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Thursday, June 14, 2007


Sophomore Class of 2007 Best In Decades


Elmont, NY--The consensus opinion is that the 1970s provided the sport of thoroughbred racing with its finest moments.

Who could forget Secretariats Belmont Stakes, widely regarded as the best performance by a thoroughbred ever? And that move around the first turn at Pimlico wasnt bad, either. Simply stated, Secretariat was Gods greatest equine creation.

Seattle Slew is my personal favorite, still the only horse to have won the Triple Crown while undefeated. His greatness was even celebrated in defeat; a nose loss to Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup was arguably the gamest performance ever.

That same year produced racings last Triple Crown winner. But to this day you cant mention Affirmed without completing the phrase with Alydar. The golden chestnut vs. the liver chestnut was the greatest rivalry the sport has known.

So then why was the recently concluded Triple Crown series the best I have witnessed in the modern era? Because it had everything.
In Street Sense, the 2007 Kentucky Derby produced a new star. It was a victory for old school horsemanship and a heart warming tale of a jockey, a present day Horatio Alger with a Cajun drawl who slipped through inside of 18 rivals never missing a beat.

And, so, the colt made history as the first Juvenile winner ever to win a Derby; his trainer Carl Nafzger won his second julep cup and punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame on Union Avenue as Calvin Borel raised the bar exceedingly high for future celebrations on horseback.

Two weeks later Street Sense got to gawking a little and lost his Triple Crown bid by a nose, snatching defeat from victorys jaws as Curlin made one of the more dramatic stretch runs in the history of the sport. Many said that Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in 1989 had nothing on this pair. No one argued.

Then, exit Street Sense from the Belmont, enter Rags To Riches, a filly, one who gave the 139th Test of a Champion an identity that would last in perpetuity. There have been only three females to win a Belmont, and she did it by reprising Curlins Preakness role, as she out-stared him all the way to the finish post.

Four wide all the way around big sandy after a stumbling beginning, a final quarter-mile in :23 4/5 following a half-mile in :50 and three-quarters in 1:15 the cherry on top.

Are you kidding? This can only be described as magical.

Time has come for the countrys best three-year-olds to freshen up and prepare for the battles of late summer and fall, culminating with a trip to Monmouth Park on the last Saturday in October. Invasor and all the rest had better have their running shoes on.

This three-year-old class is the best racing has seen in a very long time. From a performance figure perspective, collectively they have had no peer group in recent memory, the best of them running as fast as any Grade 1 older horse can run. Thats quite a feat for a sophomore in spring.

All connections have decisions to make and theyre interesting to ponder. You would think, for instance, that this years Haskell would serve not so much as a prep for the Travers but rather for the Breeders Cup Classic.

The Haskell would seem like a natural return spot for Hard Spun, given the early speed Garrett Gomez wouldnt let him show in the Belmont. Maybe now Mario Pino will get his regular mount back. Pinos Preakness mistake--if you want to call it that; I call it circumstantial reaction--might serve him well at speed kind Monmouth Park.

Given that Street Sense is pointing for the Travers, it is more likely Nafzger will choose to prep in the Jim Dandy. That path worked for Unshaded and trainers, as stated before, are creatures of habit.

The high profile Triple Crown trail is virgin territory for Steve Asmussen but he has proven to be a good student of history. Knowing Curlin as well as he does, Asmussen probably will send him to Monmouth, thinking hed rather meet Hard Spun than Street Sense before taking on Invasor over the same track in the fall. Curlin has Monmouth style.

And so what of the filly?

Rags To Riches currently is pointing toward the Coaching Club American Oaks. From there she could take several paths. Look for her to take a more challenging path than the Alabama, since two of the big three Derby horses are likely Monmouth bound.

There are two good reasons for Rags To Riches to run at Saratoga. Both Michael Tabor and Todd Pletcher have left the door wide open when it comes to meeting males again. In taking on Street Sense, perhaps defeating him, it would give Rags To Riches a victory over all three.

The owners and their trainer have a keen sense of history. Ruthless, the filly that won the inaugural Belmont, also won the Travers, the only female to have won both races. Now doesnt that sound like a historical challenge worth pursuing?

If this years Triple Crown colts, and this special Triple Crown filly, keep doing their thing, the great Invasor had better not stub his toe. Not with this crop, the best weve seen in three decades.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, June 10, 2007


History Triumphant In “Pointless” Belmont


Elmont, NYYou wanted history? You got it.

The 139th Belmont Stakes was supposed to be dead after the Derby winner went on R & R. But a strange confluence of events occurred and history happened. Thats horse racing. Thats how it works.

