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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – While it was not as dominating as the performance of Greatest Honour in the Holy Bull, the hard fought victory by Medina Spirit in the Robert B Lewis Memorial was just as impressive.

The “heart” of a Thoroughbred can be measured through another function: the eyes. And when an equine passes the “eyeball test” the way Medina Spirit did his, he is, in my view, immediately elevated to the stature of “good horse.”

As with any three-year old as the calendar flips from January to February, there is a lot more racing, and developing, to be done. It’s what makes racing young horses so fascinating as winter slowly marches into spring.

Trainer-speak, obviously, is self-serving. It’s not easy to promote increasing bottom-line value while simultaneously lowering the pressure of expectation. But “letting the horse tell us” is mindful of both the animal’s welfare and its optimal level and worth.

Bob Baffert was correct to note that Medina Spirit looked like he would be third best at the end of the Lewis three-horse stretch battle. But, with a nod to an overused phrase first seen in a Tom Durkin race caller’s notebook—Medina Spirit would not be denied.

There was great racing on display at Gulfstream Saturday, but the Lewis Memorial easily was the race of the day:

Roman Centurion, whose maiden win was reminiscent of the Holy Bull’s Greatest Honour, look as if he would swoop the group at headstretch. Medina Spirit would have to keep finding now, and Hot Rod Charlie, back-peddling a tad, needed to dig down deep.

But the complexion changed in midstretch: Roman Centurion’s surge became a bit one-paced. Hot Rod Charlie was summoning his class and not only maintained but, for an instant, appeared he might out-game both rivals.

Battling from between horses is never easy; doing it off a layup adds another degree the difficulty but meanwhile Medina Spirit did keep finding, never stopped fighting, willing his way to victory in the final jumps.

“He was gutty as could be, showed some grit, and that’s what you want to see,” Bob Baffert said the next morning. “He’s got game. He beat a good field and the California horses are pretty strong.”

And his best style?

“We’re learning about the horse,” the trainer said. “It wasn’t an ideal way for him to run but his hand was sort of set from the start when he broke a little slow and [Abel Cedillo] couldn’t really take him back. He never really had a chance to get him out.”

The sophomore world now knows Medina Spirit can beat you more than one way. Hot Rod Charlie? “We’re so proud of him,” said Doug O’Neill, “and he came out of the race in great shape.

“He ran a real game race against other really top 3-year-olds. We’re excited to get him back from where he left off,” added O’Neill. It’s up to them–and Simon Callaghan—to decide what comes next.

Provincialism Ruled in 2020 Eclipse Voting

For us, Eclipse voting was a challenge this year because some obvious choices, such as Authentic and Gamine, more than one category lacked definition. I had a problem with two of them. I concede that one is arguable, the other is not.

I love venerable 8-year-old gelding Whitmore as much as the next turf writer. Obviously, he was a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner, a renewal that lacked its usual depth due to injuries. Not that Whitmore should the penalized, but neither should he be rewarded if a rival is worthier.

The last time I checked my Thoroughbred racing dictionary, the definition of sprint is a race around one turn. When I looked at the record, it noted it Whitmore seven starts to win three races including the BC Sprint, the lone Grade 1.

But when I checked out Vekoma’s PPs, I saw he only needed three races to win thrice, including two Grade 1s: the history rich seven-furlong Carter and the prized Metropolitan Mile around one wide turn at Belmont Park.

What am I missing here, or should the question rightfully be what did a majority of the voters miss? OK, I strongly disagree but will swallow down hard on this result.

But as for the Filly & Mare Turf division, I have three words: Stop the Steal.

First, I will start with the fact Rushing Fall’s four Grade 1 victories in 2019 have absolutely no bearing in this category in 2020. She had a terrific season for sure, going three-for-four, with two Grade 1s and a Grade 3, losing the Filly & Mare Turf by a neck.

However, the rightful winner in this category should have been the European-based Tarnawa. The record of these two fillies aren’t comparable in our view, Tarnawa’s was clearly superior.

Now while I disagree with the philosophy of voters who will not grant an Eclipse Award vote based on one North American start, I can understand and respect that. But not when one Thoroughbred clearly accomplishes more than another in the same category.

Tarnawa also had four starts in 2020 and went unbeaten. After winning her season’s debut at Cork, the Group 3 Irish Stallion, she shipped to Longchamp and won two prestigious Group 1s, the Prix Vermeille and Prix de l’Opera, highly sought international prizes.

