On Track with Johnny D: Hits Just Keep Coming

So far, the 2016 summer racing season has been amazing. The hits just keep coming, week after week. We can’t remember when the sport has been this entertaining on such a regular basis. 2015, of course, was incredible because of American Pharoah—the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Everything he did post-Belmont earned headlines, including his Haskell tour de force. When approximately 25k turned out to watch him gallop before the Travers, the summer of 2015 was anointed as ‘one of the ones.’ Even Am-Pho’s Travers defeat was memorable, as it added another notch to the Spa belt as Graveyard of Champions.

2016 is different, though, because instead of just one or two superstars hogging the spotlight, assorted performers in various divisions have been worthy of applause. Appointment viewing-worthy racing events now seem to occur about as often as Housewives of ‘Wherever’ episodes.

One wonders when this racing season will slow down; experience a lull–a boring interlude in which to catch one’s breath. Horseplayers know full well what a negative effect a torrid early pace can have on a frontrunner. Is the sport headed for a similar collapse in the autumn stretch?

We don’t think so, and here’s why. We can’t recall a recent time when there were so many interesting horses competing at all levels of the sport; that is to say, several truly talented performers—male, female, male, female, old, young, turf, dirt.

Look at the other side of the coin. What if the hot streak continues, if racing maintains a torrid, incredibly entertaining pace right through the Breeders’ Cup Classic, November 5? Will the sport then emerge from cult status and suddenly gain a foothold in the consciousness of the mainstream American sports fan?

Nah. But it sure will be fun for current racing fans.

Several of last weekend’s races were engaging for a variety of reasons. Two runners, one an accomplished older turf performer and the other a sophomore dirt star, added to already impressive resumes. Flintshire faced just three challengers in the Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes at Saratoga and, if successful, promised just ten cents on the dollar to his backers.

Had Flintshire been a money market fund that would have been a fabulous return on investment, especially in just 2:18.24. However, as a racehorse with a giant bulls eye on his back, not so much. This was especially true with Johnny V and the Ortiz brothers hired to execute a ‘contract’ on him. Payment for a successful ‘hit’ was to be $150,000—the winner’s share of the purse.

For much of the way, Flintshire’s demise went according to plan. Jose Ortiz, aboard Grand Tito, served as bait on the lead, and lured Flintshire forward along the rail. Brother Irad Ortiz, aboard Canthelpbelieving, managed to then trap Flintshire on the inside. Velazquez and Twilight Eclipse positioned to attack from the rear while blocking any hope for the prey’s retreat.

On the turn, Flintshire looked as trapped as Sonny on the Causeway.

Fortunately, his attackers ultimately proved to be the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. As the late NFL coach Dennis Green so eloquently put it, “We had ‘em on the hook, and we let ‘em get away!”

A sixteenth of a mile later Flintshire slipped the noose, angled outside the trio and came running. At jockey Javier Castellano’s urging, Flintshire’s legs appeared to spin as furiously as the Road Runner’s and he rocketed past the trio. Behind him, would-be assassins frustratingly grasped at empty air like Wile E. Coyote fresh off a cliff.

Aficionados can point to Flintshire’s final fractions and shake heads in amazement. Instead we suggest interested parties watch a replay of the Bowling Green. There you will witness all the speed, power and splendor of a top-class Thoroughbred in flight.

If, after watching Flintshire roar home on the Saratoga turf, you feel nothing…call the local medical examiner. You could be dead.

The $1 million, Grade 1 Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park, Sunday, featured a rematch between Derby and Preakness winners Nyquist and Exaggerator, respectively. Also in the lineup was the Bob Baffert-trained American Freedom, notable because Baffert traditionally treats the Haskell Stakes like his personal ATM, making substantial seasonal withdrawals–eight times overall and in five of the last six years.

Nyquist hadn’t started since failing as favorite in the Preakness Stakes, and Exaggerator, too, had been on hiatus since a poor outing in the Belmont. That left horseplayers forced to evaluate these Classic winners off workouts alone. Nyquist had been training on schedule in California, while Exaggerator’s final exercises were over the Saratoga strip. By all accounts, including those of trainer Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator’s final Haskell workout had not been encouraging. In fact, Exaggerator was scheduled to run in Saturday’s Jim Dandy at Saratoga but, following the disappointing final work, plans were altered and was Exaggerator shipped to North Jersey to run instead.

