HALLANDALE BEACH, FL — How can a sports fan not love this time of year, especially Saturday, the first day of playoffs for America’s favorite pastime and what was once America’s favorite pastime way back in the day.
It is the best of times for newly minted three-year-old racehorses with championship aspirations and the worst of times for an NFL dynasty. There’s no joy in Foxboro today let’s get this out of the way now:
Tom Brady will return and re-up with the Pats, who will supply him with the re-tooling needed on the offensive side of the ball. There must be an impact running back out there somewhere but healthy offensive lineman might be harder to find. But as one dynasty ends, another continues.
In racing’s glamour division all is fine thus far. Independence Hall overcame adversity and became an early, serious Derby contender in Wednesday’s Jerome Stakes. Saturday produced two more three-year-old stakes; one featuring a wow performance, the other a wow stretch battle.
In California, a colt named Authentic ran off the screen, no small feat considering he doesn’t yet know how to run. Leading throughout in soft SoCal fractions, he began to gawk around before he entered the straight. It was his second lifetime start and first around two turns.
It was sick watching Authentic widen his advantage just as Mr. Miyagi might have instructed–side to side, but not how Mr. Baffert might have drawn it up: “I’m just glad Drayden [Van Dyck] didn’t fall off.”
The nuts and bolts of the Sham Stakes were these: After a soft half-mile in 47.94, Authentic was 2-1/2 to the good after three-quarters on a mile in 1:12.18 and he widened to 7-3/4s at the end of a mile in 1:37.57.
All this while ducking in badly at the eighth and sixteenth poles, at once in hand but ridden some in deep stretch for safety and a learning experience for both horse and rider.
“I might have to put a blinker on him or something,” Bob Baffert admitted on TVG post-race. Baffert probably will add them then take them off for the Arkansas or Santa Anita Derby, right?
Meanwhile, Baffert’s other colt, Azul Coast, ran on well for place. After a bit of a bobbling break, he saved ground, fought his way off the fence in upper stretch, and clearly out-finished the competition in a rather good placing.
Well regarded Taishan broke a beat slow, was untenably three-wide into the first turn and never really picked it up after that. Richard Baltas’ colt is—and must be—better than that if he wants to remain on the trail for long. Then that’s why there are playoffs: Ability is one thing, execution another.
There was plenty of execution on display in South Florida. With overmatched Smash Factor setting an unsustainable pace, Paco Lopez stalked from a distance aboard As Seen On TV, keeping Tyler Gaffalione in the pocket aboard odds-on favorite Chance It.
The race was won and lost approaching the quarter pole, Lopez loomed up alongside the tiring leader while Gaffalione shot up the fence. The battle was joined as the leaders pulled away from the competition, setting the table for a memorable, drama-laden fetlock-to-fetlock drive.
“I thought he was beat at the eighth pole, I really did,” said Saffie Joseph Jr. who had just saddled his third stakes winner of the afternoon. “He switched leads and just dug in for that something extra. That’s the heart of a champion.
“I’m glad we had him tight enough to belly down, and he’s going to move forward from the run. He’s going to get much better from this race.”
Added Gaffalione, who completed a riding triple on the day, “I think he’s only going to keep improving, especially off that kind of [98 day] layoff. To fight like that it really shows the kind of heart he has. He’ll run all day, he’s just a big, long-striding colt.”
Joseph wasn’t the only one who thought his horse was beaten. In mid-stretch As Seen On TV surged to a narrow lead, Chance It countered, As Seen On TV retook a narrow advantage until Chance It jumped over to his [incorrect] left lead, providing that little extra burst at the end.
Chance It survived a frivolous trainer’s objection before the result was made official. Solo Volante was a solid-rally third in his dirt debut after two impressive turf wins to launch his career. He should be a factor as the distances increase.
Solo Volante will get that chance in either of the next two Florida Derby preps; the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, which Joseph indicated are on his radar for Chance It providing he comes out of the ‘Macho Man’ well.
“Today is great,” admitted an emotional 29-year-old horseman. “This is the one I needed… If he got beat, I wouldn’t sleep. I don’t want to call him a champion because he has to earn it, but that’s the quality of a horse that becomes a champion.”