HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, March 6, 2022 – Immediately after the Fountain of Youth horses reached the finish line, I left the building.
After all the bad news this week, watching the carnage at headstretch was so upsetting that I eschewed post-race interviews and reached for the single malt as soon as I arrived home.
While driving, a friend called to ask if I was still at the track, I told him no, that the incident rattled me and I just had to leave.
I was relieved when he told me the horses walked off the track and back to their barns, and that early reports were that the riders involved did not suffer serious injuries.
I went to bed knowing I had a solid lead for a Sunday column. It would have been something like “It’s very rare when three main events produce three dominating victories in a single division, Triple Crown prep races no less.”
Then I checked my Twitter feed.
Before putting my head on the pillow, I learned that the prodigious Richard Migliore, a friend I respect, lodged serious criticism of Paco Lopez. So much for sleep, a video review was in order.
I reviewed the pan shot no less than eight times and, while something clearly happened with Lopez in the middle of the action, what I saw was inconclusive as to ascribe blame to anyone, including Lopez. A bang-bang play, literally.
An aside: I recently wrote extensively on modern “race riding,” how it’s gotten out of control, a quasi-contact sport when big money is on the line–someone was going get killed unless stewards everywhere did something about a practice that happens virtually everywhere, every day.
My wrath was directed toward Irad Ortiz Jr. for two incidences, which ultimately resulted in a combined 30-day suspension. But I’ve been critical of Lopez in the past, too, noting the Ft Lauderdale Stakes back in the day when he nearly dropped Jerry Bailey who was moving into contention up the fence on the backside.
Lopez’s reputation precedes him. He probably has gotten more “days” than anyone in the history of Florida racing. Not unexpected, there was a Twitter piling-on mostly in support of Migliore’s assertion. More than once tweeters stated that a head-on view was unavailable.
Like so many things on social media these days, that was untrue.
I reviewed the head-on as many times as the pan and was left with the same conclusion, I could not make a definitive call. In my view, the stewards did the right thing taking no action and Gulfstream Park did the right thing by not eliminating the head-on view.
From my vantage point, Lopez had In Due Time in close quarters between horses and, at about the time he decided to make the space bigger, there was slight pressure from the outside of the fallen horse, making the situation untenable for all. It was an accident.
A review of the head-on camera from behind the field did not clarify what took place. In fact, it appeared that a trailing horse clipped the heels of the animal in front of him. Consequently, two horses fell and those in the vicinity altered course for safety. Joel Rosario said he didn’t have time to avoid contact.
The spill was horrific and it’s miraculous that all parties walked away, the riders suffering “minor” injuries; Junior Alvarado suffering some damage to his left ankle and Rosario complained of back pain. No jockey claimed foul, neither did Bill Mott who trained both fallen horses.
“All I know is High Oak was in close quarters,” Mott said afterward.
The industry must make a concerted effort to put an end to race-riding. If you need to resort to herding, or making contact to intimidate a path to victory, stewards need not change the order of finish, but the rider must get “days” for his actions. This has to stop. There are rules. Enforce them.
What I don’t understand are owners and trainers who apparently are OK with putting riders and their own horses at needless risk. If jockeys have to violate safety and racing rules in order to win, they are cheating. A racing official who feels conflicted and doesn’t want to do his job needs to find a new line of work.
Derby Picture Coming Into Focus
As the horses for the Fountain of Youth Stakes entered the walking ring, a colleague asked “who do you think is Todd Pletcher’s best Derby horse?”
“I don’t know, maybe this one,” I said, nodding towards Emmanuel, “but I don’t know. Tell you the truth, I really don’t have a handle on this year’s Derby yet.”
The view is a bit more focused after three impressive victories by horses in Florida, New York, and California over the weekend.
Saturday’s Tampa Derby, the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies, and eventually the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass and Wood Memorial will color what’s left of the landscape.
Then, of course, one final piece: Who is having the best fortnight in the run-up to May’s first Saturday?
Each of Saturday’s preps yielded eye-opening performances. Forbidden Kingdom, the most dominating of the three, won in front-running style, which is not the preferred Kentucky Derby style. This makes his Derby chances tougher to assess.
Consider, for example, what happens when Forbidden Kingdom’s speed matches up with Messier’s? Do they cancel each other out? Or Epicenter’s speed?
(Yes, we’re aware that Messier is Derby ineligible as of this post).
But Forbidden Kingdom pleased all eyes, including Mr. Mandella’s, even if the effort came at speed-kind Santa Anita. Doppelganger’s new style was effective as he narrowed the margin, and he likely will continue progressing [yes, I know, see Messier].
There are things about Morello we really like. As noted in our pre-race analysis Saturday morning, there appears to be a good amount of juice left in this lemon, which came in handy in the Gotham mile. And then we learned something else:
Morello has gears, which he showed by separating himself from the group at the three-sixteenths marker, leaving the impression a second turn and longer trip will be within his wheelhouse. It had better be, longer and tougher are on the horizon.
Drama notwithstanding, the Fountain of Youth was the most entertaining, and illuminating, of the three preps, leaving good things to say about the first four finishers. In reverse order:
He would never say so but Todd Pletcher could not have been pleased with Luis Saez’ performance on race favorite Emmanuel. A flat-footed start was not on Saez, and neither was the four-across positioning on the first turn.
But getting strung out five wide the entire trip thereafter? Maybe it was an effort not to eat too much dirt. But good horses must overcome to succeed at the highest levels. The colt’s inexperience took a toll and he did very well to finish fourth.
O Captain? My Captain, where did that run come from? Third in his previous start, he managed to pass five rivals from the stretch call home, racing wide through a final sixteenth that went in 06.64. Coming from last of 11, he fell short by only 4-1/2 lengths. Ultimately, we’ll need to see a repeat of that effort.
In Due Time and partner Paco Lopez got a lot of attention for the incident at headstretch, but this colt is most worthy of praise for his overall performance.
Yes, he saved ground but was buffeted around when trying to split rivals as seven horses were racing in contentiously close quarters. It was a very promising two-turn debut. This is a very nice colt that merits strong consideration the rest of the way.
In our view, Simplification was the most impressive prep performer this weekend. He did manage to save some ground while between horses, but was forced to rally six across the track on the turn approaching headstretch.
Antonio Sano’s charge fought his way to the lead and kicked clear with authority despite failing to change to his correct right lead. The most impressive aspect of the victory was he did not appear gassed as he crossed the finish line. This old school type overcomes adversity, a necessary tool come May.