Perhaps Keith Desormeaux is a genius.

The Haskell featured a hot early pace over a sloppy surface— conditions very similar to those Exaggerator relished at Pimlico. He roared through the stretch, again, just like he had in the Preakness, this time passing Baffert’s American Freedom like breaking sticks.

By contrast, Saratoga’s Jim Dandy proved a pace-less affair over a dry surface. It’s reasonable to assume Exaggerator would not have fared well in there. The 3-year-old colt that did fare well at the Spa Saturday in the Jim Dandy at a massive 27-1 is Laoban.

To say that Laoban had been campaigned aggressively over the last two seasons would be an understatement. While still eligible for ‘non-winners of one’—in other words, a maiden race–the Grade 2 Jim Dandy was Laoban’s sixth career start in a graded stakes race! Truthfully, he hadn’t performed that poorly in them. He was worse than fourth just twice—in the Preakness and Dwyer Stakes—both rapid early pace events that played against his front-running style.

Saturday’s Jim Dandy did nothing of the kind. Laoban cruised along unfettered on the lead while posting comfortable early fractions. Stalking him throughout was Destin and pilot Javier Castellano. Perhaps Castellano underestimated Laoban’s quality, dismissing the 27-1 shot as a mere distraction while concentrating on those behind as the real threats? Whatever. In the end, Laoban had ‘carpe diem-ed’ his way into the Jim Dandy winner’s circle.

In addition to Destin, other luminaries left in Laoban’s ‘Dandy wake were Belmont winner Creator, who never lifted his hooves in a pace-less race connections figured to use as a prep for the Travers Stakes; and Mohaymen, an early 3-year-old season sensation. Governor Malibu, a troubled fourth in the Belmont and a colt that has been threatening to become a star for a while, closed late to snatch second from Destin.

If one requires additional proof that this amusing season has been a collaboration of a cavalcade of stars and not merely the work of one or two luminaries, consider what transpired Saturday at Del Mar in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch. The race was supposed to serve as a stage on which three-time Eclipse Champion Beholder could once more strut her stuff. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the winner’s circle…

Stellar Wind, a champion in her own right, under the direction of jockey Victor Espinoza and trainer John Sadler, showed little respect for her elder, grabbing Beholder by the throat-latch and not letting her go. The pair battled, eyeball to eyeball through the seaside stretch until Beholder finally relented late.

Onlookers were shocked at the result. Not because Stellar Wind was considered a slouch, but more because Beholder was viewed as a god. Going in, a winner of 17 of 22 lifetime, including four of five at Del Mar, and nearly $5 million, Beholder’s dominance was self-evident. Like with Flintshire, her confident backers were giddy about a possible mere ten cents on the dollar. Unlike with Flintshire, they ended up broken.

So, what happened in the Hirsch? You mean beside the fact that Stellar Wind was a sharp, talented, dead game filly trained to the minute by an experienced, red-hot trainer? Yeah, how did Beholder lose?

Her Hall-of-Fame trainer admitted after the race that he may have gone too easy with her and not had her as sharp as she needed to be. That explanation makes sense. With an eye toward the ‘Classics’ (the Pacific at Del Mar and Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita), Mandella may have squeezed the lemon a bit too lightly in an attempted to keep it juicy.

On the other hand, Beholder now is six and one-half years old. Has she finally lost a step? If so, then there’s no shame to be had. Time eventually defeats all athletes—human and equine.

However, we’re not ready to close the book on Beholder. She’s been too good for too long for us to toss a towel after one unexpected loss. Anticipating her return, wherever and whenever that will be, is just a bit more icing on what already is a luscious cake.

Plus, let’s not forget Stellar Wind, she’s a budding star, for sure.

This summer, the hits just keep coming!

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Hits Just Keep Coming

On Track with Johnny D |