s a young horse and it would be only his third start,” said McGaughey.
“Obviously, next spring would be our main objective. [But] whatever [owners Lane's End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm] want to do is going to be fine with me."
The Juvenile would be Havana’s third start, too, and he was stretching from 5-1/2 furlongs to a mile yesterday and not seven as did Honor Code.
“He wasn't 22 lengths out of it today, McGaughey said, “it was only 12 or 15. Having to go wide probably cost us the race but Havana got the jump at the head of the stretch and opened up and we were unlucky to not catch him”
Which is not to say that Havana had it easier. Forced to chase the pace from along the inside down the long backstretch, Havana was part of the pace, the middle of the race, and finish. Not all that enviable, especially coming off a lone 5-1/2 furlong run.
“I thought there were a couple that could press us,” said Todd Pletcher after winning his fifth Champagne…
“I think Irad [Ortiz] did a good job of not giving up that position but not forcing it too much, either… I could see the other horse revving up and I knew he had a big run from Saratoga. I was hoping we'd have enough to hold on."
Havana did, in a solid 1:35.81.
Pletcher was asked if he’d go with confidence to the Breeders' Cup: "I think so. I can't imagine the horses we ran against today aren't going to be certainly some of the favorites for it.” Then he offered this:
“I think there's room for improvement. I think he can move forward for his third start."
If he does, it would provide Pletcher with what his two most recent Champagne winners, Shanghai Bobby and Uncle Mo, afforded him: an Eclipse championship.
Written by John Pricci
Sunday, September 29, 2013
A Super Saturday Night
SARATOGA SPRINGS, September 29, 2013---I had a racing dilemma Saturday night. Just when I thought I knew everything, they ran some Grade 1 races in California.
So I decided to sleep on the results, only to awaken knowing that I was as confused as I was the night before. It’s going to take a few days to shake all these things out in my head.
One of the issues I’m pondering—and you might as well throw Churchill Downs in there, too—is trying to figure what impressed the most.
Was it the Macho Man’s first Grade 1—which could not have come at a better time, or over a better racetrack?
Was it Beholder, just when you thought you knew everything you needed to know about the three-year-old filly division?
Was it Bond Holder, from maiden to Grade 1 winner overnight, a colt that seemed to get stronger with every inch of ground he covered?
(It can’t be Secret Compass, not because of anything she did wrong but because I really didn’t know she existed until I looked at her past performances).
However, in the case of the two-year-olds, at least there’s next weekend’s Frizette and, for that matter, the Champagne; today, the short, one-turn Futurity and the Matron.
And, I digress, wasn’t that a hellacious turn of late foot as demonstrated by Tiz Flirtatious?
Just when I thought that Jose Lezcano was the Man of the Day, winning two Grade 1s on his very first day back from an injury, along comes Gary Stevens, returning from a long, extended vacation.
It could not have been retirement: No 50-year-old graybeard returns off a seven year layoff a better Hall of Fame rider than he was when last seen in 2006.
He couldn’t have learned all he knows now from sitting next to Jeff Siegel, could he?
And what was that from Fort Larned? Was he getting tired, or bored? Need to see the video again but he sure appreciated his Homecoming to Churchill, and dominated the competition with his noted speed.
Ian Wilkes later said the design was to get him tired and move forward from the race. I'm going to drink that Kool Aid; it makes sense, having missed the Woodward.
Mucho Macho Man, speaking of Stevens, sure loves to hear his feet rattle. Everybody knows he doesn’t like it wet but that’s two straight excellent performances at Santa Anita, even if it was a year between drinks.
Too good not to have won a Grade 1 before last night, he loves to run fresh, like all modern race horses.
Will five weeks provide enough down time for another peak performance from the late developing, late foal? Fort Larned had better hope not.
Speaking of Stevens, again, Beholder now has three Grade 1s on the year, a half-length defeat in the Oaks standing between her and Princess of Sylmar’s four Grade 1s.
And just when the book was closed (it still might be) because the Princess beat the mighty Queen of the Turf, Beholder gave actual weight to older mares and embarrassed them with the help of Stevens who coaxed moderating fractions.
