On Track with Johnny D: This Time of Year

Yours truly loves this time of year. Each weekend, now through mid-April, we’ll enjoy heated competition between the nation’s top 3-year-olds—male and female—as connections chase Kentucky Oaks and Derby glory. Horseplayers, likewise, will pursue pari-mutuel success: weekly, in crowded prep races, and long-term, with an eventual assault on monster Oaks and Derby pools the first Friday and Saturday of May.

Weekly soph collisions initiated full force Saturday and resulted in notable losses by both Juvenile and Juvenile Filly Eclipse Award winners: Classic Empire, the 2016 Juvenile champ that previously had lost just once (when he bolted in the Hopeful at Saratoga), was third in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, and Champagne Room, champion 2-year-old filly and upset winner of the BC Juvenile Fillies, failed in the Las Virgenes at Santa Anita.

That Classic Empire didn’t win wasn’t as shocking as the fact that he hardly tried in the race. An initial post race alibi suggested that travelling on race day bothered him and that he wasn’t himself. Which begs the question: If he wasn’t himself, who was he, exactly?

Months between juvenile glory and a sophomore assault on the Kentucky Derby trail can be measured in calendar page turns. Ultimately, however, a horse’s developmental transformation, stagnation or regression in that time can only be fully assessed in afternoon competition. That’s why 3-year-old racing at this time of year is so confounding and entertaining. As sometimes is the case with humans, the superstar high school freshman expected to blossom into an all-league talent doesn’t mature over the summer and is surpassed the following season by another who months before was a noticeably inferior talent. Is Classic Empire a classic example of the 2-year-old sensation that fizzles at three?

There’s evidence to suggest the answer is ‘yes.’ Clockers panned Classic Empire’s pre-Holy Bull workouts and he was listless in the race. Defenders argue that trainer Mark Casse didn’t have the colt fully cranked for his first test following a vacation. That may be the case. However, Classic Empire didn’t perform like a ‘short’ horse. He ran like he suddenly wasn’t good enough. And there’s a big difference between the two. So, how can a horse that was so dominating and powerful at age two toss in such a lousy performance first out at three?

About mid-week, according to a Bill Finley article online in Thoroughbred Daily News, Casse informed that, “(Wednesday) morning Classic Empire had a huge puss pocket bulb burst out of his foot.” Could that have been the reason for his poor performance? Certainly. Can he quickly bounce back from the defeat? Yep. But, this must be remembered: The Triple Crown trail is unforgiving. Even minor missteps can prove disastrous. It will be interesting to see if Classic Empire can completely rebound to his outstanding freshman form and if that will be enough to dominate sophomore classmates.

It is said that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. That must also be the case with racing gods because, as they dimmed Classic Empire future book ticket holder hopes, they simultaneously ignited expectations for those backing Irish War Cry. Making just his third start, the Curlin colt dominated the Holy Bull and has the look of one who will do even more winning on his way to a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Graham Motion is the colt’s trainer and Joel Rosario the jockey, both veteran rose wearers.

What’s particularly exciting about Irish War Cry is that he appears to have much upside. In the stretch of the Holy Bull, the colt seemed a bit unfocused, not entirely sure yet of what the game’s all about. In the coming months he can learn that lesson. What can’t be taught, though, is talent, and it’s clear he’s got plenty. Please, take a moment to watch a replay of his maiden win at Laurel November 11. He breaks from the far outside, circles the field and draws off while appearing to drift in just a bit through the lane. It should be noted that Saturday was his first start with Lasix and that seems to have helped, too. It also must be emphasized that this was the colt’s first attempt at two turns, on a surface he’d never even seen before. All slight, but vital details.

Hard-trying Gunnevera was a no-threat Holy Bull second. He’s a blue collar, lunch-pail-toting kind of colt that gives his best every time out. Such effort was good enough for him to manage fifth in the BC Juvenile behind the heavy heads. There are a few more bridges to cross before Louisville, but a horse like this is the kind that could hit the Derby superfecta at a big price.

North, up the I-95 corridor, at Aqueduct, Grade 3 Jerome Stakes winner El Areeb won his fourth consecutive race in the Grade 3 Withers. He was heavily favored to do so and didn’t disappoint. In fact, El Areeb looked strong coming to the finish, suggesting he’ll be difficult to defeat wherever trainer Cal Lynch aims him next. He won Saturday over a ‘fast’ strip after handling a sealed ‘muddy’ surface in the Jerome. That versatility could come in handy down the road.

The real question surrounding El Areeb remains: How good is he? Clearly, he’s poles better than Bonus Points and True Timber, but the water will get deeper and more dangerous downstream as El Areeb attempts to negotiate approaching rapids. He’s a case of ‘so far, so good’ and there’s no evidence to suggest that he won’t be able to handle stiffer challenges when they occur. Stay tuned.

At Santa Anita, on a rare 2017 winter weekend without rain, Royal Mo led four others on a merry chase for a mile and one-sixteenth around the Santa Anita oval in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis. After breaking a bit slowly, jockey Victor Espinoza hustled the son of Uncle Mo out of the gate and to the lead. No one could catch them. Making the fourth start of his career for Kentucky Derby winning trainer John Shirreffs, Royal Mo parlayed a November Del Mar maiden score into the Lewis triumph. He missed by less than a length first time out in August at six furlongs and was a well-beaten second after breaking very slowly going seven furlongs in a maiden race at Santa Anita.

Royal Mo’s ascent in the 3-year-old division gives Shirreffs two legit soph prospects—2-year-old Grade 1 winner Gormley won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita last out. What’s interesting about the Shirreffs duo is that they both have early speed, something the former trainer’s confirmed Grade 1 winning late-runners like Zenyatta, Giacomo and Tiago didn’t possess. The west coast plot will thicken considerably when accomplished runners like Mastery and American Anthem from the Bob Baffert barn resume the chase.

This time of year, traditionally, 3-year-old males are the glamour boys. Going forward this season, though, they’re likely to be challenged for headlines by a remarkable filly—another one, in fact—from the Jerry Hollendorfer shedrow. Unique Bella disposed of three challengers, Champagne Room, in the Grade 2 Las Virgenes Stakes. It seems a mere formality that Unique Bella eventually will join current and former Hollendorfer-trained Grade 1 winning females Songbird, Blind Luck, Hystericalady, Tuscan Evening, Tara’s Tango and Sweet Lulu.

No one with eyes on the Las Virgenes or a subsequent replay requires verification from this corner that Unique Bella is an amazing talent. She is a joy to watch, moving with tremendous efficiency and speed. If there is a better 3-year-old filly in the nation, I haven’t seen her. Is she the best sophomore in the US of either sex? Maybe. But there’s no indication at this point that we’ll see her line up against males any time soon. And that’s fine.

Yours truly loves this time of year. In the next few weeks, it will be a pleasure watching male sophomores sort things out each Saturday. However, it also will be a downright privilege to witness Unique Bella in flight.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: This Time of Year

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