It took 102 years for a filly to win the Belmont Stakes and for her trainer seemed almost as long.

The fillys jockey had never won one of these either but he broke through with a move that began in Queens and ended at the Nassau County finish line, a head in front of the by-a-nose winner of the Preakness in a thrilling redux of last months Pimlico show.

History was made by a filly that lived up to her name, first elevating a moribund classic with her presence then etching that name in its record books. Whenever people talk about Rags To Riches, the filly that won the Belmont, one will say shes so tough she shaves.
Rags To Riches spent many mornings this spring working in company with Grade 1 Hopeful and Louisiana Derby winner, Circular Quay, one of Todd Pletchers five Derby colts. Looks like he toughened her up. Maybe it had the opposite effect on him.

She was ready when Curlin, the newest Preakness legend, ran on strongly in another gifted performance. He came back at her for more in the final half-furlong and gave her all she wanted. And she could have, almost should have, given in.

But she shaves. Rags To Riches did three generations of Belmont-winning sires proud by looking a very gifted colt in the eye and staring him down in the shadow of the Belmont wire.

Then Johnny Velazquez was punctuating the air on the gallop-out and Todd Pletcher was as pumped as eyes have ever seen him and somewhere Angel Cordero Jr. was smiling.

Carl Nafzger had better win the Travers now, and maybe the Breeders Cup, too, because all of a sudden a three-year-old filly has four Grade 1 victories with Saratoga still six weeks away and shes the only horse in America this year to pass the Test of a Champion.

This time Curlin was on the inside and the filly outside, out-sprinting him in early stretch then out-staring him deeply into the wire. Everybody thought she was the greatest when she went six wide around both turns Santa Anita to win the Las Vergennes. Guess she just likes it out there.

And maybe it took an upstart named Digger to dig up some enthusiasm for supporting what was a pedestrian five-horse race a week ago. And maybe I owe Larry Roman an apology. Because he must have awakened Patrick Biancone who was in, then out, when Pletcher committed Michael Tabor and Derrick Smiths filly to the race. Then Nick Zito heard the band, began marching and the Belmont came alive.

But no one expected this.

In becoming the first filly to win the Belmont at its current distance, Rags To Riches made history for herself. Good for her, good for racing fans, good for the game and good for Tabor for giving fans a chance to celebrate a Belmont.

But he couldnt do it without help from a man who honed her talents and developed her into a star. Not only did she retire the Eclipse Award trophy for sophomore filly but the most accomplished three-year-old racehorse in America is a girl and she put herself in the conversation for Horse of the Year.

Todd Pletcher, like mentor Wayne Lukas, is extremely deft with young horses, especially fillies. Breeding, talent and opportunity aside, this horse was doing so well he couldnt hold her on the ground, he said. The safer, more prudent Mother Goose was three weeks away. He had to run this feline powder keg before she blew a gasket in the stall.

She stumbled, stumbled, at the start. But Velazquez was Johnny B. Cool. He gathered her, allowed her her head, positioned her where she likes to be and applied pressure ever so slightly when the moderate pace turned glacial.

The dawdling pace actually hurt Hard Spun, stoutly restrained by Garrett Gomez, the regular rider of Rags To Riches, who at that point had his regular mount sitting off his right shoulder. But it wasnt the Hard Spun of the Derby and Preakness Gomez was riding, the colt appearing uncomfortable over the sandy surface.

But Velazquez, regular rider for Pletcher, was now on the filly after his agent, Cordero, spoke with Greg Fox about their agreement to ride Slews Tizzy. And sometimes the game is about more than just money.

Fox agreed to let Velazquez out of his commitment. Gomez honored his, after he agreed to ride Hard Spun while Pletcher was still on the fence with the filly. You couldnt make this up.

Curlin was a very good, troubled third in Louisville, as Street Sense and Calvin Borel stole the show in a dazzling display of firepower. Then Curlin and Street Sense did their thing in Baltimore. Exit gap left Street Sense; enter gap right Rags To Riches. The filly and Curlin then picked up where Street Sense and Curlin left off in Baltimore.

Amazing how disparate results can produce an unforgettable Triple Crown. Who needs a sweep when one winner, at any time, could produce a magical mystery tour that was the 139th Belmont, and the entire series for that matter?

But thats how the game is supposed to work when racing people are sporting enough to try. Jolly good show, eh what?

Written by John Pricci

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Saturday, June 09, 2007


In This Belmont, Speed Kills


Elmont, NYIts like Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun, says: At the end of the year, we might all be hailing [Curlin] as a superhorse.

