HALLANDALE BEACH – Note the dateline. It was good to be home, sort of. Oh, the racing was first rate, as it is most Saturday’s this time of year, and I was happy to see my second live race card of 2020—saw one race on my previous visit. But racetracks are a little creepy when virtually empty.
Fatigued, I left after the Harlan’s Holliday and caught the Fort Lauderdale in my Plantation den, so I didn’t see Todd Pletcher’s fourth win of the afternoon, but I did see a killer juvenile debut. Making good use of binoculars again was fun, too.
We wanted to return on Claiming Crown Saturday but opted out. We’ve been staying safe at home virtually every day — save for brief visits to food stores, drug stores and banks — as you can’t be too careful in my state where everything is open and there are small pockets of mask defiance.
We stay home because we live in a place where state government fires you for telling the truth in matters of life and death. Our Governor thinks it’s fine to have state troopers invade private homes of former employees and wave drawn pistols in the face of a family members, including young children. By now, America has seen the video.
The eeriness of returning to the track began when we arrived 45 minutes prior to first post at the championship meet and found a parking spot in the second row after entering the south gate–the other side of the grounds where Pegasus holds forth.
Along with what appeared to be some fans—remember the meet opened closed to the public—we lined up socially-distanced until given permission to enter by security personnel. We were informed that we would have our temperatures taken upon entering, which turned out not to be the case.
After showing our credentials, we were granted permission to visit the apron for a look-see and found Jay Stone at the finish line. Stone unceremoniously was replaced as Gulfstream’s linemaker after a TVG personality called out the oddsmaker from the safety of a television studio 3,000 miles away.
Stone is a veteran horseman whose responsibility it is to hand-time all the races run at Gulfstream, a fail-safe measure should there be a timing malfunction.
It is rare when timing issues occur on the main track but turf times often have came into question in recent years, likely due to the misplacement of movable timing poles at varying distances, meant to preserve course condition. Gulfstream takes the steps necessary to ensure the integrity of running times, but this is horse racing and stuff happens.
On balance, it was good to be back at our home track. Stone introduced me to Rich Averill, the face of Averill Racing LLC, who, with partners Matties Racing, would later win the G3 Sugar Swirl with their six-year-old mare, Lady’s Island.
An aside: The same connections campaigned Pay Any Price, whose racing career comes to an end DEC 31 due to a Gulfstream house rule that prohibits horses from racing once they reach age 11. And the old boy earned this retirement:
A son of Wildcat Heir, the most prolific sire in Florida-bred history, Pay Any Price won 19 of 33 starts. One of those victories, the Silks Run Stakes at Gulfstream Park three years ago, was timed in 53.61 for five furlongs, a course and North American record at the trip.
Upon returning to the south side of the building we ran into trainer Anthony Margotta Jr., who won a race last week and had Bronx Beauty in against Lady’s Island in the Sugar Swirl. We became friends in 1993, before and after Brunswick won the Whitney–so long ago it was still a handicap.
We chatted as we awaited the elevator. Only four people per ride, with socially-distanced logos on the elevator floor, one in each corner. After letting one lift pass, we attempted to enter a second when an older gent in front of me turned around and said, “only one more.” Can’t be too careful.
Standing behind me, presumably with his owner, Margotta said “you go” and we exchanged phone-call-me hand signals as the elevator door closed.
Reaching the third floor, I entered the Flamingo Room and Suites and voila; nobody there. No bartenders or waiters and doors to the suites were open despite cool circulated air, as were some sliding glass doors that lead from the suite for balcony views: Cross-ventilation, a good idea.
Alas a few suites were home to some deep-pocketed bettors and horsemen, some not taking the must-wear-mask-on-track-ground rule as seriously as they should, but did appear to be social-distancing outside and in the suites.
But like a two-touchdown underdog, I was happy to be there and train my binoculars, with hands not as steady as they once were, on the warm-ups, starting gate and gallop-outs because, with apologies to Yogi, horse races aren’t over when they’re over. The gallop-out is part of the racing process.
Adrenaline sapped, I made my way back to the elevator, spotting a waitress and someone behind the bar, but with no customers to serve. A handful of people lined the railing on the mezzanine level to get a better look horses entering the ring for the Fort Lauderdale. It was surreal, which is to say normal in the Covid era.
BETS ‘N PIECES
Lots of frontrunning debut winners that win by margins in fast time look impressive but Prime Factor appeared to be more than that. “It looked like he was taking Irad wherever he wanted him to go throughout the race,” said trainer Todd Pletcher.
“We were looking forward to a good debut. Honestly, he exceeded expectations.” I have known Todd since he was first assistant to D. Wayne Lukas. The man is not given to hyperbole. So get thee to a replay center and see for yourself. Race favorite Semper Fidelis was no marine on this day.
Pletcher and Ortiz Jr. completed a natural double with Con Lima, a juvenile allowance-winning filly going a mile on turf. Stakes next out, please.
Two more winners would follow, including a strong-rally finish by Largent, who had a favorable pace setup in the Fort Lauderdale, his move exquisitely timed by Paco…
Chad Brown-trained Fierce Scarlett underperformed at odds-on the fifth as Mark Casse, whose strong words regarding clenbuterol abuse and was a catalyst for an industry movement that’s gained momentum recently, won it with What a Beaut beneath Jose Ortiz. Passion Plus raced exceedingly wide for no apparent reason, watch…
Letruska, responding favorably to the removal of blinkers, won the G3 Rampart impressively and appears ready for bigger, two-turn game. She could have a huge five-year-old season in 2021…
Tax ran off the screen and right into a starting Pegasus World Cup starting gate. After a series of fits and starts following his Oaklawn debacle last winter, a new and improved gelded four-year-old has emerged.
Trainer Danny Gargan said he has grown and matured and that’s just the way he ran. The pace was solid, the final time fast in what appeared to be his best lifetime performance, even if we hate the gimmicky dynamics of 1-1/16 miles first-finish-line races. Tax should be, and will need to be, ready for the deeper waters ahead.
The rail didn’t appear to be the best part of the Hallandale oval Saturday and in an effort to preserve the grass course, management took the wide course with its six disparate positions and appeared to cut it in two, an inner and outer course in one. The outer course is really out there.
Production from Chad Brown and Brad Cox trainees has slipped as 2020 runs out of racetrack. Cox started two at Gulfstream Saturday and both were beyond flat, although recent acquisition Cinnabunny did mount somewhat of a one-paced late rally in the Sugar Swirl. But that Kentucky-type spark was missing.