HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, July 29, 2023 – The issue of supremacy in the sprint and three-year-old divisions were settled on the racetrack, which is exactly where such matters should be decided.
No one can make a credible argument that the remarkable Elite Power and uber classy Forte were not the best horses on the day.
The manner of their achievements certified the results of the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt and Grade 2 Jim Dandy. Each had a license to be defeated but ultimately neither would be denied.
A television host said it best moments after Elite Power lowered his head and reached the bottom, finding more to will a victory, literally in the shadow of the wire.
“Never underestimate the heart of a champion,” Laffit Pincay Jr. said. Thirty minutes later, no one would have blamed Pincay if he repeated that phrase in reference to Forte’s drama-drenched, heroic victory.
Both horses were ridden by a four-time champion himself, who proved to all racing fans who believed that Irad Ortiz Jr. is America’s best race rider.
Ortiz is the ultimate difference maker on horseback. Even his critics, who are legion, agree, however begrudgingly. God forbid another horse and rider stood between Ortiz and the winning post. If necessary, he’d bowl them over to get there first.
When the finish line is in sight, Ortiz’s ferocious appetite for victory infuses him with uncommon strength and daring. He might lose but will never be outfought—to a fault.
HRI was among the most vocal pf early Ortiz critics, dating back to the 2021 Remsen Stakes in which Mo Donegal won a narrow photo from Zandon. Ortiz’s tactics made the difference that day, too. From the official Equibase chart:
“Mo Donegal rallied to take the lead outside at the furlong marker, moved in closer to the runnerup under a right-handed crop at the sixteenth pole… the rider put the crop away and threw repeated exaggerated crosses with the left rein near the face of the runnerup… narrowly prevailed while bumping with that rival near the wire …
“Zandon dug in gamely on the inside in the final furlong … had the winner’s rider attempt to intimidate him late, then was bumped approaching the wire and just missed in a determined effort …”
Omitted from the chart was HRI’s addendum that “a protruding left elbow was thrown in the area where contact was made a jump or two before the wire.”
The Mo Donegal Remsen, and a series of other aggressive rides at that time, resulted in a 30-day suspension for Ortiz meted out by the New York stewards to send a message to Ortiz and other would-be aggressors.
Yesterday, Ortiz’s brilliance was on display in the G1 Vanderbilt, the first of two graded stakes in which he would guide the fortunes of two odds-on favorites on a Saturday in Saratoga.
Co-favorite Gunite was approximately three lengths in front leaving the eighth pole in the six-furlong sprint. Champion Elite Power was making his first lifetime start on a rain-soaked surface termed sloppy and sealed.
Under strong left-handed urging, Elite Power changed to his correct lead–the equine equivalent of a second-wind–lengthened stride, and got up with one desperate final thrust, Ortiz again making a difference.
Ortiz used similar tactics in the Jim Dandy, bringing Forte outside of a tactically advantaged Saudi Crown and inside a second Brad Cox trainee, Angel of Empire, who raced lapped on Forte the entire nine furlongs.
There were five horses in the Jim Dandy, three trained by Cox. The two more highly regarded Cox trainees had Forte and Ortiz right where they wanted him, in a lock-box.
But nobody puts Irad in the corner.
Using eerily similar tactics earlier this week, that tack earned Ortiz a demotion and a three-day suspension. He bulled his way into Angel of Empire in the same fashion and came away with a Jim Dandy title.
The first contact was clear but the second was certainly more egregious, hard enough to knock Angel of Empire off stride. The official and unofficial rule in this situation is: Too bad. Sit there. Wait for next time.
But Ortiz was on the best horse and he would have none of that. He would make sure his horse, the one scratched Derby morning “out of an abundance of caution” the one who nearly won the Belmont Stakes off an 11-week layup, was judged the best in show.
Nevertheless, it is imperative that when the lives and limbs of human and equine athletes are at stake, there’s no such thing as an abundance in caution. Caution is an imperative if racing is to be taken seriously on safety.
Inside the final furlong, Saudi Crown drifted out significantly. Forte, still under aggressive handling battling Angel of Empire, was put in a somewhat defensive posture between two rivals trained by the same man.
On balance, the bad taste left as a result of this victory is the confusion over the rule. Whatever that rule is, it can’t earn you a demotion and three-day suspension one day but have the result stand for the same offense the next.
It doesn’t matter that the stakes were higher. There’s just no objective justification for inconsistency.
I didn’t put a stopwatch on it but the Jim Dandy verdict took half the time to adjudicate as other recent riding incidents of this mature at this meet. I was pleased that the best horse won, just not proud of how it was accomplished.
Gun-to-temple–and I would have hated myself in the morning–but I would have disqualified Forte from first and placed him third behind Angel of Empire. That would have been my judgment call based on rule.
The rule of law and the spirit of the law are in endless conflict. If HISA wants the authority to set and adjudicate standards, stewards’ rulings must be uniform everywhere. Doing so would honor HISA’s commitment to safety and integrity.
A foul like the one committed yesterday is a foul, and it should have been adjudicated as such. By any standard and like it or not, Forte and Angel of Empire did settle it on the racetrack. And the best horse won.
Hypothetically, what if the exact same events were replicated and the result was allowed to stand. Now, given the circumstances and repetitive nature of his actions, what if Ortiz were handled a seven-day suspension for, say, herding? Doesn’t that seem more like law, and order?