Certainly he looked like a superhorse winning the Preakness in what only could be described as a singular performance. I never saw anything like his re-rally win in four decades of watching races.

Curlin is a deserving early line favorite at 6-5, more likely 4-5 by late Saturday afternoon. But Ill be betting against him. Heres a look at the field for Belmont 139 in alphabetical order, with post position and early line odds in parentheses:

#4 C P West (12-1): Nick Zito was adamant moments after the Preakness that there would be Belmont for this colt but here he is. And why not? He ran his way into the Belmont with a breakthrough performance in Baltimore. Until three weeks ago, he gave no indication he made the transition from precocious juvenile to classics performer. It was a good prep, but not perfect, because it was too good, too fast. Further, one could argue that Hard Spun wasnt the only horse who might have moved prematurely. The colt deserves this chance and will make his presence felt, but not likely in the top spot. Money prospects.

#3 Curlin (6-5): Certainly needs no introduction. Hell be the one wearing a black hat. Curlins a very good horse, perhaps even great, but winning the Belmont is not a given for the legendary Preakness performer. His extremely impressive Equiform performance figure at Pimlico represented a 3-point forward move. Regression is virtually assured making his fourth start in eight weeks off an enervating race against fresher rivals at a distance for which he is unsuited by pedigree. Without the benefit of a two-year-old foundation, all his rapid development figures to catch up with him somewhere along the line. What better time than at a mile and a half?

#6 Hard Spun (5-2): The first lesson taught in Handicapping 101 is this: Speed is always dangerous. The most important thing to learn about speed is that its the element that cant be learned; either you have it or you dont. Its a racehorses best weapon and is effective at any distance, including this one. A video review of Hard Spuns Derby and Preakness indicates he didnt race as some kind of rank run-off. He was fairly handy and amenable to rating. Much has been made of the fillys pedigree to handle the distance, justifiably. But this is the best bred horse for the Belmont distance. So, as the presumed leader reaches the Belmont halfway mark and the timer indicates something around 1:12, there should be enough left in this tank to make it the rest of the way home. Upset call.

#1 Imawildandcrazyguy (20-1): Hard to believe but this colt came from farther back than Street Sense in the Derby. From last of 20 to fourth is no small feat. He was finishing with gusto, not just out-plodding tired rivals to the finish. Bill Kaplan said hes been pointing for the Belmont since January. This stayer is a grinder type who just keeps finishing up his races, a rare commodity in the modern thoroughbred. Grinders win the Belmont over middling competition. The big three here are anything but middle of the road. For trifecta and superfecta players only.

#7 Rags To Riches (3-1): Win or lose, this filly is a most welcome Belmont addition and all her connections should be celebrated for stepping up to take on colts at a mile and half. Bred for the distance is one thing and doing it is another, but this filly can win the Belmont. On performance figure projections, shed be maybe four to six lengths behind the top males here. But her five pound sex allowance is significant. Rags To Riches gains three lengths from her weight advantage and that puts her in the picture with the big boys. Her three Grade 1 victories this year are more than the field has won combined and she has six Belmont winners in her first three generations. Class, pedigree and speed are a handicapping holy trinity. She can become the first filly in a century to do this. Drawn next to Hard Spun, watching the battle into the first turn between Garrett Gomez [Hard Spun] and Johnny Velazquez alone is worth the admission price. Very dangerous rival.

#5 Slews Tizzy (20-1): At early line odds this colt would be an underlay. He was classy enough to win a Grade 2 and Grade 3 recently but these are decidedly different animals, at a decidedly different distance. But if Rafael Bejarano picked up the phone to personal hustle the mount after Velazquez asked out of his commitment to ride the filly, then that talented rider might want to make his presence felt somewhere along the way. No where remotely close to the top of the ticket. Rank outsider.

#2 Tiago (10-1): Trainer John Sherriffs and Mike Smith began making their Belmont plans before Tiago was cooled out after the Derby. He won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby over moderate rivals then ran well in the Derby despite encountering some traffic and, of greater significantly, racing greenly. He has trained strongly since then and continues to develop the right way. The problem is that he lacks the performance figures to compete with the big three, but he has all the rest of the tools to indicate he more than belongs. We see his participation as another step in his development, but he might prove a boon to trifecta and superfecta players. Strong money prospects.

Selections: 1. Hard Spun 2. Rags To Riches 3. Curlin 4. Tiago

Wagers: Hard Spun to win at 5-2 or greater. Exacta box with Rags To Riches.

Written by John Pricci

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