When Tarnawa shipped over for the Breeders’ Cup, she went bear hunting, taking on open rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Turf and whipped them, a field that included eventual 2020 Eclipse male turf champion, Channel Maker. You tell me who had the better season?

As an aside, isn’t it a tad sexist to make female horses ineligible in races whose conditions state that it is open to all comers? That issue notwithstanding, Tarnawa clearly demonstrated on the record that she was the best turf female to race in America in 2020.

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6 Responses

  1. JP,
    While I was fortunate enough to wager, watch, and win with Vekoma in 2020, he was a horse without a category. The Sprint Champion should win at least one G1 event at six furlongs. I was glad to see to see Whitmore recognized as the remarkable campaigner he has been.

    The R. B. Lewis was a great race to watch, but I have a feeling that none of the participants will be among the top ten Derby qualifiers. Now there’s a futures pentafecta (sp?) I like to bet.

    The best race of the weekend IMO was the J. B. Connally at Sam Houston. The $5.00 winner, Spooky Channel, would have been an overlay at odds-on on either coast. The only uncertainty for me was which Make Maker claim-to-fame turf marathoner would finish second and third. Not only did the TRI return 10-1 on each combination pait boxing the latter two under the former, but the super adding Marzo, and Tenfold to the bottom slot in the SPR returned 48-1 on four combinations.

    And it was an exciting race to watch as one Maker contender set the pace from the start until collared in the stretch by the favorite who then held off its stretch streaking stablemate to prevail by a neck at the wire.

    But it was my daughter who added the appropriate final touch when she casually wandered in to see what all the commotion was about inquiring “What’s up, Doc?”
    Wabbits everywhere! LOL

  2. Hey I,

    To reiterate what I wrote on Twitter, wasn’t comparing one 3YO to the other, only that they impressed in different ways IMO. Shug’s horse I believe is the more brilliant, but Baffert’s horse can beat you a number of ways. Further, I wouldn’t disparage SoCal horses quite yet.

    Everyone seems to be impressed with Essential Quality, ‘Hot Rod’ was less than a length behind. Roman Centurion was quite impressive in his maiden win around two turns, like Greatest Honour was, and was far from disgraced when third on the class rise.

    So 7 furlongs is a good sprint distance for fillies at the BC but males have to win a Grade 1 going 6F to earn a title. IMO and that of many others; 7/8s and a one-turn mile is far more demanding than going three-quarters. And, of course, a sprint is defined as a race around one turn. But I can live with that result. Who doesn’t love Whitmore?

    Did not see the Houston race but close finishes on turf is far more common that on dirt.

    Putting that Super together? Good on you!

  3. JP,
    Six furlongs is the distance for the open BC event whose purse is twice that of the restricted event at seven furlongs. If 6f wasn’t the more demanding distance, why wouldn’t more females contest it?

    No less an authority than CDI has classified a mile around one turn or two as a route for its Derby preps.

    I’ve never heard the Met Mile referred to as a sprint anywhere else, and the winner is usually considered a candidate for the Handicap (Older Dirt Male?) division championship.

    Hod Rod Charlie was indeed disappointing in the R. B. Lewis. Perhaps Essential Quality will be also when he shows up. Street Sense remains the lone BC Juv winner to win the KY Derby, and the Red Sea had to part for him to do it.

    It’s hard to get excited about any 17-pt prep for 3YOs. It gets so much more interesting when you know the winner is going to the Derby provided he can remain healthy. Poor Vekoma.

  4. Looks like Shug has another legitimate Derby horse in Greatest Honour. He ran a super impressive race against a strong field, distance does not look to an an issue.

    Out West, Medina Spirit was very game in winning the R.B. Lewis, lots of credit to both horse and jockey Abel Cedillo who slowed the the internal fractions to come home in last 1/16th in quick 6 seconds. Despite slow final time 1:46:26. They were running to the wire. Shocking Baffert has another 3 year colt rising star.

  5. Tony, smiley face here with the Baffert line.

    That’s what I saw too–a very fresh final sixteenth and don’t forget SA got about 2-1/2 inches of rain the day before and saw some of the races and that track did appear on the slow side. And I like versatility. While maybe not as brilliant as Shug–I agree, my point is I think the effort is better than most people think because of the slim margin and hard fight. We’ll see. Love this time of year!

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