Beholder sure loves Santa Anita. Question: Can Princess of Sylmar afford to rest on her Grade 1 laurels? The Oaks, Coaching Club, Alabama and Beldame sure are quite a package.
But if a champion defends her Breeders’ Cup Eclipse title for her
fourth Grade 1 of the year, will she defend her Eclipse title as well?
Parenthetically, that’s why the Breeders’ Cup never again should be held at one track back to back, no matter how attractive the venue!
Horse racing will always feature Thoroughbreds owning a home court advantage. But not when potential championships are involved.
As for Bond Holder, he will likely get another strong pace to run at in five weeks and he certainly looks the part of a two-turn racehorse, but will he be the same sans Lasix?
Will any of the two-year-olds be?
Anyway, the Champagne horses will prove much tougher foes.
A Breeders’ Cup victory by Tiz Flirtatious may not be enough to depose the divisional leader, but her ability is no laughing matter.
It’s hard to know how good Secret Compass is, but thus far there have been no Ruffians on the radar screen and the juvenile filly title likely will come down to one race, as it often does.
Stevens nearly won his third Grade 1 of the day on She’s a Tiger but appeared to push her button prematurely, trying to steal the Chandelier.
But Bob Baffert had Secret Compass all wound up, Rosie Napravnik gave her a perfect trip and, after finally getting the filly to change to her correct lead, caught a tiger by the nose.
(As far as these two fillies are concerned, anyway, I’d be surprised if Secret Compass beats She’s a Tiger next time).
But that’s only an opinion and as Darrell Wayne Lukas once, or should have, said, horses will take charge.
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, September 28, 2013
The Dude Abides
SARATOGA SPRINGS, September 28, 2013
Grade 1 JOCKEY CLUB GOLD CUP:
All the pre-race storylines rightfully concerned themselves with whether the 2013 three year old class was the equal or better than the older handicap division. Even at that, all agreed that Bill Mott had the horse to beat.
"They're Off: You Lose, No Wait, You Win!"
And it was not enough that Ron the Greek won the storied Jockey Club Gold Cup at 21-1. He won it by a pole!
Handicappers might have surmised that when anticipated pacesetter Cross Traffic failed to break and was nowhere near the lead, something strange was about to happen. They would have been right.
The complexion changed in that instead of sitting a perfect trip behind two pacesetters, Palace Malice, who opened the betting as the 7-5 favorite, wound up chasing a sharp, loose-leading Woodward winner Alpha.
Approaching head-stretch, Alpha was beginning to tire and Mike Smith appeared to have a handful of Palace Malice when Jose Lezcano, who returned from an injury to win the Flower Bowl, pushed Ron the Greek through on the inside--the best part of the Belmont oval throughout the fall meet--and the six-year-old exploded to the lead, winning in full stride and by daylight.
Palace Malice was clearly second best, holding a daylight advantage over surface loving Flat Out, also trained by Mott but, like Palace Malice, never looked like a winner in the Elmont straight.
The running time was a very strong 1:59 3/5 for the mile and a quarter.
While the Belmont Stakes winner acquitted himself well, not so the Derby winner. Racing in excellent position behind a strong early pace, Orb offered nothing in the drive. Ron the Greek gave Mott his third JCGC victory and allowed the idle Game On Dude, the #1 ranked horse in America, tighten his hold on the divisional lead.
Is Any Horse Cooler than Little Mike?
G1 JOE HIRSCH TURF CLASSIC
The connections of the three-ply Hirsch Invitational favorite entry tried to set things up for two late runners by entering a rabbit in a mile and half turf marathon.
As it turned out, the rabbit won the pace battle but the entry lost the Grade 1 war.
Little Mike, who was expertly ridden by Mike Smith, did not allow ground loss on the first turn, a wide trip thereafter, or stretch challenges of stable-mate favorites Real Solution and Big Blue Kitten to keep him from making amends for what heretofore has been a disappointing season.
All of a sudden, if he can repeat his Hirsch performance at Santa Anita five weeks hence, his season could go from highly disappointing to possibly championship affirming. All of a sudden--at least until the California precincts check in later today--the battle for turf supremacy among America's distance-racing grass runners has become a horse race.
