The babies became the big kids on the block Wednesday.
It’s Derby season and it isn’t taking long to kick into gear. Before the new decade was a day old, the Jerome Handicap became the season’s first significant Derby prep. Gulfstream gets into the action Saturday with the Mucho Macho Man. Out west, Santa Anita will stage the Sham.
Although Independence Hall justified his 1-10 odds in the Jerome and Saturday’s two races also have highly touted youngsters, it’s probably not fruitful to look too hard for your Derby horse in these early preps. None have produced a Derby winner, although the Jerome carries an asterisk. It was run later in the year until 2013 when it became part of NYRA’s winter program. However, it does boast a Derby winner, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, when it was run in September.
The loss to injury of Honor A.P. renders the six-horse Sham essentially a faceoff between the always potent Bob Baffert, who has impressive maiden breakers Authentic and Azul Coast, against the white hot Richard Baltas duo of Uncaptured Hero and Taishun. Baltas, the latest super trainer, opened 2020 with three wins on New Year’s Day.
Juvenile hotshots Dennis’s Moment, Tiz the Law and Maxfield are all in South Florida but aren’t expected to be seen for at least another month or so. This leaves the Mucho Macho Man at the mercy of summer and fall star Chance It, who’ll be turning back from his 7 ½-length two-turn win in the mile and a sixteenth In Reality, the final leg of the restricted Florida Sire Stakes.
The Mucho Macho Man, unlike Chance It’s first five starts, is an open stakes and there is an interesting new shooter, South Bend. He was three-for-three, including a stakes win at the one-turn mile he’ll be asked to run Saturday, although he threw in a clunker in the Kentucky Jockey Club. However that was run on a gooey Churchill Downs strip and Tiz the Law also disappointed, so maybe a line can be drawn through it.
In trying to scope out Derby horses at Gulfstream, here’s an interesting factoid. The last five Kentucky Derby winners to come out of Gulfstream (not counting Nyquist, who shipped in for the Florida Derby because of a million dollar bonus) did not make his South Florida debut in a stakes.
Big Brown in 2008, off a MSW romp on grass at Saratoga, made his SoFla debut in a NX1 in March. Animal Kingdom ran in a grass allowance in March 2011 (more on this in a bit). Orb, having broken maiden in his NY finale, came back in a January 2013 AOC. Todd Pletcher broke Always Dreaming’s maiden in 2017 at Tampa then came back across the state to encore in a Gulfstream AOC.
Both last May’s Derby winners got their 3YO campaigns going in nondescript races at Gulfstream. First under the wire Maximum Security won a January allowance and stewards’ winner Country House broke maiden on Jan. 17.
So if you’re looking for your Derby horse, enjoy the stakes but pay attention to the undercard.
The beat goes on
Stewards be damned. I’m claiming the streak I picked up on about five years ago is still intact. The horse who has finished first at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May the past eight years has done so undefeated as a 3YO.
The last horse to taste defeat as a sophomore before the Run for the Roses, Animal Kingdom in 2011, wasn’t beaten on dirt. He finished second in a Gulfstream grass allowance in March.
Ergo, it might not be important which Derby preps a horse wins, so long as he makes it to the winner’s circle in races of any kind.
Looking for a leader
The reality that this year’s Derby is without an early favorite as the new year dawns is underlined by the fact that when the Eclipse finalists are announced Saturday, Juvenile champion is one of the few categories where there is any suspense
Storm the Court is the likely favorite off his BC Juvenile win but he’s far from the sure things in other categories. There will be votes for Dennis’s Moment, forgiving his BC debacle, Breeders’ Futurity champion Maxfield, who missed the BC because of injury, and Thousand Words, who outran BC Juvenile runnerup Anneau D’Or in the Los Al Futurity conqueror.
This is good news?
Opening day at Santa Anita is proof that bad mouthing your own business is bad business.
The happy face being put on last Saturday’s attendance of 35,088 is truly mind blowing. How in anyone’s universe is a double-digit decline from a year ago, when 41,373 welcomed the new season, good news?
What’s more, this year’s opening, delayed two days by a five-day-out forecast of bad weather, wound up on a Saturday, always the busiest day of the week. The 2018 opening was on a Wednesday, one of the slowest days.
There is no question the avalanche of negative news coming out of The Great Race Place was a significant downer. Much of this is a result of Santa Anita management groveling before an activist organization, whose bark is far worse than its bite.
If management and the media (I plead partially guilty) hadn’t afforded this band the attention it has, it would have slunk away by now. These crazies picket race tracks all over the country without noteworthy success because no one pays attention to them.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the organization’s name. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to never again give them the attention that is their lifeblood. I urge everyone in racing, or who love racing, to join me and make this an unmentionable four-letter word.
Without publicity these trouble-makers can’t raise money, which is what they are all about.