Gulfstream Park is opening its 2019-20 winter season by taking the opposite approach of the most grating cliché of contemporary times. It is doing things differently and hoping for the same result.
Since 2012 what is dubbed “the championship meet” has launched on a Saturday with the Claiming Crown anchoring the card. This game plan has been a spectacular success, with the handle growing each year.
This year, the prime season is opening on Black Friday, leading into a holiday weekend whose only stakes will be six overnight $75,000 events for 2-year-olds on Saturday. The Claiming Crown has been pushed back to Dec. 7 as part of a weekend special events doubleheader with the Caribbean Classic on Sunday.
The pairing of the Claiming Crown and Caribbean Classic, the only Saturday-Sunday stakes combo of the season, isn’t being billed as a test or experiment but it’s hard not to see it that way.
As noted, the Claiming Crown has prospered as the opening day attraction. The question is, is the Claiming Crown a crowd-magnet or is it the positioning on opening day of winter racing. Gulfstream will get an idea of the answer on Dec. 7.
The Caribbean Classic also has had a strong run as the centerpiece of a Saturday Gulfstream card, a big day under any circumstances. The series of richly endowed stakes for horses from Central and South America gets a chance to establish itself as an attraction in its own right as the only significant Sunday event of the season.
The Claiming Crown, whose races are ungraded, had an unusual opportunity to get three graded stakes winner, including 2019 Florida Derby winner and first under the wire in the Kentucky Derby Maximum Security, Grade 3 Withers and Grade 2 Jim Dandy winner Tax and Math Wizard, who upset the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby.
Coincidentally, Maximum Security and Math Wizard, ran one-three last December at Gulfstream in what had to be the $16,000 claimer of the century.
Tax is passing the Claiming Crown for the Grade 3 Discovery at Aqueduct Saturday and Maximum Security is going in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile a week from Saturday.
Maximum Security is using the Cigar as a prep for the $9 million Pegasus dirt race on Jan. 25. Omaha Beach, scratched as the early Kentucky Derby favorite and second in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, is also being pointed for the Pegasus.
A $7 million turf stakes, won last year by likely 2019 Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar, will be the co-feature on a stakes-laden Pegasus Day card.
As rich as the Pegasus races are, nothing outranks the Florida Derby, set for closing Saturday, March 28. The connections of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile favorite Dennis’s Moment, Breeders’ Futurity winner Maxfield and Champagne champion Tiz the Law, the anticipated favorite in Saturday’s Kentucky Jockey Club stakes, have indicated the Florida Derby is a long range goal. Three of the past four winners of the Florida Derby have gone on to finish first in the Run for the Roses.
The usual stepping stones will begin with the Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 4 and continue through the Holy Bull on Feb. 1 and Fountain of Youth on Feb. 29.
Coming and going
Thanksgiving weekend is also transition weekend in racing. Gulfstream is not the only winter citadel of racing getting underway. The Fair Grounds and Tampa Bay Downs are getting into action while Churchill Downs and Del Mar are shutting down for 2019.
A cavalcade of stakes will be contested before the gates are locked in Louisville and suburban San Diego.
The nominal highlight of the weekend at Churchill is the Grade 1 Clark on Friday, headed by recent Fayette winner Tom’s d’Etat. If Seeking the Soul, the epitome of a horse for course, goes off anywhere near his 12-1 morning line, he has to be played. He isn’t much elsewhere but he’s won the Clark, the Stephen Foster and the Ack Ack and run second in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile under the twin spires.
The Clark might be a Grade 1 for now but Seeking the Soul doesn’t have a Grade 1 field to beat. This is a stakes overdue to be dropped a grade.
Saturday’s Kentucky Jockey Club could have a role in deciding the juvenile championship. Tiz the Law, coming off a dominating win in the Champagne, is shipping in from New York and would have a strong claim on the title with a win. He figures to go favored but it would be a mistake to overlook undefeated South Bend, who made the Street Sense his third win in as many starts.
What do you suppose a parlay of South Bend in the Derby futures and the mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg, to win the presidency would pay?
East Coast horses figure big in the Hollywood Derby on Saturday at Del Mar. As usual, this means Chad Brown figures big. He would have had the horse to beat in Secretariat Stakes hero Valid Point but that one is temporarily sidelined. Nevertheless, Brown will still have a pair of hard knockers, Digital Age and Standard Deviation.
Digital Age is winless since the American Turf Classic on Derby Day but he was second in the Saratoga Derby and has been the victim of difficult trips in many of his other starts. His late-running style is prone to troubled trips but if he gets a clear run, he has a big late kick. The price should be right, too, even allowing for Chad.
Standard Deviation won a couple of stakes at Monmouth, one of them the Jersey Derby, which used to be a major bauble for 3-year-olds.
Also coming West with a big shot is Henley’s Joy, winner of the Belmont Derby, and another horse whose rallying style has compromised his chances several times.
Truth rained out
Del Mar continues to play games with the truth as it presents a preview of the future of California racing. The Nov. 21 card was canceled a week in advance in anticipation of rain, which materialized but not to any great extent. Del Mar did it again this week, canceling the Thanksgiving card four days out, again because rain was in the forecast.
The over-abundance of caution is being attributed to the equine deaths in Southern California this year. However, the inability to fill race cards is probably closer to the truth.
Santa Anita is already under state mandate to cancel at least 12 days of racing this coming winter and spring. That’s about one day every other week. Several four- and some three-day weeks are already planned.
California is an expensive place to live and race. Horsemen can’t be expected to tolerate the limited opportunities to pay the bills and make a living very long.