Little Mike certainly will go into Arcadia as somewhat of a sentimental choice. Many voters checked his name on their 2012 Eclipse ballots for his traditionally successful Grade 1 campaign only to see the trophy go to mile specialist Wise Dan. He just might have one coming.
An upset winner of three Grade 1s in 2012, including the all-important Arlington Million and Breeders' Cup Turf, just wasn't enough. And of all his unlikely career scores, his Hirsch just might have been the best. He might not win a Turf Eclipse, but if there was one for Coolest Horse...
Laughing All the Way
Grade 1 FLOWER BOWL:
It just might be that the Europeans might ship over and clean our Breeders' Cup turf clocks once again.
But no matter how the Filly & Mare Turf turns out, it might not be enough to deny Laughing--whose 2013 season to date has been perfect--divisional honors.
Leading every step of the way, per usual, the Flower Bowl was her fourth consecutive graded victory, and second Grade 1, in as many starts this year.
Jose Lezcano, 3-for-3 astride the Alan Goldberg trainee, slowed down the pace to a half-mile in :51 and change.
The pace might have been slow but it was contested, the challengers oddly enough being two fillies that both prefer making one late run.
Those fillies faded late as a fresh Laughing opened out the lead and withstood a very late, strong rally from stable-mate Tannery.
In a Zone
G1 VOSBURGH INVITATIONAL:
There's just no speed like SoCal speed and Private Zone was all that in this G1 prep for the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
The start was even for all the major contenders but within a matter of strides, Private Zone was in front and being rated by Martin Pedroza.
But in an instant, Strapping Groom surged up inside. The team raced in tandem for a while before Pedroza gave the Doug O'Neill gave the gelded 4-year-old his cue, at which point his speed was superior.
At head-stretch, Johnny Velazquez split the seam with G1 Vanderbilt winner Justin Philip and these two put quite the stretch battle in the final furlong where Private Zone lost the lead but re-surged at the finish to win it.
Velazquez claimed foul alleging stretch interference and indeed Private Zone came out to bump the runner-up right on the line.
But it was Justin Philip who was leaning on his rival inside the final eighth mile before the inside runner showed some heart and battled back, literally and figuratively.
The stewards correctly allowed the result to stand.
The running time for 6 furlongs was 1:08 off a half-mile in 44 and change. The race should set the winner up perfectly for The Sprint at Santa Anita, where Private Zone has three exacta finishes in as many starts.
G2 KELSO HANDICAP
: Showing no signs of rust and benefitting from heads-up energetic handling from Edgar Prado to take command in soft fractions, Graydar led throughout to win his first start since winning the New Orleans Handicap on March 30.
The victory improved his career record to five wins in six starts, avenging his only loss, one that came at Belmont Park last fall. Given the style of the win, the big gray seemed to have something in reserve at the wire, the effort setting up a possible run on Breeders’ Cup weekend.
Brujo de Olleros made a menacing move four wide into the stretch and rallied very effectively throughout the stretch run to secure the place over hard-hitting veteran Hymn Book, who raced a bit closer to the early pace in his new blinkers.
Graydar has versatility to go with his brilliance, proving on two occasions her doesn’t need the lead to show his best. The win gave Todd Pletcher his third on the card.
Long Live the Princess
: Alas, the Queen didn’t bring her ‘A’ game to the fray. And neither did Mike Smith—and that seems to be a recurring theme with the aging Hall of Famer. He’s just help helping horses that need just that little extra to get the job done.
But Princess of Sylmar has brought nothing but her ‘A’ game in four important Grade 1 dances this year.
The 3-year-old filly, deftly ridden by Javier Castellano for his third win on the card to this point, kept Royal Delta in her sights, moved to challenge leaving headstretch and beat the champion on the square with very little drama involved.
Her fourth win of the season securely nailed down the divisional championship and there’s nothing left to prove in her division, the sky appearing limitless at this point. It was Todd Pletcher’s fifth Beldame title.
Written by John Pricci